Thursday, May 24, 2018

Japan by Bike and Glimpses of Japan

Japan by bike now posts on Glimpses of Japan.

From a post entitled "On the Road Again."

Japan by Bike is back, albeit without Don, who a couple of years ago returned to his native New Zealand. So for the time being it's a solo effort, dear reader. The colorful commentary of my erstwhile cycling partner will be missed, but I trust Japan by Bike will continue to convey the pleasures of discovering the country on two wheels.

Afternoon Ride: a Post from Japan by Bike

A few photos taken during a recent afternoon ride. Severe winter weather in the area felled trees, which block a spur of a local rindo, or forest roadThese roads, usually gravel but sometimes sealed, offer excellent cycling but are often sketchy until crews can get out and clear or repair them.

Houses like this are a common sight in rural Japan.

skunk cabbage

A paved section of forest road.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The HS Entrance Exam: Today is the first day of the rest of your life

It comes down to today and tomorrow, March 7-8 this year in Niigata, the culmination of 9 yrs. of compulsory education, the last 3 of which were primarily a preparation for the high school entrance exam and additional years of "elective" schooling. I'd venture to say every jr high 3rd-year who sat the exam has an insurance policy, a Plan B, or what is referred to as a suberiko (滑り校), or suberitomeko  (滑り止め校), the private school (In Niigata City there are 8 from which to select) chosen by students that will arrest their fall should they fail to gain admission to a public school. Otherwise... Official exam results to be announced next week. Students will nevertheless have an accurate sense of their performance, as local newspapers publish the test questions and answers the following day, but whether a student's overall score is good enough will remain unknown, resulting in several days of anxiety, for many.. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Tragedy That Is Syria

The humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, has been compared to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. You can help the besieged residents of this area outside Damascus by donating to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tax Season

For third-year students this time of year means entrance exams, for their parents, taxes.  The artwork shown includes some of the winning entries in a local "tax awareness" poster contest for primary school 6th graders.

Gold: "Taxes are for everyone's happiness."

Silver: "Taxes are one of the pieces in the jigsaw of the future."

                               Bronze: "Taxes are the source of smiling faces."

The favorite of the head of the local tax authority: "Taxes make the town peaceful."

These artists (11-12 years old) understand that 1), taxes pay for things such as public schools, parks, infrastructure, police, health care, etc., and 2), the business of government is to provide such things for the common good. This is, simply, civics education at work.   Provides a telling contrast with the US, where voters demand that their representatives order the government keep its hands off Medicare while cheering the defunding of federal programs. 

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Entrance Exam- the Gift That Keeps on Giving

It's almost as though the current entrance exam regime was devised by the for-profit education industry. Does your child aim to enroll in one of the better (in terms of hensachi)public high schools? If so, it's off to the ATM you go, for entrance exam prep offered by the neighborhood middle school is insufficient. You want the cram school professionals for this job.  The good folks at Nokai, a national juku chain, charge between 11,000 and 42,000 yen monthly for jr. high 3rd graders. With many middle school seniors attending cram school from August, some 8 months prior to the public high school entrance exam, families can be set back as much as 10% of a typical salaried worker's annual salary.  Or more than two month's take- home for a parent among the growing ranks of Japan's working poor.

Monday, January 15, 2018

More Dispatches From Exam Hell

A digression:

So why the massive difference in admissions standards at prefectural high schools?

In Japan, attendance zones determine the primary or middle school to which a child is sent, but when compulsory education ends with junior high school graduation, admission to upper-secondary school becomes competitive, or "meritocratic".

(While it is true that attendance zones no longer apply after middle school, a student's home address is nevertheless a fair predictor of who will not enter an elite high school- see a recent piece in the Japan Times by Philip Brasor about how this plays out in the Tokyo real-estate market.) 

Back to "meritocratic", because if you are not, dear student, blessed with a photographic memory but instead are merely one of the sharper pencils in the box and come from a family that lacks the means to send you to cram school (juku), your chances of entering one of the better college-prep prefectural high schools diminish accordingly- as does your shot at enrolling at a public or more selective private tertiary institution- as do your chances of enjoying financial security later in life.

Entrance Exam Hell, It's More Hellacious Than You Thought: High School Edition

It's entrance exam season in Japan. Last weekend (January 13-14) students hoping to enter one of the country's public or private (the more prestigious variety) institutions of higher learning sat the National Center Test for University Admissions, known colloquially as the center shiken or center nyushi.

But let us consider for the nonce the high school analogue (held in March) to the center test, the koko nyushi, or high school entrance exam. (In this and following posts I shall refer to the situation as it exists for public schools in Niigata prefecture.)

First, a couple of key terms (applicable nationwide):

1) hensachi (偏差値): the figure that corresponds to the percentage of correct answers on the entrance exam needed to gain admission to a particular public high school; the range in Niigata is from 35 to 75, roughly, with selective high schools (and academic programs within schools) at the top of the scale

Niigata High School, the public high school in the prefecture with the highest admissions standards, has a hensachi of 73 for its Science and Math Course and 71 for its General Academic Course; the two are ranked 1 and 2, respectively, out of 142 schools and programs in the prefecture

Matsudai High School: at the other end of the scale with a hensachi of 35 

2) bairitsu (倍率): the (over-) subscription rate; the more popular schools and programs have the highest bairitsu; currently, Bandai High School's English/ Science-Math Course has a bairitsu of 2.4 (In other words, there are 2.4 times as many applicants as there are available slots for this popular program, so there will be many unhappy students and parents when exam results are announced.)

At the bottom of the ladder is Shiozawa Commercial and Technical High School with a bairitsu of 0.4. 

... more to come

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Folktale for the New Year, or Why Japanese Eat Black Beans at New Year's

Long ago in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture (or Echigo Province, as it was then called) lived a man known far and wide for his honesty. He farmed a meager patch in the mountains, growing black beans in poor soil, and just managed to eke out a living.  One winter's night, on the second of January, the man had his first dream of the New Year, and this is what he dreamt.

In the dream God appeared to him and said, "Hey, you, you're always working in that field of yours, and yet at the end of the year you're no better off than at the start. Listen to what I'm saying to you: There's a chap that lives in the village the other side of the mountain. He's got a garden, and in that garden is a plum tree.  You just take a shovel with you and dig around a bit under that tree and see if you don't find a pot of gold buried there." 

The next day he set out for the village, cautiously excited and more than anything curious.  It was getting dark when he arrived, but he found the house and knocked on the door. It was opened by the homeowner himself. "Excuse me, sir, but God told me in a dream about this house and the plum tree in the garden.  He said that if I dug around under the tree I'd find a pot of gold. If that's true, we'll go halves. What do you say?"

The other replied, "It's late, too dark to be digging up the garden. Why not in the morning?  You can stay the night here."

As soon as his guest was in bed, the man rushed out, grabbed the shovel, and began to dig. He dug and he dug, but for the life of him he could not find the pot of gold the visitor had dreamt was under the plum tree. 

The next morning the man told his guest about his fruitless search. "Honestly, I would have shared any treasure I found," he assured him. "Once I thought we were in luck, for my shovel struck something hard. But it was nothing, though I could have sworn a kind of black mist rose out of the ground."

"Just goes to show that some dreams are only dreams," said the other. "Sorry for putting you out." And thanking his host for the hospitality, the man set out to return home.

On the trail he encountered a strange gentleman dressed in black. "Good day, sir. And where might you be headed?" he inquired. The stranger pointed in the direction of the man's home. "Well, as it will be dark soon and unsafe to continue your journey, please do me the honor of sharing my humble abode this evening." And so the two descended the mountain towards the man's village.

"Were you out for a walk?" the strange man at length inquired.

"No, it wasn't that," the other answered, proceeding to relate the tale of his dream and the pot of gold that wasn't.  "But it's just as well, he concluded, I only know one thing in life, farming my small garden, and to be honest I not sure what I would have done if I'd found all that money."

At which the other smiled to himself.

Before long they reached the man's home. He fired up the hearth, set a pot of rice porridge to simmer, and busied himself making his guest comfortable.

The next morning the man in black was nowhere to be found. When our hero peered under the futon where the man had slept, imagine his surprise to find a gold jar stuffed to overflowing with pieces of gold. "It seems the jar I dreamt about turned into that mysterious man. And now my dream has come true," he mused.

With the money he purchased other plots, hired farmhands, and planted row upon row of black beans, which were highly prized. The honest farmer came to be known as "Black Bean Tycoon".

And this is the reason black beans are a New Year's tradition, expressing as they do the wish to be as healthy, wealthy, and hardworking as the hero of our tale.