Japanese Cotton Fireman’s Sashiko ‘Hikeshi Banten’ Hanten Jackets: Wearable Art

When I came upon this antique fireman’s hanten(jacket) from the Meiji(1868-1912) or early Taisho(1912-1926)period, it prompted me to do some research on these rugged, well crafted and often whimsically decorated coats. It also prompted me to open my wallet, but that’s another story!

Sashiko hanten like this are called ‘hikeshi banten’ in Japanese, literally ‘fireman’s jacket.’ Its heavy cotton was meant to absorb a good deal of water to help protect its wearer from the fire. After being soaked in water, they were worn with the plain side facing out, with the design as the lining. It must have been quite heavy with all that water weight added to this thick fabric!

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In the days before electricity came into widespread use, it was all too common in Japan for fires to break out on account of candles and lanterns, and as Japanese houses are traditionally made of wood and paper, it’s not hard to imagine how formidable and common a foe fire was in the daily lives of the citizenry.

As such, the role of the fireman in the community was vital and the rudimentary tools that they relied on along with the factors mentioned above stacked the odds in favor of the fire more often than not. Firemen were therefore seen as courageous men of valor and honor who would without hesitation sacrifice themselves in the interest of coming to the aid of their community.

After the fire was put out, the firemen would take off their jackets and wear them inside out to to show off the elaborate designs that had been hidden from view until then. To see firemen wearing their jackets in such showy fashion was to know that the danger was past and they had come through the battle unscathed, or at least well enough to fight again.

They’d then walk through town on the way perhaps to a local drinking establishment, attracting the gaze of admiring townsfolk appreciative of their courage and envious of their distinctive jackets, in a victory lap of sorts.

The theme of the work is referred to as ‘Hi no tamashi ni mukao wakamusha’ in Japanese, which means ‘A Young Warrior Confronts the Spirit of the Fire.’

These are always a pleasure to come across, and if you’re interested in seeing a range of intriguing motifs, a quick net search should yield interesting results.

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Originally posted 2015-09-22 14:30:03.

Arashiyama Monkey Park: Wild Monkeys and a Great Kyoto View!

Looking for fun and unique things to do in Arashiyama?

In addition to its other charms, the area offers a great view of the city if you’re willing to set aside a little time and don’t mind some climbing. And Arashiyama Monkey Park on Iwatayama Mountain is a great reason to make the hike!

When you visit Kyoto, especially if your trip comes on the heels of time spent in Tokyo, you’ll likely be struck by the low skyline. Kyoto City imposes strict regulations on construction, which has helped Kyoto to maintain its charms over the years, even as other locales succumb to development and the ‘higher is better’ mentality.

Look and you’ll notice Kyoto Tower in the top photo. It certainly stands out, whereas it would surely be lost among the jumble of tall buildings that define Tokyo!

This also means though, that finding a good vantage point from which to get the lay of the land can be a challenge.  One great way to get a memorable view of the city is to head over to the western part of Kyoto.

Arashiyama plays host to a unique center often referred to in English as Monkey Park or Monkey Mountain.  You’ll also find it if you search using the name of the proper name of the mountain, Iwateyama(yama means mountain in Japanese).  The official English website is here.

After a climb, you’ll be greeted by wild monkeys, who are fed by the staff there.  Visitors also can feed them, with food for sale on the premises. There are feeding stations that visitors enter before offering snacks to the monkeys gathered outside.  Quite a refreshing twist on the standard scenario that finds the monkey in the enclosed space!

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While this is highly recommended, it isn’t for everyone-those with leg problems or other health issues should carefully consider whether they’re up to the climb, which can feel steep at times, especially in hot weather.  Kyoto’s humid summers make it seem even steeper, so do keep the season and the weather as well as your physical condition in mind before heading up there.  As always, a bottle of water, regardless of the weather, will serve you well!

Originally posted 2015-02-17 15:07:55.

Teach English in Japan WELL: Teacher Talking Time

Each Teach English in Japan WELL post offers up a practical tip for honing your teaching skills and work habits that can pay big dividends with students at conversation schools.

Contrary to popular belief, Charles Dickens was not paid by the word.  His books were long simply because he had something to say. And because he said it so well, the length of his works didn’t stand in the way of gaining an enduring following.

Although we as English teachers don’t get paid by the word either, you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of us are, based on the way more than a few instructors take up a significant amount of class time and oxygen with their own talking.  

This is an affliction common among, though certainly not exclusive to new teachers, and becoming aware of this tendency and controlling it can play a big part in improving the quality of your teaching.

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I’m writing this specifically for those who want to teach English in Japan at an eikaiwa conversation school or in university or other classes that happen to focus on fostering the students’ speaking ability. But obviously, there are contexts where teachers are well and truly lecturers.

In a sense, teacher talking time is one of the easiest things to address or at least hone your awareness of, in that measuring how much time you spend talking is easy to do.

Simply invite someone such as a co-worker or head teacher to observe your lessons with that along with other aspects of the lesson in mind.  Then have a frank discussion with them about what they saw.

I started the previous paragraph with the word ‘simply’ but of course opening yourself up to such a critique can be very intimidating. So cultivating an atmosphere of trust with others in your workplace such as teachers and head teachers are important and can pay big dividends in this sense.

As we all know, talking too much is easy to do in general, and there are various reasons for a teacher talking too much in the classroom.

A basic belief that leads to this is that teaching equals talking, that you are there to instruct, to explain.  That your job is to share your knowledge and opinions. Ask yourself how well this describes your own take on teaching, and if not, try to put into words your own ideas about what role you serve.

Then there’s our fear of silence.  Years ago in the states I was a radio DJ.  Dead air was our nemesis. Silence was inherently bad.

Silence in the classroom isn’t necessarily so.  Productive, dynamic silence can lead to new ideas and new language skills as students take the time to absorb new constructs and attempt to master them.

But often, silence during a lesson does signal something is off, and teacher talking is an all too easy way to address those moments when students stop talking because something is too hard, not engaging, or played out.

How much do you talk in an average lesson? If you don’t know, put some thought and effort into finding out.

Originally posted 2020-01-22 02:21:48.

Star Wars Tenugui Cloths Make Great Gifts!

If you’re hunting for a gift for the Star Wars fan in your life, there are of course a zillion choices. And that’s the problem! But if the giftee in question has an affinity for things Japanese as well, then the choices get narrowed considerably.

And to my mind, in the realm of Japanese gifts for Star Wars fans, prime candidates are a line of made in Japan fabric cloths called tenugui that have lively and fun Star Wars themes that also incorporate various aspects of Japanese culture.

Aside from the cool factor, Japanese Star Wars tenugui cloths are quite light and compact when folded. Accordingly, you won’t pay much for shipping if you buy them online, and the so-called ‘free shipping’ that many sellers offer won’t mean inflated pricing for the tenugui itself to cover their own high shipping costs.

And of course in turn if you plan on sending a tenugui to someone, you won’t get dinged much for postage. And since these are flat, wrapping them for mailing is a cinch.

What is a tenugui?

I’ve answered that question at length in a separate post, in case you care to delve into the particulars-it’s a good read if you’re thinking about buying a tenugui and are curious about not just these designs, but the fabric as well.

Along with a long, rich history in Japan, tenugui cloths have certain distinct characteristics that you should be aware of before you make a purchase.

And you can pass along your new knowledge along with your gift, to give it some context and enhance its already considerable charm. Everyone loves a good story after all, and people who are into Japan and its culture will appreciate knowing more about these very Japanese textiles.

Though these fabrics were used as hand towels and headbands in the past, these days they are most often used as decor and look great on walls.

Having said that, these designs also do make great headwraps, similarly to how bandanas are used in the west, though the shape is a bit different, so please keep that in mind as well.

People who practice martial arts sometimes wear them during workouts, etc. and I’ve heard of folks who cover their heads with tenugui when they’re doing yard work.

A natural, lighthearted blend of cultural references

I did a double take when I first saw these star wars tenugui designs, and then of course it made perfect sense- George Lucas after all, has always cited Japanese cinema as a major influence. So this mashup is far from a random pairing.

As you might imagine, there’s a sense of irreverent fun running through these motifs. Some of the designs also incorporate classical kanji character sayings that when referenced in this context take on a fresh and lighthearted tone.

Here are some photos that I took myself of cool tenugui from this collection. All are made in Japan of 100% cotton with traditional dyeing methods and are officially licensed Star Wars products.

Click on a tenugui title above any of the Star Wars tenugui photos to see it on amazon.

Storm Troopers

It looks like these storm troopers mean business! So far, so normal. Look closely at the sky behind them though and this tenugui’s Japanese accents will come into sharper focus for you.

First of all, you might notice the waves on the right, which are stylized in a traditional way, almost appearing to have fingers, curled as if they’re beckoning you.

If you’re a Japanese textile aficionado, you might well also pick up on a reference to traditional fabric dyeing techniques in those clouds.

Look closely and those clouds are made up of a pattern that resembles shibori, Japanese tie-dye. Though it’s just a representation of that classic look and not the real thing of course, it adds a subtle, elegant reference for those in the know.

The fearsome looking cloud on the left looks like a ‘nyudogumo’ or thunderhead cloud, a fixture of Japanese summers. It’s got to be hot and humid out there-no wonder those storm troopers are peevish!

R2D2 and C3P0 Under the Sakura Cherry Blossoms

This tenugui features C3P0 in a philosophical mood, and who can blame him?

In this scene, after all, as he stands with R2D2, the sakura cherry blossoms are at their peak and petals are blowing in the breeze.

It’s just the sort of moment that over the centuries has inspired so many to wax poetically about the ephemeral beauty of life.

Cherry blossom viewing parties, known as hanami, are a fixture of early spring in Japan. They celebrate this transience with frivolity and fun along with food and drink served potluck style on blankets under the blossoms.

Darth Vader and Cherry Blossoms

Darth Vader caught in a contemplative moment, hoping that a delicate cherry blossom petal will waft its way into his outstretched, gloved hand.

Four kanji characters, pronounced gyoku seki kon kou, are written in the traditional vertical style on the right.

They constitute a classical expression which refers to a mix of disparate elements that aren’t often seen together, and are valued differently. Rocks and jewelry, for example….or Darth Vader and cherry blossoms, in this case!

R2D2 and C3P0 Take a Japanese Onsen Hot Spring Bath

C3P0 and R2D2 are seen here indulging in one of the highlights of a trip to Japan-a hot spring bath. This one’s especially inviting, as it’s outdoors with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the fading light.

That’s a drawing of a ‘noren’ split curtain with the stylized mark of a public bath on it at the top of the tenugui, with steam coming out of it. You’ll see such noren curtains in front of onsen, as well as sento, which are public baths meant for everyday use.

Onsen like the one depicted are thought of as a special treat in that they’re often in scenic countryside locals away from the hustle and bustle of cities.

They’re also known for their spring water, which is often promoted as having medicinal properties, depending on the locale and the lore surrounding it.

These two are clearly up on public bath etiquette, as they’re taking care not to let their small bath towels get in the water! You can perch your towel on your head as R2D2’s doing.

And when you’re out of the bath, perhaps walking from one bath to another, your towel will likely come in handy, especially if you’re the modest type!

Darth Vader and Yoda

Darth Vader and Yoda square off with traditional Japanese waves.

The kanji characters written vertically are pronounced riki sen fun tou. that refers to a desire to fight with all your might, to give it all you’ve got.

This classical expression has a long and rich history and is most associated with battles in feudal times when there was little if any mercy shown to the vanquished and losers often didn’t have a chance to fight another day.

With the stakes so high in this epic clash between Darth Vader and Yoda, this sentiment seems entirely appropriate!

Darth Vader and Flames

A triumphant Darth Vader emerging from a wall of flames. Above him is a classical expression that conveys a sense of being in high spirits, full of power.

The second of the four kanji characters literally means ‘fire’ and this design clearly takes its cue from that! The kanji characters are pronounced ki en ban jyou.

May the force be with you in your search for something (inter)stellar. Star Wars tenugui might be just what you’re after!

Kyoto Collection is part of the Amazon Associates program, which means I earn a small amount of money every time you click on a link I provide and purchase something on Amazon. It will be put to very good use the next time I take my family to the neighborhood revolving sushi joint, and we thank you!

Originally posted 2019-11-23 21:49:12.

Teaching English in Japan: Motivating Students

This is the fourth in a series of posts on classroom techniques and perspectives that served me well as a new English teacher at a Japanese university. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can find it here.

The English language course that I taught at university in Kyoto was required for my students, so inevitably some were more motivated than others.  All students expressed a strong desire to pass the class and to receive credit for it, but this was the only goal for some, while others strived to use the time to improve their English, to explore new topics and ways of thinking, and to make new friends among their classmates.

Just as motivation varied with the student, so did English proficiency level. Whereas in my conversation school classes I could move a student to a different class if I thought his level didn’t suit a certain group, this wasn’t an option at university. The challenge was to motivate lower level students to give it their best or at least not disrupt the lessons, while giving the more advanced students a chance to expand their knowledge and thereby keep them engaged.

THE STICK

The power to decide who passes and fails the class is something that I wasn’t used to-I’d never given grades at conversation school. The first thing I did was formulate a grading system, assigning various tasks and giving a clear weight to all of them in relation to the final grade. I gave a sheet with all of this information on it to the students in our first session together, and gave them a chance to ask questions and showed them examples of what I was referring to. I asked them to take it home and sign it to show me that they understood it.

A full 50% of the grade was earned through attendance and participation. In this way, if a lower level student came to class and was active, that effort would go a long way toward successfully completing the class.
I walked around as they spoke with each other, and evaluated them daily on a scale of one to ten in regards to participation. A key aspect of this was something fairly simple on one level, but a strategy that I didn’t anticipate having to use beforehand. As I circulated, helping students when they needed it, I simply carried a notebook in my arms and glanced at it often, and I’d write things in it as I went.

Sometimes I was actually writing a score or note next to a student’s name, but there were times when I was doing nothing more than doodling, in order to give the impression that I was always monitoring and noting things. I quickly saw that in this way, silently without any explicit threats, I could encourage students to keep their focus on the exercise. This allowed me to maintain control without overly exerting it.

Conversely, one response that doesn’t seem to work is expressing anger. This has much to do with Japanese culture, which makes expressing anger in public unacceptable. In the classroom, displaying anger will almost inevitably lead to a loss of respect for the teacher.

The closest I came to expressing outright anger in class was one morning when we’d just gotten together in our circle, and one student who hadn’t done the homework assignment sat with a scowl on his face and refused to do pair work with his partner.  It seemed to me that he was angry at something, and didn’t want to be there. So I announced to the class as a whole in what I considered a calm, matter of fact way that anyone who didn’t want to be there was free to leave.

He promptly got up and walked out!  It solved the matter in a sense, but after he left I could feel that the atmosphere had changed, and had gotten heavier, as students went about their pair work with more hesitation and less flow than usual. It seemed as if they were uncomfortable with what had happened, and it cast a pall over things for a good part of that class.

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I related this incident to a friend who was a teacher at a university, and he simply asked without hesitation, ‘What did you want him to do?’ I realized something at that point. Although I knew there was a chance he’d walk out, I hadn’t thought about what that would accomplish, and what effect it would have on the rest of the students. And I hadn’t thought about what I really wanted to have happen.  Although I hadn’t lost my cool, I realized how anger could cloud my judgement and impair my ability to think things through before acting.

If I’d thought it through more carefully, I might have considered the position I was putting the student in, as well. Others probably noticed his attitude as I had, and realized who I was specifically referring to in that moment. I put him in the position of losing face if he’d stayed there, something that is not taken lightly in Japan. If I had it to do over again, since he wasn’t disrupting the others, I would wait until after class to ask him if he had an issue with me or something else related to class, and I would do it in a concerned way rather than an angry or irritated one.

This experience showed me that it was always preferable to use the least amount of force necessary. In this way, if I were to confront things on any level in the moment again in such a situation, I might well try simple body language. It’s possible that something as subtle as standing next to him and throwing a glance or two his way might have diffused the situation significantly.

I mentioned that in this cultural context, there is a particular aversion to showing anger, and a loss of respect can result if anger is freely expressed. I’m not by nature a disciplinarian, and I find it natural to keep emotions like anger in check. So the bigger challenge for me was to follow through with my standards and penalize students who didn’t follow classroom rules.

The same loss of respect that can come from lashing out can arise from a failure to penalize students who don’t put forward their best effort and/or disrupt the learning of others. This speaks to the issue of fairness. I learned about fairness from another perspective rather unexpectedly, from a student who I occasionally saw on the train ride home after class, and with whom I sometimes chatted about classroom issues.

One day near the end of the term, my ‘train chat informant’ let me know that some students were angry with me over something they considered unfair. Earlier in the semester I had called in sick just an hour before class. The administration put up a notice to let the students know that class would be cancelled that day. I had assumed that students would be more or less glad that class was cancelled, even the ones who especially looked forward to it. They had a heavy course load with lots of homework, and extra time to do that or just unwind with friends couldn’t be a bad thing, I’d thought.

What I hadn’t realized was that many students commuted to campus from a great distance, sometimes upwards of two hours. Ours was their first class of the day, and in some cases, their only class of the day. So instead of feeling a sense of relief, some felt like I had disrespected their time, and had been thoughtless in calling in sick at the last minute, when more advance notice might have saved many of them the early morning train ride to campus.

It seems trite, but I realized then that respect is a two way street. Students needed to feel that I respected them as busy individuals who had responsibilities beyond my class. Things like saving them an unnecessary commute and easing up on homework assignments when they were feeling the combined weight of so many teachers giving so much homework seemed to be an important part of developing a mutual respect and the motivation that can go along with that.

THE CARROT

The concepts involved in community building are closely related to motivation in many instances. My overall goal was to help create an atmosphere where my students could see friends and learn with a feeling of joy and ease. I hoped to foster an atmosphere that would be a positive part of the students’ day.

In a broad sense, as well as teaching them specific things, I wanted to instill in them the idea that learning English could be a pleasurable and practical pursuit, something they could use as a tool in not only conversing with different people, but also to think about things in deeper and often new ways.

One thing that was paramount in all this was my choice of a theme for us to work with throughout the class. If mind maps and short dialogues were appetizers, I wanted to also then create a main course, tailored to the tastes of the students. I created a thematic unit in my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer at grad school at SIT. It was a revelation to me, in that until that time I hadn’t built any one theme up beyond a few hours worth of instruction time. But developing a thematic unit  gave me the confidence to try it on a larger scale at university. And since there was no required text assigned by the university in this case, I had the freedom to choose my own materials.

The theme that I chose was ‘Love.’ My criteria were the same as the ones I’d used in shaping and completing my assignment at grad school. That is, I wanted to give students a chance to work with something that was at once universal and personal. It was my hope that choosing such a theme would motivate the students by giving them something through which they could explore new ideas as they learned about their classmates, and in this case, in the course of one of their final assignments, about their own parents as well.

I knew that this theme was potentially fraught with pitfalls. I didn’t want to pry sensitive information out of students that they would have rather kept to themselves. I remembered during my ‘Four Skills’ class as a student at grad school that we used the classic film ‘The Graduate’ to work with various ways of presenting something. Given that one of the themes of that movie is the pursuit of love, it brought up a lot of emotions in me about my own recent romances and not all of those memories were welcome ones.

Here, the concept of ‘affect’ comes to mind.  I realized that for the theme of ‘love’ to serve as a motivation and not as a barrier to discussing various experiences and ideas in English, I’d need to give students the space that I was given in my ‘Four Skills’ class to express my feelings in ways that I chose. I also understood that to be inclusive, the theme also had to be broad enough to encompass various kinds of love, not just the romantic variety. I also stressed that there wouldn’t always be set answers, and that a variety of interpretations, emotions and opinions were possible. I wanted my students to approach their work within the framework with a spirit of freedom and a willingness to put their own ideas into play as we started the unit.

I often reminded the students to relax and just try, and I encouraged them to use their imagination and creativity in role-plays, their poster project, etc. In designing the thematic unit, I remembered that I’d been struck by the limitations I’d placed on my own creativity when I was a student at grad school. I saw that themes can be defined broadly, and that one thing having to do with a theme can also branch off into another issue that has nothing directly to do with the main theme.

One example of this was a lesson we had about a boy and girl who were friends. The girl had a bad heart and needed a transplant , and when the boy had a premonition one day that he would die, he told his family to give his heart to his friend if that should happen. The family didn’t pay much attention to him at the time, but remembered his words when he did suddenly die of an aneurysm. The topic was touching to most students, many of whom mentioned it in their feedback papers.

But beyond that, it gave us the chance to explore the issue of organ donation. This was enlightening to me. It was a more serious topic than we usually discussed in that it’s a matter of public policy. I was surprised by how eagerly they talked together about the Japanese government’s stance on the issue, which has changed in recent years. It was encouraging for me to see them talk so earnestly about an issue that didn’t directly affect them at the time, and might never. It also provided a good chance to look at some cultural differences as well as their own feelings about it.

On another day I gave them two short stories. The response from the students was very interesting to me, and also a bit disappointing, in a sense.  They overwhelmingly favored the story with the ‘happy ending’ even though it ended in death. They seemed to take the other story which had a rather flat ending at face value, and so they were unmoved by it. When faced with this, I remembered my own feelings as a grad student in my ‘four skills’ class when I was given a short story that I honestly didn’t grasp the nuance of. I struggled with it, listening to classmates give their interpretations, but none of it seemed to make it more meaningful for me. And all the while, our teacher refrained from adding her impression.

I remember feeling a bit frustrated with myself for not quickly and clearly seeing the writer’s intent, but the process of trying to interpret the story and hearing various classmates give their interpretations was stimulating and prompted me to think about what I’d read even after the class was over.

Recalling these feelings as a learner, I stopped short of interjecting my ideas as I saw my own students reacting to the story on a mostly superficial level. Instead, I posed some questions to get them thinking about alternative interpretations, and finally, offered some that occurred to me while adding that they were just that, my own interpretations.

It was a challenge for me to give them space to form their own opinions, and if and when to chime in with my two cents wasn’t an easy decision, either. But lessons like these made our work together engaging for me as well as the students. And many of them wrote about the stories after in their feedback papers, still ruminating on them as I had at grad school.

Asking them to work with such an emotionally rich topic from a perspective of freedom, inquisitiveness and creativity seemed to serve their learning well. Japanese students are accustomed to learning English for tests, and much of what they learn is forgotten soon after the test is over, since it has already served its main purpose. I wanted to not only motivate the students to communicate, but to increase the chances that they would retain their new skills and be able to use them in the future.

An affective component can do this.  As Earl Stevick wrote in Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake, ‘As I learned during two or three years when I was writing poems from time to time, strong feelings of various kinds can cause the resources within one’s long-term memory to become more fully, more sharply and more readily available.’

ACTIVITIES THAT STUDENTS LIKED

Certain types of activities were particularly popular with students, based on what went on in the classroom and on written feedback they gave me. Early in their education, Japanese students are often exposed to an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher. ALT’s typically don’t control the content, but are used by the Japanese teacher from once a month to once a week to give students a feel for ‘real’ English.

Since students are typically book bound on other days, passively taking in material needed for tests, the ALT is often asked to fill his classroom time with games to provide a diversion from all that. While there is nothing innately wrong with this approach, it can tend to instill in some students the feeling that time spent with a native speaker in the classroom should be game time.

In my teaching, though I played relatively few games, I tried to infuse everything with an objective, a focus, so that there was a game like side to things without necessarily labeling it a ‘game.’

Inevitably, students often asked for activities more typically thought of as games, though. The memory chain we played with recalling classmates’ names was something in this vein. One game that I developed that was a hit was a melding of tongue twisters and running dictation.  Details of this activity are in the appendix.

Another often heard request from students is songs. Japanese students take part in culture festivals at school in their junior and senior high school years, and get used to practicing for hours and then performing together on stage.  Western music is quite popular here, especially among young people, and so there is a special desire to know what the singers of their favorite songs are saying. We worked with one song, as mentioned in the lesson plan in the appendix, and they undoubtedly would have been happy with more.

Students seemed to enjoy the mind maps and short dialogues that I used at the beginning of class. The feedback comments as well as the participation seemed to support this. There was the potential there, however, especially with mind maps, to lose their interest, and that’s why the variations I developed proved so essential.  Otherwise boredom would have crept in, with the repetition of everyday life providing little new stimulus or talking points.

School and part time jobs made up the bulk of their weeks, and so there was little fresh material to draw on.  Besides making a variety of activities and giving a task to complete, I also worked to get them to look more closely at seemingly everyday things and discover the variations, and to look more deeply into things. Concepts that I learned at the School for International Training(SIT) like ‘milking the content’ and ‘doing a lot with a little’ came to mind again here. It was a chance for them to build awareness about themselves and the things that went on around them.

Students also expressed a keen desire to learn about foreign culture. I tried to add this component to some of our lessons, and like songs, if I’d done more of this, it would have only improved morale and motivation. In terms of our theme of love, there were instances when they discovered a different attitude or way of doing things in other countries that resulted in new knowledge about customs surrounding love in other places.

But more than this, it gave them a point of comparison for things that they had long taken for granted. Therefore, learning about other countries became a way to look more closely at themselves, going back to the idea of building awareness that I spoke of with mind maps.

Students wanted to get to know each other, and doing pair work and switching pairs regularly helped serve this.  A student or two mentioned in feedback though that more group work would have been a good way to add variety to this.  And a few students wrote in feedback that they would have liked the chance to speak with me more. Talking with a native speaker one on one was not a chance that came around for them very often, and furthermore, they wanted to know more about me, aside from what I projected to them as a whole group.

As a part-time teacher there I didn’t have an office, so there was little chance for students to talk with me outside of class. Some also told me that they wanted to hear my opinions more. I hesitate to do this in my teaching, out of concern that it will stifle students who have other thoughts, or even keep them from forming those thoughts to begin with. But I can see the potential that all of these things have to make the experience richer for everyone, and if I were to go back to university I’d work on ways to incorporate them more into what I do.

FEEDBACK: GIVING STUDENTS A VOICE

Students needed and wanted me, as their teacher, to take control, as when I tried to get them to spontaneously on their own choose pair work partners from among classmates with whom they didn’t speak very often.  But they also wanted their feelings and opinions to be heard. I tried to address this through written feedback, as I experienced as a student at SIT.

I asked students to write their impressions of the previous class at home every week and submit it in our next session. I collected them and returned them the following week, along with comments. I didn’t look at grammar and spelling and the like, but rather I focused on content, and responded in my comments from the point of view of an interested reader. In doing this I recalled the work I did at SIT my second summer regarding reading for form vs. content, and I was struck by how difficult it was to do both at the same time.

I explained to the students that the point of the feedback was to create a channel for dialogue between them as individuals and myself, to encourage communication, rather than as a grammar or spelling check. Some students expressed their desire to have me check these things, however, and I declined. Besides going against my stated purpose, it would have quite simply taken too much time if I’d had to go through so many papers on that basis.

But this let me know that there was a hunger among students to have their writing evaluated as well, even though our course was focused on speaking and listening. I tried to address this need a bit when I had them write questions to classmates on their mind maps as I mentioned earlier in this paper. At that time I had the chance to walk around and help with mistakes.

Generally, students seemed to like the feedback papers, because they had the chance to candidly tell me how they felt about a lesson, whether it was too difficult, whether my directions were clear or not, or the sequence was smooth.  Or perhaps they would have liked more time to spend on a certain activity, or simply wanted to tell me that they were tired that day from studying for a test and working at their part time job and that those were the reasons behind their sluggishness that day.

When students saw evidence in class that I had not only read their comments but had taken them to heart and changed my way of doing something perhaps because of that, they seemed empowered and encouraged, and noted in subsequent feedback entries that they appreciated my willingness to hear them and respond concretely.  It seemed to me this did a lot to nurture a feeling of mutual respect and of partnership between us all in the classroom.

Kyoto Collection is part of the Amazon Associates program, which means I earn a small amount of money every time you click on a link I provide and purchase something on Amazon at no added cost to you. It will be put to very good use the next time I take my family to the neighborhood revolving sushi joint, and we thank you!

More Posts in this Series:

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 1: Expectations

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 2: Classroom Rituals and Activities

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 3: Community Building

Originally posted 2019-05-07 05:13:16.

Teaching English to Japanese Students: Activities

When I started teaching at university in Japan, I made an effort to understand the students’ expectations and to take into account various demands on their time. And I adjusted my own expectations accordingly, as I noted in part 1 of this series about teaching English to Japanese students.

As the university term went on, I found myself developing rituals. These were activities that students grew familiar with and became used to doing, so that there was efficiency in them. The initial time spent demonstrating and explaining them resulted in less set up time overall relative to the time that students spent engaged in them.

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The two main rituals were mind maps and short dialogues, and they were used at the beginning of class. They often accounted for the first 30 minutes or so of class time.

I had various reasons for structuring my classes this way.  For one thing, I wanted to give the students a chance to ‘warm up’ their English using familiar activities at the beginning of class, keeping in mind that aside from our 90 minutes together, many of them didn’t speak any English.

I chose a theme to work on throughout the course.  I felt that no matter how much variety I infused it with, working with that theme and that theme only would be potentially stifling, for all of us.

The students had lots to express that fell outside my theme, and I too wanted to teach some things that I had trouble incorporating into it.  And because our classes were longer than an hour, it afforded us ample time to include these activities.

CIRCLES

As a learner, making a circle was part of my graduate school experience from start to finish, and I suppose that whenever I think of that time, I’ll think of the circles we made and how it facilitated communication.

In my small group conversation classes, I taught in a cozy room that was at one time someone’s bedroom, in a traditional style Japanese house. There was a large dining table that people sat around, making a cozy circle.

At university though, I was confronted with a large room, often larger than needed, with chairs in rows facing the board, each chair with its own desk in front of it. From the first day, I asked students to move the desks away to an unused part of the room and to make a circle with their chairs.
I asked them to rearrange the room this way as they entered before each class, so that we would be ready to start when it was time to begin class.

This was a new format for some, and took a little getting used to. They inevitably had to be reminded to do this at times, and so I made a habit of popping into the room five minutes before the lesson and if there were students there seated in the usual way in rows, I wordlessly made a circle motion with my finger and walked out. This was enough to get things in motion and in place by class time.

MIND MAPS

As I mentioned in connection with identifying student expectations for the course, the chance to make new friends was a significant aim for most. One student told me that students tend to make friends and join informal and more organized social circles in the first year, and that those relationships form the bulk of their social lives throughout university.

It was therefore a rare chance to be able to make new friends after that, and he mentioned that that opportunity was one of the things he most appreciated about my class. The fact that the students came from different majors and would have otherwise had little or no contact with each other made this even more valuable to many of them.

Mind maps became a key way to facilitate this interaction. Before I went to grad school I’d heard about mind maps, and seen examples of what a friend’s students had created.  A mind map is a way to arrange ideas and their interconnections visually. Starting from the center of the page, a focus is identified.  In my university classes, the focus was ‘My Week.’ Various ‘bubbles’ connected by lines emanate from the center, giving more detailed information.

Mind maps can be used in various contexts to organize and present thoughts graphically, help clarify thinking, and also importantly for this exercise, are easy to read over.

In my conversation school classes, I would routinely set aside the first 5-10 minutes of class for students in lower level classes to talk in pairs about a topic of interest to them, which usually was something they’d done in the past week. The students there were all very familiar with this format, and also with the importance of keeping the conversations going by asking follow up questions and giving additional information.

During this time, I didn’t correct, but I listened and helped with a word if needed, to keep the flow going. At this beginning level, there were often words or grammar forms that came up that we’d been working on or that were ‘ripe’ for them to be exposed to. I often noted these things after the exercise, and sometimes expanded on them to give additional practice.

I wanted to give university students a chance to use their English in this way to freely talk about whatever they chose with each other.

I knew that due to the emphasis on written testing in Japan in all things including language learning, most university students have a storehouse of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge that has rarely been put to use in actual, spontaneous conversation, and I wanted to provide a forum for practicing accessing this knowledge so that it could be used in speaking and listening, which are the two skill areas that are least taught throughout compulsory school years.

They also happen to be the areas that students most often want to study and become more proficient at.

I knew though, that I’d need to make adjustments to suit the university classes. I couldn’t monitor all the conversations as well as I would have liked to, since an average of 24 students meant 12 pairs talking at the same time. So it would have been easy for students to begin to feel that it was ‘free conversation’ and nothing more, more akin to chat than a learning experience.

I obviously couldn’t monitor everyone closely enough to identify all of the significant chances for learning that flowed from their mistakes. In this way, the potential for students to see it as a ‘time killer’ and an unfocused free for all and even as a chance to speak Japanese was there.

There was also added challenge because of the varying levels of motivation and language ability that existed within a single class. I needed to add some structure to the exercise to help lower level students and to keep the less motivated ones focused by making the task more concrete, and to add an element of accountability to it.

This is where mind maps came in. I had never used them before with students, so I found myself developing new ways to work with them as I went along in response to the feedback I was getting from students.

I began by presenting a mind map of my week on the board, and asking students to predict with partners what I’d done.  After sharing these ideas together, I told them what had actually happened. This gave them the basic idea.

Then I asked them all to stand and for each person to ask me one question to get more information. Things like ‘how was dinner?’ ‘What time did you meet your friend?’ etc. I used this technique a few times during the course as a way to get shy or reluctant students to ask questions.

It was also a very effective way to suddenly change a quiet classroom into a boisterous one, with usually reserved students often the ones who were most eager to be noticed and called on to ask a question, so they could sit down and not have to worry about their question being asked first by another student, which would have meant having to come up with another!

Once the importance of follow up questions was established and they had a feel for how to transform their experiences into mind maps, I asked them to make one of their own to share with a classmate in the next class.

The mind maps were a new concept for almost all the students, so their novelty lent a fresh angle to the idea of chatting together in English. In the opening weeks of class, students brought in a mind map every week and exchanged it with a classmate and then each partner looked at the other’s map, predicting what had happened before listening to their partner tell of the week’s events.

This gave students a chance to talk with different classmates, about one one of everyone’s favorite subjects, themselves. Students who didn’t bring a mind map or scratched one out halfheartedly just before class were at a disadvantage and their partner had less to work with, which gave them some impetus to prepare one in advance and to put some thought into it.

But as the newness wore off, I could sense that fresh elements had to be added to keep it engaging. I began to collect the mind maps at the beginning of class, and then randomly redistributed them. My only concern was that a pair was indeed working with two mind maps other than either of theirs. They worked together trying to make sense and sentences out of the words and fragments on the maps. Topics such as part time jobs and fun with friends were typical, but there were always surprises.

The second stage of this exercise was to individually write at least three questions they had for the person whose mind map they were holding. This was a rare chance to write in a class that emphasized speaking and listening, and it often provided me a chance to quickly point out mistakes as I circulated, making for another learning chance. These were often ‘simple’ mistakes that the students could self correct.

This done, they all stood up and went over to the mind map’s owner and asked the questions.  This inevitably turned into a mini conversation in its own right. There was often a short wait when the mind map’s owner was engaged in another conversation, but it was minimal and the vast majority of students seemed to be doing something at a given moment. Waiting time was also a chance to listen to a conversation between others.

The energy of a classroom of students standing at once and immediately setting out to find a certain classmate and having an animated chat before changing partners was an invigorating way to start class.

In this way, mind mapping grew to incorporate the four skills of language learning(listening, speaking, reading and writing), offered a chance for students to get to break the ice with all of their classmates at least once over the school term, and gave them a chance to creatively use language that they’d learned over the years, as well as picking up select new vocabulary on an as needed basis.

Because they had an immediate need to put these new words into service to express themselves to classmates in the moment, they were more likely to retain them.  They often discovered these words when they were writing their mind maps, and just as often, conversations in class surrounding them prompted them to ask me for a word or check a dictionary.  My intermediate level Japanese came in handy, as I was often able to quickly give a word without disrupting the flow.

SHORT DIALOGUES

I was the first native English teacher that many of my university students had had. Because Japanese English teachers usually don’t know many of the expressions and colloquialisms that are part of everyday conversation, and perhaps more importantly, because tests focus on more formalized speech, my students had a real hunger and enthusiasm for learning such things.

I incorporated these elements into the theme that we worked with, but wanted to give students a more focused, regular chance to not only pick up new words and expressions, but also to get a feel for the rhythm and intonation that native speakers typically use.  This is where short dialogues came in. After mind map exchanges, I presented a dialogue that I’d written on the board. I created these dialogues earlier that same day to reflect something topical, like the day’s weather or plans for an upcoming school break, etc. The following is an example:

A Hey, you’re soaked!

B Yeah, it’s pouring outside.

A Don’t you have an umbrella?

B No, according to the weather report, it was supposed to be sunny today.

A Well, don’t believe everything you hear!

Students worked briefly in pairs to try and guess the meanings of new expressions and vocabulary with the help of known words. In the above example, The word ‘umbrella’ could function as a clue to the meaning of words like ‘soaked’ and ‘pouring.’ In this stage of the exercise, I encouraged students to have fun guessing together and to use their imaginations, stressing the mindset of being a language detective and making inferences. Dictionaries were not used during this process; Japanese students are often quick to look something up and are inevitably as quick to forget the word as soon as knowing its meaning has served their immediate purpose. The ubiquity of smartphones has only made it easier to fall into this trap.

Exploration and discovery are not concepts that are compatible in a system where according to one survey, 70 percent of students can’t keep up with the massive amounts of information that they’re told to memorize. Therefore, although this notion is a bit intimidating to some students at first and they hesitate to ‘take a stab’ at an answer even in pairs where the spotlight isn’t on them, there’s a novelty and freshness to it that seemed to appeal to most and they brainstormed more freely with each other as the weeks went on.

I then gave them a chance to come up with the answers as a whole group, and inevitably at least one or two were on the mark for each phrase in question. The next step was to act out the dialogues on their own. Knowing the meaning was a good start, and I asked them to try and convey that understanding in acting it out. This sometimes involved body language that was often as foreign to them as some of the text, and intonation and emotion that they weren’t used to using when speaking English.

As I tried to prepare students for these tasks, I remembered my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer as a grad student at the School for International Training(SIT) in Vermont. I recalled listening to my teacher as she read a passage from a short story to us, and I was struck by how neutral the reading was, with nary a nod to what the characters might be feeling as they uttered the lines.

I reflected at that time on my own teaching and how I often infused my reading with with my own interpretation of what was happening. I did this to help students to understand the meaning and also to entertain them, to keep their attention as a storyteller would. But I realized from this experience as a learner that being ‘spoon fed’ an interpretation can rob the listener of the chance to conjure up their own image of what’s going on, and can raise their dependence on the speaker for cues to the material’s meaning. Of course there can be multiple interpretations, all equally plausible, So, I had to consciously walk a line in the university classroom, modeling something on one hand, to provide some sense of possibilities, but not short-circuiting their own creative process or visions.

Another element that went into working with the dialogues was working with blending words as native speakers might. Invariably, students pronounce words in English as distinct, separate entities, just as they typically appear on a page, or are spoken by many Japanese English teachers. In fact, many native English teachers do this as well, whether consciously or not, to facilitate understanding. The contrast between this and a blended version can be seen in the following:

What are you going to do tomorrow?

Wada ya gonna do damorrow?

As an illustration of how ubiquitous blending is, songs like the Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ can be presented. Since most students express an interest in learning English to understand foreign movies and music, calling this to their attention and giving them some basic rules about how native speakers blend words and a chance to practice can be both meaningful and fun. It was familiar enough in a vague way through exposure to movies and music for my students to get a handle on, the motivation to learn it was high, and its novelty brought an energy to the lessons.

If a native speaker were to utter the example sentence above, it would probably be split into two intonation groups, as in:

Wada ya gonna/do damorrow?

The existence of intonation groups, of the tendency of native speakers of various languages to group words in a sentence according to the sound, is usually another new concept for students.  But like blending, it can take on a familiar quality quickly in that it involves calling attention to something that’s been there all the time, maybe something that they have even unconsciously used themselves at times.

The phenomenon of intonation groups was something that my students could quickly master once they were introduced to it. To illustrate it, I asked them to take a pencil or pen and hold it in their hand as if they were a conductor about to lead an orchestra. Then, I moved my pencil back and forth like a windshield wiper, two times in the case of the example sentence. For contrast, I then mimicked the way some learners approach sounds in English, by keeping them separate and keeping it monotone, as in:

What/are/you/going/to/do/tomorrow?

This invariably prompted laughs of recognition, as most seemed to relate to this ‘metronome’ approach. When students started moving their pencils back and forth and playing with dialogues in this way, it brought kinesthetic learning into the equation, which provided another opportunity to connect with and visualize the material, in a way that had an element of play to it.

Another exciting part for students was that once they noticed intonation groups, they could in very short order intuitively grasp and use this concept. If there was a case where the grouping wasn’t clear to someone and they asked me, we often went through the process of experimentation and discovery together with our pencil ‘wands’, and the answer wasn’t always clear, making the process itself as important as the result.

In working with a short dialogue in so many ways, I recalled the notion of ‘doing a lot with a little’ that I found so intriguing in my studies at SIT. Another phrase a teacher used then, ‘milking the content’ also came to mind. Before looking at this, I had the somewhat typical tendency to go through material more quickly, which made my job as a teacher harder because I had to constantly search for new lessons. Once I put the principle into practice though, I could use my energy to creatively mine lessons in various ways, which made teaching much more fun and rewarding for me.

Hopefully, this has had an effect on the students’ reactions as well. Working this way can also foster the feeling among students that the amount of material covered isn’t what’s important; it’s the learning that is. I was fortunate at the university where I taught to be able to prepare my own syllabus and I had no prescribed amount of material to plow through, so this was admittedly a great help. Teachers who have less control over the content and pace of their lessons will need to consider ways to work within those confines.

Working with dialogues gives a teacher a lot of choices, even on a basic level. There’s whole group practice, pairs practicing simultaneously, and pairs performing in front of their classmates.  Since the dialogues were short, they could quickly be memorized so that students didn’t need to rely on what I’d written on the board, and they could be paraphrased or altered. I used all of these variations at one time or another. I also occasionally had a pair present a dialogue in front of the class without actually vocalizing the words! It was up to them to mouth the dialogue with expressions and gestures that they considered fitting, as the rest of the class in chorus said the words. This allowed the ‘audience’ to actually participate and required their attention to what was being played out in front of them.

Whatever rituals a teacher chooses to incorporate into lessons, it would serve them to keep in mind that there will be a learning curve, and maybe even some resistance or hesitation on the part of students if they aren’t used to doing something.  Explaining and/or demonstrating the activities can, along with time, address this. I found that if I allowed for such reactions at the beginning, dealt with them in this way, and was committed to what I was doing, things fell into place well and these rituals became useful tools in serving my students’ learning.

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Originally posted 2019-04-26 23:32:02.

Teaching English in Japan: Community Building

This is the third in a series of posts on classroom techniques and perspectives that served me well as a new English teacher at a Japanese university. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can find it here.

My graduate school studies not only exposed me to new ideas and practices, they  also made me more aware of things I had been doing all along in the classroom.

Through this, I was able to see how my inclinations were a reflection of the values that I naturally placed importance on in my teaching. One of these was community building.

Helping to foster a supportive, secure, warm environment has always been central to my teaching, and to the extent that it reflects who I am as a person, it hadn’t always been something I’d consciously thought about.

But from the moment I started student orientation at the beginning of my first summer as a student at grad school, I was struck by how much effort my teachers made to give us a chance to forge relationships and build familiarity with our new classmates.

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Cooperative assignments like going out into the local community to gather information to put on a board about local events and facilities, and simpler tasks like standing and lining up according to some criteria like height, hair length, etc. without speaking stand out in my memory.

Working as a member of a group in my own student life gave me concrete experience to draw on as a teacher at university in Japan, and reaffirmed the importance that I’ve always placed on this facet of teaching.

Until my year teaching at university, my eikaiwa conversation school classes in Japan had been the extent of my teaching experience with group dynamics and community building. In that context, small groups of four to six or so motivated adults who see their weekly hour of English as a refreshing shift in their routines are often eager to talk with one another. And the small class size makes changing partners in the course of a single hour an easy thing to do logistically as well. Students sometimes extend these relationships outside of class, and even go overseas together on occasion when they hit it off with someone, though feeling a sense of community and shared experience in the classroom is enough for many.

THE NAME GAME

In his classic 1993 book What Matters in College, Alexander Astin reviewed the literature on college teaching and found that two things make the biggest difference in getting students involved and instilling a sense of community. They are, greater teacher-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though Japanese students weren’t the focus of the research that this work is based on and the book is a bit outdated in places, I’d venture to say that these two aspects of the learning environment are still universally significant, and teachers who start from this macro level are way ahead of the game from the very start.

Learning names may at first sound trivial and unworthy of special thought, but it is a powerful way to nurture both of these important interactions.

With small conversation school classes, learning students’ names and giving students a chance to learn the names of classmates almost takes care of itself. It’s a matter of introducing a new classmate, and in my teaching I used students’ names often, so there was ample chance for students to hear them again and again if they didn’t get the name the first time. Few names to memorize means that teacher and students need put little effort into it. Beyond this though, I liked to create an opportunity in my conversation school classes for students to actually use each others’ names.

When I asked conversation school students to discuss something in pairs and then switch pairs and repeat to their new partner what their previous partner said, they started by using the person’s name, as in ‘Tomoko said…..’ This helps the listener to keep the image of the person in mind as they listen, and it also happens that in such a small space, the classmate, Tomoko in this example, can hear her name being uttered.

In a separate post about rituals in the language classroom in this series, the mind map activity that asks students to look at a classmates’ map after I’ve handed them out randomly gives such a chance to put name recall into practice. When students stood to go and ask the person additional questions that they had based on their map, they had to match a face in the room filled with 25 or so scurrying young people with the name on the paper, and go up to them!

If they hadn’t known names at this point in the semester, this simply can’t have worked. So it served to show me that they knew names, and gave them a chance to confirm this to themselves. This activity can also build community in giving students a reason to approach a particular classmate, who might be someone they don’t know well or even feel hesitant or shy about talking to.

Then the question becomes how to get students to this point, where they have a basic handle on names? I think this is important, because in my experience, teachers put more focus on finding ways for themselves to learn their students’ names than on giving students ample opportunity to do this with each other.

I should add though, that I actually heard through the grapevine about a teacher who didn’t focus on either aspect of this issue. He said bluntly to a classroom full of university students that he simply didn’t have time to learn so many names and so wasn’t going to try. This could be one of those ‘I heard about a guy who….’ stories that ultimately is just a product of someone’s imagination. But in any case, I think most teachers would agree that it wouldn’t do much in the way of community building, unless it were to unite the students in their disrespect for the teacher!

It’s much more common, though, for a teacher to take the step of learning student names but stop there, not devoting enough conscious effort to allow for the students to learn the names of their peers.

Let’s look first at some possibilities for helping the teacher to learn names. I chose to ask students for an ID sized picture that I glued to a piece of paper and wrote names underneath. I had a sheet for each class that I could keep on my desk and quickly glance at if I wanted to ask something of someone whose name hadn’t stuck yet.  This seemed to work well enough for me.

A friend who seemed to foster a strong sense of community in his classes made more of an activity out of this process. He put students together in groups of 5-8 or so, and had them pose for a picture together in the classroom in their first meeting, holding name cards in front of them. Then he printed these group shots out and put them on his desk for easy reference during future class sessions. University students routinely take pictures on the last day of class, and this is a nice twist on that. And to level the playing field and give students the same chance to use pictures to learn names, of course students can take photos of the groups holding their name cards as well.

Another friend used some class time early on in the semester as students were working quietly on a reading passage to walk around and focus on connecting names with faces, and I happened to be observing her class on a day she did this. When they were done reading, she challenged herself by spontaneously calling out names as she looked at  students.

The point was not necessarily to be perfect. In fact she couldn’t quite remember a name or two, but the students saw clearly that she was willing to put in the time to do it and that she considered it important.  And it also showed them that there was nothing to be embarrassed about should they forget someone’s name themselves. Seeing a teacher willing to put herself in a position like that fostered respect and a desire to live up to her example. I could see in that moment how her students admired her for taking such a risk and for the sentiment behind it all.

One of the first activities I did with students was in the spirit of the ‘lining up without words’ games from my first summer at grad school that I mentioned above. In our first class, I asked my students to line up alphabetically according to first name, without speaking. Since most of them knew at most only a couple of their classmates at that point, this required lots of sign language. After they lined up, we checked accuracy by reciting our names and greeting that person in unison, with a ‘Hi, Yuki!’ etc. I had no expectations about students remembering names yet, but wanted to put the names ‘in circulation’ as my own teachers were fond of saying.

Another early activity was ‘find someone who…..’.  I’ve used this standard icebreaker before with groups, preparing a sheet with instructions geared toward specific age levels, interest, etc. So in this context, I included such things as ‘find someone who works part time at a restaurant’ etc.

Students were asked to walk around the classroom and approach classmates, first introducing themselves and then asking a question. Students could ask up to three questions of a particular classmate, hoping to find a match to one of the directives. This exercise gives students a chance to make associations between names, faces and traits or experiences, so there’s a greater chance that they’ll remember them.

Later in the semester I found myself with some spare time before class ended one day, and got the circle together to try a memorization chain with names. The first person said their name, and added something they like, as in ‘I’m Yasuhiro and I like fishing.’ The next student repeated that and then added his own information, and this grew and grew. The concentration on students’ faces was obvious as they prepared for their turn by listening and trying to remember the information in sequence.

As a teacher, I wanted to learn students’ names, but invariably some came more easily than others. As the semester went on, I found it harder to admit to individual students that I didn’t know their names yet, and I felt embarrassed about this. I imagine that students shared these feelings at times, and I wanted to make it easier, acceptable, for them to openly acknowledge they didn’t remember a classmate’s name, in order to learn it and feel more comfortable.

This also involved a language component, and I wrote on the board the phrase ‘Excuse me, can I have your name again?’ Having armed students with this, along with the permission to use it, I asked them to circulate around the room and approach classmates whose names they weren’t yet sure of. They were additionally motivated to do this by the knowledge that afterwards, we were to get back in our circle and they’d be asked to show how many names they knew.

After a burst of commotion, everyone seemed satisfied that they had it. Then, with the person sitting down next to them in the circle, they went about looking around them and starting at a certain point in the circle and working clockwise, one by one wrote the names of their classmates as they conferred together about it.

I walked around, amused by the discussions and speculations and occasional head scratching, and when a pair seemed stumped, I let them know it was alright for one of them to get up and walk over to that person and ask, using our magic question. This chance came as a relief to some, and I hoped it would instill in them the idea that it was OK to ask.

POSTER SESSION

Another community building activity that we did together was a poster project. Students were asked in the first class to make a poster at home to bring in the next week. I supplied the paper to give them some parameters as far as size went and therefore, the amount of information to include. I showed them a poster I’d made to introduce myself that included things I consider important in my life that are central to who I am.

My name was written prominently at the top, going back to the idea that it would be useful for them to learn names early on and to be able to connect them with something about that person.  My poster featured pictures of family, friends, and pets, and under each picture there was a short description with my comments.

The next week, all of the students present had done a poster. We had a ‘poster session’ with students taking turns manning their posters as classmates circulated, looked at the posters and asked questions.  Often things in common were discovered, like hometowns, hobbies or pets.

As an exercise in getting to know each other and as an outlet for them to creatively express themselves, the exercise seemed to work. If I were to do it again, though, I would add a task, such as I did with mind maps, when they were asked to make three questions for someone, or to find things that they had in common with a certain number of people and then write about those things at home, etc. This would have added a gamelike element and greater sense of purpose to it, and it would have given students who didn’t put as much energy into visiting their classmates at their stations and engaging in conversation another reason to participate.

I also wonder if I could have gotten more mileage out of this exercise by bringing the posters back in some way later in the semester, or even at the end.  From my own experience walking around the room and looking at the posters while chatting with their creators, there was a lot of information to absorb, and since the students were still new to me, as they were to each other, I had very little context to go on, and many of the details of individual posters ran together in my mind.

I could have, for example, covered the authors’ names, and put the posters on the walls at the end of the term, for students to look at again and to identify the owners. And going back to what I’ve written about names, this would have been a way for them to use that knowledge, and also to realize how much more familiar they’d become with each other over the term, and how the information on the posters had come to take on a deeper meaning now that they’d formed relationships.

A ‘surprise’ activity like this would be in a sense a walk down memory lane, bringing back memories of the beginning of our time together, and could give a feeling of having come full circle.

MAKING GROUPS

Helping students make groups in the university classroom required appreciably more thought and effort than at the conversation school, and therefore was probably the thing about university teaching that required the most conscious thought. This sounds strange to me, in that making groups with small groups of adults has always been so straightforward. In a class of four people for example, I’d start by making pairs of people sit next to each other, and switched at least once during an hour class to lend more variety and to give students a chance to communicate with their classmates.

Simple logistics when dealing with 25 or so students complicates this task. Add to this a shyness among some university students, and throw in gender dynamics in a co-ed group, and the situation calls out for firm, clear directions from the teacher in order for students to interact over a semester with different classmates, and to do it without wasting precious class time that could be better spent.

The concept of ‘control and initiative’ was something that made a strong impact on me in my grad school studies. The idea that a teacher must provide enough structure to give students a basis for action, while giving enough space for them to have the freedom to express themselves and creatively use language was something that I wanted to develop at university. I considered this valuable especially since most students, even at that late point in their schooling, were still given precious little initiative in classes and had gotten used to a passive style of learning.

I soon discovered that having students stand and announcing ‘OK, make a pair with someone you don’t know well’ was just asking for hesitation and blank stares. From the beginning, it was clear that if left to their own devices, boys would generally sit with boys, and girls with girls, and that this would carry over to their choice of partners. I learned, though, that this didn’t mean that they didn’t want to cross gender lines and get to know those of the opposite sex.

In fact one boy wrote that very thing to me in his feedback, saying that although they wanted to, it was difficult for them to take that initiative and that they would be glad if I did it for them. This was an important realization for me.  It showed me that there are times when students are uncomfortable initiating things that they in fact would welcome doing if told to do so!

I experimented with making choosing partners a sort of game at times. I’d write names of fruits and vegetables on slips of paper and students would circulate, calling out what was on the slip, so the room was filled with shouts of ‘banana’!  ‘broccoli!’

When they found the student with the same word, they sat down together ready to begin whatever activity was in store. I tried this with various things, including matching a celebrity’s first name with their last one. The more background knowledge necessary to find a partner though, the more potential for snags, and the purpose of this after all, was to set up an activity rather than become a full fledged activity in itself, as far as time and energy were concerned.

Another tactic that I sometimes tried was looking at the attendance sheet and calling out names in a straightforward way, based on pairings I thought would be suitable as far as level went, or in terms of getting two students together who rarely talked, etc.

As well as deciding who talks with whom, there’s also the matter of how often in a given class groups are changed. One student wrote in feedback that she felt less of a need to change partners multiple times in a class during our second semester together, because thanks to such frequent switches in the first term, she’d already become acquainted with everyone to one degree or another. While most students seemed to enjoy the chance to change partners, it does deserve some thought, and the comment I just mentioned also made me aware that partnering is something that can and should evolve as students’ needs do.

More Posts in this Series:

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 1: Expectations

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 2: Classroom Rituals and Activities

Originally posted 2019-04-17 07:04:17.

Teaching English in Japan: Classroom Expectations

Welcome to part 1! In this and the posts to follow in this series about teaching English in Japan, I’ll go into detail about the challenges I faced as a neophyte university teacher in Kyoto, fresh out of grad school.

I was already a veteran conversation school teacher at the time, and needed to quickly make various adjustments in order to succeed in this challenging new environment.

I’ll give concrete examples of strategies and activities that served me and my students well, and also look back on what I could have done differently.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along, whether you’re already in Japan, are considering taking the plunge, or are just interested in getting a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to teach large classes of Japanese university students.

Teaching English at a Japanese university, like anything else worthwhile, requires patience, humility, flexibility and hard work. Even as I struggled to adapt at times, I pushed myself to get through the rough patches.  And now I can see how that process served my own learning in lasting and significant ways.

I’ve lived in Kyoto since 1998 and it’s truly my home. My experiences teaching English at conversation schools as well as university have given me lots of wonderful memories, insights into the culture and people, and some good friendships, too.

Teaching is learning, and teaching in a foreign country where there is already so much to absorb can be incredibly stimulating, but also overwhelming at times. I hope that the following reflections will prove helpful on a practical level, and maybe even inspire you to meet your own challenges head on.

Here’s to not just surviving in the classroom, but thriving!

Societal Expectations of University Students

One common expectation of teachers everywhere is for students to study.  This is a laudable and understandable goal. But keeping in mind that one of the Japanese university’s main functions is to provide a place and time to mature will help in making a teacher’s expectations more realistic.

It can also help motivate students to strive to make their best effort. Students also have various other demands on their time, and it’s all to easy for a teacher to overlook this when assigning work. Reacting reflexively and angrily when students fail to live up to a certain standard tends to just make things worse.

A pillar of the business world, Toshihiko Yamashita, once said that university graduates are all but useless when they’re hired, being no better educated than when they left high school.

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Accordingly, the expectation of business when hiring university graduates has been that they have already proven their ability to withstand the rigor and discipline of high school life and thereby shown that they will be able to withstand the demands of the workplace, by passing what is known as ‘exam hell’ and gaining admittance to a prestigious university. The actual grades that are received at university have often had little or no bearing on hiring practices.

Students are aware of this, and after three years a heavy high school homework load plus added hours of instruction at cram schools for many, it’s easy to understand why some students come to feel like they’re entitled to a break before putting their noses to the company grindstone.

The Growing Necessity of Part Time Work for Japanese Students

In recent years, this scenario has been further complicated by the breakdown of traditional employment norms, with more and more workers working for fewer benefits and under temporary contracts that deprive them of the sense of security that past generations felt upon landing their first job.

And in fact, nowadays fewer and fewer students have the luxury of focusing fully on their university studies, with more of them working while they are in school at part-time jobs, often in the service sector at casual restaurants, etc. And It’s not just about the sheer number of students that work, it’s also about their motivation for doing so.

In the past, those who worked often did so primarily in order to refresh themselves and make new friends. Because working part time while in high school is rare, most young people have never experienced being part of the labor force before. Places like restaurants that traditionally rely on part time student labor have often highlighted this aspect of the work in their hiring posters.

These days, it seems that students themselves are bearing more and more of the financial burden that their education creates, and in such cases working is an imperative. Seen through this lens, such students being less willing and/or able to keep up with a given teacher’s demands on their time can be viewed more sympathetically.

What do Students Want Out of University Life?

But wanting a break doesn’t necessarily mean that students are content to come out of university with nothing tangible besides a diploma to show for their time. The rigidity and intense focus on memorization and tests that often characterizes high school here leaves many students hungry to develop themselves in other areas such as forging friendships, devoting time to hobbies, and experiencing romance.

They also often yearn for experiences outside their own culture and the rules that they associate with it, and foreign languages, specifically those from western countries like English that are so obviously outside the bounds of the system they grew up in, can offer a window onto this.  To the extent that a teacher can tap into some of these expectations and adjust their own accordingly, student motivation can be cultivated.

Identify and Examine Your Own Expectations as a Teacher

In identifying my own expectations, it was useful to reflect on the teaching I had done to that point.  Before my stint at university, I had been teaching in Japan for four years in various contexts, including a year at a large conversation school chain, and another year as an assistant teacher working with Japanese English teachers at public elementary and junior high schools in a small town.

Being that the bulk of my teaching experience had been with small classes of motivated adults at conversation schools(eikaiwa) who chose to be there, I immediately had to adjust to larger classes, which in my case meant about 20-25 students.

Until that time, I’d only taught 50 minute to hour long lessons, and so it was also important to develop activities to keep the flow going over 90 minutes lessons at university.  And because I had never given grades before, I had to form clear guidelines and convey them early on to the students so that they would be clear about what I expected of them in return for various grades.

Another difference was that my conversation school classes were ongoing, and students could join and quit at anytime.  In that university classes have a finite beginning and ending and are filled with students of more or less the same age, there is a greater potential and also perhaps a greater demand for fostering a sense of community that in many cases results in students striking up relationships that extend beyond the classroom.

Ask Your Students for Feedback Along the Way

Knowing where the students are coming from scholastically and culturally is a good start. Otherwise, teachers can be prone to take things personally and react in unproductive, reflexive ways that can exacerbate problems.

Getting structured feedback from students as the term goes on is another valuable way to assess what they expect and respond to, as well as what doesn’t work or could work better.  The issue of eliciting feedback will be discussed more in my post on student motivation strategies.

Originally posted 2019-04-17 06:57:48.

Moving to Japan: An Assistant English Teacher’s Life In a Small Town

If you want to teach English in Japan, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the plunge. That’s just what I did back in ’97 and I’m still here, with no plans to go back to Los Angeles.

I can personally attest that Japan offers many opportunities to native English speakers to live in the countryside as well as cities of various sizes and teach English, whether it’s at private English language schools or as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) on the state-sponsored JET program or similar private programs.

And if you have an advanced university degree and want to stay awhile, it’s always possible that you’ll be able to make the jump to university teaching if that’s something that appeals to you.

There are also jobs in Japan for English speakers besides teaching, but they are obviously less plentiful, and it often takes an entrepreneurial spirit to create work for yourself. This website is in fact one such example-I retired from teaching almost ten years ago, and I now make my living dealing in new and vintage Japanese textiles, indulging my interest in traditional culture.

This post is a general primer on what life can be like in small town Japan, with some basic tips on how to get the most out of your experience. In future pieces I’ll write about specific experiences that I’ve had in different locales and at different types of schools, as I’ve sampled various teaching and living scenarios in my decades here.

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Before you actually visit the country your image of Japan may be influenced by popular media, which tends to focus on such aspects of Japanese culture as Lolita girls, surprising vending machines, manga and animé, pop stars and game shows. The more traditional side of Japan, such as its temples, its geisha, and its Shinto shrines tend to be portrayed in the west as somehow otherworldly and static, as if they belong to a different time.

Real Japan

The real Japan defies these stereotypes, especially in small towns and rural areas. Like any other country, Japan mixes its traditional culture with modern life and its alternative scenes with mainstream pop culture. It is also surprisingly cosmopolitan in terms of food, music and entertainment.

You don’t need to be in the big cities to find excellent quality Italian food alongside the regular restaurants and ramen diners, and small towns will often have interesting venues for small bands and performers as well as traditional festivals and craft fairs. Small-town Japan is a vibrant place to live if you’re open-minded and willing to spend a little time getting to know it.

The Japanese countryside is strikingly beautiful. Forests cover about 67% of the land in Japan, so the mountains spend most of the year looking lush and green. Roads wind through the valleys beside rocky rivers of beautifully clear water.

This is the kind of countryside in which you may well find yourself as an AET in a Japanese school or district. It can be tough to find your bearings if you don’t read Japanese, since English is used less outside of the cities. It’s far from impossible, though, and in fact, with the right approach, small-town Japanese life is very rewarding.

Life in Japan for Foreigners

The first thing you’ll realize is that, if you don’t look Japanese, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Don’t be surprised if neighbors and co-workers seem to know more about you than you might expect.

Looking different means that people notice you, and naturally people like to talk about the new person in town. This can seem invasive to non-Japanese people, so it’s important to bear in mind that talking to you about things you’ve been doing is often a Japanese person’s way of striking up a conversation and being friendly. Bear in mind that you’re noticeable, avoid doing anything you don’t want to be seen doing, and you’ll find in time that no one cares what you bought at the supermarket anymore.

Because Japan is often affected by earthquakes, its buildings must be earthquake proof. That means that Japanese houses and apartments tend not to have central heating systems to avoid the danger of fire in the case of earthquake damage. Of course the cities feel the cold, but in rural areas and small towns it will be colder.

Electric or paraffin heaters are usually used to heat apartments and houses. You will probably also use a kotatsu, which is a wonderful Japanese solution to cold weather. A kotatsu is a low table with a heater. Under the top of the table, you lay a quilt, so you have formed a quilted tent over the heater for your feet and legs. With a kotatsu to keep you warm, the winter may seem too hot instead of too cold.

It may also be necessary to have an all-night electric blanket to keep you warm at night, especially higher in the mountains. There are stories of AETs in particularly mountainous areas who have to keep their toothpaste from freezing overnight by putting it in the fridge. With those kind of temperatures inside, you need a little extra help to keep you warm at night.

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Curiously, Japanese toilets seem to vary from the very high-tech, with rows of buttons and a multitude of functions, to the very low-tech, being little more than a pit in the ground. Rural Japan still has a significant proportion of pit toilets. If you find yourself living in a house with such a toilet, you may have to get used to treating it with certain chemicals and scheduling a waste removal service.

If you’re living in a small town or a rural area, owning a car is pretty much essential. Even simple things like shopping for groceries or meeting up with friends will be a challenge without a car.

The good news is, used cars are very affordable in Japan. Your co-workers can advise you on where to find a good deal and the dealership will help you with tax and insurance.

One major advantage of living in or near the mountains is that you’re never far from a hike in the summer or a ski-slope in the winter.

Japan has been host to the Winter Olympics, which took place in Nagano-ken in 1998.Winter sports are very popular and snowfall is usually heavy enough to allow a reasonably long skiing season.

The season is longer in Hokkaido, where snowfall is usually significantly heavier than on the other islands.

Make the Most of Your Time in Japan: It Starts Before You Go!

As soon as you can after you’ve moved to Japan—or even before you’ve arrived, if possible—join any online groups that will keep you informed of events and activities in your area. AET networks are very helpful both for sharing professional resources and introducing newcomers  to a ready-made social circle. It often takes some time to make Japanese friends, since Japanese people are typically reserved at first. In the meantime, other AET’s or English teachers will provide a good support network while you settle in and will be able to give you any advice you need.

The stereotype of westerners making noisy neighbors is one that endures in Japan, so if you’re living in an apartment or if your house is close to others, be aware of the noise you make during the day and even more so in the evenings. Walls can be thin! And many Japanese people in rural areas go to sleep early and get up early. This is especially true of farming families. Being a thoughtful and considerate neighbor is the very best way of fitting in with your Japanese community.

Above all, learn Japanese. Even if you never hope to be capable of reading the newspaper or a Japanese novel, a little conversational Japanese will go a long way. Not only is it extremely useful, since most Japanese people outside of the large urban centers don’t speak English, but it’s also a sign to the people around you that you want to become part of the community.

Getting familiar with katakana is a great place to start, and you can make considerable headway with this in a matter of a couple weeks. Start before you go and you’ll hit the ground running! Katakana is used for foreign words, including names, so it’s incredibly useful.

You can learn to write your name in katakana with very little effort, and you’ll get a great feeling from being able this.  I wish I had done it before I arrived here, it’s incredibly motivating to have this basic system down, or at least be familiar with it. This self-study workbook is an engaging and efficient way to begin your journey.

Go With the Flow and Embrace the Challenges

Japan has a reputation for being alien and bizarre, and some aspects of its culture seem so to outsiders. Those things make up only a fraction of Japan’s culture, however, as you will find when you live in the country day to day.

There are challenges to life in Japan—as a gaijin, you will never entirely fit in—but it’s perfectly possible to find your own niche, even in the smallest of towns. Take things as they come, be open to new experiences, ask for help when you need it, and soon you’ll be right at home.

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Originally posted 2018-12-17 23:15:28.

Japanese Cat Names List, Tips and Culture Notes!

Popular pet names in Japan in general are an interesting window onto the culture, and Japanese cat names are certainly no exception!

Are you looking for a cute Japanese cat name for your kitten?(kitten in Japanese is koneko, literally ‘child cat’).  Or maybe you’ve seen a famous cat or two in manga or anime and are curious about what sort of names Japanese people choose for their feline friends.

Whatever the basis for your curiosity, I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned as an animal lover living in Japan since 1997. I’ve enlisted the help of Japanese friends in this pursuit, to be sure that my understanding squares with theirs, and ended up learning a lot about what great cat names are made of in the process!

Let’s look at some Japanese pet names for cats, both male and female. More than just giving a name with a translation,  I want to pass along some related information that will give you a better idea of naming conventions in Japan so that if you’re looking for a name, you’ll have more confidence in going with your inspiration and choosing something whether it’s on a list or not.  We’ll look at some of the most popular cat names in Japan as well as creative choices that follow certain tried and true principles.

I also want to introduce you to katakana, the relatively simple Japanese syllabary that’s most often used to write pet names.  And I’ll mention a point that’s often overlooked, natural intonation. With some points in mind about this,  you’ll feel confident that when you call to your cat, it sounds pretty much the same as it would if the owner were a native Japanese speaker. We’ll also take a look at an important aspect of names in general in Japan, suffixes that add warmth and familiarity when used.

Foreign pet names-It goes both ways

So let’s dive into our search for some great cat names in Japanese. First off, it’s worth noting that In Japan, pet owners sometimes choose a western name over a Japanese one for the same reason you might be considering something Japanese-it’s a novel way to express your interest in a culture outside your own and to be a bit different.

And when Japanese people choose a western name for a pet, it’s often a person’s name.  A Japanese friend once had a dog named John, for example.  I never asked her why she it, but I’d bet she liked an actor or singer by that name.  The most famous Japanese cat with a western name is probably Michael of ‘What’s Michael?‘ fame. The manga was such a hit that it spawned a long running animated TV series in the 80’s.

Japanese people sometimes choose the names of Japanese celebrities for their pets as well.  So if there’s a Japanese actor or musician you like, you might consider using a version of their name.  Ichiro isn’t likely to be offended if you’re a baseball fan and name your cat after him!
Speaking of stars, Leo the Lion isn’t just a constellation, he’s also one one reason why there are so many cats in Japan with the name, pronounced ‘Lay-Oh.’

In similar fashion, the Japanese word for tiger, Tora, works quite well as a name because it’s short and it’s no stretch to imagine most cats as mini tigers, especially if they have stripes. Most cat names in Japan seem to be two syllables, with some three-syllable monikers in the mix.  Keeping it short and sweet is a good angle to approach things from, it seems.

Cute Japanese girl cat names from flowers and plants

Flowers and plants are another source of inspiration. Japanese girls are often named after flowers and cats are, too. The Japanese word for flower is hana, and Hana is a very popular girl cat name.

You might well already know some Japanese plant names like Sakura (cherry) and Ume(plum).  Momo(peach) and Sakura are also among the most popular female cat names in Japan.  But don’t stop there-other flowers such as Kiku(chrysanthemum) are also prime candidates! Mums have a rich, regal history in Japan and are associated with the Imperial family. Good girl cat names abound.

Don’t forget to play with fruit names for cats. I thought up some names of fruits in Japanese and ran them by some Japanese friends, wondering if they would work as cat names. These are the ones that passed muster as cute, easy to say possibilities for female cats-Ichigo(strawberry), Suika(watermelon), Anzu(apricot), and Mikan(mandarin orange.)

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Think of various aspects of these names and others. If for example, you got your cat in summer or she was born then or just strikes you as having a summery personality, referring to her as the Japanese word for watermelon might hit just the right note.

Another fruit name that got the thumb’s up from Japanese friends was Ringo(apple), but I nixed it because though it’s indeed catchy, a die-hard Beatles fan might mistakenly assume they’ve found kindred spirits in you and your cat. And while this is certainly not a bad thing, you might soon get fed up with explaining the real meaning behind the choice.

On the other hand, if you are a Beatles fan with an interest in Japan, perhaps you could name your cat Yoko, which is in fact a very common name for Japanese ladies of a certain age, as it was once near the top of popular names for girls in Japan. Then again, if you blame Yoko for the band’s breakup, just keep on reading.

Great names for cats in Japanese: Use your kitty’s appearance as inspiration

When it comes to considering what makes for a good cat name in Japanese, another fertile field to plow when it comes to names is your cat’s coloring.  Not a big surprise, really, as this is a universally popular source of inspiration when it comes to this pleasant but often perplexing task!

In Japan, the words for black(kuro) and white(shiro) are both standard choices for cats and dogs of both sexes.

Neko is the Japanese word for cat. So black cat in Japanese is kuro neko.  These two words are uttered together countless times across Japan each and every day, because they also happen to be the name of one of the country’s top two parcel delivery companies!

black cat silhouette return address label

And if you’re on the prowl for a Japanese white cat name, Shiro is a safe bet and a good name to start your list of possibilities with.

If you happen to have a calico cat, you might consider the name Mi-ke. I added the hyphen to try and differentiate it from the common western name Mike, as it’s pronounced Mee-kay.  It literally means ‘three-hair’ and refers to the three colors of fur that calicoes sport.

Japanese calicoes are usually predominantly white along with two other colors, and are a very popular breed in Japan and abroad. Many Japanese cat owners in fact name their calico Mi-ke, just as countless western dog lovers over the decades have named their pooches Spot.

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Is your cat small?  Then maybe something like ‘Mame (Mah-may) would be just right.  Mame means bean in Japanese, and has a cute, diminutive sound to it.  You might know this word already, as it’s part of the word for soy beans, edamame(literally, branch bean). In a similar way, the name Mikan mentioned above has an endearing connotation, as it brings to mind something small and round.
Speaking of beans, the most popular female cat name in Japan taken from something edible might be ‘Azuki.’  Azuki is a type of bean that’s often used in Japanese cuisine, especially in making traditional sweets.  The notion of eating beans in sweets seems odd to many westerners, but take my word for it, bean based sweets are delicious and you shouldn’t come to Japan without trying some!

So naming your female cat Azuki, pronounced ‘Ah-zu-key, would be a great choice if you’re looking for a name that is ‘authentic’ in the sense that Japanese cat owners favor it.  And as with Mame, being a type of bean it carries with it the same cute, petite connotation, which makes these top choices for the most adorable cat names in Japan. Since azuki beans are reddish brown, this name would work especially well if your cat has similar coloring. Do a net search for ‘azuki’ and you’ll find photos of this culinary staple.

Traditional seafood and sweet names add a wealth of possibilities!

All this talk about food is getting me hungry, so let’s brainstorm with some words from Japanese cuisine that might strike your fancy.  Japanese food names for cats are fun to brainstorm.

Wasabi anyone?  How about Matcha(green tea)? Or Toro(fatty tuna, a delicacy)?  Then there’s Wakame(a variety of seaweed), Ikura(salmon eggs), Saba(mackerel), Awabi(abalone), and the list goes on. In a similar way, many Japanese dog and cat owners choose names like ‘Latte’ and Mocha’ these days. I think that names taken from seafood cuisine can be especially good fits with cat names, since they seem to enjoy such delicacies at least as much as we do!

A case in point is this extra large bag of dried bonito flakes. The word for bonito in Japanese is Katsuo, and so these flakes are known as katsuobushi in Japanese. They are addictive, and people like them at least as much as their feline friends, which is really saying something, because I’ve seen friends’ cats here in Japan devour them. I’ve had bonito flakes many times myself, as they’re served with takoyaki octopus dumplings and as a key ingredient in many Japanese soup stocks and a staple in Japanese cuisine.

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Whether you choose a Japanese name or not, if your cat is at all typical, she will love these. They keep for a long time are are very lightweight, with a smokey scent that will always be connected to Japan in my mind and palate. Though they are referred to as bonito flakes in English, they are thinner and wispier than cereal flakes, more like shavings. Are they as addictive as Cat Crack Catnip!? I dare say they are, but having never tried the latter, I can’t honestly venture an opinion.  Maybe your cat would be willing to do a taste test and enlighten us.

Let’s shift from savory to sweet. I have a sweet tooth, so I’m partial to Mochi(pounded rice cake) sweets of all kinds. I also have a weakness for Dango(usually 3-4 small balls of mochi pounded rice on a stick).  We could go on and on brainstorming with foods, and I encourage you to have some fun with this. But with foods and with this process in general, take care not to get too esoteric, because you might well come to regret choosing a name that only you and a friend or two can remember and understand.

Japanese culture is finely tuned to the seasons and the natural world, and the cuisine reflects that.  You’ll see ample evidence of this focus on nature in names like Sora, the word for sky. It’s a staple on recent ranking lists for popular Japanese cat names and can be used for both males and females.  Note that the ‘r’ in sora is pronounced a bit differently than in English.

Famous Japanese cats

I’ve already mentioned a famous cat, Michael, though he only exists in the world of comics and animation.  Ask about the most famous Japanese cat who’s ever lived, and the name Tama is bound to come up. Perhaps because she gained fame so recently. In any case, she was certainly a phenomenon!

Tama was a female calico who died in 2015 after going viral as the station master at Kishi Station in western Japan.  She gained an international following and was responsible for a huge surge in tourism to the area.  The name Tama is a cat name with a long history in Japan, much as the name Socks is thought of as a traditional cat name in some English speaking countries.  As a name it doesn’t carry any special meaning, its popularity is mainly due to the way it sounds-short, easy to say and somehow endearing.


Sometimes a good name for a cat can boil down simply that.  And having such a common name certainly never held Tama back!  If anything, it made her even more memorable.  Of course the little station master’s cap she wore at a jaunty angle also made her hard to forget!

If you happen to be a fan of the perennially popular manga Sazae-san about a family and their foibles that was first published in the 40’s, you’ll also know that the family’s male cat was called Tama.

japanese cat namesAnd more recently, a traditional Kyoto furoshiki wrapping cloth company named Maeda created a series of furoshiki showing a cat named Tama strolling through various seasonal scenes.

The sakura cherry blossom furoshiki depicting Tama walking up a long flight of stone steps that’s part of that selection is shown on the left.  Click on the photo to see it and other cat furoshiki on amazon.

Japanese Anime cat names

When new pet owners wonder about anime names for cats, they’re almost inevitably hoping for something Japanese.  And though Michael might well be the most well known anime cat, calling your own cat Michael clearly won’t fill the bill.

Another very famous feline with a long history in Japan does have such a name, and it is none other than………Tama. Yes, this name is that popular. It seems to turn up again and again when cats of note are mentioned among Japanese people, attesting to just how well loved this moniker is.

The Tama in question this time is the star of a classic anime called Sanchome no Tama, also sometimes known as Tama and Friends or Uchi no Tama Shirimasenka?(Do you know my cat Tama?) Sanchome is a well known area in Tokyo in Shinjuku that the Tama in question calls home.  My Tokyoite wife knows that area well and though she didn’t watch the show much growing up in the 80’s, she spent a good portion of her allowance on Tama stationary goods.

So it seems that if you call your cat Tama, you can reference the name in various ways depending on who you’re talking to and what they’re interested in, which could well lead to some interesting conversations.
Another Japanese anime cat name possibility lies in referencing a naughty yellow feline called Oyo Neko Bunyan, who also has quite a track record in Japan.  But it seems to me that the name doesn’t really roll off the tongue, at least not this western one. And Bunyan is not exactly a term of endearment, so it might be best to look elsewhere when shopping for a name for your kitty.

Other key cultural notes-pronunciation and suffixes

Now let’s move to some general points about Japanese cat names.

First, intonation for names is basically flat. So all syllables get similar stress. It’s common for native English speakers to pronounce the names of Japanese people as well as pets as they would in English, which often results in unnatural pronunciation. This often happens with three syllable words, as the middle syllable often gets stressed when it shouldn’t get such special attention.  I have a Japanese friend named Yumiko who lives in the states, for example, who is often called ‘Yu-MI-ko with the middle part stressed.  Similarly, Yukiko is known as ‘Yu-KI-ko.’

This tendency doesn’t manifest much in two syllable words, and since most common pet names are short, like Tama, they end up being pronounced pretty much as they should be, with equal stress given to both syllables. But others, like Azuki that we looked at above, can become ‘Ah-ZU-ki’ if you’re not aware of this aspect of Japanese language.

Then there’s the custom of adding suffixes to names.  This is a key point to keep in mind, as it might steer you toward choosing one cat name over another, depending on how the name sounds in this form.
If you’re an anime or manga fan, you’re probably already well aware of the propensity to add ‘chan’ and ‘kun’ to the end of names.  Kun is basically used for boys and men, and like chan, conveys a familiarity and warmth.  Chan can be used for young boys as well as for girls and women. Adults can use these honorific suffixes with friends to show affection, though it’s rude to use these suffixes to address a superior.  The first three letters of ‘chan’ are pronounced as in the name of the Cuban dance known as the Cha-Cha.

When we consider pet names, chan is the one to focus on, because it covers both sexes when it comes to animals. And since pets are more often than not seen as cute and endearing, it’s very natural to add chan to the end of their names. So, Sora becomes Sora-chan.  Tama is Tama-chan.  Presto! What was a standout among cute cat names to start with gets even more so.

Some Japanese names for cats lend themselves better to the ‘chan’ treatment, in terms of how easily it all rolls off your tongue. Take for instance the sweets mochi and dango I mentioned above as possibilities.  ‘Mochi-chan’  is a bit harder to say than ‘dango-chan’ so based strictly on that, the latter would win out.

One thing to keep in mind with this-chan is usually something you use to refer to someone else’s child or pet, not your own.  It’s not rude or inappropriate to use it for your own pet, but it’s most often a way for others to express a sense of affection and closeness for someone outside their own immediate family. So if you choose a Japanese name for your cat, informing those around you of this ‘chan’ add-on will pay dividends!

Japanese cat names list

Finally, I’d like to make a list of all the names we’ve covered here, it includes my brainstorms and some names that are among the most popular Japanese cat names.

Some work best as female cat names, and others work well as male cat names as well. Just one on the list below is best as a male cat name, and that’s Ichiro. This name is not only the name of a famous baseball player, but Ichiro is a name in Japan that’s almost always reserved for a first born son.

When there’s a meaning, I’ll include that, and I’ll also add the name as it’s written in the katakana alphabet.  Often there is a kanji character for a name, but even then, the katakana is preferred when its used as a pet’s name. I’ve included the kanji characters mainly to illustrate just how simple the katakana is by comparison!
So if you have an interest in what a name looks like when written, don’t make it unnecessarily hard by considering kanji characters.  Katakana characters are not only simple in their minimal number of angular strokes, but they’re also preferred according to convention in this context. Knowing a bit more about Japanese cat names, including not only their meanings but how they’re used can be a great way to delve more deeply into the culture in general. If you’re interested in learning katakana and hiragana quickly and efficiently, I recommend this self-study workbook.

Name
Katakana/Kanji
sex
meaning/reference
Ichiro
イチロー
M
Baseball player
Tora
トラ          虎
M/F
tiger
Hana
ハナ          花
F
flower
Sakura
サクラ      桜
F
cherry, cherry blossom
Ume
ウメ          梅
F
plum, plum blossom
Momo
モモ     桃
F
peach, peach blossom
Ichigo
イチゴ       苺
F
strawberry
Suika
スイカ     西瓜
F
watermelon
Anzu
アンズ
F
apricot
Mikan
ミカン
F
mandarin orange
Kuro
クロ         黒
M/F
black
Shiro
シロ         白
M/F
white
Mi-ke
ミケ        三毛
M/F
calico
Mame
マメ        豆
M/F
bean
Wasabi
ワサビ
M/F
Japanese horseradish
Matcha
マッチャ 抹茶
M/F
Japanese green tea
Toro
トロ
M/F
high grade cut of tuna
Ikura
イクラ
M/F
salmon eggs
Saba
サバ       鯖
M/F
mackerel
Wakame
ワカメ    若布
M/F
seaweed
Awabi
アワビ
M/F
abalone
Mochi
モチ          餅
M/F
pounded rice cakes
Dango
ダンゴ    団子
M/F
skewered pounded rice cakes
Sora
ソラ         空
M/F
sky
Tama
タマ
M/F
——
Kiku
キク         菊
F
chrysanthemum

Main photo of cat with bamboo by Manja Vitolic on Unsplash

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Originally posted 2017-05-31 14:26:25.