More Disassembled Ideas
I wrote a couple of months ago that during my fifteen year marriage my wife has not read a single book. Not one. At least, not that I have seen. Another thing that she has never done in fifteen years is dream during the night. At least, not that she has said, anyway, and I ask her every day about it. Of course, this cannot be true. I suppose that to go completely dreamless might be lethal. So, what is going on? Is it a cultural misunderstanding? A language problem? I think it is a language problem.
“How was your sleep?”
“Were you cold?”
“Did you see dreams?” (literally “ume miru” in Japanese).”
“I don’t understand. Do you mean that you did not dream at all, or that you did dream but that you do not remember now what you dreamed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you mean that you don’t know if you dreamed at all, or that you don’t know if you did dream but then forgot it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you mean that you do not understand my question if you dreamed or not, or my question if you did dream but then forgot? Or do you mean that you don’t know?” (In Japanese “I don’t understand” - “wakkaranai,”or “wakkarimassen” - can also mean “I don’t know.”)
“I don’t remember my drems.”
“Ah! So you do dream?”
“But you always say that you didn’t dream.”
“I dream, but I forget.”
“Well, that is a different matter from whether you dream or not.”
(2) Weather Report
Here is another example of miscommunication.
“Did you see tomorrow’s weather forecast (“tenki yoho”) on television?”
“It’s fine day.”
“Did you see the tenki yoho?”
“It’s fine day!”
“No! Did you see the tenki yoho on TV?”
“Good. Thank you. What is the tenki yoho for tomorrow?”
“It’s fine day.”
I know I am being stupidly obnoxious. But there is another problem playing out here, a pervasive problem: non-sequitous answers; answers to questions that were not asked. At first I was trying to learn information. But quickly I was cast as the teacher, trying to teach. The lesson here is sequence: first one thing, then another; one thing in logical sequence after its predicate; simple question structures for simple answers to avoid mistakes; question structures that lead the speaker into the answer by practically giving it to them on a platter in the first place. But like too many people, my wife tries to give me the answer she thinks I am looking for - as a courtesy - rather than the answer to the question itself. Big mistake. It would be more courteous to answer inquiries plain and straight rather than try to read minds and provided more information than was requested, or unsolicited information. It is rudely discourteous to pretend that you know another person’s mind.
(3) Pedal or Pedal?
Here is another example of bumbling miscommunication.
For a while I have been using my daughter’s bicycle to get around the neighborhood. I had a bike long ago, a black one. It was beautiful. But it disintegrated under me with age. So for a few years I have gone without, either walking around on my own feet or else borrowing either my wife’s bike or my daughter’s when I can. But her bicycle, old and cheap and in need of oil, was so stiff to ride that it was killing me. I could barely pedal it on a flat surface for long without having to stand up and put my full weight down on the pedals just to keep going. Am I in such bad physical shape, or is it the bike? It’s the bike, in need of air and oil. I knew it, because it isn’t rocket science, you know.
But lacking sufficient Japanese to trust in myself to get serviced at the bicycle shop I complained to my wife,
“The bike needs air and oil. It is killing me to pedal it.”
So we went to the local bicycle shop together. I know how to put air in a tire, and I knew that the bike needed oil. She did not need to show me these things, only to teach me what to say to the bicycle shop man to get these done.
She spoke to the man and he walked over to the bike and twirled the pedals with his fingers, saying,“It’s not the pedals.”
I told Junko that it was difficult to pedal the bike, not that there was anything wrong with the pedals. Verb, not noun! Of course I knew there was nothing wrong with the pedals. Stupid! All I needed was oil, and now the bicycle shop guy probably thinks I’m an idiot!
I still do not know what to say to the bicycle shop man the next time I need air.
(4) Who is Violet?
Every October I love re-watching the 1966 Halloween animated classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. For my generation it is THE classic Halloween movie, and images of Snoopy dogfighting the Red Baron on his doghouse, or of Charlie Brown and Linus contemplating the post-Halloween blues at their stone wall are icon. Icon! The colors used in the animation make a lasting impression of what late-October, and especially Halloween night ideally look like. It is unimaginable for me and my peers to think of Halloween without them. They go together like - well, like tofu and miso, gyoza and soy sauce, or green tea and rice crackers. By comparison, I guess it is Tim Burton’s animated film Nightmare Before Christmas which is the definitive Halloween story for today’s teenagers.
It always irks me when Japanese teachers question, resist and even prohibit my use of Charlie Brown and Snoopy imagery from the book and the film as Halloween decorations. In non-North American thinking - Japanese, and even Europeans and Australians - Halloween images are only supposed to be scary - jack o’ lanterns, ghosts and skeletons, etc. I’m the North American. I come from a place where Halloween is a tradition, so between the two of us who are you going to trust?
Charlie Brown famously receives only a bag full of rocks from his trick-or-treating. Everyone of my age remembers his lament, repeated three times, “I got a rock!” and the sight of him pulling rocks out of his paper bag. Linus famously wastes his Halloween night sitting in a pumpkin patch (a sincere pumpkin patch) waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise into the air to deliver presents to the good girls and boys. At the end of their trick-or-treating rounds Lucy van Pelt leads the Peanuts gang“Over to Violet’s house for the big Halloween party!” For many years I have wondered about Violet. Who is she? We know that Lucy became a psychiatrist as an adult. Charlie Brown became a cartoon animator. (Charles Schulz himself was Charlie Brown.) The precocious Linus became a university instructor. Didn’t they? But who is Violet, whose only claim to fame in the Peanuts stories is that she hosted “the big Halloween party”? She was one of Lucy’s gang of bully girls. Maybe as an adult she became a housewife who specialized in hosting great parties for all the memorable occasions in her own children’s lives - Halloween, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer time barbecues and pool parties, etc. I feel lonely thinking about the lost Violet, the unknown legacy of the Big Halloween Party hostess.
One last note about Halloween - I dislike hearing it described as a“holiday.” Since when is Halloween a holiday? I know that All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day are liturgical holidays. But Halloween has never been a statute public holiday in the United Statesor Canada. Children go to school. Banks and Post Offices are open. I think people are confusing “festival” with“holiday.”
This is a story about the importance of cash flow in Japanese business, about which I have written before. On Friday, October 26ththe largest English language school chain in Japan, NOVA, filed for bankruptcy protection after several months of increasingly bad financial news and management chaos. It was not at all unexpected by foreign observers of the situation because the spiraling business troubles of the school almost perfectly copied the famous precedent of another giant language school chain, Bilingual, in the 1990s. Bilingual’s bankruptcy opened the door for NOVA, which was founded in 1981, to step up and fill the void to claim the mantle as the nation’s largest English language school chain.
I think that the best kind of English language school is probably the small neighborhood school, not the large chain school. The small schools are more reliable because they can function well in a limited environment with minimal operating costs. They do not have the huge payrolls, rents, utility payments, insurance, taxes, etc. that the large chain schools have. I think it is partly these huge operating costs that lead the large school chains down the road to ruin, because in the long run they make the schools unsustainable. They become just money-chasing, not money-making businesses. To cut costs they have to pay the teachers dirt cheap wages, pack classes with too many students, and rope students into very expensive multi-month lesson contracts that cannot be refunded. The point is that the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and despite the post-war economic success of Japanthe country has a high bankruptcy rate. Practically every industry suffers a chronic cash-flow problem, hence the Bank of Japan’s famous near-zero interest rate policy - a strategy to prevent people from hoarding cash in savings accounts and keep it circulating in the economy. Japanese are compelled to keep selling, selling, selling/exporting in order to keep the cash flowing. This is why the Japanese are such ardent exporters and why developing and protecting a broad and loyal customer base are so important. The customer base, or market share guarantees the cash flow. For businesses like language schools, being the largest chain is supposed to guarantee their market share and capital, as is the custom of tying student-customers into long, nonrefundable lesson contracts.
In typical Japanese fashion the president of NOVA, 56-year old Nozomu Sahashi, tried running the business like a one-man show, ignoring his business partners and the school’s governing board of directors. He just lied his head off day after day, week after week, and month after month, promising imminent new financial infusions from (unnamed) investors, which never transpired. He did what Japanese always do, desperately trying to negotiate deals behind the scenes to keep himself afloat while publicly denying the true nature of his troubles and keeping a good face on things. (How things appear, not how they really are in fact, is the single most important thing in Japanese culture.) The week of the bankruptcy announcement Mr. Sahashi went missing, or was incommunicado for several days, trying to hold directors’ meetings by cell phone rather than face-to-face, in the flesh. Finally, the school’s board of directors made the bankruptcy announcement and fired the president in a management coup d’etat. Teachers and other employees had already suffered months of unpaid or irregularly paid salaries, some cutting their losses and bailing ship along the way. The problem with unpaid wages is that the longer an employee waits and tries to loyally stick it out, the more he is owed and the deeper in the hole he gets so that there comes a point when an unpaid employee cannot afford to quit because of the gross value of wages due.
NOVA has been a stock market listed corporation for years, which I think explains the interest that the Japanese media took in its
collapse, an interest never shown before in the operation and demise of a language school.
At the start of September I began working very part-time at a small school in my neighborhood - just two lessons a week, on Thursday evenings. It’s easy and I like it. The school is owned by a Briton who has lived in Japanfor twenty years. It occupies a small office space on the fourth floor of a building near my local video/DVD rental shop. It has only two classrooms and a total of eight or nine employees. The student base is about 100, meaning that just 100 people from the local area are enough to sustain it and provide a modest profit for twenty years already. The owner told me that in his early days he went around at night and put small fliers for his school in thousands of mailboxes. But today he recruits students mostly from his website.
(6) The Rolling Stones
Growing up, I was a Beatles fan - a Beatles fan in the 1970s, years after the band broke up. It was thanks to the Belgian Rotary Club exchange student living in my brother’s bedroom next to mine who played Beatles albums on his stereo every day (the Apple Corp Red and Blue double album anthologies released in 1973). As I grew older I took to other kinds of music - mostly anti-everything Punk - but it was the rhythms and harmonies of the 1960s that I have always preferred. I was never a great Rolling Stones fan, though. But I admire them for their longevity and achievement. Their 1965 hit Satisfaction is instantly recognizable to most people, and arguably the greatest rock song ever, although the Stones are not a rock ‘n roll band, properly speaking. Paint it Black is my second favorite song, the sound of which almost makes me cry at the beauty of it. The same is true of the 1970s ballad, Angie.
As a youth I only ever bought one Stones LP record (12x5). As a university student I bought a Greatest Hits cassette tape. Only recently did I buy a Rolling Stones CD. I was in Tower Records in Shinjuku looking for the Paul Dukas symphony The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in the classical music section when I decided to spend a little more money. I had the time, I had the money and I had the will, and for a male that is all one needs for shopping. There were so many Stones CDs. Which to buy? Eventually I settled on a three-disc collection of their 1962-1971 singles hits.
I listened. And since I play the drums I listened especially carefully to Charlie Watts’ drumming. I must admit that for all their fame, longevity and accomplishment I do not think that the Rolling Stones are that great a band. Mick Jagger’s singing is terrible. The drumming is essentially simple and unvaried - which might be a good thing - and the music usually sounds a bit sloppy. I think Lennon/McCartney beat Jagger/Richards hands down for creativity, musicianship, innovation, style and harmony.