‘SOS’ tranlates as ‘Save Our Sensei’

Education - February 26th, 1988
tokyoweekender_In-gu-rishi class
Mark Schreiber visits In-gu-rishi class

See sensei.

See sensei teach. Teach, teach, teach.

If you’re one of the minority here who hasn’t become involved somehow in teaching, tutoring or judging English speech contests, you should really visit a little neighborhood language school some Satur­day afternoon and sit through a few les­sons. It’s enlightening. Take this class for example.

“What’s this?” the young American sensei asks, holding up a picture.

“It’s an apple!” the dozen kids reply in unison. (Note the correct use of article preceeding a vowel.)

“It’s an apple,” sensei repeats. Next picture. “What’s this?”

“It’s a bear!”

“What’s this?”

“It’s a clown!”

And so on, through xylophone (isn’t there any other word for this almost use­less letter?), yo-yo and zebra.

“What’s the capital of China?” This to a red-cheeked 6 year old.

“Za kapitoru obu Chai-na izu Peking.”


Although the institution I observed is in a suburb west of Tokyo, these little schools are sprinkled throughout the Emperor’s Isles. I’ve even met high school juniors from remote towns on the windward side of Shikoku who managed English conver­sation remarkably well, thanks to years of persistent after-school lessons.

This particular school, proud of its faculty of about a dozen “na­tive” English speakers, doesn’t wait for business to walk in through the door. It farms its teachers out to conduct com­pany classes in the mornings and later on in the day hosts everything from college pre-exam cram sessions to prepping housewives about to join their husbands in Denver, Delhi or Abu Dhabi.

“Some teachers won’t have anything to do with the kiddy classes,” says sensei, “but I kind of enjoy them.”

It’s certainly good training for parent­hood.

“Where you born, Kimiko?”

“I wazu bone in Tachikawa.”

“Good. Ask Tommy where he was born.”

“Whea wa yu bone, Tomi?”

The kids seem to enjoy it. Some of them, anyway.

“Oh, I have to throttle them occasional­ly, but not as often as you might think,” sensei says.

Generally, it costs about ¥5,000 a month to send junior to these Sat­urday sessions. Mothers have a standing invitation from the school to sit in and observe whether or not any pro­gress is being made.

Some occasions call for a little disci­pline.

“Harry, get down off your desk!”

“Sometimes,” sensei sighs to me in frus­tration, “I think their mothers send them here just to get ’em out of the house.”

About three-fifths of this class are girls, with seating strictly segregated by gender. Age appears to range from 5 to 12.

“Okay, everybody, open your notebooks and let me take a look at your homework.”

Sensei makes a quick round of the room, before discipline has a chance to break down into chaos.

“Hmm…Uh…Uh-huh…You forgot to cross your t’s, Sally………….. This ‘s’ is backwards …” and so on.

Neat homework performances rate a small gummed facsimile of money to show mama. And so on goes a 50-yen sticker. A hundred yen. Five hundred. A budding Yoko Shimada earns the top denomination.

“Very good, Mary. You get ichi man yen.”

“Waa! Sank yu!” The others fidget with jealousy.

In addition to his schedule of classes at the school, sensei goes downtown twice a week to teach at the offices of a large Japanese-American joint-venture firm. Pay is on an hourly basis and without provision for sick leave, bonus or holidays.

A U.S. college graduate, 29-year-old sensei lives with his Japanese wife in a small apartment several train stops from school. His one day off each week is spent shopping with his okusan lislening to the stereo and taking Sunday dinner at his mother-in-law’s house.

The molding of young minds continues.

“Okay, now let’s play a word game.”

A chalk gallows appears on the blackboard. Student’s objective: find a six-letter word beginning with “M” in ten guesses — or be hanged in effigy.

About half the kids do hang, much to their chagrin. Should the death penalty be repealed for slow learners?

Watching these kids, you can’t bring yourself to call their English lessons an exercise in futility. I don’t mean to suggest that any of them will earn a scholarship to Cambridge or represent Japan at future sessions of the U.N.G.A. — that’s beside the point. For many, Saturday afternoons at their little neighborhood school will be the only contact they’ll have with a non-Japanese in the course of their whole lives.

(The Prime Ministers office, in a recent survey, found that only 4 percent of respondees actually knew a foreigner on a personal basis.)

That’s quite a burden for any sensei.

So when I hear some teenager kid work up his courage to speak to me in hailing English — and chances are he is really speaking, not reciting from some memorized lesson — I can’t help but be a little impressed, because maybe he learned it at one of those disorganized Saturday afternoon sessions from his unsung “Amerikajin no sensei.”

A bell chimes the end of the 1 1/2-hour class. Notebooks arc thrust into bags and the kids file out of the room.

“See you next week,” says sensei, almost cheerfully.

“Bye-bye, bye-bye,” they reply, happy to have a few hours of daylight left for outdoor play.

Break time is a hasty cup of instant coffee.

“Some of the kids in this class are really starting to speak well now,” he remarks, taking a nervous drag on a Seven Star cigarette.

I think I detect a note of pride in his statement.

Sank yu, sensei!