Stop Saying Japanese Students are Obedient!


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.


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.

White Day: The Women’s Valentine’s Day in Japan

ImageJust as the States borrowed the hamburger, Christmas trees, and burritos from other countries, Japan has the same tendency. With Valentine’s Day, it’s no exception. But Japan did more than adopt Valentine’s Day into its social holidays; it made White Day (March 14) a secondary Valentine’s Day where only men give chocolates to women. The custom is if a male receives a gift on Valentine’s Day (where only women give gifts to men), the male must return a gift with three times the value of their Valentine’s Day gift. 

Last year, most of female teachers at my schools complained about how the male teachers only bought them White Day gifts while they actually gathered together and made Valentine’s Day gifts. This year, the sports club teachers actually made a poor man’s tiramisu (an Italian dessert) consisting of vanilla pudding, graham crackers, and cocoa powder. No complaints from the female teachers. Everyone, including all of the male teachers who didn’t participate in the tiramisu-making, was impressed. On top of the tiramisu, I received a dainty tin can with chocolates from the English department and a small box of Belgium chocolate from the basketball coach. All of the gifts were delicious, so I’m really happy I didn’t take a day off!


Back from Hiatus: My Bads!

So, I’ve taken a hike for a while here in the Land of the Rising Sun, but I’m back. Where did I go? I mean, the Internet is right there. So are my fingers. But I decided to take a minor break just to collect my bearings and dive into the restart of my new high school.

What I love about my high school is that the atmosphere is really different from that of the other schools I’ve visited, both Japanese and American. It’s calm with a subdue excitement traced back to the students’ carefree nature and the teachers’ peaceful personalities. It feels fun and productive to work at my school.

Going from junior high school to high school is a bit of a jump. In junior high school, it’s a little more stressful than high school. The students are required to be there, and because the elementary schools don’t have a uniform, junior high school is the place where students suddenly have to conform to uniforms, amongst other things. Junior high schools impose some rigid rules on these innocent students, like constantly monitoring their ties and uniforms, or their hair land eyebrows. Teachers are more strict; they’re tasked with changing former elementary students into young, responsible teenagers. People are stressed on both sides: students for the sudden change and teachers for imposing that change.

As for high school, students pay tuition, but they’re left more to themselves to do what they want. They already know the uniform rules, but they have freedom to pick different shirts to wear, girls can wear pants, and everyone can fix their hair, makeup, and eyebrows the way they like. Depending on the rules of the school, teachers are also free to do what they want. There’s minimum supervision and micromanagement compared to junior high school.

I’m enjoying this freedom from being an English assistant teacher, too. I don’t get as many classes, and since teachers rely on me for activities and cultural exchange, I’m also free to do whatever I choose to. In the free time, when I’m done planning lessons and preparing materials for school or English activities, I’m reading. I’ve read many books since starting as a teacher, including some classics like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. I’ve picked up some books by Haruki Murakami, or Japan’s contemporary noir-esque writer, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and several black civil rights books.

Of course, I don’t read all of the time. Normally after school, I train students for English speech contests, English spelling battles, and other English-speaking presentations. In some cases, I come back home after being at school for 10 hours. I really like my job, and recently, my husband and I decided on a career in speech-language pathology, or speech therapy. It’s pretty similar to this profession, so I’ve just been preparing for that.

But I really needed time away from blogging. It helps to step away and use that time to spend with people in reality or do things for yourself minus the blogging. Hopefully, once I get my bearings down, I’ll be able to get back to regular blogging until the next time I need some time off.

5 Things to Think About in Japan – The Downer Edition

Since I’ve been doing a lot of lists about things in Japan that might not be known by the people in my home country, I’ve decided to do a more thoughtful list. But, this list isn’t as happy-go-lucky as the other ones, so be prepared to think and wonder.

1. Japan has a lot of nice countrymen–so nice, that the usual codes don’t feel like discrimination. I’ve read stories of foreigners in Japan being turned away from clubs, bars, and other places because they aren’t Japanese. For those who don’t know Japanese, you probably won’t understand the situation until someone points it out. For others who do and have learned Japanese culture and code, it will always be a shock and disappointment. I’ve learned that Japan can still have close-minded people or methods. For example, when I went to open a bank account, the bank requested that a letter of employment from me–and the person who I went with was a bit angry. “That’s discrimination,” he pointed out later, and I didn’t understand until he told me that this was his first time hearing this and he’s helped many people open bank accounts in Japan. Another example happened more recently. My husband and I decided to check out a nearby bar that had pool. Right when we walked in, a bartender stopped us and kindly stated, “You must have a member’s card.” We were refused before ordering a drink. Everyone else in the bar was Japanese. This event also happened to some ALTs on mainland Japan, who noted it in a JET writing contest, the code of having a “member’s card” or being a “VIP” as the same thing. So, before anyone thinks that Japan is a quiet haven free of stereotypes and discrimination, remember that Japan was once closed to the rest of the world for several decades.

2. The quality of service in Japan is one that makes Western countries pale in comparison–or is it? In the United States, everyone expects McDonald’s hamburgers to be slapped together without a care, or other people to ignore you when you’re in a state of need. In Japan, it’s a little different. Food is made with more care, presents can be wrapped at any store, and people generally help you out when you look like you need help. My husband made a great point when he looked around with fresher eyes than myself; “Is it because the quality in Japan is so good, or is it because the quality in my home country is so bad?” My answer would be the latter. Why? Individualism has to have sacrifices, and one of them is human decency. The mantra, “Think of yourself! Buy for yourself! Be yourself!” rings more strongly than “Think of others! Buy for others! Be kind to others!”

3. Image is too important. When I went to a soccer match for one of my schools, all of the students that weren’t involved in the sports had to go to the match to cheer on their school. I sat there with my students–and became immediately bored and disgruntled. Why were these kids sitting in the hot, sweltering sun in these thick uniforms? Most of them were digging in the dirt or trying to stay cool. They weren’t even paying attention to the soccer match, and some teachers lectured them about it. What’s the point of dragging these kids to “cheer on” their school if they don’t want to? To form a stronger bond with their school’s team when the players don’t even realize they’re there? Or is it really just about images, like the image that there’s so many people to support you because there’s bodies in the stands? This is something to see in every aspect of Japanese life, too. Going to a nomikai, or a drinking party, is attended by a whole office to reinforce bonds for working. A non-drinker could feel left out, so why should they go? For an evening of watching other people get drunk? Or is it image again, the image that there’s unity amongst the office workers who really don’t know each other?

4. Everyone does everything hard–school, work, and playing. Students start studying rigorously for exams in junior high school. Adults work well past 5pm–sometimes until 8 or 9pm–just to complete a report. Additionally, adults can party hard in Japan. Lined on every street, there are armies of izakaya, or bars. Some you can recognize simply by the red lanterns glowing outside of their doors. Others are openly advertised with 100-yen beers on banners. Many adults go to these bars, drink until they’re drunk, stumble onto another bar, drink, maybe go to a karaoke place or bowling, then go back to drinking. And this can happen on any given night, most of the time, immediately after that 10-hour or more job. It’s really common to see a salaryman stumbling through the streets drunk. But does all this de-stress people, or does it add to the stress? It’s not like their livers are getting any better at filtering beer, work, or studying.

5. As a teacher, there is another close-mindedness that extends beyond the classroom. Many people just assume that as a foreigner, you don’t speak Japanese. For example, in meeting my husband’s school principal, he could introduce himself in English very well. Then, he looked at the Japanese librarian and said in Japanese, “She’s cute.” I said to him in Japanese, “Thank you,” and his eyebrows went up in surprise. In class, it’s fine if the students struggle a little bit to find the English word–they’re studying the language and every bit of practice can help them on their tests and in the real world. But as an adult, it’s somewhat sightly to see the internal struggle. Just say it in Japanese, and if I don’t understand, it’s not a big deal. Gestures work too. English, or any other language that’s learned, doesn’t have to be perfect. This is where students and people get in an unnecessary panic. I, as a native English speaker, simply just appreciate the willingness to try to communicate in English.

Art Helps More than Science

I graduated school as a double-major in art and sports medicine. Even though I spent most of my time doing my science work while art took a backseat, I don’t use science in the real world. As an English teacher, I don’t even need science-but I use my art training every day.
It’s not the ability to draw, as shown below, that makes art an asset in my life. Art goes beyond skill and touches the mind or the heart. In the mind, you learn how to create, dismantle, and improve all aspects of creativity within nature. It doesn’t have to be drawing, painting or sculpting, because creativity and creation don’t come from those skills. They’re a result, a way to combine two ideas together.
I use this kind of creativity to include culture and art into the lessons I help teach in Japan. The visual element peaks students’ interest and the characters become a reference point for students.
The images below are pieces I drew for one lesson, but I ended up drawing four more images for another lesson. “Are you a rabbit?”
“No, I am not.”
Being able to use art to teach “Are you…” makes me happy that I majored in something other than science.