Tuesday, March 25, 2008
It's cherry blossom season again in Japan, perhaps the most celebrated season of the year. In the US, of course, everyone loves the beginning of warmer days and it's easy to list songs that talk about love blooming with the first flowers, but I remember such sentimental thoughts being in the background of life; here it is very much in the forefront.
The pink and white blossoms are a signal for more than spring in the natural world; they also mark the beginning of stages in Japanese life. The school year ends in March and begins again in April, so very soon new elementary school students will shoulder their huge book bags and leave their moms for their first day of school, while new junior high school students will shed their cute sixth grade personae and begin being too cool for school and too tired for anything else. The same process happens with new high school students, and the old high school students begin their wild years at university. And new graduates begin their new jobs, while their seniors are transferred to other departments or cities.
The easiest way to tell the season here in the city is to look at the subway advertisements--about a week before the equinox this year, ads were changed literally overnight as they are every three months or so. The ads focus on a few major features of each season, and are usually color-coded. In winter it is hot springs and white; spring is cherry blossoms and pink; summer, if I remember correctly, is hiking in the mountains and green; and fall is the changing leaves, of course red. The seasonal changes are most appropriate for companies offering products that are dependent on natural variations, such as the travel industry, swimming pools, organic grocery stores, and so on, but everyone, from car makers to cell phone makers to English schools, takes part in the advertising trends.
Spring, as I said, is perhaps the most important. Children go to school, people start new jobs, and people move. It is an exciting time, and it is a stressful time. It is the end of the fiscal year for many Japanese companies, and workers often do even longer hours than usual. Unfortunately, it is also a time for desperation: suicides, especially the spectacular train suicides that shut down entire train lines, seem to increase during this time.
Life in Japan is generally stressful and especially so here in the capitol. The antidote, in every season but especially in spring, is alcohol. Cherry-blossom viewing, called hanami, is a ritualization of the consumption of alcohol. A junior member of a company sets out early, claims a spot under the best cherry tree he can find, then is later joined by his coworkers.
They gather and drink, and eat, and drink, proverbially ignoring the gently falling petals in favor of the food and alcohol. It continues until every face is pink as the cherry blossoms, and you can usually find mobs of salarymen vomiting or sleeping outside of train stations. Instead of pictures of vomiting salarymen, though, I'll give you more of Ueno park in nearly full bloom and the sea of humanity that flows beneath them.
With the coming of the new school year came the end of my stint as an instructor: in order to try to get on with my life, I decided not to renew my contract at the English conversation school (abbreviated in Japanese as eikaiwa). It's hard to believe it's been almost two years; on the one hand it has seemed a limbo or purgatory that dragged on forever, and yet, looking back, it doesn't seem like such a long time. I have no regrets about leaving: being a basically asocial person, leading six or seven conversations a day took its toll; two years of practice did very little to alleviate the tight ball in my stomach I carried with me every day to work. But I met some really great people, teachers, native staff, and students, and though it's hard to say I wouldn't rather have gotten a more suitable job from the outset, I have learned a lot from the experience.
One big surprise is that I actually like children. I was absolutely terrified of the prospect of teaching children when I first came here, but in the end it was the children's classes I enjoyed most. I found that I could handle it and, in fact, I enjoyed getting crazy with them once in a while. I even sang songs, and I enjoyed it, sometimes more than they did! You never know...
But now I'm hoping to move on to the next stage, where I use Japanese and, hopefully, my English writing skills. I've never been known for my conversation skills, but I might be able to do something with writing, and I'm looking forward to putting that to the test. And Japanese, ah, to use Japanese! Living in Japan and not speaking Japanese brings to mind the lines from the Coleridge's Rime: Water, water, everywhere/ nor any drop to drink. Recently I've been going to interviews conducted entirely in Japanese, and I feel that after two years of swimming in the salty ocean I've found a well of fresh water.
Postscript: My mom and I went for a nice trip to Hakone and Kyoto earlier this year. My mom's enjoyment of Japan reinforced my own feelings about the country, and it was a spectacular trip for us both. I'm going to let my mom tell the story, so please take a look at her blog.