Gender Identity In Japanese and Western Culture: The Definitive Something or Other*

25 11 2009

Today I spent another day with my Junior High School students. It was a good day. But as I stand there often not involved in classes except to read for the students to repeat (human tape recorder, we call it), I get to observe my students. This is always an interesting way to keep my mind occupied.

As I stand there, I frequently notice that the boys in the class have some very “girly” school supplies. Minnie Mouse Folders, pink pencils and plenty of other things. Why is it that guys in the US think that these types of things would make them less “manly”? Why is it that American society deems these things “girly?” Why do we have to separate things and jobs as feminine or masculine?

The differences continue outside the classroom. Construction equipment here is often cute. Elephants, frogs and monkeys hold up bars to keep people seeing the edge of the road. The lifter things that help people reach power lines, painted like giraffes.Why is it that construction equipment at home is never painted in pastel colors? Or pinks? Or any of the colors we deem “feminine?” Or is it because animals are “childish?” If that’s the case, who quit liking animals after they were an adult?

In the states, we also seem to classify jobs this way. How many male elementary teachers have you met? There are usually one or two at any school, clearly outnumbered. How many women do you know going into computer science? I know a handful, but I know way more men. Why is this? Didn’t God give us each unique talents and abilities? Why would women not be able to do some jobs and men not be able to do others?

I may be crazy to share all of these thoughts, but at home I get annoyed when the boys in the classroom think they can’t be good at reading or writing because they’re “girl subjects” (or sometimes even school at all), or when a girl thinks she can’t be good at math or science because they’re “boy subjects.” Students seem to choose this way of thinking all the time (or did when I was subbing).

I’m not trying to say that women should be better than men at everything or vice versa. I just get annoyed with the way we box things into gender. Why are school supplies, colors, school subjects and professions categorized into genders? They have no gender. They’re inanimate objects.

Will we ever be able to disconnect these things from gender? Would lifting these boxes that we have put ourselves and those around us in change anything? I’m not sure. I would hope that it would make everyone help to be themselves. Help them to dress in the colors they want to. Help them to do a job they love rather than shying away from it because it’s not something they should be doing.

*Title thanks to: Elizabeth, author of Futons, Fish, and Ferries and one of my regular blog editors





English Class today

13 11 2009

Today I got to visit what is probably my favorite school, mostly because when I go, I get to spend the entire day at the school and really get to know the kids (which is incredible). The students are one sixth-grade boy, two third graders (girl and boy), three third graders (2 boys and one girl), two second grade girls, and two first-grade girls. They are an insanely fun group.

I was informed about the English lesson moments before going into the classroom. The teacher wanted me to pronounce the cards with the animals on them and then read the story. That got my brain going. If I was going to read this story, which the students weren’t likely to understand all the words to, how was I going to keep them engaged? (Keeping students engaged is always a big question for me, because it cuts down on management problems).

We got into the classroom and I asked, “How are you?”, “How’s the weather?”, “What’s the date today?” (the regular set of questions). As usual, most of the students do not know the month to be able to say the date. I have one third grader who seems to be particularly gifted in English who can almost always answer the question (maybe he studies at home?).

Then we pronounced the words, kids repeated (pretty standard way to start). After some questioning of students on the words, we moved on and played karuta. Karuta is a game I was introduced to in my high school Japanese class. The teacher calls a word and the first kid to slap the flash card wins it. The kid with the most cards at the end wins. We played a few rounds, with me being silly at the end and calling random non-animals (like carrot) when there was only one card left, to see if they were really listening.

After Karuta, came the story. It was about animal noises. To solve my earlier problem, I decided to pass out the cards with the animals. Each student was responsible to hold up her/his card when she/he heard the animal’s noise.

Please remember that as they were being asked to do this, most of the animal noises that we use in English are different than the ones that Japanese people use for animal noises. So as we went through the story, a few of the students held their animal up for every noise, until they got it right, and a few actually tried hard. They stayed engaged the whole time though. That was the best part; I didn’t lose any students while reading a story which most students didn’t understand.

Morning light
My view a couple of mornings ago.





Confessions of a Junken player

12 11 2009

“You’re a strong Junken player” is what one of my students said about me (as translated by the English teacher). The funny thing is I have learned how to win or lose at Junken in Japan on purpose.

Junken, for those of you not in Japan, is Rock, Paper Scissors. Japanese people have an incredible chant that goes with it, I don’t completely have it down and I’m pretty sure I’m mis-pronouncing the words when I do say them.

Different from home though, is the fact that EVERYTHING can be decided by Junken here. Which team are you on for a sports game? Junken. Who just won the card in the game we’re playing as a class? Junken. I’ve even heard rumors that it’s used in Japanese business meetings (obviously I’m not present, so I’m not so sure).

Anyways, I figured out that I can decide whether to win or lose when I was first playing with students shortly after arriving. It was about a week after school started and all the elementary students from my four small schools came together at Shimokanayama Elementary, for a grand total of 29 students.

On this day, we had a big tournament where each time you won, people hooked onto your back and you kept going with this train of people behind you. Well the first few times I didn’t really have the chant down and I didn’t know when to show my symbol. So somehow, I ended up with paper. Then I realized I was winning each time. My elementary students were always playing rock first.

I thought, there’s no way, someone has to play something different. But can I win the whole thing only playing paper? Sure enough, who was the winner? Me. So in a battle against teachers and students, the foreigner who was playing for the first time in Japan won. Awesome!

Today, we played a game that used it as well. It was a game where we had flash cards laid out and the two teams were starting at either end of the line, when they met they had to say “Dom!” then Junken (used as a verb here). The loser went back, their team started from the beginning, and the other team continued. The goal was to get to the other end.

I based what I played on where we were in the line. If I was less than half way through, I would play paper and win, if more than that, I would play scissors and lose, giving the students who aren’t native English speakers a fair chance. Most of the time this theory worked. My team never did get to the other end, but I did find a few students who played something else and won or lost when I wasn’t expecting to.

At the end of class, students share their impressions. One girl commented that I am a “strong Junken player.” I had to laugh on the inside because she must have just met me each time when I was “winning” rather than “losing.”





Should vs. Had Better

10 11 2009

Today, my JTE asked me the difference between these two ways to say the same thing. At first my response was they’re exactly the same. They do mean basically the same thing, but then I continued to ponder this. If they’re exactly the same, why does the students’ use of “had better” sometimes strike me as strange?

My thinking continued. Where do I hear “had better?” It seemed that I usually hear had better from older people. I was thinking like grandmother types. I continued to ponder. Does that mean it’s English that older people would use? Or does that make it English that you use to someone who is younger than you?

When do I use it? It seems like I would usually use it with someone if it were something that was super important for them to do or there would be bad consequences. For example, “you had better take your coat” (on a cold day). Except, I think I would still use should. Where would I use this phrase? In what contexts would I use this phrase? I’m still not even sure.

The eventual explanation I decided on, was that you’d use had better with people younger than you and should with your peers and for older people, I’d usually stick on an “I think” (i.e. I think you should . . .). Even that, seems a little funny, because I rarely choose to use “had better” and would use should almost across the board, with a few exceptions.

What do you think? Was my explanation right? Are my thoughts crazy? (probably!) Is there something I’m missing or an official explanation somewhere?