Tag Archives: japan

Japanese: A Quick Overview

I am placed in a rather unique situation at work (for England at least) whereby there are something like 9 different languages spoken in our team of 10 people. There are, in no particular order, speakers of Urdu, Arabic, Gujarati, Greek, Swedish, Japanese, Russian, Belarusian and a Nigerian dialect of English. I may even have missed one or two. Certainly in all the English-speaking places I have lived and worked before most people will speak English, and only English; but that’s not to say that people don’t have an interest in learning other languages. People will often express that they would like to learn a language but they don’t have the time or the opportunity to speak it. I had always said the same. I even went on an Italian course 1 night a week to try and kick-start things but the only thing I can remember how to say now is “can I have a glass of red wine, please?” Useful, but hardly nearing the fluency required to impress a long-legged, olive-skinned Italian goddess with my in-depth knowledge of graphics cards and central processing units.

I failed at Italian because no-one had ever taught me HOW to learn a language and exactly WHAT to study and practice. Had I figured it out by going to Italy and being forced to learn the language I would have, perhaps, got much further in a much shorter space of time. But I wasn’t going to Italy; I was going to Japan, and I either had to learn Japanese or spend my entire year there confused and disorientated. As it happened I ended up doing both but, I hope, in a slightly less confused manner than I would have had I simply remained squarely in the expat bubble.

To those who have never studied Japanese, the written language is a mishmash of mystical symbols and pictures and the spoken sentence just an endless stream of syllables where no-one takes a breath for 3 minutes at a time. The notion of ever being able to speak it, let alone read it, is a monumental task that most normal people leave to the manga fans. Look deeper however and you will find that it is endlessly fascinating, constantly surprising and actually, rather logical in its construction. For those cunning linguists out there with a passion for languages in general, or for those who would simply like to know what all those mysterious little pictures actually mean, read on. American/Canadian readers take note, you may need to put on your best Hugh Grant impression when pronouncing the letters/words in bold so that you get the right Japanese-equivalent sound.

The Alphabets

Yes that is alphabets, plural. Four to be precise (well, 3 really but we’ll get into that in a bit) and you already know one of them:

  • Romaji (or the Roman alphabet to you and me)
  • Hiragana
  • Katakana
  • Kanji

This means that there are also 4 different ways to write many words. The word ‘bicycle’ for instance can be written (in the above order) as:

  • jitensha
  • じてんしゃ
  • ジテンシャ
  • 自転車

We’ll go into that in a bit.

Romaji

Yes, they all know and learn the Roman alphabet, but no that doesn’t mean they can read English (as I’m sure you will all know from reading the posts over the last year!). They use Romaji for a number of different things including, obviously, English words, but also for Japanese words they think just look cooler in Roman letters. When you see Japanese in phrase books, it will usually be written in Romaji because people don’t have time to learn 3 new alphabets for a quick 2 week holiday, but you should note that this is not Japanese; it is merely to help you pronounce Japanese words using letters for which you know the sounds. For example the Japanese word for I or me; in a phrase book you would see it written as watashi where in fact the Japanese is わたし. Which brings me nicely onto…

Hiragana

This is the original Japanese alphabet and it differs from the Roman alphabet in that almost every single character contains a vowel sound*. For example, sounds like she (or shi as written in Romaji), sounds like na (as in nappy), sounds like ka (as in karen). So rather than have a load of separate consonants and vowels which you can then combine in any number of crazy combinations and sounds like in English, you have a set number of 1-syllable sounds which you then just string together to make a word.

There are literally only 5 vowel sounds in the entire language. Yes, I know we have 5 vowels in English but I’m talking about vowel sounds. Take the vowel, o for example; put it in the word now and you get more of an a sound than an o, but stick an s on the front – snow – and the sound completely changes. In Japanese this never happens. A will always sound like ka wherever you put it in a sentence,  will always sounds like na and will always sound like shi.

For an English-speaker learning to speak Japanese this is a wonderful thing. It means that you don’t even have to listen to someone say a word for you to know how to say it; you just read the characters as you see them. For a Japanese-speaker learning English though, this gives them a serious handicap; try to get someone to tell you the difference between mood, mud, mode and mod and they will break down and have a fit there and then. Likewise, if you try to get a Japanese person to say ‘squirrel’ they will still be standing there trying 12 hours later.

Katakana

Katakana is used mainly for Japanese words that they want to ‘coolify,’ and for words that have been adopted from other languages, for example:

  • Coffee becomes コーヒー (pronounced core-hee)
  • Television becomes テレビ (pronounced teh-reh-bee)
  • Super becomes スーパー (pronounced sue-paah)

If you really listen hard, you can hear the English word behind it but usually only after you become trained at it. After I had learnt to read Katakana, Maria (another JET in my area) and I used to have to team-up to read menus; I would read them – very slowly – and repeat faster and faster until she could decipher the English word it was supposed to replicate.

I would understand its usage if they had never learnt the Roman alphabet (besides, who wants to learn Hiragana before you’re able to read, write and pronounce tsunami or karaoke?), but when they know how to read and write Roman letters it needlessly prevents kids from learning the proper spellings and sounds in English. All the characters look the same as well, for instance is shi and is tsu – both identical but for a slight change in the way they mock you as they grin outwards from the screen.

Kanji

These are the little pictographs that you’ve all seen in both Chinese and Japanese (the Japanese nicked them from China years ago), and if you’ve been reading my other posts recently then you’ll know that I am currently attempting to learn 1000 kanji before the end of the month. It’s not going very well but that’s one for another post. There are countless kanji in Chinese and Japanese though a common dictionary in Japan, the ‘Daikanwa,’ currently contains around 50,000. Luckily, only about 2 to 3 thousand are in common use in Japan. That is still quite a steep learning curve though, and if it wasn’t interesting I would have given up long ago.

Each and every kanji has a meaning. Sometimes one kanji will be be a word on its own, and sometimes it will form part of a word with other kanji. Take and for instance. means he/him/boyfriend, pronounced kah-reh, and means woman, pronounced on-na. If you put them together though – 彼女 – the pronunciation completely changes to ka-no-jo, and the meaning to she/girlfriend (in case you were wondering, the kanji for man is ).

How do you ever learn these? It really helps if you know the meanings of the individual kanji because you can often make up little stories in your head to help you remember what the word means – this is what I am doing at the moment. Sometimes though, you don’t even need to make up stories because it’s obvious from the meaning of the kanji alone. Remember bicycle? 自転車? Well  means oneself/itself means rotate/revolve and  means vehicle, so a vehicle that rotates itself is…? You get the picture. What you really need to do is learn as many words as you can in hiragana and then mass-learn all the kanji and their meanings when you think you’re ready. After that you can go back over all the words you learnt in hiragana and attach their pronunciation to the proper, kanji word.

Learning a foreign language has been a lot of hard work, but it has provided me with a great deal of fun, intrigue, and interactions with people I never would have spoken to had I not jumped into it head-first. If you’re one of those people who have always wanted to learn one then just start. Get a book and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

*The only exception to this is which is pronounced simply, n (by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and emitting a dull sound through your nose).

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Home Again

I woke up this morning not to the sound of 1,000 cicadas bent of the destruction of every human eardrum in the vicinity, nor to the paper boy marauding around on his motorbike at 3 in the morning. Nor did I awake to the heat of 12,000 suns bearing down on my flat and threatening to melt the very fan that kept me alive. No. This morning I awoke to the sound of silence, but for gentle birdsong and the whisper of a cool breeze that brushed past the curtains carrying the sweet scent of the country air. “Welcome back,” it said, and I slid out of bed, made a nice cup of coffee and began to write.

When I came back to England in December it was sincerely worse than Japan. Apart from the few lovely days I had in and around Salisbury, the trip was mainly a disaster; I’d split up with my girlfriend a couple of weeks before, there was snow clogging all the transport systems, it was freezing and dark, my best mate broke his arm and couldn’t come out for drinks, and everyone was grumpy and sick, which subsequently gave me the flu and made me bed-ridden for 5 days. Going back to Japan at the end of it was something of a blessing, and I was rewarded with uninterrupted blue skies for 2 months, a skiing holiday, and a trip to the wonderful city of Sapporo during a snow festival. Life since then has gone from good, to better, to great; I got more involved in the language, more involved with my students and the culture, and met some new Japanese friends separate from the big group of wonderful gaijin friends I already had. I had come to a point in July where there were so many people in Japan who I loved, and things that I cherished, that leaving was both something I couldn’t contain my excitement for, and something very sad that I won’t fully understand until it sinks in properly.

And it hasn’t yet. Outside of the comforting bubble that is my father’s house, the world that was once so familiar is now rather surreal. Everyone is white, and as tall or taller than me. It’s unnerving. I can no longer walk around in large crowds without having to stand on tiptoes to see what is ahead which is, let me tell you, a huge advantage when you’re sucked into the myriad of people wandering through Shibuya, or scoping for hot girls in a club. Also, everyone speaks English (stop me if I’m stating the obvious here) which means that I am constantly tuning into other peoples’ banal conversations without any conscious decision to do so. In Japan I had to make a very conscious effort to understand what people were saying to me, and so background conversation was usually just a comforting, somewhat familiar string of syllables used as a backdrop to my English thoughts. Not so here; there I am in Burger King (shh, it’s been over a year) having a meaningful chat with my dad when the young lad behind us proclaims “…well now I feel like shit,” after he finishes his XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I knew where he was coming from – the “XL” part always seems so right until you’ve finished the thing, then your stomach starts to question whether you really needed a 933 calorie burger, a large fries and enough coke to put out a house fire – I just really didn’t need to hear it. There I was thinking I’d become a better listener this past year and all it really amounted to was the lack of other conversations for my over-excited brain to tune into.

The social differences were always going to be difficult to revert back to, but one thing that has taken no effort in reverting to is the English countryside. It’s beautiful, there are no two ways about it. Miles and miles of rolling hills and fields only give way to the occasional village populated with thatched stone cottages, churches, local shops and village greens. Motorways connect towns and cites rather than just running through them, and are bordered on either side by green fields, while in Japan you have the pleasure of staring at a 30ft wall for the duration of your journey. I’m not saying a motorway is a particularly inspiring place in any country but still, anything that makes it more bearable is welcome.

My plans for this week are simple; relax, spend time with the parents, then make my way to London to spend time with my friends. It remains to be seen how much I’ll be affected by the dreaded Reverse Culture Shock, but initial reactions are good. I suspect the coming weeks will be subject to a lot of reflection and adjustment.

A Random Anecdote

I went to the burger place today. The burger place that is 5 minutes ride from my house and directly opposite the 24 hour internet cafe I used a few times a week for the first month I was here. The burger place that my (and Ashley’s) students rave about constantly. The burger place that I didn’t even know existed until last week. For a while now I’ve considered my neighbourhood to be somewhat lacking in good food options. When I first got here it was far too hot to keep any of my clothes on, let alone cook, so I spent most of my time eating at establishments in the nearby vicinity. This more-or-less meant some ok ramen, some awful ramen or some sushi or deep-fried-you-name-it-because-I-don’t-know-what-it-is from the local supermarket. But then, I didn’t know about the burger place did I? Or the yakitori (meat kebabs, basically) place at the end of my road which is always full and apparently, rather amazing. Or indeed, the Korean-style grill house a couple of blocks over which I visited on Saturday night and ate my body weight in delicious marbled beef steak.

Now I could get annoyed about this. Why do I keep missing out on the things that are important to me, I could think to myself, and it would be true in my case; relationships torn apart, friendships put on hold, funerals, weddings and birthdays missed, finding burger and yakitori places too late. My own answer to this was just an argument to support the reason I’m out here – for a challenge – but a rather brilliant and inspiring article I read recently seemed to acknowledge the above question:

To reach your goals, you must move forward, which necessitates leaving some things behind. But the man who believes he can get whatever he desires without sacrifice tries to hold onto everything in an attempt to have it all. Instead of moving forward, he is stretched out horizontally and sitting on the fence.

You cannot do something huge or become great at something if you do not sacrifice something important to you in some other area of your life; in my case, time with my friends and family in the UK, a friend’s funeral, another friend’s wedding and a whole bunch of birthday celebrations. When I leave here, I do so because my life must continue to move forward rather than stagnate; this is the greater goal.

Anyway, believe it or not I didn’t come on here today to get all deep (how does it always happen?) but rather, to tell you a humorous little anecdote about what happened on the way back from the aforementioned burger place.

You know how sometimes your mind drifts to things that are funny, and you smile, or even burst out laughing to yourself like a crazy person? I think about funny things that have happened of course, but I often make up stuff that has never, and probably will never happen. Yes, life inside my head is a riot.

I was riding my granny bicycle back home and I began to remember when I was 14, and went on a trip to Germany with the church choir. The boys among us would walk around and talk very loudly in English, boasting about how we could say anything and no-one would no what the hell we were saying! Oh the freedom! The boyish mischief! Just think of all the bold and naughty things we could say! That was of course, until a German gentleman approached us with a grin and told us that actually, most of them understood at least 50% of what we were saying. Cue red cheeks and sheepish side-glances. I then started to imagine a situation where I was back in London and walking around the tourist areas stalking Japanese people and trying to hear what they were saying. I thought about how they probably do the same thing as we did when we were 14, and about how so few people speak Japanese in London so they could probably get away with much more. To cut a long story short I heard a bunch of girls taking the piss out of me and joined in (something that I like to do frequently to the kids in my school who think I can’t hear), at which point they all start going “HAZUKASHII!” which basically means “EMBARRASSING! WE’VE BEEN CAUGHT OUT!”

Back in real life, I found this hilarious. I started to grin like a mentalist, and then even had a little chuckle completely failing to realise that, at the same time, I was staring directly into the face of a 70 year old lady on a bike coming towards me from the other direction. Rather than pedal slightly faster and stare straight ahead like any sane person would do though, she creased up her entire face and shot me a grin twice as big, threw her head back and cackled joyously. Obviously, this only served to make me laugh even more, and the result was a picture; a young gaijin and an old lady bent over their granny bikes, riding past each other at a snail’s pace and pissing themselves laughing for no apparent reason whatsoever. Passers-by looked sincerely puzzled at this little display, some visibly quickening their step; doubtless wondering what was happening to their beloved neighbourhood.

Eighteen Days Left

As he struggled to think of the word ‘sky’ and then scribbled an incomprehensible version of said word on the board, the student next to him thrust up his hand, straining on his tiptoes as he proudly displayed the word ‘sea’, gaining the first point for the other team.

“No! Sea is green!” the first boy protested.

“Sometimes blue,” I replied, and at that he stalked off to his desk muttering the word “green” under his breath before staring at everything as if he wanted to murder it all with a blunt spoon.

Such is the emotion you can generate from a game of Scattegories apparently, where I summon a student from each of the 7 makeshift groups to the board, tell them a letter and a category, and have them write a word beginning with that letter and related to that category. Cue the noisiest lesson I have ever supervised. I’m actually amazed none of the other teachers came to protest.

There’s a reason for this madness of course; I am doing my last lesson with all my 1st years. This, as it turns out, is proving to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Usually, trying to get anything out of the students in two of my classes is like trying to draw blood from a particularly dead stone, yet both of them have woken up a bit in my last two lessons. People often say that you should have no favourites, but classes are so inconsistent anyway that it’s almost impossible for one to be on top the whole time, and others are always moving around the rankings. How well a class goes depends on so many factors, only a few of which you can control. You can only make your lessons so enjoyable (or try, anyway), but in the end you’re dealing with 42 independent personalities who might be tired, run-down, happy, genki, clinically depressed or a mixture of them all. One week you’ll have a lesson filled with joy, hard work, chatter and playful banter, and the next it’ll be like a tramp just climbed into the window, crapped on all their desks and told them to f**k off.

So the usually quiet classes have livened up. What else? Well the great classes have got better. And I mean “better” in the most self-indulgent of senses in that they were visibly and audibly upset when I said that this was my last lesson with them, oohed when I left them my email address, said “thank you Bobby!” in unison, and clapped before I left the classroom. My head swelled up so much I could barely fit through the door.

Outside of school things are moving very, very swiftly towards my departure. The plane ticket is (nearly) booked for the 1st of August, all the furniture in my house needs to be got rid of, I have to fill in a billion forms, send boxes back, practice a Japanese speech for next week, look for a new job, make sure I say goodbye to everyone, etc, etc. Fortunately I have received a replacement passport for the one I lost in January so I’ll at least be able to leave the country.

It’s the life outside work that I’ve enjoyed the most, and if I didn’t need to save money to set up back home I would certainly be staying until the end of August doing some travelling, sightseeing and “famous for” meal-eating. I didn’t get to see Osaka or Hiroshima, and I would have liked to go to Hokkaido again on account of how much I enjoyed it the first time around. One of my goals for the future is to take the train from London to Japan, and on that trip I’ll be sure to visit everywhere I meant to this time around. But that is a long way off. In the meantime I’ll keep as many connections with Japan open as possible. I have many friends here of course, and I’ll be sure to keep in touch with them, but I will have to make efforts while I’m in the UK too.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to surrounded by “foreigners” again. The Office for National Statistics estimated that in 2009 there were 34,000 Japanese people living in the UK, which is approximately 0.05% of the entire population. 0.05%! I knew it was going to be hard to stay in touch with the culture but seriously; needle in a haystack. I may have to rely on hanging around major tourist attractions accosting people who, because they are Japanese and hence some of the most efficient people on earth, don’t really need directions, but forcing them to listen to my migis and hidaris like an excitable geographer fresh out of a month of solitary confinement. There are meetup groups in London too, so I’ll try and get to a couple of those.

I really have no idea what to expect when I get home, but I’ll be sure to post my thoughts and ramblings here as and when they come to me.

Reverse Culture Shock

I have 32 full days left in Japan. In this time I will have taught 11 days of lessons, gone to a birthday party, attended a sumo tournament, visited the school for the blind for the last time, partied on a rooftop terrace with all the other leavers, celebrated “Marine Day” and had my work leaving party. My Google Calendar for July is a blinding swathe of orange and blue; a boiling ocean of parties and lessons stocked with the finest fish and nuggets of deep fried mashed potatoes. I will ride the waves like a gymnast, skipping past the darkest goblins of death and leaping over waves that bite and thrash at my lowly canoe, threatening to scold and burn my very soul, and then…

August. A sea so blue and so still you cannot see where it meets the sky. The land ahead provides a glimpse of adventure yet to come, but is as tangible as adventure itself.

We recently received a letter from CLAIR (the organisation that runs the JET Programme) warning us of “Reverse Culture Shock.” I have already covered the culture shock I encountered when I got here (see Shiz Up My Uoka and Gravy Rage), but I’m finding it hard to believe that I will have similar problems when I get home. Nevertheless, they provide a number of suggestions which we can use to help us through this period of adjustment:

1) Things to do before leaving Japan

Make a list of the things that you like about Japan. This list may include aspects of Japanese culture, your job or lifestyle here, actual places or possessions, and a variety of other things. Look over this list and think about which things you can take home, which things you can try to recreate back home, and which things you must say goodbye to.

  • Ramen takes the number one spot here. This noodle soup comes in so many forms and variations that it’s simply impossible to try them all. Good, specialist ramen shops spend years perfecting their soup recipe and won’t open their shop if it isn’t perfect on any particular day. The tantalising mix of soup, egg noodles, roast pork and any number of additional toppings is a divine treat you will never understand unless you try it. I’m desperately hoping I can find somewhere good in London or I’ll be forever pining for one more fix for the rest of my days.
  • The language. I have loved learning Japanese, and I think I will miss hearing it all day every day.
  • My students. Especially the genki ones who never fail to liven up the atmosphere in my classes.
  • The good salary and low cost of living (if you don’t count the £10 watermelons and £1 apples – fruit and veg here is prohibitively expensive).
  • The Shinkansen. I still get excited every time I know I’m going to have to use it. Travelling on South West Trains will never be quite the same again.
  • The Japanese people. This one is last because I want to expand upon it, but it’s probably the most important.

Honestly there are a lot of things that annoy me in this country, but the one thing that remains constant wherever you go is the sheer greatness of the people that live here. One thing I’m preparing myself for when I get back home is that people will probably seem incredibly rude, selfish and intimidating. Many of them won’t be of course, it’s just that if you were setting the bar for polite and friendly, you would most likely start with the Japanese and work your way down from there, and after a year I’ve gotten pretty used to seeing that bar way above my reach.

Living in Shizuoka City has been an interesting experience, but this is due only and entirely to the people I have met here. The city itself is just a concrete/prefab housing jungle where people live and work. It has a pretty small city centre and the rest is a sprawling mass of suburbs and roads. There are very few parks, all the rivers, beaches and open spaces are lined and paved with concrete, and rice fields are dotted in random patches throughout the city; it is a painful reminder of the importance of good urban planning. None of that matters of course, because the people who live in it are amazing. Ask someone a question and they will stop and help. If you don’t understand Japanese they will try desperately to remember the English they learnt at school and, if all else fails, engage you in a game of shirades. They will welcome you into every shop with a smile, give you the quickest, most efficient service you have ever had and then thank you a billion times on your way out. They invite you round to their houses for dinner, offer to help whenever you even mention you have difficulty with something and if you leave your hair scrunchy in a restaurant they will chase you half a mile down the road to give it back to you and man, if I’d lost that I don’t know what I’d do.

Make a list of the people you will miss most when you leave. Think of the most meaningful way to say goodbye to each person on that list. Ways to do this may include writing a letter, going to a favorite restaurant, spending a day together doing a shared hobby, or something else.

My Mum will tell you I hate cards. When you get them as a kid, unless there’s a tenner in it you really don’t appreciate that someone took the time to go down Clinton Cards, spent 5-10 minutes picking something up, paid £3 for it and then wrote a little message in it just because it’s your birthday and they remember every year but never get anything from you, you ungrateful sod. These days I appreciate the thought but I would much rather get a phone call, then you can spend your £3 on an interesting, hilarious conversation with me rather than walk down to that bloody card shop for the umpteenth time this year. Great ne?! And by the way, aren’t card shops just the most depressing places in the world? You walk in to be greeted by fluorescent lights, dirty beige stands, an oversubscribed collection of flower & teddy bear cards (vomit) and a bunch of grumpy customers who are all pissed off because they have to spend their lunch hour looking for a pointless card that they will spend all their lunch money on and won’t ever get a thank you for.

No, I won’t make a list, and I won’t be writing any letters or sending any cards. I will however, spend a day sharing a hobby with them all at once – eating, drinking, singing and dancing. Now there’s a familiar sequence of events.

2) Dealing with change
Over the last year or more, you have changed in many ways. List some of the values or behavior patterns that you have learned. Think about which of these things are positive and which you want to maintain. Think also about which parts of the ‘new you’ will not fit in with your home country culture, and how you will deal with this.

When I went travelling the first time around, I changed a hell of a lot. This time, not so much. I’m probably a lot more confident with public speaking and much more willing to make a fool of myself (though I’m not sure this was ever a problem to begin with). The most noticeable things I will take back are mannerisms and speech which I think may take me a little while to get rid of; saying sou des ka? instead of really?, un instead of yes and sou da ne instead of yeah, I know or innit for example. Not that I ever say innit but that’s probably a more direct translation. Showing surprise at some of the most unsurprising things is a very common Japanese trait which has also managed to seep into my bones, and I can’t help but think that people back home will assume I’m just taking the piss.

Understand that your family and friends may have changed while you have been in Japan. They will almost certainly not have spent the entire one to five years sitting around waiting for you to return.

Bollocks they haven’t. Unroll that carpet and get the fanfare playing when I walk off that Jumbo Jet, people; your lives are about to begin once more!

Light Men and Lorries

I’m sitting in my kitchen right now, as I often do, after a delightful day off work. I woke up at 8:30, milled around for a while, had a cup of coffee in the sun on my balcony and listened to some new music while the birds sang in the background. Actually, perhaps “sang” is a little far-fetched. Back in England birds sing; they chirp and whistle and tweet and natter to one another in a delightful chorus that is actually rather pleasant. No, here birds don’t so much sing as screech, like the Devil’s nails on a blackboard made of hate and despair. I didn’t notice them in the summer this year; not because they weren’t there necessarily, but because their screams were undoubtedly drowned out by the sound of Cicadas, which in turn sound like a 10ft grasshopper about 2mm from your ear, all day, every day. More joy cannot be had in a non-air-conditioned flat where it is necessary to leave all the windows open day and night for fear of internal combustion.

Apart from the deathly screams of birds, I also sit here listening to the sound of workmen outside. I’ve been meaning to write about Japanese workmen for quite some time now as they seem to provide me with a never-ending source of amusement. Right when you think you’ve got them all figured out; right when everything bizarre that they do begins to seem normal, they go and do something else equally weird and equally funny.

The first people you will notice when you come across a set of workmen in Japan are what I like to call The Light Men. They are men whose job is solely to hold a little flashing light-sabre and wave it around for no discernible purpose whatsoever. You might be walking along a pavement, and alongside there might be some roadworks. There will be a little fence with flashing lights on it, all the way along the side of the pavement to stop people from falling into a hole in the road. Sensible enough. There is nowhere to go but along the pavement, but, just to make sure, there will be a Light Man there to safely guide the way and as he sees you coming he will begin emphatically waving his light parallel to the pavement, just to make sure that you don’t walk right through the flashing fence and kill yourself. It is their duty to be the friendly face of the workforce; they will say good morning, good day and good evening to you without missing a beat, and always with a smile, no matter the weather. The Light Men give me cheer in the morning.

Before I discovered a slightly quicker route to work, I would ride past a building site every morning. There would always be a Light Man there to make sure none of the cars/bikes/motorcycles lost sight of the road thank goodness, except for one morning; this particular morning I was a little earlier than usual. I turned the corner to find no Light Man and, just before I lost the road and ploughed into a nearby lamp-post, I spotted the next thing that would prove to be another source of workmen-based amusement. As I peered over the fence I saw the entire workforce, lined up in rows in front of what I can only presume to be the site manager, doing star jumps, twirling around and waving their arms in circles along to a man on a tape going “hup! hup! nen! hup! nen!” We’d been told at one of the orientations that they did this in junior high schools to begin the day, but to find a bunch of grown men on a building site doing it was too much. A smirk arose on my face at once and, just at that same moment, one of them stared at me with a look that said I had both interrupted and soiled a holy practice with one blow. Guilt flushed through my body and I rode on quickly before they could come and ask me what the hell I thought was so funny. This is a daily morning ritual for them, and is undoubtedly what makes the difference between being a good Light Man, and being the best Light Man. Who was I to mock them?

Finally, and this one I only noticed very recently, is the Reversing Lorry Man. Now I must confess that I have only heard, not seen this important addition to the roadside workforce, but his is an equally important role; maybe even more important that that of the Light Men. You see in Japan, like in many countries these days, lorries are fitted with little devices that go “beep! beep! beep!” when they reverse. Nothing remarkable about that, but Reversing Lorry Man knows that this is simply not enough for the general population. For all they know that beep could be the mating call of a Tamagotchi, or a teenager playing Final Fantasy VII at high volume nearby, or one of those Devil Birds with a sore throat. When Reversing Lorry Man hears that beep, he knows what it is. There is no question. Either by instinct or through intensive training, he pre-empts the beep and begins to yell at the top of his voice: “AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHH!” One can only imagine the number of deaths that may have arisen if this man was not a part of the workforce and so it is, with my final bloggy breath, that I salute the Light Men and the Reversing Lorry Men in every workforce around the country for keeping us safe from our stupid selves. Bravo!