Picture This…

Yes, I know…long time no post. I’ve been home in Australia for three and a half months now and paperdoll has taken a backseat to the adventures of resettling back into life here. I admit it…and I apologise. What can I say? I love being home and every time I sit down to write paperdoll I get distracted by…well…everything.

Having said that, lately the first signs I may be missing Japan have crept in (natsukashi)…it started with a craving for ramen…then there was an emotional reaction to a letter from one of my past students…and let’s not forget that living with my parents again has me pining for my 42m² Japanese apartment. Every. Single. Day.

Yes, I have begun to miss Japan and all of it’s crazy, quirky ways. But much like A Picture Says a Thousand Kanji, when I am missing Japan and need a fix, I can just picture this

Sleeping in Japan

Japanese student letter

English signage in Japan

Japanese dessert

Stretching

Dashboard

Takeout menu

Japanese antenna

Japanese fashion

Japanese Kit KatsEnglish sign in Japan

Japanese laundry

English in Japan

Japanese Hello Kitty Mask

Japanese shredder

Japanese Aquarium sign

Japanese glitter suits

Japanese Pepsi flavour

Japaese toilet paper

Japanese Clothing Engrish

Japanese fashion

Funny English in Japan

Japanese Architecture Osaka

Japanese Beauty Products

Japanese giant vegetables

Japanese sign

Train etiquette in Japan

Japanese gift explanation

Japanese fashion

Japanese trinkets

Japanese fashion

English textbook Japan

Japanese ice cream

Japanese toilet slippers

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese signage

Japanese cars

English in Japan

English in Japan

English in Japan

Japanese fashion

Japanese beauty products

Japanese toilets

The Good, The Bad and The Aussie…

In case you didn’t hear me shouting the news from the rooftops, I finally got off that island (Japan). I escaped from the bubble. I jumped ship. I got the truck out of dodge. After three years of life as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), I hitched a flight home to Australia and those people who had begun to forget they’re my family. Some of you might be wondering what will happen to paperdoll now that I’m back? Surely without 400+ junior high school kids and the perils of culture shock to contend with every day, I mustn’t have much to write about now? I beg to differ…

I’ve only been back in Australia a month, but I’m already experiencing reverse culture shock after living abroad for six years (yes, there were another three years in the UK too…my addition skills aren’t that bad). So you see I’m home…but I feel like a foreigner in my own country. Even my family can’t believe I’m back for good and I swear my mother keeps pinching herself every time she sees me (which is a lot…since I’m living with my parents again…but that’ll be a whole other blog entry).

Right now, Japan and the UK are my most recent reference points for home and Australia is this strange land I am getting reacquainted with. As I get resettled, I will continue to write about my aventures in Japan (I still have so much to say about it all) and these new experiences of reverse culture shock…or as I’m now calling it…the good, the bad and the Aussie

The Good…

My family.

It’s the end of April…mid Autumn, with winter coming…and it’s around 25°C every day. Forget hellish Japanese winters!

NO MORE SQUAT TOILETS.

Squat_toilet_Japan_culture_shock

The Bad…

Green tea in Australia sucks. Period.

Red lights actually mean stop, not three-more-people-can-make-it-through-the-intersection-still.

No road cones to feed my weird addiction…

The Aussie…

People wave acknowledgements of kindness from their cars instead of bowing or flashing their hazard lights.

I can say spesh, noice, netty, chook, suss, arvo, sanga, Maccas, cuppa and all other manner of Aussie slang and be understood.

Meat pies.

The Good…

The earth doesn’t shake every day…or…well…ever.

I don’t have to eat rice.

I now work for myself and I love it (WARNING: imminent, shameless self promotion: threefold.com.au)

The Bad…

Australia stinks…literally. After living in Japan I can’t handle strong fragrances anymore.

The speed limit is actually the speed limit.

NO ORIGAMI PAPER.

koala2

The Aussie…

Everyone is up for a chat…the postman, the checkout chick and the pizza guy…

Men. With the ability to grow facial hair. With muscles. With height. With masculinity. Enough said.

Tim Tams, Vegemite, Caramello Koalas…nomnomnom…

The Good…

Anonymity. Sweet anonymity.

One word…organic.

I keep reaching for XL size clothing in stores…only to remember I’m not a giant in this country.

The Bad…

I can feel my Japanese ability leaching out of my brain with every English conversation I have.

Small showers.

No fan club of adoring teenage kids to stroke my ego every day.

The Aussie…

Competitive sport.

Fresh, un(less?)polluted air.

Thongs are things people wear on their feet and there aren’t many Kiwis, Americans or Brits around to refute the point.

The Good…

I can enjoy a restaurant meal without having cigarette smoke billowing in my face.

I don’t have to carry a wad of cash around in my wallet (though the card charges from my first night out in Australia might make this a moot point…).

I sleep on a bed…not the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Bad…

No rainbow of KitKat flavours…though this might in fact be a good thing…

My Converse addiction will cost me double than what it did in Japan.

No amusing Engrish.

kinkakuji toilet sign

The Aussie…

Triple J music.

The Hills Hoist in the back yard…which virtually snap dries my clothing immediately.

This…

Who Cares if They’re Naughty or Nice?

Three weeks before Christmas, I initiated an ‘English Christmas Challenge’ for my students. The concept was simple…if they wrote me a Christmas story or letter in English, I would write them a reply and give them a small present in return. The only rules were that they had to write a minimum of three sentences and they could only receive two presents…any letters after that were purely for the joy of corresponding with me in English (ha).

Two days and 20 letters into the challenge, the teachers started calling me ‘Santa’ as I wandered the halls giving out presents from my Christmas stocking (it’s all about the theatrics…not the hundred yen gifts). With a total of 434 students, I started to wonder…had I bitten off more than I could chew? Come the end of semester, was I going to end up with carpal tunnel from hours of writing replies? Would I be rocking myself in the fetal position having nightmares about the 2nd year boys trying to pillage my stocking?!

I came to realise that children can be bought (quite cheaply apparently) and by the end of the challenge I had received 164 letters in total. I had been Santa to these kids and received letters from all kinds of students. From the ones who can write English in their sleep to the ones who still can’t spell their own names after three years of study. From the kid who never opens his English textbook in class, to the cute little 1st year girl who writes to me every week. The letters and the students who wrote them were many and varied, but in the end I realised… who cares if they’re naughty or nice? As long as they use English…

There were the cute letters with declarations of adoration and love…

There were the comments/pictures regarding my appearance…

There were letters about music (good and bad)…

There were the students channeling Yoda into their writing…

There were the sweet talkers (who were clearly only in it for one thing)…

Then there were the unexpected presents. Some cute…

And some not so cute (a picture of Arashi and a scrunchie)…

And some just weird…like ear buds these pellets that expanded in water?!

There were the letters to make me laugh…

There were the letters containing Engrish…

Oh and then there were the letters from the Gods…

And lastly, there were the hand made Christmas cards from my special needs students…

The experience was possibly more entertaining for me than the students but nonetheless, it got them reading, writing, listening and speaking English more than they would on a usual day.

While I am secretly glad I don’t have 20+ students writing to me every day, I was happy to receive these cards in the mail over winter break and know that at least some of the kids will continue writing for the joy of an English exchange with me…even now that the presents have dried up and Santa has retired…

Ode to Yuji

Yuji, the baseball player, with bat and glove,

The fifteen year old boy, who adorned me in love.

Yuji, school life just isn’t the same,

With you in Kyushu playing the game.

Yuji, I wonder, how are you today?

In the south of Japan, so far away.

Yuji, six months, since you left my life,

Are you cheeky as ever, causing all kinds of strife?

Yuji, I’m left, incomplete and in pain,

Without you here, to drive me insane.

Yuji, to me, you played a large part,

The only J-boy, to capture my heart.

Yuji, the others, they try to be you,

Kazuki, Ryuji and the senseis too.

Yuji, the others, they fail to be,

Your replacement, they aren’t, it’s plain to see.

Yuji, these days, no love comes my way,

No smile, no message, no sweet words you say.

Yuji, have you moved on, and left me for dead?

Those advances you made, just words you said?

Yuji, since you seem to have cast me aside,

Is there another, along for the ride?

Yuji, who is it now, you give your love to?

Some teen, a groupie…or worse, tell me true!

Yuji, what English are you learning these days?

On who are you honing your lover boy ways?

Yuji, be honest, tell me, who’s your ALT now?

Have you replaced me with some other foreign cow?!

Yuji, why bother, she’s no me, I’ll bet,

Not rolling her eyes, nor playing hard to get.

Yuji, she won’t be a challenge for you,

You need the chase, you know you do!

Yuji, forget her, this other ALT,

Get on a shink and come back to me!

Yuji, our history, please don’t forget,

Don’t let this end, in a poem of regret.

Yuji, I’m sorry, I treated you so bad.

No, that’s not true, I’m actually glad.

Yuji, you loved it, no need for lies here,

So please just come back, so we can be near.

Yuji, you’re gone, but I want you back,

My days at Omiya-chu, your love they lack.

Yuji, I miss those games we played,

Oh how I wish, you could have stayed.

Yuji, I wait for your return to me,

While you’re off playing baseball, a star to be.

Yuji, when you’re a man (and baseball pro),

Look me up in Australia, I’ll be ready to go…

A Pain in the Proverbial…

It’s no secret that Japan is littered with examples of misappropriated English…or Engrish, as we foreigners like to call it. The bane of an English teacher’s life in Japan, Engrish is everywhere…on clothing, in restaurant menus, on stationery…and most frequently…on toilet signage.

In all of those instances I can grit my teeth, take a photo and present it on facebook or Paperdoll (remember A Picture is Worth a Thousand Kanji?!) for the amusement of people all over the world. But when the mistakes appear repeatedly and right under my nose at school, it becomes a real pain in the proverbial

It seems that the teachers and students forget that they have a native English speaker at their disposal to consult in matters like these, before ‘going to press’. But this is Japan and the stubborn mistakes will persist…and besides, sometimes they get it right…in more ways than one…

The Yuji Diaries

Every now and then a girl has a special boy come into her life and sweep her off her feet. I am not that girl…and Yuji is not that boy. But, over the last two years, Yuji certainly became an important part of my life at Omiya Junior High School.

Sure, there were other boys to declare their undying devotion to me…there was Takeshi, the sensitive soul who is the ‘in sickness and in health’ kinda guy. Then there was the pervert, Shunsuke, always wanting to know ‘what colour under hair?’ I have (yes, a real charmer). I did have a soft spot for the dreamer, Kohei, waiting patiently on the sidelines for an opportunity to win me over…and lastly there was Hayate, who always came to my rescue in times of need, wanting to be my knight in shining armour.

All these boys had their own unique brand of seduction technique, but none of them compared to Yuji. None could beat the dogged (and humorous) persistence he threw into the task of wooing me over the last two years. And so I dedicate this post to Yuji: The Boy, The Baseball Player, The No.1 Comedian…

9th November 2010

Dear Diary,

Apparently I have ‘small milky breasts’. How do I know this, you ask? Well today, one of my 2nd year students, Yuji Kikuchi, was kind enough to tell me. Yuji is on the baseball team and very cheeky. I found it hard to be mad at him when he grinned at me so innocently, he was using English, and let’s face it…his observation iscorrect.He seemed to derive great enjoyment from my shocked reaction, so I doubt this is the last I’ll be hearing from Yuji…The now very self conscious,

Carla

28th June 2011

Dear Diary,

Apart from repeatedly telling me I have ‘small milky breasts’ over the last several months, Yuji has been rather quiet…until today. Clearly he realised (finally) that he needed new material to get my attention. This was actually kind of sweet…

Yuji’s new muse,
Carla

9th September 2011
Dear Diary,

Yuji was completely upstaged by the sweet words of Hayate today…

Yuji: ‘Ms.Carla, small milky breasts’
Me: ‘Yes Yuji, so you keep telling me’
Hayate: ‘Small breast, but beautiful face’

Bless Hayate, he made my day. But I dread to think how Yuji might retaliate to this blatant act of war.

Yours in fear,
Carla

14th September 2011

Dear Diary,

Well, Yuji staged his comeback against Hayate in class today. Clearly he has realised his ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’ tactics are not working on me, so now he is trying his hand at the sweet approach. His statement today:

‘I have been in love with Ms.Carla forever’ The cheeky grin was an added bonus thrown in for free…

The object of unrequited love,
Carla

5th October 2011
Dear Diary,

Today Yuji decided to go public with his love for me, and dragged me into the declaration too. His neighbour was away so I got to fill in for dialogue creation…Yuji’s grin as I walked toward his desk told me I was in for a treat. This was our dialogue…above the pink line is what we came up with together…under is what he added when I wasn’t looking…

Then Yuji volunteered us to perform our dialogue in front of the class! The more the students (and O Sensei) laughed, the wider Yuji’s grin became…and the redder my face became. Yuji was very pleased that he managed to squeeze the words ‘I love you’ out of me, especially in front of such an appreciative audience.

Yours in mortifying embarrassment,
Carla

21st November 2011

Dear Diary,

Today Yuji ramped up his efforts to win me over with his creative writing in class…

Yours with a slightly swollen ego,
Carla

30th November 2011

Dear Diary,

It came to my attention today that Yuji’s hair has become quite tall of late. Since club activity came to an end for the 3rd year students four months ago, Yuji has abandoned his baseball team buzz cut in favour of this new gravity defying monstrosity. I questioned him about his new style today:

Me: Yuji, you have a new haircut?
Yuji: Yes, you like?
Me: Umm, it’s interesting. It’s very…tall
Yuji (excitedly): Yes, yes! Chicken hair!
Me: Chicken hair?
Yuji: Yes, look chicken.
Me: You look like a chicken? Why do you want to look like a chicken?!
Yuji: Chicken hair cool!!!
Me: Okaaaay…

I will never understand the fashion trends of teenagers in Japan. Clearly Yuji is preparing himself to be one of the cool kids in high school. Quite why you need ‘chicken hair’ to achieve this, I’m not entirely sure.

Yours in Japanese fashion confusion,
Carla

14th December 2011

Dear Diary,

Yuji got hold of a speaking electronic dictionary in class today…and he found the ‘dating’ vocab section. Intermittently throughout class I had a polite American woman say to me:

‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’
‘I’m crazy for you.’
‘You’re the one for me.’
‘I love you.’
‘Can we talk?’
‘Will you marry me?’

How does this kid not have a girlfriend?! Oh that’s right, because apparently I am his girlfriend…lucky me.

The still giggling,
Carla

16th December 2011

Dear Diary,

Today I had lunch with Yuji (and the polite American woman):

‘Can we talk? I have something to tell you…’
‘It was love at first sight.’
‘I can’t live without you.’
‘Stop playing hard to get!’

The apparently ‘playing hard to get’,
Carla

11th January 2011

Dear Diary,

Yuji’s hair has reached staggering new heights (literally):

Me: Yuji, you still have chicken hair?
Yuji: No, no, no, no. No chicken hair!
Me: It looks like chicken hair. What is it now?
Yuji: (motioning a wave washing over his head)
Me: Wave hair?!
Yuji: Yes, yes, YES!!!
Me: Ok. Why wave hair?
Yuji: Because it’s coooooooool!

Whatever you say Yuji, whatever you say…

Despairing over Yuji’s wave hair,
Carla

18th January 2012
Dear Diary,
3rd year graduation looms near. In two months my time with Yuji will end. He has become aware of the fact:

Do you think this counts as my first official marriage proposal?! Mum will be so pleased, I’m sure.

The blushing bride to be (ha),
Carla

19th January 2012

Dear Diary,

This was the extent of my interaction with Yuji today:
This morning…
Me: Good morning Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Later…
Me: Hello Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Warm up activity in class…
Me: What kind of girls are you interested in?
Yuji: Only Ms.Carla. Just Ms.Carla.
During class…
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.
Yuji: Do you love me?
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes!
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes!
Me: No.
Yuji: Yes you can!!!
This afternoon…
Me: Bye Yuji.
Yuji: I love you.
Me: I know.

It now feels like we have this skit well rehearsed…

Yuji’s personal heart-breaker,
Carla

2nd February 2012

Dear Diary,

Yuji caught me with a surprise declaration-of-love-attack today:

Yuji: Standing outside the 3-4 classroom while I eat lunch. Knocks on the door for my attention.
Me: Look up to see Yuji grinning at me.
Yuji: Yells through the door (so the entire 3-4 class can hear), I LOVE YOU!!!
Me: I know Yuji!
Yuji: Blows kisses and runs away.

The amazed,
Carla

3rd February 2012
Dear Diary,
Today Yuji put in his order for Valentine’s Day…
Yuji: Hi Ms.Carla!
Me: Hi Yuji!
Yuji (thinking and gesturing madly): You…me…Ms.Carla make chocolate…me…
Me: You want me to make you chocolates? For Valentine’s Day?
Yuji (grinning): Yes!!! Ok?
Me: No, sorry Yuji.
Yuji: Yes. Ok?
Me: No.

Yuji: Yes. Ok!!!

Killer of Yuji’s hopes and dreams,
Carla

8th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today’s conversation with Yuji on the soccer field at lunch:

Me: Yuji, I hear you broke Tomoya’s arm playing soccer?

Yuji: Yes.

Me (knowing it was an accident): Why?!

Yuji (grinning): Because I’m No.1 Best Soccer Player!!! Please give chocolate.

The future No.1. Best Soccer Player’s wife,
Carla

9th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Yuji continues to be persistent about this Valentine’s business…

Yuji: Give me chocolate.
Me: No Yuji…your girlfriend will give you chocolate for Valentines Day.
Yuji: No, no! Ms.Carla my girlfriend!

The Valentine’s Grinch,
Carla

15th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Well, what do you know…Yuji got a Valentine’s surprise yesterday…

Me: Did you get chocolates yesterday?
Yuji: No, no, no, no, no! BUT I got card!
Me: Really? Who from?
Yuji: Ms.Carla!
Me: Nooooo, I don’t think so…
Yuji: Yes! I’m happy! I cry! (grinning)

Giver of false hope,
Carla

20th February 2012

Dear Diary,

The insatiable Yuji was at it again today:

Yuji: I love you!
Me: I know. But you are trouble.
Yuji: Trouble どう言ういみ?(What does ‘trouble’ mean?)
Me: (chuckling) めんどくさい (Mendokusai/troublesome)
Yuji: (grinning) I’m trouble! Do you love trouble?!

Attractor of trouble,
Carla

22nd February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today I did ‘Crazy Sentences’ with the 3rd year students. This is the gem Yuji and his group came up with…Yuji wrote the first sentence and then his loving classmates (knowing about his infatuation with me), kindly carried on the story for him…

A truly inspired piece of English literature…the legend of Yuji’s love for me will be remembered by these kids forever.

The one who apparently doesn’t like Yuji,
Carla

29th February 2012

Dear Diary,

Today was my last lesson with Yuji before he graduates. To mark the occasion, he wrote and said a speech for me:

After Yuji gave his speech he said he was sad…while grinning. I cried. Only eight more school days until he leaves my life…what will I do?!

Dreading the inevitable,
Carla

2nd March 2012

Dear Diary,

Today was my last lunch with 3-5 before graduation and fate ensured I had a seat opposite Yuji and his best mates Shu and Kenji for the occasion. We were all then treated to Yuji monologing for the duration of lunch…

I might actually miss Yuji’s ‘perfect face’ when he isn’t around any more.

Second to Yuji’s other girlfriend, Eddy Murphy,
Carla

12th March 2012

Dear Diary,

Today Yuji graduated from Omiya Junior High School. I cried. Yuji did not. In fact, since he shaved off his eye brows last week and his obsession with his ‘wave hair’ reaches epic proportions, he seems to have lost all interest in winning me over. He is all grown up and moving on. After today I won’t have Yuji’s daily professions of love to amuse me in the hallways at school, but something tells me this isn’t the last time I’ll be seeing Yuji…

The now very sad and Yuji-less,
Carla

30 Japanese School Truths

1. It isn’t a school assembly unless at least one student faints.

2. Teachers are also weather forecasters/reporters.

3. Art is an exact science.

4. There’s a meeting to arrange an assembly, to organise a practice, for the rehearsal, before an event.

5. Club activity = cult activity.

6. The tea lady sees and knows all.

7. ‘Interesting student’ is code for ‘weird kid’.

8. Everything is tested. At least twice.

9. Janken (Rock, Paper, Scissors) resolves every conflict.

10. The equipment in the copy room has been there since it’s invention.

11. Nobody enjoys cleaning time.

12. Flu pandemics are feared more than natural disasters.

13. The student who does kendo, smells worst in summer.

14. The more introverted the teacher, the more exuberant the drunk.

15. The pool is used for swimming one month of the year. The rest of the time it’s a pond for an algae growing science experiment.

16. Teachers always look busy, but rarely are busy.

17. Caffeine consumption directly correlates to levels of genkiness.

18. The label maker is the most utilised piece of technology in the teachers’ room (see Truth No.16).

19. A missing red pen is cause for widespread panic.

20. Whoever has the stickers, has the power.

21. It doesn’t matter if the answer is right or wrong, as long as it’s the same as everyone else’s.

22. All the weird kids are in the table tennis club.

23. A student isn’t ill unless they have a fever. A teacher is never ill, unless they are an ALT.

24. The teachers’ room resembles an FBI archive vault.

25. Every classroom has a thermometer, world map, dying plant and roll of toilet paper.

26. Everybody wants the principal’s job. Nobody wants the vice principal’s job.

27. What happens at enkai, stays at enkai. Anything else is fair game.

28. Mystery meat is a school lunch staple.

29. Let troublesome students sleep.

30. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The Karate Kid

My karate career may have just ended but for eight months of 2011, I thought of myself as The Karate Kid. True, my sensei was Takamura, not Miyagi and I wasn’t an American teenage boy lusting over the cute 1980’s version of Elisabeth Shue…but in many ways my karate experiences were just as bewildering and amusing as Daniel LaRusso’s were in the ’84 teen movie.
Like LaRusso, I’m tough and I am known for my (extremely) competitive nature. No one can say I shy away from any physical challenge. So it mortifies me that since moving to Japan, my fitness has taken a huge nose dive. Between the severe shortage of properly equipped gyms and a lack of netball and squash in this country, my favourite fitness fixes have been completely unavailable to me. So for a while, karate came along to patch up this great gaping hole in my life.
My friend (and personal trainer) asked me, ‘Why karate?’ Having had no prior experience with martial arts and no previous apparent interest in it either, I guess this was a fair question for him to pose. My answer…’Why not?’ I live in Japan, I enjoy Japanese culture…why not try one of their most famous exports to the world?
Miyagi: We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you, you promise learn. I say, you do, no questions.
Takamura: So you want to learn karate?
Me: Yes.
Takamura: Why?
Me: I like Japanese culture and I want to try karate.
Takamura: (unconvinced) Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, 6-8pm.
Me: Ok, I can come Mondays and Thursdays. How much are the classes?
Takamura: (still unconvinced) For you, it’s free. I make the kids pay, but you don’t have to.
Pre earthquake I had discussed the possibility of trying out a Japanese martial art (there are a few…aikido, kyudo, judo, karate, kendo) with a friend…let’s call him Mr.Ex. Post earthquake, Mr.Ex called to say he had been invited to see a karate dojo…and asked if I was interested in taking a look too. One of Mr.Ex’s teachers introduced us to Takamura Sensei and we watched our first karate class. In the months that followed, each two hour class was different and I never really knew what to expect…from my senseis, from the kids I learnt with, or from myself…
Daniel: Well, where did you learn karate?
Miyagi: Father.
Daniel: But I thought he was a fisherman.
Miyagi: In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two things: fish and karate. Karate come from China, sixteenth century, called te (hand). Hundred year later, Miyagi ancestor bring to Okinawa, call karate (empty hand).
Daniel: I always thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that.
Miyagi: You too much TV.
Daniel: That’s what my mother tells me.
Me: What kind of karate is this?
Takamura: (points to the jumble of kanji on the wall)
Me: Ohhhh…I see (clearly not seeing)
Takamura: (a week later, presents me with a Wikipedia article and the dojo-kun, complete with English translation) This is about karate. Please read.
According to the Wikipedia article Takamura gave me, I was a member of a Shotokan Karate Dojo. Shotokan karate is known for it’s three components: kihon (basic movements), kata (patterns of movements) and kumite (sparring). The first two ‘k’s’ I enjoyed thoroughly…kihon and kata appealing to the perfectionist in me. Every week, in and out of the dojo, I would spend hours trying to get the movements just right in a bid to earn an ‘umai’ (skillled) or ‘ii’ (good) from Takamura Sensei. I would often catch myself absent-mindedly practising kihon in the shopping isles or in the halls at school…much to the amusements of those around me.
Kata was absolutely my favourite part of Shotokan and while I only learned up to the second kata sequence (Heian nidan) I would quite happily repeat the first (Heian shodan) over and over. In some ways the movements remind me of Tai Chi which I practised for a brief time in high school. The combination of movements is somewhat meditative and if executed well, entrancing to watch. According to my trusty Wikipedia article there are 26 of these patterns to learn, so I didn’t make it very far into them.
As for the last of the three k’s…kumite (sparring)…it was my least favourite part of each class. Who knew it, but apparently I’m a lover, not a fighter?! I dreaded it when Takamura uttered the order to get our sparring gloves on as I knew I was about to get my butt kicked for the next 20 minutes by a black belt karate sensei. The only time I quite enjoyed kumite was on Thursday nights when Mr.Ex was attendance and Takamura encouraged me to hit him as hard and as often as possible. I mean who doesn’t want to beat up on their Mr.Ex?!
Miyagi: (showing Daniel around family dojo) Aha…here are the Two Rules of Miyagi-Ryu Karate. Rule Number One: Karate for defence only. Rule Number Two: First learn Rule Number One. 

Students: (line up and sit in seiza position)

Motoki: Quiet!
Students: (obey and become quiet)
Yoppi: (farts)
Students: (start giggling uncontrollably)
Takamura: (getting his angry face on) You must be quiet during seiza! No noises allowed. Not from your mouth, not from your butt! Karate is serious. It’s budo (a martial art).
Hikaru & Akari (twins): (looking confused) Budo? (which means grape too) Can we eat it?
Takamura: (starts giggling)
The rules of the dojo are embodied in the dojo-kun, which was read at the end of every class and is taken very seriously:
First. Seek perfection of character.
First. Protect the way of the truth.
First. Foster the spirit of effort.
First. Respect the principles of etiquette and respect others.
First. Guard against impetuous courage and refrain from violent behaviour.

Each two hour karate lesson follows the same pattern: one hour of kihon, cleaning time, kata, kumite then the reading of the dojo-kun and the giving out of omiyage (souvenirs from anyone who has travelled) at the very last. Aside from the dojo-kun, there are no strict rules. Everyone is encouraged to take the lessons seriously, idle chatter is generally discouraged and no unauthorised fighting is permitted. All rules which I saw broken every single lesson.

Daniel: Hey, what kind of belt do you have?
Miyagi: Canvas. JC Penny, $3.98. You like? Daniel-san…(taps head) karate here, (taps heart) karate here, (points to belt) karate never here.
Moika, Akari, Hikaru, Sora: (swamping me on arrival to class one day) Look, look, we all got yellow belts at grading yesterday!!!
Me: Congratulations! (heart sinking and ego deflating as I become aware I am the only white belt left in a room of people half my size)
The first time Takamura Sensei showed me some real respect was when I turned up to class in my karate-gi about two months in. I guess he figured if I had spent the time and money getting the uniform, I must have been someway serious about karate. The kids went mental too and got super excited when they saw I went to the extra effort of getting my name embroidered onto the gi…brownie points for me!
Despite Miyagi’s claims that karate isn’t about the belt…the first question anyone asks you after telling them you do karate is always ‘what colour belt are you?’ Technically I was of no colour…having not even taken the grading exam for white belt, so I was the lowest of the low. According the the progression of Shotokan Karate, the ladder to climb is this: white, yellow, green, purple, brown, black and then the levels of black belt that follow that…
One of the kids at the dojo, Motoki, is a black belt already at the age of 11. Most of the kids in Japan start karate (or any sport) from the time they are around four and are experts before they even reach junior high school. What I came to realise during my eight months at the dojo is that learning karate while young, supple and flexible is a far better option than starting when you are thirty, inflexible and injury riddled.
I would have loved to work my way up to black belt level in karate, but I’m just not sure my body would have allowed me. In no reality (this one or any other) did I expect to get to black belt in the five or so years these kids can. My lovely friend Ms. French Black Belt informed me that it has taken her the better part of the last 18 years to get to her recently acquired black belt. Judging by this scale I could have been a black belt by the time I’m around 50. With that in mind, I think Miyagi was onto something saying it’s not about the belt…
Daniel: Hey, you got a name?
Ali: Ali…with an l. Hey, what’s your name?
Daniel: Daniel…with an l.
Akari: (playing with the hairs on my arm) White hair.
Me: Yes.
Akari: (looks at me earnestly) Are you a rabbit?
Me: (rolling my eyes) Yes, I’m a rabbit.
Akari: (face innocent) Can you be my rabbit?!
Me: (sighing) Ok.
Akari: Rabbit (resuming her play with the hairs on my arm)Depending on the kid and their mood, I gained a few of different names at karate class. Hinata and her older sister Haruhi are racist and refused to call me anything other than ‘that foreigner’, while refraining from talking or looking at me as much as possible. I treated them with the same reciprocal detachment.

The rest of the kids are far more affectionate and aside from the twins (Akari and Hikaru) ocassionally calling me ‘Rabbit’, towards the end of my karate days I was mostly referred to as ‘Nene’. This term pretty much means ‘big sister’ and it gave me a little kick of pleasure every time I heard the kids say it…which was often. ‘Nene, look at this’ ‘Nene, pick me up’ ‘Nene, let’s play tag’ ‘Nene can I play with your hair?’…

Miyagi: (makes circular gestures with each hand) Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breath, very important. Wax on, wax off…

Students: (butts in the air, wash rags poised in position on the floor)
Kota: GO!!!
Students: (race from one side of the dojo to the other, screaming with glee)

Just like school, I wasn’t exempt from cleaning time during karate class. During the mid-lesson break, Takamura would utter the word ‘souji (cleaning)’ and Kota was off to get a bucket of water while the rest of us grabbed our cleaning rags. Unlike the famous ‘wax on, wax off’ scene in The Karate Kid though, cleaning time is not for the furthering of karate skills…I’m pretty sure it’s just so Mrs.Takamura has one less room to clean every day.

John Kreese: Sweep the leg. (referring to Daniel’s injured leg)
Johnny: (stares in shock)
John Kreese: Do you have a problem with that?
Johnny: No Sensei.
John Kreese: No mercy.
Sora: ‘ich, ni, san, go (1, 2, 3, 5)’
Takamura: Idiot, you missed 4! (flicks him on the forehead)
Punishment is the area of karate class where Takamura has taken lessons from John Kreese and not Miyagi. He is brutal and I pretty much witnessed at least one child cry every class during my time at the dojo. Unlike in other developed countries, Japan has yet to jump on board the ‘no physical punishment’ band wagon, so if you mess up in class you are fair game.
The punishment always fits the crime…so Sora, Yoppi and Minso (as the youngest kids) are often the recipients of the forehead flick…mostly issued for the misdemeanour of counting infringements. The severity increases from there…a light face slap will be issued for excessive talking, or distracting the other kids…two kids will find their heads being knocked together for non authorised fighting and the worst I have seen is a full strength face slap or kick to the stomach, usually issued if one of the kids continues to play up after having already been dealt a few other warnings.
Thankfully (either because I am an adult, because I am a girl, because I am a foreigner…or all of the above) I was exempt from these punishments. Having said that, Takamura still derived a great deal of pleasure from hurting me too…he just did it during sparring time. It was typical for me to have bruises along my left forearm and my shins after most classes and I was reduced to tears on a few occasions from a good head hit too. The worst was a few months back when Takamura laid a John Kreese style leg sweep on me and I took the full weight of my body on my right elbow as I hit the floor. This physical pain is nothing on the injury to my ego though, knowing that a 68 year old man had knocked me to the ground.
Official: Hold it. Only teachers and students on the competition floor. I’m sorry.
Daniel: Oh, but he doesn’t speak English and I can’t understand his instructions without her (Ali). She’s his translator.
Miyagi: (Says something in Japanese)
Official: What did he say?
Ali: He said you reminded him of an uncle of his in Tokyo.
Official: (flattered) Well, I guess it’s all right.
Miyagi: (Says something in Japanese again)
Official: What’s that?
Ali: He says you’re very kind.
Official: Thank you.
Miyagi: Welcome.
Hosogai: So I hear you are an English teacher in Omiya?
Me: Yes that’s right.
Hosogai: Do you enjoy teaching English?
Me: (sensing a trap forming) Yes I do, it’s good fun.
Hosogai: So you were a teacher before you came to Japan then?
Me: No actually, I was an interior designer.
Hosogai: Oh (taken aback slightly, but undeterred). Well I was wondering, if it’s not too much trouble, if you are able to, I was thinking maybe, if it’s ok with you, it would be a great chance for the kids, do you think you might be able to, would it be alright, if maybe you could, just for ten minutes, just at the end of the class, just a short time, if you would be so kind, could you maybe, please teach the kids some easy English?
It’s a universal truth, known to all foreigners living in Japan that it is in fact impossible to say no to a Japanese person. Especially when they spend the better part of 20 minutes building up to a request using their very best, over flowery, politely flattering language. So when Hosogai Sensei (one of our occasional, fill in Senseis) asked if I could give the kids a ten minute English lesson at the end of each karate class, I was powerless to refuse.
Secretly I dreaded the thought and feared that the kids would hate me for the forced schooling they were about to receive. I had very low expectations going in, considering that any time Mr.Ex and I even said hello to each other in English, the kids erupted with screams of ‘Eigo kinshiiiiiiiiiiiii (English is banned)’.
But, bless the little mites, they approached those ten minute sessions with more gusto than they give the two hours of karate that precedes it. In our very first lesson I discovered that there are two native English speakers in the class. The revelation came when Minji answered ‘I don’t like high places’ to my question ‘what do you like?’ Slightly taken aback by such an articulate answer from an eight year old, I questioned him about his English. Turns out he and his brother Minso had been flying under my radar for three months…failing to mention to me that they were born in Australia and lived there until last year when they moved here to Japan.
Aside from this astounding discovery, the English sessions were the best entertainment of my entire week before I quit. I got to watch 16 crazy kids beat themselves and each other silly all in the name of learning English…and trying to impress me. With body slamming, nose dives and tears standard procedure during English time, it was fast becoming one of the most dangerous part of the karate lessons each week. Luckily the kids get to continue their English lessons even in my absence, as Mr.Ex is now taking over the role for me.
Daniel: I know you don’t believe in fighting, but tournament karate isn’t exactly fighting.
Miyagi: Not exactly ping pong either.
Takamura: Are you coming to the tournament next week?
Me: Yes, I want to come.
Takamura: Do you want to participate?
Me: (starting to panic), Err, umm, sure…
Takamura: Yes, you want to?
Me: (with more conviction) Yes, I want to.
Takamura: (wanders away and starts pouring over some papers in the corner and mumbles to himself)
10 minutes later…
Takamura: There’s a problem.
Me: Oh?
Takamura: (pointing to the tournament draw) There are no other adult white belts competing, so you can’t participate.
Me: Oh, what a shame (relieved), I’ll just watch this time then.
As I finish writing this entry three months after starting it, much has changed for me in regards to karate. Over the course of winter break I thought long and hard about my future karate career and whether I could dedicate myself to the art long term. It was a difficult decision to make, but as my goals and aspirations for my final year in Japan take shape, I realised that karate does not have a place amongst them.
Takamura Sensei and the kids were graciously understanding about my resignation (the ANZAC biscuits helped soften the blow) and I have been told I am welcome back any time for a visit. I have every intention of taking Ms.French Black Belt to the dojo for show and tell on her upcoming visit to Japan and I will pop in on the kids from time to time just so they don’t forget who I am. It was great fun being a Karate Kid for a while, but I think I’ll leave the serious stuff to Miyagi and Daniel.
Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?