How I Accidentally Booked The Best Gig of my Life at a Japanese Special Needs School

Japan Journals Dec 19, 2019

It was freezing outside, I had a cold coming on, and I needed to buy a Ukelele in the next hour. You see, just short a while before, my mouth had written a quite a large check - and I wasn't so sure that my お尻 was going to be able to cash it.

It all started when had been asked to visit the head office for "extra training."

Despite how that sounded, It turned out I wasn't in any trouble at all.

In actuality, a special assignment had opened up, and they told me that they felt I was the guy for the job. In my endless self-doubt, I figured that I was probably just the best choice logistically speaking (schedule and location), and they were just being nice. But who knows? Maybe it was a genuine compliment. I figured it didn't really matter at that point. I was going to have to do whatever it was, regardless.

Anyway I arrived at the office to find out that there was not only one special assignment, but in fact - two. And in the interest of efficiency, I would be receiving my training alongside one of my peers, in a small group setting consisting of the two of us and two trainers.

The job itself was to visit a special needs school - not so much in the capacity of an instructor, but more as a friendly face to just come and jazz things up for an hour, delivered as a simple English lesson. A lot of kids in Japan rarely get the opportunity to interact with foreigners, so it's usually a bit of a treat for them to do so. At least this has been my experience.

But I was nervous.

A bit more nervous that my usual level of nervous too, which at a baseline is still pretty high. I had never worked with special needs kids before, though I had always wondered about it. My sister had done so for years, so whenever I toyed with the idea of careers in education, the thought was always somewhat peripherally present.

So fast forward to this week, and those musings were now in the very real and immediate future. And I only had about 24 hours to figure out what I was going to do.

The training was by no means, a competition.

And yet my feelings of nervousness were being overcome by other neuroses.

The trainers had been very casually workshopping ideas with us, and I noticed myself being repeatedly unable to contribute to the conversation.

Now it's important to understand that this wasn't even a conversation that really needed to be contributed to. There was absolutely no reason for me to try and impress anyone, nor was there really even anyone in the room to try and impress.

And yet, like a sane person might experience the act of sneezing, I suffered an almost completely involuntary reflex in which I raised my hand and fielded the question,

"What if I brought a ukelele and sang some songs?"

The room paused for less than a second, but in that brief window I realized immediately what I had just done.

I didn't own a ukelele.

I couldn't play the ukelele.

Why did I just suggest that I would bring and play a ukelele?

Management was pleased with the idea.

They told me the teachers and the kids would love it, and thanked me for offering to make the extra effort. When they left the room, the other participant asked me if I was really going to bring a ukelele and sing songs on said ukelele.

"Oh yeah man, it's no problem. It's gonna be awesome."

About an hour later I was walking in the rain to a music shop where I had seen guitars and such in the window a few weeks before. I remembered noticing how much more expensive guitars were in Japan, and I was wondering what it was going to cost me to fix this situation. Thankfully, the store was open and there was a surprisingly large selection of ukeleles right up front.

Now after three months in Japan, my Japanese has improved quite a bit - but what that really means is that I've gotten very comfortable with apologizing for my poor Japanese up front. And I typically begin conversations with strangers by saying,

すみません, 日本語 は ちょっと 難し...

Which I'm pretty sure means, "I'm sorry, but Japanese is a little bit difficult..."

The problem is that because I say this so much, I'm able to say it quickly and confidently. This leads people to believe that I'm just being humble, so they will often proceed to speak in Japanese to me as if I'm able to understand everything (which I still really can't). However this was a pretty simple exchange, and the guy at the shop gave me a big smile when I followed my apology with,


Which I hope means, "I want to buy this ukelele set."

After many nods and bows, I was a ukelele owner.

It also came with a travel bag, a tuner, a capo, and a small chord book. I got home and emptied the contents onto my rug. If I wanted to get six hours of sleep, I had about 90 minutes to learn at least 3 songs.

Unfortunately almost half an hour had gone by before I realized I needed to stop trying to learn the "Evil Morty Theme", which was the first thing that came up on YouTube. I found 3 kid's songs I'd heard in Japanese elementary schools before, and began the task of translating them to ukelele.

I should clarify that while I have never played a ukelele for more than ten seconds at my friend's house in 2015, I have played guitar for many years. I don't want to give the impression that I became proficient in a string instrument for the first time overnight. Granted the two are not the same, but many of my guitar skills were easily transferrable.

After a while I started to get tired, and I took that as a sign that I was becoming more comfortable with what I had prepared. It doesn't take much anxiousness to keep me awake. So I decided to bag up the uke, and do whatever else I could do in the morning to get ready. An all night rehearsal session wasn't going to benefit anybody. I figured what the heck, the show must go on.

The next morning, I arrived at the school early to meet with the staff.

I spent a few minutes making my introductions, and of course, apologizing for my current level of Japanese. I was invited into a conference room, offered tea, and was told I could use the space to prep however I needed. It felt very much like a green room. I was of course still very nervous, but I enjoyed that thought once it entered my mind. As for the show, I still had no idea what to expect.

After about twenty minutes the door opened.

"Joe san, are you ready?"

The homeroom teacher and I walked down the hallway together to a large double door. I started asking a lot of questions - if there was anything I should or shouldn't do. She looked at me and said,

"You can do whatever you think is best."

I had never heard those words so much as I do now in Japan.

Had I simply grown so accustom to being micromanaged in America? When did I lose so much confidence in my abilities to make my own decisions? Had I become like one of those old soldiers who needed to follow orders for the rest of their lives just to feel comfortable getting through the day?

This was not the conversation to be having with myself right now. It was showtime.

The doors flew open to a roar of applause and cheers from countless faces.

The setting that I walked into was not a class - it was an assembly.

Nearly 60 students were gathered in the space, with maybe 20 or so staff along the perimeter. There were also members of the school board there to observe me, but I didn't find that out until after the fact.

So there I was with every single set of eyes on me. I wanted to be nervous, but the sheer intensity of the room just didn't allow for it. Everything was happening too fast for me to stop and think long enough to become anxious. So I ran with it, literally.

I jogged up to the front of the room, and ran back and forth across the rows of kids - exchanging high fives and handshakes. I was Tony Robbins, I was the Wolf of Wall Street - I was someone in that moment that I don't think I've ever truly felt like before. Never have I had the experience of so many people - so excited just to be in a room with me. There was no way I was going to let them down now.

I took my place at the front of the room, and introduced myself. Without wasting anytime I walked over to a desk on the side and retrieved my ukelele. This act alone was again met with applause and cheers. As the room slowly fell quiet, I gently strummed the first chord in my rendition of "The Hello Song".

The show had officially begun.

Over the next hour I led the group through a handful of activities, played about four of five more songs, and at one point - even had several students join me at the front of the class to perform the "Fusion Dance" popularized by the anime, Dragon Ball. The energy of the students had taken the class in a direction better than any I could have planned out. They were driving the car, I was just holding the AUX cable.

And just like that, my time was nearly up.

It wasn't until after I finished my rendition of "The Goodbye Song" and did a power-slide down the center of the room that the strangest question entered my mind.

"What if I didn't have the ukelele?"

I was again exchanging high fives and handshakes on my way out the door, but this time I couldn't help but wonder how much of the day's success belonged to the ukelele.

I returned to the green (conference) room, and packed up my things. I bid the teachers farewell, and was already halfway home when the phone rang. When I saw that it was my head office calling, I started having some doubts. Perhaps I had taken the whole School of Rock thing too far. For a moment, I seriously considered there being a chance that I was actually about to be in legitimate trouble.

"Hi is this Joe san?"
"So I just got a call from the school, and I wanted to ask you a question. Did you really bring a ukelele and do like - all kinds of singing and dancing and stuff with the students?"

They seemed surprised, but it didn't exactly sound like they were pleasantly surprised. I winced slightly in anticipation of a poor response to my forthcoming confession.


Still wincing, I stood waiting for whatever news I was about to receive.

"Wow, ok. So actually, they really liked that, and they wanted me to ask if you would just do the same thing again tomorrow and Thursday, Ok?"

I again wondered how I had lost so much confidence to the point where I truly thought I was about to be fired over the phone for something that was actually a good thing. I thanked them again for the opportunity, and for the compliment of entrusting me with such a special assignment.

I put my phone away and glanced at the ukelele in its case.

I wondered what songs I should learn for the next day.

Joseph Trubenstein

Software developer, English teacher, and aspiring Enka singer

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