Archive for December, 2009


So, this is Christmas…in Japan: conclusion

Next April will mark the first graduation where I will have known the students from the time they nervously and excitedly crossed the threshold of the school for the first time until they tearfully and optimistically cross it for the last time. And, man oh man, am I going to be a wreck come that day watching this group go. It’s one of the hardest and yet most fulfilling parts of being a teacher. I mean, we’ve basically grown up together; I as a professional educator in a foreign country and they as blossoming young adults. Together we have navigated and traversed the academic challenges and social perils of Junior High School life and came through it all scathed but the better for it (we’d like to think.) We have survived.

Within that class there are several students with which I have forged special bonds. One student, who I will call Baba-san for the purposes of this post, never ceases to surprise me. In fact, I think he gets off on it. He is the progeny of what can best be described as a human music library. His father (who I’ve yet to meet but hopefully will at the graduation ceremony come March) must be something like my father was. Loco-San Senior, my dear old dad, may he rest in peace, was a truck driver in his head, but a Jazz guitarist in his heart. He had a music library of LPs (Albums) that would make any collector drool, mostly jazz, R&B, classic soul and funk.

When he and my mother separated perhaps one of their biggest battles was over his treasure. Keep the kids but give me my records please. They settled on half or so, he splitting with most of the jazz and leaving her with the majority of the genres. But, half was A LOT of music. What he couldn’t depart with he recorded onto giant reel-to-reel tapes (about as big as a movie reels. The funny thing is I have an Ipod now that holds more than 10 times his entire collection.) His collection was my introduction to music and believe me I tried to listen to everything he had, and studied the album covers and liner notes. When I was a kid I could tell you who the Ohio Players dedicated I want to be free, too.

Baba-kun is a Japanese version of me. A virtual walking encyclopedia of, shockingly, the same music I grew up on. He’ll see me in the hallways, run up on me singing  (in hardly comprehensible katakana english of course) Games people play a Spinners hit from the early 70’s, screaming “Shitteiru? Shitteiru?” (Do you know it? Do you know it?)  Back in his first year I became aware of his vast musical knowledge. He knows the songs, the artists, the bands and the name of the band members and even some of them by the instruments they play.

He’s a senior now and I’m gonna really miss him. He’s given me so much he’ll never know. He’ll never know how many times I’ve walked into the school after a particularly rough train ride, just seething with animosity for all things Japanese, having revoked, in my heart, their membership cards in my idea of the society of decent human beings relegating them to a status that previously had only been obtainable by rapists, child molesters, corporate polluters, Nazis and the KKK. Oh, and the IRS. Then, I’d run into him in the hall with his shitteiru shitteiru song of the day which would be something like Hot fun in the Summertime by Sly and the family Stone or Try a little Tenderness by Otis Redding, and he’d redeem his entire race.

“What christmas songs do you like?” I asked him in early November.

“Well, my favorite is The Jackson 5’s Give love on Christmas Day…”

I stood there gaping mouthed astonished, as usual. This was a song from the Christmas album I loved most as a child.

“Do your classmates know it?

“I don’t think so…it’s my mother’s favorite. She loves Micheal Jackson.”

“You should tell them about it…”

“Why?” Sharp kid, he smelled what Loco was cooking.

“We can sang it in class maybe…”

“You want me to suggest it to Kawaguchi sensei?

“Maybe…if the other kids like it, it might be fun.”

And, Baba-Kun did just that…he brought in an Minidisc of the song and played it for all the class and they petitioned Kawaguchi-sensei. Almost too simple.

We sang the song and the kids seemed to get off on it  (-: Some were even doing the back ups in baritone like Micheal’s brothers.

Takahashi-sensei, however, was not so simple. She had the first year students I mentioned in a previous post, and they were not inclined to even sit down during class let alone sang a song.

I had to be a little more devious.

I had prepared everything for an alternative song, The Jackson 5’s I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. I presented my materials to Takahashi but she’d already prepared everything for yet another year of Wham (she still had the originals from last year). 

The day we were to introduce the new song, though, there was a problem. The CD wouldn’t play for some reason. And, unfortunately, she didn’t have a back up. She was panicked….this was a solid 15-20 minutes of the day’s lesson plan.

“Let’s use mine. I already have all the materials ready. They’re on my desk.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea,” she said, considering the alternative. I ran to the office grabbed my CD and lyrics handouts, with the Japanese translations, all copied and ready to distribute, off of my desk, and returned to the class.

While I was in the office she’d explained to the class that we were going to learn a different song.

Maybe it was Micheal Jackson’s childish yet soulful voice that appealed to them. i don’t know. But, they loved the song.

Even Matsui-kun sang.

Takahashi-sensei never questioned what happened to her CD. CDs cease to operate all the time, don’t they? (-;




So, this is Christmas…in Japan pt.2

After my dismal defeat two years ago, last year I tried another strategy. If I couldn’t get them to change the playlist on the strength of the songs I was suggesting, I thought maybe if I could somehow defame the songs or the artists that sang them then maybe they’d be a little more open to my recommendations. So, to this end, I used to walk around the school whistling and/or singing Christmas tunes like The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York and Prince’s Another Lonely Christmas (the long version). These are a couple of my favorites but I knew they were inappropriate for the kids. I threw on my best mask of cheer and good will towards men and waited for one of the English teachers to take the bait.

“What’s that you’re whistling?” Takahashi Sensei asked me last year while we were discussing the December lesson plans.

“Oh nothing…only one of the greatest Christmas songs ever made, that’s all.”

“Really? I don’t know it. Who sang it?”

“Prince and the Revolution.”

“Oh, I know Purple Rain. He’s great!”

Btw, I’m a die-hard sleep in the rain for tickets Prince fan so when I encounter these “He hasn’t really made anything good since Purple Rain” people my first instinct is to shove my I-Pod headphones into their ear drums and blast them with some Sign of the Times or Emancipation or any of a number of other hot albums he’s done since then that these Purple Rain fans missed. It seldom works, though. They’re a hard hearted lot usually.

But, I maintained a smile and said, “It was a B-side of a Purple Rain single.”

“A  B-side?”

Takahashi Sensei is all of 24. She wouldn’t know nothing about B-sides, cassette tapes…hell she might now even know what a Walkman is.

“Long story…anyway, it’s great.”

“What’s it about?”

“Well…” and this is where I start my maneuvering. “Ummm, well, it’s about a guy who misses his girlfriend who died on Christmas day.”

“Oh, that’s so sad…”

“Isn’t it? Every Christmas he drinks their favorite drink, banana daiquiris, and cries and wishes she were, um, next to him intimately and…”

“Eeeee…is it…sexual?”

“Well, a little. I mean, it’s Prince. You’re a Purple Rain fan…What do you expect?”

“I don’t think a…well one of those songs is appropriate…I mean…”

“Well, what do you think Last Christmas is about?”

“Eeeee….it’s about, ummm….Christmas, deshou?”

“Yeah, kinda…I mean, it’s about a guy who had a Christmas night one-night stand with his gay lover who doesn’t even remember him a year later.  I mean, if that’s appropriate, I don’t see why…”

“Are you sure?”

“Well, George Micheal is gay so he ain’t singing about no one-night stand with a woman, that’s for sure…”


“I understand, though. I mean, he is an artist- a great one at that-and a poet, to be sure, but come on,” I said, and then sang: “A man undercover but you tore me apart…not very subtle is he?”

Apparently I’d stumped her. Nevertheless, the result: she pretended the conversation never happened and continued to play the song and have the kids sing the lyrics. However, when ever the song reached the part when George Micheal talks about being undercover and being torn apart she’d glance at me and pout her cheeks.

I tried the same thing with Kawaguchi-sensei, who favored Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you. We sat down to the formality of discussing what song we should use, though we both knew she had already made up her mind 80%.

“How about Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song,” I suggested, going through the motions.

She screwed up her face into a mask of confusion.

“Nat-to Kin-gu Co-ru? Shirimasen.” (I don’t know him)

“He’s very famous, and it’s a very famous song, one of my favorites.”

“Uh huh…is it about…um…Cristo?

“Who? Jesus? No! It’s about … well, it’s not about anything really. It’s just a Christmas song about christmasy things…”

“Uh huh…”

I whipped out my I-Pod. “Here, take a listen,” I said handing her the headphones.

“Ah sooo! Shitteru, shitteru!” (I know it, I know it!)

“It’s very famous,” I reiterated and braced myself. I knew the routine.

“…But the students don’t know it, I bet.”

“Well, then they can learn something new. They might get a kick outta that.”

“Sou da ne…demo saaaa…( That’s true, but…) and she made a face of helplessness that pretty much sighed it’s out of my hands and signaled the end of the meeting, at lest for me it did.

I had planned to get into Mariah’s mental meltdown and purported drug use at the time but I’d felt petty suddenly and said fuck it and prepared myself for another season of Mariah’s high frequency ululations I think only dogs or pre-teen girls should be capable of accomplishing.

Yep, last year went by without change…and I was so distracted by the changes going on in my own country (Obama, Mr. Change himself) that I really didn’t even care so much.

This year, however, I came up with the master plan! And I wouldn’t have to talk about John Lennon’s acid use or anything like that…The answer was simplicity itself, and, like most of the answers to life’s puzzling questions, right in my face the whole time…

Loco (-:

to be continued…

PS: Mariah was awfully cute wasn’t she?

My co-worker didn’t recognize her and asked me if she was Japanese…hmmmm

PPS: Here’s the Pogues’s Fairy Tale of New York with the lyrics…


So, this is Christmas…in Japan pt.1

I work at two Junior High Schools, alternating every two weeks. And since each school has 3 grades and ideally 1 Japanese English teacher per grade, I work with no less than 4 and no more than 6 Japanese English teachers each year. Some years (like this one) one of my school’s  incoming first year classes has fewer students than usual and so the school uses two English teachers instead of three, and the two of them have to take a grade each while splitting up the teaching duties of the remaining grade. At the other school there are 3 Japanese English teachers.

Throughout the year most of the teachers have incorporated English language songs into the learning experience. At the beginning of each class an English song is played on a boom box and the students, with the lyrics in English and Japanese on a paper before them, sing these songs, or at least attempt to. These songs are, without fail, songs they are already familiar with either through their use in popular Japanese films, TV shows and commercials, or because the singer has garnered international appeal that has somehow managed to reach the relatively tiny demographic of early teens living in Yokohama, Japan. This song changes once a month and by the month’s end the students either know it or they”ll never know it.

Where am I going with this?

Well, come Christmas time I find myself annually imploring 4-6 Japanese English teachers to please Please Please diversify the Christmas song selection.

The staples / standards at the school, and indeed anywhere you go in Yokohama / Tokyo, are as follows:

A- Wham’s Last Christmas

B- Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you.

C- Tatsuro Yamashita’s Christmas Eve

D- John Lennon’s So this is Christmas (War is over)

When you go to department stores, office buildings, ride in elevators, walk through some train stations, eat at fast food or slow food restaurants…almost anywhere, you can hear instrumental versions, covers or the originals of one of these four tunes whispering softly in your ears like some kind of musical stalker…like Big Brother Christmas.

Throughout the year I wage vigorous campaigns to alter the other staples- a seemingly random selection of songs, some Beatles songs, an Aerosmith song here, a Queen song there, and throw in We are the World and a few others, but I noticed during my second year that these songs were being used again and again. They were not random at all.  I also noticed there was a resistance to my suggestions of alternatives. Pretty soon I gave up. Resistance was indeed futile.

But, come Christmas, I have to amp it up a bit because while the annual selection of staples is broad (by comparison) the Christmas selection has been relegated to the above four tunes…

This year, I decided it was Do-or-Die. I was going to get them to switch or die trying (figuratively speaking.) I started planning my incursion just before Halloween. I sat down and looked over the two previous year’s failed attempts, asking myself the question: why did I fail.

I hadn’t noticed the redundancy until my second Christmas at the schools. Standing before a class, trying to fend off the urge to sob I feel every time I hear that chorus of kids singing war is over in John Lennon’s anti-war Christmas message (While you celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, your turkeys and X-Mas trees, please remember the world is a fucked up place where innocent babies are being napalm’d.) Sometimes I even tear up and the kids wonder what’s up with Loco-sensei. Listen to that song long enough and it’ll make you wanna take a stand for all the children of the world and go to Afghanistan and stand in front of a tank. Looking out at my students I could tell that they were not experiencing anything vaguely similar. In peace-loving Japan, Lennon’s message of peace on earth is essentially preaching to the choir, an overstatement of the obvious, clearly aimed at thick-headed westerners, Chinese and North Koreans. So, here, it’s become more of a cute commercial jingle.

At that time I had no idea how fixed the teachers were into these selections. I mean, sometimes they’d even come to me for recommendations, so why wouldn’t I think change was possible? I remember Kawaguchi-sensei specifically getting at me because she too had felt that here was a great opportunity to introduce the kids to songs popular with kids in Loco-Sensei’s corner of the world.

But, I’d fucked it up…being the cultural chauvinist I used to and continue to be at times.

I mean, I haven’t celebrated Christmas in the traditional sense since I was about 7 years old. That would be the year my mother, in her infinite wisdom, introduced Kwanzaa to us. We never looked back. Well, that’s not true…We looked back, that is my siblings and I, but  my family as a unit never went back. We missed the toys and trees and lights and anticipation of Christmas morning, because my mother didn’t ween us off of the yuletide crack pipe, she ended the tradition Cold Turkey, dragging us away kicking and screaming. One year there was a Christmas tree, with lights and a star atop and presents stacked beneath it, and the following year there were 7 candles each representing some principle in an African language, a basket of fruit and a bunch of crazy songs sung by a bunch of miserable kids who longed for Kris Kringle and the joy the day would bring…the reflection in the mirror revealed that these miserable kids were me and my sibs.

“Loco-sensei, can you recommend a Christmas song that we can use for the class?” Kawaguchi-Sensei had asked me that day.

I racked my brain for 30 seconds or so, thinking of a simple song the kids might get into. “How about The little drummer boy? Do you know that one?”

“A little…what’s it about?”

“It’s about…um…it’s about a…well…a little boy who plays a drum…um…for Jesus. Yeah, on the day Jesus is born he plays the drum.”


“Jesus Christ…you know, the reason for the season…” I’d remembered that line from some gospel song or other.


“Well, there are two Christmases you know…there’s the Santa Claus Christmas and the Jesus Christ Christmas, and they both have their own songs…” I swore at the time I was teaching her something, but actually all I was doing was telling her that it’s simpler just to go with the safe staples like George Micheal, John Lennon and company, and avoid all this Western religious foolishness. “Like for instance, you know “Silent Night” right?”


“That’s another song about Jesus…” I said, starting to feel a little uncomfortable with all this religious talk. I usually avoid it but for some reason I felt it was important to point out to Kawaguchi-sensei the significance of the music. “Now, songs like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman…these would be songs just about Santa Claus and enjoying this time of year. Nothing about Jesus.”

“Uh huh…”

“So, do you prefer secular…er…un-Christian songs or Christian songs?” I asked. “I like both kinds, personally…but I recommend the secular ones for the students.”

“Really, why?”

“Because they probably aren’t going to understand the Christian ones very well unless they understand Christianity and I’d wager most of them aren’t Christians, right?”

“No, they aren’t.” If regret could be personified it would look like her at that moment.

“And I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a missionary…”

“A what? listen, Loco-Sensei, I think we’re going to just stick with….”

Yes, my attempts to change the music selection that year were a total failure.


to be continued…


¥15000 for Ice Cream

Saturday I was sitting with my student in the outdoor cafe of a Starbucks in Tokyo. It was a beautiful day…perhaps the last warm day of the year. We’ve been meeting every Saturday for over 3 years now so it’s less a teacher-student relationship than a friendship.  I usually don’t do much on Saturday afternoons, and he’s pretty high level, so an hour-long lesson can easily turn into a 3-4 hour chat (no extra charge of course) and often does. Saturday was one of those days.

After a couple of hours the conversation had begun to wind down. He asked me was I OK because I wasn’t being my usual talkative self.  He actually knows me better than most people in Japan.

“Oh, sorry, I’m a little distracted…Hey! Maybe you can help me,” I said.

“Who, me?”

“Yeah, you…I’m trying to think of something to write about, but…”

“For your blog?”


“Hmm….” he said, and started thinking. “Difficult. You’ve covered so much already.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

Meanwhile, at the curb a few feet away a BMW pulled up. Along the curb there was a green railing / fence, which was either there to deter people from crossing at any point aside from at the corner or because parking there was illegal, or both. It was an older BMW, maybe from the 90’s or early 2000s. I noticed the rims weren’t clean and the interior wasn’t leather, and that it hadn’t met a diaper lately-maybe ever. It hadn’t even seen a car wash in a while. And that struck me as unusual…I mean, if I had a BMW I’d clean it regularly and hand wax it with a diaper.

And, I realized that I rarely if ever see old cars, hoopties or junkers in Japan. Back home MOST cars were old, and junkers were everywhere. Late model cars stood out. Used, worn, beat-up cars were the norm.

“How about NY? I’d like to read about NY…why don’t you write…”

“Already did that, remember?” My student has been an avid reader of my blog since its inception a year ago. “I wrote that comparison between NY and Yokohama. And I also wrote about going home after having lived here and how that changed my feelings about NY and what not. Remember?

“That’s right, I remember…that was really good!”


There was a young couple in the BMW. He parked far enough from the rail that she could just open her door and slide out of the passenger side. She was cute and fashionable, and dressed like an erotic ballerina- a not so graceful Sugar Plum Fairy who shopped at Frederick’s of Hollywood or Victoria’s Secret and had traded in her ballerina flats for 2-inch pumps. She had long legs, a short tu-tu,  thigh-high dark stockings, and I’m pretty sure I peeped a garter belt as she got out.

“You know, you could write about how things in Japan have changed for black people since Barack Obama became president…”

I looked away from the BMW to my student’s face. “Have they?”

“Haven’t they?”

“I haven’t noticed any difference…” I said and turned back to the BMW just in time to find the girl staring at me. When she realized she was staring (it took a moment, she was mesmerized) she jerked her head away and looked up the street at something I couldn’t see from the cafe.

“Have they changed?” I joked.

“Yes we can,” he said, and laughed. “Someday, anyway. But I think Japanese people are at least more…er…interested in black people.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Well, that’s something…”

The guy emerged from the driver’s side moments later. He was handsome. Looked like a freshman Salaryman or a University student soon to graduate. He was dressed casual in jeans, a collegiate hoodie, sneakers, fussy hair- moussed or gel’d- and expensive sunglasses. He took a quick look around, a less than quick look at me, then gestured to his girl to head up the street. They had to walk in the street because of the railing. He could have easily hurdled it but she couldn’t have without lifting her legs and putting her business all in the street. The closest opening in the fence to come onto the sidewalk was at the corner. They disappeared from view and I turned to my student.

“Maybe I could write about how things haven’t changed at all in Japan 1 year into the Obama administration,” I said.

“I don’t know…maybe,” my student sighed.

Just then, 2 traffic patrol guys walked up to the BMW. One stood in front and wrote into a pad. The other headed for the rear of the car where he took several pictures of the license plate.

I’d never seen a parking ticket given in such a way… “You see this?”

My student surveyed the scene. “Yeah, they’re giving that car a ticket…”

“I know, but damn. The driver and his girlfriend were just there. They just went that way. That’s fast. It’s like they were waiting for them to leave.”

“They probably were…”

“That’s just foul,” I snapped. “I mean, even in NY, a city perpetually in the goddamn red, if the cops see you about to park illegally, they’d warn you off. They’ve always warned me off…if I had known it was illegal to park here, hell, I would have warned them off!”

“There must be s a sign somewhere…”

We both looked around. No sign anywhere.

“But, they’ll give them a few minutes to come back. They’re just preparing,” my student said.

“Really?” and just as he was saying it, the two patrol guys stepped back over the rail and onto the sidewalk and huddled for a moment…still writing and discussing and observing the car.

“What, is this like a grace period?” I asked. All of this fascinated me.

“What’s a grace period?”

“It’s like when…” but just as I  began to explain, the two of them climbed back over the rail and the one that had been writing stuck the ticket first on the driver’s side windshield then removed it and replaced it on the passenger side windshield. Then they turned, marched to their truck, got in and drove off.

“That wasn’t five minutes…that was more like one minute.”

“Well 5 minutes, give or take a few minutes…”

“That’s so fucked up!” I said. “How much is a parking ticket usually?”

“About 15000 yen.”

“Wow! That’s steep!”

Just then the couple came back…apparently they had gone to Baskin Robbins / 31

PBA Card

Flavors up the block. They both had cups of ice cream. They got into the car without noticing the ticket on the windshield, or maybe they thought it was an advertisement or something. When the guy finally noticed the ticket on the windshield, he didn’t have much of a reaction, so I figured he was either rich, a cop, or son or brother of a cop and had the Japanese equivalent of a PBA card. PBA cards work like magic back home. You can get out of paying tickets easily…

He asked the girl, who had been eating her ice cream with this thing on the windshield in front of her and hadn’t even noticed it, to hand the thing to him.  The girl reached her hand out the window and peeled it off the windshield, handing it to him. Now came the natural reaction: he freaked out. I couldn’t read his lips, but when he took their ice cream cups and dropped them out of the window of the car, and took off, I knew what he must have been thinking: 15000 yen for ice cream! FUCK ME!



Fazing and Hazing in Yokohama: conclusion

Life here in Japan has slowly but surely re-wired my sensibilities as well as my expectations of people; in particular, kids. So that now, what wouldn’t have even been picked up on my radar a few years ago, sets off all kinds of bells and whistles: people dropping trash in the street, talking loud or talking on cellphones on the train, my roommates playing loud music at night, etc, etc… According to my old sensibilities, these were all misdemeanors, but with my re-wired sensibilities, they are definitely punishable felonies.

As was Matsui-kun’s throwing stuff at Takahashi-sensei…

Looking out at the crestfallen faces of my students, I regretted my overreaction and wondered how it could have come to be. Yes, I was in defensive mode- practically on suicide watch- when it came to Takahashi-sensei. I didn’t know if having things thrown at her by students would push her over the edge but it couldn’t have helped that’s for damn sure. Besides, I knew it was important for us to present a united front against the unruly masses, show that we had each other’s backs. Especially now because, to me, the object tossing represented an unacceptable escalation in  bad behavior, and needed to be put down and deterred. He had to be made aware that that kind of thing was not going to be tolerated…and Takahashi-sensei certainly wasnt going to do a damn thing. Someone had to do something.

But, aside from the power struggle going on, to be honest, I was a little hurt. I mean, he had really won me over. The bond we had was short-lived, but it lived. It was real. I liked his hugs the way my mother likes my hugs. I really like physical affection and I loved the way he ran and jumped in my arms when he saw me. It made me feel more human, and in a really dehumanizing society like Japan has been for me, I had, without really noticing it, looked forward to it every time. I didn’t care that he was a knucklehead and liked power. I like knuckleheads, and I like power, too. Some of my best friends were knuckleheads at some point but either grew out of it or learned how to put it to good use.

So, I guess you could say I kinda missed him already.

Matsui-kun stared at me for a long time after that, his face frozen in an odd expression somewhere between befuddled and despondent. He was really starting to worry me. Maybe the shock had been too much for him. Or, maybe he was simply thinking, plotting his revenge. After all, he’d lost face big time and he knew that the class was waiting to see how he would handle this situation. Perhaps he’d never been challenged before by a teacher. His henchman, Satou-kun, watched Matsui-kun with an open-mouthed gape. Occasionally he would look over at me with darkness in his eyes. I made a mental note to watch my back around that one.

Takahashi-sensei was walking around the class checking notebooks while I stayed up front trying to look relaxed and pretend like everything was normal, hoping this whole situation would just blow over and be forgotten. Pretending that all the tension I felt and the drama playing out in my head was just that: imagination. I do that sometimes.

However, when Takahashi-sensei reached Matsui-kun, she must’ve realized that he, and in fact the entire class, had been silent for going on 2 minutes or so which was unprecedented. She looked around the room at the various students then at Matsui-kun’s frozen stare at me and asked him what was wrong.

“Loco-sensei pss pss pss pss pss pss…” he whispered, another first.

Takahashi-sensei face dropped. She turned to look at me, then back at Matsui-kun, then down at the floor where the yellow piece of chalk lay, now crushed- no doubt beneath Matsui-kun’s slipper. Then, back at me. Then a light in her face went out…and I knew that whatever ideas I had about a united front were dashed.

When she rejoined me at the head of the class she whispered, “Loco-sensei? Matsui-kun says you threw chalk at him?”

Her tone was incredulous. Not like she didn’t believe him but like she couldn’t believe what I’d done. She was as shocked as the students. Though it was hardly a question I almost denied it. She probably still would have believed him.

“Yeah…” I said, after a moment’s hesitation. Then added, “but only after he threw something at you!” I said this in English and hoped she understood it was done in her defense. But her tone was all, Say it isn’t so, Loco… shock and disgust-laden and guilt-inspiring. It was like she hadn’t even heard what I said.

I peeped over at Matsui-kun as the bell sounded for the end of class. He was still sullen and looked on the brink of tears. I felt pangs of panic-tinged regret coursing through me. What the hell have I done?

I collected my unused teaching materials lost in the contemplation of going and apologizing to him. I had been out of line, after all. Then, I caught a glimpse of movement in front of me and looked up.

It was him.

“Loco-sensei, I’m very sorry I made you angry!” he cried at a barely audible volume.

“Eeee!” I snapped. “What?”

“I made you angry, right?” he said a little louder, his Japanese like a toddler’s Japanese. “And…I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”

“Uhhh…” Just then I caught a movement behind me in my peripheral and I wheeled around ready for a surprise attack. Satou-kun was back there, but he also wore a mask of shame. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there with his head downcast.

“Kochira koso,” (I’m the one who should apologize) I said, turning back to face Matsui-kun. ” I’m sorry.”

“No,no,…” He bowed and gave me a hug without looking up, his head against my stomach. Then he turned and marched out of the class into the hallway- Satou-kun in tow- without even a glance back. I stood there trying to figure out if this was some kind of ploy or had his apology been genuine. Had I neutralized him with a piece of chalk? Was a brief flash of my anger enough to make him re-think his position?

As I made my way downstairs to the teacher’s office, I felt like a heavy burden  had been lifted off of me. On the steps I whistled Wham’s “Last Christmas” one of the staple Christmas songs here in Japan (for some reason.)

When I got to the office I noticed that Takahashi was already there. And, as was becoming a common sight, she was being chewed out and fazed by Kawaguchi-sensei. I wondered what the matter was but I had learned to keep my distance from my buddy when she’s getting in Takahashi’s ass about something.  Like I said, she’s like a different person. It’s kind of spooky. I felt sorry for Takahashi, as usual. She looked like she was being bitch-slapped by a pimp. The other teachers in the office were pretending not to notice this, but it was like not noticing a total solar eclipse. It was the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the room.

From what I could gather from hush tones that rose and fell, Takahashi-Sensei had handed in some report late causing  blah blah blah to be  blah blah blah-ed. More of the same shit. Kawaguchi-sensei ended her harangue with an awful funky, malicious “Ne!?” and walked away from her. Takahashi-sensei took her leave of the office, probably to run to the bathroom and cry. Poor thing.

My desk is next to Kawaguchi -sensei’s. As she passed by I put my head into a text-book and tried to act like I didn’t even know she was there.

“Loco-sensei,” she whispered. “Chotto kite ne.” (Come here for a sec…)

I followed her out of the office and into the conference room across the hall. Kawaguchi-sensei usually does this when she has something important to tell me that she doesn’t want the rest of the staff to know about.

She sat me down. “You know…Takahashi-sensei, she told me about what happened with the student in her class.”

“She did!?”

“Yeah, she told me that you threw a piece of chalk, and it hit Matsui-kun…is that what happened?”

“Yeah, basically…he threw something at her and I kinda lost my…”

“He threw something at Takahashi-sensei?”


“She didn’t tell me that part…”

“It’s not important anyway…I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.”

“Yes, please be more careful…”

“I will…”

“Yoku Wakatta!” (I get it now!) She snapped, and laughed. “Ne, ne…” she whispered in the echoing conference room we were in, looking around like she was about to let me in on a great secret. “She told me about that when I brought up her latest fuck up. I tell you she is a sneak and a liar but I know you never believed me, deshou? (right?)!  Hora! (See!) She was trying to get me off her back using you, deshou?”

“You really think so?” I asked, but it made sense.

I’d like to think this kind of shit wouldn’t faze me. I mean, corporate New York (where I worked for 7 years before coming to Japan) can be as cutthroat as it comes. But, I guess because my sensibilities have been re-wired, I have to admit: I was fazed. Syougannai jyan (whatchagonado)

Anyway, I won’t be back at that school until next January after the winter vacation, so I won’t see my little buddy Matsui-kun nor whatshername: the dime-dropping fuck-up with the tits, until next year.

Loco (-:


Fazing and Hazing in Yokohama pt.3

From our first meeting on, this had become our routine: I’d come to the class a little early and catch him rattling windows with his vociferous screeching and menacing other students…upon seeing me, he’d stop whatever he was doing, holler, “LOCO-SENSEI!” and run-jump into my arms, all hugs and an irresistible quality.

Having routines with students was not unusual. I have about a couple dozen students with which I have a greeting routine, many consisting of some variation of the pound or the pound hug. They’ve seen in umpteen movies that black people have some of the coolest handshakes and most of the students had memorized their favorites and were dying to try them on the real thing, you know: me. Some of these handshakes I recognize, and remember the movie, video or TV show that gave them international fame, but some of them were obscure. Some of them, when produced by a sixteen year old Japanese boy, surprise the hell out of me.

I’ve taught some of my students one of my all time favorite handshakes: The “Fresh Prince of Belair / Jazzy handshake.” They love it!

But, Matsui-kun simply liked leaping into my embrace, like a loving son might do upon his beloved father’s return from a prolonged business trip abroad, or a chimpanzee might do when his favorite trainer shows up with a tasty treat. I think that’s the feeling he might have tapped into…something paternal and protective, because when I saw him I was all cheesy grins and open arms.

Yep, he’d found my weak point and charmed the hell outta me.

His charms didn’t work on Takahashi-sensei, though. She saw right through him for the terrorist that he was. He was a non-conformist, something I found admirable but Takahashi called, “trouble” almost from the start. It took me a little while to see through my rose-tinted lenses, though. I was still seeing Spanky, not Damien.

Spanky, from "The Little Rascals"

Damien from "The Omen"

But it wasn’t long before I saw the “666” birthmark behind his ear.

One day, a couple of weeks into the semester, he decided that English class was recess, the classroom was the playground, his classmates were his flock, and  Takahashi-sensei was the Jungle Jim, the see-saw and the swings…almost metaphorically speaking. I mean, he didn’t actually ride Takahashi-san, not physically anyway, and his classmates weren’t exactly overly willing participants, but the rest is a non-metaphorical description. All learning or even pretense at learning basically ceased to happen.

I’ve been at this for a few years now but until this year I’d never had a class like this. My co-workers would tell me horror stories and I’d be like, “that happened in Japan!?” “You’re exaggerating!” “C’mon…that’s bullshit! Ain’t no student spit on the teacher…get outta here with that!’

At this point, I should mention that I don’t work for the school, but for a contractor the Board of Education hires to provide English teachers for the schools in their district. And, the company I work for has handed down certain guidelines regarding reprimands and disciplining students. And, to put it simply, the rule is: Don’t! Don’t touch them. Don’t  scold them. Don’t even think about touching them or scolding them. It’s not your job. Leave it to the Japanese teachers.

My first year at the school, there was an isolated incident where one student who was being bullied by another finally had had enough and went after him, in the middle of the class, with a pair of scissors.  As I approached the student with the scissors stealthily from behind, the Japanese teacher practically dived in front of the damn thing to stop him from slicing the other. The way he had thrown himself into the fray led me to believe that maybe the Japanese teacher’s guidelines say something to the effect of: in the event of an altercation, if there is blood spilt it had better be yours, or heads will roll.

So, when I walk into Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, and see Takahashi-san trying to go through the motions of teaching a class, almost on the brink of tears or collapse, while the class is going…well, berserk, according to my guidelines that come from on-high, I should allow this. But,  fortunately, I didn’t have to, at first, because most of the students were a little intimidated by me. Either by my maleness, my height and girth, or perhaps even my blackness was a factor. All these factors conspired to keep these rascals in check. But, one day, it didn’t matter anymore. It only took me a moment to realize how I’d been neutralized.

Yep, you guessed it: it was Matsui-kun, with all his running and leaping and hugging he’d shown all who’d been intimidated that Loco-sensei ain’t nothing but a great big Teddy Bear. Like Poo-San (Winnie the Poo), only SUKEBE!

You gotta give him credit, though. He’s a bright kid. I watch him, sometimes. I watch how he manipulates the other students. One of the advantages of not being afraid to be in the limelight and having a very big mouth and no reservations about saying anything that comes to your head to anyone, students and teachers alike, is, in Japan anyway, you’re un-common. Damn near a working-class hero. Add to that he’s naturally charismatic with a Joie de Vivre, daring, funny… Yep, half the class was wrapped around his finger and the rest kept their mouths shut.

And, if challenged, he was merciless- before, during and after classes.

Last week, in the middle of my lesson, while I was getting the students to repeat some English phrases, Matsui-kun kept taunting another student, twice his size, sitting clear across the room. Telling jokes and making insults. Most of the class was laughing and the rest wanted to. At one point, the target of his derision said something I couldn’t understand. To be honest I can’t understand much of what they say- maybe 50% at best- because the kids speak in code and slang and sometimes the Japanese equivalent of Pig Latin, so it’s virtually impossible to catch everything unless you’re a thirteen year old Japanese student. But, whatever he said must have rubbed Matsui-kun the wrong way because at that point he got up, stood on his chair (he’s really short) and threw his pencil-case, with a little mustard on it, at the other student, who took the blow upside the head like he’d had it coming, his comeuppance for challenging Matsui-kun. Then Matsui-kun asked politely, at volume 10, for the student to return the case and don’t you know he got up and brought it back to him. Matsui-kun accepted it and thanked him with a nod/bow, like this was  just the way it is and there was nothing either of them could do about it.

Then he looked at me. I’ll never forget his eyes that day. He was smiling that same 1000 watts of love smile he always shines on me, but his eyes…There was something there, like wisdom. Not like an adult’s wisdom, but definitely wiser than I feel comfortable with any child around me being. That look broke the bond between us, I think. At least for me it did.

The next day when he saw me in the hallway and came running, I side-stepped his leap.  He landed on his feet like a cat, turned on me, and the smile was gone, replaced by something that was always there but somehow I’d missed it before; something dark and unforgiving and calculating. It was only there for a moment, just a flash of the real Matsui-kun, I think.

Then he turned away and ran down the hallway like the incident had never occurred.

The next day he threw something at Takahashi-Sensei…and I threw a piece of chalk at him.

“OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH!” the entire class exhaled aloud.  As shocking as it was for me to see something being thrown at the teacher, it was even more so for the reverse. Students looked like I had taken a dump on him. Their looks were so shell-shocked I actually got scared and thought, “Oh fuck, what have I done now.”

Takahashi-sensei turned around from the board at the sound of the students and asked, “What? What happened?”

None of the students said anything, Not even Matsui-kun, So I said, “…I’ll tell you later.”

And you won’t believe what happened next…


to be continued…


Fazing and Hazing in Yokohama pt.2

A little about Matsui-kun.

I remember the first time I met him. I came to the class prepared to do my usual introduction lesson, where I talk about myself, in the simplest English possible, while showing pictures of my family back home in the US. In most cases this is the first interaction with a foreigner so I try to make it a pleasant experience and as entertaining as possible by hamming it up a bit. I always intend to withhold the fact that I know Japanese because once they know that, well, what’s the sense of trying to speak English some of them conclude…that is, those who hadn’t come to that conclusion before they even walked in the door.

But, inevitably, I slip up by responding to something said in Japanese unwittingly or saying something only someone fluent in Japanese would say, or even behaving the way speaking Japanese modifies one’s behavior. Kids pick up on the slightest things.

Matsui-kun picked up on it first.

Matsui-kun is the smallest kid in the class and has the happiest disposition of anyone in the class, maybe any student I’ve ever met; genki (energetic) to the Nth degree. At first glance you get the impression that he’s trying to compensate for his stature with his character,  like some Japanese-version of the Napoleonic complex. Only he does it with a great deal of charm. And, you almost root for him, want him to be successful. He laughs and jokes non-stop and only speaks with the volume on max.  One of those kids you’re more likely to use gentler words like rascal or  mischief-maker than menace or delinquent. Everything except his size reminded me of someone I knew.

It was clear from that first day who the leader of this class was going to be. Most of the students knew each other already having mostly come from the same elementary school, and Matsui-kun had probably been the leader back there, too. I didn’t think about any of this that first day, though. I was too busy trying to make a good first impression to seriously assess the students. But, Matsui-kun…he was assessing me, aloud.

“LOCO SENSEI! YOU CAN SPEAK JAPANESE CAN’T YOU,” he yelled in Japanese with the kind of joviality that is hard to resist, joy in every word.

“A little,” I said, giving my pat answer.

“YOU’RE LYING!” he snapped with a raucous giggle. Then he jumped out his seat and started addressing the class. “HEY EVERYBODY, THIS GUY CAN SPEAK JAPANESE…BETTER WATCH WHAT YOU SAY!”

Takasashi-sensei was there beside me. This was her home room but I could see in her demeanor that she had already relinquished control of this class. Somehow, in the week before this first lesson, Matsui-kun had pulled a coup d’etat and while she remained the figurehead lame duck Empress, he was Shogun. But,don’t think for a moment that this kind of thing is unusual. It isn’t. In Japanese schools, the teachers pretty much let the kids do what the hell they want and because of the respect elements in the culture generally that means study hard and behave accordingly. But, maybe 10% of the time, at least in my experience, there are classes who decide that they’d much rather run amok, and do.


Since the cat was out of the bag, I said, “I’ve been living here for 6 years so…”


“…what?? that’s none of your business. Listen, sit down and let’s…”

“…LOCO-SENSEI SUKEBE! (horny / lecher) HA HA HA HA HA HA!”

Everybody laughed. I glanced at Takahashi sensei, again. She turned bright red and started scolding Matsui-kun. Her scolding fell on deaf ears, though. Half the class was held enthralled by Matsui-kun’s audacity while the other half seemed embarrassed or too scared not to laugh. Matsui-kun scanned the room while he held forth from his throne. He apparently siphoned energy from his audience. Then, he turned to me.

“LOCO-SENSEI, GOMEN NE (I’m sorry) Matsui-kun cried at the top of his voice. He jumped up out of his seat again and ran towards me and jumped in my arms. I caught him instinctively, and he gave me the warmest most affectionate hug I’d ever gotten from a student, even warmer than some of the girlfriends I’ve had in Japan. I was dumbfounded. Here was this little rascal in my arms, hugging me about the neck like it was the most natural thing in the world; I actually thought he was going to kiss me on the cheek. He was light as a toddler and I didn’t let him down immediately. It was a moment. We had bonded, somehow. At least I felt something.

And, I realized just then who he reminded me of:

He reminded me of me…when I’m drunk.


to be continued…

Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

Words I love…

Everybody is a star
I can feel it when you shine on me
I love you for who you are
Not the one you feel you need to be
Ever catch a falling star
Ain't no stopping 'til it's in the ground
Everybody is a star
One big circle going round and round

Words by: Sly Stone

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