The Mikan — Pirates, Monks, and Inakamono: Ehime in Contemporary Media

Pirates, Monks, and Inakamono: Ehime in Contemporary Media

John Wheeler

Tokyo is the center of Japan’s media industry, the place where a majority of production and marketing happens. The capital’s gravity is felt in everything from films to manga to advertising. Tokyo is modern Japan, and everywhere else assumes an outside position relative to the center.

There are extremes. Hokkaido is the frontier, making it a reasonable stand-in for southern Kansas in Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and for Norfolk in the Studio Ghibli reimagining of “When Marnie was There.” Okinawa represents both relaxation and danger in the Japanese consciousness. Characters may go to Okinawa to vacation, but often enough they go to buy guns or drugs, as in Takeshi Kitano’s “Boiling Point.” In the extreme case of the cult anime short film “Blood: The Last Vampire,” a young warrior poses as a schoolgirl to kill demons. Both films take place on or around the American military bases.

In between these two geographical outliers is the countryside, the signs of which are nearly universal and coded to create nostalgia even in people whose only experience of the pastoral is through media. Much Japanese media set outside of Tokyo emphasizes the divide between tokai and inaka. When city folk trek to the inaka, they may encounter mystery or horror rooted in local traditions (see the film “Shikoku”), find spiritual healing (“Departures”), or become wrapped up in a comedy of manners. Films and novels set in the inaka without this “visiting protagonist” may be about attempts to make the country more like the city through economic revitalization plans (“Hula Girls”) or material consumption (“Kamikaze Girls”).These rural settings have defining characteristics such as local landmarks and dialects, but they are reduced to places we want to go because they are different from the alienating crush of city life.

With all of this in mind, what images does Ehime conjure in the Japanese imagination? Using the Ehime film section at my local Tsutaya, Wikipedia, and a website cataloguing location shoots across Japan, I’ve compiled a list of media (mostly films) set in Ehime. One quality of Japanese media that frustrates this kind of research is the intentional ambiguity of settings outside of Tokyo. Many films and dramas with scenes shot in Ehime take place in anonymous seaside towns.

It goes without saying that the most famous work set in Ehime is Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan,” a gentle satire of country folk from the perspective of a city boy. The novel has been embraced by the targets of its humor, who have named everything from a stadium to clinics to parking lots after the novel. As a part of the literary canon, “Botchan” is an extraordinary example, but there are very few contemporary works explicitly set in Ehime. The ones I found fit the patterns discussed above. The settings have qualities specific to Ehime that make them curious to outsiders and familiar to locals, but thematically they serve mainly to create a contrast between the city and the country. The most common imagery in these works is of healthy, tanned seafarers and pilgrims in white, and Ehime is accordingly associated with summer. The following is a list of works that engage with the Ehime setting in different ways.

“Crying Out Love in the Center of the World” (2001)

(Also known as “Socrates in Love”)


By some measures one of the ten best-selling books of all time in Japan, this soapy teenage romance by Kyoichi Katayama is set in his hometown of Uwajima and features many of the city’s landmarks. The film version (2004), directed by Isao Yukisada (who also made “Go,” the smash hit about a Korean-Japanese teenager) was largely shot in Shikoku and features the Ehime Prefectural Office doubling as a hospital. An 11-episode TV drama aired from July 2–Sept. 10, 2004.

“The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates” (2013)


The winner of the 2014 Japan Booksellers’ Award was this work of historical fiction about Kyo, the wild daughter of the last great pirate lord of the Seto Inland Sea. She gets wrapped up in the conflict between Oda Nobunaga and Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple. In reality, nothing is known about Murakami Takeyoshi’s daughter except for her name, which author Ryo Wada took to create a selfish, insecure, but inevitably good-hearted protagonist who idolizes another legendary ocean princess: Tsuruhime. It was recently adapted into a manga, a medium more suitable for the story’s exaggerated characters and often contemporary themes. For anyone interested in these seafaring clans, I recommend the Murakami Suigun Museum on Oshima Island.

“I am a Monk.” (2015)


Based on a collection of autobiographical essays by Missei Shirakawa, the head priest of Eifuku-ji Temple in Imabari, this film was shot largely on location. Like many contemporary Japanese films, it is more episodic than narrative-driven. The protagonist is a monk who becomes head priest at age 26. While the film is cheesy and at times even amateurish, it captures the temple inside and out. “I am a Monk” also documents daily life at the temple, including scenes of visits from traveling salesmen, meetings with disgruntled parishioners, and monks getting blackout drunk.

“Tora-san Meets His Lordship” (1977)

男はつらいよ 寅次郎と殿様

Released twice a year for over 20 years and almost all directed by Yoji Yamada, the beloved Tora-san films (officially “It’s Tough Being a Man” in English) are a testament to the Japanese love of formula. Over the 46 films in the Tora-san series, the eponymous protagonist visited every prefecture in Japan except Kochi, Saitama, and Toyama. The 19th installment features a visit to Ozu and opens with the hero daydreaming while waiting for a train at Shimonada Station. Tora-san is a perpetual fish out of water, a traveling salesman with a rough Tokyo-Shitamachi accent and manner. He is kind and unlucky in love. This film’s core is a friendship between him and the wealthy descendant of Ozu’s domain lord. It features many scenes shot in Ozu and on Gogoshima.

“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” (1995)


While not entirely set in Ehime, this installment of the long-running film series features a close call between the big lizard and the Ikata Nuclear Power Plant. This imagery is uncomfortable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, though the scene is silly in spite of itself: a high-tech fighter jet applies a soothing lotion to the monster’s burning nuclear rash. I don’t have much experience with these movies, though I learned some from Youtube explanations and rankings while watching this highly acclaimed installment.

Other films set in Ehime available at Tsutaya:

“Samurai Pirates” (2013)

Like a G-rated version of “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates.”

“Shodo Girls” (2010)  A “big competition” film set in Shikokuchuo and based on a true story.

More than “Crying Out Love” and even “Botchan,” the specific settings of “I am a Monk.” or “The Daughter of the Murakami Pirates,” rooted in real life and history, can’t be swapped out with any other place in Japan. We can enjoy most works set or shot in Ehime because we live here and our connection to the setting is different than for films set in other inaka, but I wonder what impression they have on viewers from Tokyo. Do images of our prefecture convey specific qualities, or does it merely become part of the larger dialogue between inaka and tokai? I can’t say, but I hope to see more novels and films that engage with Ehime (and Shikoku) on a deep level.

Continue reading

The Mikan — Anime and Manga Update

Anime and Manga Update

Leiso Edwards

I’m a big fan of anime and manga and, if you let me, I would never shut up  about it. However, it’s sometimes better to be brief. Instead of talking excessively of how great anime and manga is, I’ll just get to the point.

Firstly, I have two recommendations for new anime that are currently airing.

1) “Mayoiga” (English: “The Lost Village.” 12 episodes)

This is an intriguing mystery anime with a lot of characters that you can’t wait to seedie… and they probably will.  The screenwriter is the same one behind “AnoHana”, “Toradora” and other great works. Plus, there is almost no evidence of an absolute original source material (i.e. a manga/light novel), meaning that the trolls and spoilers will stay in their caves.

2) “Koutetsujou no Kabaneri” (English: “Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.” 12 episodes)

Another anime original, this could be the love child of “Attack on Titan,” “High-school ofthe Dead,” “Princess Mononoke” and… “Rail Wars”…? The director is Tetsurou Araki, meaning it’s basically anime nobility. I admit it’s too similar to some of Araki’s more popular (and largely aforementioned) works to be called smashingly original, yet the show has wicked potential, and could be one of the best ones this year if they don’t screw it up.

In a similar vein, I’ll just recommend a few manga series that I enjoy(ed), and maybe expose people to something new.

My first recommendation is “Psyren” (2007; 16 volumes). “Psyren” is an underappreciated shounen, horror, supernatural, mystery, romance, adventure series with an engaging plot, characters you’ll like, and a main character who isn’t full of crap.

I also recommend “Mahou Tsukai No Yome” (English: “The Ancient Magus Bride.” 2014; 5 Japanese volumes; 3 English volumes), a supernatural/romance shoujo series (directed at girls/young women). The manga is  stuck somewhere between old shoujo , where everybody messed with everybody else’s mind and occasionally tried to kill each other, and modern shoujo, where everything is so innocent and sweet you run the risk of becoming diabetic.

The series is getting a home video release in summer for those  who prefer anime.

Finally, I recommend “Nana to Kaoru” (2008; 16 volumes). I admit I’ve only read some parts of this manga(*wink wink*) as I’m not really into… what Nana and Kaoru are into. However, I have had a largely enjoyable time with this manga (*grins). The title characters have doubts and problems that could belong to any one of us and are really endearing. I left out the genres because I’m entertained by the idea of you finding out for yourself.

Finally, some anime-related news. Easily the best thing I’ve seen so far (outside the Summer 2016 anime line-up, of course) is the fact that “Ghost In The Shell” is getting an actual live action release. AND that they’ve started filming. AND that the release date has been set, meaning… this is happening!

My hopes for the movie are that they stick to the original material but explore a different story arc than the original movies and the various series; that they tone it down enough that a wider audience can understand the plot but not so much so that you leave the theatre dumber than you entered; and that they keep the atmosphere mature and not make it family-friendly.

I have already seen controversy around Hollywood whitewashing the cast. However, I find that no different from Japan Asian-washing the “Attack on Titan” movie. I honestly don’t mind if they use big-name actors that will deliver a performance and rake in the bucks. What I would mind is if they change characters’ names and backstories to fit their new lighter complexions. For a series with such complicated characters as GITS, that would be disrespectful to the original story and ensure that the movie shares only the name with the original and nothing else beneath (if you’ll pardon the pun) the skin. Continue reading

The Mikan — Tell Me About the Rabbits

Tell Me About the Rabbits

Anna Sheffer

From fox villages to cat cafes, Japan has a reputation for animal tourism. And one of the most unique examples is Okunoshima — an island overrun with rabbits — located between Ehime and Hiroshima prefectures in the Seto Inland Sea. After hearing rave reviews, some friends and I decided to visit the island in mid-March.

For such a popular attraction, Okunoshima was surprisingly difficult to reach. We took a train to Imabari, where we caught a bus to Omishima, the largest of the islands along the Shimanami Kaido. From the bus stop at Inokuchi port on Omishima, it was about a 45-minute walk to the next port on the island, the only place we could catch the ferry to Okunoshima.

The clerk at the ferry port sold bunches of carrots for 100 yen each — a good indication of how many people visit for the sake of the rabbits. We’d come armed with our own carrots and lettuce, so we didn’t buy from him this time around.

The ferry runs once every couple of hours, and, after missing the 10 a.m. ferry, we opted to eat lunch on the dock while waiting for the noon ferry. We spent the short, 15-minute ride watching Okunoshima grow larger as the ferry grew nearer. From sea, the island has nothing distinct about it; it’s a mass of pine trees and boulders like the other islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

But as soon as we set foot on the island, we were greeted by a swarm of bunnies feasting on pellets that a couple of tourists tossed to them. It didn’t take me long to open my bag of lettuce. The rabbits, though definitely not underfed, were eager for a treat, and hopped right up to tourists who had anything in their hands. One of my friends shooed away curious bunnies as they sniffed at the orange case on her phone.

These rabbits are not the skittish animals found in neighborhoods back home. They put their paws on my knee as they stretched for food, nuzzling my hand even when I didn’t have anything to offer. I’m something of a sucker for animals, and I encouraged them, waving strips of lettuce in the face of whatever bunny wandered my direction. Coos and cries of “kawaii!” could be heard all around — especially from me, though I’d like to pretend I have more dignity than that.


Not all of the animals are cuddly, though; among the fat, fluffy bunnies were several rabbits missing eyes or with chunks of their ears torn off, more like scruffy bunny pirates than house pets. These battle scars likely came from squabbles over territory or food, since outside dogs and cats are banned from the island.

Aside from rabbits, Okunoshima is famous for its poison gas plant, which produced mustard gas and tear gas during World War II. Though the plant was abandoned after the war, modern tourists can learn about the island’s history at the Poison Gas Museum and other former manufacturing operations that dot the island’s perimeter. Now, these abandoned husks of buildings serve as more hiding places for the rabbits, who dig burrows near old foundations and sleep under decaying bridges.

Urban legend has it that Okunoshima’s rabbits are the descendants of test subjects that were released into the wild when the gas factory closed. Another popular theory holds that the current population is descended from eight classroom pets that were released into the wild. Whatever the case, the 2.5 km of Okunoshima are now dominated by more than 700 rabbits. It’s impossible to visit and not see a rabbit.

Regardless of the island’s past, it has a promising future in tourism. The island has its own resort and campground, complete with onsen and a gift shop where visitors can purchase any rabbit-themed souvenir imaginable — from tenugui to rabbit-shaped cookies. Connected to the gift shop is a cafe where customers can enjoy small meals or ice cream while watching rabbits frolic on the hotel’s lawn.

We finished our day on Okunoshima by walking along the boardwalk back to the ferry port. Even on the wooden planks of the boardwalk we found wayward rabbits hopeful for a carrot or two. As we sat on benches waiting for the return ferry, three rabbits joined us, lounging under a tree and looking tired, but content, just like us.

Compared to their house-pet cousins or the cats who inhabit cat cafes, I’d imagine the bunnies of Okunoshima have no reason to complain. With the exception of a few gates, they’re free to roam wherever they want, dig holes, and frolic with other rabbits. They’re not overcrowded or outcompeted, and they always have access to fresh water. And animal-loving tourists (like me) will always be around to offer them carrots in exchange for a photo.


Continue reading

The Mikan — Never Give Up: the Japanese community theatre experience

Never Give Up: the Japanese community theatre experience

Rowan Carmichael

Musical theatre isn’t easy. You have to be able to sing, dance and act, as well as give the commitment that any performance requires. To do a musical, you need a “Never Give Up” kind of mindset. I had the chance to be in a musical about a man with that very mindset — Sogo Shinji, the founder of the shinkansen. “Full speed ahead! The Shinkansen Dream ~The Story of Kiku and Shinji,” centered on Shinji’s motto “Yuufazu” (有法子 “Never give up” in Chinese) and how he never gave up on Saijo, his wife, or the shinkansen.

Like Sogo Shinji, I had to follow the spirit of “Yuufazu” even from before my audition. The auditions required me singing a set song (to be given on the day) and a Japanese poem. I was dreading this because I probably wouldn’t understand the poem even if I could read it. Even if I did understand it, I knew very few Japanese songs so I didn’t think I’d know this one. I nearly dropped out because I just assumed it would be impossible, but in the end, I decided that at worst, the experience of auditioning for a musical in Japan would be worth it. I managed to read through a poem I still don’t understand, and I was given permission to sing any song I wanted. And so I did.

I got accepted.

We all got accepted in fact. And so began the first trial: reading a script dense with Japanese that was certainly not in line with my N4/N3 skills. My lines would come up, and I’d be in the wrong place of the script, and then scrambling to read the line that was actually mine. With no prep time I couldn’t find readings for kanji, and even if I did, some of it was in the local dialect or archaic. Ultimately I was given a small role that used a combination of English and Japanese, and I was able to focus on really making those lines work.

How do you sing a small tsu (っ)? Singing was more of a trial than I expected. I’d never read sheet music with Japanese before and the っused on notes was confusing. For the longest time I found the songs difficult to memorize. With words flowing so much into each other it was a puzzle to just know where the words broke, making finding the meaning for words I didn’t know difficult if not impossible when clustered together. As someone who usually has little trouble memorizing an English song, this was frustrating. The one thing I thought I’d have no trouble with ended up being a major difficulty! It took me several extra weeks of solid practice to nail the lyrics so that I could finally work on the dance.

Dancing was a surprising relief. If you were to look at me, dancing might not seem like my favored activity. But because learning the dances was a simple matter of watch and repeat, it was a nice break from using so much energy listening out for instructions.

Which leaves the biggest continuous challenge I had: following directions. We were a pure Japanese troupe aside from me, so naturally all the directions were given in Japanese. I certainly learned a lot from context, but long rehearsals (twice weekly, 3-6 hours) were exhausting. Not just because of the length, but because I wanted to not be the weakest link in the chain, and to not slow anything down, which meant always being ready to leap into action, and thus listening carefully to anything that might apply to me.

After about four months of rehearsals, it was almost time to perform the real thing. The two weeks leading up to the show consisted of 6-12 hours of rehearsals a day in the blazing summer. “Never give up” was said a lot by the producers of the show. By the time the show ran, we had been practicing for so long I think everyone had difficulty believing we were finally performing! The show sold out in both venues, and people to this day still tell me how wonderful it was. With strong performances particularly for the role of Sogo Shinji in his old age and his wife Kiku. But why don’t you see a bit  for yourself?

Next time you think “I can’t do that!” imagine a rather tall, rounded Australian man performing a cheery song about never letting go of your dreams in Japanese. There are an awful lot of fascinating things to do in Japan, even in — in fact especially in — Ehime. Worry less about the ability to do, and more about making the effort to try. “Yuufazu” Never give up, never surrender to practicality. To musicals and beyond.



Performance night for the musical. Spot the Rowan! (Photo via Rowan Carmichael)

Continue reading

The Mikan — Re-sign or Resign: coming to terms with my recontracting decision

Re-sign or Resign: coming to terms with my recontracting decision

Nicole McCoy

It would happen about five times a day. A niggling feeling at the back of my mind, reminding me that there’s something I needed to do, something I’d been putting off.  I’d be working at my desk, my eyes would wander to that stack of papers, and I’d lose focus.

I’d been putting off signing my recontracting papers. I waited until the last possible moment to submit them.

“Wow, I can’t believe you waited so long to decide!” you might say, but that wasn’t the problem. I had decided a month prior that I wouldn’t be recontracting, that in August I’d be heading back to the motherland (Canada) to reunite with the love of my life (Twix bars). But as long as I put off physically signing the papers, I could entertain the idea of staying.

As much as I relished the thought of moving on to the next chapter in my life, of starting an exciting new career path, of digging my fork into a hot plate of poutine again, the thought of leaving was always accompanied by a feeling of melancholy.

It was even more unsettling to me than the decision to come here in the first place. I always knew the JET program would be temporary, that I would be returning eventually, and that things at home would remain more or less unchanged — life moves slowly when everything is frozen for half the year.

What worries me about leaving Japan is that I’ve made a home here, and I may never come back to it. And when I do come back, it won’t be the same. By the time I return, the majority of my friends (mostly JETS) will have moved on to new points in their lives: new countries, new jobs, new adventures. This place will never be the way it is right now, and I will likely never see these friends I’ve made all together again. It’s only been six months, and I’m already so attached to the town, the landscape, and the people here that I know leaving will be painful.

Suffice it to say that the decision was not easy. I have my reasons for going back, but sometimes I worry that they’re superficial, or that I’ll regret my choice when I’m gone, and it’s that worry that fueled my procrastination for so long.

I could complain that the papers come too soon, or that the contract is too much of a commitment, but I think that in the end, I would never be completely sure either way. If I had decided to stay, I’m sure I would be filled with just as much doubt and insecurity. I’d be missing just as many milestones back home ー so many weddings, so many family gatherings, so many caesars(!).

As much as I’ve struggled with this over the last month, I do believe that there is no right or wrong decision in this case, only two directions that will make the next year of my life very different. I have no way of knowing which would be “better,” only that for the last couple months, I’ve felt a pull towards home. I can’t know how the next chapter of my life will turn out, but my gut is telling me that it should begin in Canada. I know that things will work out for me either way, and I’m out of time for second-guessing.

And so, at the last possible moment, I signed and sent off the documents. Despite my hesitation, they still said that I do not wish to accept reappointment, leaving me to make the most of my remaining six months here and to prepare for the giant question mark that is my life after JET. Continue reading

The Mikan — Teaching as an ALT

 Teaching as an ALT 

Scott Tamaki

This post is for any ALT who has teaching in their sights as a career path. Maybe your goal is to become a better teacher, maybe it’s to gain teaching experience for something post-JET, or maybe it’s just to find out if you like teaching. I try my best to revise and reevaluate the goals I have for teaching each day.  I ask myself, “What do I want my students to gain from this?” and question if my actions are aligned with my objective. Often times my judgement wanes, and mistake after mistake has me reflecting on how I can do things better.  Every now and then there are moments of teaching frustration, but there always seems to be small things that keep me motivated as a teacher.  Here are my thoughts and observations, highs and lows of being an ALT to junior high school students.  

Initial Challenges

Attempting to spark a student’s interest in English isn’t always easy.  Especially when the students are catching up on sleep during class—and I don’t blame them. One student recently told me his schedule on an average day: wake up at 6 a.m., run around the track at 7 a.m. (if he has club activities), change clothes, read for 20 minutes, go to class from 8:40 a.m. – 3:20 p.m., go to club activities from 4-6 p.m., eat dinner, take a shower, start homework by 9 or 10p.m., and go to bed between 11 p.m. and midnight. 

It used to irritate me when students slept during presentations I was giving, but now I’m a bit more understanding. Most students have a busier schedule than I do. I believe some students are really fighting to stay awake in class and want to be there. I see those students usually taking 5-10 minute naps, then resuming their attention on the lesson. Some students stay awake but look like they are being hypnotized by an invisible ghost in front of them. Damn those ghosts! This is one of my challenges: making sure I’m maintaining the attention of my students.  

Although, one mistake I’ve made is overexerting myself trying to maintain everyone’s attention. For example, while I’m giving a presentation, there are always a few students doing homework for another class, sleeping, or staring into space. After seeing this, I would actively re-channel all their focus back to the class. This would take time, energy, and limit the opportunity more serious students have to learn. In other classes around the school like, science, math, and Japanese, I see teachers commanding the full attention of the class: side conversations, group conversations, and students doing homework for other classes all seem relatively nonexistent. It’s awe-inspiring. 

Additionally, a number of students are difficult to motivate because of reasons outside of the classroom. Many of those reasons my JTEs are already aware of and probably discuss with the students’ parents. After missing the last bus home from school one day my JTE offered me a ride. Before she took me home, I accompanied her as we did 家庭訪問 (かていほうもん), or visits to students’ homes. 

We knocked on six doors, talked to six parents, and I listened as she discussed matters regarding those students. The issues were related to grades, the students’ behavior, and their motivation in the classroom. I don’t know if this is common for all JTEs around Japan, but most of my JTEs keep communication between teacher, student, and parent very active. This year, out of my six schools in total I visit one per month. It seems that if I ever wanted JTE-like cooperation from my students, I would need to spend more than just once a month with them. 


I find motivation in knowing that I could potentially inspire students to improve their lives. There’s a chance for all of us ALTs to do so. And the child we motivate or inspire could be someone we don’t expect to have an impact on. On my search of ways to deal with classroom troublemakers I asked a “unicorn” — a fifth year ALT — for some advice. My fifth year friend Mr. 0 shared a story about one student who really had an effect on him. This was a “bad kid,” who received awful grades, stole, got in fights with teachers and the whole lot. But Mr. 0 took a more patient approach with this student, trading jokes with him and giving him someone to talk to. He treated him like somebody with value, treated the student like a “human being” (as Mr. 0 puts it), when everyone else just yelled at him. 

After a few years, the same student came back to the school and asked for Mr. 0 who was coaching speeches at the time. The two got to talking, and Mr. 0 learned that the boy had been working a part-time job while going to school. You never know who you might have an impact on — no matter your role. 

Mr. 0 finally said of the students, “Treat them like humans and they might act like ones instead of monsters.” It is easy to see “unruly students” as those who only cause trouble, sleep in class, and fool around. It is also easy to see them as unchangeable in their negative habits.

 However, 12–15 year-olds will always struggle with self-acceptance and creating a positive self-identity. Our students might act like the monsters we sometimes see on the surface, but if we can relate to a small portion of that student’s life, just like in Mr. 0’s story, I’m sure they will deeply appreciate it. From the testimonials I’ve gathered from long-term teachers, it’s always the students who come back after a few years — and give their deep appreciation for your teaching — who make your efforts as a teacher worth it. Moving forward, I hope we, as first year JETs, will have a select group of students who will eventually show us why what we do as ALTs will be important.  

Continue reading

The Mikan – Eikaiwa Ramblings

By Hogan Gill

Kia Ora my fellow Mikans,

I recently worked myself out of a pickle and thought it worth sharing on the chance anyone else out there was suffering similar sorrows. When I arrived, I was told that along with a Junior High School and three Elementary Schools, every second Wednesday I had two 90-minute Eikaiwa classes at the local community center. The classes were mostly made up of retired folk and housewives who were interested in improving their English ability. But with absolutely zero teaching background, I had no idea how to run these classes. 

My first class was easy enough. I brought in a self-introduction powerpoint that I’d designed for JHS. It had oodles of photos of me growing up, my family and of life in New Zealand. Everyone enjoyed seeing the photos and they all had questions, which managed to take up a decent chunk of the 90 minutes. After this I asked everyone to give me a quick self-introduction, this was when I became aware of the variation in English levels. We ranged from the almost fluency of a student who’d lived in the USA for five years, to ones who were struggling with “My name is…”

Come the second class, I was pretty lost as to what to do. I asked them how they would like the classes to run and was met with a wall of silence. Eventually one student made mention of how the classes used to go. Everyone would take a turn at making a short speech about what they had been up to, a news item they had read or a story from their past that they wanted to share. No one seemed opposed to continuing this style of class, so this was how it went for the following year. I would come in, have a 30-40 minute yarn about how life in Japan was for me and what activities I had partaken in, then we would run through each of the students giving short (or sometimes looooong) speeches. Topics included the quarrels with China over who owned the Senkaku Islands, the pretty little hand-woven baskets that someone bought at the local market, and even the training of a particular student’s mind-powers so that he could kill the annoying morning crows with a mere thought. After each speech everyone would clap, I’d try think up a few questions for the speaker, and then everyone would clap again.

These speeches were for the most part entertaining and lesson preparation was obviously minimal. I learned a lot about the class members and was able to sort a bunch of little dramas like where the best dentist was or the most cost efficient way to get to Osaka. There were, however, a few speakers whose presentations were not as interesting (for the other students at least). Some of the heavy political talks for example, had words and content far beyond the capabilities of the others. On occasion these were over 15 minutes long, and I was the only person in the room who could understand the speech. 

One fateful day, instead of giving a speech, a student decided to share their views of the class and how it was run. They mentioned that sometimes the talks were “too long and boring” and that they’d like a mix up in the way things were going. I was a little taken back by their bluntness but I appreciated it immensely. I put it forward to the rest of the class to see if they all agreed. Again I was met with the silence wall, but this time I saw a cheeky nod or two. 

So it was time to switch things up. However, I was completely lost as to how to teach English to a class of such varied abilities. I asked one of my wisest and most trusted friends, Mr. Google, for some advice and I came to learn that I was not alone in my struggles, and that others out there had been presented with similar issues and come out the other side with a class of satisfied Eikaiwa members.

I began making a word file with all the ideas/activities that I came across, activities where students of any English ability could participate and hopefully learn a thing or two. 

Here are a couple of examples:

Stranger Self-Intros:

Print out pictures of people from various countries/ethnicities doing various activities. My pictures ranged from a guy in a suit using a flaming $100 bill to light his cigar to a tribal dude with more piercings in his face than there are words in this article. Number each picture. First, walk around and get each student to pick one picture at random. Then, ask them to write a small self-introduction from the point of view of the person in the picture. After this, collect all the pictures and spread them out, with a few extras thrown in (about 40 pics in total worked well), over a table. Get the students to stand around the table and take turns at reading out their self-intro. The other students must look amongst the pictures on the table and decide which number picture the self-intro was written for. A lot of fun and an interesting insight in to their views of people around the world.


Make a stack of various English words: a mix of nouns, verbs and adjectives works well. Split the students into a few groups and have one student from the first group come to the front of the class. They pick up a word from the pile and try to explain/gesture that word to their group without saying the actually word. For example, I pick out ‘mountain’ and say “It’s very tall, and I can climb it, there is a famous one called Fuji, etc. etc.” If the group guesses the word correctly, the student picks up the next word and tries to explain/gesture it out. Students have one minute to get out as many words as they can, and one point is given for each correctly guessed word. This was always a lot of fun and easy to adapt to a class of varied English abilities. I allowed the lower level students to skip if they didn’t know the word.

Other games/activities:

-The deck of conversation (You’ll easily find the rules for this one if you give it a Google. Highly recommended.) 

-Aesop’s Fables (I changed the stories to easy English in a bunch of fables, we read the stories and discussed the morals)


- Mad Libs

-Yes/No are Forbidden (Everyone has three scraps of paper. They walk around and make conversations with other students, if someone says the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they must hand over a scrap of paper to whomever made them answer yes/no.)


-20 Questions

A few months down the road, at the end of a class one student asked if they could say something. They stood up and bravely declared that while the latest range of activities had been entertaining and helpful they would like to be able to have a class of speeches every now and then. Again I put it to the rest of the class, expecting another null response, but this time I got input from several people. They agreed with the other student and suggested that we do an on/off rotation: one week being individual speeches, the next being an activity that I prepare. Along with this there were suggestions of a set of rules to be placed around the speeches. We discussed these for a bit and came to the following list of laws: 

1. Speeches must not go longer than 5 minutes.

2. Students are free to ‘pass’ on their turn, should they have nothing to talk about.

3. After each talk, students must form a few questions for the speaker so that it has more of a conversational feel to it.

Now I finally felt that I was doing as decent a job as I could with the students I had. I would come in and have the same 30-40 minute chinwag about my latest adventure(s), then we would move into either the individual talks or the English activity I’d prepared earlier. The students seemed at their happiest with this set up, and it was a fun challenge for me to create exercises that could be done by the varying levels of English. If you’re after the assemblage of activities I collected, just flick me an email at, and I’ll forward them on.

And that’s all I have to say about that,


Continue reading