Thursday, March 24, 2011

Graduation Day

On Wednesday I attended my first elementary school graduation as an ALT. It was kind of sad that I could only attend one of them, since they were held on the same day. Fortunately it was the school with the 6th graders that I knew and got along better with over the past few months.

The graduation ceremony, as with any other Japanese ceremony, was very formal and systematic. I think most Americans witnessing one of these events would think that it was a very 'boring' and 'tense' atmosphere.

From the time the graduates started coming in, everyone applauded until the entire class reached their seats. The procession was very precise, from the way they walked in to the way they turned to walk in a different direction and so forth. Once the class came in, the applause stopped and that would be one of the few times you would hear clapping for the rest of the ceremony.

The students--especially the girls--looked so wonderful all dressed up. The cuteness of the girls in their ruffly plaid skirts, dark blazers and cute hairstyles would put AKB48 to shame. One girl, who's a bit of a tomboy, came in wearing a gray suit with slack shorts down to her knees. Some of the boys were already wearing their junior high school uniforms (I love those high collar jackets!). I had wished that I was graduating with them!

Unlike most ceremonies in the U.S., speeches did not come until after the awarding of the diplomas. I'm used to having to sit through a number of long speeches before getting to them, so I was surprised when the diplomas were the very first thing on the list. While most people in the U.S. would end up applauding after every single name called (unless there was an announcement NOT to do so), here it was simply expected to remain silent as each person stepped up to collect their diploma. After that, there were two speeches, one from the principal and the other from the head of the PTA. After the principal's speech, there was a video of a congratulations from Japanese baseball player Saito Yuuki. I was pretty impressed that they got him to make a video message, and I wasn't sure if it was just typical of Japanese elementary school graduations or if it had something to do with the fact that the principal's son is a sports anchor for Fuji TV in Tokyo.

In addition to the parents, school-related officials, and staff, other attendees included the 4th and 5th graders. They were responsible for helping to set up, as well as singing a song for the students and collectively reciting a farewell speech to them. I realized how important it was for them to be there, because the three grades will be together once more when they all enter middle school. The sempai-kouhai ("upperclassman-lowerclassman") relationship in school is very important in Japan, from the very beginning all the way through high school. When I was in elementary school, I never really knew any of the students above or below me, except for my brother who was three grades ahead of me and the kids who lived in my neighborhood.

Towards the end was a slideshow of the 6th graders with photos of them from 1st grade all the way up to now. Since teachers rotate schools so often after 3 to 6 years, I was wondering if any of the staff was even here during the graduates' first two years at the school. As the slideshow went on, each of the students narrated part of a speech about their memories at the school, field trips and the like.

At this small school, where there is only one class per grade (with the exception of the current 4th graders, in which there are two), I realized that this class of 32 graduates had been together every single year, and friendships were probably very tight. Unlike with my school--which was probably four times the size of this one--and even many other schools here in Ono and the rest of Japan, these kids didn't have to think about who was and wasn't going to be in their class the next year. It was always them from the beginning. As I watched the slideshow, I sort of envied these kids, but not for long. I ended up going to three different elementary schools, with one friend remaining by the time transferred to my third school in 5th grade. By 6th grade graduation, I felt fortunate that I had made so many friends in such a short time, and that they didn't treat me like an outsider just because I didn't know them for as long. Some of these people I met in 5th and 6th grade are still my friends today.

As for that one friend I had left when I moved, she has been my best friend for the past 16 years. I had realized after I moved that I really didn't feel like I was truly friends with anyone at my first school. I was well-known throughout each grade, but it was only for being somewhat of a teacher's pet. I ended up not keeping in touch with any of those people, but my best friend had faithfully called me and wrote letters all the way up until internet and then driving became accessible for us.

Anyway, that's beside the point. The point is that these 32 kids have been exclusively together for so long up to now. This will change when they enter middle school, since they'll be mingling with the kids from my other school (at least; I'm not sure if there are any other kids going to that middle school).

After the slideshow, the kids sang a song in front of the stage, and then thanked the staff for taking care of them, and that's when their teacher surprised them by telling them that we the staff were going to sing a song for them in return. As we began the song, I looked at some of the students and some of them looked pretty surprised and were smiling. Then after we were done, the 6th graders sang one more song before the ceremony ended. The very end of the ceremony was probably the most unusual part ('unusual' as in different from America): After everything was over, the vice-principal just said  "The graduation ceremony will now come to a close!" and there was absolute silence and stillness, with the exception of the mechanic sound of the stage curtain lowering automatically.

After that, the students proceeded out of the gym as we all applauded once more, which was just like my own graduation. One thing I'm glad I did have was the after-graduation party at school. I think these kids all went home with their parents and then probably had a nice dinner at some restaurant, which is cool too.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Few Comments on the Situation in Japan.

I've been keeping up with news coverage on the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and now nuclear crisis since it happened, pretty much from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep.

Things have been normal out where I live, in the Western part of Japan's main island. I've been going to work, and the students have been coming to school. I was in Kobe on Sunday and everything seemed normal, with the exception of people standing on street corners asking for donations to help the victims of this disaster.

While humor in the light of a dark moment can be good, there are some things that are simply not okay.

For one, anyone who says this crisis was "payback for Pearl Harbor" are uneducated and just outright ignorant. Uneducated because obviously you weren't paying attention in history class when your teacher was telling you about the a-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. You also weren't paying attention to any incident occurring in the U.S. (ex. 9/11, Hurricane Katrina) in which Japan helped US out. Ignorant because obviously not all citizens of Japan were responsible for what a few military officials decided to do. You guys are the same idiots who think that all Muslims are tied to terrorism.

Next, with that douchebag writer from Family Guy, Gilbert Gottfried and that rapper who isn't worth the two U.S. quarters in his name. How about instead of making jokes, you actually donate some money to help out? By the way, none of those jokes were funny; not only because this is a huge tragedy we're talking about, but also because they weren't clever in the least.

I'm watch TV and see Japanese people talking to the camera, asking for contact from their families and friends, looking for people who are still missing, and grieving. Smiles and laughter are good, but not when they are at the cost of someone's loss or tragic misfortune. Have a heart--think about how you would feel if you were in this situation. I'm not saying be depressed 24/7 either. But making fun of tragedy is tasteless, childish (though even children would be more mature than that) and insensitive.

Next, for the scores of people overseas who are either worried about getting overseas radiation or about people living in other areas of Japan. Take the time to read this note that someone named Paul Atkinson wrote on Facebook about the current situation. In short, even in the WORST case scenario, the radiation is highly unlikely to spread as far as areas like China, California, and India. In fact, even Tokyo is not quite at risk as people make it out to be (though I completely understand evacuating that area for safety measures). Iodine pills in California is just plain ridiculous. It's kind of sad how hysterical people will get about what they hear, instead of seeking more information about the facts of the situation. I understand the concern, but asking people who live all the way in Western Japan to come home is not necessary. Demanding exchange students to come home is one thing, but cancelling study abroad programs not happening for another several weeks is not necessary.

My own parents are concerned about me and have been contacting me frequently, but I am happy that they are actually listening to what I have to say and that they aren't demanding that I come home because of something that just happens to be in the same country. Japan is small, but it is not microscopic. A disaster of Chernobyl proportions (which this is NOT) would prompt me to leave. But not this.

This "come home, U.S. is safer than Japan" attitude irks me a bit. I know that those who were living in the eastern region have made a perfectly fine choice by going home to the U.S. temporarily. But rest assured that other regions of Japan are okay, and should someone make the decision to relocate to the west instead of going home, please respect their choice and continue to support them. We are not ignorant to the situation. In fact, I'm sure a lot of us living in Japan is probably researching the news even more than you are. I have been doing so from dawn until dusk (except for when I'm teaching classes of course) and that is why I feel assured about my own safety.

Those of you in Cali, if you just bought a ton of potassium iodide supplements, you have wasted your time and money. Or while you're at it, you can go ahead and put plastic wrap and duct tape on your windows and doorcracks to seal yourself inside the house, free of radiation and eventually free of oxygen :)

Last thing I'll say is, if you care about the situation and want Eastern Japan to get back on its feet quickly, donate some money at http://www.redcross.org/ or http://www.globalgiving.org/.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Using my cell phone (WAON) to pay for things.

Some of you may have heard the stories of people in Japan using their cellphone to pay for groceries, as a train pass, and buying drinks from a vending machine. When I moved to Japan for the second time, I decided that I was going to take advantage of as many things as my phone had to offer.

Pretty much all Japanese cellphones these days have a function called "Osaifu Keitai" (wallet cellphone), which uses the Sony Mobile Felica IC touch reading system. The Felica symbol looks like this:





Now, let's talk about WAON. I first learned about WAON when visiting a grocery store in Ono, and figured it was just some membership to rack up points while grocery shopping. I didn't intend on using WAON, but then while looking for mobile applications to use with my cellphone, I found a WAON app, so I decided to try it out. At AEON-affiliated stores, they offer a lot of deals for WAON users, so I figured it would help me out if I started using it now for the time that I'm in Japan.

I will explain how I set up my phone (REGZA T004 with au by KDDI) to use WAON. If you have Softbank or NTT DoCoMo and want to try this, I can't really help you in detail but the procedure might be similar. Also, please learn some Japanese if you can't really read that much, unless you're like me and know how to figure things out without knowing what certain Kanji mean.

The first thing I did was download the WAON app. When you launch the app for the first time, you'll see an explanation of Mobile WAON and JMB Mobile WAON. If I'm not mistaken, JMB WAON will give you Mileage points instead of WAON points. Scroll down past this message and select which WAON service you want to register (I'm assuming you want the regular Mobile WAON).

When you get to the application page, fill in your name (last name first, of course) using Katakana in both the Kanji and Kana fields. It also asks for your phone number, e-mail address, and I think your residential address as well. Once all of the fields are filled in, confirm it. You may or may not get a confirmation e-mail of some sort; I didn't get one on my phone even though I turned off the mail filter temporarily.

The next part took me a bit of time to figure out. If you end up exiting the app right after registration, when you launch the app again it'll start all over and make you think that your registration didn't go through (it actually did). So once you register, proceed to your nearest WAON チャージャー (not WAON ステーション), which is likely at an AEON-affiliated department store. The thing about Mobile WAON is that, unlike with WAON cards, you can't charge it with money via credit card (you probably don't have a Japanese credit card anyway), so you have to charge it with cash.

Charging is easy. At the WAON Charger, you just follow the directions on the screen. Place your phone on the Felica symbol and the machine will read it, and tell you that you have 0 yen and 0 points if it's your first time. It'll then ask how you want to charge, cash (現金) or credit card. Choose cash, start inserting as much money as you want. The last time I used the charger, it was only letting me put in one bill at a time, so I had to charge it three times to put in 3000 yen. I think the max is 20,000 yen, I think in the span of a month. When you're finished, press the blue 入金 button. You'll get a receipt and you're done. If you want to check your WAON balance, just open the WAON app and it'll show you.



Using the WAON reader to pay is also very simple. If you're at a cashier, just tell them that you're using WAON to pay, and then touch your phone to the Felica machine. When you hear the sound of a dog's bark (hence the name "waon") it means the transaction went through. Congratulations! You've just made a purchase using your cell phone.

Of course, you can also buy a WAON card, which costs 300 yen and requires no registration. And if you're ever concerned about not having enough money on your card, you can charge right there at the register--just ask the cashier. Yesterday I bought a few items for the apartment, and noticed a sign on the counter about charging the card before making a purchase. So I asked the cashier, and she just asked how much money I wanted to put on it. Then I made my purchase, and voila! I ended up not going home with my items.

Why?

Because they were too big for me to load onto my bike ^_^ So I asked to have them delivered to my apartment. The items were a metal rack for the kitchen, a black curtain, and a cushion for the couch. The box and the cushion were just too big for me to even want to try carrying them home on a Monday night.

So anyway, that's WAON. There are other similar payment services such as Nanaco and Edy. If you're familiar with Suica, ICOCA, and other smart cards for the train and other stores, WAON is just as simple. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask. Next I want to try mobile Suica, but since Suica is mainly for Eastern Japan, I can't really use it right now. I already have a Suica card anyway so I'm not even sure if I need it.