“All toasters toast toast.” –Mario (or Luigi?)

Scott Gardner

With fondness, I recollect my youth. I reminisce about those halcyon schooldays, when we would run cackling through the arched hallways of Hogwarts, casting mischievous spells upon each other’s shoelaces and lunchboxes. I recall with a tear those summers when we would fight to the death with other teenagers on live TV for the depraved entertainment of dystopian grownups. I remember that at the time I was probably reading too many young adult fantasy books. Mostly, though, I remember making up unique hybrid sports with my friends.

We would take simple playground activities and mix them with larger-world spectacles from the TV. For example, rather than try to organize a full-fledged game of football, my next-door neighbor instead created a simpler game he called “Stinkerball”. Inspired by all the crazy feints and running patterns football players on TV carried out as they tried to catch the flying ball, his main rule for Stinkerball was that each offensive player on his way downfield had to perform a series of pointless stunts and silly gestures that were sometimes even . . . well . . . offensive, for the amusement of the quarterback, who would then throw to the receiver who humiliated himself the worst.

The crass but creative energy that went into this sport carried on into our more unruly teen years, when we invented even more sadistic pseudo-sports like “Racquetbutt” and “The Pain-tathlon”. Sure, we may have lost a few friendships over games like these. But nobody ever lost any fingers.

This question of playing games by the rules vs. adapting freely has often crossed my mind when I think about Japanese culture. Japan takes justifiable pride in the purity of its cultural institutions, like sumo or tea ceremony. You can tell how seriously they take holding to form by all the certifications offered by the cultural powers-that-be: flower arranging licenses, language learning level tests, and even a government established 3-tiered ranking system for Japanese hospitality (omotenashi). And it’s exciting when cultural conservation efforts are globally acknowledged, like the selection of Japanese cuisine for UNESCO world heritage status. The only thing Americans can point to in response would be the McDonald’s down the street. (Steak, egg & cheese breakfast biscuit, anyone?)

On the other hand, Japanese also have a great reputation for whimsical and subversive modification of trendy ideas, so it shouldn’t surprise us that Japan is the home of soft tennis, which arbitrarily alters a perfectly good, already existing sport; or drifting, which defies all the engineering intent of a racing car by attempting to make it go sideways; or chindougu [珍堂具], those clever but nearly useless inventions you’ve seen pictures of, such as toilet tissue dispensing hats or chopsticks with cooling fans for hot noodles.

I was once asked by a local fitness instructor if I’d ever taught yoga. “No, just English.” “Can you do yoga, though? I need someone who can give yoga sessions in English.” “Why?” “Because it’s ‘in’!” One could argue that choice of language would hardly disturb the sacred purity of a yoga session. But choosing a flabby, sedentary American who can’t even touch his toes to lead it would be a desecration. The instructor’s inquiry got me thinking, though: How far could I go, fusing English lessons with other popular culture/health kicks, without profaning either discipline? 

One idea was “Hot English”. You study in a 40°C room. All your materials are laminated. You do endless substitution drills. You have dialogues with your partner, mostly about the weather. You consider investing in some anti-fog reading glasses. You measure intake in vocab learned, and output in pounds lost. You associate English with chocolate, and vice-versa, and part of you hates them both.

Or there’s “English Biker Gang,” with nine levels of certification, indicated by leather jackets of various colors. You’re confined to a sidecar until level three (3-Kyuu Yellow). Entry-level mastery consists of memorizing the lyrics to “Born To Be Wild” and successfully using the phrase “I’m lookin’ for adventure in whatever comes my way” in a conversation. Written tests are administered to the upper arm with tattoo needles. Black Jacket masters have the option of opening their own dojo, but most just ride off into the sunset and never write home again.