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.

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.