elementary English Japan JET Murakami

The Nature of The Goodbye

Today I said goodbye to Kamikaifu Elementary, my very favorite school in Murakami.  Over the past year, I have visited the school 17 times.  This is far less than any other school, but it only has 41 students.  The school was comprehensible, and friendly.  The staff talked to me about interesting things.  No one ever forgot about me during lunchtime.  The vice-principal and I basically became a two-man comedy team.  The children were exceptionally, astonishingly good.  I knew their names.  I knew I was appreciated when I visited this school, so I went the extra mile for them.  With eight staff and 41 students, my efforts could hardly be diluted.  I dressed up as Santa Claus and no one tried to undress me.  I dressed up as The White Rabbit and no one tried to tear off my tail.  I always felt lucky to come to this school, and I think the students are lucky as well.  Huge classes and large grades at large faceless schools turn out average citizens.  There are standouts in every group, but somehow the kids at Kamikaifu all stood out.  It’s hard to explain.

It’s quite hard for me to really smile.  It’s quite hard for me to really cry.  I relish a good cry, because it’s like a rare treat that I cannot willfully order.  Today I came pretty close.  At the end of the 1st and 2nd grade class, I sat down and told them thank you, how much fun I had with them, and that they please do their best after I leave.  They had a gift for me, a yearlong calendar, starting in August.  There are 12 students in the combined class – six first grade and six second grade.  Each student drew a picture for one month of the year.  I almost melted when I realized the simple significance.  The 3rd and 4th graders sang me a song.  It put me in the mood that popular dramas like Lost and the House M.D. do during the closing montage, in which a popular song wafts loudly through crossfades of the characters’ dramatic circumstances.  It was like watching a movie, all of the happy, lively, intelligent young faces that have really brightened my day so many times right there in front of me to reflect on for three whole minutes.

I came to realize today that the Goodbye has a bad name.  Unfairly so.  A well done, proper Goodbye at the right moment can be fulfilling and rewarding.  A Goodbye is a testament to the effort invested in a relationship, in a community, in a friend.  I will have many more to do in the next 20 days; some will be labored, some will be awkward, some will be a relief.  But my last day at Kamikaifu makes up for any of that.


Alaska English JET Middle School Murakami

License Plate English

I did a hastily prepared worksheet today with four classes, from first grade to third grade (junior high 7th through 9th). I got the idea from a feature on the Anchorage Daily News website showcasing reader submitted vanity plates. The goal was for the students to figure out the meaning of real Alaska license plates. For example, “SNOMAN,” “IXLR8,” and “LVWNTR.” They then had to create six-letter plates from “Murakami” and “I love English,” then create their own personalized plate. If they wrote it on the board, they could get a sticker. It was an amazing success. I was astonished at how quickly they understood the concept, and how creative their own vanity plates were. Click the image below to see a whole gallery of my third graders’ creations.

Study Hard

English festivals JET Middle School Murakami


teacher meToday I ended my six-day week with an 80 minute lesson for my middle school’s annual culture festival. Over the past few weeks, I managed to overprepare while still squeezing in a good amount of procrastination. My goal for the lesson was to have students practice natural greetings. “I’m fine thank you” is perfect English, but it’s boring as hell and the students know it by rote, not by creative, situational choice. First, I taught simple greetings, like “yo, hey, howdy, what’s up, whassup, ‘sup, what’s happenin’, how’s it goin’, what’s goin’ on.” I made the students form a circle and pass some balls around to the right, each time saying one of the greetings, which I had magnetized to the board for their reference. Second, I taught answers to “How are you” besides “I’m fine, thank you.” “sleepy, awesome, great, OK, so-so, super, good” all topped the list. I also showed them which words could be intensified by “really.” I then made them toss one ball across the circle from person to person, after which the tosser and tossee would have a little conversation. They weren’t allowed to answer “I’m fine thank you.”

English JET Middle School Murakami


Ahh, this is the life.While in Shibata on Sunday, I found a game of Boggle at the Hobby Off.  I bought it in a hurry, even though it was like 11 bucks and was missing the sand timer. I brought it to the middle school for the three days I was there this week, and used it in my classes. Student response was varied, although overall I was impressed with how well they did. I of course simplified the rules, allowing them to use letters in the 4×4 grid in any combination and any number of times in a word. I also had the students choose what letters to put in the grid, which resulted in 16 of the easiest letters in our 26-letter alphabet being on the board. But, still, they had to assemble words from their own memory, and from the textbooks in front of them, which I think was good recognition practice and got their brains working. One group of girls, who otherwise didn’t have very many words (one group had 26) found “Merry Christmas,” which, as they were sad to learn, is two words.

While the lessons went well, I was more impressed with the interest that other teachers and students showed in the game while I was at my desk, walking in the halls, leaving school. In those occasions, I would try to be a good linguacultural ambassador and show them the game as it is actually played. I would have expected that students would find it too difficult and lose interest, but the opposite was true. Even on a board with three L’s, three I’s, two R’s and a Qu with no other vowels, three second grade girls gave me their undivided attention for 10 solid minutes, and I was the one who had to call it quits. Outside in the parking lot, a group of eight or nine boys stood around me as I shook the letter cubes over and over again. One boy immediately stood out, finding words before I did, including making an entire sentence: “I use rope.” Not bad for a 13-year old non-native speaker of English playing by real Boggle rules. Here’s the game board he was working with. See if you can do any better.


English Japanese JET Middle School Murakami


The internet has started being friendlier to me this evening. Since about 5 pm, it’s given me several 20 or 30 minute sessions of use before being interrupted by god knows what.

As I walk around town, sing and play with seven year olds, or wake up every morning and eat melon bread and drink cold coffee from a carton, I often think “this is an experience that I want to convey to others.” Since people have seemed fairly interested in this blog so far (you rock, Frankie!) I figure some lively descriptions of fairly mundane occurrences might be warranted.

Most people know about how Japanese students must clean their schools daily. I have vague recollections from my early childhood in the late 80’s, when Japan was poised to take over the world, of this fact being used as anecdotal evidence for Japan’s success – work ethic, basically. I might have bought into this myth before I actually witnessed students clean their school. Yes, everyone is assigned a specific location and team, with a supervising teacher, and a student leader, who must check, in a very official sounding voice, the satisfactory cleaning of their area. Yes, there are broom closets in every hall, and for 20 minutes, they bustle with activity of students cleaning. But they don’t seem to know how to actually sweep. Or mop. They are very good at spreading dirt around. During cleaning time, I usually try to find a broom and dustpan and sweep my way around somewhere. I don’t have to do much to fill up a dustpan so full of sand and lint and dust and dirt to make me start to sneeze. In terms of overall cleanliness, including paint job, condition of doors, windows, floors, etc, none of my Japanese schools compare to even the old Swanson Elementary school building in Palmer. And I’m pretty sure there were just one or two old dudes taking care of that place.

English JET Middle School Murakami


Itchu is the nickname for Murakami Daiichi Chuugakkou which itself means “Murakami First Junior High School.” Itchu is how it sounds when you say ichi and chuu together as a shortened version of the whole name. So, here I am at school, at my desk. Today is my second day here, of what have been the first days that feel like real work. Yesterday I planned what my introduction lesson was going to be, and made a bunch of materials. I basically printed out about 30 photos of my doing various things in Alaska and of family and places, and then wrote sentences for each photo. I even changed the structure of the sentences to be appropriate to the level of the students. 1st graders (what we would think of as 7th graders, but they are first graders in the three grade junior high system. It’s like calling them freshmen, basically) got simple words like ‘dog,’ ‘house,’ and ‘glacier,’ although there was some serious confusion between ‘glacier’ and ‘snow’ when I had the students use the photos and sentences in a game. The second and third graders got progressively harder sentences that incorporated things like ‘to’ infinitives, and the past perfect ‘have been.’

Today I did this in four different classes. First, in class with my supervisor, who is pretty good, then two classes with another female teacher, then one with the head English teacher, a man. It went pretty well in all of them, I think. Basically I talked about Alaska and stuff and then showed them the photos. Then I passed out photos to half of the class, and matching sentences to the other half. They had to find the person with the photo or sentence that matched. Like I said, the photo of snow covered mountains and the photo of me and Sienna and James on a glacier were for some reason very difficult for the students to distinguish between “Winter in Alaska is cold” and “Glaciers are fun to climb on.” Funny, cause the photo of us on the Glacier was taken in August.

Anyway, it is nice to have the internet here at school, but I can’t really let my hair down and do whatever I want. Today and tomorrow for some reason school gets out early, so I have a lot more time in the afternoon to just sort of kill time. I can go outside and play with the kids, but I didn’t bring any outdoor clothes today, so I will probably do that tomorrow.

I will put up a few photos just to give an idea of the place. I’ll do a proper upload with captions to pbase in a week or so, but for now I just want to put some photos on this blog!

Murakami View





This is a view of Murakami looking toward the Northwest. The river there is the Miomote River. You can see my apartment near the bottom. It’s the only flattish bright silver roof near the bottom middle, right above the trees. The photo was taken from the top of Oshiroyama, Castle Mountain, which is about a 10 minute run to the top from my apartment.


View from my back window





This is a view from the back of my apartment, to the left. That’s the little road that dead ends in our ‘neighborhood’ of sorts. Dead end street means it’s pretty quiet. Actually, if you look straight out the back of the window, there is a small bamboo grove that I have another great picture of.


English Murakami

Some Etcetera

This shall be a catch-all post.  All of my posts thus far have been on either laptops with dying batteries, or the remaining ten minutes of my daily 30-minute internet allowance at the Murakami City Library.  I am at an internet cafe (well, a Japanese version of one, with free soft drinks, comic books, billiards, darts, and showers), and, had I planned ahead, I could have uploaded some photos to go along with the various explanations of things.

 Murakami is a beautiful city.  I’ve been to both major beach areas, and while pretty nice, it doesn’t quite seem like the Japanese appreciate their coastline the way other nations do.  Alan Booth, author of Looking for the Lost and The Roads to Sata, writes in his chapter on Tsugaru that the Japanese, while in a land of mountains surrounded by sea, only discovered the appeal of these natural features in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when westerners began to build alpine ski and coastal resorts.  Murakami proper is set a mile or two back from the ocean.  One must cross one of two bridges to get over the train tracks and then battle a phalanx of hotels and enormous metal windbreaks and concrete tetrapods to get a decent view of the ocean.  In a several mile ride on my “city cycle” bike provided to me (a granny bike, I call it) from Senami Onsen in the south, to the mouth of the Miomote river, I passed only four or five homes on the coast.  They were all lavish, but there were an equal number of completely empty lots along the ocean, all built high up on the seawall (actually, about three seawalls) which afford them good views over the tetrapods which clutter the beach.  Having just driven down the east coast of Florida in May, I have somewhat of a baseline for comparison.  Anyway, maybe land costs are simply too high, but my hunch is that the Japanese have a complex relationship with their coastline.  And their rivers.  And their mountains.  I’ll reserve judgement until I ride my bike along the same route this winter, when the Sea of Japan is supposed to rear its stormy head.  Anyone interested further should read Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr, which, perhaps an all too critical book, sheds some light on the points above, and which I constantly find myself quoting from.

English JET Tokyo

Tired in Tokyo

Well, I had planned on making this first post a very structured, informative, complete account of my future here in Japan, but then I got on planes for 14 hours and was shuffled around in Tokyo and handed reams of paperwork for two days.

But, if I don’t post now, I will have to do a recount post in a week and I’ll have forgotten things.

First things first. I am going to be living in Murakami City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan for the next few years. I am in Tokyo now, and take the Shinkansen (bullet train) there tomorrow. School does not start for another month, so I will have some training and settling in duties during that time.

Basically, I’ve been so busy here in Tokyo adjusting to the time change, acclimating to wearing a suit, listening to plodding if not mildly amusing presentations (this one guy had a fabulous vocabulary – diffident, phatic, rejuvenate – and talked to us about hangovers for 20 minutes which forced him to rush through his last 40 slides) and drinking that I have not had time to do nearly anything else. I am very glad I had three months after graduation to basically screw off and laze around, because I will continue to be very busy.

I do have an address, but I do not yet have a phone, and won’t have internet for a week or so. I’ll post those all at once when I have them all.

I am on the 14th floor of a 47 floor hotel here in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s megadowntowns. I can see into the office building about 100m across the street. Last night around 1 AM, I took a photo of a guy slumped over a desk sleeping. Tomorrow, I’ll be in a second story apartment and I’ll be able to walk to the Japan Sea.


Here’s a Blog

Well, everything has to start with something.