Tuesday 19 July 2005, we dressed in our nice clothes, carried our own house slippers so we didn’t have to use visitor slippers, and walked to Jo-Ho Chugakko Junior High School, known as Jo-Chu. Arriving at school a few minutes early (which was really on time) we met with the principal (Coach O’Sensei). Immediately we were amazed with how generous he was… treating us like honored guests would be putting it mildly. The school day started with a ceremony in our honor, held in the main auditorium where the class sang the school song, welcomed us in English, presented us each with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and generally made a big deal of our visit. Anita, Karen, and I all had to give the briefest of speeches (hello, my name is…) and try not to sweat through our clothes. It may have been the only 500+ person standing ovation I’ve ever received.
Once classes started, we presented ourselves with gripping details like: “I like Frisbee, I work with computers, and I live in Columbus Ohio.” For the older classes (ninth grade equivalent) we also presented some “cultural items”. April quizzed the classes on our spoken English, helping them sift out details… then they presented themselves similarly, the cultural items they discussed were sometimes about their food, or music, or clothing, one on chopsticks, and one on the family kitana (sword). Some classes were overly excited, and some were overly shy… but absolutely every student we met was polite, bright, interested, pleasant, and for the most part, very good at English (at least for their age group). We were literally swarmed in the hallway, speaking and listening to the simplest of English phrases and dolling out “April-sensei dollars” as reward for their efforts. Many of the girls flirted with me, and many of the boys wished they were flirting with Anita but all three of us were star attractions… “gaijin on parade” as Karen observed, but at all times we were honored and appreciated and thanked… the whole time we felt embarrassed that we couldn’t earn the respect and appreciation that was given to us. We will probably never be able to reciprocate the kindesses of Coach O’Sensei, Naoko-san (an interning English teacher who facilitated much of our events Tuesday), and everyone at Jo-Chu, we are humbly grateful. (notice the Japanese influence?)
Coach O’Sensei was very interested in our impression of the school and words failed me, as they currently are… The school was incredible, the students both brilliant and adorable. Lunch was amazingly good, well balanced and healthy, facilitated in each classroom by the students and cleaned up by the students. The whole school was polished and clean, and we found out why – at the end of the day, the students clean up… every day. It’s a middle school, and the normal coming-of-age complications are evident in a few of the students, but at the same time, it’s so much more controlled and polite than any school in the US could hope to be. They had a gym, a pool, computer lab, shop class, home economics, and even a Japanese room for tea ceremony and ikebana. We were able to join the students in after school activities for a while as well. Anita and I played ping-pong while Karen watched April practice Judo.
I think the worst 15% of the students of this school would be the best 15% at most junior high schools in America. This over-achievement comes at a price though – these kids go to school and/or club activities from ~8 in the morning until ~7 or 8 at night, 6 days a week… Tuesday was their last of class for the term, but almost all of them will be back for most of the day, 6 days a week for club activities… it’s just how things work here… your job is most of your life… at least that is how is seems to us.
All in all, the best part of the trip to Jo-Chu for me was the intimate insight it gave me as to the personalities and lives of these children and their teachers. Being a small part of something so obviously great allowed us to see and interact with some of future Japan. The real-ness and precious-ness of this window on Japanese culture is better than any possible tourist attraction could be. Thank you Jo-Chu!
After the school trip, we went to April’s apartment, showered and changed, and went to an enki, partially in our honor and partially to say goodbye to another JET teacher who is going back to the states soon. Six Japanese members of the board of education (BOE) the four of us, and the other Jet went into a medium sized conference room at the local Onsen and were offered a ridiculous amount of fantastic food and our choice of Japanese beer, Sake, and French wine. It is the first time I drank alcohol since I was 17, and only because there were no other options. By the end of the night I had all 3 types of alcohol in mostly full glasses in front of me, and I probably drank the equivalent of 1 glass of beer… needless to say I was thirsty. What the enki lacked in non-alcoholic beverages, it more than made up for in amazing food. We ate sashimi, sushi, sausages, steak, and 3-4 other dishes I didn’t know the name of, including a very good Chinese chili-sauce shrimp dish. We were all given gifts in addition to the food and beverages, and made to feel like welcome royalty. As occasionally comes up in conversation, the fear of April’s driving was put on the table and we teased her about jerky driving and past marrs on her driving record… normal teasing, right? Wrong. The head of the BOE disappears for a while and we find out that he has called someone else who has agreed to drive us around all day Wednesday, for our tour of Koori-Machi’s sights. There was no backing out, we were given a guide / driver simply for joking about April’s driving abilities. The motivation was both to protect us and April from possible accident, and also granting us someone who would be able to show us around the town with an insider’s perspective. Loose lips get driven around by a local. As if that wasn’t enough, as we were leaving, one of the BOE members had to buy us a flat of 16 of the most beautiful tomatoes I’d ever seen, a few more peaches, some locally grown and produced apple juice and onsen boiled eggs.