Country Mouse and City Mouse

From Sunday I had headed out to Sapporo for the JET programme’s Mid Year Conference, where we ostensibly discuss teaching strategies and reflect on our role as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT’s). Of course it’s really mostly just a pretense for having a break from our respective areas and meeting with the 300 other odd assorted members scattered throughout Hokkaido. Surprisingly, however, this conference actually proved pretty informative. More than that, however, I’m beginning to get a tangible sense of just how lucky I am to be situated in this wonderful little village called Sarufutsu; something which I think I’d self-indulgently begun to take for granted…

My town, Onishibetsu – capital of Sarufutsu: Population 1000 and falling! This was the view from my balcony before I left for the MYC.

The way I’ve seen it so far, in terms of conferences at least, Tokyo in August acted as a giant decompression chamber. A momentary pause between seriously intensive travel to digest just what we’ve all done in moving to Japan more than any real attempt to provide some practical teaching input. It’s a chance to experience the heart of Japan in the soon-to-disappear company of many foreigners and the most South Africans I’ve since seen in one spot. The first conference in Sapporo for the Hokkaido ALT’s acted as a sort of welcoming ceremony into the fold. To be sure, workshops were held, but they were more all-rounded “this is Hokkaido: you can do X and Y” presentations. But this past MYC, however, actually intervened at a point where, I feel, most of us have begun to get a feel for this whole ‘teaching English’ lark and is thusly suited.
Sapporo at night
Odori Park at night. Very pretty!

So while the initial first day was a mish-mash of speeches and pleasantries, the following day’s workshops actually did help me collate my thoughts on being an ALT somewhat, as well as give me a lot more clarity on what realistic expectations I can hope to get out of this job within the year I’m here. Likewise, from what I’ve since heard from several ALT’s around the conference, it seems a lot of them are ultimately unsatisfied with their situations here. A veritable splash of cold water to my proverbial face if ever I saw one!

Firstly, in a professional sense, I’ve begun to understand that I can have a relatively influential capacity as the “spearhead” of english tuition in my village, but that ultimately the crux of learning ESL lies in the frustratingly restrictive context of Japanese education policy as a whole. The entire emphasis of ESL in Japan is centred around learning English through a myriad grammar points, as opposed to learning the language through fundamental steps. For example, learning “verbs” doesn’t exist in the sense that us native speakers understand it, but rather through a series of “grammar points” focused around “I run/jump/eat/drive” and so on. It’s effective in a very limited scope, but ultimately, in my opinion, cripples ESL education in Japan terribly. This means that my thoughts on emphasis on reading purely for its own sake as opposed to learning generic dialogues from a text book falls flat on its ass, and that I’m not alone in this. More worrying, however, is that several ALT’s themselves believe ESL education shouldn’t be oriented around learning a language through reading, but rather the aforementioned tedium of learning by textbook page.

I know from personal experience that this approach is haphazard at best. In SA we begin our Afrikaans education from a very early age (1st grade onwards essentially) and learn the fundamentals of the language, like the sentence structure of future, present and past tense (for those SA folks reading, ever remember STOMPIE?) and then build upon that through countless passages, afrikaans books, short stories, poems and even television programmes. In Japan, the fundamentals are forsaken in favour of simple parrot fashion interpretation of what is arguably the single most complicated language in the world! Regardless, at the conference I began to realise that I can only gently nudge my own ideas in such a confined context, but that I can hopefully formulate it in such a way as to be ultimately beneficial for all involved. Unfortunately, Japanese education policy dictates only 1 precious lesson of English education necessary for elementary schools, which means that students up to the age of 12 and 13 have little to no basic English foundational education. An uphill struggle indeed! And not one I can hope to change, but I can at least push for some school budget to be put into buying some books!

Politics aside, I have begun to get the impression that a large portion of ALT’s are relatively unsatisfied with their respective lots in life. Heather up in Wakkanai, for example, has had a torrid time with her own administration and co-teachers, resulting in a ridiculously asymmetrical schedule and tons of added stress. From some others I have spoken to during the MYC, it seems many are frustrated by their relatively annoying administrative snags, teaching irrelevance and other niggling annoyances. One poor girl seemed to have a supervisor who, while all smiles and platitudes, refused to help her in even the most essential of tasks which foreigners with no Japanese could possibly hope to complete. From schools who actively laugh and mock the ALT’s to folks who just plain dislike Japan, it seems there’s a lot of bad blood simmering underneath the JET circles. Alarming indeed, but not entirely unexpected I guess. People are people wherever you are in the world and Japan, it seems, is no exception, however much to the contrary I’ve been led to believe!

Of course, as I mentioned, this all makes me quite aware of just how fortunate I am to have been placed in what many folks in Tokyo considered a laughable exile into the snowy oblivion. Far from it! To be sure the solitude is sometimes gloomy, but on the other hand, the absolute and staggering beauty of my area, as well as the unbelievably benevolent town spirit I have been immersed in has made it all the more worth it. My schedule is hardly rushed, and I find my time in the elementary schools an absolute pleasure, while the Junior High, despite it’s dogged adherence to the text book, has a self-discipline inherent within students and staff alike that I have quite honestly never experienced before in my life.

I’ve written before about this phenomenon, and had naively thought it to be a trend throughout Japan. But after the MYC, I’ve become convinced that my village is a social anomaly in an otherwise disparate educational and administrative maelstrom. It’s arrogant to presume, of course, but I’m rather an arrogant sort of lad, so there it is! I boldly proclaim Sarufutsu as special! From communications received from my predecessor Josiah, it seems he wholeheartedly agrees with this sentiment. Perhaps I just don’t see the scummy underside, but I’ve eaten sea snakes with the fisherman and I’ve had cow’s tongue with the educational bigwigs, so I’d like to think I’ve seen a relatively large cross-section of my town.

So self-aggrandisement aside, I’ve learnt something else quite important from the MYC. And this is that I am actually glad to not have been placed in a City. Before I got here, most treated my announcement of Sarufutsu as my hometown with thinly veiled expressions ranging from mild pity to outright sympathy. In fact, I have yet to meet someone, even now, who considers my tiny town to be a blessing rather than a curse. And yet, here I am, 4 months later, happily claiming that you can keep your insular little Gaijin bubbles, your railways and your damned Starbucks and McDonalds! I have people with character. I have a town that greet me each morning with a polite bow and a quick “Ohayou Gozaimasu John-Sensei“. I came to Japan to experience Japan, and that, it seems, is precisely what I’ve attained. I guess that’s not really an ‘aside’ from self-aggrandisement! Oh well!

Certainly I enjoy my brief forays into the city, and Sapporo is certainly the picture of an ideal city. One where the wealth exceeds the population. But I think I only really enjoy the city because I know I can return to my little town, where I’m not mistaken for a Russian, where I’m not treated like a complete alien, and where, when I return from JET conferences, I can really find some peace.

Here are my pics from the week, enjoy!:
Chris, my neighbouring ALT, in his natural habitat. A bar with hundreds of different imported brews…
…All except a very old and crusty Castle can!
My favourite spot in all of Sapporo. A small canal/stream filled with Koi. I try and take a stroll along it every time I visit the city.
My new hangout!
On the train home. Plenty of snow outside of Sapporo.

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