ChinaJapanThailandVietnamCambodiaKoreaSingaporeMalaysiaFamily & Friends SectionEssays

Duck or Death
Japanese Bonding
Sake, Strawberries...
Ohayo Gazaimasu


Ohayo Gozaimasu

I am sitting in the gymnasium with the staff and students of Doko Doko Koko. All are silent as the Principal, Kocho‑sensei, removes the slippers he donned upon entering the gymnasium, and replaces them with slippers worthy of the stage. With well-practiced, slow, elegant steps, he climbs the stairs to the stage. Once there, he sombrely bows to... well, to nothing at all. Ordinarily, there would be a flag in the empty space to which Kocho-sensei is expressing respect, but this assembly was called at the last minute. It was only moments ago that the event was first announced, and that the day's schedule was completely revamped. All the classes will be a little shorter today; Kocho-sensei has something important to say. The flag raising guy (whoever that is) understandably didn't have time to do his job. It doesn't really matter, though. What matters is not messing with form -- that the action be meaningful is a secondary concern. Bowing to nothing is far preferable to adapting to the flagless stage and not bowing at all.

As Kocho-sensei walks up to the podium, Daredare-sensei, the head of the English the department, turns to me and tells me something which many Japanese have told me before: "We Japanese love ceremonies." On each occasion, exactly the same words have been used, with virtually the same intonation. It's uncanny, really. (I sense the beginning of a thought -- the seeds of a conspiracy theory -- forming in my mind. I suppress it.)

Kocho-sensei walks up to the podium; says "Ohayo gozaimasu", and draws breath through his teeth, sharply and loudly. It is a sound I have heard often here, and I think it means that what was just said is of vast importance or significance. In Kocho-sensei, the rhetorical tactic has a special twist -- it is always followed by a tortured look. His teeth will never be featured in a Colgate commercial, and I strongly suspect that when he makes the sucking sound indicating vast import, he is drawing cool air over raw nerves. That he doesn't scream out in pain is impressive. He merely looks anguished for a moment, then continues. The mannerism lends an air of sobriety to all his discourse, despite his generally broad (albeit sparsely populated) smile.

As Kocho-sensei begins his speech in earnest, I look out over the sea of heads in front of me. One or two of the students are looking up at Kocho-sensei with intense interest, but the other nine hundred and eighteen or so seem indifferent. Many are looking at the floor upon which they sit, obviously lost in their own thoughts; a few are whispering amongst themselves, and quite a few are fast asleep. Four weeks ago I would have been startled by the sheer number of students who have managed to doze off in the 30 seconds since they sat down, but no more. Sleep deprivation (and consequently public napping) seems to be a national epidemic. Students sleep at assemblies, and in class, and on the bus. Businessmen sleep on the monorail and on trains (and probably at their desks). In many schools, I'm told, there's a small back room where one can find teachers catching twenty winks. Certainly the most impressive snoozer of all, though, is the guy I pass on my way to work every day. This man has mastered what many Japanese would envy: the art of walking while in a deep sleep. He teeters from foot to foot, eyes shut, breathing deeply, slowly inching forward. To me, he is not a mere man; he is a symbol of Japan, Land of the Rising Too Soon. I would applaud him, but he needs his rest.

It's hard to believe how animated this lifeless bunch of students can be when they're not in an assembly (or, alas, in class). When I see them on the street, they are full of life, and only too happy to greet me with a boisterous "Hello Jyan!" followed by the mandatory giggle. Even students from other schools are generous with their energetic "Hellos" and "Good-byes." Whenever I see a group of high school girls on the horizon (easily distinguished by their in sailor outfit uniforms --designed by someone with either a great sense of humour or a horrible sense of fashion), I prepare myself for an onslaught of attention. At first, I felt like a movie star, but now I realize that I'm something quite different. I am the cartoon American from their English texts come to life. I am the guy who says such choice phrases as "Yes, Japanese work much harder than Americans," in response to his Japanese counterpart's "I hear that Americans leave work at five o'clock" (and the guy who never says, "Yeah, but we're pretty much expected to be awake at the office"). I am a magical apparition. I am a cartoon that walks and talks and lives in the real world. English here is like Latin was to us not so long ago. It is a language studied by all for purely academic reasons, but it is never actually spoken. I am as unlikely a spectre here as an ancient Roman would have been in a high school in Montreal forty years ago. I am a once in a lifetime opportunity to practice saying "Hello" to the real McCoy. I oblige willingly.

A particularly sharp intake of air startles me back to the gymnasium. I look up at Kocho-sensei—he is in the middle of a dramatic pause, and has a particularly pained expression on his face. I see a tear welling in his distant eye -- but maybe it's just my imagination. He suddenly lets forth an eloquent burst of sound which I can't begin to understand despite weeks of language lessons; his speech is far from finished. (Later I will learn that the hour-long speech today was about the importance of saying "ohayo gozaimasu" -- fifteen minutes might have covered it.) As I look to my right, I notice that Daredare-sensei is fast asleep, and I realize something. The Japanese definitely don't love ceremonies; it's just something they have been told about themselves repeatedly, and believe despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. There are many such beliefs here, like "Japanese work much harder than Americans." Such things are pounded into tired young minds over and over again, until they are accepted as a matter of faith. But, as I look around me, there can be no doubt: on the whole, with only few exceptions, the Japanese don't like long, boring speeches any more than anybody else does. Why would they? And, as I look at Kocho-sensei smiling through his pain, I realize something else: there can be little doubt that many Japanese love to give long, boring speeches. It is a lesson I'm certain I will not be allowed to forget soon.

Jean-François Chénier, Fall 1998

Back ]