In the late 1970’s, as is true now, gaikokujin came to Kyoto with specific goals in mind. I met Robert, studying to be a Zen priest at Daitokuji. My friend Pat was destined to become a Japanese art history professor. Those studying Chado were many. Japanese gardens? Oh, yes. Cooking? I didn’t know anyone doing that, but I think they do now. Have I forgotten martial arts? There are always those, though purists in karate would go to Okinawa. Textiles? Absolutely, be it the wearing, designing, dying etc. of kimono, that was another approved route.
So, what was my bag? (Or my groove, maybe?) Well, I didn’t exactly have one. Since nariyuki had brought me to Nihongo and then Japan, the only thing I really wanted to do was learn the darned Japanese language. Actually, I was determined to learn to read it and that meant memorizing kanji and then making my way through different books with three dictionaries at my side. And a cup of tea, of course.
It meant starting my day at a kissaten with the ubiquitous morning set–and grabbing a shinbun from the rack near the door to try and read.
I quickly found a fun topic. Just kidding. It wasn’t fun, but my visa sponsor got me to help him with his work for the anti-nuclear power movement. So there I was reading newspaper articles in Japanese on genshiryokuhatsuden and being a covert part of the hangenpatsu movement. Later I would go on to translate a book calledGenpatsuGypsy. Though I’m not sure what happened to my translation (it is rumored that it circulated in Australia) I did get to meet the author and slightly astounded him with my list of shitsumon which showed him how closely I’d read his book. There I was, in my early twenties, translating a book on nuclear power. Not exactly why most foreigners go to Kyoto.
This necessitated me learning how to say maverick in Japanese. I think I’ll use the word kawarimono for that!
Later I’d try dabbling in a few of the more traditional arts, but mostly I just left it to fate to determine what to tackle next. No regrets!
gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
Chado – 茶道 The Art of Tea, or the way of tea, or the study of the tea ceremony
kimono – 着物 It is not a bathrobe! It literally means thing that you wear, but refers to a proper Japanese kimono.
nariyuki – なりゆき fate. Literally how it unfolds is how I go… or something like that. A sense of destiny beyond one’s control.
Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop, but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
shinbun – 新聞 newspaper
genshiryokuhatsuden 原子力発電 – nuclear power. It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Kind of fun to just casually reel off… 😉
hangenpatsu – 反原発 “against nuclear power.”
shitsumon – 質問 question
kawarimono – 変わり者 maverick, someone who is different
If you take a walk anywhere in Japan in the months of July and August, it’s possible to identify where the ichinensei in your neighborhood live. Look out at the balconies of the apāto, or the small yards of the homes. If you see a morning glory plant in a pot, then you’ve found a first grader.
First grade is an important grade in Japan. It is not about the academics, but rather it is about teaching children to live in society. After entering school they learn about themselves, and then about their families. After that they learn about their own school, and the circle continues to widen out to the world. To do this, they also have themes that cover all subjects. In the autumn, we were surprised to see the role of donguri. They counted them, sung songs about them, read about them, picked them up and helped clean the area around the school of them, and then used them for art projects. It turns out that you can get a lot of mileage out of an acorn.
We had moved to Yagumo, an area in the Meguro Ward of Tokyo, in the middle of the school year. I enrolled my daughter in first grade at the Yagumo Elementary School, wondering if she’d be the first foreign girl there. But it turned out that years ago there had been a British child, and since my daughter spoke Japanese they were amiable and welcoming. As her okāsan there was a slew of preparation I had to do. I received a stack of past class newsletters to review, and a math set that needed to have labels put on every piece, some of which were smaller than dimes. You had to write your child’s namae on tiny labels and then put them on every single item. There was no way that my clumsy Japanese script would fit on those labels, so I cheated and put her very unique first name on the tiny pieces. As for the stack of newsletters, I did give them a glance and did my best, but all of them were hand written and difficult to decipher. I was amazed that the teacher would send home this newsletter each week. It told the parents exactly what they’d studied in school that week, and what the shukudai for the next week would be. It was illustrated with seasonal pictures and also had shout-outs to children who had made some kind of achievement. I imagine it is all done via the internet today, which is sad in some ways, though more ecologically sound.
Japanese children do not have a long natsu yasumi. The school year begins in April and is divided into trimesters. The first trimester runs from April until the third week of July. Then they break until September 1. A 40 day natsu yasumi seems more effective than the American system since children have less time to forget what they have learned. And because it comes mid-school year, instead of at the end of the school year, teachers are able to give shukudai.
Yes, homework. The first graders got piles of worksheets to do to review what they’d learned in their first trimester of school. They also had projects. And even though it was summer vacation, it wasn’t like they weren’t going to school. In fact, they went to school pretty regularly for swimming lessons. Almost every Japanese elementary school comes equipped with a swimming pool. In the cities, Japan is always pressed for space, and many of these pools were found on the roof of the school. This is where the Yagumo Elementary School pool was located and my daughter, along with the rest of her class, trotted off for swimming lessons each day of the summer. It was just expected that children would be around for these classes, and they were scheduled at different times during the week. There were regulation mizugi and caps to be bought and labeled, and a whole list of instructions for what and when a child could eat before swimming class. Shana came home the first day with an attendance card and proudly showed me her sticker. The goal was to fill the card with stickers and achieve good attendance and to also get a rank in swimming. (There are ranks for everything in Japan, not just karate.)
One of the bigger homework projects involved a morning glory plant. Each first grader had nurtured their plant from seeds, starting back in April. I guessed that Shana would not be able to participate in this project because we’d moved to Yagumo in June and she didn’t have a plant. I was wrong. It turns out that the teacher had one for her. When I asked the teacher how she could possibly have known that she’d get a transfer student (very unusual in Japan) two months after school had begun, she happily informed me that she had three “extras” that she secretly was growing herself in case they were needed.
Each day the plant figured into her homework. It was used for observation. She had to draw pictures of the flowers on it at different times of day. It was used for math, as she counted the blossoms and then did math problems based on the different colors. For me, the scary part was keeping it alive over the summer. I don’t know what kind of penalty a mother would get if she and her child killed the teacher’s morning glory, but luckily these plants were pretty hardy and even the rowdy boys in her class brought them back proudly at the beginning of September fully intact. It was eye opening to see how one plant could be used for so much. Watering the plant each day and determining how much water was also the child’s job. So they learned to nurture something, with a built in guarantee that the plant was hardy and the job was doable even for a six year old.
During the summer, Shana also had a few days of usagi duty. The school had a rabbit, and each day a sixth grader and a first grader would be responsible for feeding it. The school often paired sixth and first graders together since the first grader would learn the ropes from an older child, and the older child would profit from being in a teaching role. She trotted off to the school, lettuce and carrots in hand.
The last reason that she had to go to school was for a week of rajio taiso. And that’s another post I’ll make this summer!
ichinensei – 一年生 a first-grader. At an elementary school, but is also used for the first years of junior high, high school, and college, though usually modified to indicate which level of school.
apāto – アパート apartment
donguri – どんぐり acorn
okāsan – お母さん mother
namae – 名前 name
shukudai – 宿題 homework
mizugi – 水着 bathing suit
usagi – ウサギ rabbit
rajio taisō – ラジオ体操 radio exercise. Explanation to come….
You hear about the New Yorkers who have never been to the Empire State Building. Possibly my parents fell into that category. And even though I live in Amherst, famous for being the home of Emily Dickinson, it took years before I visited her home/museum, and then just once was enough.
This month there is a very famous festival in Kyoto called Gion Matsuri. It is literally celebrated the whole month with the highlight being a procession of floats held on July 17. On the two nights before the 17th, downtown Kyoto becomes something of a street fair and if you’re young, you do want a date for that night. Girls and boys alike will be wearing yukata. The procession is certainly worth seeing. Ikkaidakedesu. It will be hot as hell and humid as hell and crowded as hell. Total jigoku. I know I went at least once or twice… and then I know I skipped it, unless I had a visiter who had come especially to see it. I do love the accompanying hayashi that is played and just the sound of it makes me smile.
I am a reader of a bulogu that is written by a grouchy old Japanese man who is a native of Kyoto. Kinō he wrote that he would not be going to see the procession and rather testily said that the natives of Kyoto didn’t go because most Kyoto-ites only attend their kinjō festivities. Neighborhoods are of utmost important in Kyoto. There will be neighborhood jinja and otera for your everyday needs. (Of course there are also some famous places for specific and special needs; if you are taking a college entrance exam, you’d want to pray at Kitano Tenmangu.) But basically, he says, the festival is for both Japanese and foreign tourists at this point, unless you’re one of the neighborhood folks who hold it.
So, if I was in Kyoto, this year, would I go to Gion Matsuri? To be very honest, unless the weather felt much much cooler than usual, I would not. But during the month of July I’d be sure to walk through the back streets where preparations were being made and catch some of that action. The back streets of Kyoto are where all the good stuff happens!
Gion Matsuri – 祇園祭 One of the three big festivals that happens in Kyoto. This is a summer festival. Google it.
yukata – 浴衣 cotton kimono that is worn in the summer or for sleeping
Ikkaidakedesu – 一回だけです “Just once.” or “I’ll do it just once.”
jigoku – 地獄 hell
hayashi はやし – the flutes, drums and bells of Gion Festival
bulogu – ブログ blog
kinō – 昨日yesterday
kinjo – 近所 neighborhood
jinja – 神社 Shinto shrine
otera – お寺 Buddhist temple, i.e. don’t use this word for a synagogue.
Living with cats means sometimes living with mice. I live surrounded by fields and woods so it is inevitable that my indoor cats will sometimes, somehow, find them in my basement. Usually they bring them into my bedroom at night. Alive. (One of my cats gave me a look like, “Well, if you have a pet, why can’t I?” And even took a nap with his “pet.”)
Though I never saw any nezumi in my home in Japan, we sometimes heard noises in the ceiling above us. My husband would laugh and say “nezumi no undōkai.” It’s kind of cute to imagine it that way, isn’t it?
Curiously, it seems that there is not usually a distinction drawn between rats and mice in Japan. There’s one word—nezumi—that covers both of them. This used to baffle me. But, when I asked, people would just shrug and say that a rat was an ookī nezumi. For the record, I do not think rats are cute so it does make a difference for me and I’m glad we make that distinction in English!
When I had my daughter and began to collect ehon for her I found that kawaii mice were often featured. One of my favorites was a series featuring a kazoku of 14 mice. I was instantly charmed by the asagohan story. And I’m very happy these have been translated into English. I highly recommend them if you have a child in your life! The author is Kazuo Iwamura.
nezumi – ねずみ mouse or rat
nezumi no undōkai – ネズミの運動会 literally “a field day for mice” or a sports event for mice. Undōkai are a whole other topic and they happen in the fall, most popularly at the elementary school level.
ookī – 大きい big, adjective
ehon – 絵本 picture book
kawaii – 可愛い If you use one word to translate it, it is “cute.” But it is simply so much more and has unique parameters which is probably why it has been exported from Japan in reference to manga, Hello Kitty goods, etc.
How’s that for a title? But I’m not making it up. In the early 1980’s I was living two stops outside of Fuchu City, outside the mon of an NEC kōjō. My husband was working there and we’d found a yasui and spacious apartment so close that he could walk to work.
The apartment building was small—just six apartments. There were two more small buildings like it right next to it. And soon after moving there I fell pregnant. Then my neighbor did. And one more. And a few months later the condom lady came calling to sell her wares.
Imagine her disappointment as she range door bell after door bell only to find a slew of ninpu answering the door. It just wasn’t her day. And the building next to ours had a similar situation. We had our own little baby būmu going on.
I don’t suppose there is any condom lady anymore. We all had a big laugh imagining her surprise when she rang our bells. We had shinbun salesmen come around as well and you could negotiate with them for gifts. At the very least you’d get a towel. At the most, you might get tickets to a baseball game.
If you’re imaging the condom lady and what she may have been like I will tell you that to the best of my memory she was just a futsū no obasan—any woman in her forties that you’d see shopping at the supermarket or riding a mamacharin home. I wonder how she chose her profession and how she felt about being a condom lady. If I had a choice, I think I would have wanted to be a Yakult salesperson. But that’s a whole other story.
mon – 門 gate
kōjō – 工場 factory
yasui – 安い cheap (adjective)
ninpu – 妊婦 pregnant woman
būmu – ブーム boom
shinbun – 新聞 newspaper
futsū no obasan – 普通のおばさん “an average woman” This phrase was made popular by Miyako Harumi, a singer who retired because she just wanted a normal or average life.
mamachari – ママチャリ the kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.