Mukatsuku and Haiku, Too

Yesterday, at the end of Japanese class, Himalaya-sensei slid a sheet of paper across the folding table. I narrowed my eyes at it but it didn’t help me read it any faster.

“Last year … class … one year ….” I mumbled, passing my fingertips over the text. Himalaya-sensei came to the rescue; it was a Year’s End student survey.

“Ah so.” That made sense; come March second, I’ll have been taking the class for a year. I peered at the questions again – somehow, with that simple explanation, the words began to take on meaning.

“What is my favorite … Japanese?” I asked. That didn’t make sense. Then again, in Japanese class, I’m dumb and often need a little hint.

“Favorite word.” supplied Himalaya-sensei.

Asoka …” I said. “Okay … eto … ‘Mukatsuku.’ I like mukatsuku.”

Himalaya-sensei burst into giggles, as she often does after I speak.

“No, no, Ribu-san,” she said. “It is too bad.”

“But it’s my favorite!” I protested. Mukatsuku – I learned it from a fellow teacher last April, during an otherwise idyllic Cherry Blossom Viewing Party. He said it meant “frustrating” but, according to Carnitas and other Japanese people I’ve gleefully tested it out on, the power of mukatsuku is expletive-strength. “People get killed because of mukatsuku,” said Carnitas. Now, I don’t condone word-related violence and since teaching young children, my use of swearwords has dropped dramatically in the past year. Still, I can’t help but admit that the word is useful and just plain fun to say.

“Bad, Ribu-san,” repeated Himalaya-sensei.

“Okay,” I said. “If so … how about ‘hage‘?”

“Bald” – I learned that one from watching “Kill Bill”. My 13 year-olds shout it at each other. It, too, if said with the proper spiteful inflection, has an absurdly powerful ring to it. Hage!

“Too bad,” scolded Himalaya-sensei.

Mouuuu,” I complained in a conscious imitation of my more annoying students. “Okay. If so … tako.”


“Yes, tako!” I said, with gritty resolve. I already had been thwarted twice – there was no way “octopus” could be considered offensive. Tako it would be!

“Ribu-san,” giggled Himalaya-sensei. “Silly!”

“I love tako!” I said.

“Okay, your favorite Japanese word is tako,” she agreed. Satisfied, I read the next question; it was a word I didn’t know.

“‘Reason’.” Himalaya-sensei explained, in English. I gripped my pencil and, in my miserable excuse for hiragana, quickly scrawled: “Dakara!*.”

*Because it is!


“What?” I said innocently. “Okay, okay. Look -” I scribbled “delicious” in the left margin of my original reply.

Dekita*!” I triumphed.

*Did it!

I was giggly. I’d been giggly all class, as usual – not only because I like Himalaya-sensei but because even though our conversations have progressed from “My name is Liv” to “My ex is Greek so I know a lot of Greek foods. You should try moussaka” I am aware that I make many, many mistakes. It’s far from an issue for me – I amuse her and I amuse myself. For one brief hour a week, I am the student, mystifying a teacher with my wretched grammar and convoluted reasons for imagining that the verb “torimasu” (to take) means “to fly.”

(“Tori is bird,” I explain. “Torimasu – to fly!”

Kawaii, Ribu-san,” chortles Himalaya-sensei.)

I passed my survey back to my teacher. I had filled in a couple more blanks: Nagori Yuki for my favorite Japanese song (“because it is pretty. From Iruka”) and “sushi” for my favorite food (“because it is fish”). She giggled again and passed me a long, narrow piece of blank cardstock, its edges girded in gold. I immediately perked up and put on a sober, non-bratty face; I recognized the cards from Sean’s calligraphy classes.

Haiku,” said Himalaya-sensei, drawing several more, already completed, out of her sack. Three vertical lines of bold, black Japanese calligraphy ran down each card, two shorter lines sandwiching a longer line, forming an intricate latticework of poetry – verbal and visual.

Haiku!” I yelped, suddenly so excited I could barely sit still. “Really? Is this homework?”

“Yes,” she said. “All the students will display them in the learning center.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Though teaching gives me the opportunity to invent creative means of dealing with problems that arise in the classroom, it’s been a very long time since I was asked to create anything for the sake of creation itself. It’s a fact that is increasingly upsetting to me. I originally came to Japan as a career break, hoping to figure out what I really wanted to do. Now that I know, teaching feels secondary. Yet, as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner, there is little else I can do here, if I want to stay. And I do. It’s a quandry that could feel problematic if I let it. Some days it does. In the meantime, I’ll go part-time with my company at the start of the new contract. And leap at projects like creating a haiku in my broken, ridiculous Japanese for my Japanese class.

Eagerly, I picked up my pen to scrawl a draft:

Tako ga suki
Kara ippai tabemasu
Oishii ii na!*
*I like octopus
so therefore I eat a lot
Isn’t it tasty?

“Ribu-san,” choked Himalaya-sensei, gurgling on her laughter.

“What??” I blurted. “I love tako!

Foolish and scrappy for my teacher and, only a few hours later – grave for my goofy students. My New Year’s flu hasn’t quite left me and at intervals I am seized with coughing fits that last several minutes and cause me to dry heave with a vivid scarlet face and watering eyes.

Sugoi*!” breathed one of my 9 year olds as he marveled at my brilliantine face.


I shot him a stern look. My throat continued to seize shut and for a few precious minutes my boys were silent, spread out over the flash cards; the only sound, my coughs.

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