Painting the sun red

Life in Japan - and a few mysteries solved
(Last day of June, 2001)

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a local teacher I know - I'll call her Mrs T, her real initial - if I would go along and talk to the children in her class about something. It wasn't immediately clear quite what this would entail, but it turned out to be a "morals" lesson, with the theme of accepting that different people in different cultures see some things differently. It went OK: the principal topics she touched on were the colour children make the sun in paintings, and what people see in the moon. The "answers" are, of course, that in gaikoku the sun is painted yellow, and there's a man in the moon, but in Japan the sun is painted red, and the inhabitant of the moon is a rabbit beating out the glutinous mochi rice. Mrs T had assembled an impressive collection of books featuring children's art, from Europe, America, and Africa, and it did seem to be the case that in them children consistently painted the sun yellow, whereas (and I have to confess that I had not realised this before) in Japan children consistently paint it red. (So that's why the Japanese flag is a red circle!) I did notice that there was a painting from Norway in which the doubtless watery sun was so pale as not to count as yellow, but otherwise the match was perfect. I who am always suspicious of assumptions that behaviour X is standard in Japan, and Y everywhere else (that's what gaikoku means), was left to nurse these doubts privately.

I should mention one unusual feature of this lesson was that all the other teachers came and sat in on it, which fazed me slightly at first. But apparently this is something standard that happens occasionally. Oh, and I was actually slightly surprised when they all disappeared, including Mrs T, and left me on my own with a class of forty children, to field miscellaneous questions about Britain. Not quite on my own: for not particularly clear reasons, Keiko had been invited to come along as well, though she basically sat at the back. Afterwards we were thanked most profusely by the Head Teacher (who I'll call HT) and went on our way with a box of senbei rice crackers as a present.


Fast forward to last Wednesday. A telephone call from Mrs T: another request - could I talk some more about something. A sort of continuation, though I was unable to determine quite who the attendees would be. Well, I'm not really an enthusiastic public speaker, but it was plain this was an earnest request. And when was this meeting? "Next Saturday." (!) Suddenly I found myself talking to HT again - "Really would be exceptionally grateful ... extraordinarily interesting lesson with the children the other day." I found myself in a position where I couldn't quite see how to refuse. Overall, the explanation of requirements was not the most lucid, but I think 40 minutes was mentioned, and it was suggested that perhaps this could be a question and answer session rather than a formal talk.

Then a slight increase in the uncertainty levels. The day before, another phone call. Mrs T had assembled another collection of books about Britain, there was some theme I couldn't quite understand about herbs. And there was to be a buffet after this meeting. And there was some sort of charge for this buffet, and would that be all right. And something about inviting other people who might come - in particular another teacher friend I'll call Mrs K, who might be interested in hearing me talking. The grapevine shortly reported that Mrs K couldn't really escape, since she happened to be in the vicinity at just that time, but she reported that it was a meeting associated with JOCV ("Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers", rather akin to the American Peace Corps), though I thought I had heard differently. From Mrs K we were also apprised of an association between this buffet and the sum of 5000 yen, and given an indication that she had no intention of staying for it. Well, I don't really mind talking to people, if they want to listen, but I normally draw the line at being out of pocket over it. In more economically happy times, 5000 yen in an envelope would be about the minimum "Thank you note" for something like this.

As it happened there was (really!) a distant family funeral, and fearful of possible financial ruin, Keiko took the opportunity not to come this time, despite an invitation somewhere along the way. I frankly decided not to spend any time trying to prepare a talk, because for a start I was still totally unclear what it ought to be about, and anyway, if you get too good at this sort of thing you get asked more often.

So the time came, I met Mrs T at her school, and followed her to the hotel where the event was to be held. Before we went in, she started shuffling around in the back of the car, selecting books from a large collection in several carrier bags. Would four be enough? Since I had no clear idea what (who?) was going to do with these books, and had seen none of them before, I found it hard to know how to respond. I did grab a photo collection book entitled (in Japanese) "Britain's countryside" which appeared to be mostly pictures of town buildings; from past experience that sort of thing can be useful. With Mrs T eventually carrying an enormous bagful of books, we went up to the meeting room, where there were about ten people gathered, including HT, who was obviously in some official role. I received a piece of paper with a list of the proceedings, and was able to study it as things got under way.

I had heard aright: this was not JOCV, it was (I translate) the local branch of the prefectural group for study of the state of education overseas. Part 1 (already started) was the annual general meeting (25 minutes), then 55 minutes were marked for Part 2, a "study session". I'll reproduce the exact title given:

Japanese title

Here's my first stab at a translation (emphasis added to "T"):

"Gaikoku culture and Japanese culture" <through the experience of Guest T.> Mr. Chandler

As always, if there is anything in a Japanese document which utterly defeats me, it's something in Roman letters. Here I could read all the words, but the "T" just baffled me. Mrs T was sitting next to me, and it was going to be questions and answers: perhaps the questions would somehow be through her? (Though "Guest T" would hardly be an ordinary way to refer to her.) While I pondered just what was going to happen at 25 past two, she was still sorting out books. One open in front of me looked rather like some children's historical story from America: Roora - ah, Laura - something - Wilder? Author of the ah, "little house on the prairie" books? Rang a distant bell, and in a moment of panic I imagined perhaps I would be asked about this Laura. Well, can't answer what you don't know. The mechanical mumblings of the AGM dragged on, and though not paying much attention, I gathered the already evident - that it was difficult to persuade many members to come to the meeting. Then just as the move to Part 2 was announced, everyone seemed to disappear to the toilet. So Mrs T and I went up to the front. Suddenly she started giving me a sort of synopsis: "About visiting the school; say what you said on the phone about how uncomplicated children's questions are. Your impressions of visiting the school..." Oh, ah, I thought, this sounds like I'm actually just going to give a talk. Lo and behold, within a few minutes everyone had reappeared, there was a slight formality, and I was on!

So I gave a little self-introduction. I have a small repertoire of standard things to say - how awkward it is to answer the question "How long have you been in Japan?" because it depends whether you mean "This time", "Cumulative total stay", or "Years since first arrival." Then I talked about visiting the school, how uncomplicated children's questions are, things like that. The point is, of course that children ask questions free of preconception, like "What do you eat?" Adults tend to say things like "Uh, yes, I suppose in gaikoku it's bread, isn't it, the shushoku (staple)." And adults often don't demonstrate the patience needed to listen to a five minute disquisition on how a British person doesn't have the concept of a "staple" in the same way as in Japan. Just as I was going on about potatoes, I spied Mrs K sliding into the back of the room.

Then this business about painting the sun red. It seems obvious to me that the colour of the sun in paintings is culturally determined, because the empirical characteristic of looking at the sun is that it makes your eyes hurt, but there is no "sunbeam" coloured crayon (which would dazzle if applied thickly enough). Therefore, culture has to supply a conventional (but vaguely appropriate) colour, which will be passed on from generation to generation. I tried to explain this, perhaps not very skillfully, but don't know whether this is a generally accepted idea. I did mention how easily the children in Mrs T's class appeared to accept the idea of people in another country using a different colour, and came up with perceptively simple ideas why - "Because yellow is a bright colour." But I was troubled by the implication that Japan and nowhere else used red. Somehow it seemed plausible that further from the equator the colour of the sun might tend to be paler, so I wondered whether even closer to the equator, for example in the Philippines, children painted it red, and I asked if anyone knew. Mrs K stood up: "My former husband is from Thailand. I can report that children in Thailand paint the sun red." Ahh!! Exactly as predicted! (And this surely explains another long-term mystery: why the equator is called "red road" in Chinese.)

Seeing no clock, I took off my watch, sort of paused, and invited questions. We did the difference between the British and American names for the last letter of the alphabet, and somehow I worked in a bit about US Letter size being called "International size" at a friend's university in Tokyo. It's a curious observation, but there is an odd tendency in Japan for "International" to mean simply "America", yet equally curious that in America it can often mean "anywhere other than America."

I was also so bold as to criticise the title (at least the part I understood), and bemoan the use of the gaikoku label to reinforce the prejudice of the binary division of the world. While some cultures are plainly different, some are more different than others, and some are more related than others. In particular, easily the culturally closest country to Japan must surely be (no geographical surprise!) Korea. At least on the satellite channel there is easy access to news programmes from all over: just turn the sound down on the Korean news, and you can so easily imagine it being Japan. People's clothes, mannerisms, the newsreader style, cityscapes, home scenes, the city offices, everything is just so familiar looking. I commented on this, and asked, had everyone seen bits of Korean news? Silence. I have always thought that one of the reasons English language teaching in Japan is so beset with problems is that it's like starting native English speakers off with Arabic, Thai, or indeed Japanese, as their first foreign language. I think that if the first three years of English teaching were replaced by one year learning Korean (or Chinese, actually, for slightly different reasons), then two years of English, the end result would be more English learnt. Yet there is a country which starts off from a language at least as remote from English as Japanese, but has apparently achieved distinctly greater success, and this of course is Korea. And does this utterly obvious destination feature in the investigations of the people who are supposed to be comparing the state of education overseas? I think not.

Then it was eighteen minutes past three, I wound up somehow, and was thanked with a little clatter of applause. I really don't know quite how my talk went down, but my impression was that HT's words were genuine: "So much more interesting than usual - Someone who has been abroad would pass round photos, and we would look at them." He did also say something about "more questions", and I almost said something, but didn't. At about this point there was a memorable vignette. Mrs K (who is good at this sort of thing) beetled out of the room so fast as to be near invisible (reminding me of the upcoming cash uncertainty); Mrs T followed in hot pursuit, an entirely different mode of locomotion, with limbs flailing in all directions. Seems not to have been a confrontation, just making sure Mrs K had signed the attendees list.

So I followed HT out of the room to the area by the lift, where he presented me with another big box of rice crackers. Uh oh, I thought, where will I put these while I'm buffeting? Just then, a lady emerged from the lift with a huge plate of salmon, and I also became aware of quite how dry my throat was (I'd been given no water). Anyway, surely HT could hardly demand 5000 yen now? Or? Aah? Am I getting any salmon? Perhaps I'm leaving? Mrs T reappeared, and HT pressed the lift button: "Most grateful, do hope ... future occasion ... your help..." Bowing and the usual stuff, and I'm off home! That was it.

I got home, dying for a cup of tea, and had to unwind by telling the whole story to Keiko. We sat down and looked at the title of the "study session" again. This "guest T.", couldn't it be "guest teacher"? Finally the penny dropped: it referred to my visit to the school. I was relating my experience of being a guest teacher. Wow!