BEFORE THE CHERRY BLOSSOM

One of the very best things for me about being older is the ability to accept a given mood. It just is what it is on that day. Where in adolescence or early adulthood a depressed state would send me into despondency as it felt as though that was the mood henceforth and I would never get out of it, ever : the more ecstatic days just….……ecstatic, now there is far more regulation and either full enjoyment, or else just simple resignation. I just ride with it.

Reading this you might assume that I am bipolar or manic depressive, but I am not – just inconsistent. Difficult’. I have friends with the condition, above, and it often seems to me to quite debilitating; they feel the darkness and lethargy and lowness gradually coming on, andare praying to keep it at bay but usually succumb; you can tell from social media posts, on the other hand, when they are getting too high and elated for their own good. A bit skewwiffy.

In my case, it is more a situation of how I wake up in the morning: once I have had the first cup of tea, I can immediately tell if it is going to be a good day or a bad one (or somewhere in between – which is probably how a lot of the world operates). The dreams end, I open my eyes, and then I know.

Tuesday, for example, was cold and grey and I felt like shit. Physically and mentally. I have some ailments going on, and the weather just compounded everything. I felt a lassitude that I found almost amusing – just plodding through the day, unsociable at work (retreating to an empty classroom to prepare DVDs because I couldn’t face talking to anyone); bog standard autopilot lessons; bored; home, and then bed. The very bare minimum. A mumbling automaton (“I can’t be arsed!), a waste of a day.

Where in the past, I might have worried about this , though : the whole ‘seize the day carpe diem ‘thing etc – I now feel the opposite; that there is a gloriously decadent luxury in not trying frantically to ‘make every moment count’ (an unbearable ontological pressure) – but instead merely treating the day as if you were a giant slug. Just existing. And then just waiting for the next one. Not resisting the state you are in but just surrendering yourself to it: strangely, this can sometimes be paradoxically liberating.

So much of this depends, unfortunately, on the weather her. One of the great benefits of living in Japan, despite its gloomy rainy season and occasionally frigid, cold bleak winter days , is that ultimately this country has a great deal of sun, sometimes weeks on end of it. It is divine. I know that I simply couldn’t live in England any more, or anywhere similar, and neither could D – we both NEED sunshine to be happy now (absurd how much the weather affects us mood-wise; it’s ridiculous!). My mother sometimes tells me of weeks on end of grey and rain and drizzle back home and I know that I would be too regularly glum and miserable to put up with it. Bright English days are exquisite – the light unique, the clarity of air ; but they are just too vanishing and ephemeral.

Yesterday, my head was clear. the chakras open; light passing through. It was one of those beautiful spring days where the narcissus flowers are out in full alongside the plum trees peaking, and there is a natural and immediate buoyancy in the air (Japan is an extremely seasonal based culture; the whole country obsessed with the seasons as though this is the only place on earth that actually has them), but it cannot be argued that they are beautifully distinct, and the fact is that as soon as February changes to March there is a distinct shift, not just in the world around you but also in the national tone and general consciousness : March is graduation season; April the season of new beginnings; and it all just happens to coincide with the inexorable blooming of the cherry flowers.

Having untethered some worries on here in the morning and feeling far lighter as a result (thanks again – the interactions we had yesterday honestly had me on cloud nine), I proceeded with trepidation to school, keenly aware that it was exam results day – the culmination of a year’s hard work on everybody’s part and the pinnacle of the entire educational cycle. While results for the prestigious Waseda and Keio universities had been very good overall, yesterday was the announcement of the all important Todai, or Tokyo University, the Cambridge/Oxford/ Harvard/Yale of Japan, incredibly hard to get into – grueling examinations in which students have to do brilliantly in eight different subjects and be all rounders – no escaping from maths and science as I was able to do with Cambridge (I would never have been able to get into Tokyo in a million years, having the maths skills of an acorn); no escaping from English and Japanese language arts for the science nerds; you simply have to be extremely good at everything.

Some pushy monster/helicopter parents here have, very annoyingly to me, been priming their children their whole lives for this moment, putting them on the education ‘escalator’ from practically the first moment they give birth: channelling their unwitting offspring through special nursery schools and kindergartens, elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, and all the while with all the extra lessons deemed required from the night preparatory schools like the one that I work for, night juku where the kids are given supplementary lessons to give them an ‘edge’ and to have a chance at securing a place at the most competitive institution in the entire nation ; a conveyor belt. To pass Todai is absolute kudos: a guarantee of a top job ; something to boast and be proud about for the rest of your life. It’s a terrible grind , though : an onerous burden to be placed on such young shoulders, and some students really seem old before their time; so very serious ;never been kissed nor done anything naughty; eighteen years old but they seem more like thirteen sometimes; astonishingly pure, obedient and naïve.

Where last year’s valley of the mummies on occasion actively annoyed me with their grave, prematurely geriatric severity, as though getting into this hallowed university were literally a matter of life and death – which I know it does feel like to them a lot of the time – but come on, sometimes you can lighten up a bit and remember you are actually a teenager – (plus we were in the pre-vaccination horrors of the pandemic and I couldn’t even think straight nor give a damn about what I was teaching particularly as I was far more concerned with trying not to die of bronchial monstrosities ); – this year, the students were a lot more emotional, moody; funny, prickly – and I warmed to them far more. I can do moods: it is my specialty.

So I had a real investment in their passing; more connected to them personally as young and interesting, thoughtful individuals: and having been privy to their private struggles from reading their essays, in which they revealed quite a lot to me (amazing how much you learn from reading someone’s inner thoughts rather than only gleaning information from how they behave in the classroom under peer pressure: there was such a wide variety of perspectives and of personality types coming through; really clever people with strong ideas and idealistic visions of the future or themselves – or else pessimistic but still poetic) ….it was quite a revelation. Japanese and English are so utterly different as languages it is extremely hard to be able gain a command of the written idiom and make it sound natural – which is why I have totally failed in my own Japanese ‘studies’, managing to communicate but probably sounding like a fool each time I open my mouth – but some of these compositions reached the level of beauty at times, and I loved encouraging them to do even better, to write ‘masterpieces’, which it seems that some of them may have managed to do in the exams – because a lot of them did really well.

It was also in my professional interest. As a teacher and colleague, I have some quite serious flaws. My desk is a mess; I am an administrative disaster these days, often spaced out and unwith it : just this term I was even given a warning that I might get pay docked if I don’t start checking my timetable more religiously every day. I am never ever late for lessons, but all the official differing office starting times (where everything is counted by the minute) etc I just find too anal and controlling even though I know that in this country you are required to do everything by the book. I forget to clock in, forget to do the register (!), come and go as I please (you are supposed to announce every movement; when you are going out to the convenience store, when you are going over to the other building for a moment, but I don’t because I just can’t stand it (low cultural IQ! arrogant white colonialist!) Maybe, but there is a meticulousness to detail here that I will just never be able to get on with, and I think it will always be a case of giri-giri – or borderline ok. Still, you don’t want to push your luck with these things when it is your living you are talking about : I think I have a kind of gaijin lease to some extent because I have been there so long and they trust me with my lessons, never interfering – nice to have established that kind of reputation – but you also have to play by the rules.Pull your socks up, I hear you say. Yes, Madam, I will. I will try.

The real proof, though, is in the pudding. The teaching is ultimately the only thing that counts. Without that capability, in this business you are nothing. So would any students actually be able to get in? Some seem guaranteed: they have that whiff of genius about them and just……would. Others are extremely intelligent but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have the requisite skills in every subject to pull it off – every year there are upsets, when students we have predicted will pass actually don’t – and vice versa. It is all a nail-biting conclusion, very exciting, sometimes very upsetting : after all the company’s entire existence is predicated on this moment, and the Todai course – the English part of which I share with a Japanese teacher, is really the ‘cherry on top’. The students’ interviews and photos will be put on the promotional posters to be distributed to the public. : a way to draw in the next generation of potential Todai-hungry, wide-eyed examinees.

As I approached work, in the spring balmy breeze, walking through Fujisawa station, I had my fingers crossed. Arriving at the main where everyone was gathered, they were all on absolute tenterhooks, electrified ; awaiting the arrival of students to give us the vital news (those that don’t tend to nurse their heartbreak alone, calling instead); but you never know what time or who will be entering the premises. What was so joyous and lovely yesterday was the sheer unfettered expressions of elation and back-slapping and hugs and handshakes (in a country with zero physical exchanges of such nature on a daily basis); panting, gasping, screaming actually: absolute and utter delight and joy on the faces of everyone, me included; I happened to meet one student, coming up the steps, and we went in arms around each other to eruptions of cheers; all in all, ten out of fifteen of mine passed, so me and Mr Uruma and the teachers of all the other subjects who sacrifice themselves way more than I ever could) must be doing something right. Sometimes I do feel guilty for the fact that I am no longer willing to go in on my days off or do ‘secret lessons’ in the weeks before the exams as the other far more hardworking and diligent staff do, but as when you know yourself, you know yourself, and I know from past experience that as a very delicate individual, if I push it too far, I get poisoned, and when I get poisoned, I go to a dark place, and that is something I now definitely want to avoid.

Yesterday, it all felt like a wonderful vindication somehow, a fantastic celebration of achievement and happiness that eclipsed anything else that might be happening in the world or in my own life: I was over the moon; felt part of something. Just as I know as leaving, I happened to notice some of the students sitting together and laughing on the grass nearby; and for a short moment I thought about going up to them again and slapping them on the back once more for another round of heartfelt congratulations. But then I thought better or it, decided just to leave them to it and to exalt in their moment, talking excitedly amongst themselves; flushed and beaming – as I made my way back to the station.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “BEFORE THE CHERRY BLOSSOM

  1. cek

    This is lovely. Congratulations to all!

  2. Neil, after reading your latest post, I am convinced that you will rarely, if ever, be at a loss of what to write about. 😊

    • You know, it wasn’t writer’s block or anything like that really, more that I needed ‘permission’ so as not to appear like a hollow wanker who only cares about his own emotions !

      This was a very rushed mess while getting ready for work ; I just felt like documenting the pleasures of yesterday

  3. Spring, glorious Spring!
    Oh I recall being a youngster going through interview after interview and test after test to get into the prestigious program I wanted at University of California. Little did I know that after getting in (YAY!) it would only be more endless unquestioning jumping through hoops. Such is medical training. Sigh…
    I am very moody and sensitive to everything around me. Learning to live with that is a challenge, I often have to ignore myself. 😉
    I knew the Japanese were heavy duty on rule following and having a “proper” way to do things, but even more so than the British?

  4. matty1649

    Congratulations to you and your students. That is a joyous photograph.

  5. Congratulations to you and to all of your students who passed. How spectacular. Oh how I remember those days, I loved them. I wish I just could have been a professional student. I just excelled in school and uni, but truly math is not my forté either.
    It’s interesting, the way they do things in Japan would be perfect for me. I follow all the rules, always announce what I am about to do, or where I’m off to. I have always been like this, I don’t know why. It drives my hubby crazy.
    Wish I was there to enjoy the Cherry Blossoms next month.

  6. Robin

    I think my favourite posts are the ones like this, where you talk about yourself and your experiences and share your point of view. Where we can connect with you, relate to you, see Japan as you see it, get to understand the culture and the people through your lens. It’s all so beautifully human. Thanks, my dearest N.

    • The problem with this kind of post is that it is so sprawling and undisciplined – just stream of consciousness, really, while getting ready for work. Part of me likes that though so it is good if you do too

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