Category Archives: Japan

Two lives, ended


The lives of two men ended this week. Both were lives cut short, and there is not a lot of information available about either death, but there the similarities end.

On Thursday morning, a man who had been convicted in 2008 of murdering three members of his family, was hanged at Osaka detention centre. His name was Masanori Kawasaki, he was 68, and he was the first person to be executed this year, but the ninth since Mr. Abe became Prime Minister two and a half years ago.

According to Amnesty International, there are 128 people on death row in Japan. The Justice Minister authorises executions but the person awaiting execution (the vast majority men but several women) are not told the date in advance; one morning guards will come to their cell and they will be escorted to the death chamber where they will be hanged. Until that moment they don’t know when it will be; consequently, every day could be their last. Amnesty International has criticised Japan not only for having the death penalty, but also for the secretive manner in which it is carried out.

This afternoon, another Japanese man, according to sketchy reports possibly also in his sixties, killed himself in Shinjuku. While there is little information available, it appears he climbed onto a bridge at Shinjuku station, and sat for an hour, using a microphone to speak about his opposition to the constitutional changes Mr. Abe’s government wants to make, and could make this week. When police moved in to try to climb up to him, he poured something over his head and set himself alight. The fire was extinguished but no information is available about him, though early reports said he had died.

Two Japanese men, their lives very different, their deaths news. What is the value of a life? How public should a death be? If someone murders another, is executed for their crime,  is their execution news? Can we say by their terrible, even evil act, they have forfeited the right to humane treatment? If someone climbs onto a bridge in the middle of Tokyo, uses a microphone to broadcast his views, and then self-immolates, should those pictures be on the news? Can we assume that by such a public act he expected that?

Two lives have ended, violently. This evening I feel weighed down by the news, distressed by such a horrifying, public act. Sad to live in a country that still enforces the death penalty. Trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. I had hoped that by writing this I would somehow make peace with what I have read, but several hundred words later, I am still feeling that by these two deaths we are all diminished.

Hakone backwards


I love to have friends visit, and showing people around is one of my favourite things. Even after over twenty years in Japan I still enjoy being a tourist and having a visitor is the perfect excuse. In April I had a houseguest who used to live in Japan and still comes back to visit. We decided to spend a day in Hakone.

The usually circuit of Hakone, I suppose, is the Romancecar down from Shinjuku to Hakone, then a trip up through Gora to Owakudani, down to and across Lake Ashi and then the bus back to Hakone. The main problem with that is, it’s what everyone else does, and so the childish fun to be had on a succession of forms of transport is interspersed with tedious queues.

What if you visited Hakone . . . backwards?

While the Romancecar is the obvious route down from Tokyo, if you’re not starting from the Shinjuku area then it’s not the cheapest or the fastest.

Plan B: start from Shinagawa. The Shonan Shinjuku line stops at Shinagawa, takes about 80 minutes, and costs ¥1320. Don’t even think of going all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto. Take the train to Odawara, then buy a Hakone Freepass (¥4,000) and start from there. Once you have your Freepass you don’t have to pay for anything else.


Various Landscapes Along The Way!

Take the bus from stop #3 outside the station. It takes about an hour to Hakonemachi. When the bus stops at Hakone-Yumoto there will be crowds of tourists waiting to get on. From your seat on the bus you’ll see their faces fall as they realise they’ll have to wait for the next bus, or the next one, while you are already on your speedy way. The bus ride is quite scenic; it winds up the mountainside and past the Fujiya Hotel; you’ll be back here in a couple of hours for afternoon tea.

When you get off at Hakonemachi you’ll see Lake Ashi in front of you, with your first exciting mode of transport:


Well, what were you expecting? Isn’t this the best way to start your adventure in earnest? A pirate ship seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Breathtaking View From The Ship!

The trip across the lake can be a little chilly, and doesn’t take long at all, but you can stand on the deck, look at the views and if you’re lucky get your first good views of Mount Fuji. Of course, that depends on the season, and in the summer months it is often hazy and you won’t know there’s a huge mountain right there in front of you. From late autumn through to spring you should be luckier. You will also see Hakone Jinja just after you set off.


Sightseeing From Midair!

At the other end of the lake is Togendai, where you disembark and walk up into the terminus building for what Hakone calls a ropeway, but I would call a cable car.


From the capsules (which are quite large) you can get some wonderful views of Mount Fuji. I also have fond memories of the time a cable car coming in the opposite direction was full of sumo rikishi in yukata. Anyway, this is the kind of view you get (and this was on a fairly hazy day):


The cable car continues to Owakudani (where you can get out and wander around among sulphurous fumes if the fancy takes you). Otherwise you get on the next leg of the ropeway to Sounzan.


Even if you don’t want to wander about you have to get out of the cable car, and walk through the building to the next leg of the journey.


You may see long lines of people waiting to travel in the opposite direction. From here the ropeway goes down the other side of the mountain to Sounzan and on the way you’ll catch your last views of Mount Fuji.

Straight Ahead We Go!

Tired of the ropeway? Wanting a change of transport? Next up is the funicular railway, or, apparently, the cable car.

hakonefunicularWhen it arrives at Sounzan hordes of people disembark from the crowded train; on the way down there is a lot more space, and views of cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, other blossoms or autumn colours, depending on when you go. This is a short trip, and when you get off it is only a few metres from the platform through to the platform for the train which goes all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto.

Down The Mountain We Go!

hakonetrainWhile this is the most conventional of all the modes of transport so far, it is still only a small, clanking train, a lot like the Enoden line in Kamakura. From here you can go straight down to the end of the line, but I recommend a stop in Miyanoshita, and a visit to the Fujiya Hotel, built in 1891 and one-time holiday destination of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

fujiya4                  fujiya2

Now, before you go to the Fujiya, I don’t want you to get your hopes up and expect anything too luxurious. I have stayed there and also popped in for afternoon tea, and I would describe it as faded glory. The service and food are all right, but really it’s just a lovely place to break your journey. A piece of history. A nice cup of tea and some cinnamon toast while you look out at the landscaped garden and watch some frozen bride being directed through a succession of photos posed against the foliage. If all that doesn’t tempt you, then maybe the traffic cones will:


From the Fujiya, return to Miyanoshita station and take the train down to Hakone-Yumoto. From there transfer onto the local train and return to Odawara.


From Odawara it’s easy to take a train back to Tokyo, and you have visited Hakone backwards! The same lovely views, same variety of transport, but without all the waiting in line! Now, wasn’t that worth it?



Diligently, pedantically, reluctantly

New CrownWhen I first lived in China, I remember often meeting people who spoke impressively fluent English. On a train, walking down a street, at an ‘English Corner’ where people went to practise their English together, I met people who had studied for years, often on their own, who were keen to speak English and were eager to share opinions. I heard people speak with enthusiasm about Voice of America radio programmes, and was sometimes perplexed to be asked to speak ‘Special English’, which was VOA’s slowed-down version of the language for students of English. I remember on at least one occasion meeting someone who told me I was the first native speaker they had spoken to. And yet their English was very good; fluent, confident and accurate.

Then I came to Japan, and was perplexed to find how little English was spoken here, despite the many years of English classes in junior and senior high school which everyone receives. I began my English-teaching career in Japan at a language school, teaching little kids the name of every animal under the sun, a range of shouty toddler verbs (point! touch! run!) and not much grammatical glue to hold everything together. On the days when I wasn’t teaching little kids, I taught English to adults. They seemed to enjoy the classes but it was more a hobby, a social activity than an intellectual endeavour. It was fun, it was a lovely introduction to Japan, but it wasn’t like any approach to language study that I had ever encountered before.

After two years at the language school, my next job was at a private high school, and for the last twenty years that is the teaching environment I have found myself in. It is something I know well, but I also know the limitations and the frustrations. The challenges of teaching English in Japan have been written about many times, the apparently never-ending supply of weird and wacky English often posted online. I do it myself.  So it was with some sighing and eye-rolling that I approached an article the Japan Times published several weeks ago, titled, ‘English fluency hopes rest on an educational overhaul’. That old chestnut.

At the heart of the discussion are always the questions, why is the standard of English so low in general, when students spend so much time studying English? Why can’t Japanese people speak better English? And what’s up with all the weird stuff? People unfamiliar with the Japanese education system make the mistake of assuming that English is studied as a language, as a form of communication, that the goal in learning this language must be to be able to express yourself and communicate effectively. Those people are wrong.

The study of English in Japanese schools has always been primarily with one specific goal; to be able to pass entrance exams and enter university. All teaching methods, all textbooks are influenced by this one aim. All the private universities set their own exams, but for the national universities there is the Centre Test, a weekend-long marathon of tests administered around the middle of January and taken by all students hoping to enter a public university. The English component of the entrance exams, both private and the Centre Test, is heavily influenced by TOEFL and TOEIC, with lots of multiple choice questions. There is very little requirement to manipulate the language, and unless you are interviewing to major in English you probably won’t have to speak English either.

To do well in these exams, you need to study English grammar to a very high level, and learn a lot of very long words. In the teaching of this grammar, I have heard Japanese colleagues breaking down sentences into types, in a way I am unfamiliar with. It is rather like the classification of species. There are books of very long words, archaic and ridiculously formal, which must be memorised, but the lists are so random I wonder how anyone focuses. The idea of learning anything by lexical set is an alien concept.

This brings me to another aspect of the Japanese education system which emphasises a skill which I remember being actively discouraged from at school: memorisation. Of course, at school I had to study vocabulary, learn grammar rules, but memorisation, the rote learning of something simply to be able to regurgitate it exactly, that was not part of my education. It is a skill that Japanese students need to develop, and the amount of information they assimilate in this way is impressive. Somewhere in junior high school all students memorise all the countries in Africa. For a test. After the test they forget it again. The same goes for vocabulary tests. Memorise it, regurgitate it, next.

One method that Japanese English teachers use to encourage students to develop this skill is the memorising of chunks of English text. This has the unfortunate consequence of having the students focus on the memorising to the exclusion of all else, including pronunciation, which becomes garbled. But the student passes the ‘speaking test’ (which is really no such thing) and the idea that pronunciation is not so important is somehow planted in their minds. Another unintended consequence of this studying to such a high level, is that students are reluctant to speak because they feel unable to manipulate such complicated language, when the reality is, no one uses language at that level unless writing a formal letter or making a speech.

In all this, the teachers are trapped as much as the students. They teach from textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省 Monbu-kagaku-shō), also known as MEXT, or Monka-shō, the Ministry formally known as Monbushō. While they seem to have a lot of time allotted for English classes, the amount of material they are expected to cover means that there is no time to review previous lessons, there is just one headlong dash through grammar and vocabulary at dizzying speed. It produces pressure and stress and a lot of people who really don’t like English. But it’s a means to an end, and that end is a university career that can affect the rest of your life.

Despite all this pressure, there are students who are enthusiastic about English. Travel and technology have made English more accessible, relevant and interesting. I have known many students who love English, who enjoy the challenge of communication, who somehow manage to juggle the demands of the academic study of English with their determination to speak, to write and to be themselves in another language.

Although the current state of English in Japan is largely due to the requirements of the educational system, I do wonder about these pronouncements that Japan is going to improve the overall level of English. I wonder for several reasons:

While the stated aim is to improve English ability, the approach can be haphazard. Having declared that children in elementary schools would begin learning English, elementary school teachers were required to start teaching – despite the fact that they are not trained teachers of English, often don’t speak English, and are just a step or two ahead of their students in what the lessons cover. More animals, the fruit and vegetables of the world and probably some verbs for good measure. Oh, and some greetings, such as ‘How are you?’ – ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ Everyone is always fine.

These regular articles about Japan needing to improve the level of English spoken by its people raise questions about Japan and where it sees itself on the international stage. Why do successive governments make these pronouncements? If they want to really change the system, they need to start with the university entrance exams. Nothing changes without them. Is English the language Japan needs? China is a near neighbour, as is South Korea. Why are those languages not taught more?  What is Japan going to do if it achieves its improved English? Just as in the UK, where very few public figures are ever heard speaking another language (though Tony Blair did like to pontificate in French sometimes), Japanese people don’t have many role models when it comes to just having a go and trying to communicate. I sometimes wonder if talking about it and tinkering with the system is just a way of making it seem like something is being done.