Japan’s Largest Owl

On January 6th, I posted about my trip to see the Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan. There’s not just a great old shrine and a colossally old tree, though.

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
Japan's largest owl, you say?

On the short walk from the parking lot to the shrine grounds, there is a stairway up to the left, and a sign that boasts Japan’s Largest Owl. Indeed, as you wander around the grounds, you can see many owl statues, and the shrine is nicknamed “Owl Shrine”. Of course, there is also a play on words here, something akin to “let go of your worries” or something.

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
Look, it's an owl!
The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
And another, cuter owl!
The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
This one's more of a wise Owl-of-Hundred-Acre-Wood type. This one wasn't voiced by Craig Ferguson, though.
The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan
The ablution fountain also features an owl.

But the largest owl of all, the largest owl in Japan, was at the top of those very first steps I encountered.

The Giant Trees of Tochigi: #84 The Thousand-Year Cryptomeria of Torinokosan

Beneath the owl is a spot to write a letter, describing your troubles and letting them go and praying for help with them. You then seal the letter and post it in the Owl Post that is located there. It’s not real mail, of course, it stays at the shrine. One assumes someone will offer a blessing over them before burning them.

The entire thing seems pretty tourist-trappy to me, but I guess if something like this attracts visitors who then go on to visit the shrine proper, and buy food and drink and charms and souvenirs, supporting the continued existence of this place, then it’s not so bad.

Giving up on kids? Reprehensible.

I’ve taught in junior high schools (12-15 year olds) since I came here in summer 2004 (except for a brief period). As I’m just the foreign English teacher, often viewed as nothing more than a tourist by the “real” teachers, I don’t always get the voice I sometimes ought to when it comes to things that happen in classes I attend. Sometimes this is just down to how things work, but surely there are times when I could have stood up and done something.

In my old school, there was a kid, let’s call him Kouha. He came into JHS first grade. He wasn’t the best student, but he wasn’t the worst. He was good. From what I could tell, he made an effort, got pretty good marks, did his best. He wasn’t a bad kid either, fitting in to school life fairly easily.

Then, gradually, he lost interest. I don’t know why. I could say it was because of problems at home, or that he found the work too hard, or too easy, or he was fed up with the intractable amounts of homework or the arbitrary rules. I could say any of those things, but it would be speculation.

All I know is that he lost interest. He didn’t care about his school work as much, and his marks started to drop. He became average. There’s nothing wrong with that, it happens. What happened next is what bothers me still, all these years later.

As a teacher, our jobs are multifaceted, and it can be ruddy difficult to balance them. We have to teach our subject, of course, but we have to help the kids who aren’t as strong in our classes while still challenging the stronger kids; we have to properly socialize our kids, show them how they can fit into the world at large, and how they can make that world better in their own way. But never, ever should we discourage the kids in any way.

When Kouha started to lose interest, at first, no one really mentioned anything about it. First graders often lose their youthful spark as the rigors of junior high school break their spirits. It’s terrible, but it happens, and so when it happens, it usually happens un-remarked  upon, as it did with Kouha. But at some point, the teachers, en masse, and for reasons unknown to me, decided that every problem could be and should be attributed to him.

As with any class, there are kids speaking among themselves during class time, either about the material, or about other stuff. The teacher has to try to strike a balance between allowing it so that the kids feel comfortable and can learn from each other as well as from the teacher, and with keeping the kids on task and undistracted. So there are times during quiet work sessions when a teacher will gently point out, “Hey, it’s work time — no need to be chatting now.”

Except in Kouha’s class.

Whenever there was any chatter, valid or invalid, quiet or loud and distracting, the teachers would ALWAYS single him out to yell at. Whenever any group he was with, be it the soccer team, a group of his friends in the hall, a group of students late to something, whatever it happened to be, there was never any sort of collective, reasonable talking-to; it was always “Let’s ream Kouha, cuz he’s clearly at fault here.”

I didn’t say anything. I should have, but I didn’t. As I was only around during English class usually, I couldn’t really say, “Hey, you’re being unreasonably hard on him.” I assumed that he had done something legitimate to earn this level of bullying from the teacher. This was when I was in my early 20s and very inexperienced, you understand.

By the time he was in second grade, he hadn’t just lost interest, become average. He had given up on himself. Several times I’d suggest that he could do better, that he was smarter than he gave himself credit for. The reaction was usually something akin to “why bother? what’s the point? I can’t do anything right, so why try?” Terrible.

In the first term of his third year of junior high school, the constant persecution came to a head one day in English class. The main teacher was setting up a laptop to show us some boring photos of some trips she’d taken to England over the years (it was tangentially relevant, the textbook unit had the main character visiting London), and she was taking rather a lot of time, between a slow laptop and the projector acting up.

As with any group, students or teachers, children or adults, when left waiting for a long time, a low chatter will start. Everyone in that classroom was chatting quietly. Kouha was, too, but quietly, and not very much.

Suddenly, the teacher looked up from her technological faffing, glared at Kouha, and told him specifically, by name, to be quiet. I can still remember the look of disbelief and hurt on his face at that moment. To be singled out for verbal punishment for something (1) everyone was doing and (2) he was BARELY doing wasn’t fair, and he couldn’t believe it. I can remember the next look on his face, too. It was an angry resignation.

He stood up, shouted, “I don’t need this!”, stormed to the front of the classroom, closed the teacher’s laptop, and stormed out of class.  The kids were quiet, then. The teacher looked after him, “What’s his problem? He should have expected that.”

“He wasn’t talking. No more than anyone else, at any rate.”

“I clearly heard his voice! You heard him talking didn’t you?” and she looked to the other students to back her up. They just shook their heads.

“That was unfair, and you need to apologize to him,” I told her.  For the first time, she seemed aware of how she and everyone else had been treating him since he entered the school. She nodded and said she would after class.

She claimed she did, but Kouha rarely came to English class the rest of that year, and he never ever tried at all. I can’t blame him. The other teachers continued to treat him like shit, though.

Let’s back up to when Kouha was in second grade. I started teaching at the elementary school one afternoon a week around this time, and was teaching Kouha’s brother, Reo. He was in sixth grade of elementary school, so would have been 11 or so. He was energetic, rambunctious. He wasn’t the best at English, but his enthusiasm for it and everything else he did more than made up for lack of ability. He was a great kid.

But even then, I saw the warning signs that he’d suffer the same as his brother was. One afternoon, I showed up to his class during break time, before the teacher had returned from the staff room. Reo and I were chatting, surrounded by a few kids. When the teacher showed up, she said, “Reo, stop doing that! Bad! Sit down this instant!” The look on his face then was the same look I’d see his brother give in English class a year later, though this one was milder.

I asked the teacher what he’d done wrong, and she said, “Oh, you know.” No, I don’t. That’s why I asked.

We did class, and it went as normal, though Reo was more sullen than usual. After class, while the teacher was packing up the English materials, and as I was about to leave the room, he came up to me. “Tell her I’m innocent! I wasn’t doing anything wrong, right? We were just chatting right? I didn’t deserve to get yelled at. Tell her I’m innocent?” he pleaded with me.

I smiled, and nodded. “Of course, sure thing.” I told the teacher, explained, pointed out she must have been mistaken. She didn’t apologize to him, and suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about. After she’d left, I spoke to Reo. “Sorry. I tried.”

“Thanks anyway.”

Fast forward a year. Kouha’s just reached boiling point in English class, and Reo is in first grade. Just like Kouha before him, he’s a good student, fitting in well to school life, keeping up in his studies. But whereas Kouha got a few months before the systemic bullying by teachers began, for Reo it started right away. “Oh, you’re Kouha’s brother. Well, we’ve all given up on him, and chosen him as our scapegoat for our own failings as teachers. You’re his brother, you’re the same as him, so we’ll treat you the same,” is how it looked to me.

This was just about the time my contract was up, and I was job hunting, and then preparing to move. I don’t know how it ended up, but I assume roughly the same.

It’s utterly reprehensible that any kid should be treated so poorly in such an arbitrary and shitty manner. If a kid is actually “bad”, in the sense that he doesn’t follow the rules, is disruptive, is a troublemaker, then there is an argument for strict discipline; but even then, there’s a difference between discipline and bullying. What Kouha and Reo experienced was bullying, and it’s bullshit, and it’s terrible, and I couldn’t do anything for them, and I really hope they aren’t too fucked up by it.

Earlier this year, at my current school, due to a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, a group of kids thought I’d called them both stupid and worthless. I’d never do that, but I feel terrible that they thought I had. Kids should never be made to feel like that, full stop, but especially not at school.

One of those kids, when I see him, how the teachers treat him… I’m reminded of Kouha. This kid, he’s smart. Really smart. Doesn’t pay attention in class, doesn’t do homework, gets stellar marks on tests. But because he doesn’t do the heap of busywork the teachers assign; because he doesn’t fit into some sort of pattern they feel he should, they single him out for poor treatment. That, plus the way his home situation reminds me of my own when I was his age… I feel for him, and I wish there was something I could do to make his life, at least at school, just a little easier.

Look, I’m rambling. The point is, if you’re working with children, and you don’t encourage them — if you actively discourage them, set to make them feel worthless and persecuted, then you are a reprehensible excuse for a person and you should think long and hard about your choice of career.