Christmas season is upon us…at least it is here in Japan. Just last night they lit up the illuminations in Jiyugaoka
So, as an early X-mas present from your boy, and to get you in the Xmas spirit, Japan-Style, I’d like to give you guys a taste of what’s in store for you in my new book, “Loco in Yokohama”
(Makes a great Christmas Present, too, hint hint)
Here is an excerpt from “Loco in Yokohama”.
Chap 17: So, This Is Christmas . . . In Yokohama
The English songs teachers play at the beginning of each class are played on a boom box, and each student is presented with the song’s lyrics in English and Japanese and are expected to sing them, or at least attempt to. These songs are, without fail, songs they are already familiar with either through their use in popular Japanese films, TV shows, and commercials, or because the singer has garnered international appeal that has somehow managed to reach the relatively tiny demographic of early teens living in Yokohama, Japan. This song selection changes once a month, and by the month’s end, the students either know it or they’ll never know it.
Come Christmas time, however, I annually find myself imploring almost every Japanese teacher I work with to please, please, please diversify the Christmas song selection. The staples and standards in the schools, and indeed anywhere you go in Yokohama, are as follows:
Wham’s Last Christmas,
Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You,
Tatsuro Yamashita’s Christmas Eve
John Lennon’s So This Is Christmas (War Is Over).
Even when you’re out and about, anywhere you might find yourself—be it to a department store, an office building, a ride in an elevator, in some train stations, a stop for a bite to eat at a fast or slow food restaurant, even walking down the street sometimes, you name it—instrumental and Muzak versions, covers or the originals of one of these four tunes, are piped into your mental inner sanctum like some kind of musical Big Brother.
Throughout the year, I wage vigorous campaigns to alter the other staples—a seemingly random selection of songs, some Beatles songs, an Aerosmith song here, a Queen song there, and throw in We Are the World and a few others. However, I noticed during my second year that these same songs were being used again and again. They were not random at all.
I also noticed that there was resistance to my suggestions of alternatives so, pretty soon, I gave up. Resistance was indeed futile.
But, come Christmas, I amp it up a bit because, while the annual selection of staples is broad—by comparison—in the schools in which I’ve worked, the Christmas selection has been relegated to the above four tunes.
This year, I decided it was do-or-die. I was going to get them to switch or die trying—figuratively speaking, of course. I started planning my incursion just before Halloween. I sat down and looked over the two previous year’s failed attempts while asking myself why I failed.
I hadn’t noticed the redundancy until my second Christmas working at Mendokusai. Standing before a class, trying to fend off that throbbing urge to sob that I feel every time I hear that chorus of kids singing War Is Over again and again while John Lennon’s anti-war Christmas sermon gets translated in my brain as: “while you celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, your turkeys and presents, please remember the world is a fucked-up place where innocent babies are being napalm’d . . . by YOUR government, with YOUR tacit complicity!” I finally decided enough was enough. Lennon gets me every time. Sometimes I even tear up and I’m sure the kids have wondered more than once what was up with Loco-sensei. If you listen to that song the way Lennon intended it to be listened to, it’ll make you wanna take a stand for all the children of the world living in war zones, catch the next thing smoking to Afghanistan and sling bricks at UAV drones.
Looking out at my students I could tell that they were not experiencing anything vaguely similar. In “peacenik” Japan, Lennon’s message of peace on earth is essentially preaching to the choir in a language the choir can’t comprehend. Once translated, it transforms into an overstatement of the obvious clearly aimed at thick-headed warmongering Americans, Chinese, and North Koreans. So, here in Japan, though adored, this soul-wracking song has all the emotional impact of a jingle about flossing daily or washing your hands after using the bathroom.
At that time, I had no idea how fixed the teachers were on these selections. I mean, sometimes they’d even come to me for recommendations, so why wouldn’t I think change was possible?
One time, Kawaguchi-sensei specifically got at me because she too had felt that here was a great opportunity to introduce the kids to songs popular with kids in Loco-sensei’s sector of the globe.
But, me being me, I wound up outsmarting myself and fucked it up.
I mean, I’m no advocate of Christmas, anyway. I haven’t celebrated it in any traditional sense since I was about seven years old. That would be the year my mother, in her infinite wisdom, introduced Kwanzaa to our family. We never looked back. Well, that’s not completely true. We looked back, that is my siblings and I, but my family as a unit, never went back. We’d miss the toys and trees and lights and anticipation of Christmas morning, because instead of weaning us off of the yuletide crack pipe, my mother ended the tradition cold turkey, dragging us away kicking and screaming. One year, there was a Christmas tree, with lights, a star atop it and presents stacked beneath it, and the following year, there were seven candles—each representing some principle in an African language—a basket of fruit, and a bunch of crazy ass African songs sung by a group of miserable kids who longed for Kris Kringle and the joy the day would bring. The reflection in the mirror revealed that these miserable kids were me and my siblings.
“Loco-sensei, can you recommend a Christmas song that we can use for the class?” Kawaguchi-sensei had asked me that day.
I racked my brain for 30 seconds or so, thinking of a simple song the kids might get into. “How about The Little Drummer Boy? Do you know that one?”
“I think so. What’s it about again?”
“It’s about, er, it’s about a, well, a little boy who plays a drum, er, for Jesus. Yeah, on the day Jesus is born, he plays the drum.”
“Jesus Christ. You know, the reason for the season.” I’d remembered that line from some gospel song or other.
“Well, there are two Christmases you know. There’s the Santa Claus Christmas and the Jesus Christ Christmas, and they both have their own songs.”
I swore at the time that I was teaching her something, but actually, all I was doing was convincing her that it was simpler just to go with the safe staples like George Michael, John Lennon, and company, and avoid all this Western religious foolishness.
“Like for instance, you know Silent Night right?”
“That’s another song about Jesus,” I said. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable with all this religious talk. I usually avoid it, but for some reason, I felt it was important to point out the significance of the music to Kawaguchi-sensei.
“Now, songs like Jingle Bells, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Frosty The Snowman—these would be songs just about Santa Claus and enjoying the Christmas season, nothing about Jesus.”
“So, do you prefer secular, er, un-Christian songs or Christian songs?” I asked. “I like both kinds, personally, but I recommend the secular ones for the students.”
“Well, because they probably aren’t going to understand the Christian ones very well unless they understand Christianity, and I’d wager most of them aren’t Christians, right?”
“No, they aren’t.”
If regret could be personified, it would look like her at that moment.
“And I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a missionary.”
“A what? Listen, Loco-sensei, I think we’re going to just stick with something familiar.”
Yes, my attempts to change the music selection that year were an utter FAIL.
The year after that fiasco, I tried another strategy. If I couldn’t get them to change the play list on the strength of the songs I was suggesting, I thought maybe if I could somehow defame the staples or the artists that sang them, then maybe they’d be a little more open to my recommendations.
I hatched a scheme.
A brilliant one, I thought.
Since there’s no Thanksgiving here, after Halloween is about the time Yokohama starts getting into the Christmas frame of mind. Christmas commercial campaigns get going and decorations get unpacked and hung. So it was about that time that I began the practice of walking around the school whistling or singing Christmas tunes like The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York and Prince’s Another Lonely Christmas. Those were a couple of my favorites. Of course, I knew neither of these songs was appropriate for the kids, but nevertheless, I threw on my best mask of cheer and goodwill toward mankind, and waited for one of the English teachers to take the bait.
“What’s that you’re whistling?” Takahashi-sensei asked while we were discussing the December lesson plans.
“Oh, nothing. Only one of the greatest Christmas songs ever made, that’s all.”
“Really? I don’t know it. Who sang it?”
“Prince and the Revolution.”
“Oh, I know Purple Rain. He’s great!”
I’m a die-hard “sleep in the rain outside Madison Square Garden for concert tickets” Prince fan so when I encounter these “he hasn’t really done much since Purple Rain” people, my first instinct is to shove my iPod headphones into their ear drums and blast them with some Sign of the Times, Emancipation, or any of a number of other effin’ brilliant albums he’s done since then that these Purple Rain fans missed. It seldom works, though. They’re a hard-hearted lot usually.
But, I maintained a smile and said, “It was a B-side of a Purple Rain single.”
Takahashi-sensei was all of 24. She wouldn’t know nothing about B-sides or cassette tapes. Hell, she might not have even known what a Walkman was if she weren’t Japanese.
“Long story . . . anyway, it’s great!”
“What’s it about?” she asked enthusiastically. “Maybe we can use it in class this Christmas.”
“Well,” and this is where I started my maneuvering. “Ummm, well, it’s about a guy who misses his girlfriend who died on Christmas day.”
“Oh, that’s so sad.”
“It is, isn’t it?” I said, shaking my head with mock grief. “Every Christmas, he drinks their favorite drink, banana daiquiris, and cries and wishes she were, um, next to him intimately and—”
“Eeeee, is it, er, is it sexual?”
“Well, not really, I mean, not explicitly. But, a little. I mean, it’s Prince. You’re a Purple Rain fan. You know how he is. What do you expect?”
“Hmmm. Well, I don’t think a sexual song is appropriate. I mean, for the students—”
“Well, what do you think Last Christmas is about?”
“Eeeee? It’s about Christmas, deshou?”
“Yeah, kinda. I mean, it’s about a guy who had a Christmas one-night stand with his gay lover who doesn’t even remember him a year later. I mean, if that’s appropriate, I don’t see why—”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, George Michael is gay so he isn’t singing about a one-night stand with a woman, that’s for sure.”
“I understand, though. I mean, he is an artist—a great one, at that—and a poet, to be sure. And I have nothing against gay men, but c’mon,” I said. And then sang: “A man undercover but you tore me apart.”
She looked at me like I’d just shown her photos of the principal and the VP in the sixty-nine position in the principal’s office.
“Not very subtle, is he?”
Apparently I’d stumped her. But, come December, she pretended our conversation had never happened and continued to play the song and had the kids sing the lyrics. However, whenever the song reached the part when George Michael sang about being undercover and being torn apart, she’d glance at me and puff her cheeks.
I tried the same thing with Kawaguchi-sensei, who favored Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You. We sat down to the formality of discussing what song we should use, though we both knew she had already made up her mind 80%.
“How about Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song,” I suggested, going through the motions.
She screwed up her face into a mask of confusion.
“Nat-to Kin-gu Co-ru? Shirimasen (I don’t know him).”
“He’s very famous, and it’s a very famous song. One of my favorites.”
“Uh-huh. Is it about, um, Kuristo?”
“Who? Jesus? No! It’s about, well, it’s not about anything really. It’s just a Christmas song about, you know, Christmasy things—chestnuts roasting on open fires and such.”
I whipped out my iPod.
“Here, take a listen,” I said handing her the headphones.
“Ah sooo! Shitteru (I know it)!”
“It’s very famous,” I reiterated, and braced myself. I knew the routine.
“But the students don’t know it, I bet.”
“Well, then, let’s teach them something new,” I said, grinning. “They might get a kick out of it.”
“Sou da ne, demo saaaa . . . (that’s true, but . . . ),” and she made a face of helplessness that pretty much sighed “it’s in Buddha’s hands” which signaled the end of the meeting, at least for me it did.
I had planned to get into Mariah’s mental meltdown and purported drug use at the time, but I’d felt pretty petty suddenly. So I let it go and prepared myself for another season of Mariah’s high frequency ululations that only dogs or pre-teen girls should be capable of accomplishing.
My scheme had failed.
The following year, however, I came up with another master plan! And I wouldn’t have to talk about John Lennon’s tripping the light fantastic on acid or anything like that. The answer was simplicity itself and, like most of the answers to life’s most puzzling questions, it was right in front of my face the whole time.
That following April would mark the first graduation where I’d known the students from the time they nervously and excitedly crossed the threshold of the school for the first time until they’d tearfully and optimistically crossed it for the last time. And, man, oh, man, was I a wreck that day watching this group go. It’s one of the hardest and yet most fulfilling parts of being a teacher. I mean, we’d basically grown up together—I as a professional educator in a foreign country and they as blossoming young adults. Together we navigated and traversed the academic challenges and social perils of junior high school life and come through it all scathed but the better for it—at least we’d like to think so. We survived.
Within that class there were several students with whom I had forged special bonds. One student, named Baba-kun, never ceased to surprise me. In fact, I think he got off on it. He was the progeny of what could best be described as a human music library. His father, who I’d finally got to meet at the graduation ceremony, was something like my father. My dear old dad, may he rest in peace, was a truck driver in his head, but a Jazz guitarist in his heart. He had a music library of vinyl LPs—mostly jazz, R&B, classic soul and funk—that would make any collector drool.
When he and my mother separated, perhaps one of their biggest battles was over his treasure. ‘Keep the kids, but give me my records please!’ They settled on half or so for each of them; he took off with most of the jazz and left her with the other genres. But, half was a lot of music. What he couldn’t part with, I would later learn, he’d recorded onto giant reel-to-reel tapes that were about as big as movie reels. A hundred of them could probably fit on your average iPod. His collection was my introduction to music, and I tried to listen to everything he had, and studied the album covers and liner notes, as well. When I was a kid, I could tell you who the Ohio Players dedicated I Want To Be Free to.
Baba-kun was a Japanese version of me—a virtual walking encyclopedia of, shockingly, the same music I grew up on. He’d see me in the hallways, run up to me singing—in hardly comprehensible katakana English, of course—Games People Play, a Spinners hit from the early 70′s, screaming “Shitteiru, shitteiru (do you know it, do you know it)?”
Back in his first year, I became aware of his vast musical knowledge. He knew the songs, the artists, the bands, the name of the band members, and even some of them by the instruments they played.
He was a senior at this time and I was really going to miss him. He’d given me so much and he will never know; for example, he’ll never know how many times I walked into the school after a particularly rough train ride, just seething with animosity for all things Japanese, having revoked, in my heart, their membership card to the society of decent human beings, relegating them to a status that previously had only been obtainable by rapists, child molesters, corporate polluters, Nazis and the KKK. Then, I’d run into him in the hall with his “shitteiru shitteiru” song of the day, which would be something like Hot Fun In the Summertime by Sly and the Family Stone or Try a Little Tenderness by Otis Redding, and all would be forgiven, at least for the time being.
“What Christmas songs do you like?” I asked him in early November.
“Well, my favorite is The Jackson Five’s Give Love On Christmas Day.”
I stood there astonished, as usual. This was a song from the Christmas album I loved most as a child.
“Do your classmates know it?”
“I don’t think so. It’s my mother’s favorite. She loves Michael Jackson.”
“You should tell them about it.”
“Why?” Sharp kid, he smelled what Loco was cooking.
“We can sing it in class, maybe.”
“You want me to suggest it to Kawaguchi-sensei?”
“Maybe. If your friends like it, it might be fun.”
And, Baba-kun did just that. He brought in a Mini-Disc of the song and played it for all the class and, as a unit, they petitioned Kawaguchi-sensei.
Almost too simple.
We sang the song and the kids seemed to get off on it. Some were even doing the backups in baritone like Michael’s brothers.
Takahashi-sensei, however, was not so simple. She had the first-year students, those little monsters, and they were not inclined to even sit down during class, let alone sing a song.
I had to be a little more devious.
I had prepared everything for an alternative song, The Jackson Five’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. I presented my materials to Takahashi, but she’d already prepared everything for yet another year of Wham—the same material she’d used the previous year and which she had inherited from Kawaguchi, no doubt.
The day we were to introduce the new song, though, there was a problem. The CD wouldn’t play for some strange reason. And, unfortunately, she didn’t have a back up. She was panicked. This was a solid 15-20 minutes of the day’s lesson plan.
“Let’s use mine. I already have all the materials ready. They’re on my desk.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea,” she said, considering the alternative. I ran to the office, grabbed my CD and lyrics handouts with the Japanese translations off of my desk, all copied and ready to distribute, and returned to the class.
While I was in the office, she’d explained to the class that we were going to learn a different song.
Maybe it was Michael Jackson’s childish yet soulful voice that appealed to them. I don’t know. But, they loved the song.
Even Matsui-kun sang.
It never occurred to Takahashi-sensei that her CD could have been sabotaged. Such things are beyond conceivable here. However, halfway thorough the song she slid up beside me to tell me something, and I thought maybe somehow she’d gotten wise.
I relaxed and almost laughed when she asked, “how do you know George Michael is gay?”
Hope you enjoyed this excerpt.
Happy Holidays from Loco in Yokohama!
PPS: Check me out being interviewed LIVE tonight at 10pm on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/eyobe1