How I Finally Got My Japanese Students’ Attention

My co-teacher informed me that in Japan, sex-ed was a controversial subject. Japan’s adolescent abortion rates are among the world’s highest, but it was considered shameful to talk about sex openly, at school.

The naked woman was about to be penetrated by a subway train. Her legs were spread and cuffed, her mouth contorted into a dark peanut of terror as the train barreled towards her. I winced at the image on the comic book splayed across Kenji’s English textbook, covering the lesson that I was reciting at the front of the room.

“Repeat after me,” I said, faltering a little, “How much is that apple?”

As usual, my teaching partner, Takeuchi-sensei, was the only person who repeated after me. His voice was high and tremulous, almost drowned out by beeping video games and ringing cell phones. As usual, the boys of Takahama Koko’s senior technical class seemed completely oblivious to our presence. The room was too small to contain their 35 desks, the desks too small to contain their lanky bodies. Their limbs sprawled in the aisles, threatening to trip me as I paced the classroom.

“Please put that away,” I said to Kenji, but the boy just flipped the page of his manga, cackling as the train tunneled through the naked woman, blowing her to bits. I was tempted to grab the gelled crests of his hair and pull his face backwards, forcing him to meet my glare. In nine months, he hadn’t made eye contact with me once.

“Mazui,” I said. That’s disgusting.

“Omoshiroi,” he said without looking up. It’s funny/interesting.

At least he answered me, I thought with despair.

Takahama Koko was ranked at the bottom of the 50-plus high schools in Ishikawa Prefecture. It was the only high school in Shika-Machi, a town with little to boast of besides a big nuclear power plant. Most of my students came from working class families, and had never made the one hour trip by plane to Tokyo. According to Takeuchi-sensei, these boys would graduate to work at convenience stores and gas stations, if they were lucky enough to find jobs in the rapidly depopulating area. After six years of mandatory English, many still couldn’t answer the question, “How are you?” But they’d perfected the art of ignoring Takeuchi-sensei and me, while we pretended to teach them English.

Standing before them, I felt invisible.

Only Takeuchi-sensei’s company reassured me that I wasn’t a ghost.

That afternoon, after we returned to the faculty room, Takeuchi-sensei approached my desk and glanced around furtively before slipping me a pamphlet. He nervously fingered his lavender silk necktie while he watched me take in a picture of two glistening, bare-chested men, locked in a lovers’ embrace. Inside was an alphabetized list of sexual acts, beginning with “anal sex,” including detailed instructions for how to stay safe while enjoying each one.

“Omoshiroi de sune…” he said. It’s funny/interesting, don’t you think?

I nodded, mute. Why was Takeuchi-sensei showing me this pamphlet? Was he coming out to me?

No one called Takeuchi-sensei gay to his face, or even behind his back, but townspeople made loaded comments like, “Takeuchi-sensei is 35 but still not married…” Japanese gossip was an endless fill-in-the-blanks game, ensuring that nothing controversial was ever stated directly, and the wa, or social harmony, remained unrippled.

Substantiating the oblique rumors, Takeuchi-sensei loved high fashion and campy music, frequently belting out ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” at faculty parties. He also loved to travel abroad, returning at every opportunity to “the world’s number one best city, San Francisco,” which happened to be where I grew up. It was there, he informed me, that he had picked up this pamphlet, distributed in front of a clinic in the Castro.

“Maybe this will hook their interest,” he said.

“Whose interest?” I asked.

“The technical boys,” he said. “This material is so shocking. I think they could not help but pay attention, don’t you agree?”

While I nodded, he informed me that in Japan, sex-ed was a controversial subject. Japan’s adolescent abortion rates are among the world’s highest, but it was considered shameful to talk about sex openly, at school.

Whenever liberal teachers tried to teach sex-ed, parents protested. He asked me to take the pamphlet home and turn it into a worksheet. In English, no one would be able to read it, and we’d be safe from parental scrutiny.
I enlisted a friend’s help with this surreal task. Together, hunched over a plate of curry donuts at our favorite Mister Donuts booth, we came up with an STD word puzzle and a fill-in-the-blanks game.

“A dental dam is the best contraceptive for c _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ s.”

“Always put on a c _ _ _ _ m before having anal sex.”

With a devious grin, she filled the border with detailed drawings of short-haired, slim-hipped beings holding hands and kissing. It was impossible to tell who was male or female. I was having fun.

“Maybe now they will finally pay attention,” Takeuchi-sensei said, when I showed him the finished product.

That day, for the first time ever, the two of us got to class before the bell rang. Under his arm was a poster-sized version of the picture on the front of the safe sex pamphlet, which he must have gone to considerable trouble to have blown up and laminated. I watched him hang it at the front of the room, then stand back to take in the effect, again fingering his silk necktie with a palpable anxiety that I shared.

My heart thumped when the boys came to class. They took one look at the poster and hooted with laughter. But Takeuchi-sensei didn’t let on if he was offended. In an unusually serious tone, he told me to read the list of sexual acts off the pamphlet.

“Anal sex,” I began, feeling more than a little weird.

But the boys had no idea what I was saying, and started to space out as usual. Takeuchi-sensei joined me at the front of the room, his hand visibly trembling as he began to scratch out Japanese characters on the board. I heard several boys draw sharp intakes of breath as he explained to me, “this kanji means posterior, or from behind, and this one is the word for penetration.” I looked at the faces of the students, trying to guess what they were making of this lesson. They seemed surprised but also intrigued. For once, they were paying attention.

“Rimming,” I read next, standing aside as Takeuchi-sensei replaced the character for penetration with the one for tongue. At first—as usual—no one repeated after me. But when Takeuchi-sensei showed them how to pull their tongues back in their mouths, to make an “r” sound instead of an “l,” Kenji imitated him, and the others followed suit.

“69” was an easy one for them to grasp, needing no translation. We all laughed as he drew smiley faces inside the numbers. The mood in the classroom was unusually buoyant, and my teaching partner seemed lighter than before too. By the end of that period, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t the desire to teach those boys to practice safe sex that was motivating him. He had come out of the closet Japanese-style, without actually having to say the words, and it was obviously a relief.

“Omoshiroi,” the boys agreed.

How funny/interesting.

For once, there was no blank to fill in.

Takeuchi-sensei winked at me, and I winked back.

We weren’t invisible anymore.

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