Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Japanese Speech Competitions

Speech competitions are ordeals that are very popular in Japan. People seem to gain an inordinate amount of pride discovering the youth of their country have nothing interesting or useful to say. And just to make it doubly disconnected from reality the young Japanese are forced to mouth their vacuities and generalizations in slurred and butchered English.

There is a reason why kids go to school, and it’s because they don’t know Jack Shit. These are surely the least hopeful candidates to give an enlightening or at least elucidating speech on any subject other than twiddling mechanical pencils, texting or spare time deprivation. What unnatural torture is it therefore that I must get up on a Saturday morning to listen to a bunch of kids spurt and garble out the incorrect English that their school teachers have made them memorize? Perhaps it is karma for my slovenly life and lessons.

As a side-show to the main attraction of ‘our kids’ shining for the community the powers that be will also slip in a few mild mannered Thais and Filipinos who will make an honest fist of speaking Japanese. I call this part the ‘house niggers section’.

The Asians and South Americans working for a better life and to feed their families back home will inevitably make their post-colonial masters happy by mentioning how beautiful Mount Fuji is and how wonderfully bland the food is. The audience gains untold pleasure of tales of slight cultural confusions and how Japan is just deep down better than the dirty and dangerous places from which the house niggers originate. Hearing the gratitude of the servant in the language of the master is one of the secret wet dreams of the Japanese. They were late to the idea of empire and now are making up for lost time. They have intuitively grasped the importance of patronizing the subservient races that they allow to make their cars and look after their old people.

One way to gain an insight into the Japanese speech festival is to compare it to other speech festivals around the world. They seem to be mostly for the young and concerned with ‘good morals’. When I was in China my university regularly held speech contests for the undergraduates. The speeches were interspersed with dances and kung fu exhibitions. The festivals where English was used required my attendance since I was one of only six native English speakers in the city of one million hawkers and spitters.

The topics at the Chinese speech festivals were all about noble service to the motherland and to the people. All about past heroes of the people – striving with every breath to help the masses attain the workers’ paradise that would surely be around the corner if they all pulled together instead of spitting together. No matter what the supposed theme of the speech festival it always in the end became a glorification of communist control.

I would stop listening after two speeches and would pass the time eyeing the audience for fit birds with any hint of a bosom. After two hours I would stand up and say a few non-sequiturs about how well all the contestants spoke English and how noble it is to have unselfish dreams. I would then be lead away by some cadres of the party to spend the people’s glorious money on a banquet that would involve copious amounts of pork fat, cigarettes and a clear fortified wine called bijou that smelt of paint thinner. I never remember anyone winning a Chinese speech festival. I guess everyone was a winner, especially the head of teaching and the work unit party vice president who got a belly full of grease and paint thinner.

In Japan they are far more refined and middle class. Strident love of the motherland is just not the thing. It must be a gentle and wistful love. The Japanese have an innate fear of concepts like ‘society’ and ‘workers’ utopia’. Indeed any concept is best avoided. It is possible in Japanese to speak for several minutes without saying anything about anything. Reading translations of Japanese writing I’m often reminded of cheating company executives in court who say such things as: “It is regrettable.”

The safe topics for Japanese middle school and high school students are ‘My dream’, ‘Why I love ping pong’ ‘My Home stay in Canada’ and ‘I want to go to Mars’ The last speech ordeal I went to had 16 speeches that needed judging. Of those 16 speeches 4 of them had the word ‘dream’ in the title, 2 of them were about home stays and 3 of them were about mother love. One was about an animation called ‘Prince of Tennis’ and another about some martial art that police learn. And of course one was about being the first mother-loving Japanese nob-end to get to Mars and start a ping pong club. (You can guess where my vote went).

As with the Chinese speeches the title really didn’t matter because the composition was always so convoluted and error strewn that comprehension was very much in the ear of the listener. The sentiments of all the speeches reflected entirely the propaganda that is foisted upon Japanese kids throughout their education: a propaganda of sacrificing to the group, of getting along with the group and of studying hard and working long hours to make their parents proud and then to make Japan proud. Throughout it all I scour the crowd for someone below 80 years old with a bosom worthy of contemplation.

I imagine speech festivals in Europe and America would not be much better. The whole thing whiffs of middle class smugness: it is the precocious kid showing off in front of parents.

But just imagine a speech festival in Africa or South America. Imagine a big eyed Ugandan kid with ragged shorts and dirty T-shirt stating his dream is to have a home with running water and a school with text books; or a Brazilian child talking about his class mates who have fallen victim to street violence and drug addiction. These would be speeches worth listening to, and indeed worth recording and relaying to the politicians who do nothing to improve the plight of these children.

Perhaps it is always the way that those who need to be given a voice, those who are morally justified in standing up for their human rights never get the audience they deserve. Send all the ‘my dream’ kids home and let’s listen to teenage English girls who have their clitoris and labia removed and their vaginas sewn up and who are sent back to Africa to get married to misogynists. Let’s listen to the homeless guy who lost his job, home and family when the banks crashed. Let’s listen to the injured war veteran. Let’s listen to the holocaust survivor. Let’s listen to Nelson Mandela. These are the people who are entitled to appeal to the public, to educate the public and to earn the consideration and help of the public.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom of course: entertainment is its own justification. If the speeches are funny, witty, original or provocative then there might be a pleasure to be gained in listening to them.

But no. What you always get is:

“What do you want to be in the future? Do you have your own dream? Having a dream is an important thing for your success. Let’s have a dream. Thank you.”

‘Let’s have a dream’ is that English? Is it code for ‘let’s have a cup of tea’?

Judging one inane speech to be any different or better than another is difficult. Obviously the kids with access to a foreigner to correct their English have an advantage. Also the kids that display something the Japanese call ‘genki’ (which translates as manic and pointless energy like a dog chasing its tail) are regarded as having ‘the right stuff’. The winners are elevated above the group because they best represent the mediocrity of the group. I have no doubt that Jean Paul Satre wouldn’t have won any speech contests in Japan. A nausea that makes it hard to breath is not the genki thing to talk about.

After a Japanese speech contest the token foreigners as with China are invited to a meal. I turn them down whenever possible. At least the Chinese banquets were colorful: full of vomiting and dirty jokes about tofu. Although the Japanese like the Chinese would find it hard to refrain from making a comment to the effect that they are impressed with the foreigner monkey being able to use chopsticks, the conversation and action around the table would be confined to a stifling middle-classness. A chit chat full of mock seriousness whose only dogma is to avoid controversy.

As a footnote to this meandering diatribe, I have a Toyota worker in one of my classes who is in a Toyota speech competition. It seems that every Toyota employee must make a speech about his or her dream; or failing that how Toyota can get a man on Mars; and that’s preferably a mother-loving nihonjin we’re talking about.

If the Toyota worker succeeds in impressing he has to re-live the nightmare in the regional finals. I imagine the reward is delayed retirement: just too much of the right stuff to let go when they are 65. What is interesting about the Toyota student is the amount of time he says that he devotes to his speech. It’s not about cars of the future or Japan’s energy policy. It’s about nothing and surely a waste of company time to listen to. It’s just about torture; about making sure the workers will do anything that is asked of them; and do it without grumbling.

You break a man’s will by asking him to do a pointless action over and over again. This process starts early in Japan and continues throughout adult life. The kids are forced to spend more time playing sports than studying. They are forced to attend after-school schools where they are taught to pass exams. It is unnecessary to learn anything more than the fundamental importance of fitting in, of buckling down, of enduring. Eventually a type of Stockholm Syndrome manifests itself and the prisoner begins to love his or her captivity and begins to respect his or her captors.

At present the Japanese public is slowly but surely being poisoned by Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. I wish I could say it was an unprecedented event in Japan. If history was taught properly at school then the Japanese citizenry would never stand for the criminal negligence that TEPCO has shown. They would probably never have agreed to nuclear power stations in the first place.

Having been told what to think all their lives the Japanese population is in a state of denial. They hear the government say that this bit of meat has a bit of radioactivity in it; that they would have to eat the same meat for 6 months to get any ill effect from it. Such news fills them with relief.

If only some smart kid would stand up at a speech festival and say:

“Hang on a second. We are eating the same meat every day. What they are really telling us is that we will be sick in 6 months!”

That’s my dream. And also going to Mars with my favored paddle.

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