Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Puppet Emperor

As I mentioned earlier, I am somehow slowly gathering authority within the English Club without actually intending to. I guess it makes sense in that my native English would make me a hot commodity, which is also why I was recently asked to chair a follow-up speech contest. On the grounds that it would be an interesting new experience and I'm quite well-equipped to do something like this, I foolishly agreed without really understanding the job.

The word “Chair” used in a similar Canadian context would suggest that I was running the show and making decisions. I would set the tone of the contest, make alterations to the schedule as I deemed necessary, things like that. See, that could be fun; that's stuff I'm good at it. Sadly, I quickly learned that my function at this Japanese “English Oratorical Contest” was to read a script word for word, in some of the most stilted and unnatural English that has ever been set to paper.

I was to say almost the exact same line to introduce every one of the 11 contestants, ask the audience to “give the honourable judges your warm applause” five or six times over the course of the proceedings, and, most unforgivably of all, give people's names in Western order. The final line was written as “Thank you to all our contestants for your good speeches. Thank you to the honourable judges for your help. Thank you to you, for your good attendance and nice cooperation. Thank you.” See? It was problematic because so much of it wasn't strictly wrong, but was an incongruous compilation of word combinations that no native speaker would ever use ever. Luckily, some of it was also just plain wrong, so after conferring with Takamatsu I received tacit permission to mess with it a bit, which I then intentionally misinterpreted as carte blanche to say something appropriate in place of whatever was written down. Additionally, I usually just do this kind of stuff off the top of my head, so I ended up with the unanticipated benefit of getting to feel very professional shuffling papers around and penning annotations.

The day prior to the event itself, the organisers, a few of the 2kaisei, and myself gathered to prepare the necessary rooms. Yokozuna (a girl) and I found several signs of great amusement, including twins labelled 燃える (burning!) and 燃えない (not burning), respectively, suggesting that the contestants would be separated into those who were giving it their all and those who were half-assing it (until we figured out that they were for garbage separation). Another was inscribed with パンツルーム. This unfortunately did not signify that a new lingerie shop was soon to be opened on campus, but was rather a very eccentric contraction of “Participants Room.” The hilarity was only increased by the contestants being collectively referred to as “Pants,” and their assistants as “Pants Helpers.”

Following these preparations, about seven of us did a quick rehearsal using stand-ins for the timing. Though this was genuinely useful, my enthusiasm for the task was somewhat dampened by Se no Takai Yatsu, the main organiser and the one who had personally recruited me, seeming to think me incapable of following simple instructions and being convinced that I was at some point going to irreparably cock something up. If nothing else this experience has taught me that I could never cut it as a figurehead leader. After being lectured on the importance of one section, I asked a very simple, reasonable question: “Do I say line X while he's still standing at the front, or wait until he goes and sits down?”

“After he goes and sits down, obviously,” said Se no Takai Yatsu, and began to stride away.

Oh no. I leaned right into the mic and said:

“I don't need the 'obviously.'”

He kept walking but his head whipped around at me, his eyes flashing with fury. Instantly, all attention was on me; eyes widened; one girl covered her mouth. The timing was incomparable, the message unmistakeable. I might as well have said “Know what, if you're going to give me attitude, maybe fuck right off.” I'd taken him down a peg so cleanly, and so precisely, and in such a subtly Japanese way. Ten points!

Later I checked with Takamatsu to see if I'd gone over the line, if I shouldn't have attacked his powerbase in front of his lackeys. She confirmed that he was being a bit of a dick, and that it was just a plain awesome line. Additionally, my speaking some semblance of Japanese had apparently sliced the usual instruction time in half, as previous Chairs had required much more explanation, translation and reinforcement.

Day of, the contest started at 1 o'clock. This being Japan, we were all required to be there by 9. I arrived even before Takamatsu, and had to use my Deus Ex skills to talk my way into the building. I spent every free moment propped up against a desk with my eyes closed, keeping my mental bandwidth fresh for the contest itself. Unsurprisingly, it was a very stiff and formal affair, as they tend to be. Most everyone but the judges was dressed in a suit, and I in the closest thing I have to a suit; it says something about certain sectors of Japanese youth that when I told him I didn't have one, Se no Takai Yatsu gave me a confused look and a “Your parents never bought you one?”

Were I to organize a speech contest, I'd make it as casual and enjoyable as possible. But I didn't make this one, so that's fine, but the thing is, to watch sometimes borders on boring, although actually participating can be quite fun. As Chairman (or as most competitors addressed me, “MC,” which I like a little better) I was required to monitor the status of several parts of the room simultaneously, so that we could proceed at a reasonable pace without any one judge, timekeeper or other component getting left behind. I made a few minor mistakes but the English Club President (and Discussion Section Chief), was seated directly beside me, so although he remained silent to the audience, a quick consultation through words or hand signals saw me through the ambiguous parts.

In the intermissions I basked in compliments on the job I was doing, how good I looked in a “suit,” and how much cooler I sound when I speak English. The unspoken implication here, of course, is that I'm ordinarily ugly as sin and sound like a loser in Japanese, neither of which is 100% true. The second one is worse, since it's like a keeper being loudly praised for the shot that ricocheted off the goalpost while his numerous daring saves go completely unacknowledged. Comments like these used to bother me but lately I've started to think I might as well take what I can get.

I did cut off a girl earlier than I should have, thinking her time had expired when it hadn't. It would have been a humiliating gaff, had she not finished her speech at almost that exact second. Luck like that doesn't swing by often; too bad it never shows up when the ladies are around. One girl actually did run over her time, and when she tried to continue anyway (wouldn't you?) I confidently and authoritatively cut her off. Bit of a perverse pleasure, sad to say, even if I also felt bad. The other big hangup was the lack of a mechanism for dealing with moments when contestants forget their next line, a huge oversight, but that was Se no Takai Yatsu's mistake, not mine.

By the end of the seven-hour day I'd really gotten it down (as well as worked out the rules, which were never properly explained to me), and if I'm ever asked to do something like this again I'll do a much smoother job. And Not Overtime girl ended up taking third, so there. The winner, funny enough, was a ryuugakusei from Viet Nam. I tried to drum up a little tension and excitement through my voice, which received favourable reviews later, but unfortunately at the time elicited only subdued applause and a victory lap that resembled a gallows march. Japan, man. Japan.

Overall it was fun, I picked up a few more MC'ing skills, the speeches were decently interesting, and the judges were mostly easy to manage. At the risk of repeating myself, this is why I'm in Japan – to do things I'd never be doing in Canada.

Takamatsu, Yokozuna and I had been planning an オール (a type of party where you drink, karaoke, whatever and stay up “all” night), but that fell through. Leave it to my real life to be anticlimactic.


  1. Obviously.
    Glad your Deus Ex skills came in handy. It was only a matter of time.

    1. Yeah no doubt. However, this time I only had to utilise my dialogue and infiltration skill trees. I'm still waiting on the opportunity to put my robot-hacking and terrorist-murdering skills into practice.