9? 10?

I was just looking through old posts, thinking, man I need to write more, and I found this one that I wrote last year when I was still working in the kindergarten.

—– sometime in 2017 —–

These days, I’m surrounded by pregnancy. I’m at the age where all my school and uni peers seem to be posting pregnant-and-or-baby things on Facebook. I work in a kindergarten that also takes kids from the age of 1, and the attached childcare facility takes babies from 2 months old.

Only this weekend did I learn that in Japan, they consider a human pregnancy to be 10 months and 10 days long.

I will admit that I’ve been watching the ‘asadora’ (morning serial drama) Mare, about the life and career of an aspiring pastry chef, and enjoying it in all its soppy silliness until I got too invested in the last couple of episodes. Ok, ok, that’s not the first time I got annoyed with it. *Spoiler alert* I got annoyed when the main character turned down an apprenticeship in France – a rite of passage for any serious dessert chef in Japan – to go and support her husband because he was in over his head at work. Even though he and everyone else told her to go to France. That annoyed me, but it was fitting with the character and made for good drama so I let it pass. Thinking about it now, it still grates.

This episode, yesterday, though… a character finds out on New Year’s Day that she’s pregnant, at the hospital (what sort of Japanese hospital is open on New Year’s Day? Maybe they went to emergency?). They tell her she’s 3 months pregnant and the baby is due in August. But… if she’s 3 months pregnant, that means the baby must have been conceived in late September or early October, yes? So the pregnancy is expected to be over 10 months long!?

I asked this of my Japanese companion, who responded, yep, 10 months and 10 days, everyone knows that.

Naturally I Googled it. Wiki and the rest of the internet when you Google it in English on Australian Google (look, it knows I’m Australian, I don’t deliberately go to Google Australia) claims that it’s 40 weeks on average, but anywhere from 37 to 42 weeks is not unusual. 42 weeks is 9.66 months.

Where did you pull ’10 months, 10 days’ from, Japan?

Well. A couple of blogs, Japan Explained and this English forum, say that it’s probably for a couple of reasons, being 1. counting on a lunar calendar for this instead of a usual Western calendar and 2. counting the pregnancy from the first day of the last period, as in, the period that last happens before the pregnancy has occurred. I guess it’s like how Koreans say they’re already 1 when they’re born.

I haven’t had any pregnancies/children of my own at this point, so I can’t discuss this with any first-hand knowledge, but from what I’ve heard, Japan is a bit old-fashioned with some strange beliefs when it comes to the having of and caring for children and the way women should do it – and yes, specifically women.

Common beliefs include that pregnant mothers should keep their feet warm at all times. This means they have to wear socks at all times, including in the height of summer. Expectant mothers seem to be often encouraged to rest rather than exercising, even if the pregnancy is going fine. One mother I know was told by her doctor to stop cycling. She did stop cycling to her doctor’s appointments.

I’ve heard stories about a women having to give birth with their feet up in stirrups, which is pretty outdated. I know a woman who had twins and was only allowed to see them for 2 hours a day for the first few days. I’ve heard of a Japanese woman who was shocked to hear of epidurals when an American explained it to her. However, I can also vouch for some of the high-tech equipment that’s used in some clinics. There’s a gynaecologist’s chair that’s like a dentist’s chair: it moves and puts you in the easiest position for the doctor to do what they need to do.


Doing some research for this post, I found an interesting not-quite-horror story – thanks to a lot of work on the part of the parents – of an American-Japanese couple going through pregnancy and childbirth in Japan. It’s well written and worth checking out.

And I enjoyed this Japan Times article that’s a what-to-expect guide for pregnancy and birth in Japan. It came out a couple of years ago now but it’s a great read. I think it’s the reason I didn’t publish this post when I wrote most of it a year or so ago.

The tree

As someone who grew up in Australia, there’s something special about gum trees for me. They’re just so iconically Australian and when I see them, I know I’m home… or not, as in the rare cases when I come across them in Japan. Japanese people generally think eucalyptus stinks, but I like it. Maybe the same as how lots of Westerners (including me) really dislike the smell of natto, but lots of Japanese people like it (? right?).

There’s one particular eucalypt that’s exceedingly special for a few reasons. The first time I saw it, I was kind of gobsmacked because I hadn’t expected to find a eucalyptus in Japan, in the first place, and especially not on a field trip to a castle with a kindergarten.

This tree survived the atomic bombing of 1945.

It’s very broad and sprawly, compared to most eucalypts I’ve seen.

It’s also twisty and kind of higgledy-piggledy. The limbs of eucalyptus trees don’t usually do this, they usually point more upwards and less confused looking.

No doubt it’s due to the radiation or something to do with the bomb.

My bomb-surviving-tree-expert friend reckons you can see scarring on one side, and there are many more roots and more growth on the other side. I don’t seem to have attempted to photograph the scarring.

I’m glad the tree is here and doing so well.

There’s a sign or two nearby about the tree, and my aforementioned tree expert friend wrote a piece about the survivor trees in Get Hiroshima last July. She’s also translated a book about them, which isn’t available in full yet, but there’s a section from it on this eucalyptus here, including a photo of how it looked soon after the bombing.

An Idiot’s Guide to Baseball Leagues in Japan

A couple of weekends ago, a few things happened. I went to a festival in Osaka and then Hiroshima beat Osaka to win the Central League, which is a baseball league in Japan.

I don’t know much about baseball. We don’t have it much in Australia: I know more people in Australia who regularly play Ultimate Frisbee than who have ever regularly played baseball, and this is not an exaggeration. I knew one kid at school who played baseball, and his dad was American. I did play softball at school, which I gather is related. So I can kind of understand the very basics.

Something I still don’t really understand is the different leagues within Japan. In 2016, Hiroshima Toyo Carp was the champion of the Central League series for the first time in 25 years. This was a big deal in Hiroshima, which is baseball-mad as of the last few years, apparently (the ‘apparently’ is that I’m told it used to be not quite so big as it is now). So everyone was really excited about the win… and then the baseball season kept going, and everyone kept watching. Apparently if they hadn’t won the match that made them champions, they would have stopped for the season, but because of winning, they kept playing. I now realise that this is because there are two regional leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League, and the ‘best teams’ from both then play against each other in what is called the Climax Series. Also known as… the Japan Series? Wait, I need a cup of tea.

No, the Climax Series is not the Japan Series. The Climax Series decides who gets to play in the Japan Series. Important distinction.

Also, Osaka has a team in each league. The Orix Buffaloes play in the Pacific League and the Hanshin Tigers in the Central one. That’s not fair, Osaka. Except… it seems the Hanshin Tigers are actually not based in Osaka anymore, but Hyogo. Even though they used to be called the Osaka Tigers. But even at that time their home ground was always in Hyogo? My friend tells me that’s just because Hyogo is close to Osaka.

Furthermore, most of the teams are named after the companies who sponsor them. Hiroshima Toyo Carp, I have been told, is the exception – it’s supposed to be sponsored by the City of Hiroshima. But I looked this up just now and Wiki reckons Mazda is the biggest sponsor. Mazda’s name used to be Toyo Kogyo. So when Toyo Kogyo became the principal sponsor in the late ’60s, Hiroshima Carp became Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Their home ground is Mazda ‘Zoom-zoom’ Stadium, pronounced by locals as Matsuda Sutajiamu. Speaking of which, did you know the spelling of Mazda is just a stylisation? It’s said Mr. Matsuda thought it looked cooler than ‘Matsuda.’

Back to baseball basics. In the Central and Pacific Leagues both, the best teams are decided at the end of a 144-game season. The top 3 get to Stage 1 of the Climax series, in which no. 2 and no. 3 compete for the chance to play in Stage 2. In Stage 2, those winners play the no. 1 team from their leagues. The winners of Stage 2 advance to what is not Stage 3, but the Japan Series. Wiki has a handy diagram of this progression.

The Japan Series, it turns out, is a series of up to 7 matches between just the two teams who were the winners of the Climax Series. It’s a best-of-7 tournament, so whoever is the first to win 4 matches becomes the victor. That’s the end of Japanese Professional Baseball for that year.

So… in 2016 when Carp won the Central League, Hiroshima went mental.

When Carp won Central League in 2016.
Image: tabiyaka hiroshima

The streets in the city filled with people, the izakayas served free beer, there were all sorts of sales. Various shops started selling/displaying V7 (7-time Central League Victors) stuff.


2016 Central League champion edition phone cover. Image: this blog Munesada by some dude who was excited about it

Public places displayed stuff like this a fair bit

Then they kept playing and people kept watching. I was confused, because I didn’t know about the Climax Series and Japan Series, but when a friend invited me to go and watch a match where a bar had turned one of their TVs out to face the street, I went. It turned out to be the 6th match of the Japan Series, and at the start of the match it was 2-3 where the 2 was 2 wins for Hiroshima Toyo Carp and the 3 was for Nippon-Ham Fighters from Sapporo… and Carp lost, which made Nippon Ham the champions of Japanese baseball for the year. There was a point where the match was really close, and then one particular pitcher went on and the other team got about 3 batters home safe, and the Hiroshima fans were pretty angry with that pitcher, and with the manager or whoever was responsible for putting him on the field at that point. It was Halloween and a friend I was watching with was dressed up as a zombie or something in a Carp uniform, and standing out as she did, some TV crews kept watching us and filming us. So they got her saying, ‘I HATE that pitcher!’ in Japanese.

A few weeks after this, my parents came to visit Hiroshima and came to a couple of the schools where I was working at the time. I’d told Mum and Dad about how the championship had gone to the other team and how disappointing it was for the Hiroshima crowd. The principal of the junior high school, though, said something like, ‘Oh, do you know about our baseball team, the Carp?’ and Dad started to say something commiserative like ‘Yeah, sounds like they got so close!’ and the school principal continued, ‘We are all so happy and proud because they won this year.’

Mum, Dad and I were all a bit dumbfounded. I think we said something like ‘Yes, that’s good.’

So, Mum and Dad, now I think I understand what happened – they were simply choosing to acknowledge the results of the series they had won, as opposed to the later one they entered (and ultimately lost) as a result of that win.

Tell you what, in AFL (Australian Football League, no, not soccer and not rugby) there’s just the one season. It goes for ages, but it’s got its quarter-finals, semi-finals and the ‘grand final’ and whoever wins the Grand Final is the winner. Then it’s finished. Seems so simple. Are rugby and cricket leagues/series easy to understand?

This year, 2017, Carp won the Central League again, on Monday the 18th of September, the day of the national holiday ‘Respect for the Aged Day.’ That day, I had just come back on the train from Osaka where I’d been to a particular local festival and then had dinner in a place where the beer mugs had Hanshin Tigers on them. It felt weird and traitorous to drink from those mugs.

So now it’s V8. I think the Climax Series starts soon. So in Stage 2, Carp will play either Hanshin Tigers or Yokohama BayStars for the chance to play in the Japan series. Right?

‘Very Carp! Celebrate V8’

Fragrant damp season flowers

Everyone knows the famous cherry blossom of Japan. Not so many know what has been making half of the prefecture smell so sweet over the last month or so. It was driving me a bit nuts wondering what it was, and I remembered it happening last autumn in Gifu too, at around the time it was finally starting to cool down. I remember wandering around sniffing all these trees and flowers to find which one was making the apricot smell. Well, this year I found out.

Sweet osmanthus

The culprit: sweet osmnathus

In Japanese it’s called kinmokusei (金木犀  きんもくせい ) and in English, sweet olive, tea olive, sweet osmanthus, or fragrant olive. I don’t think it looks all that olive-y, myself, but there you go. The ‘sweet’ and ‘fragrant’ parts definitely make sense. The smell can be quite strong, and while I like it, I can understand how if you were feeling sick it might be overpowering. Blogger Sandra in Japan reckons it was used in toilet deodorisers from the ’70s to the ’90s and gained a strong association there, and since has not been a popular scent for toiletries. I guess this is like how pine smells like cleaning products to many noses these days, and doesn’t make a popular drink flavour, for example. I know this because I bought some pine liqueur in Austria once and enjoyed it until someone said it smelled like a cleaning product.

According to Wiki, sweet osmanthus is native to Asia: from the Himalayas down to some of southeast Asia and across to southern Japan. That makes sense, because I didn’t notice it my first year up in the north of Japan.

Another scent I didn’t notice in my first year in Japan, but have noticed in Brisbane, Melbourne and southern Japan is – get ready – pittosporum tobira. In English it’s known as mock orange, Japanese mock orange, Australian laurel, and Japanese pittosporum. Apparently in Japanese it’s トベラ (tobera), thought to have come from tobira 扉 とびら, meaning ‘door’ which was because the tree looked like it was making a door/gate with its branches. This from a Japanese site. It’s native to China, Japan and Korea, says Wiki, so I’m not sure who called it Australian laurel, but it does grow in Australia.

Pittosporum tobira, a.k.a. tobera. Image:

Pittosporum tobira, a.k.a. tobera. Image from here

The scent is, again, sweet, but more citrusy than osmanthus, and definitely more subtle. Some people think it smells like jasmine, lilies or orange blossoms. I was sniffing all over streets in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hiroshima before identifying the plant with the help of my aunt who was visiting in June this year. June is the best time to catch the smell of tobira in southern Japan, and is also when the ajisai (aka hydrangeas) should be in full bloom. It’s also the official rainy season.

When does tobira make its scent in Australia? I don’t remember. Late spring? Early summer?


What do you like/dislike Australia/Japan?

Back in Japan, and over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about a few things that irk me in Australia and in Japan. And things that make me happy. They might be different to what you’d like or dislike. I thought I’d share them. Here they are.

Things I dislike about Australia:

  • Rubbish on trains and public transport. Have some respect for your environment, people, even if it is a train.
  • A little bit of disingenuousness in some people, e.g. shop people that are like ‘Hi how you going!?’ when they’ve never met you before and don’t even listen to the answer (which pretty much has to be ‘Yeah good!’ unless you are ready to have a breakdown on them.)
  • Bit of hierarchy making people feel that they are worth more or less than others.
  • Breakfast. People think it’s weird to have vegetables in your breakfast. Why?
  • School: many students leave school with less personal confidence than they had going in. I read this here about a week ago and thought, wow, yeah. Is this a place where this is not true? Maybe in Finland, as seems to be suggested in the article.

Things I dislike about Japan:

  • You can’t get lunch in most cafes after 1:30pm, and that’s borderline. I was once turned away at 1:15pm because they had ‘closed for lunch.’ Seriously! All the food and the cooking staff are still there, you can’t be all packed up yet. (You can go to a noodle shop or probably a sushi train or something. I just like cafes.)
  • Quite a lot of disingenuousness in general everyday life. It’s possible that, as a foreigner, I see a bit more of it than the average Japanese person. But then again, most high-ups like branch managers and school principals would see an awful lot of it. They have a name for it here: 建前 tatemae. If this concept interests you, check out this, this, or this.
    • Not sure if it’s separate or is really part of tatemae but definitely related: People in Japan seem to feel that it’s necessary to have some sort of reaction to seeing a person who looks visibly foreign. Maybe they feel it’s a graceful way to cover how awkward they feel, or their surprise or shock at seeing some freaky white, black, or coloured person. For example, hospitality staff: ‘Wow, you are so beautiful/handsome! You speak Japanese so well.’ Random lady in an onsen (a public bath where everyone is naked): ‘Oh, you’re really pretty!’
  • Hierarchy and inequality, big time. I guess I feel it more in Japan because here I’m way further down the chain than in Australia, but in both places, as a woman I’m behind and as a ‘young person’ too.
  • School: same as Australia, many students leave school with less confidence than when they started. Also, other points that I will link to when I finally write them.

Things I like about Japan:

  • Foods often come in handy sets. Breakfast set (thanks Nagoya!): toast, egg, salad, yoghurt and coffee. For maybe $8.

    Lunch set in Japan. This was probably more like $12-15. Yum.

    Lunch set. This was probably more like $12-15.

  • Safety. Most places in Japan, a woman can walk home alone from the station at 2am without much cause for worry.
  • Considerateness – it’s not all tatemae. If you are walking up a mountain or across a carpark and you see a towel, a shopping bag or a jumper (as in a pullover, not as in someone who wants to die, North American friends) lying on the ground, by the time you walk past again an hour later, it will be hanging on a tree or handrail somewhere in an easy-to-spot position. There is also very little stealing in Japan.
  • Public transport. Like many things in Japan, it really is pretty convenient and, just as importantly, reliable. (THESE THINGS ARE IMPORTANT, MELBOURNE.)

Things I like about Australia:

  • Working conditions. Work-life balance, annual leave, sick leave, parental leave… 8-hour days. Long service leave.
  • Social progress. Working conditions are part of social progress, I guess, but the fact that it’s OK to talk about pretty much anything and point out when something’s not right, and hold those responsible accountable (unless it’s something you saw in an offshore detention centre, and I like the fact that a lot of Australia is not afraid to condemn both what is/has been happening and the law that forbids victims and witnesses to speak out). I think honesty comes into it, but open-mindedness is probably more relevant to social progress, so let’s go with that. Multiculturalism is maybe part of this, too.

    Stuff like this. Image: The Conversation

    Stuff like this. Image: The Conversation

  •  GPs and the public health system. No, I’m not saying it’s perfect. But it is really, really useful to be able to go to one doctor and say ‘OK, I’ve got a headache and a stomachache and an earache, and I think I broke my elbow and can you please have a look at this mole and oh I need a PAP check. Oh and it hurts when I poo.’ OK, a list like that would take quite a while, but any GP can deal with all of these things or refer you to specialists where necessary. Do you have any idea how many doctors you would have to go to in Japan to deal with the above list? Probably five or six, I reckon. So it’s extremely useful to have one doctor who can be like your base coordinating doctor. You do have to have one you trust, though.
  • Safety – similar to Japan.

No pomp and ceremony here


Snow gums, Mt Hotham

Today’s post is a quick one mid-break, and it is kind of about being brief and to the point.

Being temporarily back in Australia, I’ve been noticing again how different the style of hospitality is to what you get in Japan. Customers are treated less like royalty and more like old mates in Australia. This is not to say that Japan is pretentious or that Australia is not, exactly – there’s plenty of wankery on Australian menus in particular – but it really made me appreciate how and maybe why Australians have the reputation of being friendly, as opposed to the Japanese reputation of politeness.

This kind of Australian-ness is perhaps more noticeable when you get outside the city. In this case, I went to the snow up in the Great Diving Range. It’s all seasonal staff in the ski villages, which means a particular atmosphere and some less professional/experienced hospitality workers than you might expect to find in a city.

Here are a couple of signs that I felt encapsulated some of the down-to-earth-ness that I like in Australia.


Best part of this sign: ‘also no beers soz’


Didn’t realise until seeing this that it wasn’t only my family who have this name for vanilla slice. Have also heard it called ‘phlegm gem.’



It’s midsummer: school holidays. You drive past school at 7pm. How many cars are there in the staff car park? In Australia: 0. In Japan:5+, when I drove yesterday past a middle school where I work.

Japan has 3 school terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March. The summer holiday is the longest, which is similar to most countries I think, but it’s different in that a lot of kids still come to school every day for club activities. Like basketball practice or matches every day for 5 or 6 weeks. Teachers also come to school every day except when it’s a public holiday.

In Hiroshima Prefecture, in the city where I work, school was cancelled on three separate occasions in Term 1 due to rain and flood/landslide warnings. By the way, school being cancelled means students not coming, but all the teachers hanging out in the (air conditioned!) staff room all day, unless they have meetings or stuff to do in their empty home rooms. What follows in this post is, as close as I was able to recall/translate when I got home that night, a conversation that took place on the last of these days between the two Grade 4 teachers and me as most of the staff were tucking into their ordered-at-the-last-minute bentos, and I my Family Mart rice balls (had been at a different school in the morning and missed out on the bento ordering).


The very popular onigiri (rice ball) flavour ‘sea chicken,’ a.k.a tuna. Image: Myunti

Note: BJ=BijinJapan, T1 and T2: Grade 4, Class 1 and Class 2 home room teachers

BJ: Oh! Sensei, you brought a bento!?

T1: Yeah, I was making one for my daughter so it was easy to make one for myself too.

T2: Ah, she takes a bento?

BJ: How old is your daughter?

T1: She’s in grade 3. She’ll be at your middle school in three years. My son is in kindergarten, so he only needs to take rice.

T2: He has to take rice?

T1: Yeah. They have the おかず okazu (mains/sides to go alongside rice) there, but the kids have to bring their own rice. With no nori or seasoning – they reckon there’s too much salt in it.

BJ: Huh! I didn’t know they had school lunch at kindergarten.

T1: I’m glad we have school lunch here.

T2: Me too.

BJ: Me too! We don’t have it in Australia.

T1: Really!? Everyone brings a bento?

BJ: Yeah…

T1: Oh wait, they don’t have bentos there do they? Do they just wrap their lunch in a cloth and bring it?

balwynPS uniform

 This was printed out sitting on my desk to show an example of the kinds of uniforms primary school kids wear in Australia. Image: Balwyn Primary School website via Google

BJ: Oh, most kids do have a lunchbox, but it is a different kind (shows picture that is conveniently lying around on nearby desk ready for a poster). Kids often take a sandwich, some fruit, maybe a little packet of chips or biscuits. The one in this picture looks like it has yoghurt and grapes.

T1: Wow. So there’s no food hall or cafeteria?

BJ: Well, most schools have a canteen for if you can’t bring lunch, but usually the food’s not that healthy.

T1: So did you take lunch every day?

BJ: Yeah, I did. Sandwiches every day, pretty boring huh!

T1: No rice balls?


Mmm, sea chicken. Image: here 

BJ: No, nobody really eats rice balls in Australia.

T1: But you’ve got them today! Do you like Japanese food?

BJ: Yes, very much.

T1: Do you cook at home?

BJ: Yes, well, of course?

T1: That’s great! What do you make?

BJ: Um… food? I make a lot of pasta and sometimes curries like Indian or Thai curry.

T2: Yum, that sounds nice.

T1: Wow, you can make that? Is it difficult? Do you make it from scratch with the spices and stuff?

BJ: With Indian food sometimes I use spices, but for Thai I just use a curry paste from the shops, so it’s really easy.

T1: Nice, I’ve never tried to make Thai curry. What about Japanese food, do you cook anything?

BJ: Sometimes I make okonomiyaki, Osaka style. I like to make it because it’s simple, but Hiroshima style is tricky to eat, let alone make.

T1 & T2: Yeah, Hiroshima style is not for home, too hard!

T1: So are you going home for summer?

BJ: Yes, looking forward to seeing my family… we’re going skiing 🙂

T1: Oh right, it’s winter there! It snows?

BJ: Only in the mountains usually. But today was supposed to be quite cold, Canberra was forecast to maybe get some snow, I think the maximum temperature was going to be 7 degrees (Centigrade).

T2: Does it get into the minuses?

BJ: Overnight, yes, but not during the day.

T2: Sounds comfortable.

BJ: Yeah, it’s good. So I’m looking forward to feeling cold! But it almost feels like the closer it gets, the more homesick I get, because I can feel that it’s soon, it’s soon, it’s coming…

T1: It’s the same for us with Obon! (a holiday of a few days where everyone goes to their hometown and visits their parents, and their ancestors’ graves)

BJ: Ah, yes! Are you going to visit your parents?

T1: Yeah, but it’s not far for me, how about you, T2?

T2: I’m the same, but my husband’s family lives in Yamaguchi, so he’ll be away.

T1: So when are you going to Australia?

BJ: August.

T2: Oh, only for August?

BJ: I’ll be there for 3 weeks. Isn’t that a long time in Japanese terms?

T2: Yeah, it is.

T1: Yeah! If someone was away from work for 3 weeks, everyone wouldn’t get it, it would be like, “What? What are they doing?”*

T2: Yes, it doesn’t really happen here.

T1: What’s it like in Australia for 社会人 shakaijin (full-time workers/members of society)?

BJ: I think most people get about 3 weeks off a year, and you can decide when you take them.

T1: Wow, that’s nice! We get 5 to maybe 10 days over Obon and New Year.

BJ: There’s also this thing we call ‘long service leave’ where if you stay at one company for 10 years, you get 3 months off.

T1: WHAAAAAAT No way! What do you even do with that time?

BJ: Anything you like.

T1: Travel?

BJ: Sure.

T1: We are workaholics, we work too much. It’s nice during the summer break though; usually we leave school at 7 or 7:30 but in the summer we can go home at 5, so I can go to the pool with my daughter.

BJ: …In Australia that’s normal, the normal working day is 8 or 9 to 5 or 6.

T1: Ah, work-life balance, right? So you can spend time with your family every day!

BJ: It’s important, I think, and good for your health.

T1: Yes, good for mental health.

T2: Is it only Japan that keeps hours like ours?

BJ: I’m not sure, but I think in Europe it’s similar to Australia.

T2: Yeah, I wonder if it’s only Asian countries…

BJ: Korea might be similar?

T2: I think Korea is similar. But you know, it used to be more easygoing around here, 10, 20, maybe 30 years ago. You could come into the teachers’ room in the summer and there would be nobody here.

BJ: What happened?

T2: There’s just all this work to do…

BJ: I wonder how/why it changed from the past?

T2: There are more things we have to write these days, we have to write documents, reports, and submit them to the Board of Education.

T1: It’s been that way since I started teaching, we have to write a lot of stuff. But you have to write reports and things too, don’t you?

BJ: The only thing I usually have to write is lesson plans, unless there’s some special event happening…

*this happens not uncommonly however, when teachers get so stressed/sick that they take a month or year off to recover

And that’s how that conversation went. Here’s to summer holidays.

Education and how it’s done (1)

University: a stressful, busy time for many. A leisurely, carefree or maybe lonely time for some. And a time of learning, that goes without saying. Probably harder than school. Right?

In this post I aim to make a few generalisations about the doing of education in Australia and Japan. Background: I work in the Japanese school system, but I’ve never been a student or teacher in a Japanese university. On the other hand, I’ve completed courses at 3 different Australian university campuses, but school was quite a while ago, so it may have changed, plus my memories are quite vague. And with this kind of asymmetrical balance, on we go.

The point

Education in Japan is largely test-driven. There is often a strong focus on how to pass tests to get to the next stage, into the high school, university etc. you want. Once you get there, wherever it is, you learn the most successful way to behave in that environment: if it’s a company, you get trained for a few years. If it’s a school, you get inducted and mentored (or bullied).

Tests in Japan are often multiple choice with one correct answer. There is usually one way of doing things; opinion, arguing and questioning things doesn’t come into it much until you get to independent research or looking for ways to make a factory system more efficient and profitable. Whether opinion is important in native-language Japanese studies, or in university tutorials, I don’t know. Due to the one-correct-answer mentality and also the value of harmony and agreement in Japan, I have a suspicion that if tutorials are supposed to have discussions, they don’t feature much argument, unlike in Australia.

In Australia, I don’t know how explicit the focus is on this throughout the education system, but there is definitely some focus on critical thinking: questioning, asking why and how and whether you should trust that information. As well as test performance, students are assessed on assignments done at home (e.g. essays) and on class participation, which means asking questions and contributing to discussion (depending on the class) as well as doing the required work. In humanities subjects like English, history and media studies, students are expected and required to present and argue for a particular point of view, and be able to present evidence in a way that supports the opinion they are putting forward, whether it be arguing that a historical dictator actually had a good point or that Gatsby was a sailor (sorry, that’s about all I remember of Year 12 Literature, apart from not understanding Heart of Darkness until the class discussion where I finally started to see what was going on).

So, along with whether you should ask questions and assert yourself or not, I think the main difference between education styles in Australia and Japan is:

Active vs passive learning


A university class in Japan in 2015

In Japan, it’s mostly one-way, teacher-to-student: teachers talk and write on the board, and students listen and copy stuff down (or don’t). Students do drills, to practice and presumably gain some understanding through repetition of what they’ve been told.

Who asks questions? Teachers, to see if students got the right answer or not. What do students do when they don’t understand? Either go home or to cram school to study until they get it and/or ask a tutor, or give up on it. If they’re not interested in understanding, maybe they sleep, or engage in some personal grooming like cutting their hair or pulling the little hairs out of their fingers with a pair of tweezers that they have in class for some reason (that was a high school in Iwate, in case you’re wondering). Or of course, maybe they chat with their friends nearby, doodle in their book or write notes to someone. Sometimes I think this relaxed attitude about getting the knowledge they need comes from knowing that the teacher will tell them what’s going to be on the test so they can memorise it the night before. I’ve seen this in schools and a friend of mine has told me about it happening in a class of hers in a well-respected university. Teaching to the test is not uncommon in Japan, which maybe makes sense if the aim of the system is for students to pass tests.

(That being said, usually even if students fail their tests, they don’t repeat a year – they’re not held back except by the distance between them and their peers or where the curriculum says they should be.)

This one-way classroom style could be construed as requiring extremely active learning on the part of the student, and for the aces leading the class, who the others turn to for help, that’s exactly what happens. But for less motivated students, it’s pretty passive – copying from the board, doing questions, correcting them, not knowing why they’re getting them wrong – or in some cases, just copying the answers directly from the answer book into their notebook. It’s possible and common to get away with very little thinking and a lot of going through the motions.

Why don’t students ask questions? It’s not the culture, and here is what I think is why: It shows a lack of comprehension, thereby exposing weakness/inferiority. It draws attention to the asker, which is embarrassing. And it holds up the rest of the class, which can be seen as selfish/inconsiderate behaviour.

In Australia, it’s more two-way: teachers also talk, but students are encouraged to ask relevant questions and offer opinions. There is a requirement for students to learn to offer opinions in front of others. This obviously is truer for some subjects than others – maths and science subjects don’t require opinions and class discussions, nor take-home assignments or essays, generally speaking – at least not at school level. But relevant questions are encouraged in every subject, and students are basically supposed to learn to be able to think for themselves and transfer those skills to whatever situation might need them in the future.

Is it common for students to sleep in class? No, in Australia it’s not OK and it’s uncommon, especially at school. You might get away with it at uni if you’re up the back in a big lecture theatre, but in a tutorial, you wouldn’t see it, and if you fell asleep you might be asked to leave. It’s seen as rude towards the teacher because it suggests you find them uninteresting and/or you’re not paying attention to the class.


Intensity: when and where?

As seems true for so many things in Japan, school is intense in the amount of your life you are expected to give to it – hours in the week as well as over years – and time is equated with value and effort, especially once you factor in club activities on the weekend and cram school. University, on the other hand, is seen as kind of a relief. It’s your chance to let loose and do what you want for a few years – while probably also working part-time. Going to classes sometimes. Freedom. (This may be more or less true for some fields of study, e.g. law, medicine, etc.) The downside of this may be if you want to get a graduate job overseas – Japanese students often don’t make strong candidates because there is a view that they didn’t really learn anything at university, don’t know how to think for themselves and can’t do anything unless someone tells them to.

That being said, obviously Japan is way up there in many scientific and technological industries, and the education system has them doing maths in junior high school that I don’t think I ever did in high school. One frustrated English learner told me that in Japan, all subjects are taught the same way as maths is. Maybe this is because it works so well in that subject? Their literacy and numeracy is strong, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (PDF), in which Japan came out overall in 7th place, preceded by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Macau-China. Australia was 19th: ahead of the UK, but behind Canada and Vietnam, among others.

In Australia, school education is probably externally viewed as quite slack because compared to most of Asia, there’s not much homework, you don’t have to stay until 6 with club activities, most students aren’t that drastically underslept, and nobody goes to cram school. University in Australia, however, is probably similarly intense to other Western countries in that it requires significant effort and hard work. As I seem to remember writing once before, I think effort in Australian culture is appreciated more in how hard you try than in how many hours you do something for, or how many repetitions you do. It would be a lie to claim that all Australian students are concentrating all the time, or that mainstream education works perfectly for everyone, but mental effort is valued and sought after.

Right. So. To generalise this page of generalisations a little bit further, in a possibly painful nutshell, educational style:

Japan: 1-way, drills

Australia: 2-way, questions

And with that, we’ll adjourn for now. There is a lot more to be said about school in particular, and plenty about English language education in Japan, in which I work. So as they say, please look forward to that. See you in July!


One of my sempai (seniors) gave me some advice about driving in Japan soon after I arrived:

‘When you speed, try not to go more than 20 over the limit.’

This cracked me up. This sempai was American, and I’ve never been to the US so I can’t comment on what he was comparing to Japan, but this advice and its implicit assumptions were pretty new to me. There are quite a few differences between driving in Japan and Australia. I’ll look at a few of them in this post.

Speed limits

As the above advice suggests, it’s expected that you will speed in Japan. The guideline from my aforementioned sempai has stood me in pretty good stead so far, and I haven’t heard of anyone getting a fine for anything less than 20 km/h over the limit. Of course, it’s probably a proportional thing – nobody goes 20 ks over in a 30 zone. But nobody drives at the limit, either. In fact, because of the expectation that everyone will speed, if you drive at the speed limit, you will become an annoyance to other drivers and a traffic hazard. Apparently when police come to company training events to talk about road safety, they advise that 10 ks over the limit is OK. So the other day, I overtook a police car. I was driving at 60, in a 50 zone. The police car did not change its behaviour.

DSC_0155Oh yes – and for ordinary roads in Japan, the maximum speed limit you will find is 50 km/h. So practically speaking, this means you can go at 70. There are highways where there is a limit of 80 or 100 km/h, but they usually have considerable tolls.

To an Australian, this speeding and the unrealistic speed limits are incredible. Australia is not tolerant of speeding, and it’s a prominent topic in road safety campaigns. I’m sure most Australians would know the various lines of the Transport Accident Commission, known as the TAC. The most recent one I remember was ‘Wipe off 5.’ There are a lot of hidden cameras in Australia, especially in my home state Victoria, and I know people who have had fines for going 2km/h over the limit. Fines are significant and you get demerit points on your licence, after a certain number of which you lose your licence.

Australian speed limits are generally 50km/h in residential areas, 30 or 40 km/h in

The Great Ocean Road, in Victoria, has a speed limit of 80km/h, which many people think is too high.

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria has a speed limit of 80km/h: high for a dangerous winding road.

school zones, and on multi-lane roads, 60 to 80 depending on the road.

Highways/freeways/expressways are usually 100 or 110km/h, and there used to be a few areas with no limit in some outbacky kinds of places, but I don’t know if it’s still the case now.

Drink driving

Conversely to the issue of speeding, there is a zero tolerance approach to drink driving in Japan. I recently renewed my Japanese licence, which was a refreshingly easy process but takes a while because you have to sit through a one-hour lecture and video. To be fair, I didn’t understand all of the lecture, which was about road tolls in Japan, but the video was easy to understand. It was basically a drama about a guy who has a beer and then because of an emergency for his friend’s job, goes to drive his friend somewhere, and on the way there he hits a guy and his child who are crossing the road. The impact kills the dad and permanently disables the child, thereby irreversibly changing the lives of the mum and kid and ruining his own life: he loses his job (a given if you are a company employee caught drink driving), is sent to prison, his family gets kicked out of their company housing and his wife divorces him because her lifestyle is unsustainable without him and with the stigma of what has happened.

In the lecture and the video, I don’t remember speed being mentioned.

The BAC (blood alcohol concentration/content) legal limit in Japan varies according to who you ask, but the general guideline is 0, though Wiki reckons it’s actually 0.03. In Australia it’s 0.05 for most people on a full licence, with some exceptions for some vehicles in some states. For people on a probationary licence it’s 0.0. In Australia, this usually means that a single standard drink (which contains 10ml of pure alcohol, so is about 100ml of wine or 285ml of beer) is within the limit, and for some people, 2 standard drinks is still within the limit. Seeing people drink a glass of beer and wine and then drive left my Japanese friends in Australia gobsmacked the first time they saw it.

The different culture around this doesn’t mean that Australia doesn’t care about drink driving. The TAC phrase is ‘If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot,’ and they had some good ads about it. In fact, TAC ads are always well done. They are shocking, awfully real, and you remember them when you get into the situations depicted. Here’s one about distractions, which, well, exactly. The phrase: Distractions lead to disaster.

I can’t recall ever seeing a TV ad or hearing about a campaign for road safety in Japan, and I also haven’t been breath tested, although I have heard of it happening. Publicity about road safety seems mostly limited to road signs and writing on the road in some places: I’ve seen seatbelt signs, ‘reduce speed’ signs (often in school areas), and ‘don’t drink and drive’ signs. To be fair, I’ve only lived in Japan a few years, don’t watch/listen to as much news as in Australia, and I can’t read everything, so there may be more publicity than I’m aware of. I also don’t know where Japan is in terms of road safety. But the TV ad presence is definitely different.


Roadwork barriers in Japan are usually cuter than these bowing characters.

Roadwork barriers in Japan are usually cuter than these bowing characters.

You know how famous the Japanese are for being polite? Well, on the road in Japan, you say thank you to people for letting you in by turning on your hazard lights for a couple of blinks. In Australia we wave, and some Japanese people do that too. But the use of hazard lights for ‘thank you’ is unknown in Australia.

Are drivers more aggro in Japan, with the terrible traffic and funny speed limits? Or in Australia, with our lack of being famous for manners? It really depends on the area within the country. Can’t make any general comments. There are good drivers and bad drivers in both countries.

One thing that surprised me about Japan was that almost nobody stops (or slows) at pedestrian crossings. As a pedestrian, I have waited a long time to cross at zebra crossings. In Australia, if someone sees a pedestrian standing waiting at the side of a crossing, they stop and wait until the person is all the way across the road. Similarly, when there’s a pedestrian crossing at an intersection in Australia, pedestrians have right of way and turning cars won’t go until the pedestrians are well clear of the lane. In Japan, though, if people are crossing, cars go first, as long as they’re not going to hit the pedestrians. Turning at lights generally is also different in Japan, in that of cars turning right (i.e. across the lane of oncoming traffic), the first one or two usually take off fast and turn as soon as the lights (normal lights, not arrows) turn green – before the oncoming traffic has got going. We don’t do that in Australia, we just wait.

Other points

In Japan, the green light is called ‘blue.’ You weirdos. Green apples are also known as blue apples.

In Japan, people always stop at level crossings and look both ways along the train line. In Australia, we trust the traffic lights and boom gates, and just drive straight over.

A benign-looking gaijin trap in Akita Prefecture

A benign-looking gaijin trap in Akita Prefecture

There are deep uncovered gutters in Japan, known among some expats as ‘gaijin traps.’ According to sources, several hundred people such as cyclists die every year by falling into them.

Not all cars in Japan are small. In fact, bigger cars seem to be increasingly popular, which I don’t understand given some of the tiny little street corners they have difficulty manoeuvring around. But there are small, lightweight vehicles known as kei cars, which have yellow numberplates and are generally cheap to run and easy to get around whatever streets you come across in Japan. As you might be able to tell, I’m a fan.

In Australia, we say that we drive on the left hand side of the road. In Japan, they say that they drive on the right hand side of the car. So when Japanese people ask me about which side we drive on in Australia, we sometimes both get a bit confused. It happens like this:

JP: In Australia, which side is it, right or left? Which side is the handoru-

Me: Oh, it’s the same, we drive on the left! Oh-

JP: Oh, like America? On the left?

Me: Ah, I mean like Japan – we drive on the left hand side of the road.

JP: Oh!? The same as Japan? So the handoru is right side?

In Japan, roadwork barriers have cute characters on them, usually rabbits, frogs or giraffes or something. I don’t know what happened to the photo of the rabbit ones, but I saw some grateful road worker ones today.

As always, thanks for reading, hope I haven’t been too racist/offensive, and let us know in the comments of similar or contrasting opinions and experiences!

Japan and Australia: 4 ‘gaps’

There’s something different about the usage of ‘gap’ in Japanese, or gyappu, as it becomes in Japanese English/English Japanese, but it still basically means gap. I think it’s usually only used for mental or theoretical gaps, as opposed to physical ones? If you know better, please correct me.

1. NationalismFlag_of_Japan.svg

Japan loves Japan. Australia loves to have a go at itself, and to be honest, to be nationalistic about Australia is to be bloody un-Australian.

This is not talking so much about individuals as things like media: TV and education. I realised a couple of days ago, meeting a newbie who only teaches in a language school and really wants to move to the public school system, that being in that system does give you some insight into said system and its values: What Japan wants Japan to be. Basically they want to conserve their traditional culture, which makes sense in this time of globalisation and technology. To generalise, they learn a lot more about Japan than about any other country.

Recently I was a judge at an English speech contest in my area, where the kids wrote their own speeches. Ostensibly. Well, they didn’t edit their own speeches. Most of the speeches’ messages could be divided as follows:

  1. I will try hard. 頑張ります。Example summary: Two years ago I joined the softball club because my friends were joining. I wasn’t very good at softball, and at one point, we lost a match. Then my senior encouraged me with some inspiring words, so now I’m going to try hard.
  2. Peace.
  3. Japan is amazing. (our manners, our samurais, etc.)

For sure, Japan is an interesting place, but the Australian in me finds this kind of speech nauseating. I’m from a background that when we saw Americans at the Olympics sing their anthem with their hands over their hearts, someone in the room would say, ‘Pass me a bucket!’ (Japan loves America too, but let’s not go into that here.)

When the Australian rowing team won a while ago, we all noticed that they didn’t all know the words to the Australian national anthem. This was a bit embarrassing, but I guess you can say that it isn’t a big part of life in Australia.

2. Face and modesty

Saving face is really important here. There’s an idea here that it’s OK to lie about your mistakes/crimes to protect the reputation of your company/country. Of course, it’s an unspoken idea, and of course, not everyone thinks it’s OK. But in Australia, you know how the Japanese refuse to stop whaling? Do they say it’s scientific?  Well. Yep.

So for your company or country, you might lie about food safety, or it might be about presenting Japan as the good guys all the time, and just not educating its people about things like war crimes. I’ve been surprised about some Japanese friends’ opinions on Korea or China.

At the other end of the scale, while you have to protect your company or country, you shouldn’t be openly proud of yourself or your family, and when people find out about something great one of you has done, while glowing inside, you’re supposed to say, ‘oh no, no, it was nothing, my son never does his homework.’ I found it quite strange when I got a newly-married colleague to show me a photo of his wife, and I said, ‘She’s beautiful!’ and he said, ‘Oh, no, she’s not as beautiful as X.’

Australia’s just kind of opposite. We aren’t a fan of ‘the man’ in work or government, in general, and I think there’s a fair bit of cultural shame, about indigenous Australia and Australia’s recent treatment of asylum seekers and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, for example. Of course, there are exceptions, but I think the majority are appalled at what’s going on in the name of protecting our ‘sovereign borders’ and even more so at attempts to prevent our knowing about it. 

On the other hand, when someone praises our family, we smile and say ‘thank you.’ For ourself, well, that’s up to the individual, but if you argue too much, it’s rude, as if you think the other person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

3. Winning

Is Everything.

When you lose a match in Japan, it’s OK to cry. On TV. I haven’t seen many Japanese people cry, but the one time I saw high school boys crying, they’d lost a baseball game.

Maybe Australia got this from the Brits: When you lose, it’s OK to look disappointed, but crying is not on. This would make you a sore loser and a bad sport. Wanting to win is fine, but whatever the outcome at the end, you have to acknowledge the other player/team. We usually shake hands and say ‘good game.’

4. Homophobia

There’s plenty of homophobia in both Australia and Japan, but it takes different forms.

When I came to Japan I was surprised to see high school boys sitting on each other’s laps and walking around with their hands in each other’s pockets: generally there is a lot more physical contact between boys and men here.

I can’t imagine seeing that in a high school in Australia because apart from when they’re playing sport, Australian boys and men don’t really touch each other and it seems (straight) male-male contact is often awkward because of this homophobic vibe. I guess there are ritualistic handshakes and friendly punches, but that’s about it usually for men wanting to physically express affection towards other men.

But in Japan, that awkwardness isn’t there when it comes to male-male contact. There’s also the public bathing culture where it’s normal to be naked with others of your sex, which is definitely not the case in Australia. However, there is very little physical contact between the sexes in Japan. Separation of the sexes is another thing that’s noticeably different here, but this post is getting happily long enough without going into that for now.

I have never met a Japanese person who openly identifies as LGBT. This is probably because of working in the conservative environments of companies and the public school system, and being in the country. I know there are communities, but in the Japan I’ve seen, the only representations have been TV personalities, and generally comedians who are either crossdressers or stylised ‘gay’ personalities. This article conveys the situation well, I think.

Other than going, “Did you know that woman [on TV] is really a man?” it’s not something that’s really talked about here. I guess that’s the same in conservative Australia, too. People like to see things as binary, to use a loaded word, and nothing else is happening.

So there are four of many differences between Japan and Oz. Maybe sometime I should tackle similarities?

Thanks for reading.