Article first published in May 2005's edition of JETFuel


A not-so-great photo of the bit with the lacquerware box during graduation.

You can just make out the white gloves, however.

Clockwork Confusion

Just another day at work…or is it?

By "Sherry Rhodes"


I’ve had another one of Those Experiences.  You know the kind: the type you want to box up and keep forever; to take home with you along with all the other Japan paraphernalia you’ve collected over the last one, two, three or more years.  In short – the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen at home.  I hope.


After such experiences, I’m always left with the same feeling.  Sitting at my desk, rather nonplussed, with a slightly worried smile creeping across my face and the sensation of another JETFuel article coming on…


I’m on my 9th consecutive workday with bugger-all to do, and let’s face it, I didn’t have much to do before that either.  In the last 7 days I’ve read 5 books.  Today I started on my 6th – Burgess’ infamous “A Clockwork Orange”.


So there I am, at my desk, viddying1 this, that and the other, and doing nothing very skorry1, totally engrossed in the book, when Important Office Man marches in and insists – with a few sharp flicks of his wrist – that I follow him.  Immediately.


Oh crap.  What have I done now?


IOM and I have a history.  A few months ago he burst into a lesson I was in the middle of teaching (and we all know that doesn’t happen every day) and summoned me outside to move my car.  Some workmen had turned my space was needed.  IOM was most definitely not polite about it...but…well, he’s important, right?  I mean, he carries the certificates in the lacquerware box during the graduation ceremony2.  He has white gloves, and everything.


But I digress…


I follow IOM out of the teachers’ room and down the stairs, wondering if I’ve parked in the wrong place again, or worse, that the car I scratched two weeks ago was his…  I try to clear the fuzz out of my brain, which is on a go-slow after months of inactivity. 


The next thing I know, he’s summoned The Head Of English, and the three of us are marching down the corridor.  God.  This must be serious.


THOE and I do not get on.  She has a tendency to screech incoherently (and very loudly) at the kids - and at yours truly - for no reason I can fathom, and from time to time flies maniacally at students, arms flailing3.  To add insult to injury, she can’t actually speak…or write…or understand…English.  And she is more than a little insane.


We’re following IOM down the corridor.  We end up in a small room next to the Kocho Sensei’s4 office. 


A new table is positioned on a new strip of carpet, surrounded by 6 new chairs.  A new aircon unit attached to the wall blows out icy cold air.  With snow on the ground outside, it’s freezing.  Five warm cans5 of coffee sit on the table.  Looks like we’re having a meeting, then.


My mind is still whirring.  I don’t understand what’s going on, and by the look of her, neither does THOE.  All I know is IOM keeps referring to me as “The Gaijin”6.  Sounds like a horror film.


Was I late too many times?  Has the obaachan7 I frightened when I smiled at her issued a complaint?  Have my overseas forays been uncovered?8   (But Thailand is in Japan…honest.)  Have I done something wrong I don’t even know about?  Has my mother phoned?


THOE and I are passed a lukewarm can of coffee each, and asked to take a seat.  The small-talk begins.


Like The Head Of English, Important Office Man doesn’t speak English.  And I have no idea what he’s saying in Japanese.  It’s down to THOE to try to translate.  We muddle through.


What does The Gaijin think about the new table?

Very nice.

Apparently it was chosen by the automobile engineering teacher.

What does The Gaijin think about the new chairs?

Oh, yes.  Lovely.

I’m informed the maths teacher selected these. 


I wish he’d just get on with it.  Abandon the small-talk and put me out of my misery.


Does The Gaijin like the carpet?

Er.  Yes, wonderful strip of carpet beautifully placed in the middle of the room…

I’m told something vaguely relevant about the carpet – badly translated by THOE.


And then…most importantly…IOM asks…

And WHAT does The Gaijin think of the new aircon?

Um.  Yes.  Very aircon-like.  Very shiny.  Looks lovely.  Livens up that otherwise-bare wall beautifully.

Ah.  IOM chose that himself.  And very proud he is of it, too.  Shame he doesn’t know how to use it.


Clinging on to my lukewarm coffee I try not to shiver.


Abruptly, IOM leaps to his feet, makes a few phone calls, and two more ladies arrive.  The School Nurse, and The Secretary.  They are given the remaining cans of coffee.  Everyone looks confused, apart from IOM, who proudly starts showing off the re-styled room again. 


I’m trying to relax.  It’s not working.


The Secretary and The Nurse (seated closer to the aircon) deciding action must be taken, confiscate the remote control, and in true Japanese style hold a mini-conference about how to work it.  I’m expecting the janken9 to start any minute.  Eventually, to everyone’s relief, warm air begins to circulate.


Suddenly, the door flies open and the formidable Kocho Sensei strides in.  I suppress a groan.  This really is serious.  With horror I realise that the lovely, glinting, pristine, expensive-looking shiny black car in the car park (the one with the fresh scratch) might be his.


After a lengthy conversation, all smiles, that I don’t understand a word of (damn that Fukui-ben10), the Kocho Sensei exclaims, “Hazukashiiiiiii”11, and – literally – runs off down the corridor.  I listen to the sound of him retreating at full pelt, frustration rising.  Maybe this IS a horror film.  Maybe I fell asleep at my desk again, and I’m having a nightmare. 


Much to my chagrin the small-talk resumes.  IOM has some very definite questions.  Addressing THOE, he indirectly asks me: When I’ll return home?  Where will I travel to?  Do I speak any other languages?  What did I think of the graduation ceremony?


Between each of my answers (translated by THOE) and the next question, the panel pauses to discuss what I’ve just said.


Where is this leading?  Is it some kind of psychological test?  Do I win anything?


After a while I begin to relax a little.  It might all be small-talk, but at least no-one’s fired me yet. 


Very suddenly, the meeting comes to an end.  THOE, Secretary and Nurse bully IOM into thanking me in English.  He’s mortified, but I get a “Saaankyuuuuu”12 before he does what the Kocho Sensei did, and bolts off down the corridor before I could say anything in response.


As the rest of us leave, I look across at THOE.  She’s still looking confused.  But then, she usually does.  I ask her what that was all about.  She thinks IOM just wanted to chat.


With the wonderful gift of hindsight I now see that the other people were invited in an attempt to make me feel more relaxed.  That the Important Office Man, faced with my almost-imminent departure after what will be two years at the school, realised he’s never really spoken to me.  I now understand that he was so abrupt with me because he felt embarrassed and shy, not (as I had assumed) because I’d done something wrong.  If only he’d made it clear what he wanted from the start…


All that aside, I am very touched he made the effort, and it didn’t escape my notice that as the meeting progressed I was gradually addressed directly as “Igirisu-jin”13, instead of indirectly (via The Head Of English) as “Gaijin”.


And so I’m left feeling bemused, amused, and more than a little confused, but grateful for another timely reminder of why I’m in Japan. 


1.  References to "A Clockwork Orange"

2. Graduation ceremonies in Japan are very pompous events, involving an awful lot of (in my opinion) rather unnecessary "traditions", including the use of a lacquerware box.  But then, maybe I'm just bitter after my close-encounter during my own contract signing ceremony.  Long story, but I know some of you out there will get it.  ;)

3. In Japan it is perfectly acceptable, and often expected, for teachers to hit students.  Trying to put it down to "cultural differences" is extremely difficult when you have to stand in a classroom and watch a boy get hit, hard, over the head with a  hard-back book - spine on - for doing badly in a test.  (I should note that this wasn't done by the Head of English - she prefers slapping and screeching.)

4. Kocho sensei - principal

5. Luke-warm cans of coffee - coffee, in cans, hot from a vending machine or convenience store.  Genius

6. Gaijin - short for "gaikokujin" - literally "person from another country" (i.e. not Japan).  In Japanese, any country that is not Japan is covered with the blanket name of "Gaikoku" (koku = country).  "Gaijin" is very often (but not always) used as an insult by Japanese people.  In this instance, it was clear IOM was talking down to me, and asserting his authority.  It was meant as a derogatory term.  

7.  Obaachan - old woman/grandmother (a more friendly/informal version of "obaasan").  I think you may have to live in Japan for a while before you can understand the term properly.  Old people here are most definitely not like old people at home.  Much, much scarier.  Never tackle an obaachan.  They may only be 2ft 6, and weigh in at a mere 4 stone, but my god are they good with their elbows!

8. Bit complicated, this, but in our contracts it stipulates that if we want to travel overseas during our holidays we have to use up our paid leave (nenkyu) it's rather common for people to travel to remote parts of  "Hokkaido" or "Okinawa".

9. Janken - the game "stone, paper, scissors" - used in all decision making in Japan.   

10.  Fukui-ben - the dialect spoken in Fukui.  Very difficult to understand.  I never seem to be able to identify when it's spoken by old men.  

11.  Hazukashi - lit.  "embarrassed".  Funny thing about Japanese - if something surprising happens, you don't say "ARG!", you say "I WAS SURPRISED!" (Bikkuri-shita).  If something hurts, you don't say "Ow!" or "bugger!", but "pain".  Likewise,  when you're embarrassed or shy about something you say "embarrassed".  Very, very commonly heard in the classroom, when over-zealous ALT picks on unsuspecting student to talk in front of the class.

12. sankyu - "thank you", in a Japanese accent (a fuller version would be: "Sankyu berri machi").

13.  Igirisu-jin - lit. English person (used to refer to people from anywhere in Britain).  [I interpret this as] Much more polite than "Gaijin" as it's more specific - I was given more of an identity.  Still not very polite, but a definite improvement.  



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