Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

#21 Character Goods – Rilakkuma

Okay, so I’m sure most everyone is familiar with the iconic Japanese character Hello Kitty:

She’s gotten so popular in the US, you can easily find her on handbags, pajamas, lunch boxes, mousepads…the list goes on an on.

In Japan there are MANY different characters.

Of course, there is Hello Kitty (called Kitty-chan here). She’ll probably be around forever.

Some characters have their moment in the spotlight and disappear after a year or two.

Others have managed to retain their popularity over a long period of time (several years). The character I’m going to talk about today belongs in this category.

I present you with Rilakkuma:

His name is a combination between the words Relax and Kuma (Bear). He is thus, the relaxing bear.

Japan is a population of hard-workers. They study too hard, stay at the office too long, spend too much energy caring for their families, and generally don’t relax as much as they’d like to. Thus Rilakkuma is a welcome member of Japanese society to remind everyone to take it easy once in a while.

Rilakkuma is the main brown bear, and I’m pretty sure he’s male. He has a friend (I think female) bear who is white, named Kolirakkuma.

There is also a chick who you often see with them, named kiiroitori (“yellow bird”). He is hard-working and likes to clean, and is often admonishing rilakkuma to get off his butt and do something.

Just about as often as you see Hello Kitty goods here in Japan, you see Rilakkuma goods. A lot of kids have pencil cases, notebooks, charms, hankerchiefs, and other things with him on it. Even adults like him too.

I myself became a fan of him back when I studied abroad 2007-2008. Then I had a Rilakkuma wallet, and also bought a Rilakkuma stuffed animal. At the time I thought the stuffie was really expensive (something like 3,500 yen maybe) but I really wanted it so I splurged. It was totally worth it, because I sleep with him every single night. Since his arms and legs are floppy, he often seems to take on a life of his own wherever he is on my bed, sometimes sprawled out, sometimes half sitting up, sometimes just his head pokes out of the covers. He always looks like he’s cozy though. And snuggling with him does make me more relaxed.

He’s even available on Amazon if you want your own! This is the exact one I have:

San-x Rilakkuma Plush with Secret Pocket

The secret pocket isn’t really secret though; it’s a zipper on his back that can barely hold anything – I’m not sure what it’s meant for. People suggest kleenex sometimes.

The company that owns Hello Kitty is Sanrio. The company that owns Rilakkuma is San-X. He’s the first character in their line-up when you go to their website. It also links you to “goods,” aka products, on offer, though it looks like that site doesn’t sell directly, but rather links you to websites/stores that do.

Very fortunately though, Amazon has a lot of Rilakkuma products. Take a look and see if there’s anything you’d like!


#20 My Favorite Chinese Podcast – ChineseLearnOnline.com

First of all, let me tell you to the best of my knowledge, what’s mainly out there for Chinese.

As introduced in a previous post when I talked about Japanese Podcasts ( https://sporadichappiness.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/my-favorite-japanese-podcast-japanesepod101-com/), there’s ChineseClass101.com, which is a sister site to the original JapanesePod101.com which I love.  Though I wasn’t so crazy about the ChineseClass site because of its thematic approach, which can be too piece-meal for a beginning language learner, but can be ideal for an intermediate or advanced learner.

I originally started out with ChinesePod.com way back in 2007 when the podcast culture was just getting started.  Back then you could just download lessons directly from their site, or maybe it was through iTunes, I don’t remember exactly.  In the meantime they seem to have made it more like ChineseClass101.com in that you need to sign up and then log in to gain access.  I don’t really like this sort of approach.  I guess it makes sense though; after all, these people are working hard on putting together these lessons, so surely they want to turn a profit for their time and efforts.  I don’t blame them.  Since I’ve never used their website in their current form, I don’t know if they have any free samplings for newly signed up people, or how much (if any) of their site is free without purchasing some kind of subscription.  If you’re curious, try it for yourself.

One fine day, I’m not sure how, I stumbled upon a beauty of a site.

I don’t know how I had overlooked it before, as its earliest lessons are dated at late 2006.  In any case, I know it now, and I’m happy to share it with you all.

It’s called ChineseLearnOnline.com – not a very unique name, but its value is not in its flashiness or marketing ploys, but in the meat of its lessons.

ChineseLearnOnline.com has a lot of things going for it that I really like.

1) It is NOT thematic.  Instead, it is a progressive course, which means that they keep building on the language you know, and re-using and reviewing previously taught grammar and vocabulary.  You actually feel like you can string together a simple sentence from listening to a few lessons.

2) Instead of immediately explaining what something means, they will break down a new word and say its literal meaning, sometimes letting you guess what you think it is exactly.  Then they will tell you the English meaning.  They will also clearly say what tones comprise each word (an essential element to learning Chinese correctly).

3) Whenever old material comes up, instead of saying something like, “as we learned before that <Chinese word> means <English word>…” they’ll instead ask YOU, the listener, “What does <Chinese word> mean?”  As lessons go on, they even ask you in Chinese “<Chinese word>shi shenme yi si?”  And they’ll give you a moment to think of it.  This encourages active listening and active learning.  And then often once they’ve confirmed what a word means that came up in a previous lesson, they’ll say the sentence where that word appeared before, helping you to further entrench it into your memory.

4) The narrator is a Canadian guy with an extremely sauve and soothing voice.  He speaks slowly and clearly, and seems generally like a very chill guy.  I enjoy listening to his voice, and this is inestimably important when you listen to lesson after lesson after lesson of the same person speaking.  If you don’t enjoy their personality or their voice, it will be distracting and possibly a de-motivator to keep listening.

5) The company is based out of Taiwan, and uses Taiwanese people as the speakers for their dialogues.  Thus, most things are pronounced the way they would be in Taiwan, and sometimes when pronunciation or vocabulary differences are present between how something would be said in Taiwan vs. China, that is pointed out on the podcast.  I am incredibly grateful for this because many Chinese lessons seem based out of China, and I personally am most interested in Taiwan because I actually plan to move there some day.  I’ve read blogs and books about people who have been to China and many say it isn’t as bad as you think (though yes, the pollution is there, but it’s not killer).  However, I personally am a bit worried about personal rights issues and the less-than-reliable Chinese government.  I wouldn’t feel entirely safe living in China.  Taiwan though, with its separate democratic government, seems more on the level of Korea or Japan in that it’s a pretty safe, developed country.  At some point my boyfriend and I hope to move to Taiwan and get English teaching jobs.  We want to experience expat life in a new country (we’ve only ever lived in the US and Japan) and learn Chinese.  Plus with today’s focus on China as an economic power, having a working knowledge of Chinese might turn out to be a valuable asset in the future.

6) There are 7 levels (as of now), each containing 60 lessons.  That’s a LOT of lessons.  The end of level 7 seems to be dated 2009 so I’m not sure if new lessons will be produced at this point or not.  Regardless, there’s quite a few out there already and it will take a lot of time to get through what’s there, so let’s enjoy what exists!

7) THE LESSONS ARE ALL FREE.  I was kind of shocked when I found this out.

The only downside is you have to click on every single lesson page and download them individually.  There’s no bulk download or anything like that.  I think if you pay money you can get download them in bulk.  Also this website does have a premium subscription where you get access to more things like lesson transcripts and review files.

I don’t know if this website will keep their lesson mp3 files free and available for all time, so you might want to jump on this opportunity while you can.  I sure did.

I have no idea how much it costs to get a premium subscription, but it might be something to look into if you think it would be worthwhile to have more than just the main lessons available.

Personally I started a notebook where I wrote down all the lesson dialogues and any extra words that came up in explanations, in the romanized “pin yin” form which uses the alphabet letters and tonal marks.  I did that on the left hand side of my notebook.  On the right hand side of my notebook I looked up each character I didn’t know and wrote it in Chinese.  For those of you studying Chinese informally and not needing to know how to read or write, just learning it via the pin yin is a very effective way to learn a lot and get to speaking and communicating.  Also by creating my own study notebook this way, it involves me in a more active way and I actually learn and internalize the words and the characters more, as opposed to passively reading a pdf document and then promptly forgetting everything.  But of course, I’m not so much of a visual learner – I’m primarily a manual and audio learner, so for me listening and writing work really well to store Chinese in my muscle memory.  Towards this effort I also do my best to memorize each dialogue (albeit temporarily).

8) Lastly, they use as much Chinese as possible, to say things like “Welcome to Lesson # . . . ” or “See you next time” or “Let’s listen to today’s dialogue.”  Of course they don’t do this right away, and they devote whole lessons to teaching you these phrases before they start using them.  Their goal seems to be to use more and more Chinese in the introductions and explanations of the lessons as time goes on, and I fully support this goal.  I think they’re doing a good job of introducing things clearly and then using them consistently.

And there you have it!  It’s a wonderful podcast course and I seriously recommend it to anyone who is motivated enough to study on their own and serious enough to stick with it :-)  I personally like to listen to podcast lessons while going for walks outside, so I can get some exercise and have something to focus my near undivided attention on.

Happy studying!

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Omake #4: Are we assistant teachers or aren’t we?

I’m on the JET program.  My job title is ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher.  But for my first year, and much of my second, I have not been an assistant teacher but the MAIN teacher.  At elementary schools that is.

Many of us JETs came to Japan expecting to be helping a main English teacher, and for many JETs, this is the situation they do in fact find themselves in.  For JETs stationed at one or more middle schools, or one or more high schools, they often go along with a lesson plan that the school’s English teacher prepares, helping out where asked, or wherever they proactively ask to take part in.  However, even then, it’s not necessarily the type of school they’re working at but rather the teachers they are working with, and any precedent that has been set by ALTs in the past.

JET warns us over and over that “ESID” – Every Situation is Different.  You can’t really make generalizations about the JET program, because the JET program just works as a liaison to hire people for various Boards of Education across all of Japan.  We work directly for whatever Board of Education we are assigned to, NOT the JET program.  Which means that what we are asked to do ultimately depends on where we are assigned.

Despite variations in working conditions, the job expectations of ALTs are, unfortunately, extremely vague, and usually neither us ALTs nor the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) know what exactly we’re supposed to be doing.  It’s generally up to the individual people on both sides to negotiate our roles and involvement.

There’s been a very good thesis written on the “role-confusion” of ALTs and how this stems from cultural differences.  It’s titled “An examination into the extent that cultural factors cause role confusion between ALTs and JTEs in the Japanese English classroom” by Paul Cotter, and you can read it yourself here:


I considered summing up some of his points, but I wouldn’t be doing it justice, so read it if you have the time or the inclination.

What I want to talk about right now is the situation in Japanese public Elementary schools.

Many schools across the country have been holding English classes starting at grades 5 and 6.  Some schools, such as on the islands I live on, have English classes starting in preschool.  That seems rarer; it’s likely because we’re in a rural area of Japan and the ALTs assigned here generally have less schools and less students to work with, so they’re freer to be spread across the various grade levels and spend some time with the young ones.

Starting April 2011 (last school year), English classes became mandatory for grades 5 and 6.  There had been a textbook circulating for some years already (Eigo Note), but starting last year, all elementary schools HAD to use it, and HAD to have an English class once a week for each grade 5 and 6.

This year, April 2012 we’ve gotten an updated textbook called “Hi, Friends!”

The problem though, is that in elementary schools, much like the US, teachers are general education teachers (for the most-part), in that they teach all the subjects.  On occasion a school will have a dedicated music teacher, or a dedicated PE teacher, but this seems to vary from school to school.

This means that elementary school teachers are neither trained to be English teachers, nor very comfortable with English in the first place.  Many Japanese theoretically can speak English (they’ve studied it for years and years in middle school, high school, and probably college), but are disinclined to.  They tend to have decent vocabulary/writing/reading skills, but will look at you like a deer in headlights if you ask them to actually say anything out loud.  This means that when it comes to elementary English classes, they see the ALT, who is a native English teacher, and they go “phew, that person can just go ahead and do everything.”  They will generally go up to the ALT and say “It’s all up to you” (in Japanese, of course –  お任せします。)

I was told just that when I arrived in my town, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, in August 2010.  I was given the textbooks (at the time, Eigo Note) and told “It’s all up to you.”  Which left me thinking “. . . . . ”  Asking where they left off in the textbook was a start (I started teaching in September, which is technically the 2nd semester of the Japanese school year).

However, a big problem is that the lesson plans are written ENTIRELY in Japanese.  Now, I came in with a decent amount of Japanese (3 years in the US at my university, plus one year while studying abroad in Japan in Kobe and living with a host family).  Even so, for anyone who has studied Japanese for any amount of time, they know that Kanji (Chinese characters) are a nuance that never goes away.  I don’t mean to say that Kanji are always a pain in the neck – they can be fun, or beautiful, or interesting – but they aren’t exactly easy.  Heck, they’re not even easy for Japanese people.  They study hundreds each year, beginning in 1st grade, and there are still obscure kanji, easy to mix-up kanji, name-kanji, and all sorts of characters that give even native speakers trouble.

So back in September 2010 I looked at the Japanese lesson plans, filled with kanji (some I could read, some I couldn’t – some having combination where I recognize the characters but couldn’t read it and didn’t know the exact meaning…) and decided to throw it out the window.

Then there was the problem of what to teach, because just by looking at the textbook, it isn’t obvious.  It’s filled with a lot of pictures and a lot of obscure directions like “Number Game” and “Keyword Game” and how are you supposed to know what those are?

Then we run into the fact that most of us JETs are not certified teachers.  Most of us have never taken an education class in our lives.  Most of us have no experience teaching, and if we’re told to just “go for it” we have no idea what to do with a room of students.

There was a 2 day orientation in Tokyo, when we first arrived.  During that time was an optional seminar (you chose what seminars you went to) called “Teaching Elementary English” or something like that.  In that one (or maybe it was two?) hour seminar, I learned a grab-bag of games and activities to use in the classroom, that I clung to for my first few months.  It’s no joke to say that if I hadn’t attended that seminar, I would have had absolutely NO idea what to do.

Now, grades 5 and 6 have textbooks.  Grades 1-4 don’t.  Some schools give you a sort of syllabus of what topics to teach, and others say “teach whatever you want.”  Both have their benefits, but for an incoming ALT, having NO syllabus (as was the case at one of my elementary schools) was daunting.  What’s worse, for a new ALT, having NO pre-made materials means tortue.  Thankfully, all the elementary schools I worked at have had picture cards, though strangely, last year, one had large picture cards only (to show a class) and one had sets of small picture cards only (to play games like memory or go fish or the Portuguese Carta or whatever).  Oddly enough, they were both from the same set, so I often had to drag around materials between the two elementary schools to have access to both items.

Back to grades 5 and 6: in April 2011, I decided to go with the Japanese lesson plans after all, and squeak my way through all the kanji.  After being in Japan a while it wasn’t so daunting.  Ever since I have stuck closely to those plans, changing very little.

This year, at my current elementary school, with the new textbook, and new 5th and 6th grade teachers (one is the old PE teacher, and the other transferred in from another school) I thought, maybe I should go back to basics, and try to do team-teaching like we’re actually supposed to do.  Like, we should sit down and have a “meeting” about the upcoming lesson, so we can plan together and teach the class together.

Well, I did that for a week and it’s already fallen apart.  The two new teachers just stand off to the side and let me take the reigns once the bell rings and class begins.  At least I’m experienced enough now that I know what I’m doing, and familiar enough with the kids that it isn’t quite as taxing as it once was.  And thankfully, the teachers do help me in one regard – they call on the students when I ask them questions.  I’m terrible at remembering names this year – so much so I’m finally making name cards, a little too late.  I do appreciate this one courtesy, as well as the teachers actually being present in the classroom AND paying attention to what’s going on (two things you can’t necessarily take for granted), so I’m counting my blessings.

This has been my elementary school “ALT” experience.

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