Moongazing

Mariko Kinoshita, a Japanese artist, is highly culturally adaptable unlike many Japanese who still harbour suspicions about foreigners. This is to be expected when we consider that the whole country was closed to all foreign influence for a period of over 250 years between 1603 and 1868. 

But this work unashamedly evokes the very essence of Japan. Gazing at the moon through the pale fish of cherry blossom (sakura) is essential for the Japanese spirit. The kimono and white mask of a beautiful silent woman create the sense of mystery the world is so intrigued by.

In Japan, fully-grown adults can be seen weeping at the sight of sakura at its peak. We watch the national news several times a day to find the exact peak for particular locations and then rush to stand close and gaze by moonlight.  In fact, the first national forecast has been released today so people are already planning.

Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto is the moon god in the Shinto religion and in Japanese mythology.  This deity is male unlike in ancient myths of Greece or Rome, and its creator also male. Tsukuyomi was the second of the ‘three noble children’ born when Izangi-no-Mikoto, the god who created the first land of the Japanese archipelago.  It is said that he was born from Izangi’s right eye. After climbing a celestial ladder, Tsukuyomi lived in the heavens with his sister Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who also became his wife. Japanese myths are primitive and not limited by worldly classifications. The very origins of Japan are fantastical in a very eastern way which fascinates westerners.

I love Kinoshita’s painting and feel honoured to be helping this artist edge into the wide world. It is easy to see her unconscious heritage in the stillness and silent joy.

                                    Images courtesy of Mariko Kinoshita and Linden Thorp

 

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Calling: to the white marble of Montpellier

Cover Picture

Calling

Sipping Rhone wine under the flounces

of the massive Lime-flower tree

aroma and scent trouble me.

The wine at its best, the flowers at their peak,

and yet my habitual absorption in

the sensory is being tugged at,

its tension overstretched like used muslin,

its once overwhelming newness wearing thin.

The perfection of sky balanced on untouched forests

almost eludes me at this time,

but the gist of your abstract words has already

dropped in the fine covering of flowers at my feet.

For someone is calling me from

the white marble of Montpellier.

A dream in our shuttered salon, the logs in the stove

like wands of alpine witnesses,

compels me to descend our mountain hairpins

on the weekly bus alive with grape-pickers,

my suitcases slotted between their stained baskets,

to the other North African haven of Montpellier. .

You demand why and who and how I must go down from

this ultimate haven of Cathars, catholics, shepherds,

but the gist of your question disappears

in the evening sizzle of biftek buried

in an armful of bay leaves and vine twigs.

For someone is calling me from

the vivid painted timbers of Montpellier.

The fierce row on the boards at bedtime,

your coarse tears extinguishing the candles

and unbalancing the stable slab of incense,

propel me out of your faithless fleshy cloisters.

You hurl bells, burn sutras in your ashtray,

demand and denounce my path to this ‘borrowed’ deity,

making last-ditch interrogations under a strong light.

But the gist of your spite is sucked

into the Lama’s Himalayan eyes,

dredged over the ample of his saffron robes,

as he welcomes me to the wooden temple in an orchard,

its specifications exact, my mission specific.

He has been waiting with his butter lamps and words.

‘‘You heard my calling. I knew you would come soon.’’

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Japan Teacher Project 22nd June, 2014 : Becoming an English Baby.

listening baby

One of the most difficult skills to acquire among the 4 major skills of language learning (reading, writing, speaking and listening) is Listening. If the learner is not living in the country of the target language, then it is exceptional that language skills improve. This is simply because the learner rarely hears the target language. There is such a contrast with how the Mother Tongue is acquired in this situation.

It is therefore vital that any students in Japan who are serious about improving their English to such a level that they can study abroad or consider using English in their future jobs, focus on listening during each day. My students are encouraged to create an English Environment which contains all-English landscapes and soundscapes, and visit it for at least 30 minutes every day. During their 15 week courses, the principal homework is Listening with tests every 3 weeks in class. It works in the following way.

At the beginning of the semester I explain to them in simple terms how babies acquire their mother language in general, and how they themselves acquired Japanese in particular. As Japanese education is based on Confucian ideals in which the learner sits back and allows knowledge to flow to them from their revered sensei or teacher, students often seem passive in institutions of formal learning by European standards. So, they find it interesting and inspiring that they did not need a revered teacher to learn their own language in infancy. They think deeply about the following. The fact that they spent the first 18 months or so of their lives listening to their parents and family members, storing up the sounds of Japanese even though their understanding was limited and primitive. They did not need a classroom or an erudite teacher to become quite proficient in Japanese communication skills by the age of 3 or 4. A baby spends several years listening and imitating the sounds it hears before it attempts to speak in coherent patterns.

So, if they want to truly improve English as a Foreign Language whilst spending the majority of their time listening and responding to Japanese, they have to become an English baby by developing a good listening habit every day to English. To promote this idea I assign them listening homework for each week between once-a-week lessons. They download sound files via the internet, which are either dialogues between students studying English, or short lectures given by me on the topic of learning English. Their weekly assignment is to listen many times to the sound files (about 5 minutes of natural native-speaker speech) for that week, and to complete 50 questions in written homework based on it without seeing the script.

The homework sheet is laid out to promote their preparation of unknown items of vocabulary, and they are requested to study it before listening to the sound file. This will prepare them for the words which may be new to them they will hear, and they are encouraged not to translate them into Japanese, but to use an English/English Learners’ dictionary of intermediate level and copy down the Simple English meaning into their vocabulary book or list. This is one way of practicing English, which they get very little opportunity to do in Japan. There is some chance that what meanings they copy and the way they classify their vocabulary will be retained.

They then listen to 3 sound files in this way and start to prepare for the listening test to be done in class. A few days before their test I send them the answers to the set of homeworks by email, they check them, and try to work out why they made mistakes. I encourage reviewing of homework and tests, which is often something alien to them.

The Listening test asks 50 slightly different questions about exactly the same sound files they have heard many times in order to do their homework. There is an element of memory involved in the test too. Memorising is something they rarely do in English because the majority of their English studies have been executed using the visual memory and not the auditory memory. The auditory memory is essential for learning how to communicate in English, or in any language.

For Japanese students who have had little exposure to English communication with native speakers, their first experiences are a shock: They are used to every word of English being translated into Japanese either by their teachers or their classmates. The Japanese collective spirit means that classmates who do understand and are not in the full firing range of this communication, will translate it verbatim into Japanese, and so the translation method destroys any real communication. The other worrying factor is that the interpreter’s translation may not be correct. In this way, so much energy and time are wasted.

It is an extraordinary thing that the communication, a complex combination of verbal and non-verbal signs, will often cause the person being communicated with to immediately avert their eyes, and desperately attend to the translation and commentary in Japanese given by a classmate. It is as if they are deaf and not even able to lip-read. Such direct communication, often coated in emotions on so many levels, will initially overcome them.

More about listening to come.

listen carefully