Stop Saying Japanese Students are Obedient!

obedientteacher

During orientation for a trip to an American high school, I told the students, “If you fall asleep in class, you’ll get kicked out. If you talk during class, you’ll get kicked out. If you misbehave, you’ll get punished.” My Japanese students were shocked. Their eyebrows lifted and their mouths opened after they processed my words.

“Huh?”

I’ve worked at seven junior high schools and two senior high schools in Japan, and 95% of the classes are the same. Kids fall asleep, chat, and read books during class. They destroy the stereotype that Japanese students are obedient students.

When I told my high school students that they couldn’t do those things, they couldn’t imagine what class was like, especially when an immediate punishment followed their behavior. Disruptive and sleeping students don’t get punished right away, that is, if they get punished at all. Teachers wait until the end of the day to lecture students or send them to the discipline committee for punishment (writing an apology essay, cleaning early in the morning or after school, parent-student conference). So far, the best schools I’ve taught at had swift punishments for troublesome students. I’ve seen one junior high school student sit on his knees in traditional Japanese style for thirty minutes listening to three teachers yell at him about his disruptive behavior. In the end, he cried, and I never saw him near the teachers’ office again.

Where does this “obedient Japanese student” come from? My guess is what silence means to a Westerner versus a Japanese person. In the West, silence means that you’re listening and being well behaved. In Japan, silence can mean anything. My students will sit and stare at the clock without feeling bothered. When the test rolls around, students leave nearly half of their tests blank, including multiple choice questions. It’s my students’ way of protesting school.

The culprits of such a bad system? Japanese culture. Learning is not designed to be from Person A to Person B and that’s it. Learning is about taking the new information, reshaping it in certain situations, and applying it. In Japan, the direct approach does not exist except in English class (on a varying level). Ask, “What’s ‘cat’ in Japanese?” and 40 pairs of eyes blink at you as if they don’t know what a cat had two pointy ears and said, “Meow”. English is hard to learn–and so is Japanese–but when administrators just want students to parrot words and sentences, how much of that is learning?

Aside from the classroom setting, Japanese culture has one thing that hovers on the shoulders of all Japanese people: wa (和), meaning peace, or “Don’t rock the boat”. There are over 157 million people in Japan, which is the size of California. That’s a lot of people, and that’s not a lot of space. With so many people breathing down your throat, wa is a way for Japanese people to stay sane. Instead of giving your opinion (from Point A to Point B), you say your opinion in a round-about way (from Point A to Point D to Point C to Point B). What you really feel is hidden beneath a guise called honne (本音) while what you say is seen as tatemae (建前). English has an opposite design–I’m going to give it to you straight. Westerners want to be understood regardless of things such as feelings. We don’t have physical space to worry about. But Japan has a space crisis and overpopulation, and this system of wa permeates all of Japanese life, including school.

Even if my students pretended to be obedient Japanese students in the American school they visited, I know it’s just a front.

6 More Things to Learn When Living in Japan

Here are a few more things to learn when you’re a foreigner living in Japan:

1. Everyone loves to say “kawaii” (cute), “kakkoi” (cool), or “ikemen”  (slang – cool or hot) whenever you wear, say, or do something interesting. It seems that Japanese people are always watching you, especially when you’re a newcomer. If you’re new to an office or school, people will notice even the smallest things about you, like your hair, earrings, bracelets, watches, or clothing. It’s a little more daunting if you’re not used to being watched, but for teachers like me, it’s a good conversation starter in English.

2.  You’ll get invited to everything. Whether the invitation is from other foreigners or from Japanese people, there is a need for everyone to invite you to every event taking place in the city. For foreigners, it’s just another chance to hang out with part of the 4%-foreigner statistic in Japan. For Japanese people, it’s a way of showing off their culture that most foreigners would be unaware of.

3. If you know how to use chopsticks, you’ll get comments wherever you go. Because there’s this misconception that foreigners don’t know how to use chopsticks, if Japanese people see a foreigner eating with them, they’ll point out in Japanese, “You use chopsticks very well.” If you come to Japan to work or teach, you’ll hear that incessantly. It’s just a way for Japanese people to get to know you. (For me, I tell them that I’ve used chopsticks since I was in high school because I knew I would come to Japan one day.)

4. It’s hard to get anywhere with “maybe”. It’s more of a cultural thing than foreigners realize. In the United States, “maybe” means that you’re considering something, but there is no clear-cut “yes” or “no”. If you say “maybe” when talking to a colleague in Japan, unless they’ve lived in a Western country before, most Japanese people will take it as a “yes”. Also, most students don’t learn the word “maybe” until they’re in senior high school, so using it freely in a conversation with junior high schoolers and elementary school students will get you confused stares. Be careful about saying “maybe” when someone invites you to an event you don’t want to go to. They’ll be expecting you to show up!

5. Customer service runs really high in Japan. Even if you’re a customer in a McDonald’s, you won’t find customer service like that in Japan. Being a foreigner who hasn’t studied Japanese, going to a fast-food place can be a little scary because everything is written in Japanese. However, most places in Okinawa has an English, Korean, Chinese, and/or Spanish menu ready for foreigners. There are some restaurants on mainland Japan where the menus have Japanese with English translations. Aside from language, places like airports are really impressive with customer service, though they must be strict with the rules. Recently when my husband and I were at Haneda Airport looking for their popular roll cake, a worker told me that they didn’t have it at their shop, but she called around to find which shop had the roll cake. She directed us and when we arrived, the other worker was ready with roll cake in spite having to close in that last few minutes.

6. Advertised food actually looks like the pictures. More than likely, when you order something, the food actually looks like the pictures. It’s not just slapped together like someone didn’t care. There isn’t too much of anything on it (unless you’re a picky type). Just right.

Mega Burgers from McDonald's

Mega Burgers (2007) from McDonald's (source: supersizedmeals.com)

Flowers in the Gutter

At the junior high school I work for, I noticed these beautiful flowers growing inside a drainage well outside the school’s entrance. It was really rare to see these white flowers bloom so wonderfully in the darkest place. Some people are this way, too. In the darkest situations, people can bloom.

When I told another teacher about these flowers, he was quite surprised. “What? Did someone put it in there?” he inquired, showing his astonishment on his face. I pointed out the gutter before we both went over to it. We both stooped down to look closer at the white flowers. I think the same thoughts were going through his head. Did someone plant these here?

As we walked back, some eyes from the other teachers and students on us–“What were they looking at in their indoor shoes?”–I asked Hiroyuki-sensei if it was a common thing to have flowers growing in that place. “Oh, no, it’s not common,” he replied, still amazed. He turned questionable eyes on me. “Why? Does that happen often in America?”

I shook my head as we changed from our indoor shoes into our outdoor shoes. “No, but I had to ask,” was my answer. After I told him I took a picture of them, we briskly walked to class, almost forgetting about those precious and strange flowers along the way. I think even people, who have bloomed in complete darkness, are soon forgotten as soon as they’re discovered. The only time these blossomed people can even reach past the same depth of their darkness is to reach out of the gutter into the sunshine. I suppose that’s why the wallflower and the sunflower references in books and anime are commonly used. These flowers, though ignored, are still occasionally remembered in their existence at one point or another.

Unfortunate for these beautiful, pure flowers within the gutter, the tendrils of support from the sun and water runoff can’t make it reach out of its forgetfulness. I feel pity for these flowers for knowing that I will forget them sometime soon, so I stooped to take a picture, by myself, to capture it in my memory.