Connecting With Students


I was asked to “refrain” from playing Pokémon on the bus.

Impressions of Japan

My initial impression, years ago, from the other half of the world, was that Japan was a land of video games, television, and machinery. Like any impression, it was based in some real facts. Home video game consoles are still primarily created by Japanese companies Sony and Nintendo, and while American companies like Microsoft (and Valve, in the foreseeable future) are a large chunk of the modern gaming landscape, it was Nintendo and the Japanese companies of the mid-late 1980s that brought video gaming out of the dark ages. Remember that “Nintendo Seal of Approval” on old Nintendo games? That was the result of countless companies creating expensive games and consoles with no real value. People had lost faith in games. 1983 marked the North American video game crash. When the Famicom launched, video gaming was resurrected, and it was the Japanese who’d preformed the ritual. So yeah, the Japanese are an integral part of video game history.

On the television front, while Japanese television isn’t especially popular in America outside of anime and American adaptations of Japanese game shows, it doesn’t require much uranium to make a big impact. (Too soon? I tried to cut that statement like 30 times before I decided I didn’t have the working vocabulary to find something more appropriate.) On the machinery part, Japan still leads the world in the robotics industry in terms of quantity and variety of application. While China is posed to take over the reins in 2014, it makes sense that Japan’s image would be a technological one.

Not surprisingly, rural life has helped me distill my impressions.

The technology here and in the towns nearby, with the exception of the ubiquitous Japanese toilet, is no better or worse than at home in America. My schools have smart boards and nice high definition TVs in each classroom, but that’s what happens when your town’s dam gives you more money than you know what to do with. At schools in the city next door, TVs are a rarity and smart boards nonexistent. We happen to be lucky.

Television is no different from television in America—largely mediocre bull with a couple gems here and there. Anime is sparse, One Piece only appearing on early Sunday mornings, while other anime works similarly—one tiny time slot a week. If you want to watch missed episodes, you go to the depths of the internet to find them. And if you fancy yourself an otaku whose favorite anime are apparently obscure shows like Kill La Kill, expect to be up at 2:30 in the morning to catch it. Seriously. All the best stuff is on at 2:30. That’s the time slot they all fight over.

Video games, well, they’re as omnipresent as in America. In Japan, there’s no divide between “sporty” people and “gamers”. So every kid plays a sport and has a few video games. Not a shocker. Come adulthood however, the number of people with time to play games shoots into the ground. Most adults who play games in Japan do so on their train commute. Seeing as how everyone drives here, the number of people who play games around my age is nearly nonexistent. Workaholics, you see. Maybe that’s the wrong term. They don’t like to work at all. Adults in Japan hate work, but still do it to the point where they don’t leave the office. It’s probably the saddest thing.

I’m not saying that adults don’t like gaming, or that they resent it, but I am beginning to wonder.

Finding Common Ground

At my very rural elementary school (we’ll call it Y), with 18 students and about half as many teachers, during lunch time, the adults and kids all sit together in a small lunch room to eat the same lunch, every student within arm’s length of an adult. Half of the conversations are about school while the other half verge on idiocy. They’re kids; what do you expect? It’s good for me too. I understand about 50% of what goes on.

But unlike my closer elementary school (S), with three times as many kids, Y feels closed off to me, socially. I know the kids and their interests, but with the school closing down at the end of the school year, it appears to me that they’re growing defensive. Like a castle surrounded by enemies, they’ve begun to mistrust all but their closest allies.

So in order to improve their English (in a town with no foreigners nor English aside from yours truly), my proximity and influence is essential. Therein lies the problem: how do I connect with students? Coming from the sporty-gamer divide, I’ve fallen into the geeky side of things. And although I’m not in bad shape per se, I’m as coordinated as an oak tree jumping rope. I can run a mile like nobody’s business, but ask me to kick a soccer ball and I’m bound to end up with a broken knee. I’m working on it, but until then, gaming is my backbone.

Coming from that conclusion, I decided to buy a 3DS and Pokémon Y. Not only was Pokémon knowledge essential given that every kid was a Pokémon Master, but I had a 40 minute bus ride to Y every week. What better way to use that time? Couldn’t hurt that it was Japanese practice too. Play Pokémon while the kids give me strategies and help me along the way. Brilliant! I couldn’t have thought of something better myself!

Was it the solution I was seeking? I certainly thought so. When I first pulled it out of my bag, one of the first graders wanted to play it. With some help, they managed to catch a Pokémon or two. Getting off that bus, they were pretty happy. Next time, I played it during the entire ride to school. Things were working perfectly: kids were asking where I was in the game, what Pokémon I had, what was my favorite Pokémon, etc. All according to plan…

…or so I thought. Unfortunately, the kids were “too excited”. More than that, apparently there’s a rule that forbids kids bringing Gameboys to school. Since I ride the same bus, and my playing might make them jealous they can’t play, my vice principal asked me to refrain from using my 3DS. Fair enough, all things considered. The same kind of thing is not unheard of in the states. But it was a big letdown. As much as it helped me to connect with the kids on that one outing, making it well-worth it, it was a shame that it couldn’t go further. The American in me wanted to play anyways, and keep it on the down-low. The Japanese that’s been seeping into my pores urged me to follow the vice principal. After all, I didn’t want to alienate my coworker(s) either.

A Generational Divide

When the kids at school Y sit down for lunch and started talking, Pokémon naturally came up. Do you have Genosect? Where do you get Mewtwo? I was happy that the conversation popped up, knowing I could contribute something. Before I even got a word out though, the aging gym teacher silenced the kids. “How about we talk about something real?” Guess even in Japan, with the sporty-gamer divide is tucked away, the young-old divide crops up at regular intervals.

Sure, whipping out your 3DS during school hours may be frowned upon. I frown too. There’s a time for everything. To ban 3DSs from the bus is something I hope to never do, should someone accidentally give me that choice. It’s a form of human connection that I witnessed firsthand. It’s one I’m sad I can’t share with my students.

As it is, the old outnumber the young in Japan. It’s good that they’re living so long. It’s bad that they’re imposing outdated rules. As a result of the lack of youth, school Y is closing down in 2 months, and the old teachers that run the school will be going elsewhere. When the new school year starts, all those kids will be flocking to school S, where hopefully they will integrate well with the other students.

Thankfully, through a larger student body at school S (42), I’ve managed to make some inroads. I’ve connected to students without the need for gaming (largely though pretending to be an attack robot and such—don’t worry about it (they’re not real lasers)). With any luck, the students here will help me reconnect to students from school Y next year. Until then, I’ll do my best while the old castle crumbles around me.

1 thought on “Connecting With Students

  1. Pingback: Shrine-Carrying and Getting Drunk Around Students | The Japanese Role Playing Game

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