“How much can I put you down for?”

I actually wrote this back in December but I figured I’d add it here since it’s quite a fun one, or at least I thought so when I was writing it.

 

I spoke to a man the other day who knocked on my front door and asked for money for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Did I give him money? No. Why? He asked me himself and I wound off a story to make myself feel less guilty about not giving to charity. (I could have told him it was none of his business why I chose not to donate but then I would have felt not only bad for not donating, but also mean for being rude to a man who was doing no more than his job [and surely working for a good cause on top of that].) I think he was quite surprised I did not donate, after all I did listen to his entire piece about the new wing they were intending to build, the redevelopment of the hospital environment to better suit the needs of the young and the figures he had about funding requirements and suchlike (I did forget the numbers, so I guess I wasn’t listening that hard…). Why had his argument not convinced me given that it had seemed thoroughly prepared and well informed and I had followed all the way to the end? Assuming I was a hypothetical charitable sort of means then where along the road did he lose me? “How much can I put you down for?” Right there. That last line would have lost me, I would say, no matter what the preceding argument had been.

 

“How much”. The question makes visible the presiding spectre of business and reduces whatever previous sentimental, ethical, or emotional value the conversation had to a transaction. I must quantify my commitment to the cause through a monetary sum; a sum which is unsettlingly definite and at the same time infinitely transient. Definite in that it values the exact level of compassion I have in me as an intrinsic human being and defines the depth of my charity on a long list of other donators to whom my value can be compared. It calculates the humanity of my character to the penny and puts it on a spreadsheet. Transient in that this money, being money, will be spent. It will stand for my humanity on paper, but on paper my humanity is subject to inflation. Next to every other donator my value is constantly decreasing as they donate more and I stagnate, a flatlining company without a single interested investor. Suddenly I am trapped in a double bind of existing absolutely as one value unit in a system which dictates I cannot maintain that unit without constant contributions. The alternative is to face the shame of being an uncharitable human being. How would I live with myself? Of course, one cannot place an absolute numerical value on a character trait, and I am happy to tell myself this when faced with the problem of doing it. I would much sooner abstain from valuing myself in this way and protect myself from the dangers of other people knowing me. That way I can stay safe and secure in the knowledge that I am a charitable and kind human being, I just can’t define it in numbers. This situation to me is much easier and more comforting than the prospect of confronting myself in the mirror after donating and wondering whether I should say “you agreed to donate twenty pounds a month, what a good man you are!” or “you only agreed to donate twenty pounds this month? What a bad man you are…” In this way the question “How much?” inserts the listener into a moral deficit, one which can never be paid off, and consequently makes it vastly easier for my sense of self as a “good person” to preserve my identity and just not donate.

 

“Can I put you down for”. The matter here is of agency. I, as listener am permitted no action here except through my speaker’s permission. Though the question reads as him asking me permission, it is really I who must ask his. It is he, after all, who is putting me down, not the other way around. We are reminded that it is he who holds the pen and the clipboard and the little list of everyone who has ever donated and where we stand in relation to them. I am made very aware that I am not representing myself in this situation, but being represented by and through another. I can say I want to make my donation of X or Y pounds, but it will not become real until my man here inks it in on the page. He puts me down. He takes the words from my mouth and turns them into something physical- turns me into something physical other than myself. It is me he is putting down. My identity in its entirety on the tip of his pen. I am put down. And after death I am resurrected as an effigy of myself, all to be taken away and filed neatly with the other donators and all of this fundamentally out of my control. Do I really want to give another man permission to do this? If he had asked instead “what would you like to offer?” I at least have agency as myself. I am the one offering here, it is my whim to give or receive. Even if he has the pen, he only moves on my go; I am performing the main verb in this sentence. When I am put down I am object of the verb in the accusative case and subject to my interrogator’s power. “How much can I put you down for” demands an answer; an answer in numerical form, no less. “What would you like to offer” hopes for an answer but understands that this is what I would like, as opposed to a demand for the figure of my identity, the very value of my life. It is perhaps not surprising that I am reluctant to donate when asked in this way given that “how much can I put you down for” can be read without any major tweaking as “what can I kill you for”.

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A Short Ramble on Having Big Eyebrows and Moustaches

I was watching an episode of Kung Fu Quest (the Chinese version of Discovery Channel’s Fight Quest and History Channel’s Human Weapon [I personally prefer Fight Quest over Human Weapon, jury still out on how Kung Fu Quest stacks up in comparison]) and I had a really strong sense of deja vu after the appearance of this man: Kung Fu Quest, Mongol Master Ha'te

He teaches Mongolian Wrestling which, according to the show is locally known as Bokh and (like a bunch of martial arts) looks kinda simple but is probably really tough as nails to learn to do well. He’s a pretty mean looking dude even in regular street clothes. Got a nice scowl on him.

Kung Fu Quest, Mongol Master Ha'te2

Also pretty imposing when he’s actually wrestling.

Kung Fu Quest, Mongol Master Ha'te3Kung Fu Quest, Mongol Master Ha'te4

Which apparently usually involves him winning and leaving his opponents in various states of abject. Also, as far as I’m aware, it’s freezing on the Mongolian steppes in any season but summer but they all go ahead and fight barechested anyway. Kinda cool, kinda crazy.

Anyway, I was watching this segment of the show and found that this man, Ha’te (which I think it how his name is romanized) reminded me very strongly of a certain other martial arts master.

kazuo-chiba-02 chiba2 kazuo_chiba_sensei

For those unfamiliar, this is Chiba Kazuo, also called T.K. Chiba (though I’ve no idea where T.K. comes from) a well-known teacher of Aikido famed for his particularly unforgiving style of training and perhaps less well known for his exquisite timing and commitment to martiality and his students in general.

I don’t have much to say about this apart from that these two men who both have a penchant for dropping people on their asses, also both have slightly similar faces and the same moustache (even though Chiba shaved his off later in his career I can’t really imagine him without it).

They both seem to me to be the type who are absolutely committed to everything they do, a feeling which is embodied in their martial arts. They’re unyielding characters with unyielding techniques.

Kung Fu Quest, Mongol Master Ha'te5 kazuo chiba 1

And winning smiles. I like to think that these men, who know what it means to commit to wounding and being wounded by another, who might consider it a disservice rather than a mercy to hold back in a fight, also know what it means to commit to and enjoy moments of calm, of rejoicing and celebration and what it means to share those with other people.

I like to think that these men who live with nothing held back and with sincerity in all things are able to do so because of the spirit of martial arts which they embody and believe in and that if all martial artists, or more individuals generally could be given the opportunity to do this it would be a great thing.

Alternatively, they might just be two men who like beating people up who happen to look the same.

Who knows?

Anyway, this has been a completely aimless ramble really, but thanks for reading!

Geebs.

The concept of “Shu Ha Ri”

Quite a long time ago, I was affiliated with a school of karate which named itself “Shu Ha Ri Karate-do”. I owe that school and its members the basis of my training in martial arts so I thought I would talk a little about the concept it adopted as its namesake, “Shu Ha Ri”. I think I’m right in saying that the concept applies to more than just the martial arts and can be used in the context of learning in general, but since I’ve never been exposed to it in any other sense I’ll be speaking about it primarily with reference to the martial arts. I should also note that I’ve never studied the kanji for the term so my interpretation will likely lack a couple of nuanced elements through mistranslation and suchlike. If anyone has knowledge which can help fill in the gaps, please by all means go nuts.

So Shu Ha Ri as I understand it is a three part structure for how a student in training is meant to approach learning the martial arts.

Shu refers to learning by rote, learning by imitation, and learning by instruction. The rule of Shu is to adhere to form over everything else. Another way to describe it might be to say ‘having faith’. It’s a kind of absolute belief in your teacher, your school, your training partner and the form itself which leaves no room for doubt or deviation.

Ha can be said to be the opposite of Shu. Ha is to question the form, to question your teachers and your partners and your own technique and body. I think of Ha as an interrogation of everything that Shu teaches you to recite. Where Shu is the devout believer and the obedient child, Ha is the outspoken heretic, the petulant, objectionable teenager.

Ri differs from both of the above in that while Shu and Ha are both concerned with how the practitioner relates to the form (to comply, to diverge), Ri is all about how the practitioner can practice without reference to form at all. I have heard Ri described as a transcendent state and I think this suits it well. Shu obeys form, Ha interrogates form, Ri transcends it or rather reverses its order. In Shu and Ha, form always comes first and the practitioner’s action always follows after. I know the form, therefore I execute it (either to comply with it or refute it). In Ri, the practitioner acts and form emerges from that action. I move and my movement becomes form. It’s an elusive state which a lot of the time “just happens”. The difficulty is capturing it so it can be harnessed at the users beck and call.

When I was first introduced to the term, I was taught it as a sequence. Ri follows Ha follows Shu. I feel now that this is a severe misinterpretation of how Shu Ha Ri functions. Why is it I think so?

I do not believe that it is possible to progress through martial arts training  (or any other learning process for that matter) saying “I must complete Shu before I can begin Ha” owtte. I believe this because I do not think it is possible to ever “complete” Shu. If I pursue the path of Shu alone then I attempt to imitate my teacher and do nothing more. I adhere to his or her technique and nothing more.

Firstly, I’ll never be able to perfectly imitate my teacher’s technique. For one because I have a different body and a different mind and am a different person and for two because every teacher of martial arts I have had has explained to me in one way or another that their technique is not an absolute thing, it alters as they learn how other peoples’ bodies move and react to that technique. From the beginning technique is not so rigid that it can be memorised and repeated like a line from a textbook. Even if I could imitate a technique as closely as possible, it would never sit perfectly in my body (because if I perfectly imitate a technique executed by someone whose arms are three inches longer than mine then all my techniques will be three inches out of range and if I flawlessly reproduce a technique executed by someone who has naturally strong shoulders and try to use my weaker shoulders to do the same thing it just won’t work [overlooking the fact that you never just mash your way through technique with muscle in the martial arts]).

Secondly even if it was possible to turn technique into a rote-learning exercise, I would never finish rote-learning. If I attempted to describe and reproduce every technique in martial arts as a sequence of repeatable instructions for any possible situation in which the technique would be applicable I would need more time than I think I’d probably have in two or three average lifespans. So even if I met a teacher capable of performing techniques as a kind of recital, I’d be dead of old age four or five times over before I’d be able to recite them back pitch-perfect. Now, I’m not basing these time periods I’m coming up with on anything, I’m just suggesting that I believe it’d take more time than is sensibly possible to answer every single “what if” question in martial arts with a concrete answer and learn these responses all as repeatable positions executable as martial technique at the drop of a hat.

So that’s why I think you can’t go Shu to Ha to Ri in the sense of finishing one then starting the next.

But of course it makes just as little sense to try to start at any other point and travel sequentially. I can’t Ha then Ri then Shu or whatever. I don’t think that the concept is sequential at all. I believe it is simultaneous. From the moment you begin training in earnest all three should be in effect.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s imagine I’m being taught how to throw a punch. I think it’s fair to suggest that most martial arts at some point teach their practitioners how to hit someone. What happens when I learn to strike? Okay I copy the action of my teacher as well as I can. But that cannot be all I do, even on day one class one of training that can’t be it, otherwise I’m not learning anything at all. Shu and Ha must still operate both at once even if I know nothing about martial arts at all and this is the first time I step in the door. Why? Because even if I want to follow the form exactly I meet it with questions. If I’m told to punch the first question that arises is how I form a fist. How tightly is it comfortable for my fist to be clenched? Which knuckles make contact with which part of my enemy’s body? I meet the form with questions. This is Ha. But beginner as I am I’ve no ability to answer any question I have of the form. So I turn to my teachers and training partners and ask them instead. And that’s Shu again. From the beginning a quest for one leads into the other. And what of Ri? Ri is always there as a goal, a point to be aimed for, an ideal martial art form which all training must necessarily move towards which only emerges from the oscillation between Shu and Ha occasionally and elusively.

This process repeats itself no matter what stage of training I may be at. Let’s say I’m no longer a beginner. Let’s say I’ve trained a few years and I step into class again and having done it a thousand times before, I throw another punch. I am still concerned with the form but not in the same way that I was the first time I tried a punch. Perhaps I am now concerned with the alignment of my hips, the structure of my elbows, shoulders and spine. Perhaps I am working on my posture or the stance of the punch. Maybe a few years later I’ll be concerned with the form’s timing and precision or being able to strike while relaxed. Maybe even farther after that I’ll be concerned with cutting out preliminary movements which expose my intention and generating power with very little space for extension etc. etc. You get the gist.

Every time I encounter aspects of the form I must examine them. I must examine the form and how it works for my body and how my body works with a partner’s body and how the form emerges from the two. Shu is always confronted by Ha. Even after maybe thirty or forty years of training this way will I have completed the Shu of punching? Is the form now routine? Only if I have elected to stop learning. Only if I have decided to stop seeking Ri. As I have said Ri is a kind of reversal where the practitioner’s experience is such that movement comes to almost spontaneously correspond to form rather than form dictating movement. When I begin my training I’ve probably no idea what this is meant to be like as I’ve never experienced it before. So I begin by seeking it, a moment where a form emerges perfectly as if by accident from the routine oscillations between Shu and Ha. After experiencing it once I know what I’m aiming for. Now my training continues in pursuit of this kind of perfect form a second time. Then a third. Maybe after a year I’ll be trying to consistently perform this kind of technique one every hundred tries. Maybe after two years I’ll be trying to do it once every fifty attempts. And so on.

In the three part formula of Shu Ha Ri, Ri is always sought and never quite attained. Even if you can, by some miracle, pull off a ‘transcendent’ technique 100/100 times then your next step is to try to do it 1000/1000 times. Each attempt should bring your training back to Shu and Ha and the three can never be separate.

So that’s more or less how I’d explain the concept of Shu Ha Ri and how I think it is applied to martial arts. As I said earlier I believe the concept applies to fields other than the martial arts too and I hope you can see why and how that might work from my description. Once again I owe a lot to my old karate school so I hope I’ve not misrepresented this particular ideal which they aspired towards.

I think this version of Shu Ha Ri describes the way I approach my training (or at least the way I try to approach it) and if nothing else I hope it’s been an enjoyable look at how I try to work out learning in my head. I would say that trying to enact a simultaneous Shu Ha Ri makes the learning curve early on in the process very steep, which can be immensely frustrating not only for the student, but I’m sure also for the teacher and the student’s various training partners. Learning in this style can still be interpreted a few different ways which demand different things from students and teachers alike and should be taken into account by both parties hoping to teach and learn respectively. But that’s another discussion I think… Maybe next time?

Anyway, thankyou for reading. If you’ve had anything to do with martial arts before perhaps this has been a good read for you? If you’ve never done anything like that in your life then maybe you might consider it now?

‘Til next time!

Gabriel.

In Defence of Dark Souls 2

So, if you know me IRL then you’re probably aware that I enjoy a bit of gaming. If you didn’t know that before then you do now. So I’m going to write now about Dark Souls 2 because I think that the game takes a lot of flak from fans of the series and there are plenty of instances where I think it’s straight up unfair criticism. But for everyone who isn’t familiar I’ll contextualise a bit before launching into it. So everyone who is familiar with everything Dark Souls shaped, please bear with me.

According to Wikipedia Dark Souls 2 is “an action role-playing hack and slash Roguelike video game”. I honestly don’t know what “Roguelike” means in this context so eh (or rather, I looked it up and it was lengthy so I won’t bother describing it because it ain’t important for a description of Dark Souls that doesn’t want to go into pedantics). Basically, it’s fantasy type game with your swords and your magic and your monsters who you have to fight in order to progress/survive. Dark Souls (or the Souls series developed by From Software in general) is also famous for being a difficult and challenging series of videogames. Part of the whole concept behind their development is a very steep learning curve and the idea that the player is rewarded for their efforts upon completion of a difficult task. So if that sounds cool to you it’s probably gonna be worth trying. I personally began playing Dark Souls 1 after a long period of playing first person shooters and becoming soundly bored with them. Which is not to say I generally dislike FPS games, I enjoy them a lot. But I started playing Medal of Honour: (actually Medal of Honor because English US lacks “u”s) Rising Sun on PS2 and played almost only FPS games from then until Battlefield 3 on PS3 (I also played Assassin’s Creed and Ratchet and Clank and Jak & Daxter but apart from that…). So yeah, can understand how I got tired of them, hopefully.

So anyway, I got into Dark Souls after getting tired of shooting things and taking a lengthy break from gaming at all (minus Pokemon, can never give up Pokemon) and wanting something that was more engaging and enjoyable than (the unfortunately weak) Assassin’s Creed 3. So I picked up a copy of Dark Souls 1 one Christmas just before it got to patch 1.05 and I wanted to play nothing else for like a year. I think I’ve got roughly 500 hours in total clocked on Dark Souls 1. Which might sound like a lot of time to someone unfamiliar and sound like not much to those who are more well versed in Souls. For context, the more well known Dark Souls players on youtube and twitch and whatnot are known to have clocked 800-1000 hours, with some easily closer to 1500 in Dark Souls 1. So I’m kindof a small fry by comparison.

Anyway, when Dks2 was announced I was very excited, I got on the closed beta/network test and played that for every second it was online. I enjoyed it immensely. I got the game itself on release and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt that it outdid Dks1 in most ways. And then to my surprise (though I shouldn’t really have been surprised) the mass of net-based fandom had endless whinges and complaints about the game. So for better or worse I’m gonna address some of those here because it bugs me.

I’ll firstly say that I acknowledge no graphics complaints about Dks2 compared to Dks1. Dks2’s graphics are indisputably superior. Or you need a trip to specsavers. There are some textures in Dks2 which ain’t great, but that’s a different discussion. The game is overwhelmingly better looking than Dks1.

Secondly, a general complaint about movement. I went back and played some Dks1 after a hundred or so hours in Dks2. It felt like running through mud to me. I like movement in Dks1, I also like movement in Dks2. But Dks2 does make walking and running around in Dks1 feel epically slow. I don’t think the two can be really compared, you just have to play them differently.

Those are really kindof minor things, let’s move on to more serious whinges about the game.

The first game in the Souls series was Demon’s Souls. In Demon’s Souls if you were hit by an enemy you were immediately staggered, that is your character was knocked out of whatever action they were doing and stunned for a moment. This leads to what is often called ‘stunlock’ where you keep getting hit and keep getting stunned and basically can’t move for being hit until you’re dead. In Dks1 a system was introduced called ‘poise’. Poise allowed the player to resist certain attacks of a certain strength. If you wore heavier armour, you got more poise and your character wouldn’t be staggered by weaker hits. The higher your poise, the more hits it took to stagger you. In Dks2 poise was altered. The basic system was the same but poise was weaker, that is you need a lot more poise to resist the same strength of hit than you would have needed in Dks1.

In every Souls game so far there has been a mechanic known as the ‘backstab’. When executing an attack behind an enemy of roughly human size and shape or perhaps a little bigger (with some exceptions) your character would get a special animation and stab the enemy in the back for a critical hit and significantly increased damage.

I think there is very little to complain about with these mechanics in the standard PvE experience of the game. Where the complications arise are in the balancing of PvP. Again, for those unfamiliar, PvP refers to player versus player, players duelling or fighting randomly or whatnot. PvE refers to player versus environment (or my preferred version player versus engine) which means just playing the game on your own and trying to beat it. Your opponent is the game engine and the AIs and enemies it operates and all the processes that entails.

In Dks1, combining these two mechanics made possible the ‘poise backstab’ which was especially detrimental to PvP duelling in general. The long and short of it is that, wearing very heavy armour, an opponent could simply walk behind you, even as you hit them repeatedly in the face with your sword, and stab you in the back for a critical hit. This was one of the biggest complaints about Dks1. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with poisestabbing your opponent. You’re not cheating or anything. But it is annoying and generally considered cheap and effectively a “skill-less” style of play, given that the only skill necessary is putting on the requisite bits of armour and having a very damaging weapon. Plenty of arguments were made suggesting that well, you really shouldn’t be able to walk through the blade of a sword that’s taller than most people without flinching and be absolutely fine.

So in Dks2 poise stabbing is almost impossible to do. In fact, I’ve never seen it happen. Yet there are rampant complaints about how weak poise is in Dks2. It is true that most attacks will stun you in Dks2 unless you have very heavy armour on. Which effectively means that if you try to circle behind someone to stab them in the back, they can prod you with a dagger and you’ll stop and go “ow, that hurts”. And that makes quite a lot of sense to me, given that I don’t imagine most human beings can just walk off being stabbed like it’s nothing. Though it doesn’t make sense to compare a videogame to ‘real life’ firstly because the game cannot simulate the precision of real combat and secondly because I don’t know anyone with ‘real life’ experience getting in sword fights to tell me what it’s like, I will say that it does seem completely ‘real life’ feasible to me that getting stabbed, cut, or whacked should stop you dead in your tracks no matter what you’re doing 1) because it hurts and 2) because you’d probably be bleeding and have some kind of internal organ damage.

It seems to me that the Dark Souls community asked for this change and From Software sat up and listened. You can’t take a hit to the face and walk it off anymore, and rightly so to my mind. You also can’t play as if it’s okay to take a hit here and there, because it’s really not, and I imagine that if someone were trying to put a sword in my living body, I’d want to avoid getting hit no matter what anyway (though having never been in a sword fight I can’t say for sure…).

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with the new system, (double rapier stunlocking anyone?), but that’s a separate issue. I think what’s important to note here is that the changes to the poise system were implemented in order to fix a problem (poise stabbing) and in that it was overwhelming successful. In addition, this was not something FromSoft undertook in isolation. This was addressing a grounded complaint supported by the overwhelming majority of the Dark Souls PvP community. In fact, given the vast swathe of complaints about backstab tactics in Dks1, I would say that FromSoft did an excellent job of reducing the effectiveness of backstabs in Dks2 by changing the timing and range required to activate one, along with altering poise, movement speeds, and weapon tracking, which are all things which, for whatever reason, the playing community has seen fit to whinge about. It’s unfortunate because I believe FromSoft to be a responsive and responsible developer and I feel like you can see this in the changes made from one game to the other here and the playing community is doing their efforts a great disservice.

Once again, I’m not saying that there aren’t problems with Dks2, I think there certainly are, but give the devs some credit where it’s due huh? Whenever I hear/read a reddit warrior asking “why would they do that?” or “who thought this was a good idea?” I kinda want to slap them. FromSoft made the changes from Dks1 to Dks2 to correct errors that the players themselves asked to be corrected. It ain’t perfect but these are pretty effective alterations and considering the game developers had absolutely no obligation to listen to the acres of whingers out there in the comments sections of youtube, I think they deserve a little bit of thanks for taking the time and care to make a game which we, as a fanbase asked for.

So anyway, that’s my two cents on that. I am aware of the hypocrisy of whinging about whinging on the internet on the internet, but eh. Contrary to what it may seem, I don’t dislike complaining in and of itself, I just dislike complaints which I disagree with (much like anyone else you could mention really). So yeah, in short. Dks2 is a great game. Cut it some slack. Please forgive me if my tone has been less than savoury. If you want to talk about problems with the game, I can do that another time. I’ll probably (at some point) talk about things I’d love to have seen in the game (or in the next game). Soo yeah.

Thanks for your time, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading (or at least felt I made a sensible argument which you can understand).

威豪

JET Interview

I felt that I ought to make a post about this subject, primarily because back when I was preparing for my own interview it was blog posts from other people that helped me out more than anything else and I figured it’d be good to add my own experience to the collective cache of knowledge out there on the internet.

So before I begin I’m gonna say that I’m predisposed to rambling so if you’re just looking for details of the interview itself to help with your own preparation or whatever then skip ahead. I should also mention that this account applies only to the UK JET programme and furthermore only to an application for the teaching position, so don’t expect things to be exactly the same if you’re applying in a different country to me or applying for the CIR position! I read through plenty of blogs from the USA version of the programme and they definitely were helpful, but there were marked differences between those accounts and what I experienced so do bear that in mind if you’re not in the UK and take my words with a pinch of salt. I’ll try to make it obvious where the interview itself bit is (just keep scrolling til you see bits in bold and caps) and if you do have an interview, best of luck!

So, to explain a bit further for those not necessarily familiar, I applied to the UK JET programme in autumn of 2013. JET is a neat little acronym which stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching. The programme is run by the embassy and basically constitutes an opportunity for anyone with a degree below a certain age to teach English in Japanese schools as a language assistant (or Assistant Language Teacher, which is the programme’s preferred terminology). The contract lasts a year and can be extended for up to five as far as I am aware at the time of writing. There is another position that can be applied for through JET which is a “Coordinator for International Relations”, which I think is generally considered a higher level position which requires fluency in Japanese and certain diplomatic abilities which are not a requirement for the teaching position. If you want to find out more then I’m gonna link the website because they’ll probably give you all the details that I can’t remember and it’s almost definitely more up to date that I am. http://www.jet-uk.org/index.php

Why did I apply for the job? I can’t easily answer that question, but as far as I remember I was thinking seriously about what I’d be doing once I’d completed by degree and, buoyed by a wave of enthusiasm and investigative vigour, I decided that Japan was where I wanted to be and JET was my vessel for getting there. “Why Japan?” Well, I’ll cover how I answered that question in the interview later, but as for my more honest response I have to say just because I want to go. There’s a great deal I’ve heard/seen about the place from various outlets including but not limited to TV, film, the news, anime, manga, magazines, martial arts, anecdotes, music, etc. etc. and I wanted to see the place for myself. We can talk about my general opinion on Japan/media about Japan in another blog post. It’s a bit too big to stick that in here too… I was also exploring the idea of teaching at the time (an idea I’m still fairly interested in, but not in the same way) and the JET job sounded like a great chance to give it a go (even if it’s a bit of an ‘in at the deep end’ introduction). And finally I also wanted to try studying martial arts in Japan (specifically Aikido but I would have been happy to give other arts a go if the opportunity presented itself too, again I’m gonna save martial arts for another post).

So that’s more or less why I decided to give JET a shot. But honestly I was quite surprised by, after a month or two of investing in the application process, quite how much I wanted the job. I would suggest it’s probably the only career-shaped entity I’ve ever genuinely thoroughly wanted a part of at this time. Of course that has no bearing on whether I deserve(d) a place or not, but as a relatively sheltered youth I’m glad to at least have felt what it means to get serious about that kind of thing.

I collected all my references and medical records and whatnot, noone really needs advice on that save “get it done early”. As far my experience went it was just a matter of chasing the requisite individuals until they gave you what you were looking for. I guess if there was anything else to be said about references, my Aikido instructor, who worked in Japan for a number of years in contact with but not directly for JET, as I understand it, told me that references are fairly important to Japanese administrative bodies so get people who you’re sure you can trust to give you a good write up. And of course if you can get someone to write you a reference that you suspect will be glowing, there’s probably no reason not to.

The Statement

The statement I was required to write was split into three parts corresponding to three questions posed by JET UK.

1) Why do you wish to participate in the JET programme?
2) What can you contribute to the programme?
3a) [for ALT position only] Teaching Ideas?

I reinterpreted these questions somewhat in order to help structure my answers.

1) Why do you wish to participate in JET? That is a) why are you interested in Japan’s culture and society? b) If you are interested in Japan why are you interested in a teaching position with JET as opposed to just a short trip or holiday? c) Do you understand JET’s purpose and ideals and how do these tie in with your interests listed above?

I think that a good answer ties the above three parts together into a coherent, interested, and interesting response. Honestly looking back at what I wrote, I feel that in my first draft I was definitively too woolly. I wrote extensively about my interests without really talking about JET’s project or teaching at all. It sounds even to me now like a naive attempt. In contrast, I feel my final version was too dispassionate. The final version has traded in the original’s disorganised fervour for a regimented “professional” style (whatever that means). In short my first draft says “I love lots of things about Japan! (can I please have the job)” and the final draft says “employ me! (I also know things about Japan)”. It’s really hard to hit that balance between writing your interests into a statement without sounding naive while at the same time advertising oneself as a capable prospective employee, but it’s what I aimed for and I think if I had hit it it would have made this part of my statement significantly better.

2) What can you contribute to the programme? That is a) what makes you suitable for living in Japan or abroad generally? b) What experience do you have living abroad, travelling abroad, and adapting to foreign conditions? c) What skills do you have to act as a cultural ambassador?

If section 1 of my statement was about showing my cultural awareness and interest, section 2 was a parade of skills and experiences mainly with a focus on my ability to adapt to the unfamiliar and accept, understand and negotiate cultural rifts, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I threw in lots of stuff about places I’d travelled, particularly places where I was required to negotiate a language barrier and experienced culture shock. A training partner of mine in Aikido class who did himself work in Japan as a teacher and once made a JET application many years ago advised me that this was the place for me to show my sensitivity to cultural impasses and the like and it seemed to work out. I also spoke about how, as a British born Singaporean-Chinese, I am one of those individuals who considers himself at once belonging to multiple cultures and also belonging to none. Examples such as these which you can use to your advantage to illustrate how you negotiate and have had to negotiate rifts between cultures should go in here.

3) Teaching Ideas? This one was pretty self explanatory, but also the one that I found the most difficult. I couldn’t really think of a way to split or reconfigure this question to make it easier to answer. I have my own ideas of what a good student-teacher relationship is and what that demands from those in a teaching role, but I do not believe that this is what the question was asking for. What I was being asked was whether I had the skills and abilities to handle teaching very specifically large groups of Japanese speaking children the English language and as such I just threw examples of anything teaching-shaped I had at this question. Anything where you’re dealing with large groups of kids, particularly unruly ones is good here. I used cricket coaching and karate classes here, along with some experience looking after first years on my uni course. My advisors who were familiar with JET informed me that they don’t really expect anyone to come in with a wealth of teaching experience so it won’t count too much against you if you haven’t the foggiest about what it means to be a responsible educator. However, being experienced in a teaching role is definitely an advantageous position to be in and I think you at least want to show yourself as sensible, responsible, level-headed, and capable of handling  kids. One thing I neglected to show of myself in this part was the elusive quality of energy or genki as the romanisation of the Japanese goes. My former-teacher-in-Japan friend called his experience teaching out there “edutainment” and I think that it is likely that a more genki approach may have helped my case here. That definitely resurfaced in the interview and may or may not have bitten me in the ass. More on that shortly.

Interview Day

So, the interview itself. I read tons online. I had condensed interview notes of roughly eight sides including all the questions I thought likely to come up and my prepared answers. I had my housemates ask me random questions from my prepared answers and then random questions from unprepared answers. I ran mock interviews with them. I got the train to London where I was having my interview and had the friend I was staying with there run a mock with me too. I highly recommend doing all of the above things. Honestly speaking, it may change nothing on the day with nerves and whatnot, but knowing the extent to which I prepared set my mind somewhat at ease beforehand and let me walk away afterwards feeling exhausted but fulfilled. Just throw yourself at the preparation. It’s a good thing to do.

The instructions JET sent me told me to get to the embassy 15 minutes before my allotted interview time. I actually arrived an hour before, but I did not go in straight away. Instead I went to a cafe down the street from the embassy and had a drink to calm my nerves. The drink was neither caffeinated nor alcoholic, just a regular fruit flavoured kind of thing. I read my interview notes one last time, then I read something completely unrelated until half an hour before my interview time. That helped me relax quite a bit. With half an hour until my interview time I went into the embassy.

Went through security and was given a bunch of instructions by the lady at the desk who asked for my invite and ID and suchlike. After giving me a name badge I was directed to a waiting area. They had an exhibition on display there which I spent ten minutes just looking at and trying to memorise bits of in case it was a trick and something I was expected to pay attention to. I had heard that everyone in the embassy is examining you as a candidate from the moment you enter so I made an effort to look busy. Honestly speaking, I think those reports are exaggerated. I think it’s likely that your general conduct is examined in that you ought to be wearing a suit and be presentable, look the part. But I certainly don’t think it’s the kind of “Big Brother is watching” situation that I was led to believe it might be.

At I think about 20 minutes until interview time a former JET came out from the depths of the embassy and gave me a brief on how things would run. For my interview, candidates were invited into the embassy in pairs, so we waited until my counterpart candidate arrived at 15 minutes til interview time. I used the intervening time to talk to the former JET about his experience etc. etc. All the reports I had read regarding the interview suggested that the former JETs are as much a part of the interview process as the interview itself and you ought to ingratiate yourself to them and pick their brains to show interest and vigour. Again, I think reports are exaggerated. I don’t doubt that the former JETs who guide you through the embassy are part of the process, but I do not think their role is to pick at your mistakes and analyse your every move as some accounts suggest. If anything I think it makes a lot of sense to just be natural (if at all possible under the stress) around them and use them to ease into the process. As I recall, they’re good to talk to and actually I get the feeling that they did their best to be non-intimidating.

So anyway, our former JET guide took us into the embassy and we again received instructions about places we were allowed to go (nowhere) and when we were allowed to move without supervision (never). He brought us to a room and gave us a grammar and language test. Honestly, it was a harder test than I had expected with some points of grammar that I had never considered before. I honestly wouldn’t sweat studying the finer points of English grammar too much though. The structure of the grammar test was such that questions seemed to be a number of the same type in ascending difficulty. For example: “circle and correct errors in the following sentences”, followed by three sentences. The first sentence with obvious mistakes, the second with some commonly seen mistakes and some rare and ambiguous mistakes, and the third with maybe only one obvious mistake and plenty of mistakes which might pass as completely standard grammar unless you spend a lot of time looking for them. I think the point is to pass the “easy” and “medium” levels of the questions. Obviously it’s great if all three levels go by with ease for you, but don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t sure about the highest level of question. The test might have changed in the years after mine anyway so don’t sweat it. I certainly spent quite a lot of time trying to puzzle out the details of the grammar test, which meant I ended up almost running out of time on it. I still don’t know how many I got right or wrong and honestly I don’t think it was too important so long as I demonstrated a stable grasp of how a sentence is formed in English with use of apostrophes, commas, tenses and other common units of grammar. It did faze me that the test hadn’t been as simple as I thought it’d be, but in hindsight I ought not to have let it be such a big deal, because I really don’t think it is.

After the grammar test myself and my counterpart candidate were sat down in front of a promotional video for the JET programme. It was actually a video, that is a VHS cassette video. The materials I had read online had warned me that this would happen and that I should ignore the video entirely and instead question our former JET guides. Our guides actually pre-empted this move. It seemed they didn’t expect us to pay attention to the video at all and sat with us and chatted for its duration. What do I suggest you use this time for? I suggest you use this time to chat. I recall that at the time I was still very tense and I was running everything I said through “I am a great employment prospect” filters so all the questions I asked and the answers I gave came out as either a bit simpering or simply rang as a bit of a lie (or at least it feels that way in hindsight). If it is at all possible, do try to relax at this point and just talk with the guides genuinely about your interests in Japan and whatever else the conversation takes you to. I think this’ll probably accomplish the double task of putting you more at ease and leaving a genuine and favourable impression on the JET guides if indeed, they are examining you as a covert part of the interview.

The Interview

Our guides gave us a final brief after the Q&A session with the VHS. We wouldn’t be interviewed together, we’d go in one at a time (seems obvious, but hey) and I’d be going first. I was told where to wait (this spot by the signpost with the instructions), and where I should wait afterwards (by the other sign with instructions) and where I was allowed to go (nowhere) and what I should do unsupervised (nothing). I just tried to breathe slowly and not sweat through my suit. And I tried to keep a genuine smile on my face. It probably came off as a slightly hysterical look, but hey, I tried. I think it’s probably better to try to smile a bit than be totally grim-faced the whole time. Anyway, they were running a bit late so I had to wait in silence in my spot for about five minutes before the previous interviewee came out and I was invited into the interview room.

My interviewers were two. One very tall Brit with a big but imposing smile and one very small Japanese with big and imposing spectacles. I shook their hands and bowed and suchlike. Tall said “oh, bowing to me, yes very good” or words to that effect. I can’t tell if he was in earnest or was tired of people bowing and wished they’d just shake hands normally. Small introduced himself in very fast Japanese. Honestly, I had no idea what he said. Maybe it was nerves or maybe I’m just not as good at listening to Japanese language as I thought, but I hoped I might be able to at least recognise a douzo yoroshiku or an irashai or at least some kind of greeting or introduction phrase with which I’m familiar. Maybe he was speaking Kansai dialect? Well, either way, I got none of what he said and bailed out of my own prepared yoroshiku onegaishimasu Japanese language introduction. So that didn’t go exactly to plan. I’d say it’s probably best to just introduce yourself normally in your own language and according to your own customs or whatever you’re comfortable with. If you’re comfortable with a bow and a yoroshiku then go for it. But it probably ain’t to your advantage to try to force it if you’re not at ease with it enough to do it naturally.

Right, now I’m gonna list as many of the questions that I was asked as I can remember. This is the spot you want if you’re looking for really quick in and out interview help. INTERVIEW QUESTIONS HERE!

[Tall] Why JET?
[Tall] Why Japan?
[Small] What specifically about Japan?
[Tall] I see on your application form you went on a cricket tour to the West Indies in school. Can you tell me about your experience there and any cultural impasses you had to negotiate?
[Tall] What’s the difference between Great Britain, the UK and the British Isles?
[Tall] Can you tell me the difference between the House of Lords and the House of Commons?
[Tall] Name me a famous Welsh person.
[Tall] If you could show a classroom of Japanese schoolchildren one thing from the UK what would it be?
[Tall] How would you use or incorporate that into a lesson?
[Tall] Let’s hear your voice, I want you to imagine you’re in an assembly hall introducing yourself to the school. Please go to the back of the room and give an introduction. I want you to be really energetic and project your voice.
[Tall] Is there anything you feel you desperately need to say before we let you go, that you’d feel cheated if you weren’t allowed to say?

Yes, he really did ask some of those questions with, as well as I can remember, that exact wording. Yes, he did specifically ask me to be energetic. Yes, he did ask me to name a famous Welsh person.

As you can see, Tall rather ran the show. In fact, Small only chipped in at one point, and I think it was when I was giving answers that they didn’t really want to hear (or rather, I wasn’t giving an answer that they did).

So, my answers. When asked “why JET” I began to talk about JET’s project in the context of international cooperation and a global society and then quickly changed tack to talk about immersing myself in Japanese society at the grassroots level of education to promote intercultural understanding and spreading Japanese cultural heritage while also acting as an ambassador for the UK etc. etc. That seemed to go down ok. Though I get the feeling it was quite long-winded for the stock answer they expected.

I think the mistake I made here was focusing on JET’s project of international cooperation and not on Japan. Which is why they prompted me with “why Japan” and then more insistently, “what specifically”. I rushed out a stream of an answer about my interest in martial arts and how I felt there was a reflection in the the martial arts I studied of Japanese culture or some such. I think I also mentioned something about language and my interest in that. Honestly that bit’s kindof a blur, probably because it hurts me to recall how bad I was at that point. I think I stayed just on the safe side of panic. But I was pretty close I reckon. What I think I ought to have done at that point was, instead of thinking in the “employee to employer” mindset again, was actually taken the opportunity to talk candidly about my interests in Japanese martial arts, language, anime, manga, etc. etc. etc. instead of being afraid of expounding on those subjects in case I came across as someone who just thought of Japan in terms of the above. Ultimately I missed that chance and I think barely scraped a passable effort at that bit of the interview. In hindsight of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with liking Japan for its animation, its music, its martial arts exports, or its food, or its language. They’re all genuine cultural artefacts and I ought to have spoken about why I think so. I think I was rather afraid of being accused of being culturally insensitive and even more afraid of having a fat “weeb” label stuck on my application there and then, so I missed out. I’d say, if nowhere else, this is the point that you should speak about your interests in any element of Japanese culture, because that’s exactly what they’re looking for, genuine interest. Obviously, they also want some kind of cultural sensitivity and it’s hard to strike a balance between coming across as just a rabid fan of this movie or that band and someone with a wider cultural interest, but I think that showing vehement interest at all is better than the kindof shrivelling that I did.

Anyway. He asked me about my cricket tour to Barbados and St. Lucia in school. That, I did not at all expect, since it had been a bit of padding in my application form and hadn’t featured in my statement at all. I answered competently enough I think. I said many of the teams we played against had never encountered a cricketing Chinese before and made quite a big deal out of it (which is true, they did). I forget what I said about how I dealt with that situation. If I were asked again now how to deal with that, I’d ask back if it were really something to be “dealt with”, but that’s another discussion entirely. I think that bit went fine. The lesson to be learnt there is to remember what you wrote in your application as well as what you wrote in your statement. Apparently they do pick on the fine details.

The three questions about Britain… I expected the one about a famous person because it was documented on someone else’s blog, but not the other two. In fact I’d prepared to be questioned on the geography and politics of Japan (I had a prepared answer about the function of the DIET and I was ready to talk about Fukushima and I had prepped to speak on the Senkaku islands dispute). As a result I floundered on those two questions. Of course, later, being calmer I recalled the answers annoyingly well. But I flubbed them in the interview room, so I consider that that probably counted against me. From the various accounts out there, I’ve heard that some people are questioned on their own countries and some on Japan and there doesn’t seem to be a way of determining which you’re going to get. Prep for both.

I was prepared for a famous British person, but not a famous Welsh person. By some miracle I pulled Joe Calzaghe out of my memory and talked about how he represents a kind of fighting spirit which the Welsh are proud of or something like that. Tall made a joke about how the last guy interviewed was Welsh and he’d like me for saying that. Maybe that means it went down well? Again, reports suggest that some are asked for famous people from their own countries, some are asked for famous people from Japan. It’s a good idea to prep for both.

Now the teaching-based questions. I was prepared for talking about famous things in the UK and things I’d show to a class. I talked about pictures I had of myself near famous landmarks from popular movies and TV. Apparently Harry Potter and Sherlock are both pretty big in Japan and I played on that somewhat. I did less well on how I’d use such things in a lesson. I said something about how I’d draw up a map and use the landmarks to help teach directions. X is North of Y, etc. etc. I figure that was a pass. Just about. But it still shredded my nerves. Now, JET specifically says that they do not ask for any teaching experience from applicants. According to reports actual teaching in JET has very little in common with primary or intermediate level teaching in the UK. But they’ll still happily grill you on it in interview. So be ready for that too.

For the last two bits I spoke from my diaphragm, and I said I hoped I’d be considered for the position and I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in JET owtte. He did ask for genki and I’m not sure I gave it to him, but I did my best to project my voice properly. And I had no idea really what I was meant to say to “is there anything you need to say otherwise you’d feel cheated if you left without saying it”. Why couldn’t he just have said “do you have any questions?” ¬¬

Oh well.

So, that was my interview. I went outside and was escorted out by my former JET guide. It was pretty surreal moving back onto the street and wandering up to the tube station and changing out of my suit and resuming normal life. If anything, I think I learnt that I’m really not that cut out for teaching youngsters. At least not in the style JET wanted me to. I don’t have the genki for it (where genki constitutes a general countenance of energy, enthusiasm, and a sort of childish playfulness and excitement. The word can also be used just in the sense of wellness where the question genki desu ka? corresponds to “Are you well?”, not “are you slightly hyperactively enthusiastic about life?”).

Still, despite generally feeling a bit bad about it I couldn’t bring myself to be too nervous or too regretful. I never looked back and thought “I could have done more” or “I wished I had X”. Of course one can always do more and there are plenty of things that would have helped me out if I had the foresight to do them, but in the circumstances, I genuinely felt that I had dedicated every resource I had to that project and whatever happened well, whatever, in short. When I said to Tall and Small that I was glad and grateful for the opportunity, I did genuinely mean it, despite having lost most of my composure at that point and I’d say the same thing now, even with all the cringing hindsight affords.

And the result of that long tale is that I’m currently on the reserve list for this year’s crop of JET ALTs, which means that if a space opens up before December then I’m still in with a chance of getting the job. Fingers crossed then. xD

Anyway, I hope that, if you are a prospective JET that this has been a useful (if long and rambling) account for you. If not, then I hope it has been an enjoyable read or an entertaining story and I hope I haven’t said anything which misrepresents anyone in the JET programme or Japanese embassy or anyone involved in the process I described above. If I have that was not my intent at all. If I have misrepresented myself through a show of my own ignorance or suchlike then well. It’s probably not a misrepresentation then is it? I hope my mistakes will be learnt from and help someone else in any case. And if anyone has any advice for my regarding anything mentioned in this blog post or blogging itself or anything else in general then please, I’m all ears. Go nuts.

Alright. That’s me for now.

Til next time,

Geebs.

Introductions and About the Blog

At the end of my first year of uni (or it might have been the second, I forget), I visited my school with a few of my friends from back then and had a chat with my old tutor. She suggested to me that it might be a good idea for me to start blogging. I believe her reasoning was that I tended in class, to have a fair bit to say for myself and I ought to channel those resources into something more… out of the way. Long story short, it seemed like a good idea and I’ve just about gotten around to doing it.

So, I’ll be posting hopefully fairly regularly about whatever takes my interest at the time. I can’t really tell you what to expect because I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be writing from day to day but I guess I can say that I’m an English lit student in the UK, the last book I read was Derrida’s Archaeology of the Frivolous, the last film I watched was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, primarily because it was on TV yesterday night when I was hanging out with my housemates. The next film I plan to watch is either Miyazaki’s Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises), or Sakasama no Patema (Patema Inverted). The last videogame I played was Dark Souls 2. If I were asked about a favourite band I would say the band I enjoy the most right now is Supercell (ryo) and the affiliated group Egoist. I started playing cricket when I was 10 or 11. I started out as an opening bat and ended up as an opening bowler. I stopped playing a couple of years ago now and do not currently intend to return to the field anytime soon, which I do regret somewhat. I started studying the martial arts when I was 15. I still train in the martial arts and hope to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. The last thing I cooked was a wok full of curried noodles with mackerel and celery. It didn’t turn out as nice as I’d hoped. My housemates and I are planning to get burgers tonight. I’m not sure if that plan will go ahead or not yet though. I could really go for a burger though so here’s hoping.

Anyway, there’s an introduction of sorts. Maybe it’ll help you all figure out what kind of things I might be posting about. Or maybe it won’t…

In either case, I hope you’ll enjoy the blog whatever it ends up consisting of and thanks to those of you who may not know me for bearing with my perhaps frustratingly meandering style of writing. To those of you who do know me, you’re probably used to it already, but thanks for putting up with it for all this time anyway.

More posts coming soon, happy reading!

Gabriel.