During a lull in the festivities around the Shitaya Matsuri in Tokyo’s Ueno district I saw this group of children playing with the traditional Mizu Fusen (water balloons) in the street while wearing lovely summer festival clothes. I have seen these water balloons in every festival I have ever visited but I had no idea what they were actually for, a fact for which I blame my “academic” style of Japanese education! When a foreigner comes to Japan to learn Japanese all schools can be fitted into two basic ways of teaching: the “kintaroo style” or the “academic style” (this is just my observations though). The kintaroo style is when students are taught from a purely cultural perspective, with an emphasis on starting with the childhood classics and childhood experiences shared by all Japanese. This way of emphasizing cultural awareness by teaching old folk tales and symbols. and through them grammar and vocabulary, is a very important method I think, although hardly the most effective. The academic method on the other hand dives right into tables of grammar and lists of kanji to memorize. Learning to speak good Japanese however, is impossible without understanding the culture of Japan and how Japanese people think. Just because you can read a comic or even the morning papers in Japanese doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand Japan or the people here. For that, you have to start at the very beginning, with the toys and the stories and the childhood manner lessons that form the basics of Japanese culture. And for me, not having ever seen these mizu fusen in use was a gap in my understanding of the Japanese. But now, thanks to observing these kids, I now know a little bit more than before.