Saturday, July 24, 2010


Before and shortly after arriving in Japan, I was told about various peculiar Japanese, err..."customs," and to expect that I could be the subject of more than a few of them. The story that follows is true.

While in the school gym playing basketball one day, a couple Japanese second graders saw me dribbling the ball between my legs and were thoroughly gobsmacked. Of course, they immediately wanted to know if I could dunk, but even on an eight-foot hoop I'm a little undersized for such theatrics. I can dribble circles around second graders though! Soon there were a few more students joining the fray, and by fray I mean wild clusterf#@k of baying mouths and swinging arms as the grade-schoolers set about trying to steal the ball from me. It bears repeating that there were six or seven of them and only one of me, and their knowledge of what constituted a foul could often be interpreted as anything short of striking the body. (I guess you can take the kid out of the karate, but you can't take the karate out of the kid.) As their efforts continued to prove fruitless, a few of them would cling to my legs as a means of slowing my foot-speed. Some would tug at my shirt, or fetch HulaHoops to throw in front of me or to use as a giant collar for capture purposes. Each time it got out of hand I'd stop the play and remind them of what is and isn't acceptable. I shouldn't have encouraged them so. Finally, they cornered me at one end of the gym and I sat down on some steps leading up to the stage behind us. I took the ball in both hands, holding it tight—a nonverbal challenge inviting them to try and strip it from me. Three, four, five, even all of them tugging and pounding on the ball wouldn't reward them with its freedom. The weight of their overeager bodies pressed me into a diagonal position lying on the steps, and I think a few more students who hadn't been playing "basketball keep-away" suddenly joined in when they saw it had become "gang-pile on Eigo-sensei". Now it was ON! There was no way I was letting these little kids beat me! Then...AHHHaHa! For the onomatopoeically-impaired, that's sudden alarm followed by wounded laughter. I had been kanchou'ed! With that, the ball was put away, and the students learned exactly how far they could take things before our game was brought to an end.

A few months later, I'm strolling down the hallway and a group of third graders notice me coming toward them. (Virtually every time I'm seen by grade school kids in the hallways, their inevitable response is, "O! Ransu-sensei!" like they've spotted an animal in the wild or their favorite TV show just came on.) I catch up to the kids and they sort of just stare at me as I pass. I suddenly stop walking and hold perfectly still. I can hear them jolt behind me, "E?" One of them comes around to check my face and is amazed to find me holding still, not even blinking. They chatter amongst themselves, unsure of what to do. The hardest part is keeping from smiling as I notice them prod my arm then move it to a new position, still frozen in space, and then gasp collectively. Then it's my turn to gasp, only privately and not without a sting of embarrassment. Kanchou'ed again! I turned around and grabbed the little squirt to deliver a gentle swat on the bee-hind, turn about (well, sort of) being fair play!

So, what's a kanchou? It's the Japanese equivalent of a wedgie, but in the same ballpark as a corndog or a tity-twister in America. Your basic juvenile mischief often associated with horsing around or physical play. They're not administered with maliciousness, though they're also not accepted in public settings and polite society. Reasonably enough, the students haven't made a habit of this, and it seems only the very young would make the mistake of pulling this prank on someone they didn't know all that well.

So far so good, Japan! ;)