Merry Christmas!

It’s 8am, and Mayuki is still asleep. There’s no snow on the ground, but looking out of the window I have a beautiful view of the snow on Mt Fuji. In Japan, where almost no-one is a Christian, everyone wishes you a Merry Christmas (but it’s a normal working day).

So, Merry Christmas!

New Job

At the beginning of this month, I started a new job. Actually, I started working on it some time before that, but I started getting paid, and going into the office, at the beginning of this month. Yes, I have an office and a salary. Yet another piece of irrefutable evidence that I have entered middle age.

The job is at The Japan Institute of Logic. The homepage is all in Japanese at the moment, because producing an English version is on my list of jobs to do. It’s not very high on that list, however.

The Institute’s main purpose is to set and administer tests in logical thinking. The Japanese like these kinds of examinations, so there is a possible market. It also provides training related to those tests, both directly and indirectly. That is, we have seminars that will train you to take the test, and we have seminars to train people to train people to take the test. I’ve been hired to run the English section. Actually, at the moment, I’ve been hired to be the English section; we use freelancers for some things, but I’m the only real employee. That’s because we’re only just getting started.

As a result, I’m very busy. I’m in the office two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they’re ten to twelve hour days, leaving the flat at 6:30 (before Yuriko is awake, and usually before Mayuki is awake, too), and getting back around 9:00 at night, at which point Mayuki is not normally asleep, although Yuriko is saying “Come on Mayuki, time for bed”. I don’t get paid overtime; the days are so long because, as we’re just starting, I can’t actually fit everything I have to do into two eight hour days.

So, what am I doing right now? First, I’m setting the first round of English-based logic tests. These are multiple choice tests, because those are the easiest to scale up, so I’m having to be quite creative to find ways to test the ability to create arguments in such a setting. I also need to set two levels, one that high school students can cope with, and one for the general public. Getting the level right is, as you might imagine, one of the hardest parts.

Second, I’m writing and giving the lectures on English-based logic. These are three hour sessions, with a bit more than half of the time devoted to practice questions, and we’re holding one every other week. That means writing a ninety minute lecture every two weeks.

In Japanese.

You see, although the lectures are about logic in English, they aim to provide useful techniques for people whose English is not very good. If I were to explain that in English, the level of English required to understand the lectures would be far higher than the level needed to use the content, which would be a problem. So, I have to write them in Japanese, and that is rather harder than doing it in English. Fortunately, keeping a daily blog in Japanese for the last five and a half years means that I have had quite a lot of practice at writing in Japanese, so I’m not finding it impossible, but I still haven’t had as much practice in Japanese as I have in English.

My approach to the problem, and what I am trying to teach in the classes and test in the exams, is that you do not need to speak perfect, or even roughly correct, English in order to communicate your ideas. If your ideas are well organised, and you make the individual points clearly and separately, then the people you are speaking to will be able to extract your meaning despite mistakes. Similarly, with practice you can pick out the important points from what people are saying, and understand their argument even if you don’t understand all of the words.

This is important, because it just takes too long to get a high level of proficiency in a foreign language. Even though I can write lectures on logic in Japanese, I am informed that I use a number of, how shall I put it, highly idiosyncratic expressions. Or possibly highly idiotic expressions. And that’s after eighteen months of full time study and a total of eight years living in Japan. Most Japanese people are not going to be able to put that much time and effort into English, so I’m hoping to offer a framework that will give them something useful for international communication in a much shorter package. As an added bonus, thinking clearly about arguments is very useful in Japanese as well, so they’ll get some benefit in their native language too.

Mr Hayashi, the director of the Institute, is very enthusiastic, which is good, and also has a lot of good contacts in various companies, which means I’ve been going to business lunches with the presidents of the Japanese branches of multinationals. They’ve all been very positive about what we’re offering, as they can see the need for more effective communication, and know from experience that studying the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs doesn’t help a lot. So, it’s not certain that the Institute will succeed, but the early signs are very promising. I certainly believe that this is a good approach to English, and to communication in general, which is why I took the job and am working long days, when I’m in the office.

This may well prove to be a major turning point in my life, on a similar scale to choosing to move to Japan (but not quite on the level of getting married or having Mayuki). At the very least, I’m getting to do something that I think is important in a completely different environment to the ones I’m used to, so what I learn will be valuable even if this project fails for some unaccountable reason. I’ve already had the experience of being on Tokyo trains at the height of the rush hour.

That’s another reason why I leave home at 6:30…

Proposals on Surveys and Pensions

Oh dear, it really has been too long since I posted to this blog. I’ve just started a new job, at the Japan Institute of Logic, so I’ve been extremely busy. I may have to start tweeting, since they’re supposed to be really short.

Anyway, today we had another meeting of the Kawasaki Representative Assembly for Foreign Residents. There are only two more left, so it was quite important that the process of drafting our proposals for the mayor move forward. While getting a couple of dozen foreign residents together to discuss life in Kawasaki is one of the purposes of the Assembly, its main purpose is to produce concrete proposals for the city government to act on and make life better for the foreign, and Japanese, people who live there. So getting the proposals together is very important.

Obviously, they have to be in Japanese, but fortunately the secretariat does the detailed drafting for us. We decide on the content, they draft something, and then we look at the draft and ask for changes. Last time, we decided on the content of the proposal for a survey concerning the foreign residents of Kawasaki. This would cover such things as experiences of discrimination, problems with services, education, or housing, the distribution of information, and the ways in which foreign residents were participating in civic life. Kawasaki did do a similar survey, in 1993, but nothing large scale has been done since, so knowledge of the current situation is a bit limited. We’re asking for the survey to be done every five years, and to have questions that overlap with similar surveys in other countries (the EU did a big one a few years ago) so that the situation in Japan can be objectively compared with other places. We are, of course, asking that the results be public. The hope is that this data will help the Representative Assembly to address the most important issues, as well as helping other organs of the city government.

Today, we looked at the draft that had been prepared, and asked for a number of changes. Some of them were because we’d changed our minds since last time (the first draft said once every two years, which is a bit much), but most were because we wanted a slightly different emphasis from the way the proposal had been drafted. The changes are pretty straightforward, and all were agreed unanimously, so I think the revised draft will be very close to what we want.

We also discussed the pension problem. As I’ve mentioned before, the Japanese pension system is not very good if you come from a country without a pension treaty with Japan and stay for more than three years, but go home before you retire. This is obviously a problem for people who are working here, and the Assembly addressed it before, in 2003, asking for the amount of money paid back when you leave the country to be increased.

That hasn’t happened, so we agreed to ask again, but also to encourage the conclusion of more treaties with foreign countries, so that more people can take advantage of that and sort out their pensions that way. In addition, since those two points are things that only the national government can do, we agreed to ask the city to prepare multi-lingual and easy-to-understand explanations of the system.

We’ll have the draft to look at next time, so we can get a revised version made before the final meeting. Thus, we’re in good shape to meet the deadline. In fact, we have a rather nice problem, in that it’s not clear that we will need all the time we have for discussion at the next meeting; we finished about 15 minutes early today. The other subcommittee don’t have this problem, shall we say, so it’s going to be a bit tricky to balance the overall running of the final meetings, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

Personally, I don’t expect too much from the pension proposal, although we’ll probably get the multi-lingual explanations. Japan is in the process of reforming the whole pension system anyway, so these problems might well go away and be replaced by different ones. It’s important to remind the decision-makers of the foreign residents, but we’re still a very small group. On the other hand, I very much hope that the survey will happen every five years, because it would provide immensely useful information. If that happens, I’ll feel that my time on the Assembly was very well spent.