Ahhhhh, keigo, the infamously most formal, polite form of Japanese, with different forms of usage within it based on whether you are humbly referring to yourself or using honorifics to refer to anything and anyone besides yourself or whatever group you represent. Considering how many game shows there are in Japan, there’s got to be one around here somewhere about which verbs to use in which settings and with which interlocutors. (After all, even Japanese people need refreshers and instructions on proper keigo use.)

That said, keigo is a very standard part of actively used Japanese, not a separate language. I suppose after nearly four years in a Japanese office this improvement shouldn’t be surprising, but there is a big difference in satisfaction between answering keigo questions correctly on N1 of the JLPT and actually using it in a way that sounds natural in daily life.

Appare-kun, for reference:

I still have yet to experience wearing one of these things, but having carried one through a backstage area full of expensive equipment to knock over was perhaps experience enough. I run into Shimanekko a lot, but my most recent encounter with Appare-kun, our modern local lord of Matsue Castle who likes to practice tea ceremony and who is married to Shijimi-hime, was when I was emceeing for his paper-rock-scissors competition with a bunch of kids (and then some) at the Irish Festival.

違う: 【ちがう】(CHIGA-u)
to differ (from); to not be in the usual condition; to not match the correct (answer, etc.); to be different from promised
Example: 違う文化について学びたい。// Chigau bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この漢字は違うよ。// Kono kanji wa chigau yo. // This kanji is wrong.

異なる: 【ことなる】(KOTO-naru)
to differ; to vary; to disagree
Example: 異なる文化について学びたい。// Kotonaru bunka ni tsuite manabitai. // I want to learn about different cultures.
Example: この名前のつづりが異なる。// Kono namae no tsudzuri ga kotonaru. // The ways to spell this name differ.

(Kanji definitions from KanjiDic2.)

I do not claim to be a kanji expert. I can usually read a newspaper without difficulty, but if you asked me to read aloud I might struggle on a few words here and there. I, like many modern Japanese people, have also forgotten how to write a lot of kanji which I used to be tested on in school because I usually type them instead of write them. It’s sort of like how proper spelling in English is said to be a dying art form.

Although I have three other cities in other prefectures that I consider additional homes in Japan due to the ties I’ve made through extended or multiple homestay experiences, I’ve never introduced myself as being from Seki, Tahara, or Hirakata. I have had the pleasure instead of introducing myself in the Kanto and Kansai regions, and even in New Orleans, as being from Matsue. I wasn’t lying, really! I was there to represent the city as one who is part of the city! Do not be fooled by my features, I came from Matsue!

Speaking of New Orleans, we just had a group visit for a TOMODACHI Initiative exchange program, the second part of a two-year grant. Last year the Japan Society of New Orleans hosted a group (and I got to tag along as part of the official city delegation!), and we got to return the hospitality this time.

The Friendship City relationship between Matsue and New Orleans, due to their shared links with Lafcadio Hearn, is now 21 years old and I’ve had the pleasure of being a key person for a very active period in their exchange history. Besides being the primary point of contact and managing all the communication and translation at official and often unofficial levels, I also teach people in Matsue about New Orleans. At first I was hesitant to do this because I had only basic familiarity with this very, very unique city, but I’ve learned a lot and got to learn even more by actually visiting there and being some of the representative eyes of Matsue. Now it is up to the group we just hosted to go back and tell the people in New Orleans more about Matsue as they saw it!

Nevertheless, I still most confidently claim that I am from Colorado Springs, and I am very happy to give presentations about my hometown too. I should still try to go to Fujiyoshida at some point and visit my own Sister City…

It’s school visit season again! I usually give presentations to 5th and 6th grade students. I’ve perhaps learned more over this process than the students have…

Seeing as I am a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) rather than an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), my “regular” schools are the ones I only go to once a year or so. Rather than teaching English, I give presentations about the US culture in Japanese. This is so that everyone can understand clearly, but as you can see, misunderstandings sometimes arise anyway. Sometimes it’s a very brief presentation amidst five presentations about different countries and then I never see those kids again, sometimes the kids do research and I get to watch their presentations later (and correct them if necessary), sometimes the kids prepare fully rehearsed welcome presentations about their city and neighborhood and Japanese culture. Technically I can be called to a school any time of year, but autumn is usually when there is the most flexibility in the academic year to fit in some extra study about other cultures, or a day to hang out and play with the CIRs.

In a ten minute presentation to elementary school students I usually focus on basic facts about the US (as compared to Japan), geography, famous places and scenery, sports, and food—everyone loves to hear about food culture! If I have extra time or if the teachers have special requests I may add other topics, like more about my hometown or weather or wild animals or what US public elementary schools are like, or we play a bilingual version of Simon Says. I’ve only gone to a few junior high and high schools, but sometimes the teachers have heard that I was homeschooled and specifically request presentations about this, and the teachers tend to listen in with the most interest (though sleeping in and wearing pajamas all day and going to theme parks on weekdays always gets an “ii na~” out of the students, too). It’s so much easier to present about vastly different topics like that when you are able to devote the majority of a presentation to it, as it gives you a chance to give it more context and to clear up misunderstandings before they even arise.

I hope, anyway. Sometimes you only learn what leads to over-generalizations and misunderstandings after inviting them. It’s a learning process for everyone.

Sometimes, I give presentations specifically about Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, and the chef and owner of Greens Baby (a social space with worldwide taste) teaches the kids to make gumbo (or at least, chop and saute the holy creole trinity of vegetables to add to the base he’s already prepared). One of my favorite school visits was one of these gumbo classes for the special ed kids, where they were really engaged in the presentation and asked all sorts of questions, and wrote very passionate thank you letters to me later. I went back a few weeks later to their school-wide concert, where they performed “When The Saints Go Marching In” and gave a little poster-board presentation to their entire school about New Orleans.

They nailed it.

I was so proud that I got a little choked up.

In Japanese working culture, going out and partying with your co-workers is a big thing. Like many things in Japan, it can be a very ritualistic thing. The opening and closing comments (which often feel more like speeches) are a necessity surrounding the multi-course meal, there is typically a lot of pouring drinks for one another, and it’s a sanctioned space where it is okay to speak frankly with your colleagues in ways you’d never usually have a chance to do at the office. American work places often have office parties as well for special occasions, but the stark difference in how you socialize in each setting is not as apparent.

That said, your boss is your boss outside of working hours as well. No matter how drunk either of you might be at the party or even more de-ritualized nijikai (after party), there is still a certain level of decorum to maintain. Even if you run into your boss on the weekend, or ten years after you no longer work together, that sort of decorum never goes away. Decorum does not mean stiffness, though. Your boss, or former boss, might show you the zaniest time at a rowdy dinner or sudden karaoke outing.

For many working adults, the past month or so has been filled with these sorts of parties, especially since there are many going away parties and welcome parties that fit in alongside the start of the new Japanese fiscal year on April 1. Some particularly high-up people look completely wiped out by the time they get to a mid-month party because they’ve been at this for days straight, and their position makes it difficult for them to turn any invitations down.

Thankfully, at least in my position as a CIR instead of a normal public employee who has signed up for a lifetime of civil service, dinner usually wraps up at the two-hour mark, and the nijikai bar outings are typically easy for me to turn down if I don’t feel like it or if I’m tired. However, karaoke is different. I have to be seriously wiped out or have a terrible schedule conflict to turn that down.

To conclude, here are just a few things I wish people would understand about karaoke:

1. It’s kah-rah-OH-keh, not KER-ree-OH-kee. Where does that ree even come from? “Ra” does not say “ree.”

2. You don’t have to be drunk, nor does this have to take place in bars. (I have always done it fully sober.)

3. Typically, it is done in private rooms for you and your friends instead of singing in front of a room full of people you don’t know.

4. That means you don’t need to wait through song after song of people who are drunk and terrible before finally having a chance to sing your warm-up song.

5. This may be because I typically go with people who enjoy it as much as I do, but most people I’ve heard sing are not tone-deaf.

One of the odd things I’ve noticed is that there is a collective hatred against celery among kids in Japan, who deem it too bitter to be likable. This comes as odd to someone who grew up in American snacking on the low flavor but otherwise satisfyingly crunching vegetable and always heard about broccoli and brussel sprouts as the evil veggies children refuse to touch (but even then, that generalization hardly seems accurate). That’s not to say kids refuse to touch it, but it has to be prepared right. When we do gumbo classes to teach kids in Matsue about their Friendship City relationship with New Orleans, the kids feel assured of the celery not being too offensive because they skin, finely chop, and saute them thoroughly and discard any unnecessary portions of the innocent vegetable. When it’s sold in stores, it’s more common to find it sold by the single stalk than the bundle.

The thought of eating it raw, much less covered in peanut butter ala ants-on-a-log, came as one the greatest shocks among many in a class I gave last summer about the role of peanut butter in US culture–which, if I do say so myself, was brilliant.

As a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations on the JET Program), I often give very general introductions in Japanese about the US at large, and if I go to an elementary school, it’s usually a brief presentation. With presentations at community centers I usually have a longer period of time to work with and go into more depth. However, twice a year or so, I get to design my own classes about American culture topics at the Matsue International Community Center.

These have been as broad as a six week “road trip” across the cultural geography of the US, to a three-part class diving into my liberal arts background by presenting the history of Japan as seen through high and low art forms of the US, to a one-shot class presenting Christmas and other winter holidays as celebrated in the US with a special focus on how Americans like to prepare hot cocoa. Like the idea of peanut butter on celery, the idea of marshmallows in cocoa never occurred to many of the Japanese participants, but they found this idea much more appealing.

Seeing as I’ve given many, many presentations to a variety of audiences in my time here as a CIR, I’ve had my share of both feeling like a rock star and feeling terribly awkward. My Japanese is usually very good and has improved with daily use, but there are times when I don’t express myself as clearly as I’d like. There are times when the reception is so good that we go overtime with questions and discussion, but other times when there is a heavy silence and no indication of whether my audience is listening respectfully or sleeping with their eyes open. It doesn’t bother me now as much as it used to, and I’ve noticed that people don’t always smile when they’re engaged in and enjoying something.

On that note, it’s February–that means JET interviews are coming up soon, aren’t they? I wonder if I have any nervous CIR hopefuls digging through the internet for advice on how to pass the Japanese portion of the interview, psyching themselves out like I was doing three years ago?

To those hopefuls, I say, “Relax! You’re going to be stared down by an audience with a genuine interest in what you have to say, but the way you read their body language will betray that completely. You’re probably going to make mistakes with your Japanese, but the important thing is to communicate effectively, not to be perfect. Your professionalism already got you to this stage, but to leave an impact, you’ve got to relax and be easy to get along with.”

And, go figure, that’s the same advice I’ve give incoming CIRs who pass the interview stage. After all, starting work was only slightly less nervewracking than the interview itself.

Now I’m mostly nervous about scaring kids with stories about celery.

Although we do have an electronic calendar, I like that most Japanese offices still have white boards specifically for breaking down the monthly schedule and keeping track of where people are or how long they’ll be out of the office.

Typically, the word 帰る (kaeru) is translated “going home” or “coming home.” This is why the typical exchange in Japanese households when someone walks in the front door is as follows:

Person walking in: Tadaima. (“I’m home”, but more literally, “Now (here)”)
Person already inside: Okaeri. (“Welcome home”, but more literally, “(You are) returning home.”)

Back when I was studying abroad, my 5-year-old host brother and I would usually have a race to see who could say something first. As soon as he’d hear the door, he’d shout “OKAERI!!” without giving me much of a chance to announce myself with “tadaima.”

In office or classroom settings or guest-and-host settings, there are different sorts of aisatsu (greetings) you’ll typically hear upon arrival, running into each other in the hall, or leaving at the end of the day. When people had work outside the office and return, they don’t always say something to announce their re-arrival, but occasionally, for lack of more appropriate phrases, you’ll hear the familial okaeri-tadaima exchange around the office, too.

Although in my years of studying Japanese the okaeri-tadaima exchange always had a distinct homey, family feel to it, but it’s not limited to such personal settings. However, although there are stricter codes of conduct in a work place, it is like a second family for many careerpeople in Japan. This is why it’s considered a necessary part of office culture to socialize together outside of work hours. Personally, I love work parties in Japan, because it’s not simply a matter of seeing more of the people I already spend more days than not with, but getting to know them in a more open setting where the goal is to be social rather than productive. Compared to my experience in US offices, it’s more like socializing is interspersed with work taking place in the break-room or striking up conversation by standing around someone else’s space, avoiding, of course, the people who make it clear they don’t want to socialize.

However, getting back to work being a second home, one of my co-workers made a comment once that really stuck with me:

“I spend more time with the CIRs every week than with my kids, so of course getting along is important.”

Besides overtime hours he pulls, his kids are busy with their high school clubs, which can run very late into the evening and require weekend practice. Then in the evening they’re busy with homework, and everyone takes a turn in the bath, and at some point everyone needs to sleep–of course he’d probably spend more waking hours with me than with his kids, even though I can typically go home at 5pm guilt-free! Not sure I’d be able to say the same if I were working in the private sector. Sometimes a CIR is more like an office resource–like an expensive piece of technology everyone can share–than a full-fledged civil servant bound to the whims of office restructures and not as strict limits on overtime hours.

The biggest difference is the term, since JET participants are only here 1 to 5 years, but a typical civil servant does this sort of work for a large part, if not all of their career, and being switched around to different sections every few years means most people get a very wide familiarity with how different offices are run, and who works were, thus increasing social familiarity across the whole government office. What’s more, unlike in American offices where everyone has their own office or cubicle or some sense of privacy, in most offices everyone’s desks are facing each other with no barriers, so everyone can see and hear each other all day long. Thus, everyone at city hall is like one big family (or so I’ve been told in the most sincere of ways).

So perhaps okaeri to the office is not that different after all.

Thanks to a shared connection through writer Lafcadio Hearn, water cities Matsue and New Orleans began a Friendship City Relationship in March, 1994. To celebrate the 20th anniversary, a delegation and ceremony was held here in Matsue last October, followed by Little Mardi Gras in Matsue, which is what it sounds like. This event–with a special focus on including children in the local community–takes place in October, so you can get your Mardi Gras fix in Japan between Carnival seasons.

I am busy right now with a group from Matsue on an exchange program in New Orleans thanks to the Japan Society of New Orleans and a TOMODACHI Exchange grant from the TOMODACHI Initiative. Click here and here to see the play-by-play on that exchange on Facebook, and in the meantime on this blog, enjoy a few photos from last year’s Little Mardi Gras in Matsue!

The school bands and bands throughout the community, in addition to their impressive performance in the parade, also played at Karakoro Square, Karakoro Art Studio, and a little further north towards the Shimance Civic Center. The music lingered through the streets hours after the parade had ended.

Regular entries will resume shortly!