About Matt Keighley
Matt Keighley was born in New Jersey, raised in Yorkshire, and is now living in Japan. He is a freelance writer and English Language Teacher currently based in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. His most recent work, aside from the blog, can be found in the soon to be released The High on Life Book, a collection of inspiring tales from young leaders around the globe. Earlier work can be found predominantly on the BBC Radio Leicester website where he was a guest contributor for a number of years while studying for an English degree at the University of Leicester.
Following three years of indulging my passion for literature, he ventured a little further south to dive into the world of politics, economics and other subjects of that particular ilk at University College London. While in the capital, he did some work for the Canadian based charity End Poverty Now and even contributed scenes to a Dr. Seuss inspired nativity play.
Latest Posts by Matt Keighley
How would I sum up the feeling of Japan when contemplating English education?
It’s like crawling into a wardrobe and then complaining that you find yourself confronted by a lion and a witch when you were hoping to smoke a pipe with Ian McKellan.
It really does seem to operate in that world of fantasy and unrealistic expectations. Because, while good teachers are hitting their targets, the general public continues to bemoan the fact that Japan remains notoriously poor at English conversation.
This is nothing new. Japan has been collectively wringing its hands for decades about its poor performance in English, and it’s unlikely to quit wringing them anytime soon. Indeed with the Olympics approaching they may be in danger of breaking a figurative finger or two.
So what exactly is the issue?
Well the issue is that even though Japan knows what the myriad reasons for its difficulties are its been reluctant to acknowledge them, much less tackle them.
Indeed, rather than look at systemic reasons why the nation remains poor in its conversational skills students often seem keen to blame themselves or the English language itself, often going so far as to claim that for a Japanese person it is simply too far from their native tongue to get a handle on it. I’ll grant that compared to a native speaker of a European language they have a tougher challenge ahead of them, but the performance of other nations with equally distant or non-existent relations with English would suggest that it is far from the impossible task some would have you believe it is.
The real answer, and it is ridiculously simple, is schools aren’t teaching kids how to speak English.
By and large, with the exception of private and international schools, Japanese schools don’t teach speaking. If the kids come out of the general system able to speak it’s thanks to the efforts of those within the system, the teachers who go the extra mile, the parents who encourage it at home and of course, the students themselves who somehow find the time in their packed schedule to learn something which currently benefits them to the tune of…zero.
Now, I’m a language teacher, I’m not about to claim that learning a foreign language has no benefit. Economically speaking it’s obviously worth it. A recent episode of Freakonomics Radio placed the ROI on learning English at as high as a 20% increase in potential earnings. Culturally it’s an enormous boon. In terms of your health, bilingualism is routinely cited as something that potentially reduces the risk of mental difficulties in old age.
There are benefits everywhere you look.
Yet, for the average high school kid in Japan.
Because it won’t help them get into university.
And from the moment kids are old enough to be dropped off in a cram school or get fitted for their junior high school uniform that’s the only game in town. So until the target of that game changes let’s just be content with Narnia.
There are times when the people I speak to smile a knowing smile, lean their head to a slight angle and utter the word shimaguni. It is a word that seems to embody far more than its literal meaning. It is as if it encapsulates a single notion with such ease that it leads the speaker as a matter of course to delivering it with peculiar alacrity.
This one word sums up everything you wish to know about Japan and reinforces that which we all know to be true. That Japan is utterly unique. Japan is special and different and home to myriad traditions bathed in foggy mystery. More so than any other nation it is an us that has remained almost completely unblemished by the influence of them.
And it is utter and total nonsense.
Japan is fascinating.It really is. It is interesting. The people by and large are kind and hard working. The food is fantastic. And looking out my window on a sunny day I remain stunned by the natural beauty of the country in which I live.
And much the same could be said for any other island nation. Because that is what shimaguni means. Island nation.
But that’s never the whole truth of the matter. An island nation has rarely ever truly been totally cut off from the outside world.
Granted, Japan imposed isolation upon itself in the past. When trading with the outside it did its best to keep Japan apart from the world at large, placing the Dutch on Dejima and placing strict restrictions on other nations and the Japanese themselves in regards to trade and probably most importantly in this regard, the promulgation of religion. Yet, even during this period the Tokugawa were regularly visited by Korean delegations, though they never made the return journey. This was far from the total isolation needed to genuinely insulate a culture.
So when those barriers were finally torn down by American pressure, when the Black ships sailed into Edo Bay followed years later by the first American consul in Shimoda, Japan not only embraced the world but chased it down with cries of Wakon Yosai! Japan attempted to learn everything it could from the world and then marry it to their own cultural identity and in many cases they succeed in doing so to this day.
Japan doesn’t need to be unique in every single feature of its culture and heritage in order to be worthy of respect. Nor do the points where we disagree need to be met with a wave of the hand (any hand) that dismisses these points as being examples of how the outside world cannot begin to fathom the Japanese as if they were some homogenous, indistinguishable singular notion.
Recently a colleague of mine lent me an English language book on Japanese culture that had been used as a textbook at her university. She described it as being generally accurate if at times, “overthought.” Wanting to return the favour I picked up a copy of ‘Watching the English’, a book an American friend of mine had recommended to me years ago and found this in the back.
Perhaps it’s time to widen the definition of Shimaguni.
I missed the London Olympics, in person at least. Watching from my sofa on the other side of the world I couldn’t quite believe the news at first. It wasn’t the gold medal haul that surprised me, rather the change in national spirit it seemed to engender.
A pride at the things a small island nation could do and achieve. More importantly what we could strive to be. We could be an example of a modern and most importantly to my mind, a multi-cultural Britain. One that not only celebrated those differences but achieved more because of them.
It seems I might have a shot at experiencing that buzz in person after all. Tokyo is going to be hosting the 2020 Olympics and I couldn’t be happier for the nation I currently call home. I’m confident Japan will produce a marvel to match that put together in London. Having experienced Japanese fan culture first hand I know that the stadiums will be bouncing and the country will contract Olympic fever in pandemic proportions. It really will be something to behold.
In many ways though, I can’t help but hope that Japan does things a little differently to the UK.
Last year the Guardian wrote this in their editorial response to the games,
“The Games have celebrated what is easy to take for granted: that for all its inequalities and struggles our society at its best can be a living example of tolerance and cohesion, of inclusion and possibility.“
But looking on from afar I now I see a UK that is ‘actively hostile’ to immigration and an immigration system in place that would turn away British friends and their Japanese spouses if they don’t have enough money in the bank.
An approach apparently designed to make sure,
“that spouses coming to live in the UK would not become reliant on the taxpayer for financial support and would be able to integrate effectively.”
Then just the other day a prominent English footballer got rather ambushed into making jingoistic remarks about what qualifies someone to play for England. He wasn’t saying anything xenophobic really but he probably didn’t realize just how blurred an issue national and ethnic identity is for many of us. Take one Ikechi Anya for example, the Glasgow born, Romanian/Nigerian who plays for the Scottish National football team.
I myself if were any good at any particular sport would be eligible for the UK, England, Ireland, the USA and probably Japan under residency regulations.
Thankfully my lack of athletic prowess has spared me such a wrenching decision.
But jokes aside, it feels like I’m watching Britain turn its back on the very things we rightly celebrated. A nation built upon, and stronger for a sense of identity that goes beyond where you were born and from whence your grandparents came.
Japan however, isn’t exactly lauded for its sense of racial or ethnic diversity. I’m part of the 0.6% classed as other. The 0.5% and 0.4% of Korean and Chinese ethnicity that make up the rest of the other 1.5% of Japan that isn’t Japanese are in all likelihood third and forth generation immigrants who know no other culture than that of Japan. As such Japan’s Olympics is probably going to be a celebration of a culture and identity that is far more simply defined.
Now, I’ll make this clear; it is very much a culture that should be celebrated and I look forward to seeing the very best of Japan come 2020 because I’ve already experienced it in the day to day kindness and goodwill offered to me. But I hope, that where Britain welcomed the world and then turned its back on it Japan will do otherwise.
What a legacy Japan could achieve if it not only celebrates the things that make Japan distinct and unique but openly looks to share that with the world and in the process widen the definition of what it is to be Japanese to include the best of other cultures too. Because some of those other cultures are already here, they are already making significant contributions to Japanese life. They raise families, they participate in the local community and they contribute in myriad untold ways to the growth of the nation.
In 2020 Japan will seek to introduce itself to the world.
Hopefully it’ll be an honest introduction.
And unlike Britain the rest of the World will be welcome for more than just the summer.
Photo credit: ify.valuewalk.com.
Perhaps we had taken too great a heed of the warnings. People cautioning us about the weather, the possible dangers along every path and most importantly, the sheer number of bloody people who attempt to reach the summit during O-bon. It’s possible it was something else I suppose.
Maybe it was pre-altitude sickness, a little known condition that makes you giddy, foolish and liable to endanger your health while still at the approximate altitude of your sofa. Or might it be that we simply did not put all that much thought into the idea beyond, hey, it is right there, it’d be dumb not to, right?
It’s probably the latter but I’d be happy enough to blame the former if I can get away with it. Because while I’m sure the Internet is full of guides of How to Climb Mt. Fuji!
…this, really isn’t that sort of manual.
Mount Fuji, located on Honshu Island, is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776.24 m. An active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707–08, Mount Fuji lies about 100 kilometres south-west of Tokyo, and can be seen from there on a clear day.
We didn’t under plan as such. I mean we certainly weren’t in any danger at any point, but we did vastly under plan compared to how the average Japanese person appears to approach this national-cum-world heritage ascent.
The average Japanese person scales Fuji-san, as the famous peak is known in Japan (and no it doesn’t mean they call him Mr. Fuji), with the full range of equipment one would associate with bearing the full brunt of the elements. Almost every single climber has the obligatory expensive coat, thermal trousers, hiking boots and at the very least a promotional Mt. Fuji climber’s walking stick if not two shiny, what I assume to be carbon fibre, walking sticks.
Now, should the weather take an appalling turn for the worse you might find yourself in need of approximately 50,000 yen’s worth of kit (about 350 pounds) but these people really aren’t the brave the elements type. Nope. These are tour group hikers who take the bus up to the fifth station on the easier trails and are up in about five hours and down in a couple by running down the ash path known as osunabashiri which gets them down to the new fifth station at Gotenba in under three hours easy. It’s mountain climbing for those who want the photograph and the stamp more than the actual experience. Achievement with the minimum of effort. Which makes sense I suppose, I mean you wouldn’t want to sweat in that new gear of yours would you?
Were my climbing partner and I of this ilk?
Ummmmm… not quite.
Were we of the other, conquer the world, abseil down the face of adversity and challenge a crocodile to a wrestle variety?
We were the average, comparatively unprepared couple of guys who took the longest, steepest route not because it was there but because there would be less queuing and fewer tourists.
We weren’t total idiots though. We did pop down to the local outdoor store to pick up a headlamp, which is of course necessary when starting the ascent at nine o’clock at night as we were. Though I imagine the whole route would be floodlit were it not for the requirements of World Heritage qualification. For those unaware of Japan’s religious predilections it’s worth noting that Shinto and Buddhism are actually Japan’s second and third most popular religions, Convenience coming in at number one at a Usain Bolt kind of canter.
We actually avoided one such shrine, 7-11 to be precise, but did make time to stop by a HAC Drug, or Health and Communication to give it’s full title. Because when I need to buy energy supplements and cereals bars to provide the power for scaling Fuji I clearly also need to consider my current household supply of slippers and notepads. So where else would I go?
So as you may have ascertained by this point we did indeed survive. Well armed with jelly, value mineral water and cereal bars how could we have failed?
The ascent from the Gotenba New Fifth station took approximately ten hours and another five on the way down as we didn’t go the whole way down via the impressively steep ash and sand flats. We were utterly exhausted, aching all over. We caught the sunrise from the eighth station and then struggled on an hour or so more to the summit. I marched ahead of my friend on the ascent and then was made to look the old man as he made the descent with an effortless cool that my wincing from the pain in my knees couldn’t convey.
Was it worth all the hours of pain? The sweat, the aching limbs, the fine coating of dirt and dust that we were showered in upon our descent?
But the reason was down to good fortune rather than anything we did. The weather was fine. The night sky almost totally clear and sunrise was truly beautiful; all the more so after eight hours of climbing.
But, without that reward for all our efforts?
In that case, I might have been more typically British in regard to the experience.
“I believe it always rains on Fujisan. The people who maintain that they saw anything on or from the top of it are people I should like to have witnesses against me, if I were tried for my life, rather than for me. The man who goes up once may be excused, if in other matters he is an average fool, so that you don’t expect much from him; the man who goes up twice should be put out of the world immediately he arrives at the bottom again; and the man who will induce his confiding friend to accompany him up, on any prospect or understanding, is own brother to Judas Iscariot.”
Eight Years in Japan 1873-1881 by E.G. Holtman. p.231.
Poor chap, all he needed really was a spot of sunshine.
Thanks to my good friend over at MonkeyBrainSushi for sending me the link to the wonderful Mr. Holtman’s musings.
The laser guided tool beeped. That can’t be a good thing can it? Beeping means it’s detected something. Nobody wants the dentist to find something worthy of beeping. Not if beeping is only a prelude to a more dreadful whirring, grinding noise.
At what number and above do you need to drill?
I am not, nor have I ever really been in possession of a sweet tooth. A salt and vinegar crisps tooth most certainly. A beer tooth? Some might argue so. But, a sweet tooth? Never.
This was confirmed to me the other day when one of my favourite café’s changed its usual dining hours and I found myself tucking into decadently produced banana and nut pancakes in lieu of actual dinner. I might have slipped into a sugar induced coma in my seat had it not been for my teacher’s proclivity for caffeine beverages of all varieties. Instead the two joined forces and left me rather jittery instead.
So, as it turned out, this was to be my first actual filling not just in Japan but ever. This was not one of the many experiences I’d been dreaming of in the weeks before I first jetted out to Japan.
Golden Temples. Check.
Dental procedures in a language that its own native speakers need rigorous instruction in?
Um, can I skip this part of the package tour please?
The dental nurse who usually takes care of me nipped off to consult with the dentist who almost immediately popped himself onto to a stool beside my chair. Quick chat, reassurance that it’d just be a little bit of drilling and so it wouldn’t hurt really. Fancy new stuff, no chunk of silvery stuff lodged in my jaw, done in twenty minutes, filling speed dried with some tiny heat lamp, towel over my face so the glare from the light above wouldn’t sting my eyes.
This doesn’t seem right to me; all this frosted glass, fancy technology, efficient service and punctuality. Maybe the fact that my local dentist feels a little bit like the shinkansen of dentistry shouldn’t surprise me as I do after all live in the land of the bullet train.
Yet, I don’t have to look far to find the reason I feel nonplussed by it all.
It used to look me right in the face, wipe snot on its shorts if not licking its nostrils clean and stunningly flash a set of gnashers that might cause one of the waxwork models at the Jorvik Viking centre to reconsider flossing.
Yes, otherwise adorable little munchkins who just occasionally try to ram a sly digit up your backside when you’re not watching them, often giggle and grin to reveal teeth utterly rotten and possibly harvested for use in pirate movies and historical accurate Dickensian drama.
I haven’t the faintest.
Dentists seem to be fairly plentiful. Adults and teenagers alike both make use of braces and eschew them in many cases where teenagers in the UK or US might be desperate for a reconstruction job. Supermarkets sell all manner of dental hygiene stuff and beautiful gleaming smiles assault me from advertising hoardings.
Maybe it’s just not seen to be a necessity by some folks.
Perhaps a perfect set of choppers isn’t an absolute requirement for a well-adjusted life after all.
Whatever the answer, I think I’ll just continue to enjoy the fine service as much as I can and simply do my best not to leap a mile when a four year old smiles at me like an intern at Fagin’s financial services.
Photo: delivery of my addiction via http://www.shadesofchina.co. uk.
Bosozoku. I can remember the first time I uttered the word in public. My class of elderly ladies giggled. My useless textbook had translated the term unbelievably loosely as teenager. It was frankly, a shit translation.
Sayonara Speed Tribes does a far better job of conveying what the word means; what it is coming to mean.
Literally the term bou-sou-zoku (暴走族) translates as violent-speed-tribe. It was a handy term coined by Japanese newspapers during the heyday of the biker gangs that emerged in post war Japan to describe the loitering youths, the joyrides on motorbikes and the violent clashes that occurred when these groups crossed paths.
By the 70s these groups, like all subcultures tend to become, were highly ritualized and ironically as subcultures always seem to do reproduced much of what they claimed to be abandoning and rejecting.
These bosozokuwore the uniforms of kamikaze pilots, ran their gangs in shades of samurai honour and enforced the sense of senpai and kohai that remains a dominant thread in Japanese life. They even retired from service, slipping either into the normal life of salary man or the criminal world of the Yakuza.
To me, the whole thing bears a disturbing if occasionally comical resemblance to a high school club. The uniforms, the training, the ritual, the respect for one’s elders and the necessity of carrying on the torch for them when they leave are all hallmarks of the life they apparently reject.
But things are changing.
Modern police tactics and the passing of time have led to a steep decline in bosozoku numbers and a move from violent outcry of youth and rebellion to pick and mix cultural identity.
It’s at this point where Sayonara Speed Tribes picks up the story.
Sayonara Speed Tribes follows the path of someone who stands with a foot in both worlds.
That someone is Hazuki, a legend within the bosozoku world. He is also a man left stranded by how quickly that world has changed, by how much he himself is desperate to change.
Fascinatingly, Hazuki lets filmmaker Jamie Morris into his life and allows him to see the changes he’s trying to make, the life he’s fighting so hard to build as at the age of forty he attempts to leave the world of bosozoku and Yakuza behind in order to follow his childhood dream into the kickboxing ring and beyond.
It’s an at times funny and moving documentary as Hazuki proves to be the perfect thread to follow between the past and the present realities of these groups. A charming figure, it’s hard not to root for him, not to hope that he’ll find the happiness and respect he craves.
Yet, Hazuki bears all the markings of his tribes, the tattoos and the scars of violence. In trying to leave his youthful world behind he still cannot shed the signs of his past life and rebuild.
For all that struggle though, I recommend you watch him try.
Every Sunday since the end of January I’ve been dragging my sleep deprived self out of bed at six a.m. to crawl into the shower, quickly shave, wrap up warm for the twenty-five minute walk down the street to the local train station to hop on the early morning bullet train bound for Tokyo.
It really isn’t that far away, in reality I probably spend almost as much time walking to the station and changing to the Tozai subway line in Tokyo as I do on the bullet train to Tokyo itself.
But for Tokyoites?
Well I might as well live on another planet. The shock and awe that I come from a different prefecture is entirely at odds with just how pleased Japan is, and rightly so, with their wonderful bullet trains and remarkable local train services.
It’s a wonder, a marvel I say!
You traveled for more than thirty minutes?! Good lord man, was it entirely necessary?
This is not an accurate translation or reflection of the people speaking by the way. This is how I translate it in my head for my own amusement. If I’m particularly bored I might translate it directly into the Yorkshire dialect…
Tha came from over yonder that there hill? Ecky thump!
Anyway, I’m drifting off here, back to the case in point.
I’m on a teaching course over in Tokyo every Sunday for the next few months and so I’m spending an awful lot of time heading up and down the Tokaido line.
My journey along it could not be more unremarkable despite the protestations and shock of those who call Tokyo their home. As far back as 1700 it has been endlessly traversed and is now the most traveled route in Japan as it links Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.
Unlike the original travelers along the Tokaido though I’m heading by train, shaving a nice twenty-two hours off the journey by foot in the process. In that context my 230km weekly round-trip journey seems both remarkably speedy and yet utterly ordinary in regards to my own effort.
But therein lies its charm to me.
My morning commute by shinkansen (Bullet Train) seem to flash by in a haze of coffee and mini-croissants purchased on my amble down to the station.
I take the time to tweet or facebook my sleep deprived state, because if I’m suffering, then well, I want you dear followers to know about it. Comedic suffering that is; I’m far too English to reveal actual suffering… not that I do have any of that… sod it, you get the point.
Then provided I’ve hooked up my IV drip of black coffee, mainlined straight from coffee can to my veins, I will quite jauntily bound through Tokyo station to transfer to the Tozai subway line. At nine-ish on a Sunday morning it would be fair to say that I bound somewhat out of step with the rest of the early morning populace, hardly aware they exist beyond some imagined bonus level of Tokyo 3D Frogger: Dodge the Commuter!
In contrast, my journey home by local train, if I’m not too tired, is a fine opportunity. I’ve chatted to families returning home from a visit to the grandparents’ place (the daughter doing her English homework on the way), observed all manner of sleeping positions, been slept on/against by an innumerable number of strangers, almost fallen asleep and face planted into the carriage floor while leaning forward to read my kindle (a rookie mistake a Japanese would never make), snickered too loudly at The Bugle podcast (much like the Tube in London, one should remain an emotionless zombie whilst riding on public transport here) and drawn undue attention to myself as a result.
While the journey may at times be productive, more often than not it seems to take an age. After close to two hours heading south I change at Atami for the next step of the journey and fifteen minutes later exit my local station. I begin my walk home, buy a nikuman (Chinese style steamed bun) from the Konbini (Convenience store) along with a couple cans of beer in all likelihood and shuffle in the front door at around nine o’clock having left the classroom around six. I make dinner, box up the next day’s bento for the day job and hopefully crawl onto my futon before midnight.
On a good day, I feel like I’m getting the hang of the commute, moving from amateur commuter to professional in no time at all.
The next day I arrive at work around eight fifteen (ok more like eight twenty…five…ish) and immediately see the P.E. teachers who’ve been at school since seven, who’ll be there until nine that night.
I don’t know how they do it.
Compared to these teachers, I’m just a rookie. I do that long day once a week, they do it every day and they do it while working their socks off.
Think I best keep my amateur status.
I’m not ready for the big leagues yet.
So where am I now? Well evidently I’m at the stage of ojigi-ing to strangers on the tube, I also accidently said sumimasen (excuse me) to a group of people earlier that day as I made my way through a crowded corridor at Paddington station. Fortunately I rather mumbled it and beyond relaying my embarrassment to my friend who was with me at the time I doubt anyone else was the wiser.
But, Japanese is there now, firmly locked into my head for at least as long as I live here and that is beginning to have other side effects beyond excessive bilingual politeness.
Because not only is it locked in; it wants to get out.
It wants to show off. Or I do. Frankly I’m not sure where to draw the line.
First of all there are natural trigger points for the language. It has in some way become automatic as the incident with the inadvertent sumimasen-ing demonstrates. If I’m thanking someone at a shop 99% of the year I’m saying doumo (thanks) or arigatou (thanks) and if I happen to be in Kyoto well I’m saying okini (thanks for saying thanks). Ta very much is generally no longer on the menu. It’s a seasonal specialty if you will and makes about as much sense to the Japanese as the idea that Yorkshire pudding is not a dessert.
Then there are the moments where a Japanese word would actually work far better than an English word.
Natsukashii which translates as nostalgia or ahh that takes me back works far better in Japanese and conveys a multitude of feelings in a tenth of the time it takes in English.
Genki which means how are you? Is not only the question, it’s the answer. The how are you? exchange boiled down to two words.
Also it can be used to describe a hyperactive kid, a naturally energetic person and a person surprisingly energetic for their age too.
Japanese; more in common with a swiss army knife than a katana.
Then there’s KY. It’s short for kuuki yomenai and directly translates as can’t read atmosphere. I’m sure you know these kinds of people; most of us at some point are one after all. But as short hand for your socially useless mate or relative it’s a real time saver and compares favourably to, “Him? Yeah, he’s lovely when you get to know him…no, I know he seems like a dick now but…”
So there you have just a sliver of what’s going through my head as I walk around my hometown. A constant but rather patchy subtitling system throwing up possible alternatives that fulfill the criteria of being better than the more common term but then rather falls down on the fact that you are the only person within god knows how many square miles who has any idea what you’re saying.
It’s like dogs and monkeys I suppose (cats and dogs, a bad relationship).
Maybe English and Japanese just isn’t supposed to share one cranium.
There’s only one thing for it.
Talk to the family dog.
Turns out he already knew suwatte (sit).
I might have taught him last year…
I may have taken the idiom the wrong way.
This may be chronic.