Several weeks ago there was an assembly at Yokota Junior High. I had been told that the assembly was about human rights, and was the first of its kind at this school. The students and staff all gathered in the gym, listened to one of the teachers give a speech, and then did a couple of activities. In the first activity, the students wrote down their birthdays on small sheets of paper, and then stood in a large circle around the gym in order of their birthdays. It took a bit of doing, cos most of the kids didn’t want to stand apart from their friends, and seemed more or less mortified to have to stand next to kids they didn’t know or didn’t like. I took my place in middle March, and heartily greeted the kids to my left and right, but they were having none of it. And that was the end of the first activity. In the next activity, the students gathered in one of the corners of the gym, depending on their blood type: A, B, AB, and O. I joined the O group. (I’m O, right Mom? Cos that’s what I keep telling everybody.) This activity was better received, cos they could hang out with at least a few of their friends, or people whose presence they tolerated. And that was it, and then the kids were lining back up according to their class (in typical assembly form) and being lectured to again. Thinking I’d missed some important information in Japanese, I found W-sensei and said, “So... what's the point?”
She thought a moment. “Mmm.... Mmm... yes,” she smiled, as a faintly puzzled look crossed her face. “What's the point?”
W-sensei is one of my JTEs, and has been since I arrived in Japan. I didn’t know what to make of her at first. Her English isn’t too good, and since she’s at the same school as Toothpaste Maniac, well, I usually went to TM when I had a question about something. But the more I get to know her, the more I like her. She went to school to be a math teacher, and depending on what school she’s been assigned to (Japanese public school teachers are shuffled around to different schools in the prefecture every few years) she sometimes teaches math instead of English. Her English is good enough to teach junior high school students, and quite good when I think of the other math teachers I know here. She has three young kids—twin daughters in the fourth grade (whom I used to teach when I visited their elementary school), and a son in kindergarten—and her classroom management skills are great. She’s teaching a couple of first-year classes this year, and these younger kids can get out of hand. She lets them have fun, but stops them before they get too crazy. I enjoy those first-year classes I have with her. And once in a while, when we both have the time, we’ll have a really interesting conversation. Though she’s too young for the part, she sometimes reminds me of my own mom.
I’ve been reluctant for most of my life to give the title of "friend" to a lot of the people in my life whom others might think I ought to call friends. A college friend (a real one) once told me about a two-hour conversation she had with a fellow she’d just met over lunch. “We became good friends,” she said. I thought she’d used the word too loosely, and I think many Americans do, but I also worried that I was adhering to too strict a definition of friendship. It’s always taken me a long time to get to know people and feel comfortable around them.
I’ve realized that the cultural reticence of the Japanese is more like my own personal introversion spread out across a nation. It seems much more common for a Japanese person to withhold the title of “friend” from an acquaintance for as long as I might prefer to... and I kind of like that. In the States, introversion is seen as a character flaw. Not by everyone, of course, but by enough people to have made my childhood kind of miserable at times. I don’t mean to say that there are no charismatic personalities among the Japanese, or that people here aren’t drawn to those who are friendly and energetic, just that it’s okay not to be that way, too. The longer I’ve lived here, the more I’ve gotten to know the people I’ve worked with for the last two and a half years—and, perhaps more importantly, they’ve gotten to know me better.
W-sensei is one of the reasons why I’m glad I’ve stayed this long.