Tuesday, September 19, 2006

All That is Wrong in Japan

Yeah, it's been a while. I know. For some time, I’ve been contemplating whether to make a “last post” and officially bring this little piece of blogging to a close. The only reason I didn’t do that is because every now and then, something interesting would happen, and I’d think “maybe I should put that on my blog.” I didn’t, though. I’ve been keeping busy with lots of photography and writing projects, but for the most part, I haven’t felt they translated very well to the web. Besides, I’ve been thinking it might be nice to polish some things up, submit them, and actually try to get some more “dead trees” publication credits and a little extra money. I haven’t done that yet, either, but I’m working on it.

So that brings you up to date on my thoughts of the last three months concerning this blog. That was still where I stood at 10:15 this morning as I walked into school for my third period class, and I likely would have done nothing more about it today, one way or the other, had it not been for what I learned at 10:25. That will follow presently, but first, I feel it necessary to back up and provide some relevant background information. I should add that the main point of this post has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, but some controversial discussion of that topic is a necessary part of the background. Regardless of your views on that matter, I hope you will still consider this post in its entirety.

With the five-year anniversary of 9/11 last week came a heated debate on the email list serve of Hokkaido English teachers to which Maureen and I subscribe. The debate started when one member posted a link and a request for comments on the documentary Loose Change (http://www.loosechange911.com/). I have not seen the film and the only things I know about it are what I read very quickly on its homepage and what information I could glean from all the rants on the email list serve. The film examines ties between the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. government, apparently going so far as to say that the U.S. government could have been the perpetrator (please correct me if I am wrong in any of this).

That email, from a third-year member of the English teaching community, sorely touched the nerves of a newly arrived first year teacher, who replied with a rather patriotic post, stating that to even make such a suggestion made a mockery of the lives that were lost in the tragedy. That post did not sit very well with the mostly liberally minded members of the email group, and a real firestorm ensued.

I consider myself a liberal, but a pretty moderate one, and so I usually stay out of these melees, and in fact usually stay out of everything on this particular list serve, but something about this discussion spurred me into action. I think what it was, was that I largely agreed with the essence of the majority opinion, the one coming down so harshly on the first-year teacher, but that I largely disagreed with the ways in which that view was being expressed. A particular pet peeve of mine is when the content of a good argument is lost to poor form. That led to the following:

“On Questioning”

When I started teaching this spring, one of my biggest fears was how I'd handle questions from students about the many inconsistencies of the English language. I'm a private, part- time teacher, and have six high school classes each week on my own, with no JTE [Japanese Teacher of English] to back me up. I speak even less Japanese than my students speak English, so there was much reason for concern. I could see the scenarios in my mind. A dozen pairs of eyes fixed unwaveringly on me, alone at the front of the room, and struggling to come up with an answer they might believe.

"So not all verbs change to the past tense by adding –ed. Okay. But if meet changes to met, why doesn't read change to red? It sounds like red, but you say it's spelled r-e-a-d. Why?"


I lost sleep over these things back in April. I don't lose sleep over them anymore, though. I was surprised, pleasantly at first, at how rarely those questions come up. And when they do, a simple "that's just the way it is," always seems to suffice. It sure makes my job a lot easier.

It makes other things a lot easier, too. When nobody asks why, it's easy to dump concrete all over beaches and rivers to line the pockets of retired bureaucrats enjoying lucrative second careers in the high offices of construction companies. When nobody asks why, it's easy to set up an essentially one-party political system with little in the way of opposition. When nobody asks why, it's easy to reduce labor unions and consumer activist groups to feel-good societies with little real power. When nobody (within the cultural, anyway) asks why, it's easy for genki [Japanese for outgoing, excited, energetic] English teachers to rot away in their BOEs [Board of Education Offices] while students and JTEs alike long to have them in their classrooms.

I don't always agree with the questions some of my fellow westerners ask, and I don't always agree with the ways in which they ask them. But I'm glad there are people out there asking questions. It's a part of my culture, one that I'm proud of more often than not. And it's one that I hope, as an international ambassador on the grassroots level [paraphrasing the first-year poster], to impart on at least a few of the people I meet here.

I’ll repeat, the purpose of today’s blog post has nothing to do with 9/11, but it has everything to do with asking questions. That leads me to what I learned at 10:25 this morning. Please note that all names have been changed.

“Did you hear what happened on Friday?” Yamamoto-sensei asked me shortly after I’d entered the part-time teachers’ office.

“No,” I replied, maybe a little too curtly. I wanted to hear about whatever it was that happened on Friday, but not just then. I had a class in 20 minutes, and I had realized on the way to school that I had forgotten to transfer my comments about those students’ last presentations to the official comment cards that I needed to give back to them in class. I needed to work fast, and was in no mood to chitchat.

“Well, you know Kumada-kun,” Yamamoto-sensei began, a little too slowly for my tastes.

Kumada-kun is the best high school English student I teach here. He is the one exception to the comments I made about my students in my “On Questioning” essay. I have him once a week, in a class that I team teach along with Yamamoto-sensei. She has the class four times per week, every day except Wednesday, but I only help her on Tuesdays.

On my very first meeting with the class, back in April, I introduced myself and fielded questions from the students in English. The students were sitting in groups of three, and near the end of class, I roamed from group to group, trying to engage the students in conversation. I was quickly learning that while these students’ reading, listening, and writing skills were very high, their practical communication skills were, for the most part, pretty low. They answered my questions with single words, and seemed anxious for me to move on to the next group. None of them made any attempt to initiate conversation. None of them, save one.

“Do you like American punk rock music?” a voice with surprising confidence asked me from behind.

I turned to face a beaming young man with glasses and short hair that looked like he had just gotten out of bed.

“Yes,” I replied enthusiastically. Maybe that was a slight embellishment of the truth, but I immediately wanted to give this student everything I had.

“Do you know Green Day?” he ventured.

“Yes, of course! Do you know The Offspring?”

“Yes!” His eyes sparkled.

“I like to sing one of their songs at karaoke.”


We talked until the end of class, and then I gave him my email address. He wrote me several times before he got busier with his classes and encountered computer problems. Even after that, he was the one student I could always count on to ask questions in class. He often challenged both Yamamoto-sensei and me with his probing queries, which we did our utmost to appease. For one week in June, he met me every day at lunch to practice interviewing for the EIKEN English comprehension exam. Three weeks later, he shared his joy at easily passing the pre-2nd grade interview, and his dismay at failing the 2nd grade interview by only two points. He shared these with me both in conversation, and by showing me the English diary he was keeping. I told him to come back again before the next test and we’d try again for that 2nd grade ranking. Following summer vacation, he even joined Yamamoto-sensei and me for lunch a few times in the part-time teachers’ office.

Now, in that same office, Yamamoto-sensei was explaining that on Friday, two of the girls in our class had complained to her about Kumada-kun.

“They say his questions in class distract them from learning the material.”

My own mind was still too distracted by the comment cards to react quickly and strongly enough to that statement.

She went on, “so I had to talk to him, and ask him to stop asking questions in class.”

By now I had forgotten the comment cards. I needed to think of something to say, strong enough, but still professional.

“I think that is very unfortunate,” I lamented at length. “His questions were often the best parts of our classes.”

“I know,” Yamamoto-sensei agreed. “Maybe I don’t like it either, but if he is distracting the other students...”

Many of the other students seemed to go through class half asleep. The only thing I could see Kumada-kun distracting them from was their naps.

“Well, I think he is an excellent student.”

She went on, “I think in America he would be a very good student, but maybe in Japan, he doesn’t fit in so well.”

“I really appreciate the questions he asks.”

“Maybe I prefer that way, too, but here, he cannot be a distraction to the other students.” She seemed genuinely sorry with the conclusion, but I knew there was little she could do, especially as a parttime teacher.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, with our 4th period class. Kumada-kun spent the entire class with his head down on his desk, not even following the worksheets. The one time I called on him with a very easy question, he replied curtly with, “I don’t know.”

I was facing a small moral dilemma at the end of class. Should I stay and talk to him, even though it might mean disagreeing with my superior in front of a student? I decided to do the western thing. In fact, it really wasn’t much of a decision at all.

“You look tired today.”

“I’m not.”

“Are you okay?”


“Look,” I said, sitting down in the desk next to him, “Yamamoto-sensei told me what happened on Friday. I am sad. I think you are a very good English student, and I do not want you to give up in this class.”

He looked at me, expression unchanged.

“Do you understand?” I added at length.

“Yes,” he nodded. He rehashed the events of Friday, then added, “so, today, I decide it is best for me to be quiet in class.”

“But you need to keep learning!” I rebutted. “Besides, in America, you will need to ask lots of questions.”

“This is not America. This is Japan, and I need to be quiet." The words came out robotically.

“I thought you wanted to study in America!”

“When I get to university, I hope to study in America.”

“Then you cannot give up in this class.”

He considered this for some time, then chose his words carefully, “Now, you come to give me encouragement, so I am happy.”

He didn’t look or sound very happy.

“I like the questions you ask in class, and I wish you could keep asking them. Unfortunately, this is not my choice.”

“So, you disagree with Yamamoto-sensei about this?”

“This was very difficult for Yamamoto-sensei. She did what she had to do. But you must do what you have to do. Keep asking questions!”

“I must be quiet in class.”

“So be quiet in class! But pay attention, then ask me questions. I hope you will still eat lunch with me sometimes, and I hope we can still study for the next EIKEN test together. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said, this time without hesitation. “Thank you for this,” he added. This time, I think he meant it.

“I am sorry for today,” he concluded.

“It’s okay.” I patted him on the arm, and then rose to leave.

“Ganbatte, kudasai!” I admonished as I left. Fight!