This is an assessment of Threering adapted and extended from a classmates post in APLING678 at UMass Boston.


  • Cloud-based tool reduces risk of lost work.
  • It’s free! (at least for now)
  • It works on a variety of devices (Android, iOS, computer), increasing accessibility for students.
  • The site/app are very intuitive in their design with little to no learning curve.
  • Teachers can create student and parent accounts so that they can view the work of that specific student.
  • Teachers can add private notes on each submission, allowing them to document growth.
  • The minimalist layout makes the information very readable to pleasing to the eye.
  • Especially great for art classes, as students can photograph their work for documentation without keeping the physical work.
  • Also allows easy audio recordings, so it could be beneficial for documenting oral communicative activities (even in groups).
  • All work is consolidated in one place, making it easy for teacher to review a classes’ work/individual student growth
  • Uploading work via the mobile app is very easy, just take a picture, then click on the appropriate (class, student- teacher account) tags.

As far as I can tell, here are the ‘cons’:

  • The portfolios are managed by the teacher, so if a student moves away and/or the teacher deletes their account at the end of the year, the student’s portfolio ceases to exist. I am looking for an approach which allows students to keep/maintain their portfolios beyond my course, so this is probably makes it a ‘no-go’ for me. 😦
  • Tags are teacher-generated ahead of time, which prevents spontaneous tagging for new topics. It would be nice to have the option of adding tags while uploading work.

The Golden Tool

I had a crunch week this week. Several major assignments crunched together with existing work/life responsibilities and I found myself staring at a computer screen for an entire day on Saturday. However, I realized that my productivity did not bear any correlation to the amount of time I sat in front of the computer. I gave myself permission to get out of the house on Sunday.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a German architect who is doing an internship at an architecture firm in my town. He was elated to see another westerner. I asked him if he had seen the area, such as the lake and nearby mountains. He hadn’t, so I offered to drive him around sometime. He said he was free on Sunday mornings.

Today I took him sightseeing out of town. He is working extremely long hours at the firm, often until 3 or 4 in the morning. Recently, he told them that he cannot work later than 1 AM just for his own health and sanity. It turns out, he needed to break out of his own work prison as well. We both needed to experience some different, positive stimuli and give our bodies and brains the fresh air and nature that they needed.

On our way to the ocean (where we found nine fishing floats!), he told me about his educational experiences in Germany, and how his one major regret was that he did not realize how important languages would be to his future life. He said that all of the other subjects, mathematics, science, history, were not nearly as useful to him as his English or French. He became quite animated when he started talking about his English. He told me that he was a very poor student, and that today, while he values his proficiency, he feels that he is mangling grammar as he goes along. What was most important to him was how valuable a tool English was in connecting with people from essentially any country in the world. As he gesticulated wildly (very much unlike a German), he said that he felt English was such a great tool. In fact, it was the golden tool. The Golden Tool. That is probably the most generous and encouraging perspective I have ever heard someone take in regards to English as an international language.

It jogged my perspective a little bit. This could be my new sales pitch to junior high students. Study and use English. It’s the Golden Tool.

My German friend offered one additional perspective in regards to this universal tool. It does not serve him well here in Japan. As he put it, very often, English is the medium of communication between him and another person whose first language is neither English nor German. In those situations, he is able to use English as a tool to learn other words, to circumlocute in the direction of words that he does not know in English or in another language. Yet he said he is unable to do this in Japanese. Throughout Japan, English provides no easy detour around the language barrier.

Japan, you need to recognize that this tool called English is solid gold.

Navigating Japanese Ceremonies

            During your coming posting in Japan, you will be attending numerous ceremonies and events. These events will follow a predictable and strictly adhered to pattern that is uniform across Japan. It is possible that your duties will involve participating in one of these ceremonies. The following guide, based on Hymes’ (1974) SPEAKING model of ethnographic analysis, will give you a detailed understanding of the norms that dictate the opening and closing ceremonies that bookend any event here in Japan.

Setting and Scene

You are at a scheduled event somewhere in Japan. Perhaps it is a festival, an awards ceremony, a school graduation, a community concert, a company induction ceremony, groundbreaking on a new building, or a retirement party for a colleague. The nature of the specific ceremony is not important. Whatever the event, it will invariably have an opening and a closing ceremony, even if the event is relatively short. In Japanese society, these opening ceremonies (kaikaishiki) and closing ceremonies (heikaishiki) signify and delineate the perceived chronological boundaries of an event. What might seem surprising an outside observer is that these opening and closing ceremonies themselves must be formally opened and closed. The protocol is fastidiously adhered to, with a level of formality that sometimes may seem inappropriate to the casual nature of the event being started or finished. The practice serves a purpose in Japanese society, which has an extremely high focus on uncertainty avoidance and seeks out “maximum predictability” as a cultural goal (Hofstede, 2001). It is very important to not simply be on time for any event, but to be early. If the event starts at 10:00, the opening ceremony will begin precisely one second after 10:00.


The participants are a combination of at least two individuals and an audience. One individual is the ceremony opener/closer. They are someone involved with the event but not of high status, such as a vice-principal or member of an organizing committee. This person will take the stage or podium and formally begin the ceremony. Another individual, who is typically someone of high status such as a principal or committee chair, will follow them. This person, the ceremony speaker, will make a very short speech. The existing hierarchy of the institution holding the ceremony typically predetermines the speaker. Finally, the opener/closer will return to the stage to conclude the ceremony. Typically, these same people will preside over both opening and closing ceremonies. Audience members in attendance are observers, and will give the speaker their silence and attention even though it is a fairly predictable and routine act.


The purpose of both opening and closing ceremonies are to give the audience and participants a clear and official understanding that the event is now underway, or that the event is now complete. The establishment of shared certainty is part of this. After the closing ceremony ends, there may be more clean-up work to do, or an after party to attend, but the participants are all aware that they are no longer involved in the so-called event. This outward understanding and delineation of “event time” and “non-event time” is the end which the ceremonies serve to bring about.

Act Sequence

Opening and closing ceremonies are typically short, often very short, in the range of one to three minutes. Depending on the size of the event, they may feature a short speech, a song performance, or an oath of sportsmanship, but can be as simple as a few words by the participants, which function as performative speech acts in bringing about the start of the event (Austin, 1962). These words of the opener/closer that “perform” the ceremony do not deviate significantly from a typical boilerplate phrasing that is shared and repeated at a wide variety of events across Japan. Here is a prototypical example of a basic standard phrasing for an opening ceremony, this one for a fictional school festival:

Opener/Closer: kore yori shibahama chuugakkou no dai ni-juu-go kai gakkousai no kaikaishiki wo hajimemasu. (From this point, we will begin the opening ceremony of the 25th annual Shibahama Junior High School Festival.)
Speaker:(Thanks those in attendance, comments on the weather, thanks any sponsors or assistants, requests for participants to be careful, encourages participants to do their best, etc.)
Opener/Closer: kore de shibahama chuugakkou no dai ni-juu-go kai gakkousai no kaikaishiki wo owarimasu. (This now completes the opening ceremony of the 25th annual Shibahama Junior High School festival.)


The spirit of these ceremonies is serious, with speakers who take the stage typically wearing suits, even at a sporting event. The tone of the opener/closer is flat, without any particular inflection or flourish in his or her speech. The speaker may take a tone of encouragement for the participants, or optimism for the events to come. The speaker will likely make some references to commonly shared knowledge, and make their speech broadly appealing if not particularly memorable.


The speakers in an opening or closing ceremony speak standard Japanese (hyoujungo) in a formal register. They will use both respect language (sonkeigo) and humble language, or kenjougo, to express their gratitude and polite deference to the participants, spectators, and honored guests of the event (Shibatani, 2005). While it is possible that a non-standard dialect might be used by the speaker, the opener/closer will adhere to hyoujungo. A microphone will most likely be used, even if it does not seem necessary due to a small crowd or small space.

Norms of Interaction and Interpretation

Gestures and proxemics figure very importantly within the highly ritualized nature of these opening and closing ceremonies. Both opener/closer and speaker must make precise, purposeful bows several times during each of their actions. The opener/closer will bow toward the stage (as a sign of respect for the event or institution) before ascending to the dais. Before fully approaching the podium or the microphone, he or she will bow again several times, once back toward area where the speaker and other event managers are seated, once toward the audience, and if there are parents or other honored guests seated in a specific area, once more toward them. This series of bows will be repeated in reverse order when the opener/closer leaves the stage, and will be repeated both by the speaker and again by the opener/closer in the closing of the ceremony.


These ceremonies are rituals. No one expects deviation from the norm, and in fact, surprise or uniqueness seems to be avoided. It almost seems as if they are designed to be unmemorable, for maintaining the norms and precedents of this societal function, leaving mutually held assumptions intact, and feathers unruffled. Even the speaker’s speech, while up to him or her, rarely includes jokes, and never approaches anything more than a recitation of a prepared speech. Any type of unique performance by the speaker, or playing to the audience, would be an exception to the norm.

While it is impossible to predict the exact pattern of every type of event across an entire country, there is an extremely high chance that the preceding factors will define any ceremony that you attend in Japan. They all follow this general pattern, in order to achieve the goals of keeping society going, of sustaining the reality shared and expected by the participants (Wardhaugh, 2010, p. 254). These instructions will give you the information necessary to share in these same expectations.


Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hymes, D. H. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Second Edition, Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

Shibatani, M. (1990). The Languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wardhaugh, (2010). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. (6th ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Alphabet Recognition Errors in Japanese JHS EFL Learners

In two classes of 9th grade junior high level EFL learners in a Japanese junior high school, we conducted an email lesson. We first asked students to send a test email with their name and a short greeting to another address that we had made specifically for our class (it’s now defunct). The address was:

The variety of errors that arose from this simple task were striking. Thanks to the medium of email, I was able to go back into the student email account later and make a complete list of the specific errors. They are listed below, with the error portion bolded and underlined.


Particularly surprising (and exasperating) to us as teachers, were the substitutions of j and 1 for a lowercase l. This is symptomatic of the commonality of recognition errors between uppercase I and lowercase I in sans serif fonts. (See my other post on choosing fonts for elementary learners)

These errors actually had a negative result on the project, aside from the time taken to address and correct them. So many emails were sent and returned as undeliverable by the server within a short time period that Gmail blocked the account from sending mail for 24 hours. We had to create an entirely new address for class the next day.

Appropriate Font for Elementary EFL Learners

What font is appropriate for elementary school learners who are just becoming familiar with the shapes of the alphabet? While Comic Sans might reign supreme in American schools, I knew that there must be a better font for modeling written letterforms. I recently made a set of PIT! style cards, and I wanted to have the names of the card categories written on them in both uppercase and in lowercase letters, so that students can pick up on the similarities and differences in the two alphabets as they play the game.

I encountered a problem though. I did not want to use a serif font face. I feel that the flourishes on the ends of the letters are confusing to beginning students, who will be mostly writing the letters by hand, if writing them at all (The guidelines for elementary foreign language activities set by the Japanese Ministry of Education rule out writing as skill to be taught – recognition and familiarity are the goals).

Often, students confuse the serifs for separate lines or strokes that have to be replicated with their pencil or pen. However, serifs do add useful information for readers, particularly the difference between a capital letter I and a lowercase l. What I wanted was a fontface that incorporated serifs selectively.

The following image illustrates the I/l confusion in sans serif fonts like Helvetica (at bottom), compared to Times New Roman (at top).

illadvisedI feel that Helvetica is not an appropriate font to use when introducing the alphabet to students in school for the first time.

In the end, I found a compromise in the font Meiryo, which is show below.


This font distinguishes clearly between the two letters. It’s a good middle ground. Here are the cards that I ended up making:

Corn SaromaPitFaceRED

A Story of Saroma Lake

The Age of Freshwater

If one were to write a biography of Saroma Lake, it would need two separate volumes. One for the age of freshwater, and one for the age of brackishness. Saroma Lake (Saromako in Japanese) is the third largest lake in Japan, after Lake Biwa and Lake Kasumigaura. Shallow and calm, it sits on Hokkaido’s northern coast, the long arc of its shore cradling the Sea of Okhotsk like a bassinet, lest it spill through to the Sea of Japan and the Pacific.

Saroma Lake was once known as Saroma Lagoon, called so by explorers traveling through the waters off the coast and along the narrow strip of land between it and the sea. At that time it was mostly a freshwater lake, fed by the Saromabetsu and Baro rivers, swelling in the spring and summer and freezing solid in the winter, as drift ice packed the shores of the Okhotsk.

As lakes go in Japan, Saroma is large. It’s the third largest by area in Japan, a point of pride in the neighboring town of the same name, even though it is hardly known elsewhere in Japan. For comparison, it would be the 83rd largest lake if it were in America.

Perhaps it lacks the mystique that Japan’s deep volcanic lakes possess. Lakes such as Tazawa, Shikotsu, and Kussharo, nestled in mountains and ancient craters, impossibly deep yet incredibly clear. Saroma is only 60 feet at its deepest, compared to the astonishing 1000-foot depth of Shikotsu in southern Hokkaido, a lake which has only half the area but contains 16 times the volume of water.

An inability to define the lake is part of its character. Simultaneously on a “top three” list and yet unknown, large yet shallow, created by freshwater yet influenced by tides, it’s a body of water that goes unnoticed while being incredibly important.

Viewing Saroma Lake on a map, or from a high vantage point like an airplane or a nearby mountain, one notices something unique about the shape and location of the lake. It looks like it’s trying to escape from Hokkaido itself, pressing itself flat onto the boundary of the coast. It’s almost part of the ocean.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it was: a shallow estuary and small indentation along the northern coastline. 30,000 years ago, Hokkaido was the last stop for human land migrations from Siberia and Sakhalin over the land bridge that is now La Perouse strait, between Wakkanai and Sakhalin’s southern tip. Over these fresh and fleeting lowlands, came Asiatic brown bears, pikas, and other animals more typically found in Siberia. Hokkaido’s southern strait between Honshu, the violent Tsugaru Kaikyo, is much deeper and served as an ecological and anthropological firewall. This is why there are no monkeys on Hokkaido, and no brown bears on Honshu.

Gradually, erosive tides, winds, and the interminable grinding of rivers deposited sand and sediment into the basin of the lake. Through a process still debated by science, an arc-shaped berm of earth was gradually built that created a new lake, separate from the ocean.

Over the ensuing ages, as rivers such as the Saromabetsu and the Baro delivered more and more freshwater into what had once been an ocean, the lake gradually became a freshwater lake with its own unique ecosystem. In time, an outlet developed from the lake at its eastern end. Every spring, as snowmelt from the mountains flowed through the rivers, it would cause the lake to swell. The water level would rise until it burst into the ocean at the lowest point of the ocean-separating berm – at its eastern end. This annual occurrence caused the section of the lake near this outlet to become open to the ocean for several months in the summer, and brackish from seawater that would flush back in after the discharge, creating a wonderful environment to grow and farm scallops and oysters.

This abundance of protein was reason enough for the indigenous Ainu, who were usually sparsely dispersed across the island, to maintain a permanent settlement near present-day Sakaeura, Kitami City. Part of the Okhotsk Culture, during the Jomon Era (12,000 BC – 300 BC) the site is of major archaeological interest and is the location of an extension office of Tokyo University, with a museum and recreation of the ancient Ainu settlement.

The Ainu used the lake as the source of their livelihoods, and they named it and the surrounding places based on their natural features. The name Saroma comes from the Ainu “Saro-oma”, or “place of reeds and rushes,” which were in abundance along the lake’s shallow and fluctuating littoral. Like many Ainu names in Hokkaido (over 90% of placenames in Hokkaido are of Ainu origin), the assigned Chinese characters for “Saroma” are laughably meaningless. The three characters: 佐呂間 mean assistant, backbone, and between. Seeing names like this, I rather wonder why the Japanese even bothered. I think some agree, and often the name of the lake and the nearby town are written in katakana as サロマ, representing only the phonetics and eschewing the inappropriately chosen ideographs shown above.

A few years ago, I took a bike ride down to the abandoned old outlet of the lake, which no longer connects to the ocean and is full of brackish and standing water. On a map, this end of the lake looks like snake roadkill, winding and narrow, with bulging sections, going nowhere. Riding along the paved road between the lake and the ocean from the nature center, one soon encounters a “no entry” sign, but I believe such signs are best ignored. More often than not, while exploring a park or wandering through a hotel, I will find myself coming out from behind one of these signs, even though I never crossed one upon entry. There are usually things worth seeing behind those signs.

As the narrowing road meandered along, it disappeared from the map. Soon, to my surprise, and in confirmation of the aforementioned rule, I came across a beautiful stone monument marking the location of the lake’s erstwhile connection to the sea. It read:

“The Former Mouth of Saroma Lake:
Originally, the outlet connecting the lake to the ocean was in this vicinity.  Every spring people would dig to help reopen the channel. In Showa 4 (1929) a drainage channel was excavated on the Yubetsu end of the lake, causing tides to affect the lake and naturally close this outlet.

The Age of Brackishness

The Japanese began to colonize Hokkaido in the late 1860’s and 70’s, sending soldier-farmers to homestead the far reaches of the undeveloped wilderness, in order to establish a presence to ward off the colonial ambitions of foreign nations, especially the Russian Empire. Formerly called Ezo, Hokkaido was given its present name and established as a territory of the Japanese Empire, in 1869. This was only two years after Russia sold its territories in North America to the United States, which would become the State of Alaska nearly 100 years later.

As settlers began to slowly enter the area during those beginning years after the Meiji Restoration swept westernization through Japan, even bringing in American advisors from Massachusetts to design the streets and factories in Sapporo, the capital city, it didn’t take long for them to capitalize on the natural resources of the island, where they were abundant. One natural convenience they made use of was the abundance of scallops and oysters of eastern Saroma Lake, bringing methods of cultivation from areas in Honshu.

As more people moved into the region and a fishing industry became established, the small saltwater arm of Saroma Lake began to be coveted by other fishermen on other parts of the lake, who could not cultivate ocean species in the calm freshwater shallows. In 1929, the fishermen on the western end, 25 miles away in present day Yubetsu, decided to take nature into their own hands. The lake was right next to the ocean. It wouldn’t take much more than a few pieces of machinery and some men to make their own outlet into the lake, to create for themselves the same favorable conditions the eastern fishermen had.

They did this without the approval of the local or central government, and were eventually forced to stop. However, as lore has it, a storm soon blew through and the surge of rising tides finished the job they had gone into half-cocked. Today, the western lake mouth remains open, along with a newer second mouth near the eastern end, constructed to equalize the effect of tides on the lake. Both mouths are ringed with massive booms to keep the Okhotsk drift ice out in the dead of winter.

Nature lovers surely see this all as a disgrace – an example of humanity running rampant over the environment, causing the extermination of the lake’s endemic species, giving thought only to their own immediate needs.

The fishermen of today would likely see it differently. From the eastern port of Sakaeura west to the fishing ports of Hamasaroma, Toppushi, Kerochi, Baro, and Yubetsu, scallops and oysters are the cash species that supports the very comfortable lifestyles of those fishermen with substantial allotments of cultivation areas in the lake.

Saroma Lake now supports a massive cultivation operation – 150 square kilometers of hanging nets full of scallops and oysters. It is part of the Hokkaido scallop fishery, the largest in the world, hauling in 410,000 metric tons of scallops annually. These are exported to China, Europe and the US. Perhaps as some sort of consolation prize for the damage done so many years ago, the fishery was certified this May by the Marine Stewardship Council’s global standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries.

I have experienced the harvest of Saroma Lake’s scallops firsthand over the past several years. Every May, for a period of about 10 days, fishermen in Toppushi port harvest scallops. Every morning at 3AM, with the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, dozens of boats race out of the port to haul in hundreds of hanging nets full of chigai, or young scallops. The shells are about the size of an oreo, their inner meat about the size of a dime. But these scallops aren’t yet ready for market. After being raised from egg-like “spat” to a decent size over a year within the frigid womb of Saroma Lake, they are transferred onto a ship which hauls them to a designated site off the Okhotsk coast. There they are left in a practice known as “scallop ranching.” They will be retrieved two or three years later by a fleet of trawlers, after which they are shucked, steamed or sliced or dried, and shipped around the world.

The Kawabatas, who run a family fishing operation out of Toppushi port, invite me along to help every year. Feeling the brisk morning air from the deck of a fishing boat brings me a sense of freedom, and a jolt from the routineness of life as a teacher. The mindless, back-breaking work of dumping bivalves into crates for four hours before work is in a way meditative, the separation of the thinking mind from the active body. And there is a satisfaction in seeing a three-thousand pound mountain of scallop crates that does not compare to the more delayed and less visceral gratification of white-collar work. During the ten days of the harvest, the Kawabatas, one of hundreds of fishing families on the lake, gathered 130 million of the young scallops. As thanks for my labor, I received a few thousand of those baby scallops (and a case of beer), and spent the better part of a Saturday steaming them in sake, shucking and cleaning them, then freezing them to be used in a variety of pastas, quiches, stir-fries, and stews.

The Ainu of pre-Meiji Japan in effect had laid the groundwork for the future industries of the colonizing (many would prefer “invading”) Japanese. Areas of abundance were well known to the Ainu, and after having those areas taken from them, or taxed out of their reach, many were taken forcibly from place to place to work for a pittance. Kayano Shigeru describes the brutality of this practice in his memoir Our Land Was a Forest, in which his grandfather is forced into conscripted labor for the resource-extracting corporations that began the development of Hokkaido.

The Ainu did have one more reason to live so permanently at the lake’s eastern end, one that the Japanese could not exploit so easily for commercial gain. If one visits Sakaeura, and drives across the massive steel span bridging the port and narrow eastern slough, they will arrive at Wakka Nature Center. Today it is a popular spot in the mid-summer months when Siberian lily, dragonhead, and Japanese rose come into bloom. Take a walk or bike on the paved path, cross the second lake mouth, over the rushing tides that course through the narrow opening, and continue on the lake side as the road turns to a reddish gravel. There you will find a freshwater spring, paradoxically situated on a slice of land a few hundred meters wide and no more than 3 meters high, sandwiched between two saltwater expanses. Wakka in the Ainu language, naturally, means water.

This slice, this strip of land from which wakka springs forth, is now an island, manmade, orphaned from its mainland. No road runs along its 15km length, and a bridge extends only over the second, eastern mouth. In the age of freshwater though, it was something of a superhighway along the northern coast, serving as an unobstructed east-west route for the Ainu, animals, and the occasional explorer.

This road between lake and sea served as the route for the British explorer and anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor as he made his way around Ezo in the early 1890’s by way of pack mule. In his memoir of that trip, Alone With the Hairy Ainu, he recounts his route northwest up the coast. Landor describes spending the night at the village of “Tobuts”, present day Tofutsu, near the former lake mouth. There he “entertained himself” to an oyster supper in the Ainu village, and describes sketching the portait of an “Ainu belle’ who was “not nearly so hairy as most.”

The morning after his romantic idyll, Landor went on his way:

Continuing my journey north, on the stretch of sand between the water of the sea and that of the Saruma  lake the travelling was fairly easy but monotonous. The long chain of mountains on the other side of the lake was magnificent in the morning light. For twenty-two miles this went on.

Nature’s Fulcrum

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Landor’s misadventure through Hokkaido. Five million people now live on this island the size of Maine, still a virtual emptiness by Japanese standards. Boats ply the lake through channels crossing between buoys holding billions of scallops and oysters. Thousands of people live in the surrounding towns and many come each day to visit the lake and admire its expansive beauty. But people stick close to home. They get back in their cars. They see the place, but they don’t feel it. I would guess that more people travelled the expanse of sandy oblivion in the 1880’s than set foot on it today.

There is something primeval about the thin line between lake and ocean of the shore beyond Wakka. It’s like standing on a massive mountain ridge, but more sublime, pressed between opposing waves. A place home only to deer, fox and swans. This easily accessible isolation is almost spiritual, a juxtaposition of land into water, of freshwater from salty surroundings.

I had lived 25 minutes by car from Wakka for five years before I finally ventured to its farthest reaches. By cycle, kayak, foot and snowshoe, I had tramped and paddled around most of Saroma Lake, but never to the end. I had seen that far tip from the Yubetsu side, thrown rocks across the awkward channel opened by those fishermen to unlock the riches of the lake.

But I had never been there. Anyway, you weren’t really supposed to go. There was a rusted old “no entry” sign and a dirt road which became less and less passable on a mountain bike after a few kilometers, as the dwarf bamboo overtook the path. But for me, the pilgrimage needed to be made.

At 7am on a blazing June morning, I and four Western friends set out from the nature center to make the 30km round trip. We filled up our water bottles from the spring at Wakka, hid our bikes in the woods, and began trudging along the high berm of the island. Refrigerators and buoys, vodka bottles and tubes of Korean toothpaste littered the beach below. This stretch of beach is a beachcomber’s paradise, and a well kept secret. Nik Hill, a former English teacher in Saroma Town, called it the “Golden Mile of Wakka.”

We remained on the solid ridge for as long as we could before venturing to the beach, which is awkward and tiring walking. I quickly came across the vertebra of a whale interspersed with vodka bottles. We began to find glass fishing floats, which I treasure, and gain a rush of excitement in laying eyes upon. Before the day was over, I would stuff over 20 floats into my pack, including a gorgeous blue 8-inch diameter globe.

In spite of all of my pseudo-poetic warblings about Wakka’s spiritual isolation, the explorer Landor was right about its monotony. The Wakka Coast is a rather boring slog. Gradually, though, the beach narrows and turns into small cliffs, topped with the scraggliest, spookiest little trees I have ever seen, whispering for you to turn back. Swallows make their homes in these cliffs, flitting about the beach, clearing it of insects for us, its daytripping visitors. Towering remnants of past erosion served as a reminder of the impermanence of these cliffs, and made me think that it really is best there are no people here.

In Japan, coastlines tend to be smothered in concrete, sprinkled in tetrapods and spheres and plastered with 20 meter seawalls whose ugliness will fail to be worth it as soon as the next 21-meter tsunami hits. The total absence of this is what makes this coastline special, and its presence is what made its end point so remarkably jarring.

After passing the swallow cliffs, the land on the left widens outward toward the lake, and there begins a wide sloping meadow of dwarf bamboo, a knee-high and hearty underbrush that remains green throughout the winter, even buried under meters of snow. Now far behind the rest of the group, I stopped trying to keep up, and walked up through this slope to a low, forested knob. There, I turned and looked back down the length of land, at both shores tapering away toward their geometric vanishing points. It was a special place to be. While I am not a religious person, I find the animism of Japanese Shinto to be a soothing concept, with its spiritual view of the souls that live in nature’s special places. This was certainly one of those places. It felt like I had reached the fulcrum of the island, the point at which its own balance was reached. I took a drink of water, and turned to go.

Writer’s note: This is a work in progress, and will likely be rearranged, added to, and filled out with more information and more stories as time goes on and I think about maybe someday submitting it for publication. My biggest concern is with the structure. I feel that perhaps breaking it into smaller episodes that are not necessarily connected by an overarching narrative might be more appropriate and make it more accessible to readers.

Update: October 1st, 2013. Taking the editing advice of my father, I went through and made some minor changes to the piece. I think it reads a little more clearly now. I also feel satisfied with the structure. I think I will leave it as it currently stands.

Creative Spelling by EFL ELLs

One of the unique parts of my job, one which can be both an upside and a downside, is that I get to teach with many different teachers at all levels. This lets me experience a wide range of teaching styles and classroom methodology. Sometimes I’m blown me away and I learn immensely. Sometimes I want to fling myself out the third story window to escape what is obviously a teaching practice from the Dark Ages.

I experienced the latter earlier this week. In the two JHS 7th grade classes that I assist with, the main teacher is requiring them to memorize a dialogue from the textbook. They are not simply memorizing it in order to act out a play or a readers’ theater. They are not simply trying to memorize it well enough to complete a written or aural cloze test. They are required to memorize and then write the entire passage down, from the teacher’s prompts in which she reads aloud the translated dialogue in Japanese. This seems especially time consuming, soul-crushing, and unproductive to me. It pains me to watch these students, who were my 6th graders only 5 short months ago, now forced to endure the grinding boredom of an antiquated, yet tolerated, grammar-translation approach.

However, watching the students struggle with this task itself is an interesting window into their cognitive processes, specifically related to spelling. They are very creative in how they attempt to spell words correctly that they have not fully memorized. It’s cute, actually. I have many questions about what these mistakes say about their interlanguage and about the processes in which they choose those spellings. My own intuition leads me to think that some of the spellings are based on the poor pronunciation of the words by the teacher in the class. Other spellings are actually quite logical; unfortunately not meshing with the illogical rules of English spelling.

I first noticed this when I saw the ways that two students had attempted to spell “tree”:

  • trre
  • tryy

On the same test, at least four students had spelled “girls” incorrectly:

  • gals
  • galus
  • guls
  • galures

The next class that I joined, students were writing from memory a different dialogue, and the word “father” really gave them some trouble:

  • fasy
  • fatan
  • fother
  • fazre
  • facha

I think that the spelling “fother” can be separated from the other four. The student seemed to have known the spelling well, but perhaps made a simple orthographical or phonetical error. The others seem to stem from a poor understanding of the proper orthography for the “th” (IPA [θ]) sound, it being represented in a myriad of ways: /z/, /ch/, /t/, /s/. Additionally, none of these spellings included an “r” at the end, with one actually ending with an “n” which seems very strange indeed.

The NSA’s Guide to the Internet

Recently an internal National Security Agency Handbook titled “Untangling the Web: A guide to internet research” was released just recently through a Freedom of Information Act request. It’s over 600 pages, but the introduction makes for interesting reading and there is a chapter on Google hacks has some very, very savvy hacks that can dig up lots of hidden information on the web.

I’m not sure this has strict implications to language learning, but it’s fascinating reading and has useful tips for anyone who wants to be a more efficient and clever user of the internet.

Here is the Wired Danger Room article reporting on the release of the document, and which also helpfully condenses some of the more cunning googlehacks.

Student Reflections on a Skype Learning Experience

As I research more and more into second language acquisition, acculturation, cultural awareness education, as well as the educational applications of various Web 2.0 technologies, I have become even more convinced that in the right circumstances, Skype (and other tools like it) can be somewhat of a holy grail for language learning and cultural exchange, particularly for true EFL environments.

Today I co-conducted two Skype lessons at the junior high level which were an outstanding success.  My co-teacher called them “epic.” More on those and the interesting technological setup we used later.

In this space, perhaps just for posterity, I want to put up some feedback that I got back from 5th grade student questionnaires after a class-to-class Skype session in March of 2013. It’s interesting what the students had to say. (note that some of these points were repeated by many students across questionnaires – this data does not weight any of them over the others, rather it is merely a cross-section of the types of thoughts and feelings students took away from the activity.)

It was good that…

  • Everyone spoke in big voices and the Alaskan kids weren’t shy at all, and easy to understand.
  • We got to people in Alaska. It was really great.
  • Everyone used big voices in their presentations, and the students in Palmer understood us.
  • We used big voices and were easy to understand
  • We weren’t shy.
  • We were able to speak loudly and be understood.
  • We got to do Skype sessions with Sherrod twice in the year.
  • We spoke loudly without being shy.
  • That we stayed in Japan but were able to talk to people in another country.
  • The gestures were easy to understand and we all used big voices.
  • We worked together to speak in English and the people in Alaska understood us.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • The gestures of the Alaskan students were easy to understand.
  • That we were able to speak easily over the TV.
  • That we were able to communicate the English that we studied to Palmer, and that the students there understood us.  We had fun talking.
  • I spoke to people in America.
  • We presented with good attitudes, and the students in Alaska had really good and funny reactions to what we said.
  • We were able to speak in loud voices.
  • We got to talk to people in Alaska on the TV.
  • Students in Palmer were so friendly and spoke clearly.
  • All the groups did a good job and we sang our song well.
  • We got to speak to students and have fun with a quiz and song.
  • None of us were shy.
  • We used clear voices and the students in Alaska spoke at a tempo that was easy to understand.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • We spoke in clear voices.
  • The foreign students spoke to us in clear voices.
  • We presented in big voices.
  • Our pronunciation was good.
  • We spoke loudly.
  • When we said “see you” we said it at the same time.
  • We presented in big voices.

I learned…

  • Kids in Alaska go to school for more than eight hours
  • Alaskans are good at gestures.
  • Japanese and English are different languages.
  • Kids in Alaska are really tall.
  • The time difference between Palmer and Saroma is 18 hours.
  • Students at Sherrod can eat breakfast at school.
  • In Japan we call our language “kokugo” (country language) but in Alaska they call it Japanese.  So, in Alaska, they call English “language”.
  • There are two ways to say 体育 (taiiku): gym or PE.
  • That the “national language” they study in school is English.
  • That Alaskans call “kokugo” English.
  • Alaska’s national language is a foreign language for us and they call it English.
  • There is a big time difference between Japan and Alaska.
  • All about how to say different subjects in English.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • The national language over there is English.
  • They study different subjects for different lengths of time.
  • That we study a lot of the same things here and in Alaska but that we have different names for them.
  • That between the time students come to school and when they have lunch, they only study two subjects.
  • That students go home close to 4 o’clock.
  • When students in Alaska study for an hour, they really study for an hour.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • That they had smartphones.
  • That students in Alaska can eat breakfast at school.
  • That students in Alaska have a class called technology.
  • The gym there is really big.
  • That what we call our “language” in Japan is Japanese, but what Alaskans call “language” is English.
  • School in Alaska starts later than school in Saroma.
  • The names of the days of the week and subjects.
  • That Alaskan students use smartphones instead of computers to study.
  • How to say the days of the week in English.
  • How fast people in Alaska speak English.
  • That I can speak English a little.
  • Different subjects have different lengths of time.
  • The gym and classrooms were large.
  • They learn math just like we do.
  • That I can understand English.

I didn’t understand…

  • when Sean and Mr. W (teacher in Alaska) talked to each other.
  • when Alaskans spoke English really fast.
  • how many students were in their class.
  • their voices sometimes.
  • how they say “yasumijikan” in English (recess).
  • their quiz question about “reading” but I thought that the book was maybe Cinderella because it had a picture of a pumpkin on it.
  • what Sean and Mr. W were saying to each other.
  • what the Alaskan people said.

I was happy…

  • when I was able to talk to the students in Alaska
  • when they listened quietly to us, and clapped for us when we were done.
  • that we got to have such a great experience talking to people in Alaska.
  • about the fun quiz that they gave us.
  • when they clapped for us after we sang our song “Mata au hi made” (See you again).
  • when they gave us a fun quiz about subjects.
  • when my english was understood.
  • when we spoke, they listened quietly to us, and clapped for us when we were done.
  • that even though we got some questions wrong in the gesture game, we were able to use English.
  • when they clapped for us.
  • that the students in Alaska were good at gestures.

I was surprised…

  • when Mr. W suddenly showed his face on the screen.
  • that when Alaskans study “Language” they are studying what we call “English.”
  • when the time difference in the video made everyone laugh.
  • when I saw how big Alaskan people are.
  • by how big Alaskan people are.
  • that students eat breakfast at school.
  • that everyone had smartphones.
  • by how long their recess is.
  • by how much later it was in Alaska.  I thought that was so great.
  • that the schedules at our schools are totally different.
  • that sometimes they study some subjects for a really long time.
  • that Alaskans are so tall.
  • she I saw that there were oranges in the hallway.
  • by how fast the people in Alaska spoke.
  • that they get to play with balls during recess.  I’m jealous.
  • by how tall people were.
  • how tall students in Alaska were.
  • that a student there played the clarinet.
  • that they had smartphones.
  • that students in Alaska are tall.

Escape to the Pachinko Parlor:

A Cultural Exploration of Japan’s Game of Chance

This paper and accompanying video detail my explorations into the game of pachinko, which was invented and popularized in Japan. As a western foreigner who has lived in Japan for six years, I had never before played the game, and I entered this project with very few expectations besides my own general disinterest in gambling. What I found is a complex and odd game that is ambiguously accepted in society, and profits off of those who may seek respite from the oppressing burdens of daily life.

The game is difficult to describe without visuals, so I have also made an accompanying video that shows what the game looks and sounds like, as well as few of my own conclusions from this paper.

Pachinko is a game of chance, similar to slot machines and other gambling devices. While gambling is illegal in Japan, pachinko exists within a grey area straddling legality and illegality. The popularity and sheer ubiquity of the game cannot be underestimated – the industry had receipts of 230 billion US dollars in 2008. more than the entire revenues of the Japanese domestic car market (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). Pachinko halls, “parlors” as they are called, can be seen in nearly every city and town of reasonable size, with over 18,000 scattered across the country (Thompson, Tanioka & Fujimoto, 2005).

I have never been interested in pachinko, and I feel that is the case among many Japanese as well. At first glance, it seems like an utterly pointless activity, and I’ve never felt any urge to take it up. A Japanese friend of mine, a university professor, once told me that he felt that Japanese pachinko players were part of a different subculture, one that he didn’t belong to and didn’t understand. He only sought out pachinko parlors because of their free and spotlessly clean restrooms. This seems to ring true for me as well. How, in six years, could I never had have a real opportunity to play within my social circles of foreign friends and Japanese teachers? But I also knew that pachinko has an appeal that lures many into the parlors, where they spend hour upon hour of their day slowly losing money inside of a bright, smoke-filled, noisy room full of strangers.

Learning to Play

As I set out to play pachinko, I knew I needed a guide. Over the years, one teacher I have worked with has jokingly invited me to play with him. I had never seriously considered it, and even he was surprised when I walked up to him and suggested we finally go play. Through one session with him, two by myself, and one interview with a pachinko parlor manager, I came to a better understanding of the game.

Pachinko is not viewed favorably by the Japanese public, and the industry spends heavily on maintaining its image, and on creating an image of amusement and fun, rather than gambling and risk. So it was not surprising that my friend suggested that we drive 40 minutes to the nearby city to play, rather than doing so in our small town, where parents, students, and other community members may see us.

We visited a large pachinko parlor that is part of a national chain of 270 parlors. These large chains have huge halls, with bright neon lights and massive parking lots. Often they are the largest buildings in the area. This parlor is one-story, with high, 30-foot ceilings. Inside, there are six aisles running the length of the hall, each lined with soft black chairs. The two aisles on the left have the 1-yen pachinko machines, with 4-yen machines taking up the next two. 10-yen slot machines occupy the final two rows. Each aisle contains 80 seats, for 480 seats in the entire establishment.

Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the noise and the cigarette smoke. There was a constant, thrumming din of clattering balls, ringing bells, and alarms, like an electronic waterfall. We walked up to a kiosk that looked like a change machine and I put in a 10,000 yen (about 100 dollars) note, and received an electronic card. With the card in hand, we went and found two open machines in the 1 yen pachinko aisle and sat down.

Each pachinko machine has a theme – mine was an undersea theme with different sea creatures that came across an LCD screen in the center of the machine. The game machine itself is a combination of physical, pinball-like levers and chutes, and a screen game that can cause these levers to act in different ways. For example, if the types of fish on the screen will line up in the right order, this can cause all of your balls to be worth double, or triple, etc.\

The basic premise of pachinko is that you put money into the game machine, and it shoots out balls, which fall down vertically through a maze of metal pegs. You control the velocity of these shooting balls with a dial in your right hand. If you shoot them too weakly, or too far, they won’t fall in the right place. Once I found the “sweet spot,” I didn’t move my hand at all. After 30 minutes, I began to appreciate the rubber handrest underneath the dial.

I chose to first use 200 yen, which is 200 balls. Somehow, I got lucky and the game started multiplying the points I was getting for balls, which then gave me more balls, and so on. Some people around me looked my direction and told me I was lucky. I was still embarrassed to even be there, as pachinko is something that is hardly considered a wholesome activity. In fact, some other teachers at my school couldn’t believe that my wife had let me go play.

In the end, after about 20 or 30 minutes of playing, I had turned my 200 yen into over 3,100 yen. I decided to cash out. To do this, I pressed the “return” button on the machine which gave me back my original card, and a new card that contained my winnings. I took the original card back to the change machine and got back the remaining balance on my card, and took the new card up to the counter where a neatly dressed clerk gave me a pack of gum, a box of chocolate, and three casino-like plastic chips. These plastic chips are useless inside the parlor. In order to exchange these for cash, we exited the back door of the building where inside a small lobby we found a small bank-like window with bulletproof glass and two clerks. I put my three chips in the tray and the clerk gave me back three 1,000 yen bills.

The Lure of the Parlor

It doesn’t take long even for a skeptic to begin to feel the rush of excitement that comes with games of chance. In pachinko, the cultivation of that urge seems particularly insidious and well-timed. During my second visit, I was alone, and I had fewer apprehensions about how to play. I ended up winning. After spending around 600 yen, I had won 3,800 yen. I could have left then, but I still had 400 yen in credit to spend. And I did, with absolutely no benefit. I knew that I should call it quits and leave, but I felt that would be a poor choice. Just look what I had turned 600 yen into. 400 yen more, and I could be up another 2,000!

Why is pachinko so popular, and why is its popularity unique to Japan? What keeps people coming back? Brooks, Ellis and Lewis (2008) outline the addictive aspects of the game: “Pachinko has a low initial stake; can stimulate visual and aural senses; has rapid and continual cycles of play; provides the opportunity to experience frequent and regular ‘small wins’ and can seduce players into continuous play.” It is the game’s geographical ubiquity and ease of entry that makes me view pachinko differently than other forms of gambling. But these very same features also make it seem more insidious, more likely to lead to inadvertent addictions by everyday people.

It is interesting first to consider the environment of the parlor. It is bright. It is clean. It is exciting. The staff are helpful. And no one around you gives you a second look. In fact, I almost felt a sense of relief inside the parlor. As a foreigner in Japan, I am accustomed to being stared at whenever I go out in public. It is something I am used to, so I quickly notice when the stares become absent. In the parlor, no one stared at me, because no one even noticed me. Everyone had their gaze locked into their machines. You can’t look away, not even for a moment. David Plotz, in his essay “Pachinko Nation,” describes the situation eloquently:

It is impossible to take your gaze away from the board. If your concentration breaks for a second, you lose: Your groove vanishes… …One of the great paradoxes of pachinko parlors is that they are among the most crowded and noisiest activities in a crowded and noisy country, yet they are great places to be alone.

Quoted in Takiguchi & Rosenthal (2011), Iwasaki (1998) and Hahakigi (2004) echo this observation:

…the experience of the players is a solitary one. Each is transfixed by the machine in front of him, alone in a pursuit from which all distractions, including those of reality, have been excluded.

And so I found myself happily alone, surrounded by hundreds of others, enveloped in a cacophony of electronic noise, the reality outside excluded from view. Perhaps this is part of what players seek – a chance to unwind, to zone out, to forget about reality. They don’t have to worry about what someone else thinks of them, or what they need to do for someone else. In a collectivist culture in which selfish pursuits are often discouraged, pachinko offers a completely self-absorbing and single-minded escape. My friend Kento told me that in the pachinko industry, one rule of parlor design is that two things must not be visible inside the parlor – mirrors and clocks. Mirrors, I suspect, would jar people from their fantasy. Looking at oneself in a mirror, one might be forced to consider the question “why am I here?”, and then remember the family or the job they have waiting for them outside in the real world. And the absence of clocks is obvious. Time flies by while playing pachinko, but it is impossible to lose a lot of money all at once.

Exiting the parlor feels like stepping between worlds. Suddenly breathing clean air, seeing natural light, and hearing only the background noise of the suburbs, one realizes just how loud the interior of the parlor was. During my third visit, I used an iPhone application to measure the decibel level of the parlor. I measured the ambient noise, walking down each aisle with the microphone of my phone pointed forward. I measured an average of 94 decibels with a peak of 105. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends no more than four hours per day of exposure to noise at 95 decibels, and no more than one hour of exposure to levels of 105 decibels. But I doubt the players are aware of this – the noise is mesmerizing to such an extent that while inside it, you don’t even realize that it is loud.

Denizens of the Parlor

Based on my observations, it is hard to generalize and say who frequents these parlors. There was a mix of young and old, men and women, but overall, the clientele seemed older, and more male. People kept to themselves, focused solely on the screens and balls in front of them. It was hard to see their faces, but based on how I felt during play, I imagine they are expressionless and slack.

In an interview with with Kento Arata, my friend who manages his family’s pachinko business, he told me that the majority of their customers are people who work low-wage jobs, often manual labor. Of course, salaried workers and those with financial means visit the parlors, but according to him, they spend less time and less money on average. Thompson et al. (2005) looked at data from a 2001 national general survey and found some results that run counter to my expectations. Frequent players are significantly more likely than the general public to be smokers and drinkers, and are overwhelmingly male. However, they are equally representative of a wide range of incomes and are just as likely as the average person to own their own home. In the end, their conclusion is that frequent players do not constitute a distinct subculture. My own experience leaves me wondering, particularly as pachinko becomes less broadly popular yet still maintains its profits (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011).

I am still left with the question – who are these people? They are mothers, fathers, sons, friends, uncles, grandparents, and they are spending their free time alone, slowly whiling away their earnings one steel ball at a time. Thompson et al. (2005) describe the social cost of time that pachinko takes, stating that “many players are identified as neglecting their family obligations to play.”

While my on-site observations cannot confirm this, I asked some of my adult students in my evening conversation class what they thought about pachinko. One woman told me a story about how her husband took their 6th grade son shopping, but actually went at the same parlor that I visited and left the boy by himself for two hours at a nearby shopping mall. She was obviously angry about this. Another student told me a sad story of a farming family in our small town who years ago lost their livelihoods to a pachinko addiction. They began to spend more time at the parlor, and less time taking care of their dairy cows. They reached a point where, to finance their pachinko habit, they began to sell off their livestock, and eventually ended up with nothing.

Most research on pachinko focuses on its legality, or its cost to society. My interest here has been only to explore the pachinko parlor as a gathering place within contemporary Japanese culture, and to try and gain a sense of who plays and why. It is an interesting game in many different respects, almost bewildering to an outsider. Leaving questions of morality, legality, and the social good aside, I can see why many people use the game as just another form of recreation, as a way to “cope with stress,” to “pass the time” or “to be solitary.” (Takiguchi & Rosenthal, 2011). It is impossible to lose a lot of money at once, and easy to frequently “win” small sums. The atmosphere of the parlor is exciting and lively, and nothing is required of the player except to turn a dial and watch the balls and pretty lights. No one will bother you – no one is likely to even recognize you. The world of the parlor is an utterly different one than the world outside. Pachinko parlors offer a convenient and somewhat burden-free escape from the daily pressures of work, family, and society that people face each day. Whether this is good is a wholly different question.


Thompson, W.N., Tanioka, I., & Fujimoto, K. (2005). Pachinko players in Japan: Subculture, cult, or ordinary citizens at leisure?. Gaming Law Review, 9 (6: 592-598)

Brooks, G., Ellis, T., & Lewis, C. (2008). Pachinko: A Japanese addiction?. International Gambling Studies, 8 (2: 193-205).

Takiguchi, N., & Rosenthal, R.J. (2011). Problem gambling in Japan: A social perspective. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 11, (1).

Plotz, D. (2002). Pachinko nation. U.S.-Japan Foundation Media Fellows Program.