Last week at Edosaki Elementary School, I told my first folk tale in Japanese. At that elementary school there are not enough desks in the teacher's office to lend me one to sit at for the day, so I sit with the principal in his office all day long, between classes, and we talk. He's a big man who used to do judo in high school. He wears glasses and sort of reminds me of a Japanese John Goodman. We both started our jobs at the same time. He began being an elementary school principal when i first arrived to teach English. When I came, he tried very hard to speak in English. He knows some parts of speech that are helpful, but when I didn't understand Japanese, they only set up contexts for me and left out content. For example, he would often say, "Ten years ago, Japanese Japanese Japanese." *smile* and I would smile back and nod knowingly. Now we basically just talk in Japanese.
Last Tuesday I was scheduled to teach the fifth graders, but when I arrived they were all lined up and were being given a briefing on what kind of behavior was expected of them while they were out of school that day, and the principal saw me and came over to tell me the fifth graders were going on a field trip to our prefecture's capital city, Mito, to go to the history museum there. This then established the theme for our conversation all day. History. Japanese history. I told the principal that Japan has a lot of history and that America is such a young country in comparison. "That's true," he said, "but many of the people from olden days made up a lot of things."
"How old is Japan?" I asked.
"Oh, according to those people from a long time ago, over two thousand years old. But as I said, they made a lot of things up."
"Oh yes! So many stories, they just made them up!"
"I didn't know that."
He goes on to tell me a Japanese creation myth, how the gods sent angels down to various places in Japan that are famous places now, and they established life in those places, communities that would later feud and form different structures etc. "But all that is made up," he said at the end of his story.
"Oh we have those sorts of stories in America too," I said.
He looks disbelieving and waits for me to continue before commenting.
"For example, have you ever heard of the story of Rip Van Winkle?"
"Well there is this man called Rip Van Winkle. And he drinks a lot. And his wife always scolds him. One day he goes up into the mountains and drinks a lot with his friends and falls asleep. And twenty years pass before he wakes up again! When he goes to his village, his wife is dead and his dog is dead, and he sees his daughter, but she's old now. And also the American Revolution came while he slept. He doesn't like any of these changes, so he goes back up into the mountains and goes to sleep again. Forever."
"Oh my, that man really went to sleep completely, didn't he!"
Laughter. Then two third graders come and ask me to teach their class English.
Later we resume our conversation: "But Japan's history is full of lies. Sometimes it makes me angry."
"I understand. Many politicians in America lie to people. That makes me angry."
"In America? That can't be."
"Oh yes, of course. For example our current president's administration."
"Oh surely not Mr. Bush."
"Oh yes, I think so."
"Well actually, I too thought so, but..."
"Oh Barzak san, Americans are so amusing."
I will miss him and our conversations when I am gone.