A really good Viking


Today we went to Ohnan Town, as it calls itself,邑南町, in Shimane Prefecture. Our intention was to go to Cafe Torimichi, an apparently friendly cafe in the middle of nowhere, about which we’d read in the most recent issue of Get Hiroshima. When we arrived at the cafe at around 1pm it was closed, even though it’s supposed to be open on Saturdays. We looked around on Google and found a pricey Italian place nearby, so we went there, only to find that despite the OPEN sign out the front, they were having an event and not doing normal lunch.

After a bit more Googling  and finding not much nearby we went to a buffet place called Jōmon Mura  (縄文村/Jōmon Village). (Random fact: in Japanese they call buffet-style meals ‘baikingu‘ or ‘viking’ バイキング). I don’t usually like baikingu: they don’t seem very classy to me, as in, reminiscent of Sizzler and residential college meals, and I always eat too much so that even the good things end up not tasting that good. So I didn’t have high expectations of this place today.

Outdoor seating at Jōmon Mura

It was amazing. It had a great view, up from on top of a hill, and a really nice feel with outdoor seating. The food was delicious, all from local produce and accurately described on Tabelog as ‘natural food,’ and the people that ran it were really laid-back and friendly.


If for any reason you end up going to countryside Shimane, I recommend this place. Note that you need a car.

View from the garden of Jōmon Mura

We also went to the gorge afterwards that we’d intended to originally from Get Hiroshima. It’s called Dangyo-kei, which means something like Definitely Fish Gorge, or perhaps Refuse Fish Gorge. Whatever the deal with the fish, it was a beautiful spot. There are a few paths down that are a bit removed from the car park. We chose the closest one and when we got down to the river, we found that after a little way there was a shrine, and there the path went no further. Or rather, it went further but it was taped off with a ‘No Entry – Falling Rocks’ sign. We had a nice sit and read/nap near the river and called it a day.

Nice getting out of town. Nature in Japan is worth experiencing, and might be something that people who only go to Tokyo or Osaka don’t really know about. But there’s plenty of it all over the country and you don’t usually have to go far to find something pretty nice – maybe not even as far as you have to in Australia, actually.

At the gorge

今日、島根県の邑南町に行ってきました。Get Hiroshima 雑誌で知った田舎の遠いカフェ, Cafe Torimichi に行こうとしたけど、いつも土曜日はやっているはずなのに、ついたら、やっていなかった。午後一時だった。ちょっとググって、高いイタリア料理屋があるみたいだったから、イタリアのレストランに行きました。OPEN って書いてあったのに、入ろうとしたら、「イベントで今入らせない」と言われた。






The need for speed

There is internet in my house! It’s only been 11 weeks. Moved in on the 17th of June, got internet on the 3rd of September.

Had a recent trip back to Australia and found myself making the generalisation that everything is faster in Australia, except going through the turnstile at stations. That takes ages in Australia. And the arrival of trains, that is also often slow. No bullet trains in Australia, either, so those kinds of trains are obviously slower. And postage. That is unpredictable these days – not consistently slow, but not as fast as it used to be, I think. And building is definitely slower in Australia, not like how things just pop up in Japan. Also Australian ski lifts are ridiculously slow – no double speed ones – but then again, the mountains are pretty small compared to Japanese ones.

Is it faster to get internet installed in your house in Australia? I don’t know – I’ve always lived in places where it was already connected. But in Japan, it’s always taken months in the places I’ve lived.

Road construction workers work at the same speed in Australia and Japan. How many tradies does it take to dig a hole? Seven-ish: one to operate the machine, one to stand out the front directing traffic, one to stand out the back directing traffic, and another four to stand around doing nothing in particular. Having a smoke, maybe. That’s the same everywhere, right? Sorry if that’s offensive to you. But construction/roadworks people, you often seem a bit free.

So some things are faster in Australia. What’s faster?

Marking exams. Takes what one might assume is a reasonable amount of time, like, I dunno, a week or two for a multiple-choice test. For private music exams, it takes, what, a few days for it to be processed? I don’t know how that’s done these days. For written and oral school state-wide exams it might take longer, like a few weeks to a month.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test, aka JLPT or 日本語能力試験, is a colour-the-bubble-with-an-HB-pencil kind of multiple choice test. It takes about 4 hours to do. The results are available online after about 2 months. The little certificate that presents the results officially on paper comes after about another month or two. Why does it take this long? Nobody knows, that I know of.

Also faster in Australia is people’s shower/bath time. In Australia I’m probably the slowest showerer in my family, and that’s not because of any funny business, I’m just slow. In a lot of Australia there used to be an official target of 3- or 4 minute showers, and there were (are?) specific times of specific weekdays where people were allowed to use mains water to water gardens, wash cars etc.

Signs like this are available at home/hardware shops. This is from Bunnings.

Australia is pretty short on water, and I grew up in a 14-year drought. My state talked about whether to get a water recycling plant or a desalination plant and ended up going with desalination. When water restrictions came in to my area, lots of people installed rainwater tanks and worked pretty hard to get more water-efficient. Now most healthy-looking gardens have signs in them to let people know they’re not using up the city’s water reserves.

A lot of Japanese people seem not to have ever heard of water restrictions and do stuff like watering their driveway. Every time I stay with Japanese people, they comment on how quickly I’m out of the shower. Even if I have a bath too, which I think most Japanese family members do. I guess the national habit of washing yourself at night, at the end of the day, is really seen as a way to relax and take your time. I also like to relax and take my time, but apparently it doesn’t take so much time for me to do this?

Driving in Australia is pretty fast compared to Japan. Heading to the airport in Sydney to pick someone up, I was distraught to see a sign that it was still another 6km, because we were running late and in Japan with the traffic on that kind of road, it would take 20-30 minutes. I’d forgotten that in Australia, 6km=6 minutes on major roads. It did take about 6 minutes or maybe 10 with the traffic and lights.

It seems to take about twice as long to drive anywhere in Japan unless you use toll roads. I used to do a 70km drive to the prefectural capital pretty often when I was living up in the north of Japan, and that usually took about 2 hours. On the tollway it only took 1, or maybe not even that, but it cost about AU$12 (1,100 yen) so I didn’t use it that often. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours with the friend I was often car pooling with. In Australia 70km would usually be more like a one-hour drive. If you have to drive across Melbourne or Sydney as part of it, make it an hour and a half.  Last year, in Hiroshima, I drove 20km to work every day. It took an hour or thereabouts, depending on what time I left home. Once it took an hour and twenty minutes. On Saturdays it took 30-40 minutes. Traffic can be slow in Australia too, but it’s kind of more accepted in most cities in Japan. I guess Japan does have more cities, more people and less space.

Australia’s not faster than Japan in most ways. I reckon the two countries even out to roughly the same for most things. Just some odd things I noticed being back in Oz recently.

On bento culture

Hello, reader! And long time no writey, eh? My excuse for not posting regularly has gotten even better: moving house and having no internet at the new place. But honestly, now that I’m not so immersed in the machine that is the Japanese public school system, there aren’t so many working-life things that I care to write about. Also, having no internet, I haven’t been keeping so up to date on news and other blogs I follow… so didn’t realise until today that Japanophile blossomkitty had asked me a question, which was what my take is on ‘bento boxes,’ as they’re known in the West.

The infamous kyaraben, character bento, with something out of Yokai Watch, a cartoon that little Japanese kids love.

Basically, I like eating them, especially if they’re professionally made, but I’ve never made one myself. Because ceebs (cbf, equates to ‘can’t be bothered.’ Read here if you really want to know).

‘Which do you like, school lunch or bento?’ is one of the standard questions that inevitably come up from about year 7 (中1/first year of junior high school) English classes in Japan. I don’t know what high school kids say, but to me it seemed the majority of junior high school kids said ‘bento’ because they could have what they liked in their lunch every day if their mum was making it for them, and their mum could give them the right quantity, whereas school lunch might sometimes be too much or too little. How often did consideration for their mums come into it? Not very.

Some kid’s school lunch in Gunma. Image: City home page

As a non-fussy eater, I would choose school lunch every time. I know this wasn’t your question, Blossomkitty, but it is a thing in Japan, and as far as I’m concerned, school lunch is the best thing since sliced bread, except it’s so much better than sliced bread. Here are my many reasons (none of this ‘I have two reasons’ stuff, kids):

  1. Someone else cooks it
  2. Someone else cleans up
  3. It’s different every day, and therefore fun to eat
  4. It’s nutritious and makes an attempt at balance
  5. It usually tastes pretty good. Naturally there are some misses
  6. Doesn’t spill in your bag
  7. It minimises lunch envy
  8. You don’t have to remember to bring it to school or take it out of your bag when you get home
  9. It has various components within the meal (rice, meat/fish, salad, soup, milk, whatever) which makes it interesting – similar to (3) but I reckon this merits another dot point
  10. Someone gets properly compensated for making it
  11. It uses mostly local and seasonal ingredients
  12. It’s cheap (approx. 200-300 yen a day, which is something like $2 – $3)

OK. Now I think I’d better go into the bento.

First of all, if you have to take a portable lunch somewhere and can’t have a proper nice sit-down lunch on a plate, the bento is the way to go. Might as well do a list. However, this list turns into less things I like about bentoes than just things I have noticed.

Yeahhh, the professional ekiben (station bento). Image: matome

  1. It has compartments. (I know from googling it just now that lunch boxes around the world also now have compartments. Fine.)
  2. It seals nicely and doesn’t seem to spill in anyone’s bag. That being said, people don’t gung-ho chuck their lunch boxes into their bags in Japan and run around with said bags on their backs or throw their bags around. Maybe that was my problem.
  3. Some people wrap their bento in a cloth called a furoshiki 風呂敷. Makes it look nice, absorbs condensation perhaps, and you can use the cloth to carry it if you want.
  4. The compartments thing means you can have rice and other things separately.
  5. People use little patty pans to put lots of different things into the larger compartments. You can get silicone, i.e. washable ones these days, which makes it a bit more eco-friendly than plastic/paper or foil ones.
  6. The average school kid’s bento can often be expected to contain a miniature sausage, though not necessarily a whole one, and a little patty-pan-full of ‘Napolitan’ (tomato sauce, aka ketchup) spaghetti, and either or both of a piece of fried chicken and a piece of rolled omelette (卵焼き, tamagoyaki, たまごやき). Sometimes it has a little hanba-gu (hamburger steak/rissole) too. Last year at one of my primary schools there was one day when all the kids had to bring lunch, maybe the last day of term, and I swear 9 out of 10 lunches I saw had a little wiener and a tiny patty pan of this spaghetti. None of them were as cute/pretty as the lunch pictured here, however.

  7. The average homemade bento doesn’t have a lot of vegetable content. Japan doesn’t eat much fruit in general, so that’s not so noticeable. You might have a slice of orange or apple, or a few strawberries or grapes, and maybe a cherry tomato or a piece of cucumber. It’s rare that I’ve seen more than that in a homemade one. The ones you see posted on the Internet aren’t what everyone makes – some people don’t have that sort of time.
  8. A well-made, especially a professionally made bento, is really nice to eat, and in my experience has more vegetables and some pickled things in it.

8. This is my main issue with bento-making and eating. Bentoes are usually made by mums/wives; some junior high or high school girls make their own. I have never heard of boys doing so, though such people must exist somewhere, and there are probably dads who make them too – I just haven’t seen/met any. It’s generally assumed in Japanese society that a wife/mum will do all the cooking and cleaning, which is basically a full-time job if you’re going to cook all the various little parts that make up a good Japanese meal. Of course, if being a full-time housewife is your thing, that might be fine. If you want to have a job, though, this puts a lot of pressure on women to get up at or before 5am, make breakfast and pack lunches for husband (who probably leaves the house by around 7?) and children and maybe yourself, then go to work and work a full day, come home, buy ingredients on the way home, cook dinner, wash everyone’s lunch boxes, wash the dishes after everyone’s dinner, wash the dishes again after your husband has finished dinner later than everyone else, go and have a bath, dry your hair… by this time it may well be 11, 12 or 1am.

It’s also really ingrained that girls make bento for boys. It’s a kind of trope in every anime or high school drama that a girl brings a lunch for a boy if she likes him. On Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about a sharehouse situation) they do it if they like the boy or if there’s some thing on and they’re all going somewhere.

‘Eating whatever bento as if you’re enjoying it is a boyfriend’s duty kindness’
Image: ‘Girl power up blog

So I’m all for eating cute, delicious and healthy lunches. And if it’s fun to make them, then so much the better. But if it’s an everyday necessity and kids are going to get bullied because their lunch isn’t as cute as the next kid’s, and it puts pressure on women and girls who also probably aren’t getting as appreciated as they deserve, then I reckon it’s better to pay someone to make your lunch. At least if I have the choice, that’s what I do.

Physical contact

I’ve recently started working as a kindergarten teacher in an international kindergarten. This has caused both the slowing of posts on Bijinjapan, and a few realisations about kids, both Japanese and in general.

Japan is, well, not famous exactly, but to put it another way, not known for having a very touchy-feely kind of culture. It’s kind of a paradox in that hugging and kissing are not seen in public, but everyone fully expects to be squished up against strangers in trains and pushes people out of the way in order to get out of said trains. Naturally this is not because everyone wants to be close to everyone else but because there is no space, but it’s seen as しょうがない: something that can’t be helped, so it’s accepted.

Australia is kind of the opposite in both of these things: it’s normal to hug and/or kiss friends and loved ones and to physically express affection (to a point), but I think most people would avoid contact with strangers. That being said, people in Australia are probably getting more used to having other people in their face/armpit/back on trains and buses as the population grows in the cities.

Adults and adults

Having been in Japan on and off for about 5 years, I’m used to not making physical contact with anyone in Japan other than a significant other. As an ALT of course there were many many high-fives and tag games, and thumb wars, and getting hugged by kids I wasn’t allowed to hug back. But with other adults and people I meet as friends, nope. Waving, bowing, just saying bye… it’s got to a point now where when I have other foreign friends from hugging cultures, it’s kind of awkward waiting to see if one of you is going for the hug or not. And then there’s this thing where people go for group dinners and then everyone’s saying goodbye, and it somehow gets to hugging everyone one by one, kind of lining up creeping-death style, which can get an extra level of weirdness if there are some in the group you don’t like.

The cheek bump, a.k.a. kiss. Image: the Globe and Mail

In Australia I don’t remember it seeming such an issue. As I might have written before, men usually do some sort of handshake thing, or occasionally a back-clappy hug, and when women are involved it’s cheek kisses and/or hugs. Greeting hugs aren’t great hugs, to be sure, but they’re a thing.

As also mentioned before, friends of the same gender do hug each other in Japan, and it’s less homophobic than Australia for boys.

Baseball kids. Image: this livedoor popo blog

The physical contact that does seem accepted in Japan the way a hug would be in Australia is hand-to-hand contact. Not just handshakes, but double high-fives between excited friends, or even occasionally kind of grabbing onto the other person’s hands and holding on tight for a few seconds. Of course, that really is a special occasion one. A drunk co-worker who was always fairly quiet and hard to read did this to me kind of emotionally, saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a farewell party. It felt as expressive as a hug, though in a different way. The only people who have held my hands in such a way in Australia are my mum and grandma. But at that party, I realised this sort of exchange was why I could see all the other people parting ways doing the same thing. Hands are powerful emotive tools in Japan… maybe that’s why it’s popular to wave with both?

The thing is in Japan, I’ve worked as an ALT until now, which in my case has meant working in public schools. I’ve been an ALT at a total of 16 schools in 4 prefectures, including elementary, junior high and senior high schools. So I’ve worked in 16 staff rooms and seen the working environment at a couple of Boards of Education, as well as watching various office-based TV dramas. And I can say with confidence that other than handshakes or adjusting the clothes on another teacher who is more junior than you (happened to me at least twice), people don’t usually touch other people at work. This probably doesn’t sound weird – it’s work, after all.

So it was quite a surprise when I came along to the international kindergarten and another teacher touched me on the arm, as in, held my arm for a second, when she said hello. I’d forgotten that some people do that. Then I noticed that quite a few people in the office had this kind of friendly touching going on in their interactions. It wasn’t out of place to see 2 workers (who are obviously friends) sharing a hug this morning. It really is an international environment, and it was strange for me because it both made me feel more at home and less like I knew how to behave at work.  We went to a work party and the principal hugged everyone.

To be fair, in Australia I’ve only worked in a limited number of places, so I don’t know what most working environments are like. Does this sound unusual to you? Maybe it’s normal for a kindergarten or childcare centre?

Adults and kids

In Australian families, I think that while it varies between families and individuals, hugging and kissing family members is seen as totally normal and expected. Everyone has probably had the experience of dreading giving the mandatory kiss on the cheek to some older relative who we find gross for some reason.

I’ve heard that in Japan, kissing is seen as reserved for sexual relationships (that seems to fit with how you never see it in public, I guess). It’s seen as so intimate that a lot of the time, even a romantic drama will culminate in a hug and you won’t see an on-screen kiss… so kissing would be seen by some as perverted to do it to your kids. I’m not sure how true this is, or rather, for how many people this has any truth. But there is definitely less kissing of children in Japan than in Australia, especially in front of others and especially between opposite-gender parent and child, I think.

What about kids kissing their parents in Japan? I can’t yet comment with any accuracy, but I can tell you that my kindergarten kids kiss their teachers. Maybe a third of my class is on the cuddly side, and one kid is always grabbing and kissing my hand (which is usually about said kid’s head height). This kid and one other do like to kiss my face when I’m at their height too. One Japanese friend tells me that those who are inclined to kissing and hugging may do it a lot, and other kids may not be so inclined – that sounds pretty much the same as Australia to me.

The other thing you get with kids in Japan that I never heard of outside Japan is the dreaded kancho (浣腸, かんちょう or カンチョー, Dad and Ed) which translates to ‘enema.’ Kids do it to each other and to teachers too. Not usually to woman teachers, luckily for me. I’ve also almost never seen girls do it, but boys I have, plenty of times. To kancho someone, clasp your hands together and point the index fingers together – the middle fingers too as an option – and then try to poke them up the behind of your victim. This excellent Tofugu post has some strategies on coping with kancho and other things Japanese kids like to do to their teachers, including boob grab, crotch grab and others.

Kancho. Image: Quora

Political correctness and workplace etiquette

In Australia, though it’s quite a hugging society, school teachers these days don’t touch kids for fear of anything going awry, being misunderstood and getting sued. I don’t know what it’s like in childcare and kindergartens, or even primary school, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of parents suing high schools for their kid getting an injury after leaning back on their chair and the teacher trying to make them stop. And everyone is terrified of paedophilia. So I have the impression that most teachers and schools are very careful about their policies on what kind of contact (if any) is acceptable. This ‘No Touch Teachers’ article is a bit old but explains what I’m referring to here.

This is the kind of hugging you get in kindergartens here. Image: a Nara kindergarten in nobinobi blog

Japan doesn’t seem to have compunctions about touching kids. I’m not talking about corporal punishment as such, but at primary schools, a kid who’s being silly might get lightly boffed on the head, or a crying child might get a hug. As an ALT I was told not to hug, but my companies often suggested activities that would involve patting kids on the head, and high-fives are pretty much mandatory. Through junior high school and maybe even high school, arm wrestling and thumb wrestling are also pretty common ALT activities. Teachers of the man kind will manipulate boys’ bodies into various stretches or positions for sports training, as will woman teachers with girls (this is me trying to be PC with my gender terminology here, if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sound weird to you in this sentence instead of male and female). I think this is probably seen as a bit risky in Australia these days – Australian readers, does that sound right?

Some sort of training with teachers helping students. Image: Interaction school blog

Think that’s all on this for now. I’ll try to write again soon; with the job, moving house and a Japanese test coming up in the next few weeks it’ll be short and hopefully sweet. As always, thanks for reading!

Romaji ローマ字

This post is about romaji: what it is and isn’t. More about what it isn’t than what it is.

Romaji ローマ字 (‘Rome letter’) is: a way of writing Japanese using Roman letters 

It is not:

  • -standardised
  • -English
  • -a complete way to read and write Japanese

And here I’ll go into some more detail.

Romaji is a way to read and write Japanese using Roman letters

It’s useful for words like Asahi, wagyu and Tokyo – Japanese things that people around the world want to talk about and use those words more or less as they are, with an approximation of Japanese sounds, rather than translating them. ‘Morning sun,’ ‘Japanese cow’ and ‘Eastern metropolis’ don’t have quite the same ring, I guess.

Romaji is not standardised

There are some romaji spellings that are widely accepted and known in English-speaking countries, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, sushi, cha, sayonara, Mt Fuji, etc.

Here are a few spellings you might see for those words in various schools in Japan.

Oosaka, Ôsaka, Ōsaka, Ohsaka

Kyouto, Kyôto, Kyohto

Toukyou, Tôkyô, Tōkyō, Tohkyoh

sushi, susi

cha, tya

sayonara – sayounara, sayônara, sayōnara, sayohnara

Mt Fuji, Mt Huji

And while we’re at it, romaji could also be roomaji, rohmaji, rômaji or rōmaji. And tempura could be, in alternate-Romaji-land, tenpura. 

So which spellings are correct? Well, that’s the problem – it depends who you ask. I believe the romaji taught in most (??) middle and high schools is Hepburn. Which version of it also depends on the school, or maybe the teachers in the school, or maybe the Board of Education.

The Hepburn Romanisation system, a.k.a. ヘボン式ローマ字 hebonshiki romaji. Image: this romaji middle school page. Found via Google.

Even if teachers dedicate themselves faithfully to one particular version of Hepburn, it’s hard to stop the kids referring to the Kunrei – or is it Nihon? – charts of romaji in the back of their 108-yen notebooks. And whatever their homeroom teacher taught them 3 years ago in primary school, which was almost certainly not Hepburn, though they might have learned it at extra-curricular English lessons.

In romaji, tuki and tsuki sound the same.

My parents went to Shikoku last year and then brought back some omiyage custard cakes called hime no tuki. We talked about how it probably means ‘princess of the moon.’ Dad noticed that when read out loud,  the Japanese speakers in the room seemed to add an S after the T in tuki. Having painstakingly learned all the syllables in Japanese, Dad had learned tsu but not tu – what’s tu? Just another way of writing tsu. Because everyone knows that if you combine T and U an S sound will have to come in between, because that’s how Japanese works. Unless you don’t know Japanese. Which means you don’t know other things too, like that di, ji and zi all sound the same in Japanese and so do zu and du.

Actually, there is a good reason to keep du and di instead of just using zu and ji all the time, and that is typing. Perhaps the reason students learn romaji so long before they start learning to write and read other languages is so that they can use it to type. And if you want to type ぢ, the only way to do it is di, because ji will come out as じ every time. It’s important for spelling.

A non-Hepburn romaji chart. Image: Wisdom Bag, Yahoo JP

In the middle school where I most recently was an ALT, I don’t know which version of Hepburn they were teaching, but in the previous school it must have been some version of traditional as opposed to modified, because they learned a rule that the letter N had to change to M if it came before a bilabial consonant like P, B or M. This means, for example, that shinbun would be written as shimbun. It weirded me out when they had to write sanma さんま as samma, because you would only know how to read that if you either 1) speak a language with geminates like Italian’s ‘mamma’ with the long M or 2) already have an understanding of Japanese phonology. You need to know some Japanese phonology, too, to know that the U in shinbun or shimbun doesn’t sound like the U in the English ‘bun’ but more like the ‘oo’ in ‘toot.’ If you know no Italian or Japanese, depending on your variety of English you might read samma さんま to rhyme with stammer or Gramma (as in Grandma). This brings me to my next point.

Romaji is not English

If you are reading this post in English, then this might seem pretty obvious. To a Japanese kid (or adult) who learns romaji in about grade 3, way before they officially learn the alphabet in grade 6 or year 7, it’s not so clear-cut. When they see the letters in the alphabet it’s natural to try to read them as they were first taught, as in romaji. If you learned at 8 years old that the thing you know as チョーク is spelled tyôku, as opposed to chôku or another spelling, it’s going to be much easier to recognise and remember that than chalk. Even if you do copy out chalk 5 or 10 times in your notebook, it’s not going to stick anywhere near half as much as tyôku did. Even though it might not sound all that different, one is going to be much more comfortable, familiar and immediate than the other.

I believe this contributes to obstacles in language-learning. Much like katakana, I have mixed feelings/opinions about romaji – more about its teaching and usage than its existence. It can be a great tool for Japanese language users and non-Japanese language users to communicate. So in theory, all that should be necessary for it to trap fewer people should be something like, English teachers saying at the start of Year 7 English, hey kids, welcome to English. Let’s practice the alphabet and learn some PHONICS (hello, last year’s junior high school! To be fair, some schools do, but it’s not standardised either) and before we can properly start that, let’s take a moment to recognise that romaji and English are not the same thing, despite having a similar physical appearance. Their biggest difference is the fact that romaji is Japanese, and English is not.

Romaji is not a complete way to read and write Japanese

You may have noticed the word ‘probably’ used to talk about the meaning of the name of the custard cake package shown above. Well, hime usually means ‘princess’ (姫、ひめ), but it’s also the old name for ‘hawfinch’ (鴲 ,ひめ), which is a kind of bird. Who knows, though, it could also be the verb stem for himeru (秘める) ‘to hide.’ Then there’s the possibility that the E was supposed to be a long one, as in himei, which can mean ‘an inscription’ or ‘a scream.’ All this information is stuff that native speakers know from context or from reading the kanji, much as native speakers of English know the difference between ‘know’ and ‘no.’ But if you take away spelling and context, there’s no way to know.

When I was about high school age, I remember watching Inuyasha with my siblings. We were constantly perplexed by the name of Inuyasha’s sword, Tessaiga (鉄砕牙、てっさいが). The person doing the subtitles had transcribed the little tsu (っ) into the romaji in the subtitles* so we were reading ‘Tetsusaiga’ while hearing TESSAIGAAAAA!!! and trying to hear the extra tsu. Drove me nuts for years. Eventually I looked it up on the Internet – might have been doing some research for this blog, actually! – and discovered that it hadn’t been only us who had been troubled by this.

Even foreigners who speak Japanese fluently – even Japanese people, actually – can look kind of dumb sometimes if a Japanese name is written only in romajiIt can mean the difference between your name meaning Big-field or Little-field.

大野さん Ôno-san/Ohno-san/Oono-san ‘Ms./Mr. Big-field’

小野さん Ono-san ‘Ms./Mr. Little-field.’

In the above examples, I’ve used 3 different ways of showing that the first O is long in the Big-field name. But because it’s not standardised, students of English may learn any one of these spellings or may be taught not to indicate vowel length at all, because it’s ‘not what people are doing these days.’ The length of vowel sounds doesn’t usually affect much in English other than to give you an accent. It can affect meaning in minimal pairs like ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ but it’s not only the length that distinguishes these words. In Japanese, though, as you see above, it can change the meaning of words. It’s the difference between snow (雪, ゆき, yuki) and courage (勇気, ゆうき, yuuki). Yuki can also be a boy’s name or a girl’s name, depending on the length of the U.

These aren’t necessarily world-changing issues, but they can create what are surely at least partially avoidable obstacles to effective communication. It has probably come up in studies. Naturally, I have the power to whinge about it, but no solution. That being said, I think standardisation would be a start, and within that, I don’t think it should be left up to the will of the writer (as it is on this page) whether they want to indicate the length of a vowel or not. That’s information that can help people understand more about your language, Japan. And if what people see and hear is consistent, it will make more sense.

*Romaji in the English subtitles: By this I mean that they’d left the sword name in Japanese, writing it in romaji rather than translating the meaning. Someone must have decided ‘Tetsusaiga’ was easier to read repeatedly than ‘Iron-Crushing-Fang.’

Quick update アップデート

(English below)





Still here yo.

Just been busier than usual lately, having started a new job. With the new job I’m at work until 6:30 or 7pm every day, then come home, eat while watching a TV show, read a bit and sleep. It’s totally OK to leave on time at this job, except I’m new and don’t know what I’m doing, so can’t really get to the level of efficiency where I’ve got everything I need to done by 5.

Also, I haven’t felt as stirred to write because in my new job it’s really international and there are heaps of non-Japanese people, so I feel more, well, normal and don’t really think ‘This wouldn’t happen in Australia’ nearly so much. My job now is less to be something to gawk at and expose students to otherness, and more just being part of an international thing.

So I’ll probably want to broaden/change the scope of this blog, not sure how at this point, and for a bit will probably continue to write less until life settles down a bit again. That being said, it’s Golden Week next week so we’ll see.

桜 (sakura = cherry blossoms) 2017


Japanese readers will be familiar with the concept of hanami 花見 ‘flower-look,’ which essentially means a picnic with alcohol, with/under/around sakura (cherry blossom) trees. It’s really popular. Some people say it’s the heart of the Japanese people.

The weather this season has been sunny on a couple of weekdays over the sakura season, but cloudy and/or raining on the weekends. I went and hanami-ed anyway and took some photos.


I don’t know if I’ve actually written a post just about schools before and the difference between those of Australia in Japan. Having just finished up my ALT career, it seems like a good time while at least one is fresh in my mind.

The information in this post is much more up-to-date for Japan than Australia, because I haven’t been involved with an Australian primary school for 18 years, and for secondary schools only sporadically or through family over the last 12 years or so. And unlike in Japan, I’ve never been a regular teacher in an Australian school (but was a choir teacher in a secondary school for a few months while their usual one was away). So if you can correct me, readers who work or have kids in schools (Blossomkitty, お願いします!), please do!

And with that, onwards we go.

Greater-known (or at least published) things about Japanese schools:

School lunch

Read about Japanese school lunch here, here  or here.
I am a big fan of school lunch in general. A lot of kids like it, but others would rather bring their own, which they can and have to do in high school. This usually means their mothers making it. Otherwise they can buy bread or rice balls from people that come to school to sell them, and some high schools have vending machines.

A Japanese school lunch. Image: 2 BBolloms

Australia doesn’t have school lunch. It’s BYO or buy it at the canteen. And a school canteen, by the way, is not a bottle. It’s a place where you can buy food. It’s not a cafeteria: in most cases, you don’t eat at the canteen. You take the food away and eat it somewhere else. In Australia most schools let you eat anywhere except the library or computer room. Lunch time is free time. Some schools try to get you to finish your lunch in the classroom before you go out to play. But I think some schools don’t let kids eat inside unless it’s raining.

A school canteen in South Australia. Image: school’s website

My school canteen used to sell flavoured popcorn for 50c, which was great. At recess (morning play time, 11-11:30) they sold cinnamon toast which was a really popular snack (intended for kids who hadn’t had breakfast, I eventually learned) and in summer they had what we called slurpees – like those frozen ‘slushie’ drinks you can get at 7-11. The food there wasn’t especially nutritious. I wasn’t concerned much with nutrition in those days, but I think that’s the main reason my parents preferred us to take lunch from home.


Cleaning is one of the duties that are part of school life in Japan, from kindergarten to high school. Everyone is in designated groups with a designated leader. Each group has an area they are assigned to cleaning for a month or so, and then they get shuffled around. Some schools play music during cleaning time (those were my favourites). Some schools have a great time cleaning, like the ones you see on the video. Some schools have a no-talking policy during cleaning, about which I learned when I got myself and some kids into trouble by talking to them during cleaning. Some kids clean to get the school clean. Some kids run around with brooms that never touch the floor. Some kids stand in one place sweeping the same clean area, leaving the large dirty section of floor next to them at the top of the stairs because it’s not their assigned area and is therefore irrelevant to them.
As I have just been reminded by this good article in the Japan Times, Japanese schools do have a ‘janitor’ but their job is really more like school maintenance in cases that I’ve seen, as opposed to cleaning floors or emptying bins.
In Australia, students don’t clean the floors – that’s done by paid cleaners who come at night. At my primary school we put our chairs up on the tables – was it every day or just on Fridays? – so the cleaners could get the vacuum cleaner under the tables. We also had bin duty where two of us took the classroom bin out to the skip where the cleaner dude would empty it, and took turns to bang the blackboard dusters together out the window. I don’t remember what else there was, but there was probably other stuff.

Possibly lesser-known points about school in Japan (and how they compare with Australia 20 years ago, which is actually not as unnatural a comparison as you might think)

Term dates

Japan has three terms, or ‘semesters’ as some like to translate it (but they never translate it to ‘trimesters’?). They are:

April – July (this year, 6th April to 20th July)

September – December (this year, 1st September to 25th Dec, yes inclusive) and

January – March (in 2018, 9th January to 23rd March).

In that order. Like Europe and North America, the longest break is the summer holidays, which fall over August. The spring and winter breaks are both around 2 weeks, during which kids are largely hanging out at school playing sports together anyway. Most Japanese kids (and adults, in my experience) assume that Australia, like most of the Western countries in the Northern Hemisphere, starts the school year after summer, in September.

Except, of course, that summer in Australia is from December to February. For specifics, you can see here, but basically Australia has 4 school terms:

Term 1: late January – early April, followed by ‘Easter holidays’: 2 weeks

Term 2: late April – late June –>winter holidays: 2 weeks

Term 3: mid-July – late September –> spring holidays: 2 weeks or 3 if you’re lucky

Term 4: mid-October – mid-late December. The latest you could expect term 4 to finish is the 23rd of December.

Summer holidays, aka Christmas holidays: January is off.

They’re probably trying to stop people using terms like ‘Easter holidays’ and ‘Christmas holidays’ now that assuming Christianity is less PC. Speaking of which…

Religious Education/Instruction vs Moral Education

It’s probably always been a bit controversial, but I’ve only become aware of this since finishing school. In Australia there are church volunteers who go around telling kids about stuff from the Bible in half-hour sessions. These used to be opt-out, meaning that unless a parent specifically requested that their child not be instructed about the goodness of Christianity, the child had to sit there and be instructed. I remember wishing I could have had a note to opt me out so I could play computer games like the other 1 or 2 kids who weren’t participating. It was changed to opt-in in 2011 and the numbers dropped a fair bit. I think educators are leaning more towards views that education should be secular and that kids should be taught about religions (comparatively) rather than what you might call indoctrinated into one religion. According to this article about it, they’re also trying to focus on respecting people and treating each other well, to reduce the significant problems Australia is having with domestic violence.

Japan doesn’t have religious education as far as I know, other than what students might learn in Social Studies. What they have is dōtoku 道徳, ‘Moral Education.’ This is where they basically get taught how to behave in Japan, as far as I could make out from the teacher I asked about it the other day. How to be polite and respectful. Read more about it here.


Japanese primary school kids grow flowers, tomatoes and other plants at school! Each kid has their own little plastic pot and a plastic bottle with a little sprinkling shower head they attach to it to water their plants. At some schools they grow rice, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. I think this is great, especially these days with the increasing availability of pre-made food. I don’t think many Japanese kids would get to be like those kids on Jamie’s School Dinners who didn’t recognise celery.

I don’t think gardening is as widely spread in Australian schools. I don’t recall doing it at school myself. However, I’m pretty sure my mum did some at her school way out in the sticks about a hundred years ago. My high school introduced optional horticulture and viticulture subjects during my last couple of years there, but it wasn’t the same.

School camp


School camp was probably my favourite thing about primary school. My favourite book at primary school was Don’t Pat the Wombat! by Elizabeth Honey and I remember waiting impatiently to go on camp in grade 4. It was 2 nights or maybe 3 down at Point Nepean/Portsea where Harold Holt didn’t come back from. It was called school camp, but actually we didn’t sleep in tents, but cabins. We saw a canon, listened to (sea!)shells and took turns sitting in a helicopter. It was very exciting. I think I was keeping a diary at the time and some of the girls in my room or another room found it and read it, much to my dismay.

Grade 5 and 6 camp was longer, maybe 4 or 5 days. We went to adventure-y type places with high and low ropes courses and a great big flying fox, and did horse riding and went on a 15-metre swing. It was the Best Thing Ever.

Tents were for Year 7 onwards, when we started cooking our own food, doing more hiking, cycling, surfing, rock climbing and stuff. At my school it was called Outdoor Education. By Year 10, when it was no longer compulsory, we had to plan our menu and route and carry everything we’d need for a 6-day hike, and take turns to navigate with compasses. It was the best. My partner and I took us in the wrong direction for the first half hour of the first morning. Then we figured out something was wrong. Camp was the only time I felt alive (I wasn’t a very active teenager), and you could get along with people you otherwise wouldn’t, and you could cut each other’s hair or talk about poo and nobody cared so much.

In Japan, they have a ‘school trip’ which starts out as an overnight trip to some tourist destination in grade 5 or 6 and builds up to 2 or 3 nights by the time they get to year 9. It’s usually to some sort of tourist destination. My schools went to Tokyo, Okinawa, Kyoto, and places like that. Most of the kids love it, but many of them have never been camping, and often not for more than one night if they have.

The school ground

In Australia, school grounds usually have some bitumen areas, a hall/gym, classrooms, common areas and an oval (or more than one). The oval is a large area of grass that may or not actually be in the shape of an oval. It might be square or circular. There is usually a cricket pitch of packed dirt or some harder surface in the middle.

Primary schools have play equipment (monkey bars, slide etc) over a surface of what’s known as tanbark. Some schools have tennis courts, outdoor basketball/netball courts, pools, and/or soccer ovals. Then there are specialty classrooms like art rooms, music rooms, and in secondary schools, science rooms, home economics rooms, drama rooms, and maybe woodwork/ceramics rooms, and usually some sort of auditorium or performance centre. I think music usually has more than one room in secondary schools. Some schools have media/multimedia study areas… oh and of course, every school has a library.

Playground over tanbark. Image: an ACT school website

Most schools in Australia are quite sprawly, taking up a large area of land and not extending upwards for many storeys – it would be rare that you’d see a school building as tall as three storeys, I think. And of course, there is a first aid room/nurse’s room, staff room, and principal’s office. I think all schools also have a reception desk, usually near the principal’s office.

As far as I am aware, most schools in Japan don’t have grass – or common areas. The ‘ground’ is a coarse sandy dirt, sort of like tiny tiny gravel. That’s where kids run around, play soccer, baseball and dodgeball, and what play equipment is on.

The guraundo (ground) at a school in Tochigi. Image: Tochigi Film & TV Commission

Everywhere else outdoors is either concrete/asphalt or dedicated garden bed. Inside, there is the genkan 玄関 (shoe locker area for changing between indoor and outdoor shoes), classrooms, radio room,  staff room, library, office worker’s room (not sure what goes on there – accounting? General admin?), specialty rooms like music, science, art, home economics. I’ve never heard of a drama room or media room in a Japanese school, but they have computer labs. Some schools have kitchens where lunch is made on campus, if the school is big enough – others get it delivered from a local school lunch centre. All Japanese primary schools seem to have pools. Even my school last year that had a total of 36 students had its own pool. Some junior high schools have them, too. The pool gets emptied at some point after summer and by the time the next summer rolls around, it can be pretty gross. Cleaning it out is a school activity.


Most schools in Australia have uniforms. If schools have uniforms, they are compulsory. Some primary schools just have polo shirts and shorts or tracksuit pants and a windcheater, but some have sport and non-sport uniforms. Secondary schools with uniforms usually seem to have both.

I think all Japanese schools have uniforms, but primary school kids don’t seem to wear them a lot of the time. I’m not really sure how it works. I think they have sport uniforms and other uniforms too, but sometimes they don’t wear either. They have some pretty random English on their clothes sometimes.

The red and white hat you can find in any Japanese elementary school. It’s white underneath. Image: Amazon

Hats are mandatory for children in both Japanese and Australian primary schools. In Australia they may or may not be uniform, but in Japan, they’re standardised. All kids have an aka-shiro boushi, 赤白帽子, a red and white reversible cap with an elastic chin strap. They use them to mark out teams when playing tag, for instance – if you’re ‘it’ you wear the red side and everyone else is white. Most schools also have another hat, whose colour varies from school to school. Yellow is a common colour. So is blue, but I’ve seen purple, green and more.


Australia (and the West, yes?): Correct = tick. Incorrect = cross. Or underline or circle, if students/teachers feel that X are too aggressive – just something to draw attention to it.

Image: marcofolio via boredpanda

Japan: Correct = circle. Incorrect = cross – or tick if you can’t be bothered lifting the pen another time.

This was so confusing for me when I first came. Eventually it was OK in the classroom, but now I confuse myself all the time by forgetting which system I’m using when studying Japanese.

There are more oddities about schools in both Australia and Japan. If you’re made it to the bottom of this post, well done! お疲れ様でした。 It took me a while to write and as long to find the photos.


Semantics in translation, Part 1: formalities

Some things don’t translate well between languages. This seems so widely known that I’m reluctant to write it. Everyone knows it, right?

Well, for one thing, I’m not sure that everybody does; at least, not in a way that they have experienced it and know it from the inside out. And some kids don’t know it, because it’s something most people learn at some point, whether by experience or from hearing/reading it somewhere. So I was going to do this post about this, but it started getting pretty long so it has become the first part of a series.

Between any two languages there are things you can’t translate. I learned about this for the first time when I was learning French: it sort of seeped in slowly from when I started learning it at school, and then hit more front-on once I went to France. I was quite dismayed to be told that French people don’t use vraiment the same way we use really in English and I’d been throwing it out all over the place and making myself look like an idiot for about 3 weeks (well, adding to my appearance of idiocy). I’ve written about this before, I recall.

Consider that English and French are closely related. But there are still plenty of differences in the way they express ideas: the mechanics of the language are different; the usage is different; actually that’s probably the bulk of it. There are expressions like there is/are and il y a used similarly, where you could translate il y a to ‘he there has’ – which probably makes about as much sense as ‘there is’ if you actually think about existential there. Where is? Another might be the way French (and Romance languages in general?) uses have where English uses be: j’ai froid ‘I have cold’ vs. ‘I’m cold,’ or elle a 12 ans ‘she has 12 years’ vs ‘she’s 12.’ Another would be one like je veux que tu m’aides, ‘I want that you help me’ as opposed to ‘I want you to help me.’ These are quite small things, but they show how languages perceive/talk about things differently – or at least how my English-speaking brain sees them as different.

So here are a few between the unrelated (except for loan words) languages of English and Japanese.

‘Bless you!’

This doesn’t exist in Japanese. They don’t say anything when people sneeze. So it’s a good way to confuse Japanese school kids 🙂

‘Hello.’ ‘Hi.’

Japanese is very decisive about what expression is appropriate on what occasion, and they don’t have one like ‘hello’ that works anytime. I mentioned this in a post about ceremony a while ago.

I found French easy in this regard – for greetings at the start of an encounter, you could use either bonjour or bonsoir, good day or good evening, and then to close an encounter there would be à plus (tard), see you later, or bonne nuit, goodnight, or à jeudi, see you on Thursday, or au revoir, ‘until we see each other again.’ As far as I know French doesn’t use bonjour to say ‘this encounter is over’ in the way we might have once used ‘Good day’ or these days, ‘have a good day.’

Image: quickmeme

In Japanese for expressions that can be used the same way as ‘hello,’ you’ve got おはよう(ございます)ohayou (gozaimasu), こんにちは konnichiwa, こんばんは konbanwa, ‘good morning,’ ‘good day,’ ‘good evening,’ and then a few other heavily socialised expressions like オス osu, which is typically used by boys on baseball teams, so kids think it’s funny to try to get foreigners to say it. The ‘good morning’ option is actually a very formal way of saying ‘It’s early’ and is also used for people clocking in for work, whatever time their shift starts. Apparently this is because it’s got a masu on it and is therefore polite and appropriately formal, where as the other time-based greetings don’t. Greeting people, especially with ohayou gozaimasu, seems more important as a formalised ritual in Japanese than in English, whether you are intending to actually talk to someone or not.

Goodbye options are also different to English: じゃ(ね) ja (ne), ‘well then,’ じゃまたね ja mata ne ‘well, see you again,’ また来週・年 mata raishu/nen ‘see you again next week/year etc.’ バイバイ baibai ‘bye-bye’ or さようなら sayonara, used for ‘goodbye’ but according to this interesting post, actually means something more like ‘if that’s the way it’s going to be’ and is quite final, more like ‘farewell.’ It’s usually not used every day, except by the occasional special needs student who works on their own hours and comes to the staff room to tell the teachers they’re going home. It’s relatively formal.

It can be a bit stressful for foreigners trying to greet people in Japanese, because there is a large chance you will choose the wrong greeting for the time of day and be corrected or laughed at. On the other hand, as the only native English speaker in the room, it often seems awkward and too much trouble to tell your class and teacher not to say ‘good morning’ to you at 11:45am because although it’s technically still morning, it’s weird unless someone has just woken up. In the same way as ohayo is, people. And it would be even weirder to say ‘good afternoon’ in this case, because noon is still in the future.

お疲れ様 Otsukare sama 

As mentioned in a previous post, this literally means ‘you must be tired.’ However, while I wrote that it’s used as a response to ‘sorry for leaving before you,’ I don’t think I wrote how it can be used as a way to say hello. If it’s not the first time you’ve seen someone that day, and you’ve already said good morning once or twice to them, and you have to go into their office, or you are re-encountering them for whatever reason that day, お疲れ様です otsukare sama desu is used in the same way you might use ‘hello’ to acknowledge someone’s presence or to announce your own. If the school vice principal or someone important is leaving the office on some work business, you can use お疲れ様です otsukare sama desu sort of like ‘see you later.’ It’s different to お疲れ様でした otsukare sama deshita because the latter implies that the person leaving has finished work for the day, whereas the vice principal is going to a meeting or something and still has work to do.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have things like this in English.

‘How are you?’

It’s surprisingly hard to explain how ‘how are you’ is used in English to a Japanese person. When it’s taught in schools, it’s seen as an opportunity to teach and practice words that talk about feelings, like ‘hungry,’ ‘angry,’ ‘sleepy,’ ‘cold,’ ‘sad’ or ‘happy.’ How often do you use these to answer when someone asks how you are?

Yet it should be easy if you think about the fact that it’s mostly used as a social courtesy, to convey that you care about your interlocutor and how they’re feeling this particular day, or how they’re travelling in life. It’s a total pretence when we talk to most people we don’t know, e.g. when shop assistants use it, but it’s just a habit for most people. Of course, people use it genuinely too, especially when it’s a family member or close friend they haven’t seen in a while and they are concerned about the physical or emotional health of the person.

Social courtesies are the bread and butter of Japanese phrases, but ‘how are you’ just isn’t a concept that’s used very much. If you haven’t seen someone in a while, it’s normal to ask about it, but the ‘how’ part isn’t part of the question. The phrase that gets used is (お)元気(ですか)? (o) genki (desu ka)? and could be translated literally as ‘original mood?’ but works out pragmatically to something more like ‘Are you well?’ I think this isn’t typical in most varieties of English, but I’m aware of British people saying ‘you right?’ for a short version of ‘are you all right?’ in a way that’s a nicety, rather than a show of concern. And it means you can answer ‘yes’ for the question ‘how are you?’. French has both, with ça va? (Goes it?) or comment ça va? (How goes it?) And you can answer oui, ça va (yes, it goes) or ça va bien (it goes well). French uses them all the time, much like English.

Sometimes Japanese teachers explain ‘how are you?’ as ‘how is your condition?’ 調子はどう?which is well understood, but it’s not something that Japanese people usually say to each other.

Students whose English teachers don’t speak that much English in class are regularly stumped and panic-freeze if they encounter a foreigner who asks how they are, and have no idea what to say, much as in the situation where they have sneezed and said foreigner says ‘Bless you.’

くれる・あげる・くださる kureru/ageru/kudasaru

One of the ways you can see the famed considerateness coming through in the Japanese language is the way that when someone does something that could be considered a kindness towards someone else, you have to point this out in the way you describe the action. I’m not joking when I say have to, it’s mandatory. If I forget to include it when I’m talking, the nearest Japanese person always corrects me. The closest to this in English that I can think of is ‘do someone the favour of verb-ing’ or ‘be kind enough to’ or in some uses ‘give.’ The first two of these are only used on special occasions in English.

Examples would be:

  • She gave me a book. 彼女が(私に)本をくれた。 kanojo ga (watashi ni) hon wo kureta.
  • Our parents are doing us the favour of bringing us up. 私たちの親は育ててくださっている。 Watashitachi no oya ha sodatete kudasatteiru.
  • At least listen to what he’s saying. せめても彼の言っていることを聞いてあげて。Semetemo kare no itteiru koto wo kiite agete.

The other day one of my students tried to translate the second of the above sentences into English and came up with ‘Our parents give bring us up.’ In the Japanese, it’s inherent that they are doing you a favour, but in English if you want to say that you have to state it more overtly.

I don’t have a conclusion for today’s post as such, but maybe you could make the inference that Japanese cares when people do things for each other, but not about how they are, haha. This post is also a bit of a shout-out to Rina, who requested something about my linguistic journey. These thoughts are part of it.

As always, thanks for being kind enough to read. Until next we meet, have a nice week.

On singing and playing instruments

Happy Tuesday and welcome to this post, which is all in English for now and where I intend to write about how music fits into people’s lives in Australia and Japan. In particular I want to write about singing and people’s attitudes towards it. I won’t write much about classroom music teaching, due to its being a large can of worms and my not being well versed in it. However, I will write a bit about clubs at schools and how individuals go about their musical endeavours, such as instrument and voice lessons and practice. So, here we go.

In Australia, people are self-conscious about singing in front of others. I suspect singing in itself is not seen as cool unless you’ve got a microphone, and maybe not then unless you get properly into it and kill it (you know, nail it, i.e. do an impressive job of it), like Adele or Guy Sebastian. People like singing along to music that is being played, and indeed, if you go to a nightclub or a concert with songs you know being played, singing along enthusiastically is the done thing. However, if you try to get someone to sing you a bit of a song, even just to get the idea of how it goes and whether you know it or not, most people awkwardly refuse, saying, ‘oh no, I can’t sing.’

Those who reckon they can sing like Sia aren’t always so shy, unlike perhaps Sia herself. Image: wetpaint

If you’re in Australia, you may have encountered some recent journalism on ‘tone deafness.‘ Lots of people reckon they are tone deaf – though whether they actually believe it or just say it to either look humble or get out of singing in front of someone, who can say? For most people, though, it’s not true. According to this journal of neuroscience that the Internet conveniently found for me, about 4% of people actually have what is termed congenital amusia, which means it’s hard for them to distinguish between pitches and therefore to carry a tune, or to hear nuances in a melody that other people might. So what’s going on with those from the other 96% that reckon they can’t sing?

I think there’s a fear of failure for people singing in Australia, as strong as the fear of academic failure for school kids in Japan. Especially for men. And not just a fear that they aren’t actually that good a singer, but you know, it’s a kind of non-aggressive self-expression, so to some Aussie blokes, this, for 1, isn’t seen as cool, blokey behaviour, and worse, could easily lead to your being misconstrued as gay. Know what IS blokey, though? This (around 00:40). Footy anthems and Happy Birthday get shouted: with large groups of Australian laypeople, especially men, there’s no perceptible attempt to ‘sing.’ You have the odd guy who actually thinks he can sing, and isn’t afraid to get behind a microphone and try his hand at some Frank Sinatra, and this is the kind you get in singing competitions and bands. And of course there are the other minorities who join choirs and stuff. They’re not usually among the ‘cool kids’ at school, at least not in my experience.

As is mentioned in the ABC article linked to above, I think a lot of people never honestly try to sing after being put down about their singing by parents, teachers or peers, early on in life, whether it’s being told that they’re tone deaf or that they don’t have a ‘good voice’ or whatever it may be. Maybe this discourages people and they get put off, like how I was with PE.

Many schools in Australia have choirs that students can join as a co-curricular activity. Notice the word ‘can’ here – it’s optional. And in most schools, I think there are things anyone can join. In my school, a lot of the kids who joined were not high in the social rankings of their various year levels and may have felt bullied, actively or passively, by those who were (the sporty kids). But I digress. I think most school choirs sound pretty good in general; they sound musical. There are usually enough people who are able to musically lead that those who are happier following.


My school had a House Music competition. Not as in the genre of music that is house, but as in, our school was divided into houses like in Harry Potter, and the houses competed against each other in events like athletics, cross country, swimming day and House Music. As a music nerd, it was the event of the year for me.

House Music had four events for each house: a stage/dance event, an instrumental, a duo/trio and a choir event. They were all voluntary except for choir. And they were all usually pretty great to watch and listen to – except for choir. Generally, you would hear the girls’ part(s) singing the notes intended. They weren’t very confident, so they were usually a bit quiet and the leaders were always telling them to sing louder. And you would hear… maybe 60 boys all shouting what might have been words at the same time. It was kind of like a footy anthem, except because there was a piano accompaniment and they’d been trained with people clapping the beat and there was a conductor trying furiously to keep time, they didn’t get faster.

It’s really different in Japan. Singing is much more a usual part of life. It’s not seen as uncool/gay to sing if you’re a guy. Sometimes groups of boys go to karaoke together – or men and/or women for work afterparties. And boy bands are still a thing in Japan. K-pop and J-pop is probably at least half made up of idol groups of 3 or more members, sometimes more like 48. Boys OR girls singing and dancing in unison with some solo parts (mixed groups of this type don’t seem to exist outside AAA).

Popular boy band EXILE. Image: this commercial page

School music classes involve a lot of singing together in Japan. I haven’t been to many, but I hear them all the time. There always seems to be some sort of choral singing. It’s usually popular music – that is to say, kids start with children’s songs, nursery rhymes and folk songs, then broaden out to other kinds of pop. They don’t sing classical or church music.

Some schools have choir clubs, some don’t. But all junior high schools have a choral event, which all the students join; it’s compulsory, but I’ve never heard any complain about having to do it. When you see them perform, most seem to enjoy it, and you can hear them – they’re not miming. For some of the really naughty or restless kids (possibly undiagnosed ADD or an ignored learning difficulty), singing in choirs is the only time I’ve seen them join in and work constructively with the other students, or stay in one place for more than 2 minutes. Is this just my schools, or do your schools get equally into it, ALT readers?

In this choir event, home room classes compete against each other. Students accompany and conduct. The class practises together for a few weeks before the event and they usually sound pretty great. All the classes manage at least 2-part harmony, more often 3-part.

As a long-time choir singer and musician, there is something that really surprised me in choral rehearsals at some of my schools: When they have sectional rehearsals, i.e. when the sopranos, altos and boys (who evidently aren’t trusted to divide) are practicing their different parts separately, they all do it at the same time in the same room, and they do it by singing their part along with a CD.


How are you supposed to be able to figure out your own part when the same song is playing, in different places of the song, at the same time in 3 different parts of the room!?!?

When the whole of Year 7 and Year 8 were practicing their sending-off song the other day for the upcoming Year 9 graduation, they did this too in the school gym. The altos were in trouble because unlike the other two parts, they didn’t have enough space to make a circle so they were all in rows facing towards the middle of the gym, but the CD player they were using didn’t have an extension cord, so it was at the end of the second-back row and almost nobody could hear it. What they could hear was the boys and the sopranos belting out their respective parts with their respective CD accompaniments. It was mighty difficult for the altos to stick together. Some people started clapping the beat, but the ones clapping couldn’t hear the CD either so they were wrong and it all fell apart. Then it was time for me to go… I hope they worked it out in the end.

If this doesn’t seem weird to you, maybe I should explain that in every choir I’ve sung in in Australia, and also the ones I briefly joined in France and Hungary, if the parts are practising their individual parts, they do it in different places so they can hear themselves. In school choir, this meant using various different practice rooms in the music centre. In other choirs, this meant either using different rooms or some groups going outside or whatever. I’ve also never seen people learning their part using a CD together. Some singers learn their part by singing along with the recording at home or in the car, but I’d never seen it happen in rehearsal until I came to Japan.

On the other hand, the brass band in a Japanese school almost never seems to rehearse as a whole band. They just do individual practice in the corridors (percussion stays in the music room) where they can not only hear each other, but all the kids practising baseball, volleyball, track and field etc. can also hear. This took me a while to get my head around too: in school band in Australia, we were expected to learn our parts at home, and do our practice at home, and then we’d only rehearse together once or twice a week. This was more or less true for choir too – we only rehearsed together once or twice a week, so it was precious time and we didn’t have sectional rehearsals very often.

After a while I worked out that this is why kids have band/choir practice every day in Japan – school is where they do their practice. They probably can’t do it at home, because it will disturb the neighbours. (Have you ever lived near a drummer?) And most schools I’ve been to in Japan only have one music room – they don’t have a music department with practice rooms. Using CDs for choir parts enables the kids to follow along without having to be able to sight-sing, which is a pretty difficult skill to learn for a lot of people. I guess they just learn to put up with having to tune out of the other parts rehearsing at the same time.

Australian and other western readers, does this sound right to you? Does singing make people cringe, where you come from? How do you feel about karaoke? How much singing do you remember doing at school, and what were attitudes like towards it?