On August 1st, 2013 this blog experienced its one-year anniversary to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. On September 5th I will have lived in Japan for exactly one year. I’ve decided to commemorate these two historic occasions with a celebratory post published roughly betwixt the dates. Kind of like a joint birthday party?
Like all good birthday parties, this one will be wholly devoted to shameless bragging about my myriad achievements. Achievement #1: writing FORTY (count ’em) blog posts over the past year. Okay, so this is hardly an achievement, and also I didn’t technically achieve it, since I’m way past the deadline with this post. Close enough. That gives me an average of one post every nine days. I really must have written up a storm those first few months, as my rate lately has been more like one post per period-of-time-it-takes-for-guilt-to-compel-me-to-write-again.
Achievement #2: Acquiring a Japanese driver’s license.
That’s right, I passed the test! It took me three tries in the end. You’ve already heard about Take One, so here’s a summation of the other two: A few weeks after my first attempt, once summer vacation was underway, I took a day off to travel up to the driving center. Unlike the first time around, I did not have a helpful coworker to drive me to the proper building; this time I had to walk to the center myself from the train station. Naturally, I got lost. I started to freak out about being late and missing the test, which would have made the whole day a huge waste of time and money. I asked some random lady for directions, and she actually insisted on giving me a lift in her car, even though it was only a few blocks away. It seems like every time I’ve asked a Japanese person for help, they have gone above and beyond.
I drove Course C. I didn’t have any trouble with memorizing the course, but was unprepared for one detail: unlike Course B, Course C has a special turn where you are not allowed to veer into the shoulder at all, or else you automatically fail. I was not expecting this particular hazard since it was never mentioned in the handbook I was given, although the ridged and red-painted asphalt probably should have been a tip-off. Anyway, I did a pretty good job overall and, like the first time, was expecting to pass, when I was informed of the fact that it is impossible to pass if your wheels touch the danger zone. Whoops.
My third attempt was the only time I was not expecting to pass. Did I ever mention that, in addition to the proctor sitting in the passenger seat, there is always someone sitting in the back seat while you take the test? When I took the test the first time, I took it with one other foreign guy; he sat in the back seat during my test, and I sat in the back seat during his. When I took the test alone (Take Two), they had a police officer sit in back. While in the back seat you are not allowed to speak or move, which kind of makes you wonder why they insist that someone be there at all.
On my third try, a middle-aged Japanese woman was taking the test with me. We drew straws, and I drew first place. I did not do particularly well—objectively, I’d call it the worst of my three attempts. Once I had finished, I sat in back for the Japanese woman’s test. My mouth fell open in astonishment somewhere in the first few minutes and I remained slack-jawed for the duration. This woman was a driving machine. She moved with a precision that was cold, clinical, and yet somehow graceful. Her head checks were works of art. Every blinker, every pump of the brake, was perfectly timed. A voice in my head began to shout, “No! You’re too good! Please, screw up, I beg of you!” But my silent cries for help went unanswered, and she completed the test with a flawlessly executed triple-doughnut.
We waited together in the empty hall for our test results. I was embarrassed to have put on such a shoddy performance. No wonder I had failed twice already; not even my best efforts could have lived up to this woman’s virtuosity behind the wheel. A police officer stepped into the hall, bearing results: I had passed. And she had not.
Though I am now in possession of a Japanese driver’s license, the test continues to haunt me. In a way, the Japanese driver’s test is a microcosm of life itself: an endlessly mysterious thing, seemingly arbitrary, ultimately unfathomable. We search for answers, for order in the chaos: Why did I pass? Why do others fail? Do I deserve this license that’s been bestowed upon me, when so many others go without? How do I use this blessing for the greater good?
Okay whatever, here’s a picture of the thing so you can laugh:
Achievement #3: Completing James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji course.
It’s been a long time since I last bored you with kanji-talk. Fortunately for you, I don’t actually have a lot to say on the subject, except that I NOW KNOW ALL TWO-THOUSAND-SOMETHING COMMONLY USED CHARACTERS WOOOOOO!!!
Remember those glimpses of my kanji notebook I gave you guys forever ago? Well, I filled that notebook. Then I got a bigger one with smaller boxes, and filled that one. Then I got another one. I’m about halfway through Notebook #3 at this point. Allow me to show you a few pages.
I did some calculations. There are 330 character boxes on each side of each page in this notebook. There are 30 pages (60 sides). Thus, filling one of these notebooks involves writing a total of 19,800 characters. I have filled one and a half.
So I guess that’s kind of a lot.
The next stage in my grand Learning to Read Japanese adventure is vocabulary. My vocabulary is still pitifully small, but hopefully new words will be a lot easier to remember now that I’m able to write them. I’ve been doing about a hundred flashcards every day, so we’ll see where that takes me.
Achievement #4: Gracing the television screens of Japan.
A while ago I participated in a karaoke contest.
A televised one.
I did so at the insistence of my colleagues at the Board of Education, who had heard me sing “Let It Be” at our old boss’s retirement party and I guess were inebriated enough at the time to think I was good. For some reason everyone in Japan, young and old alike, is familiar with the song “Let It Be.” It’s the only song I know that I know everybody else knows, so it’s become my default whenever I am called upon to sing karaoke (which happens more than you might think).
Anyway, when my coworkers heard that a karaoke contest was rolling through town, I was urged to participate. After some light coercion I acquiesced. I decided to sing “Let It Be” because I was too lazy to learn a Japanese song and couldn’t think of anything else. I mailed my application and tried not to think about it too much.
The day before the contest I received a postcard. The starting time of the contest was inscribed in bold letters: 3:00 PM. The place: the same area where the John Manjiro festival was held last year. I wondered when I was supposed to show up. I decided a half an hour beforehand should be good enough.
The next day I received a phone call from a mysterious number around two o’clock in the afternoon. “Is this Aaron Jansen?” an unknown voice spoke in Japanese.
“Um, yes?” I replied.
“This is the voice of your conscience speaking.”
“No. This is the television station. Rehearsal began an hour ago and we were kind of wondering if you were planning to show up ever.”
“Yes. Rehearsal. Like it says on the postcard.”
I searched my house for the postcard and found it amid a stack of mail on top of the refrigerator. “What are you talking about,” I began, “there’s no—oh.” Below the big 3:00 PM was a much smaller 1:00 PM with some kanji beside it that I determined, through the use of contextual clues, to mean something along the lines of “the time you’re supposed to be there, you idiot!!!”
“I’ll be there soon?” I said weakly. I hung up and called Jason to beg him for a ride.
Being more than an hour late for rehearsal did not turn out to be quite as unforgivable a sin as I thought it might be. It wasn’t like everyone was sitting around waiting for me to show up, at least. “Rehearsal” simply entailed each contestant getting on a little outdoor stage and singing a few bars of their chosen song. There were lots of people who hadn’t had their turn yet when I got there. I signed in, waited for my name to be called, and went up in front of an audience seated in folding chairs beneath big blue tents. The opening bars of “Let It Be” began to play. That’s when I realized something.
I do not know the lyrics to “Let It Be.”
It’s true. I know the melody, but up to this point I had relied entirely on karaoke screens for the actual words of the song—the parts where you don’t just say “let it be” over and over again. Somehow the idea that I would be participating in a “karaoke” contest had deluded me into thinking that a screen with lyrics would be provided, as is typically the case with karaoke. However, as I stood before the audience, the glare of the sun in my eyes, the opening chords of “Let It Be” drifting on the breeze, I realized that I was supposed to have actually memorized the lyrics. There was no screen.
Okay, I thought to myself. This isn’t so bad. The piano intro is kinda long . . . you’ve got at least, what, ten seconds? Fifteen? The lyrics aren’t very difficult, you could have chosen much worse in that respect . . . like Bob Dylan. Yes, in hindsight it’s a good thing you didn’t try to sing Bob Dylan. Okay, focus. Something about times of trouble. And, um, finding oneself in them? Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh weird, these lyrics are like a meta-commentary on my current situation . . . anyway, what’s the next bit . . . oh yes, Mother Mary—hey, maybe she’ll come and, like, whisper words of wisdom, that would be neat . . . oh, the piano’s doing that thing, that part right before he starts singing, umm . . . I guess I should just . . . let it be? Wait what does that actually mean? Why must you be so cryptic, Paul McCartney???
Let’s say things could have been a lot worse. For one, it could have been the real deal and not just a rehearsal. I could have frozen up and not sung at all. I could have bolted from the stage. Instead, I just mixed up the lyrics and sang them in the wrong order, and then my thirty second trial run was over, and I decided maybe it was time that I sat down and tried to memorize the song, since I was #8 in the official line-up.
When my real turn was up, the show hosts attempted to interview me a little bit on stage, thus giving me opportunity to embarrass myself on camera before I even began to sing. There are a lot of ways to ask someone about their job in Japanese, and I’m familiar with a few of them, but for some reason I had never before been asked, “Donna koto wo shiteiru no desu ka?” which literally means, “What kind of thing are you doing right now?” (Can you imagine a vaguer way of phrasing the question?) I was in the awkward position of understanding every word in the sentence, but not having any idea what the host guy was actually trying to ask me. What kind of thing I am doing right now? Well, I’m being interviewed, and then I’m going to sing!
So I stuttered a bit and then he reworded the question, and then they found some of my elementary students in the audience and asked them what kind of a teacher I was. The kids were like, “We’re six years old! We have no idea how we’re even supposed to respond to that! He’s nice I guess? TV cameras are scary!”
With that vote of confidence, I sang my song. Remembered all the lyrics somehow. Then I waited around for several hours in unbearable heat while the other forty or so contestants sang. In the end they handed out first, second, and third place awards and a bunch of tokubetsushou, or special prizes. I was a tokubetsushou. We of the Tokubetsushou Clan received mugs for our efforts. Although I was never terribly worried (there were many contestants who were much better at singing than me), I am quite relieved I did not take first place, since this contest was just the first round in a wider tournament, and the first place prize winner has to sing in the next round. I would much rather be done with this whole business.
The contest was not broadcast live. It was not broadcast, in fact, until today. Already it is impossible for me to leave my house without bumping into someone who saw me on TV and is very excited about it.
Well, that’s four achievements. Do I need a fifth achievement? Okay here’s a fifth achievement.
Achievement #5: Eating these pancakes.
It was a grueling ordeal, and some of the scars I gained in the process will never fade. But somehow, summoning the last of my strength and fanning the final spark of hope within me, I was able to consume this entire plate of delicious pancakes. Truly, a feat for the ages. Thank you.