Monday, 21 February 2005


So Saturday last weekend I was dragooned into being a judge at a local school's speech contest. This came about as my boss's Japanese wife's aunt is the head of English (possibly) at a school not too far away from Kawaguchi - the boss was asked to go, but as he lives a long way from here, which isn't a bad thing, he asked me if I wanted to get up at ten to seven on a cold winter's day off and go along to listen to junior high school girls giving speeches in English. Not particularly, was my initial response, but then the temptation of fifty quid for about 2 hours work was waved under my nose and hey presto, there I was.

The school was in a place called Kami Nakazato, which is only 4 stops into Tokyo from here so not too far away. But being a junior high school with lessons on a Saturday meant that things started early, so it was 825am that I arrived at the station to be met by one of their current native English speaking teachers, a pleasant and chatty US/Korean lady by the name of Dawn. She took me to the school in the cold and sleet, but being from Milwaukee (or possible Wisconsin - or that could be where the chap from the film Love Actually goes... I forget) she actually likes snow and sleet and perishing weather so was quite happy.

At this stage I was a little apprehensive as all the info I had was as above - go along, be a judge, get fifty quid, depart. There has to be more to it than this, was my essential frame of mind at the time. The school is a pretty grand affair, on the site there is a mixed elementary school, separate boys and girls junior high schools and a high school as well. This means a lot of students and also a lot of cash as it is a private job with, I suspect, pretty astronomical fees. But the main thing about the school is it is seriously into its God bothering. Disciples of Christ is their demonination and I think they take the religion angle quite seriously. When we arrived, all the girls were apparently in chapel, something they have to do everyday. Then Dawn mentioned the school motto, which was 'Love God and Smite the Unbeliever' or possibly something very like it. Hmm. And then, when the Principal came to say hello he was carrying a bible and a prayer book...

At this point I was beginning to have some doubts about the whole affair. Was I going to have to sit through dozens of speeches extolling the virtues of christianity, god, angels and the like? Heavens above I hoped not. It wasn't helped when I met my fellow judge, a teacher from the boys school by the name of Karen, whose MA dissertation at Portsmouth uni had been about religious freedom in Hampshire after the French Revolution (where apparently a lot of exiled clergy pitched up after Robspierre decided he didn't want them around anymore, or something).

But then they handed us the scoring sheets and things got a little clearer. There were two groups to judge, 10 second years and 10 third years - meaning that the speeches would last about 45 minutes at most. Not too bad. And, interestingly, they were't really speeches, they were recitals. This was because junior high school students in Japan do not have the creative ability to think for themselves and come up with a speech - this is mainly because any semblance of originality has been beaten out of them by this time and group think has fully taken over, so originality might mean individualism, which cannot be allowed to happen. So the girls were given a list of possible speeches to recite, one of which they then had to learn off by heart. But more of that later.

At 9am, after chapel was over, we made our way to the hall for the speeches. Now I was expecting the 20 speech givers to be there, plus possibly some dutiful parents, but when we entered the hall the entire school was there to watch! And the hall was a big one, two tiered and a proper round hall shape (a bit like the Budokan, but smaller of course), so there must have been about a thousand girls in their to watch the speech givers. Talk about pressure, I felt nervous just watching them. The hall was pretty new looking, big and had a very impressive full sized pipe organ above the stage. As I mentioned, this school has a bit of cash stashed away and is getting more, apparently, as whilst school rolls are falling across Japan with the declining birth rate, this place has a waiting list and is therefore opening more classes every year.

Anyway, of the list of available speeches, the 10 second year students had chosen a grand total of two. These were "barrier-free" and "favour for favour", whilst the third year's had three "Stevie Wonder", "A law of life" and (my personal favourite) "Give me liberty or give me death" (which wasn't about gun control or the Dead Kennedy's and the US punk scene in the 1980's rather it was about some bloke who made a speech in the American war of independence - I can't remember his name, perhaps I should have paid attention to the speeches). Earlier I said 'interestingly' that these were recitals, but of course, the more you hear the speeches, the less interesting they become. As you can probably imagine, the barrier-free one was about a bloke in a wheel chair, although on the list of speeches a typo had turned it into barrie-free, which I hoped might be some polemic about a world without Peter Pan, but alas it was not to be.

Judging these was difficult. The kids had been practicing for weeks with Dawn (hence her not being a judge) and the other teachers, so they were pretty good. We had to grade the speakers on three criteria: presentation (smooth memory); pronunciation and; intonation, gesture and something else I can't remember. As they had practicing for ages, the first criteria was redundant so it was down to the other two, and as the pronunciation was all pretty similar, it pretty much came down to the last category. And, of course, they were all really good, very good indeed. I remember studying French at school and doubt I could have done the same at that age - but then again one has to wonder if the girls had any idea what they were actually saying, sadly I think understanding was limited as you could tell from the occasional unnatural pause (that they all made at the same place) that it really was robotic. But there had to be a winner, indeed a second and third as well, for each year group and through the jottings and tottings of us judges, these were found.

Then came the surprise. The judges had to go onto the stage, give a congratulatory speech and then hand over the loot. Now I'm quite used to public speaking, but having a thousand or so pairs of eyes from an audience of junior high school girls focused upon you is quite disconcerting, giving a speech in your own language difficult enough, so hats off to the contestants. Naturally all the contestants that won were ever so happy and you could see that they were going to go home and be exceptionally proud of their achievments, and so they should. One thing that especially cheered me was the second year winner. When I announced her name there was the Japanese equivalent of astonishment, as if she were not meant to win. Not only did this come as a surprise to her, but the rest of the school as well. I wonder if anyone made any money betting on her with long odds...?

And that was it. We were thanked for our time, given a cup of tea, signed a chit for the 10,000yen and released back into the sleet by about 1045. They've asked me to go back in July for the high school contest where the contestants actually make up their own speeches - could be interesting...

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