Thursday, March 26, 2015

My sister

So, like a lot of people, I have a younger sister. There's just a bit of a bigger age gap between us than most. The difference being 20 years, less a couple of months. I know, I know... SURPRISE!!! Right? Anyways, that's not the point of this story.

I'm about to turn 25, so you can do the math on my sister's age. When she was born I was smack dab in the middle of my first year as a Japanese major. I had just transferred to my third college and was trying to figure out just what the heck to do with my life. But then, here she was. I'll admit. One day, I decided to turn on some children's music, but in Japanese. Right off the bat she was transfixed by it and dancing about/bobbing her head as much as a newborn can.

That was when my mom decided that we would be teaching her Japanese as a second language. And ever since then, she's been learning it. I'll admit, mostly through watching movies in Japanese and listening to music. Something that we never would have been able to do if it weren't for the small Rossiter-Haynes village that's raising her, is to be able to get her a tutor. Now, don't lose your head. We know she's five years old. The tutoring isn't about book learning at this point. The tutor reads to her, something my family can't do for her in Japanese and, due to logistics of book reading via Skype, I'm unable to do with her. They play with her and talk to her so she's having fun and learning in a more passive way.

Along with her, my family is also picking up the language. I'd like to throw out a huge round of applause to mom by the way for her amazing progress in the language using mostly Youtube songs and remembering random words I throw out. I'd also like to offer a shout out to my dad who is actually, five years later, starting to pick up on the language. Good job dad!! That said, there are still language incidents that occur when you have a 5 year old spouting out things in two languages. (She particularly loves colors in Japanese and gets exasperated when she has to translate for people.)

Anyways, the other day my sister went shopping with my dad. Apparently she kept telling him "ダメ" (dame) and "座って" (suwatte). When she got home she told mom about it all frustrated and finished with "I don't think dad knows what that means." (For a five year old she is sassy.)

When asked why she told him bad and sit down, she said, very matter of factly, "Because he was touching all the things and you're not supposed to!"

Two more follow up questions from mom, so she could teach dad what they mean:
"What does "ダメ" mean?" It means stop doing that.
"What does "座って" mean?" It means sit down!

Thursday, March 19, 2015


As we get ready to roll in the rainy month of April (seriously, why does it have to be April???), thoughts of gowns, square mortarboard caps and diplomas probably entered your immediate life yet. After all, graduation is still a couple months away. That night in June is so close and yet so far for those about to graduate, yet here in Japan it has already come and gone.

Here at Serenity High School, we held our graduation ceremony on March 2nd. Yes, you read that right, March 2nd. Much to my surprise the ceremony was a very solemn affair. There was no clapping and shouting and hollering, no noisemakers, laughter or smiles. Everybody was dressed to the nines with the staff being in full suit or kimono and many parents doing the same. Neatly and quietly in rows were the mothers and a scarce spattering of dads as the ceremony was taking place at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and among them a couple of grandparents could be seen. Flanking them were the first and second year students, the former of which I’m sure were asking themselves why they were even there.

In front of all them was an empty stand of stairs awaiting the soon-to-be graduates arrival. On the far side were two rows of tables and chairs, facing toward where the graduates would soon sit. Members of the PTA, middle school principals and even the former mayor of our town would soon claim those seats. Opposite that were rows of chairs for the staff.

The ceremony began with the entrance of the PTA and other VIP guests, so to speak. As each person entered, the staff, including myself bowed in greeting and then, following them, came the third years. Two by two, they bowed as they entered and from the first person until the last was a continuous clapping. A lot of standing, bowing and sitting followed. Then each homeroom teacher called out the list of students names, one at a time. Each student answering, “はい!” before standing up and bowing to the principal on stage. Once each student in a class had stood, one of them was called to the front where they received a diploma for the entire class.

This proceeded for five homerooms and nearly 200 students. There was not one shout, no clapping, no noise of any kind save the reading of, “I present this diploma to…” With the diplomas awarded, the ceremony then turned to the speeches. There were 3 speeches from community members, including one from the former mayor. This was followed by a student speech to the graduating class. The school anthem, and another song followed. The closing words were spoken and the ceremony ended. Another long round of applause for the graduating class followed as they exited one by one while the first and second years stood up and sang Himawari no Yakusoku (if I’m not mistaken).

For the first time since the ceremony’s start I really saw the students. Some of them were beaming, radiant and confident. Others had fright written across their face and yet others were barely containing their tears, or not. For me, this was the best part of the ceremony as they took that first step out of the gymnasium and onto what comes next. This was followed by the exit of the VIP guests and more bowing and, finally, the staff was free to attend to their class meetings, in the case of the third years, or their club activities.

Overall I was very surprised at the ceremony. While it shouldn’t have, the lack of applause surprised me. Also, the solemn air, which I hope my writing conveyed, made me nostalgic for the loud, happy affairs that are graduation back home. The surprising lack of family and fathers due to the early morning weekday graduation were also surprising. This experience is one I hope to remember as a moment of what Japan is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Entrance Exam

Recently the first round of high school entrance examinations began all around Japan. According to a co-worker, the public high school tests are held on the same two day period at all high schools, March 4th-5th. The taking of these tests is often woefully referred to as exam hell.

Now, I don't really know a lot on the subject as I've never been through it myself, but the basic facts are that students will study for months on end (many students will go to Juku, or cram school, to study for these tests), trying to get into their first choice schools. After all, the high school students attend is closely related to whether they will likely go on to college, simply join the work force or follow another path after high school. With this in mind, the pressure to figure out what you want to do in life in junior high school, or even earlier in some cases (I read that some kindergartens require tests for entrance. Yeesh.).

source: copyright: Studio Ghibli
These tests are taken over a two day period with a range of subjects. Here at Serenity High School, I believe the tests cover 5 academic subjects including math, Japanese, English, social studies and one other I can't recall. I am in no way a part of this test, but that's what the schedule says. Test contents are kept very close to the chest.

One of my co-workers, despite having been a teacher, and thus a part of the testing system, for more than 20 years, is not allowed to take part in the examination process until it is finished and marking begins. This is because the test is, supposedly, standardized and his daughter is a candidate at another high school. See? Secretive secrets.
That said, should a student fail this test, they will have one (or more at low level schools) more chances around the end of March to sit the test a second time at the same, or another, school. However, students who ranked the school as their first choice, even with a low grade, will be considered for admission before students who chose it as a second choice or last resort.

There is a really interesting site I found, if you're interested in the process or if you have a child about to enter the rigors of exam hell for the first time that I thought I would share. Education in Japan Community Blog . The author talks about narrowing down choices of high schools, three suisen (or alternate ways to the standard test to enter a high school) as well as a lot of other useful information. I'd recommend to anyone who is listening to check it out. 

Do you want to know the best part about exam hell? They get to do it again in three years.
That's right. For those students wanting to attend college and who are not eligible for or do not want to try for suisen, they will have another equally grueling test process to enter college. There has been a lot of talk about changing school policy to move away from this kind of testing, but change is slow and school administrators are skeptical. Only time will tell if this comes to pass!

To all of you middle schoolers taking the exams as I write this, good luck and may the odds ever be in your favor!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Girl's Day

Hello, hello one and all! Trumpets please! Today is ひな祭り (Hina Matsuri)! Or, in English, Girl’s Day. Unlike many holidays which are celebrated with, well, festivals and fanfare, this one is a quiet affair that mostly takes place in the home. I say mostly because I’m munching on these DELICIOUS Hina Matsuri marshmallows in public right now. They’re not traditional or anything. I just picked them up at the conbini.
Called ひなごころ, or Princess Hearts? Anyways, they're strawberry flavored DELICIOUSNESS.
Hina Matsuri officially takes place on March 3rd. However, according to my co-workers, the date can actually vary from town to town. Many of the towns near me in Shizuoka prefecture actually celebrate it on April 3rd, which is when it was celebrated according to the old calendar. Now, let’s blow your mind again. It hasn’t always been called Hina Matsuri. In fact, it used to exclusively be called「桃の節句」(momo no sekku), or Peach Festival. 節句, according to my co-worker is the changing of the season, so it celebrates the changing of spring into winter. Both names, ひな祭り and 桃の節句 are still in use today, but I think it’s more common to see ひな祭りwritten on packaging and the like whereas (or peach) is the symbol of the season. Hellooooo peach flavor.

So, what is it about? One is the changing of the season. Or at least, it was originally. Now, it generally celebrates the healthy development of young girls.  Dolls are placed on a 5-7 tier display (though single tier displays aren’t unheard of), called a 雛壇 (hina dan), which is covered with red fabric, or 段掛 (dankake). The dolls are put out on about February 4th and are put away March 4th. It is said that parents who do not put the dolls away on time will have a hard time marrying off their daughters. Yikes.

These dolls represent the hierarchy of the Heian court (about 794-1192) according to some sources or a Heian wedding ceremony according to others. Maybe it's a little of both? These displays can vary in size, but on the top most tier are the imperial dolls, the emperor and the empress who have a gold screen set behind them. Different regions place the emperor and empress on different sides of the display, but you get the idea.

On the second platform are three court ladies who are at the ready with their sake and usually have sweets on hand. The third tier has 5 male musicians each with their own respective instrument, or fan in the case of the singer. The fourth layer has two ministers on either end. The fifth tier, which is between plants, has 3 guards or samurai. Tiers below this would hold furniture, carriages, or other items which might be used in the court residence. 
Image from
According to , “The practice of displaying these dolls on the third day of the third month on the traditional Japanese calendar began during the Edo period (1603-1868). It started as a way of warding off evil spirits, with the dolls acting as a charm.” The idea was that dolls cold hold or ward off evil spirits or bad luck. There was also once a tradition of placing dolls in baskets and floating them down the river and to sea. While there are still some places which practice this, the most notable being in Kyoto, many places do not keep this tradition. The reason being that the dolls sent to sea were often caught up in the nets of fisherman. So now, the places that do practice this tradition, catching them downstream after the spectators have gone and return them to the shrine to be burned. This is said to have much the same effect as when you return a まもり, or charm, to the temple at the beginning of the year.

Okay, okay! Enough already! What about the food? What about the food, you say? Well, let me tell you! The most popular snack I have noticed lately is called ひなあられ, hina arare. They are crackers which, depending on the region, are flavored with sugar or soy sauce. The two Hina Matsuri foods are Chirashizushi, basically sushi, but in a bowl and more awesome, anうしおじる, or clam soup. 
Image from
Now, time for me to go get some chirashizushi. ^.^