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!


Anonymous said...


I'm going to delve into the movie topic too, and likewise, it's not about 9/11.

This subject of this "documentary" came up recently, during a meeting with my academic advisor at my new University. My advisor is a very loose, casual sort, very easy to talk to, and we were discussing ethics and their need in journalism when the subject came up. Understand that I have no concrete ideas about his politics, nor does he about mine.

He related to me a story about this production, and it's take on 9/11, and he then related to me a story about how journalists from Popular Science, I believe, had written a book that debunked the movie. Representatives from both groups were on a talk radio program on a fairly liberal-leaning radio station, making their points. His roundabout point was to note that although the PS journalists had made a better case, both parties had made a fatal ethical flaw: they had gone into their respective "truth-telling" activities with a predetermined outcome in mind. The moviemakers had wanted to blame the government, the journalists had wanted to debunk the moviemakers. That baggage that you carry with you is a major ethical hurdle in journalism, and it can be a hurdle you violate even when you're right.

This was one of many fascinating parts of our conversation that afternoon that lead me to believe I was making a smart choice in the school I was attending. Instructors who are critical thinkers and who actively engage students are a precious commodity, and make the difference between an education that impacts a life forever, and an education that is little short of purgatory.

The freedom to discuss that movie with my advisor is the exact same freedom that allowed it to be made. The freedom for me to study journalistic ethics is the same freedom that allows people to insult, push agendas, and tell the "truth" their way. It's the freedom of each individual to make up their own mind about something. That's not a left-right issue, or if it is, it ought not to be. Because that freedom is the freedom to be a critical thinker, which is the true root of any education that's worth a damn.

When I was growing up, there used to be cartoons on network TV on saturday mornings. Sometimes there would be commercials that were Public Service Announcements, on ABC, that were illustrated. They featured characters from Warner Brother's "Looney Tunes" series, like Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny. One of them was on the U.S. Constitution, and words from that commercial -- of all things! -- still stick with me. When they discuss the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which came out of the Declaration of Independence -- one of the characters mentions that:

"[You are guaranteed] the right to succeed, and sometimes, to fail."

The First Amendment works the same way. Everyone is guaranteed the right to speak, even when it's to say things that are wrong, or even insulting. It is for each of us as individuals to decide about the quality of what is said.

That's a hard pill to swallow, though, and in a country like Japan that instills into it's culture a high regard for respect and cooperation, the need for chaotic social elements will take a long time to be realized. Some might argue that your encouraging of this student to continue their behavior -- despite it's non-acceptance by Japanese societal convention -- to have been a bad thing.

But society doesn't enter into this. You were faced with an ethical dilemma of your own; encourage what you knew to be right, and foster this individual's critical thinking approach to life, or close your mind and do nothing while an individual is crushed under societal convention. In the end, you can only be true to yourself, which you were, and which you encouraged your student to be. It will not be an easy road for them, but they will learn far more richly because of what you did.


Anonymous said...

hey scott-o

wow, you leave the country for a couple of months and you forget about the listserv battles. I think people who've been in hokkaido for a while, and who have developed a bit more of an "internationalised" mindset, forget that people coming straight from their countries have been exposed to completely different cultural and social influences for the past two years.. i feel for that first-year because as unpopular as his opinion may have bbeen, he had the right to believe and express it in an open forum such as the listserv. hahaha. I made a funny. the listserv is not really an open forum.


I think as difficult as the situation with your student was, you handled it really well. you did the best you could, but keep at it..teenagers are fragile things, so you may need to keep repeating your message, and encouragement. but know that you've made a difference already: he may be disillusioned about the japanese school system/ society, but at least he knows he can come to you, and that you give a damn.

good luck and gambatte yourself!

miss ya dude, send love to Mo.
Amanda C.

Anonymous said...

Well written Scott!

That is quite a story, thanks for sharing it. It is so rare that subtle cultural differences are explicated in such a way. Take care,

Scott Lothes said...

I appreciate your taking the time to post such a well-written and well thought-out comment, Alex. It sounds like you've found yourself an excellent advisor at school. I remember a class, and I don't even recall when or where now, about considering the source. Who's the author? Who's behind the comments and views? What are his/her/their motives and agendas? I wish the details of that class had stayed with me, but I'm glad that at least the gist of the message has remained.

I think one potential problem of any major work of criticism is that, by its very nature, it encourages very strong-minded individuals to write it. You have to be pretty fired up about something to see an article, book, or movie through to its conclusion. That energy usually seems to come from very strongly opinionated individuals. Unfortunately, moderates, who may be much better suited to conduct an unbiased investigation, rarely seem to have such drive for a single topic.

I hope to the bottom of my heart that you're right. I hope that I will have a lasting impact on this student's critical thinking approach to life. I tend to agree with you, Amanda, that he's going to need much more encouragement than simply what I gave him yesterday. I'm only one, very small, part of his life. The overwhelming majority of his influences are likely aligned much closer with mainstream thought here. There's a lot more to consider and say about this topic, but that's going to take a lot more time.

Thanks again for all of your sentiments,


Mr. Sven said...

That is tough, about your student. I have had similar situations. I'm glad you were able to help even a little bit. If I were that kid I would have done the same thing. But in the end the teacher just achieved lessening his interest in English with no benefit to the other students in all likelyhood. Keep fighting! We're all fighting here with you!

butuki said...

Hi Scott,

I just came across your site today and this is my first time posting here. I've lived in Japan for twenty five years altogether, over a course of 37 years. For the past 15 years I've been teaching English and have had a lot of different experiences with students and school staff alike. Your story caught my eye and was a fascinating read, touching on many reactions I've had myself to the way things are done in Japan. In spite of being here for more than half my life, identifying with the culture from a deep personal level, and speaking fluent Japanese, there are still times when Japanese logic continues to upset me. Especially as a teacher I can empathize with the frustration you must feel for your student.

However, after thinking for a while about what happened I wonder now if perhaps you might have misunderstood your superior's intentions. I wonder if she was not averse to your insistence that "free-thinking" was at stake here, but rather that Kumada-kun's questions were taking up more of the class time and your attention than was appropriate for the structure of the class. By "disruption" she might have meant that you were taking the class beyond the perceived intentions of the class.

As you know, Japanese tend to do things by consensus rather than individuals taking it upon themselves to do whatever they like, and in many ways I think this is a very good thing for a society. Japanese very much do express their opinions, sometimes vehemently so, but it always has to be done at the appropriate time and place. Perhaps your superior thought that you were undermining her authority by taking it upon yourself to let one student deviate from the norm without first having consulted and set things up with her. In all my experience here, both at work and with people in my life, I have found that Japanese very much dislike when someone acts alone, without thinking of others... the Japanese word "meiwaku" carries a hell of a lot more weight than the English word "inconveniencing". That is why so much time is spent discussing problems here than in the west... everyone must be informed of what is going on and then everyone must be comfortable with the changes. It is free speaking on a different wavelength to the unorganized outbursts of the west. And why, once the details are hashed out, things get done extremely fast. Buildings in Japan get built much faster than in the west, mainly because all the predicted problems have already been discussed.

Might I suggest a workaround for you? Perhaps your superior was not suggesting that your student stop expressing himself... perhaps she was just saying that he should't express himself so much during class time. How about setting up "advisor times" for your students to visit you and talk with you then? Or perhaps a seminar, preferably one that is informal and more open than the class, such as at a coffee shop or so, where other students can join and express themselves freely, too? If you discuss this with your superior first she might be very supportive, and, as Japanese tend to do when working in their groups, go out of her way to help you out.

Just a suggestion.

Great post. I'll be coming by again.

Sojourner said...

Hi Scott!

Thanks for sharing and sending the e-mail to get me here. Very well written. I think you handled the situation amazingly well, probably better than I would have thought out on spur of the moment. Like Miss Amanda said, keep encouraging him. He's gonna need it. Don't give up!

Hope the listserve cools down for you guys. I know how it can get red hot. Guess people just need to be reminded that it's there to bring the Hokkaido-ites together - not rip them appart. I always appreciate your level approach to things and your elloquence. Especially as my writing skills aren't so strong. Much love!

Miss you guys! And the whole crew. Send my love to Mo.

Pepper Fairlane

Tim Patterson said...


Greetings from Cambodia. I just went back to your site for the first time in too long and read through the last two posts carefully. Great stuff, you get at really important questions. If you have any more writing coming out, dead-tree or otherwise, please let me know.