February 23, 2011 | Japanese

Back to School at Japan Society

I visit a class and am mildly embarrassed.

Last night Reiko Sassa, director of the Toyota Language Center at Japan Society, let me sit in on a class! They have a gazillion classes; this one was level 3b.

Where I Went to School Today

Where I Went to School Today

It was tremendous fun. I loved it. The teacher (sensei) was Reiko Akai, a delightful, attractive, energetic woman with a great sense of humor. I love energetic teachers with a great sense of humor, especially for language classes, where you the student are often making a fool of yourself.

I think I recall a junior high school Spanish teacher of mine, someone well into middle age, getting down on her hands and knees and meowing to try to convey to a perplexed student what a gato was. I find it very hard to believe that she would have done this, so I have at times questioned the reliability of my memory, but that’s how I remember it, and I have always been impressed by the pedagogical commitment and lack of self-consciousness implied by such an act.

Anyway, back to Japanese class. When I first arrived, the sensei gave me a folded piece of paper (serving as a makeshift tent card) and told me I could write my name on it in Roman letters. I thought she was saying that only because she didn’t think I would be up to writing in katakana, so I decided to go for it and wrote my name in Japanese instead. Then, once class started, I looked around at the other name cards and realized no one’s name was in katakana. I felt like a dork. I turned around my name card and wrote “Ellen” instead.

As a warmup, the teacher put words of foreign origin (such as the Japanese for “Internet” and “iPod”) on the board in katakana, and we, the students, were supposed to figure out what they said. I have been doing quite a bit of work on this kind of thing, and it was very hard for me to hold still and not call out the answers as soon as I figured them out. As a non-paying guest, I didn’t want to be greedy, or a Goody Two-Shoes—but I may have been a little of both.

Although I think the class level was pretty good for me and most of the time I knew what was going on, to continue in it I would have needed to do some studying on my own to fill in the gaps. I have monster holes in my understanding of Japanese verb-related grammar, as well as in my verb vocabulary. The instructor kept talking about different categories of verbs, with different conjugation patterns, that I was barely aware of. Also, there are many basic verbs I don’t know by heart—for example, “sing,” “run” (I keep forgetting that one), “clean,” etc.

There were a number of interactive activities where we were divided up into pairs, which I thought worked well. Since my presence made for an odd number of students in the room, the two guys next to me got stuck with me as a third wheel—a third wheel that was squeaky and asked a lot of questions, but they were nice about it.

At one point there was a vocabulary-building charades-like activity. Some of us selected little folded slips of paper from the instructor and then had to act out the verbs written on them so that the other students could guess the words. Embarrassingly, I was first and my word was “to shower” (in Japanese, I mean). To break the ice, there is nothing like pretending to shower in front of a group of strangers.

Even though I enjoyed myself immensely, I do not on the whole think classes are ideal for me. They tend not to go as fast as I am trying to go at the moment, and they require too much of a time commitment at hours that are not necessarily convenient for me. And yeah, I admit it, I am a bit of a control freak. 

An Education in Japanese Toilets

An Education in Japanese Toilets

However, it is fun to drop in and visit. In addition, because it is very hard to do unfamiliar languages such as Japanese (or Korean, or Hindi, or any number of other languages) on one’s own, I think classes are a good idea. Preferable, in fact. Just maybe not for me, most of the time, though I would have loved to continue this particular class for a few more sessions.

A cultural note: as was true at the Japanese tea place I went to the other day, the toilets at Japan Society are advanced. These were Toto washlets, Japanese toilets that offer “rear cleansing,” both gentle and standard, “front cleansing,” and dryer functions. I didn’t test them out, but I was impressed.

Having lived most of my life in the U.S. with U.S. toilets, I find the Japanese toilet situation—and implied bathroom philosophy—rather sophisticated. 

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