P.S. If you didn't read 'swimming through sasa,' it is very happy and entirely uncritical, and might be a pleasant change after this post.
Randomata: In my class of 12 year olds, on the desk to my right, a student's pencil bag displays a cheerful and happy Minney Mouse. On the desk to my left, a black case features a playboy bunny with the word "PLAY" written simply beneath it. Over that way, a boy's notebook displays a green piece sign; the boy next to him has chosen a marijuana leaf - though I suppose these aren't all that different.
These borrowed symbols - the playboy bunny in particular, but many others as well - are quite popular here, adorning clothing and children's stationary supplies alike. Of course, that these symbols have the same meaning here is questionable. If I asked the boy what the marijuana leaf signified, it's a toss up if he'd know or not.
In a similar vein, the two most prized English four letter profanities are occasionally used by teachers and students alike, without quite the same intensity or intention. They know these are slightly inappropriate, but don't necessarily understand that "F*ck You" is suggestive of and contributes to an antagonism between two people - to put it politely - which is most undesired in the classroom.
I was a little more surprised when we watched part of an old Kevin Costner movie in class, "A Perfect World," which involved violence, blood, and death. Blood is understood in all languages, so in this case it's not simply that the significance was lost in translation. Perhaps because the violence is tied up in western symbols in the movie, it is considered both worthy of observation and yet distant from the students. Students can not reach through the symbol of a gun in American culture and pull the trigger in reality - there simply aren't guns in every house here. Playboy might slap the sticker on its merchandise, but the students only borrow the symbol for its western origins, not because they wish to advocate pornography.
Where have I thought, and what have I been?
I have talked to friends a little bit, and discovered that I am not all that unique. What I mean is, many ALT's feel varying degrees of the contemplative depression surrounding our work roles here. We each have our own ideas of how to improve our immediate teaching situation, as well as the english education system of Japan on the whole - and this after only two months of teaching! Apparently, we're very precocious novices. No, of course we don't necessarily know better than the scores of intellectuals who crafted the curriculum, or the multitude of bureaucrats who formulated the JET Programme. We are, I suppose, just venting random thoughts created by our first impressions here. For example, a couple people have suggested that it might be more worthwhile for the government to send English teachers abroad as part of their formal education, because those who have lived abroad are much more comfortable with the language, and more likely to convey it's utility and reality - meaning it is a real language that will help you speak to real people in real situations, and not just lines of a strange script to be memorised from a textbook.
I do think JET's are spoiled, in terms of our reimbursement and status here, as well as under-used in the school environment, where we may act as human tape-recorders for a whole series of classes, adding nothing but chirped vocab from the textbook. This does not seem to convince the students that English is any more real, alive, or relevant than the dead words on the page suggest, when it seems to me that exactly that should be the role of a JET Programme ALT.
I sound overly negative and critical at the moment. In truth, I'm pretty chipper and relaxed. Moreover, I am extremely, extremely thankful for my position here, and the opportunity I have been given. I live in relative luxury: I work less, I'm paid more, and I have more living space (which I pay less for) than many other teachers in Japan. When you add the already high standard of living here, compared to people in many places in the world, I live in extreme luxury. I am not completely naive of this fact, and I try to appreciate it as much as possible. Perhaps I should keep this imbalance to myself, but I prefer honesty and proclaimed gratitude.
So, I am not complaining about the JET Programme. Far from it, I simply wish I could be worth my weight in Yen. And, since I am part of the educational institution here, my mind can't help but evaluate how well we achieve our goals; even though I know I am fairly ignorant and inexperienced when it comes to something of that scale. Even though I have questioned in blogpost the ethics of trying to accelerate the spread and use of English here, my analytical mind can't help but think of ways to do it better.
Though they didn't reference statistics (as most people don't in casual conversation), and I'm not sure where this information comes from, friends inform me that average scores on English Proficiency tests are actually in decline here, despite the government's continuing expansion of mandatory English in the curriculum. Starting next year, English classes extend further, this time into elementary schools. Perhaps it is not only the subjective first impressions of us ALT's that indicate the system could use some tweaking.