Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Hotaru, or firefly, was one of the first Japanese words I learned here—strangely enough it wasn't even during firefly season. It was on one of those days last year when Tane-sensei (JTE) and Kasuga-sensei (art teacher) from Nita JHS would come over and do a bit of language/culture exchange dialogue. Well, it was supposed to be them teaching me Japanese and me teaching them English, but most of the time I just taught them English colloquialisms, and we'd discuss cultural differences between Japan and the US. On this evening, somehow we got onto the topic of Christmas songs and their ubiquity during the holiday season. They asked me if we sing New Year's songs as well. "Not really," I said, "except for 'Auld Lang Syne.'" I sang a few bars and explained the meaning of the words. "We have a song like that," they said. It's called "Hotaru no Hikari" (Fireflies' Light). Tane sang a bit—sure enough, it's the same tune as "Auld Lang Syne." They said that "Hotaru no Hikari" is often played at school graduations. I'm not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but I'll bet it has something to do with, um, little spots of light.

With the kids from Chicago in town (more on that some other time), one of the optional activities planned for them was a firefly viewing in Maki, a village in Yokota. Mabel and I were interested in seeing these fireflies, so I called Tanabe-san and got directions to Maki. He said we'd know the place by the cars parked alongside the street, and we shouldn't go past the traffic light. Something about the elementary school, too. And off we went, in search of Maki and the fireflies.

Well, we found Maki with no problem, but where the fireflies were was a mystery. We got to the traffic light, but saw no cars parked on the side of the road. Drove a bit past the light, turned back, then made another turn at the intersection toward what I hoped was Maki Elementary. Good guess: there it was. We pulled into the parking lot and stopped the car so I could give Tanabe-san another call. But just as I was fishing my phone from my purse, a man came out of the school.

"Konbanwa" (Good evening), he said.
"Konbanwa. Ehh... hotaru wa doko desu ka?" (Where are the fireflies?)
Doubtless he heard my accent, and responded in English, "Ah, just a moment."
He disappeared back into the school while Mabel and I had a good laugh mocking myself. "Where are the fireflies? Where are the fireflies? Most random question in the world."
The man came back out a few moments later, followed by another man, and good-naturedly asked, "Where are you from?"
A bit startled at this non-sequitur, I said, "Uhh... Nita." (Lately this is the answer I give when asked this question; I know it's usually not the answer people are looking for, but I've been here a year and have gotten a little tired of being The Outsider. Now I kinda know why Rohan, when I asked him where he was from, answered, "New York City." Of course the question I should have asked was, "Where did you get your lovely accent?" and the answer to that would be, "Jamaica.")
But right, I said, "Nita." Both of the men looked a little startled, and surprisingly didn't correct my "misunderstanding," so I said, "Chuugakkou no ALT desu" (I'm the junior high school ALT). Oh, they perked right up. "Hajimemashite!" (Nice to meet you!) they both greeted me. "Nihongo wa ii desu ka?" (Japanese is okay?)
"Nnn..." I shook my head, "sukoshi..." (a little).
They invited us into the school, and the first man introduced himself as the school's sixth-grade teacher. The other guy, I don't know, maybe he was the principal or vice-principal? So the sixth-grade teacher sits us down, sets us up with coffee (black and cold), and says something about good timing. He brings me a copy of a lesson plan. ?! What does this have to do with fireflies? The sixth graders will be taking a trip in September to Hiroshima City (this seems to be a popular destination for sixth graders in Shimane), and they will be encouraged to speak to foreigners and get their signatures. So this teacher wants me to teach the kids some basic introductory phrases, and stuff like, "Where are you from?" and, "Please sign." (I did something similar last year at Fuse Elementary.) Okay, sounds good. Then we have to decide on a Monday (I do my elementary visits on Mondays). Unfortunately there remain only two Mondays during Yokota weeks before the beginning of summer vacation: one has already been booked by Yakawa Elementary, and the other is a public holiday. I told him he should call my supervisor and/or the vice-principal at Yokota JHS to find out if I can visit during the week (Tuesday-Friday); sometimes they're okay with that.

But this still had nothing to do with fireflies! I was beginning to think that he'd forgotten, or that I hadn't made our goals clear; but once this more pressing matter was settled he turned his attention to my more pressing matter. Between his broken English, his dry erase marker, and Mabel's Japanese skills, he managed to communicate to us that there were no fireflies: we had come a week early. But the other guy, well he was a firefly expert according to the sixth-grade teacher (he had a few fireflies in a small terrarium), and he could show us where the firefly spot was. So after introducing Mabel and myself formally, we were on our way to find where the fireflies would be. Maybe one or two kilometers from Maki Elementary, he lead us to a bridge over a stream. There were indeed fireflies there, maybe a dozen on each side of the bridge, so it looked to me like we were right on time, but he told us that this show qualified only as "a few" fireflies.

The flash pattern of Japanese fireflies is different from those in Upstate NY. While the fireflies in Upstate NY make little blips every four or five seconds, Japanese fireflies stay lit for about one second, then go dark for two or three seconds. Mabel says they look like fairies. We agreed we have to come back next week. Hope they're photogenic.


vanlal said...

I'm glad you found your fireflies.

Did it ever occur to you that the flash pattern of fireflies might be an allegory for their people?

New Yorkers are bright sparks that turn the charm on and off as suits them. The rural Japanese is a much steadier creature.

What kind of firefly are you?

Emily Watkins said...

"What kind of firefly are you? Take our quiz and find out!"

No, I'm not a romantic at heart, so that connection was never made in my mind. Maybe because both types display steady, predictable patterns? And rural Japanese can be just as two-faced as New Yorkers.