Where Juku Took Me, Despite Myself (塾と僕と人生)

This post is both in English and Japanese, but they are not exact translations.  I wrote the Japanese version first–and took three weeks to complete the English.  Much of the substance of the two are the same, but there are substantial differences in style.  If you can read both languages, I urge you to read both and provide feedback.  The experience of writing both will be a post for another time, but for now, I present you my experience in juku, the Japanese cram school, and how that helped me get to where I am now despite myself.


My college professor once sarcastically remarked that I’m a collector.  That I am.  I don’t just collect the popular, and the more common sensical, baseball cards or foreign money.  No, no.  I collect crap like movie stubs and hotel card keys (which I eventually stopped because I realized that’s not crap, it’s trash).

Then there is the biggest crap of all: my academic papers.  I can’t throw them away.   To my mom’s dismay, my room back home in New Jersey is filled with essays, notes and handouts from high school, college and law school.  I defend their meaningless existence on grounds I couldn’t possibly throw away something for which a great deal of money (in the form of tuition payments) was expended.  The truth is that I enjoy keeping them around.  So the stacks of paper lie in my room, awaiting those rare moments when I have the sudden urge to clean and organize, like I did earlier this year when I stored my college and law school papers into a box in chronological and alphabetical order  (Don’t ask how this can be done simultaneously; it’s a complicated system).  It was during this exercise that I was reminded my collegiate career is a story of unflattering comments on unpublishable junk.

Since I am an indiscriminate collector, I’ve also saved papers from my time at  juku.  Those with some familiarity with the unfortunate academic culture in Japan will realize that the term juku refers to the so-called “cram school” that prepare students for elementary, secondary, and collegiate entrance exams.  In my case, the term is used rather loosely since the juku I went to was hardly cramming and barely a school.   It is a definitive testament to my lackadaisical attitude towards academics that my parents, who barely sent me to juku for my elementary school entrance exam, decided that I, in fifth year of U.S. elementary education as far removed, both literally and figuratively, from entrance exams as a Japanese national can be, was worth the exuberant tuition.

Those who casually know me (because the more you know me, the more you learn that, no, this guy ain’t serious at all) find this hard to believe, but I did little to no studying in elementary and middle schools, which I treated as a fun house where I went to meet friends, do whatever I want and have a ball in general.  It comes as no shock that  attending juku three days a week, including Saturdays, proved to be of no match against my pervasive indifference to knowledge.  Indeed, the apathy contaminated my juku experience, where I sat in class, solved some problems and did no homework.  I have a fleeting recollection of taking math more seriously than Japanese, but only because I was better at it.  And considering the effort I was putting in to the whole ordeal, to suggest I was “trying” in math at juku is to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude as to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear.*

Two months into my freshman year of high school, I went through a reformation of sorts.  I, or rather my mom, transferred me out of a local public school and into a Catholic private school.  Suddenly surrounded by people who took schoolwork seriously, I began to care as well.  Competitiveness is a wonderful thing.  When you start seeing your grades posted in a public area, you’re sort of compelled to give a crap.  It turns out that my parents could have saved boat loads of money by posting my report card on the front door to our home.

Of course, change comes slowly and gradually.  To expect that I would take my Japanese studies would have been too much to ask–I had barely cared about English–so while I was attending juku six days a week by my junior year, I continued to dump my parents’ hard earned money down the drain with little remorse.

Sometime in 1998-1999, I suddenly and unexpectedly began to take my Japanese studies seriously.  It’s hard to say what triggered the reformation, but the reason for this self-improvement is probably the same as why I began to suffer from an identity crises around the same time:  I began to realize I was Japanese.  I need not go into details of how and why I needed to realize the obvious except to note that in middle school, divorced from the Japanese community and Japanese culture by parents who showed no interest in Japan, I was as white as a New Jersey suburbanite can think and behave.

There is this wonderful phrase, “too little, too late,” which perfectly describes what happens when a career slacker who zombied through the formidable elementary and secondary education decides to not become a slacker.  Despite being in tenth or eleventh grade, I recall beginning my review of Kanji, the Chinese characters that have been adopted as part of the Japanese language, at a fourth grade level.  By the time I quit juku, I had mastered only up to sixth grade.  It is a sad state of affairs that I am able to now confidently say I mastered elementary level Kanji (elementary school ends in sixth grade in Japan) only because I diligently studied for two years in high school.

To my credit (oh please, give me some credit!), I worked hard even on the torturous Kanji, so working on Japanese essays came a little easier.  I vividly remember taking each weekly topic seriously even if I didn’t produce results, either because of lack of time or ideas.  I have memories of writing Japanese essays at home with a dictionary in one hand and a pencil in another.  You couldn’t ask for greater commitment (at least not from me).

All of the Japanese essays preserved at home are from this period.  While a Freshman in college, I feared that I will lose them if I left them in hand-written form so I briefly undertook efforts to get them into Word document.  It didn’t take long for me to get bored, but I did end up putting 10 or so into my PC.  I came across them the other day.  Since the essays are ten years old, they’re only worth reading to get a good laugh; the “reflections” I left at the end of the essay as I typed them into the PC is as wrong and off-point as the essay itself.  It was, though, a little sad to see that the quality was so bad.  This may come as a shock, but back then, I thought I wrote better essays in Japanese than in English while reserving English exclusively for fiction.  It’s utterly shocking I managed to become an attorney with such unimpressive “quality” writing, then or now.

The thoughts on the contents or quality of the writing is hardly worthy of note, but this is:  I realized the little effort I put in then had a huge impact on the me today.  In middle school, I simply accepted that my life will involve a collegiate education at an American institution followed by a career in the United States.  It may be more accurate to say that I didn’t know there were other alternatives.  I was that much divorced from Japan, both figuratively and literally.  Yet, in college, I read Japanese newspapers as a daily routine, wrote a senior thesis on Japanese politics and frequently returned to Japan.  While in law school, I tutored Japanese kids and even managed to work in Japan.

The firm I currently work at, Shearman & Sterling, is known as an international law firm.  There are probably more attorneys here who speak multiple languages than those who speak only English.  Considering my decent, but not spectacular, performance in law school, I have little doubt that I obtained a job with one of the most renowned firms in New York because of my international background.  I’ve come a long way from a hopelessly confused Asian who thought he was white.

The lesson to be learned isn’t that small efforts lead to big things.  God knows how much effort, big and small, I wasted on things that amounted to nothing.  Rather, the lesson is that life is unpredictable.  Ten years ago, I doubt anyone who knew me well would have thought I would be an American corporate attorney who can get by working in Japan.  Most of the colleagues and friends today only know the internationally diverse me.  My unexpected personal evolution of the last decade is enough to make me excited, and anxious, about where I would be in the next decade.

*  This intentionally round-about witty line, borrowed from the final episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” (1989), in essence means that no general use of the English language can justify using the word “trying” to describe my “effort” in juku.








さすが十年前の論文(そして7年前のコメント)なので、大して得られるものもないがびっくりしたといえば、だいぶ自分の考え方が変わったことか。当然といえば当然に、感激するほど論文の出来はよくない。小学二年生まで日本で私立へ通っていたこともあり、実はあのころの僕はどちらかというと論文は日本語で書くほうが得意で、英語の作文は小説のようなフィクショ ンのほうが向いていた。現在の僕の英語小説と日本語のミクシィの日記を読めば、いずれにせよ国語力が大したことがないのが明らかで、改めてよく弁護士なんかになった(又はなれた)と思う。





1 Response to “Where Juku Took Me, Despite Myself (塾と僕と人生)”

  1. 1 To Tokyo, for New Challenges « The World According to Joe Trackback on February 14, 2011 at 12:24 am

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