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The Uni-Files - foreigners in Japan Archive

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 16, 2009

Parody- Armadillo's Blog

Today I’m not going to talk about teaching English at universities in Japan but rather about one aspect of the English-speaking diaspora in Japan, specifically Japan-based English blogs. Why? Until recently, I remained one of the dozen or so foreigners living in Japan who didn’t have their own blogs, but was recently asked by English Teachers Japan (ETJ) to start the one you are now reading.

This meant that I spent a few months beforehand doing what I had for the most part previously avoided doing, looking at other Japan-based English-language blogs authored by foreigners (or in some cases naturalized Japanese) to get a feel for the local blog culture. While a fair number were balanced, amusing, informative, and well-written, more than a few seemed to have a tiresome ‘chip-on-the-shoulder-about-Japan’ air, especially in the comments sections. If you want to know what I mean you might want to check out the parody blog below. Let’s call it Armadillo’s Blog, with Armadillo being the host blogger.

Welcome to Armadillo’s Blog-
Comments Section:

1. Dear Armadillo,
Recently, I went into a book store in Nanikamachi and to my surprise and disgust there was no section for English books, except for textbooks and study guides. Since Japan wants so much to be seen as ‘internationalized’ I found this shocking. What do you think?

2. Farkey,
You are right to be concerned about this so-called bookstore’s failure to serve certain ‘problematic’ customers (namely NJs). I called the shop and talked to the manager, a Mr. Yamamoto, who apologized for the lack of English books, claiming that he was not aware of any substantial demand for English books at his shop. However, he said that he would “look into” displaying a small section of English books in the near future. We’ll see.

3. Armadillo,
According to the most recent statistics, the total population of Nanikamachi is only 150,000, of which the foreign population makes up less than 1%. Here is the link. I don’t think that foreign customers represent a profitable demographic for that type of retailer. Anyway, there is another book shop (here) in Nanikamachi which seems to have an English section. Given this, I certainly don’t think that this particular shop’s decision to not sell English books is in any way strange or discriminatory.

4. Prokop,
Are you just here to troll by pasting links or are you going to give a coherent argument of any kind?

5. Prokop,
Your a looser and a moran!!! if no books is in English in the store how Can my students get there english to be good ? LOL

6. Armadillo,
I went back to that book shop in Nanikamachi 6 months after my post (above) and yes, there was a small display of English books there now. But do you know where it was? Right at the back, near the toilet! What does that say about their attitude towards foreign customers?

7. Farkey,
It’s these kinds of not-too-subtle messages about the position of lowly NJs in Japan that make my blood boil. Anyway, I called Mr. Yamamoto again, who gave me the spurious argument that some section has to be placed at the back at the store near the toilet. He also rationalized the fact that the English section was near the toilet entrance as a mere coincidence (Yeah, right!). Anyway, he said he would do his best to change the location of the display. We’ll see. Armadillo

8. Armadillo,
I visited that racist book shop in Nanikamachi the other day and I noticed that their English section was now way up front near the counter. What’s up with that? Probably they are they worried that foreign customers will steal books so maybe they think they have to keep an eye on us. They treat us like criminals just because we’re foreigners!

9. And the Japanese government does nothing!

10. Velcro,
This particular shop has clearly been flouting the basic human rights of foreign customers for some time now. I tried to talk to the manager, Mr. Yamamoto, again but after some background discussion apparently he was ‘out’ and the assistant (and I use that term lightly) manager, a ‘Miss Watanabe’, simply kept on repeating “I see. I see” when I presented my coherent and valid complaints. Obviously they have no intention of properly serving foreign customers. Boycott!

11. Armadillo,
Recently, as I was getting off a Japanese airline (the national carrier) on a domestic flight, the stewardesses were saying, “Arigatou gozaimashita” to all the departing Japanese or Japanese-looking passengers. But when I walked by they said, “Thank you very much” in English. This is unequal treatment and racial profiling! Not only that but they are treating me as if I’m too stupid to understand their language. I am still hurting from this blatant act of discrimination.

12. Mastodon,
As a national airline, their discriminatory behavior actually contravenes the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, and just about anything written by Amnesty International. But don’t expect the GOJ to do anything since so-called laws in this country mean nothing.
By the way, I’ve started filing a lawsuit even as I write this.

13. Armadillo and Mastodon,
Aren’t you guys making a big deal out of nothing? The stewardesses simply said, “Thank you” in a way that they’d be sure you understand. What’s the problem?

14. Prokop,
Don’t you understand? The airline workers are probably getting told by the police to single out the foreigners. Maybe they get trained by the government who probably tells them to treat foreigners less politely than Japanese. Maybe they have it written in a manual. They probably learn it in schools too, which are controlled by the government, probably.
How can you support government-sponsored racism like this?

15. Prokop,
Why are you such an Uncle Tom apologist? Our rights are slowly being destroyed by this airline passenger apartheid. What’s next? Marks on our foreheads? This is precisely why Japan is not respected and is thirty years behind the rest of the world in terms of human rights. If this happened in any ‘civilized’ country there would be riots in the streets!

…And so on.
You might think that ‘Armadillo’s blog’ is an exaggeration but you’d be wrong. The only allowance I’d make is that there are usually a few more reasonable folks (like Prokop) chiming in (and often hosting their own, more well-balanced, blogs). Other than that, what you see above is not uncommon. Of course, blogs rarely make for highbrow reading (thank goodness!) but scanning some of them can provide an interesting insight into the English-speaking milieu in Japan for both Japanese and foreign residents. Unfortunately, a number of them do end up sounding like English soundbites from Japan’s notorious 2ch, although the ‘seedy underbelly’ element of the blogosphere may be precisely one of the reasons it is worth checking out.

By the way, if you liked the spoof please feel free to link or copy it, with the usual protocols in mind.

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March 26, 2009

University jobs, permanency and so-called ‘musical chairs’

There is a lot of misunderstanding regarding foreigners’ positions at Japanese universities. Ivan Hall lambasted the (allegedly) closed and exclusive mentality of both universities and the Ministry of Education in his 1998 book ‘Cartels of the Mind’. James McCrostie has echoed some of these sentiments more recently in a few articles found here and here.

I think both accounts are a little one-sided and imbalanced in many places, although they also certainly hit on a few painful truths. Having been around the scene for awhile I am acquainted with several cases of allegedly (there’s that word again) unjust treatment of foreign faculty at Japanese universities. From my front row seat, I’d have to say that I’ve seen all types: cases where the authorities were clearly discriminatory and unreasonable in their actions, cases where both parties have been sloppy or have failed to live up to expectations or agreements, and an equal number of cases where the non-Japanese complainant squarely falls into the “What on earth were you thinking!” category.

I myself have been involved in union action against what I viewed as unjust and unfair practices in the past. I say this so that no one rushes to the conclusion that my hesitancy to outright condemn the current foreign-teacher contracting practices at Japanese universities is a product of some deeper-rooted political polemic. So let me talk about and explain the situation as I see it.

Q- What was the great purge of the mid 90’s all about?

During this decade, the Ministry of Education wanted to loosen their ties with national universities and grant even more independence to private universities. This meant that less governmental funding was available. Universities had to gradually become semi-commercial/privatized entities (houjinka) which meant a lot of applying for grants and awards, fund raising etc. In other words, the money was no longer automatic.

Q- How did this affect individual universities?
Here’s an important thing to note. MEXT did NOT (and almost never DOES) tell individual universities how and where to save or appropriate funds, although they did offer various suggestions and general guidelines, but rather it was, and still is, up to each university to adapt and use funds according to their needs and local policies (this lead to an enormous number of faculty meetings in the late 90’s). (Sidebar- this notion that ‘someone in MEXT ‘calls’ ‘someone’ in each university and passes on ‘directives’, like a general at army headquarters passing on orders to his field commander, is just…well…wrong). Anyway, one of the ramifications of this was, of course, the possibility of cutbacks in faculty. Everyone, including MEXT, was aware that there was a lot of deadwood in Japanese universities. One response to this was that something called the ninkisei system was introduced. It meant that tenure, as we know it, was gone. Instead, a limited number of renewals on contracts (different lengths of time and number of renewals according to different status) became the norm. These renewals have to be voted upon by other staff and be able to meet the fiscal budget. And yeah- there is no doubt an element of quid pro quo involved in these semi-automatic renewals, thus not really achieving the aim of getting rid of the deadwood or even stirring them to life.

Q- So, what about your contract, Mike?

Originally I was hired as a Gaikokujin Kyouin (foreign teacher) on a one year contract renewable six times with no further extension. Now I am on a five year contract, renewable three times, with no possibility of extension. I have to be voted in by the board of trustees after completion of each contract. Part of what gets reviewed at this time is my university “rating”, that is we accumulate points for publications, presentations, community involvement, participation in professional organizations, committee work and so on. This is another ramification of the move to semi-privatization, as new standards of quality control and re-checking have been introduced.

Q- Whoa whoa back up there. How did you get from the original six years with no extension into this current, more permanent contract? Isn’t that an extension?

Actually I applied for newly created position (junkyouju- Associate Professor). The old position of gaikokujin kyouin was nullified, a new one opened, and I guess I had achieved enough during my time as gaikokujin kyouin to warrant a longer stay under a different contract (yes, I had to officially retire for one day and even got my retirement benefits before re-starting under the new contract).

Now here’s where I’d like you, dear reader, to consider something. If you read certain sites or books you will get the strong impression that foreigners gaining anything close to a permanent position is very rare. Yet, if you’ve been around the Japan EFL scene for awhile you’ll undoubtedly note that many of the same Gaijin teacher/professors’ names pop up here and there and that their affiliations are the same year after year. Yes, many foreigners are getting or holding more secure longer-term positions.

Just using my smallish home city of Miyazaki as an example…besides myself at the UoM, we have an international university with a largely NJ staff, most of whom are long-termers, a municipal university which has granted long-term employment to NJ faculty, and a joshi tandai (women’s junior college) where the NJs have been around longer than I have at the University of Miyazaki. We all know each other. No, it’s not rare to meet tertiary education permanents or near-permanents. True- some NJs have gotten a raw deal and others have shot themselves in the foot but I simply can’t say that it is the standard or default practice to dump the foreign teachers quickly.

Q- But Japanese university teachers automatically get lifelong employment, don’t they?

In short, no. Most entry level Japanese teachers start on similarly impermanent, limited term contracts or various part-time contracts and slowly work themselves into better positions. Yes, some do lose their jobs when their contracts expire. We have some Japanese teachers in the English department at the UoM who are currently on limited contracts. And we have a few NJ teachers in the same tenuous entry-level position. Yeah- it’s a precarious spot to be in, not knowing what’s going to happen in a few years but it’s not as one-sided as it’s often made out to be.

Q- What about this ‘gaikokujin kyouin’ thing? Tell me more…

Eliminating these odd positions was one of the suggestions made by MEXT during the reform years. These ‘foreign teacher’ position were relics of the Meiji or Taisho periods and carried the implicit assumption that the foreigner was only going to be in Japan for a short time and would therefore have fewer responsibilities, be quite generously rewarded financially, but be very limited in terms of job permanency and influence. Unfortunately, some universities used the elimination of this position to dump some foreign teachers outright (no, no one at MEXT ‘told them to’ although they do have the habit of passing the buck back to MEXT). Were they deadwood? Were they not planning to be long-termers anyway? Did they get the shaft? I can think of examples of all three.

My own university parlayed this into a new, more permanent position (with far more responsibilities and a salary cut). Thank you. I think. Am I just lucky or is it because I am such a raging stud of a teacher? The accidental recipient of undeserved largesse or the due consequence of being such an academic and intellectual colossus? Am I good at playing my cards right or did they just fall into a fortunate place for me?

Q- But isn’t discrimination still rampant at Japanese universities?

Here’s a waffly answer- it depends. What does it ‘depend’ on? Well, for one, if your Japanese is excellent you’re obviously going to be more fully clued in to what’s going on and your viewpoints will hold far more sway on policy-making committees. If your Nihongo is poor, it is natural that in some sense you will be marginalized. (Mine is about middling- decent in terms of committee work- which can involve some obtuse, convoluted and formalized expressions- although daily work lingo is no problem at all).

Your fellow profs will, as can be expected, express a variety of attitudes. Worst are the few (yes, a minority) who may feel the necessity to remind me that I have a “Japanese job”. Funny that. I thought it was just a job- a job that I was qualified better to do than the other candidates. I don’t remember seeing a “Japanese nationals only” clause in the announcement. (Sidebar- these tend to be the same people who interpret everything as a cultural difference- “So sensei, you argued against the new e-learning course. I think your American individualistic culture can’t quite understand our Japanese plan”. Yes, there are always a few throwbacks of that particular vintage).

There are also those who have the quaint notion that should your contract be abrogated you could always “go home”. Yeah. And any of them could equally “go home”, back to Nagoya, or Osaka or wherever they originally came from. It’s as if they think I have a “real” job waiting open for me back in Canada, perhaps where my “real house” and “real wife and family” are waiting too. What I suppose I should call my “fake” house, wife and family are 5 minutes down the road from the university. That is what I “go home” to everyday.
(Sidebar- This inevitably reminds me of my trips to the immigration office before I got my Japanese permanent residency status six years back. I often had to fill out forms asking me for my “home address” which was presumably somewhere in Canada. Because I hadn’t lived in a permanent house in Canada since I had entered university as a student, and because my parents had moved three times since I had left Canada many moons ago, I had no idea what my “real” address was supposed to be. I didn’t want to provide false information, like my old childhood home [which I think now may be a crack house] so I usually opted for my parents’ then-current address, which was often a place I had never even visited, let alone lived in)

But such people are, as I said earlier, a small minority (an irritating minority, but a minority nonetheless). Most of my Japanese colleagues are quite accepting and cosmopolitan and think it quite natural that I be in a “permanent” position and play an active role in the faculty. So that’s what I do. If there is a type of sequestering, it is due far more to the nature of departmental politics (turf wars rage at universities) than my being a Gaijin.

BTW-some hints on what you can do to get or hold university positions are coming in a future blog entry.


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September 09, 2009

Emulating our heroes- and 'Mr. James'

Way off (the usual university English teaching) topic today.

I don’t get the hate for McDonald's Mr. James.

OK- I’ll admit that there’s one place in which I agree with the naysayers. Representing every and any Japanese syllable that comes out of a foreigner's mouth in katakana, as though a foreigner's Japanese- whatever the level of competency- can’t possibly be “real” Japanese is annoying and frankly, tired. (Not to mention that some of Mr. James’ vocabulary is not the kind that a Gaijin familiar only with katakana- as though hiragana would be beyond him- would be likely to use. "Tamaran!” anyone?)

(Late edit- It seems that Mr. James has in fact graduated to hiragana. Good.)

But the rest of the protest escapes me. Somehow Mr. James is supposed to ‘represent us’. I suppose this is because he is a white man in Japan (I’m sure some readers of this blog are not white but I’m pretty sure you see where I’m going with this). Funny though- I have never thought of Mr. James as representing me- and I am also a middle-aged white guy who wears glasses and has increasingly poor metabolism (albeit with a much better haircut than Mr. James- and matching clothes!).

In fact, when I see a white male character in Japan I never think that he somehow is supposed to represent me. Sorry, but I don’t think in those terms (and I'm pretty sure most Japanese don't either). Perhaps I’m insensitive to the vagaries of the pernicious Japanese media but I certainly don’t feel that those famous Gaijin actors and athletes who appear in Japanese ad campaigns are meant to represent me. Neither do those strapping handsome young Gaijin models who grace the TV or the papers. So why Mr. James, (apparently a visitor) should be viewed as representing white male residents of Japan is beyond me. There certainly may be some NJs who resemble Mr. James in style and manner but not yours truly (checks mirror again to confirm). In short, if you think Mr. James is supposed to represent you, you’d better check how high you wear your chinos.

However, according to the naysayers Mr. James is ‘a stereotype’ of a Gaijin. Now, the word ‘stereotype’ implies that the character represents a widely held, but possibly harmful and erroneous, view. But are white Gaijin in Japan really widely viewed as awkward but lovable, harmless buffoons? A look at the history of the comments posted by many James-haters indicates that Gaijin are more widely stereotyped as ‘dangerous criminal types’. Now you can’t have it both ways- either we are viewed, and subsequently stereotyped, as dangerous rogues OR as lovable harmless buffoons, but not both. Maybe anytime a Gaijin appears in a Japanese ad campaign he/she will be viewed by such people as a ‘stereotype’ who is supposed to ‘represent’ us- in which case any type of character ascribed to them is set up to fall short of the everyman ideal.

Anyway, what I find particularly disturbing about the naysayers’ logic is the binary us vs. them racial uber-consciousness that underpins it all. The naysayers associate themselves with James solely on the basis of having the same skin color (and, presumably, not because they wear ties with polo shirts or wear their chinos pulled up around their midriffs). James is white, I am white. Being ‘white like me’ is apparently the crucial factor (blinded by the white, we might say). So, the way THE JAPANESE (cue standard minor-chord ‘oriental’ musical motif here) have portrayed him must represent how THEY view US. Racial politics lurk behind every sofa cushion.

But it doesn’t stop there. In supposing that Mr. James represents what ‘the Japanese’ think of Gaijin (note how a singular monolithic view gets ascribed to the entire nation) or that Mr. James will influence or reinforce ‘the Japanese perception of gaijin’ (as if ‘The Japanese’ are so throughly naïve and gullible, and have no other experiences of viewing a foreigner) the naysayers unwittingly reinforce the very us vs. them racial dichotomizing they pretend to oppose- with no shortage of stereotyping applied to ‘The Japanese’ in the process.

There are other criticisms. Let’s check them out one by one.

1. Mr. James speaks awkward, broken Japanese whereas in reality some NJs speak Japanese extremely well.

True, but most NJs, certainly short-time visitors like Mr. James, don’t. This is an indisputable fact, not a slap in the face of those of us who have made the effort to become competent and would like to have our efforts recognized. Given that James is supposed to be a tourist with a limited amount of experience in Japan, his awkward Japanese would seem to be par for the course. So, if McDonald’s were to use a fluent NJ as their mascot it could be argued that this does not accurately represent Gaijin in Japan either. That some long-time residents, naturalized citizens et al might speak Japanese very well is beside the point. Mr. James is simply not meant to be one of those people. And hey, it’s not as if Japanese people are not aware that foreigners have varying levels of competency in Japanese (unless one wants to stereotype alleged ‘Japanese beliefs’ once again).

2. Using a first name with ‘Mr.’ is disrespectful.

When people say things like this it seems to me that they are hoping to be disrespected, that they are actively seeking out disrespect because that would justify their righteous indignation. Being disrespected can be strangely empowering. But in fact the analysis (if one wants to call it that) here is wrong. When one does not use explicitly respectful language in Japanese it doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect. It usually implies familiarity, a sense of lightness or playfulness. Surely Mr. James falls into this category. He’s a McDonald’s shill for crying out loud, not a visiting Cambridge Fellow!

3. The character is reminiscent of Steppin Fetchit, the buffoonish generic ‘Negro’, or Mr. Moto, racial mockeries from the past that virtually no one in North America would endorse now.

But wait a second. The Fetchit characters were nothing but buffoons, they had no deeper identity, not even the slightest pretense of being anyone except an anonymous ‘negro’. Popularized during a time in which many believed that black people were little more than buffoonish golliwogs at best this was unquestionably a negative stereotype. Moto too represented nothing but the collected oddball characteristics ascribed to Asians in general, and Japanese in particular. But Mr. James is presented as an individual. The blog he ‘writes’ gives him a history, a family, a personality, a home (Ohio). He is hardly the generic white man. He may be a lovable buffoon (he loves Japan with an unbridled giddiness- which I sense may be the real catalyst behind some of the critical commentary) but at least he is given a personality. He was never meant to embody some generic Japanese notion of Gaijinhood en masse.

People like to emulate their heroes. And are there any who are more universally accepted as heroes than the likes of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King? These heroes overcame oppression and discrimination, fighting their way up from the bottom of their respective societies to eventual dignified places of honor. So, to be like these heroes one has to paint themselves as oppressed victims. They have to see themselves as marginalized, as underclass victims. But why would anyone deliberately take this route- particularly white Westerners who made the choice to come and work in Japan, and not out of economic hardship? Why would such people actively, even proudly, proclaim themselves to be members of the lowest strata of Japanese society (ignoring the illegal workers, homeless, burakumin, etc.) in order to try and legitimize their claim that they lack rights and representation. Well, for one thing you can try to score pity points this way. Hey- some chicks might really dig it! But more poignantly, in some pathetic way they may feel that they are emulating their heroes!

This also means that you start seeing everything in representational terms- us vs. them, Gaijin vs. Japanese. It means that you start looking for reasons for being offended, that every perceived slight is based on the default premise of your being a visible minority, allowing you to forget that being offended is a choice, and need not imply an actual offense. But, if you are trying too hard to be oppressed to justify your sense of offense isn’t that disrespectful to those who really have been on the skinny end of the justices carrot throughout history? Sometimes, trying to emulate your heroes can actually be insulting to them.

Isn’t claiming victimhood by proxy, or by actively seeking it out, and then ‘finding’ it in representations of ‘your people’, an affront to those who are truly victims? And what about crying wolf? When some poor NJ is the obvious victim of discrimination and the naysayers take up his or her case, don’t you think someone might look at their previous record of actively seeking out victimization? “Oh, aren’t you the people who protested vehemently against a McDonald’s ad campaign character? You guys say this stuff as a matter of course, right?”

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December 28, 2009

So, just who are we anyway?

I'm past the age where chatting up the ladies in Japan is a viable option (not to mention that it wouldn't exactly be endearing to my wife) but I do remember a time when the inevitable "What do you do?" question would be popped by an enticing young lady I had just met. "Ummm I'm an English teacher," I'd stutter, almost wincing with anticipation at her look of disdain upon not having said 'investment banker'.

Let's face it- the general response (usually an implicit one in this land of tatemae) is not that of admiration. The general notion is that we Eigo no kyoushi are in fact talentless itinerants, drafted into the profession only because our mother tongue happens to be in demand. But we don't have any real skills- nothing of real professional virtue.

It's not just the lovely ladies with whom one has to use the 'E' word with trepidation. Any type of official, or even the guy who starts chatting with you on the train, will look almost disappointed when you mutter that you are an English teacher. It's a bit like saying you are a poet or philosopher or that you're looking for your big break to get into the movies- OK, you don't have a real job I see.

Of course it is true that some Non-J English teachers are here in a state of flux or limbo. It's just a temporary thing- a step on the way to that real job. Some are truly unqualified and in fact couldn't get much of anything 'back home' but have found that their mother tongue is at least marketable abroad. This meets the Japanese public expectation about the credibilty of English teachers- that of shiftless wanderers who couldn't make it back in Peoria. Others are what I'll call semi-qualified but will scrape their way up through the system and gain education and experience until they have, often to their own surprise, made an actual career of it. I'm not being derisive of such people in the least- after all that sounds a lot like me. Let''s face it, very, very few of us were actively recruited from the Education Faculties of Ivy League universities.

There are ways around the stigma of this shameful confession though. If you regularly write textbooks you can say that you are a materials writer or that you work for a publishing company. That will buy you some more J cred. In my case, I expediently avoid demeaning myself in the eyes of my interlocutor (and by 'expediently' here I mean 'soothe the ego') by saying that I am a professor. A university professor (yeah, yeah, OK- associate professor if you must). That certainly makes the hankos come down on that bank loan approval forms quite a bit faster and gets me trough customs just that bit faster.

When asked what exactly I am a professor of I have the option of keeping my J creds by stating that I work in the medical faculty. Hell, that might even be enough to elicit a 'Sugoi!' or two. But if the English element (or, slightly better, medical English) is revealed I automatically lose a few social testosterone points.

This is ironic because if or when my equally qualified Japanese colleague is asked what he does he gets big kudos locally for being a prof in the top faculty at the top university in the area (OK- It's Miyazaki- big fish, small pool and all that). But me? Nah- I'm presumed to be there largely because I speak the language as a native. I'm there by linguistic default.

I never wanted to be an English teacher. Now this is not a case of sour grapes or anything or armchair grumbling. In fact I just can't imagine anyone in their formative years declaring that their lifetime goal is to become an English teacher. When I was a kid I wanted to be a hockey player (Damn that gammy leg!) and an actor (Damn that gammy agent who didn't get me the good roles!). Then as I realized that I lacked only the size, strength and talent to play in the NHL I considered (more seriously) diplomatic work (damn that gammy French fluency requirement!) and becoming a Christain minister (damn that gammy proclivity for sin and subsequent guilt!).

I took philosophy and religious studies courses in university because I was interested in these subjects. I was not thinking about my job in the real world thereafter. I knew that you didn't see a lot of "Philosopher wanted" ads in the newspapers but so what? And I did learn a lot from these courses. I developed more refined ability with critical thinking as well as skills in managing discourse and rhetoric. I certainly felt that I became more articulate, able to express myself concisely, and suitably versed in Western culture (although this and 250 yen will get you an American Blend- a small one- at Doutor's).

After that, getting a teaching certificate and doing another graduate degree in Applied Linguistics were certainly intended to give me viable work options- although the latter was also of great benefit to my development. It helped me realize that my skills were in communication and that I did have some natural affinity for teaching. I also developed an academic interest in how languages 'work'. And as I was/am a travel buff foreign lands beckoned with opportunity... and so here I am.

I think a lot of us are in the same boat. We kind of 'fell into' teaching English but, as we got older, and the big brass door of life options began to shut, we realized that we had to become professionals or remain in permanent limbo. That this was our lot and we'd better make the best of it. Do a job well done, as an oldtimer would doubtless tell you. And when you get married and make babies it's not as if you have a lot of opportunities to reinvent yourself anyway. You've becoma an English teacher for life. That's your calling, your station now despite your best laid plans of becoming...well... an artist/poet/philosopher.

A lot of the university English teachers I know in Japan have similar backgrounds in the humanities. Few studied the so called 'practical' subjects. The vast majority are articulate and skilled communicators. Most have a facility for self-expression, so English teaching is a natural fallback. Many have dabbled in the arts in some form or another and have kept that up as a hobby. There's a certain commonality here.

And you know what? It's not a bad job. We have responsibility. We get to interact with a variety of people. We get to be creative. We are, to a certain extent, our own bosses with our private, personal spaces at work (at least in comparison to the poor saps in the Somu office cubicles). The work is not back breaking. We get to attend conferences and keep up the look of being professionals. There is an occasionally stimulating academic basis to what we do. We have the chance to conduct research that we are interested in. Some of us (and by 'us' here I mean 'me') can keep a blog and write newspapere articles on work topics that interest us.

So, is this what I really want to do? No. I still want, in my heart of hearts, to be a hockey playing actor-cum-rock star or travel the world and be paid to write abut my travel exploits- but something tells me that ain't gonna happen. But given the fact that most people on this earth don't seem to like their jobs or simply don't have any options as to work, given that drudgery is the normal price for taking home a paypacket, I can't complain. In fact, even if the young lovely I once tried to seduce didn't make pachi-pachi eyes at me when I told her my vocation, I'm still thankful for what I've got. I've got a life here.

Have a great 2010 everybody!

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January 14, 2010

Japan- Love it, Leave it, 'Change' it, Or...?

Japan- Love it or leave it! Does the old redneck adage hold any water?
I think it might.

OK- Today's entry is not about English teaching or universities but I hope you'll let me indulge in a little socio-political discourse anyway.

I think we've all come across NJs who are so unrelentingly and persistently negative about Japan, with the badmouthing becoming so predictable and boring that we can't help but wonder, yes I'll say it out loud: WHY DO YOU STAY HERE? After all, I can't imagine many of us are refugees, who can't return to our countries of origin for fear of losing our lives. And we are not usually so destitute or neglected that we are economically forced to endure (Yes- I am talking about English-teaching types here). OK- some have been assigned to Japan by a company but those 'sentences' are usually temporary. I also can't imagine too many such people would be reading this blog.

Does this then mean that the choice to stay here forces us to be non-critical, appreciative of whatever Japan puts in our paths? Obviously not. But I certainly think there is an heirarchy for complaining- that is, some bases and motivations for critique are more legitimate than others.

So then, what exactly are my criteria for legimiately carping about Japan?

First, the legitimacy of a complaint has to be connected to how much one has invested in this country. So, greater complaint legitimacy resides in the following order:
1. Citizens- those who have gone through the naturalization process have the greatest right to present their beefs. They've made the ultimate investment in the country. Score a 10/10 for griping privileges.
2. Permanent residents- they have also made their intentions of full participation in this society known. Their beefs may not carry the same pure weight as that of a citizen but they have still made a notable investment.
3. Other NJ tax payers- These people either haven't yet or don't wish to make the same commitment to this society that the above two categories show. But as tax payers and participants in this society they have some legitimacy in complaining, although it cannot- and should not- resonate as much as that of a citizen's.

Running parallel to the above are those who can answer 'Yes' to the following questions:
1. Do you have children who are Japanese, and especially, do you intend to have them grow up in Japan? OK- That's an investment. Give yourself some legitimacy points.
2. Is your spouse Japanese? Ditto- but not quite as big an investment as with the kids.
3. Are you a land, house, or business owner? Yes.You have legitimate interests too. Give yourself some carping kudos.
Of course, you will generally find that those with the greatest 'citizenship' commitment to Japan are those who have the family, business, land/house cards to play as well.

But wait, there's more...
What is the scope of your critique? If you are, say, a land owner and you want to moan about land reform practices or deed titling in Japan the fact that the content of your beef and your investment match adds more credibility to your rhetoric. But if your scope is a critique of ALL OF JAPAN, INCLUDING EVERY INSITUTION AND THE PEOPLE THEREIN, then you're just bitchin'. OK- This might be acceptable in a bar or some such place where a certain whining quotient is a given but don't expect it to carry any social or political clout. Don't whine when 'nothing is done' about it.

Next- what's the motivation for your complaints? Is it truly out of concern for 'building a better Japanese nation'? OK let's be VERY careful here (tangential rant warning)--

If this is your motivation I will argue that this is the mandate of the citizen first and foremost and those with immediate family as citizens close behind. But for others who take this line let me raise the missionary, neo-colonial charge- and this applies in particular to pasty-faced, melanin-challenged Westerners like me. Listen up- how do you think it looks when folks like us presume to be 'saving' other nations by demanding the establishment of attitudes, institutions, and values that only had validity 'back home'? "Look Japan, we want to lead you on the path to light and righteousness which we know of, for we have seen its shining virtue back in Flin Flon, Manitoba". A bit patronizing n'est ce pas?

Imagine, if you will, some VietNamese people in Australia saying that they are protesting Australian human rights to 'help Australia become a fully modern nation'. And imagine that this notion of saving Australia and changing it into a fully modern nation consists largely of telling Australians that they should have more VietNamese values, that they should adopt more progressive VietNamese traditions and institutions. Add to this the fact that most of these protestors have not taken out Australian citizenship, nor do they plan to. Pile on top of that a hypothetical in which many of the whingers have little or no English ability or understanding of Australian society or history- or that they get most of their alleged insights from dubious internet websites written in VietNamese.

So, people who want to think of their complaints as somehow being beneficial to Japan, that you are gracing this country with your noble spirit of opposition, that your protests operate under the banner of personal largesse, think again. (rant concluded)

The above applies of course to those who say they don't want to leave Japan, but to 'change' it. I mean, if someone married to a Japanese calls for reform of the koseki system, this kind of call for change seems reasonable. But to 'change Japan' as a whole, as in alter the very fabric and foundations of this society? Uh no. (Prepare for tangential rant #2)

This is for you, Mr/Mrs 'I want to change Japan': When you first chose to come to Japan (and for 99% of us it was a choice) were you not aware that Japan was not a Western country? That the society was based upon certain principles and values that were, shall we say, less familiar to us? And wasn't this in fact part of the attraction? That you were truly living somewhere else and not in a facsimile of Adelaide, Milton Keynes, or Columbus? If so, why would you want Japan to become 'not Japan'? Did you not expect that as a visible minority (don't play PC games with this term please, you know what I mean) you would be marked as different- positively AND negatively (just as you will be in most of the non-Western world)? Did you not expect to be thought of- and even think of yourself as- an outsider? If not, why didn't you do your homework before you came?

Now- does my little rant above excuse those occasional cases of out and out hostility and exclusionism that we all know of and perhaps have faced? No. But the NJ who claims he/she wants to 'change Japan' is talking about reforming the very country they have chosen to live in, not just how to deal with the occasional bigot or ignoramus (I suppose some may feel that ignorance and bigotry are systemic here, a wholesale national violation of 'human rights', and is therefore endemic to the populace at large- such attitudes usually reveal more about the speaker/writer's own prejudices rather than 'human rights' issues per se).

Anyway, don't you think that most Japanese would find this attitude at best arrogant, and at worst, threatening? Hell, I do. Sure as eggs is eggs, I wouldn't want Japan to suddenly change into Vancouver- East. Because, with warts and all, I chose to live in THIS society and within THIS culture. Now that doesn't make me an Uncle Tom or a willing punching bag. There are some things that I think could be improved here and in my small, grass roots way I can and do work for change in those narrow areas (especially those which I'm knowledgeable about and have a vested interest in) but I'm not on a God-given mission to 'change the country', especially into a version of what I left behind.

(rant #2 finished)

(Back to the main script)
You also lose credibility points if your motivation is smugness or sanctimony. Let's face it some people just love, in fact make a virtual cottage industry of, telling others how wrong and backwards they are. Such people actively hope for, actually go out of their way, to try and induce racism or ignorance in others so that they can them triumphantly claim 'victim' moral highground. These are the kind of people who are trying very hard to get offended, to find fault as a matter of course, and then interpret it in the worst possible way. This way they can feel justified when they put their hands on their hips and shout 'xenophobe' (which apparently is supposed to shock the alleged xenophobes into becoming tolerant, accepting people). Yeah, right, sure.

You also lose brownie points if you are doing nothing about whatever you find so objectionable. And, damn it, too many people conflate whining or bitching with showing concern, with 'activism'. As if those who don't chime in with the bashing are apathetic or tacitly accepting the status quo.

OK. Visible in-your-face protest might fall under the rubric of 'doing something' but here again we are subject to the legitimacy criteria I've outlined above. Is your critique focused or just a verbal volley of spittle launched at Japan en masse? Are you doing it mainly to point the smug finger of accusation at 'them'? Have you invested enough in this society, or that aspect of Japan that your objection addresses, to make your protest relevant?

There's more to consider. Is your oppositional rhetoric based upon sufficient knowledge regarding the background to the situation you are questioning? Or is it just a sophomoric knee-jerk riposte against Japan Inc. (or the comic-book villain-style 'Team Japan')? Can you read and speak the language sufficiently to make a well-founded, informed claim? If so- kudos. Your claim has a stronger foundation. Are you familiar with the background to, and the wide-ranging function(s) of, the object of your wrath? If it becomes apparent to Japanese associates that you aren't you will obviously lose legitimacy points.

And guess what. At that point, if J or NJs start thinking, "If you don't like it here, why don't you leave?" it will be because you've actually lent credence to that old redneck adage.

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January 28, 2010

The Politics of 'Hello'

When Professor X, head of the English department, sees me in the hallway he gives a Japanese grunt of acknowledgement and waves his hand briefly, Ed Sullivan-style. I'm cool with that.

When Professor Y from the Anatomy department greets me he always says "Hi" or "Morning" in an unforced and friendly way. He recently spent a sabbatical in the U.S., enjoyed it, and is comfortable working within that idiom. No problem. More on this later.

But when Student Affairs official Z and I pass by me he invariably offers up an awkward 'Hello'. I've always felt a bit uneasy about this and reply in Japanese. Here's why:

First and foremost, can we please stop teaching Japanese students that 'Hello' is the standard English greeting, an equivalent to 'Konnichi ha/wa'? It isn't. 'Hello' is used to hail someone, to confirm the other parties' presence- not as a greeting per se. That's why you use it when answering the telephone. That's why you use it when entering a room, a shop or place of business, and no one's in sight. It's what you might well say to the unconscious or semi-conscious (Note how all these cases approximate the Japanese 'moshi moshi').

When it is used as a greeting (rare among English NSs) it is invariably marked. It's what Grandma says when visiting the grandchildren or what careworkers shout at the institutionalized elderly. And it's what native English speakers teach/tell to non-natives.
And that's why 'Hello' just plain sounds odd when someone greets you with it in passing.

Another, more socio-politcally based reason that I feel uncomfortable about (not "offended" please note) this 'Hello' is that it may be that the speaker thinks they HAVE TO talk to Westerners, even veteran Westerners in Japan, this way. Some such folks may feel it is burdensome ("Why do I have to greet someone in my own country in another language?"). I've sen this used as a platform for criticizing the alleged linguistic arrogance of english-speakers. The answer is of course that you don't have to do this- and in fact you shouldn't.

Some 'Hello-ers' may feel that it is a bit of a novelty. "These are the words you say to a Gaijin so let's use them". This comes off to me though as being a bit childish and as such doesn't reflect well on the speaker. (Or to be uncharitable, one might say it's on a par with making animal sounds when visiting a zoo- but I'm not going too far down that road).

Some might feel that this is my role at the university. That I am the guy you talk to in English and practice your English with- a token of internationalization. This one presents a little bit of a dilemma. I understand that most NJ teachers do not want to be treated as the walking eikaiwa school but rather as teachers, fully functional members of the institution. At the same time, there is an understandable undercurrent that I can help people with their English or bring an outsider's perspective into things that the school finds valuable. I suppose I'd say that it is a reasonable role but not one to be exploited for novelty. (In fact, special English help is expected to be reciprocated with some help from whatever that person's area of specialization might be).

At university-connected parties and extra-curricular affairs I am spoken to in about 50% J and 50% E. (These affairs usually involve university bigwigs- many of whom are quite good at English). Now, I am always happy to be talked to in Japanese, even when the content gets dicey in terms of my comprehension, for the simple reason that such people are not harping on my gaijin-ness, which can just get tiresome. Nor can they feel that it is burdensome for them or complain (explicitly or implicitly) that they are 'forced' to speak English with Westerners.

Worst are those whose English is clearly inferior to my Japanese but prattle on in English despite my attempts to ease the conversation (for their own benefit) into Japanese. Now, I don't want to discourage anyone from using English who wants to but not only is the pace of communication frustrating but I often get the impression from such people that they do not accept, that they refuse to hear, my Japanese. For obvious reasons, I feel like I am being targeted for an awkward, clunky after-hours English conversation lesson by these people and am not being treated as 'another worker at the bonenkai'- which just starts to piss me off. Not because 'my human rights have been violated by a racist xenophobe' as some would have it but because I'm being used, manipulated in perhaps the most boring way known to mankind.

As for those who address me in English, it depends. If their English is better than my Japanese AND if their manner of discussion isn't one of those overly affected J-Gaijin 'let's be international' schemas (like Professor Y above), then I'm fine. But I DO want them to know that at any time, should they choose so, speaking Japanese is absolutely ok and hey, I can take it! I always want them to be aware that there is no obligation to speak to me in English.

Students represent another dilemma. The extant goal in most schools is of course to have them improve theiir English communication skills and thereby to have NJ teachers, at least to some extent, provide them with opportunities to do so. As a result, 95% of my classroom language is in English. But, as a part of their wider understanding regarding NJ's living in Japan I do want them to be aware that there is no social obligation to speak to me or any 'visibly foreign' person in Japan in English.

So, what about outside of class, when it's about anything from administrative matters to just passer-by greetings? Here is a sample of what I tell all my new students in the first class:

"OK. Now I'm going to speak in Japanese" (ears perk up):

"I do speak Japanese, not perfectly, but for most matters Japanese is not a problem for me. Now, obviously I want you to improve your English so I will use English in almost all cases inside the classroom and expect, or at least hope, that you will do the same.

Outside of class though- well this is Japan and if you want to speak to me in Japanese that's perfectly fine. And if you want to challenge yourself or feel comfortable using English outside the classroom that's also fine. It's your choice. Whichever you choose, I'll respond in that language.

I do want you to know though that you have no obligation to speak to people who look like me in English at your part-time job or, after you graduate, in hospitals or clinics in Japan. Many non-Japanese can and will speak very good Japanese. If they don't, fine- you can switch to English.

I say this because I want you to underatand that English is not just a language for 'foreigners' but is a language for Japanese people too. And likewise, Japanese is for anyone who wants to use it- especially those who choose to live in Japan. Of course, we will usually be imperfect in second languages but that doesn't mean we have to stick to the idea of a Japanese code for Japanese people and an English code for 'others'. In fact, that goes against the basic idea of internationalization. Ok- I'm going to resume speaking English now and will not use Japanese much more inside this classroom".

Oh- I also tell them that if they want to greet me in English (which is perfectly ok with me), not to say 'Hello' but rather 'Hi' or 'Good morning'.

After all, would you say 'moshi moshi' to someone you can see?

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March 10, 2010

Some exceptional students; and one 'Debito moment'

I suppose the popular stereotype of medical students is that they are a bit nerdy, diligent and thorough, and come from fairly well-to-do families with a history of medicine in the background (Daddy runs his own clinic). As I've mentioned before, there is in fact a wide variety among our number.

Let me tell you about some students who stand out in particular:

Student Y: 5th year female. Exceptionally sociable, a real person's person. Comes from a family of seven (seven!) children and- get this- was raised by a single, welfare mother (her father was absent from the time she was born- I didn't ask why). Her mother worked at any number of odd jobs to help get her kids through school. When her daughter was accepted for medical school it was obviously a huge triumph for the family and for the mother in particular. Suffice to say that this student needs NO motivation and never seems to find the rigours of medical study to be too taxing. After all, it's probably a breeze compared to what she has already been through.

Student S: 6th year male. This is less 'inspiring' and more personally memorable. In their first year 'getting to know you' lessons students interview one another and one of the common questions is 'Who is your favourite singer/musician?'. The answers typically include the popular Western and J-pop divas, a few rap/reggae acts, the odd boy band (J or otherwise), indie J bands like Qururi or Spitz, and the odd folkie/MOR act like Kobukuro, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that one completed form had 'King Crimson' listed as 'favourite musician'. Somebody in Miyazaki U. knows (and appreciates) those dissident tritones! After talking to the guy, he admitted a fondness for Van Der Graf Generator too. Ahh- back to my musically mind expanding post-high school days of the mid 70's...

Students A and K: Y is in her 5th year and K is starting his 2nd. Both come from tiny, remote islands. A is from one of those Okinawan outposts of about 500 people where the idea of going to university, let alone becoming a doctor, is rare and exotic. K comes from an island of about 100 people off a forgotten part of the Kyushu coast, accessible only by a once-a-day ferry. He's clearly a diligent and bright fellow- one of those kind who is always thinking and challenging himself. Somehow the dilligence required to succeed despite his locale followed him through junior high school where he was deemed academically fit to get full-funding to an elite boy's school in Kansai and then on to medical study...

Student E became pregnant during her second year, the father being a classmate. They did the 'right' thing, had the baby, and grew up very quickly, supporting each other and the child all while studying. Neither of them have failed a course despite now having two young children and a third on the way (!). Compared to this couple, students who think that the notorious physiology test represents the ultimate challenge don't know what tough is. Suffice to say that I would certainly trust a doctor with this much energy and gumption with my health.

We have numerous other interesting students, some with disabilities that they have to try to overcome, some who were raised abroad (of course some people in the J education system might consider THAT a disability), a few Todai grads who returned to Miyazaki wanting to become doctors, a few students who scored at the very top of the Center Shiken nationally but chose to stay in Miyazaki...However, I haven't asked their permission to mention them here (unlike those mentioned above) so I'll end this section by saying something about discretion and valour.

My 'Debito moment'

If you read this blog much you are probably aware that I'm not a big supporter of Japan's most well-known (notorious?) NJ human rights actvist (agitator/gadfly?). Debito bats about .100 for me, with about one out of every ten of his pieces in my opinion being accurate, balanced or worthy ('culture' as an overused and convenient excuse for dubious practices and the obsolescence of the koseki system being two that I agree with). But I'm sure that all NJs have our moments when we feel a bit put out by authorities in this, our adopted homeland.

This story concerns getting an international driver's license (I have a J license already) in Miyazaki. First, in filling out the international license application form I noticed a section asking us what our 'birthplace' was. Now this is tricky for me because, as you probably know, my citizenship is Canadian, as is my passport. But I was born in the U.K. (my family emigrated to Canada when I was 1 year old).
So I asked the clerk, "Why do you want to know my birthplace?".
"Because your citizenship must be noted on the license", she replied.
"But what if my birthplace and citizenship are different?" This took a few seconds to register with her.
"Oh. Ok. The country of your passport should be written in". I duly did so but mentioned that 'citizenship' or 'country of passport' should be the category, not 'birthplace' (you can just feel the long arm of the koseki here can't you?).

I then proceeded to the bottom part of the form where I was asked:
1. Where are you going?
2. When are you leaving and returning to Japan?
3. What is the purpose of your trip?

Now, for a driver's license this seems to me to be rather intrusive. What business is it of theirs as to why I'm going abroad, or where? This isn't the freakin' immigration office, is it? So, I told the clerk that this was private information irrelevant to issuing a license and said that I didn't want to divulge my private information in this way and so wouldn't fill that part in. I said this kindly but firmly, mentioning that I'm sure she was aware of the current importance of privacy issues in Japanese public affairs.

So she did what you could expect. She called the old Kacho guy from the adjoining office and explained it to him. I have less patience with these kind of people. You'll soon see why. He approached me and said "You have to fill this in. It's a requirement".
"Because it's necessary"
"I'm afraid you didn't answer my question. Why is my private information, such as the reason I plan to travel abroad, necessary for a prefectural MV licensing center to know"
"Because we can't issue the license without it"
"Ummm you seem to be evading my quesition" (I then raised my voice- not in anger- but so that customers nearby could hear).
"It this because you plan to give citizen's and resident's private information to the police or immigration authorities?".
Saying this directly made him nervous, and rightly so. I didn't actually think this was the explanation but yes, I did want to rattle him.
"No. It's information like a census. If we know the applicants' travel data we can serve them better".
"Shouldn't it be voluntary then? After all this isn't North Korea, is it, where every reason for every movement has to made known to officials. Anyway, this data would already be known to immigration officials or travel agencies."
"We just collect the data, but it's not collated with the driver's personal details".
"It's not the Edo Period, where you couldn't move without permission from authorities, right? It's Heisei 22 and Japan is a democrracy, right?". (Now I was sounding like Debito. Yikes!)
"Look you don't have to write in detail. Absolutely anything you write there will do. But we can't move until you fill it in with something".

So under "purpose" I wrote "private". Under destination I wrote "various" (this makes sesnse of course because the license is valid for a year and therefore for multiple visits. It's not like sigle permit re-entrry visa). And under 'departure and retuirn dates' I wrote that day's date (although I am not due to leave until later in March). He took the form away for processing.

I then asked the clerk, "I'm sorry about this but privacy is a current issue I'm sure you know and none of this seems relevant for a prefectural driver's license office. So as a resident and as a customer (you pay ¥2680 for the license) I'd like to make a complaint about this application form and ask that these questions be abolished in the future. Please mention this to your superiors or however you may process complaints. Oh- and one question. I'm curious. Do Japanese people sometimes complain about these questions?"
"Yes," she responded, "a few".
"Thank you", I said, "So please pass my comments on".

A few days later some beefy men in sunglasses in an official DMV car came to my home, demanded to see my passport, and tore out my Japanese visa. They also ridiculed my wife for being impure in marrying a foreigner and my children for being of mixed blood. Then, upon leaving, one added that 'Only Japan has four seasons' (I'M JOKING!!!)

But I admit that I did do myself in a bit. By being obstinate about the departure date I inadvertently caused that date to be named as the starting date of my license's validation, and not the day I leave- as a result I waste about three weeks' validity. Of course, instead of asking the intrusive "departure and return from Japan" question they should just ask, "From which date would you like validation to begin?".

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April 05, 2010

Classroom Nurse/Doctor discrmination? You bet! PLUS comments on the Foreign Nurses' EPA Trainee Program in Japan

Two sections today.

The first section is an outline of an interesting discussion I had with a ranking Faculty of Nursing member at our university regarding the controversial EPA agreement completed between Japan and the Philippines/Indonesia, in whichnurses from those countries are able to come to Japan to 'work' as trainees- but with a three-year time limit, unless they are able to pass the standardized Japanese nursing examination in Japanese. This program has been criticized by several pundits in the Western media plus many web-based Japan-oriented sites but there may be more to it than meets the eye, or at least the usual uninformed knee-jerk polemic that tends to surround public debate on such issues. (Those wishing to look at some survey stats on how Japanese hospital officials actually feel about the issue might want to peruse this.

The second section (with that eye-catching title) elaborates on why I discrminate in my classroom between doctors (or at least medical students) and nursing students.
But let's start with the Foreign Trainee Nursing Program EPA discussion.

Part one- The Nursing EPA Foreign Trainee Program

I had a chance to discuss the program's merits/demerits and surrounding details the highest-ranking individual in terms of introducing and administering the program at our university hospital. So far, they haven't introduced it here- and probably won't under the present circumstances. Here's the lowdown:

Me: Some commentators see the 'three years only' rule as unfairly limiting and ultimately leading to a de facto revolving door, use-'em-and-discard-'em, disposable nurse program where only Japan benefits from cheap labour.

Response: That's just nonsense, although I too have heard some foreign reports saying this. First it is a bilateral program. The terms of the program were hammered out in conjunction with the Ministries of Health in the Philippines and Indonesia. And they all agreed on the time limitation. Do you know why? Because they trained these skilled nurses for service in their own country, at their own expense. They don't want a brain drain, to lose them to richer countries. They want them to learn abroad, and of course it is expected that foreign currency will be remitted home, but officials in those countries most certainly do NOT want to see the fruits of their labour disappear abroad.

Me: Some commentators see it as a way of limiting immigration or assimilation into allegedly xenophobic Japanese society.

Response: The Ministry of Health worked out this agreement, not the Department of Immigration. They are worlds apart. It's strange that some people would confuse the two. But foreigners often see Japan as one big unit, like Japan Inc. It's a kind of prejudice or misunderstanding I think.

Me: But wouldn't a longer program provide an answer to Japan's nurse shortage? And wouldn't it therefore ease the burden on Japanese nurses?

Response: Not really. In fact, the program creates more work for Japanwese nurses.

Me: How so?

Response: The foreign trainees have limited Japanese or no Japanese language skills at all at first. That's just a fact. Now, a nurse's job is typically made up of four parts. First, housekeeping. Second, physical treatment and therapeutic administration. Third, personal care ('wellness') and fourth, paperwork. Paperwork is a huge part, especially nowadays with electronic charts. But unless a foregn trainee is fluent in Kanji they could not possibly do the paperwork. Treatment and administration also have huge liability issues so the foreign traineees are unable to carry out those duties. A mistake based upon a communication misunderstanding could have enormous repercussions so they'd be excluded from that role until they have a full Japanese license.

That leaves personal care and housekeeping, less than half a regular nurses' responsibilities, that they can carry out- and even the personal care issue can be dodgy if their Japanese verbal skills are limited. Now, the problem is, if these trainee nurses are registered as being on-staff the hospital administrators are allowed to increase the patient load accordingly, because the number of nurses has officially 'increased'. But because the foreign trainees can't do the same job it simply increases the workload for the regular nursing staff. In addition, they have to train the trainees too and sometimes even have to help them learn the Japanese language. So where are the benefits for the Japanese nurses in all this?

Me: Would the foreign trainees get the same wage as a Japanese nurse?

Response: As a Japanese trainee nurse yes, but there are other factors in the agreement that may make it slightly lower. The specific hospital administration does not decide the wage. But I can tell you that the nurses' unions are creating opposition to the program since they believe that by paying a lower wage to foreign nurses that they'll be priced out of the market and replaced by cheaper foreign nurses.

Me: Is that a real possibility?

Response: They could just pay them the exact same wage but in the end that would actually turn out to cost more because the hospital has to pay for some aspects of training, housing etc. and liability issues. And hospitals are expected to avoid being in the red these days. Even with program funding fiscal perfomance is very strictly monitored. Why operate at a loss with both increased liability and tougher working conditions for the Japanese nurses?

Me: Isn't it a bit much to expect people with little experience in Japanese to pass a professional exam after only three years?

Response: It's certainly tough but that will at least weed out the less than serious candidates. But understand also that if it takes any longer to prepare for the license it means that the extra work for the Japanese nurses involved also goes on longer. And, as I said, the governments of the participating countries are very worried about a skill and brain drain.

Me: Thanks for your time.

(As you probably realize, the above exchange is both paraphrased and translated, although I can say in good conscience that I have not deviated from the original responses in any substantial manner. I also hesitate to name the person I spoke to- I'm not a reporter and this is not reporting per se. Let's just call the person a ranking university official with knowledge of the program. Finally, I encourage knowledgeable readers who feel that the information contained above is inaccurate to comment)

Part two: Why I discriminate between nursing and medical students in my classroom

Sometimes discrimination, in the purest sense of the word, makes perfect sense. It does in this case too.

No, I do not treat the nursing and med students the same. I use different content, have different expectations and employ different evaluation criteria. Here's why:

1. The medical students are academically more proficient.
95% of Med student Center Shiken scores are higher than corresponding Nursing scores. And even if you discount the academic viability of the Center Shiken you might trust me when I tell you that the quality of school, juku and related records for med students is also substantially higher.

2. Med students generally are more proficient in English.
Our university has English as one of the two core subjects on its entrance exam, hence Med students partial to Eigo will tend to choose our entrance exam. On the other hand, English is not a subject on the Nursing entrance exam.

3. Med students are on average older and more worldly.
This is just a statistically verifiable fact. Almost all the nursing students are 18 and come from Kyushu. Many, if not most, have never worked or been abroad. The med students come from all over Japan and many are in their early 20's as freshmen, having worked or travelled (or having studied other subjects post HS).

4. Doctors will almost certainly use English in specific ways while in service, nurses much less so.
Doctors will certainly come across English in both reading and writing research, conferring with peers internationally, or attending conferences. Doctors will probably give a presentation or do an English poster session at some time. They are also more likely (by far) to be assigned abroad for research. The only category in which nurses might use English as much as a doctor is with the occasional NJ patient who doesn't speak Japanese (although here in Miyazaki that usually means only Korean or Chinese monolinguals, not English speakers). The chance that a medical professional out in these parts will meet a non-J speaking foreigner are not high or consistent enough to warrant it being a foundation of university curriculum design.

What then is the point of teaching nursing students English?
First, learning a foreign language, or at least engaging a 2nd language with a cognitive, content-based focus is part of a good academic grounding for any university graduate. Second, it could inspire those who do want to become bilingual, international medical professionals to go further (and we do have courses that allow for such students to expand their English skills and international horizons).

How does all this manifest itself in the English nursing classroom?
There is less of an emphasis on developing professional discourse and academic literacy skills than there is with medical students although in no way are these neglected. Rather, the content is less rigorous both in terms of expected English proficiency and content/tasks. The teaching moves at a slower pace BUT neither is it what we might call remedial or Eikaiwa-based. Evaluation is also more gentle.

Does this mean that med classes are more engaging, fulfilling, and easier to teach from the Prof's perspective?
Hell, no. The nursing classes are generally great fun. They are less intense, take themselves less seriously, and hold a somewhat refreshingly cavalier approach to the classroom and English that lightens the teacher's pedagogical load. In short, nurses classes seem to have fewer classroom 'issues'.

Does anybody else out there teach both medical and nursing students? What are your feelings on this?

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July 01, 2010

One man, his son, and the J school system

Getting away from universities for a moment, I thought that readers might like to hear a few impressions of the Japanese public school system based on my own experiences, or rather, those of my son, who is now 14 and a third year junior high school student. He is a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen although he looks more Western than Japanese. He was born, and has lived his entire life, in Japan- save for a few holidays abroad.

Obviously the experiences of one school, one parent and one child cannot be generalized so take it for what it's worth. Also, as he has not started high school yet I have nothing to say about the educational meme at that level.

Allow me to do this 'interview' style- it's always much easier to organize my writing that way.

Q. Let's cut to the quick. Has your son ever been bullied because he doesn't look Japanese?

Mike: No. Not once. Even in minor schoolyard skirmishes no one has ever played the 'race card'. Discrimination of this sort is strongly, strongly discouraged at this school- and all others that I am aware of. In fact, when I've asked him about any such cases he has reacted as if the concept was foreign and confusing. All the kids have known him for several years and while they might have noticed his slightly different physical features when they first met him (when he was asked about it, he said "My dad's from Canada"- end of inquiry), nobody at school seems to notice or care anymore.

Q. Is he treated differently in any way at all?

Mike: Well, he speaks English well so kids ask him for help in that subject- and the guys want to know English swear words etc. He's quite happy to be regarded as 'good at' or knowledgeable in this regard. He's also seen as a bit of an internationalist as he has travelled abroad more than others.

Q. Has there been a bullying problem at his schools in general?

Mike: Not at all. There have been a few minor schoolyard scraps and a small handful of classroom outbursts but these are rare enough to have been big news on the school grounds, not run-of-the-mill occurrences.Compared to where I went to JHS (Whalley, B.C.- one of least desirable areas for young teens in Canada I'd have to think) my son's school is heaven. In my old JH school, brutal fights were a near-daily occurence (even teachers were attacked) and there were drugs, alcohol, sexual assaults- you know the situation. The idea of any of these infiltrating my son's school is just preposterous.

Q. How about any experiences of odd treatment by the teachers?

Mike: Yes, he's been on the receiving end of a few odd T-initiated experiences (although these are dwarfed by normal treatment).

Once, in elementary school, his teacher was setting up the lunch distribution which, that day, included pineapples. Suddenly she asked, "Does anyone know where pineapples come from?". One kid ventured, "Hawaii". "Right, and which country is Hawaii in?" she continued. "America," came the answer. Then she asked, "And who in our class also comes from America?". The kids were confused. They looked around. My son was confused and looked around. Then the teacher said my son's name. The kids all went "Huh?" because they think of him as Japanese and know that his Dad is Canadian. My son found this all rather amusing- not at all hurtful and thought his teacher to be a bit naive (and rightly so). Not long after it was revealed that this teacher was suffering widespread emotional problems so....who knows?

Another time, in junior high, when the social studies teacher was teaching U.S. geography he suddenly asked my son to sing the U.S. national anthem, which he doesn't know from Schubert's Seventh. The teacher thereafter asked him to name the U.S. states which again, is not something he has any special knowledge of. Later, as the class ended, the teacher asked him personally (and not in a nasty way) if he was going back to the U.S. sometime. This did piss off my son a little bit- as it should have. He clarified who he was to the teacher and, fortuitously, some of his buddies backed him up: "He was born in Japan, sensei! He's never been to America. How can he 'go back' there?".

This teacher was transferred around that time although I don't know why. I also heard though that my son was being a bit of a goof in that class and his behaviour may have triggered (but not justify) the odd requests from the teacher.

Q. Did you bring these situations up to teachers or other school authorities?

Mike: His mother did- in a polite way at sankanbi (visitation days). The teachers clearly understood. The point was made.

Q. Since he is fluent in English has that led to problems in his English classes?

Mike: Not much. He says he has trouble with teacher's accents sometimes but in fact the writing and spelling lessons have been helpful for him, as has some of the more detailed grammar practice. Some of it actually serves as good discipline for his English too- in which his attitude is almost too free and easy.

But here's one example of a recurring problem found on tests and worksheets:
My son will give answers that are discursively correct and represent the natural use of communicative language but do not conform to the official answer. The most salient example of this was a test wherein the students were asked to match characters from a story with certain items, utilizing the scheme "Which X is Y's?". My son duly matched a blue jacket with the character Jack and to the question, "Which jacket is Jack's?" answered, "The blue one". Which is wrong, you realize, because the 'correct' answer was, "The blue one is".
The criteria of treating a verb as necessary in this type of construction is obviously artificial and redundant. He finds this frustrating (as do I) but now plays along.

Q. What about the good old 'history textbook' issue, specifically Japanese WW2 history?

Mike: I've seen and read parts of the JHS history books, at least the 'relevant' parts. They are (IMO) well-balanced, accurate, and thorough enough for a JHS history book. The negative actions of Japan during WW2 and its current legacy vis-a-vis East Asia is made clear. Nanjing and other atrocities are dealt with without mitigation.

(Tangential rant warning: Most people who talk about the so-called 'whitewashing' problems in Japan's history textbooks, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about- which includes most of the Western press, who seem happy to regurgitate popular, unfounded prejudices as fact. There are, in fact, several approved JHS history textbooks and all have been required to deal with the WW2 issues in a manner that makes Japan's responsibilities clear. The most controversial of these books, chosen only by a tiny minority of Japanese junior high schools, had to make adjustments in order to pass scrutiny. You can find accurate English translations of these online.

I wish every country's history books were as well-balanced about their wrongdoings as Japan's are. Fringe, in-denial weirdos here are just that, a fringe, the same types that you can find anywhere. It is not at all normative in Japan.

The other thing to remember is that history is an academic subject- with a particular focus on cause and effect and the flow of ideologies and custom. It is not supposed to be a mere compendium of 'what happened' for the purpose of some 'hansei' (guilt reflection) upon one's wrongdoings or a prosecutor's interrogation intended to force one to admit guilt by national association. Rant ends)

Q. What's the hardest part of being an NJ parent with a child at a J school?

Mike: I can't help him with kanji- which is the basis of pretty much every subject, save English. Even in Math (which I'm not good at anyway) the goal or point of the problem is written out in Kanji. I suppose the other thing is the huge amount of notices and requests you get everyday. There's always something needed for some event and the details are (IMO) overly thorough. J parents may expect this but NJ's are likely to think, "OK, enough's enough".

There are some useless school rules and regulations too. These often seem like authorized bullying to me and have the negative effect of causing students to confuse rule-following with morality. As one example- my son's school tie was brought from the official school uniform supplier shop (expensive!) but was apparently cut from the last bit of cloth. This meant that near the bottom of the tie the design ended and the pattern from the next cut began, leading to a sort of linear discontinuity in the design. Upon school inspection he was scolded and told to get a 'proper' tie. We told the teacher responsible in no uncertain terms that this tie had been purchased at the school-designated shop and that we had paid (too much) for it. The teacher backed down immediately and apologized.

Q. What do you think are the strong points of Japanese public schools, at least based on you and your son's experience?

Mike: Every teacher has been hard-working and in 99.5% of all situations- extremely professional. I've seen excellent classroom management and teaching technique/methodology. My expectation that it would be more redolent of a Victorian era boarding school, with rote memorization, in-your-face authority, and with no emphasis upon creativity or autonomy has been undermined. Although schools naturally vary, I see this common belief among some NJs as a prejudice held by people who believe, offhand, that that's just what 'the Japanese are like'.

The teachers seem extremely concerned about the welfare of the students. And communication channels between teachers and parents, what with home visits, the aforementioned sankanbi, and in-depth notices, and PTA ongoings, is also excellent.

Most of the teaching I've seen or heard about has been learning centered, not teacher-centered, nor learner-centered- and the form/content of homework has almost always been helpful and pedagogically relevant, not just busy work or rote memorization. Many of the classroom methods I've seen practiced have been clever and innovative (although that should not imply off-the-wall avant-gardism). Math, in particular, has been noted worldwide for the interactive and innovative ways in which it is usually taught in Japan.

In fact, my biggest teacher worries have been regarding the native-English teachers- ALTs, JETs or otherwise. While some are indeed very good and seem to know about language acquisition, methodology, classroom management etc. either by instinct or by training, some really know very little in terms of how to teach languages, manage a classroom, or develop a curriculum. I feel unsure about entrusting my childrens' education to such people.

Q. What don't you like about the system?

Mike: For one thing there are too many days given over to preparing various special events, ceremonies, sports and culture days etc. The planning is almost too detailed and meticulous. In most of these situations, students spend a lot of time following orders and sitting around- getting 'form' right. It may be a show for the parents but I find it overbearing and a matter of wasting time- the 'show' backfires.

Of course, this may be said to have some cultural relevance but what justification is culture other than saying: "Well, the people here before us did it so we have to as well"? Although the undo-kais (sports days) are incredibly well-planned and run they can also be terribly annoying given the amount of time students (and parents) have to prepare, sit through meaningless speeches, partake in militaristic pomp and ceremony (usually while crouched in the hot sun), and spend very little time doing (or enjoying) the actual sports.

I think the teaching could also move more from the receptive to the productive mode- more task-based, demanding active thinking and creating from the students, a greater focus on cognitive engagement rather than just getting through the prescribed content, although those are far from being Japan-specific problems.

I'm interested in hearing how my experiences and feelings correspond with those of parents and/or JHS/elementary school teachers reading this blog.

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July 22, 2010

Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence

I'm feeling rather buoyant at work recently despite the usual cluttered end-of-term schedule and the searing and humid weather. I'm feeling a bit lighter on my feet because I've received a little validation and recognition, and more importantly, good EFL methodological practices have been acknowledged.

Let me explain why in a roundabout way. I'll start off by making a few general political comments and then tie these to the university EFL workplace and my current situation...

Most of you will have heard of proposals to offer suffrage to permanent NJ residents of Japan and there has been some intense debate on the topic in various quarters. The best argument in favour of suffrage is probably that as permanent members of our community, with financial, family and workplace investments implanted, we deserve a say in our governance. Fair enough. But is voting the only way to be represented, to have a say? Is it the most effective way?

Some might argue that simply because we pay taxes we should be given the vote- no taxation without representation- but I'd hesitate here. Your taxes give you the right and means to use numerous government services provided at various levels. Don't want to pay your taxes because you can't vote? OK. But then don't expect to use any welfare, health, garbage collection, or childcare facilities and services- which are what your tax money is paying for. No taxes- no benefits. Surely we don't want to become entwined in this circle (assuming that no one who reads this blog is a private militia survivalist living in a plywood shack in Idaho).

In fact, despite the current lack of a local vote you are, and can be further, represented. Your local town hall will include numerous resident's committees, advisory boards filled with residents, and resident representatives in all sections. By joining or volunteering for any of these, any of those bwhich match your concerns or interests, you are doing far more visceral work for the development of your community than a single vote would (especially if your candidate loses).

My thinking is that if one really is so concerned about influencing local polity as a concerned resident then it would be incumbent upon one to learn about the issues (if you had the vote would you exercise this right responsibly by studying the issues?), the players (ditto), and most of all, to get yourself involved in some committee work (being an NJ will in no way disqualify you). This will mean sharpening your Japanese skills and making an effort but hey, that's participatory democracy, and presumably that's what people really believe in.

At the most local of levels there are the jichikai, or neighbourhood associations. I just finished serving as the Vice-chairman of ours for a year and it was an eye opener (and good not only for my Japanese skills but neighbourhood public face too). Our current Chairman is an American PR. We are treated like any other resident and use our involvement to make local decisions. This too is grass-roots participation and involvement. If people want to be counted and represented, to influence local policy, this is where to start.

I hope those who clamor for 'representation' plan to make themselves active and knowledgeable with the same fervency as they spout their suffrage advocacy if and when PRs ever get the local vote.

OK, now let me tie this to the university milieu.

Many NJ teachers feel left out of university decision-making, that they aren't represented or listened to, that they cannot affect educational policy. Voting is generally limited to the Kyouju-kai (Professor's committees). But, as with local politics, there are ways of getting yourself involved and noticed and ultimately making a difference. Like getting your PR status, it takes time, knowledge and some passable J skills but if you really want to be a player there are ways.

One is to inform yourself about current university system and policies WELL before criticizing or offering alternatives. Half-baked critiques based on unwarranted beliefs about 'the man' and 'his system' will not bode well for your seat on any committee.

Two- work on your J skills. Otherwise your credibility as a player takes a big dip and you will end up merely fulfilling the token Gaijin caricature.

Three- Have an active interest in some issue and something coherent to say about it. Whining about your boss doesn't qualify, except over a Guinness.

Four- volunteer for a committee. And yes, this means commitment and more work. In other words, don't just talk the talk but walk the walk. Get yourself involved by attending any open meetings of interest to you and thereby putting yourself in a position to get onto a committee. Again, and, I can't stress this enough: get informed about it if you want to be taken seriously.

You can avoid all the hassles and responsibilities by just doing your regular teacher's work of course (and that can be an attractive option) but don't complain then about your inability to affect policy or how the man is keeping you down (with apologies to those NJ at universities who are shut out of every meaningful decision-making process- yes, I've heard of a few such places).

So, how does my sprightly step tie into all this? Well, I'm a member of our Zengaku English Study Program Committee (I'm the only NJ on it as the rep from the Faculty of Medicine's English section). This committee is comprised of representatives of all faculties of our university, but many are not ELT educators at all. Still, this committee is responsible for developing or propagating new English programs, making recommendations to each faculty on English teaching policy (note- but NOT compiling edicts or dictates).

In the recent past, this committee adopted a program that I felt on my levels was unworkable, awkward, as well as methodologically and educationally dubious- and costly (although I admit that it has some limited benefits). And because I showed concern (and knowledge) on the topic I was placed on the committee. However, after some committee members, having been led to believe in certain unattainable benefits of this program, have gradually come to question it- including the committee Chairperson himself. This gave me the opportunity to present an alternative to the Chairperson and thereby establish my credentials as somebody who is trained and has experience in developing EFL programs and curriculum.

The chairperson has since asked me to make a formal Powerpoint proposal for our next meeting, where I am to explain the theoretical and practical logistics of my own proposal. Here's a big chance to establish a viable university English program beyond my own faculty (Medicine). Although it soothes the ego to be sure, the feeling that I'm being treated as a player, being counted, and seen as having some skills or knowledge worthy of developing a wide-ranging policy gives me a sense of purpose, of being useful. It is a positive move also in the name of sound educational policy. And, it goes without saying, it is good for the students who may have somebody trained and experienced in the field providing a framework for their university English education.

Disclaimer- I am not a natural go-getter who has the energy or inclination to get involved in every issue and expect others to do likewise. I pick my spots and try to influence where I have some knowledge or skill, something positive to offer. Although I can still whine with the best of them, getting yourself on board beats griping or constantly feeling like you're the victim of poor managerial decisions.

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August 07, 2010

EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi!

This dispatch comes from Hanoi (somehow the word 'dispatch' seems to collocate naturally with Hanoi- especially with words like 'shelled' and 'bunker'), where I am attending the AsiaTEFL conference and, having just concluded my presentation, am now free to run wild- at the computer.

The conference is taking place at a hotel complex that's a bit of a throwback to 80's Viet Nam or China- that Official Communist Party Guesthouse locale, a dated rabbit-warren of low-slung buildings of "Serve-The-People Residence Block 3" style architecture, surrounded by high cement and barbed-wire walls, dimly lit, and staffed by some grim-looking folks (unlike the very friendly conference minders and organizers). It's also a bit of a distance from the center of the old town so attendees stuck there seem to be getting a bit stir crazy, since there are virtually no attractions within walking distance (although you really wouldn't want to walk in the Hanoi summer humidity with what is probably the world's most intense, in-your-face, traffic).

Fortunately, I'm not staying at the conference venue but at a hotel closer to the city center- hence I can write this in comfort and ironic detachment. How sophomoric.

I always enjoy Asia TEFL because about 95% of the conference attendees are Asian, no surprise there, covering pretty much every country on the continent. On the first day however I attended only presentations made by Japanese EFL researchers, eager to see what they were up to. Two caught my eye in particular, both in a critical way, enough so to warrant blog commentary.

Now, I'm not going to use this blog to point fingers at specific people (unless they're REALLY asking for it) or denigrate other people's research, since the same charges could be levelled at me. So let me start with this caveat- the following presentations were well-delivered by pleasant and knowledgeable people with strong academic credentials. But each contained something unsettling that compels me to write...

The first was a presentation on using a manga about non-Japanese residents of Japan to sensitize Japanese students to ethnic diversity and NJ identity in Japan (the manga sample involved an ethnic Korean resident), the scenarios they face, their status, histories etc.

Since many Japanese may be unaware of NJs in their midst, or what limits in terms of rights, different standards etc. they may be facing, this issue is relevant and was handled sensitively- no bashing alleged of the 'the Japanese are xenophobes' variety, no overdramatizing the plight of the NJ, and, especially, less of an emphasis upon finding the 'cultural differences' than one usually encounters.

(Tangent- I was, however, taken aback by the presenters' final call to 'celebrate differences'- I say this because it is precisely this overemphasizing of differences that leads to otherizing and any resultant notion that NJs can't really be culturally Japanese or just can't/don't fit in. Since the whole point of using this manga as educational tool was to emphasize the common humanity of the characters, who the Japanese had assumed to be fully Japanese, the sudden intrusion of the 'let's understand the differences' mantra seemed to take the wind out of the rhetorical sails).

More dubious though was a preamble about racial majority 'privileged groups' who set the societal 'norms' and thereby see themselves as 'superior' but thus 'don't recognize the plights of minorities' and 'are in denial' even if they claim not to hold such attitudes (claiming that others are in denial when they do not confirm your beliefs is of course a sloppy and fallacious argument). And, yes, this initial example served up that predictable old target: White Americans.

Now here's the rub- you are giving a presentation on trying to remove ethnic/racial discrimination and prejudices from young students and what do you do? You proceed to make blanket statements about how a whole race apparently thinks! Talk about pulling the carpet of credibility from under your own feet. And yes, as a North American white guy I did feel uncomfortable listening to people tell me about what I apparently must believe because of my skin colour.
(Tangent- I've been told how white people like me think we are superior and look down on others numerous times in Japan. I always complement such people for knowing- and subsequently telling me- what I apparently think about other ethnicities based only upon seeing my degree of skin pigmentation. I might also add a little bit about how their view was actually the norm a few generations back but that anybody who has an education, or lives within any interactive social milieu of sorts in N. America is likely to have had such views confronted from day one. And oh yes, I do realize that I have been privileged. I got through Sociology 101, thank you very much).

Now, to be fair, the presenter (again, who was Japanese) DID apply these same claims to the Japanese ethnic majority with regard to minorities in Japan- that most Japanese were in denial about it, but felt superior and so were unmoved by the sufferings of others, ignorant of diversity, etc..

So, at the end of the presentation I asked her outright (privately- and in a fairly congenial way I might add) if she would feel superior to me if we were both in Japan. She knew where I was going with this (I think) and duly dodged the question- not waning to apply her generalization to herself. But I pressed on with the argument that labeling entire races/ethnicities of people as having superiority complexes or of being ignorant of others was not a viable way to confront discrimination and racial-ethnic ignorance.

She also dodged my next (and yes, loaded) question about whether she thought that I, personally, being of pale skin and all, probably believed that I am superior to non-white people. After all, according to content of her presentation, I probably should. Of course, SHE didn't feel that way about NJs in Japan herself and implied that she believed that I would not feel that way about non-whites by saying that 'although not everyone feels that way many are still in denial', but then why use the 'present company excepted' escape clause after you've just indicted an entire race?

Go figure.

The next presentation was very different in tone and scope, focusing upon Japanese student turn-taking difficulties in English. The research locus (and the research data was very professionally compiled) was that of a Native English speaker (NES) chatting with three different small groups of Japanese students in Japan, and subsequently having the researcher analyzing the turn-taking mechanics of the conversations.

The native English speaker was asked his impression of the quality of each discussion (good, bad, or so so) and his evaluations were correlated with the number and type of turn-taking mechanisms used by both Js and NES parties in the discussions. As you can probably guess, most of the turn-taking signals and acts were initiated by the NES and, what's more, the fewer the Japanese initiated or signaled a response to a turn, the worse he rated that conversation. (You know the scenario- you have to do all the topic selection, ask all the questions, do all the repair and backchannelling while students simply nod or make mundane textbook-like sentences in response).

So far, so good, right?

It was the conclusion that was worrying. The researcher concluded that because English and Japanese turn-taking styles and conversation management are so different it leads to communication problems. Therefore, Japanese students should be taught English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies.

Still seems reasonable? OK- I should add that the researcher's view of J conversation management is that it is not a Japanese cultural convention to topic-select, interject, and backchannel but apparently to patiently wait until a turn has finished before venturing a support statement. Yeah. Right. This will come as news to anyone who has seen a Japanese variety TV show, drank with Japanese in an izakaya, or- hey- has seen any group of Japanese friends simply hang out together.

The reasons that the conversations between the NES and the Js was stilted seem obvious to me. For one thing they were staged, and thus seeing them as formalized, the Js did not follow normal discourse patterns- that is normal JAPANESE discourse patterns such as: topic self-selection, backchanneling... and so on down the list. It seems pretty obvious to me that there was a power dimension at play, that the NES was seen as a type of authority figure. So the responses (or lack thereof) from the Js was not a cultural factor but one of perceived power relations. They would react similarly to a Japanese person perceived to have power or authority. They were clearly not acting as Japanese people managing a conversation, but as Japanese talking in a formalized situation with a supposed authority figure.

So, what they needed to do in order to make the conversation flow better was NOT learn so-called English turn-taking mechanisms and strategies but to use JAPANESE norms and strategies, such as support statements, repair, backchanneling, topic-selection- you know, stuff that humans, not specific cultural groups usually do, in informal situations.

Why bring in the canard of 'different cultural norms' as the explanatory factor for everything? We're not all that different!

And, yes, I did raise this point (again in a congenial manner) in the follow-up Q&A sessions. The presenter seemed rather surprised and I didn't want to put her on the spot but my comment did draw a strong and supportive response from other audience members (some of whom disliked the presenter's implicit notion that it was incumbent upon the J students to learn alleged English cultural standards when conversing with NES's in Japan).

At least these presentations stirred me up. Made me think. I suppose this is why I'm here. And I can't help but wonder if anyone was thinking similarly critical thoughts about my presentation...

(Tangential ego-inflating section:
I was in the line for visas at Hanoi Airport when the guy behind me (to be fair I initiated by asking him something about visa formalities) said, "You're Mike Guest, aren't you?". "Umm, yes, how did you know?". "Oh- you're world famous (?!)". Although he was obviously exaggerating, this caused the other people in line to turn around, eager to see the world-renowned celebrity in their midst. They saw me instead.

At another recent conference, where I was asked to do a keynote speech, I overheard one attendee say to a staff helper in reference to my good self, "That's the famous guy". I hope he was being ironic because I'm not exactly fighting the fame groupies off.

At this conference too, I've had a few people say, "Oh so YOU'RE Mike Guest!" (which I can never, nor am I intended to I suppose, accurately interpret as either, "You're my EFL hero! Let's make children together!" or as, "Why does the Daily Yomiuri let unqualified, self-absorbed and height-challenged people like yourself write such crap?"). The world of EFL is so insignificant that it's a bit unsettling and awkward to have people treat you- even for a fleeting moment- as though you are anything more than what you really are, that is, a mere English teacher. Thinking that you're a big shot in the world of EFL is like boasting that you have the best outhouse in the Ozarks...

But, hey, since I'm now in the downside of my life span, if people want to say "Hey I really liked your presentation" or "I'm glad you wrote what you wrote" then I guess I'm happy, I'll take it. Being a mere English teacher you'll take whatever recognition you can get.

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October 05, 2010

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese

An off-off university topic today (since it was written when we were all still in the academic off-season……)

This entry is geared towards those relatively new to Japan, although I’m sure the old hands might want to chime in here too.

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (Part 1):

1. Kanji- Forget what most Japanese say about the alleged difficulty of having three written scripts. Katakana and hiragana are a breeze. The one that causes all the problems (unless you are Chinese) is Kanji.

Especially yours truly. You see, I am not a visual learner. I even have trouble distinguishing between prominent members of my own family so sensitivity to the intricate nuances of Kanji is a real struggle for anyone like myself. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that even if you know the meaning of the kanji you may not know how to say it. And, even if you know how to say it ONE WAY, it may not hold that particular reading (‘on yomi’ vs. ‘kun yomi’) in that particular case.

A lack of Kanji skills can also lead you to speak Japanese that in one sense may be 'legitimate' (for example saying, "Kobe Jishin" for the Kobe Earthquake of 1995) but still sounds distinctly awkward because no one actually says that (the earthquake in question is called the Hanshin Daishinsai in Japanese). Calling a new car an ‘atarashii kuruma’ marks you as a ‘cute’ beginner who is kanji illiterate (‘shinsha’ being how kanji readers would automatically say it). There are millions of examples like these.

2. The lack of aural distinction-
Japanese has fewer possible sound combinations than most languages, which makes it relatively easy to pronounce and very consistent if written in kana. This aids speaking, but not listening. There are numerous important words that are phonetically all but indistinct to most non-Japanese or several hundreds of basic items that vary only very slightly. “Kiita” can mean asked, heard, or worked (as in ‘being effective’). ‘Kita’ (and yes, double vs. single vowels lengths can be extremely hard for English speakers to distinguish) means ‘came’ but also ‘brought’ or ‘arrived’ if conjoined with another verb, and of course, ‘north’ although context usually makes that one pretty obvious. ‘Ita’ and ‘Itta’ can cover “went”, “said” and “was”, three of the most fundamental verbs you’ll ever have the pleasure of encountering, and, as the translitetation above indicates, they aren’t so aurally distinctive either.

3. Polite and rough language- It’s one thing to learn three of four more ways to express a common verb like “eat” (‘kuu’ being the rough/vulgar form, ‘taberu’ the standard/neutral- and of course with ‘tabemasu’ being slightly more formalized version but at least it’s the same lexical item- and ‘meshi agaru’ being the honorific/polite form) and it’s still another to know when, and exactly to/with whom, you should use them. A situation that might seem buddy-buddy and guy-ish might still not warrant a ‘kuu’; even if you wanted to show respect to your mother-in-law using ‘meshi agaru’ would sound weird (like she’s a customer, not a family member). And all this without mention (so far) of using ‘itadaku’ as a humble form of ‘to eat’. And although it is breaking down, age and gender still figure prominently in the choices.

Sidebar- As most readers will know, junior students will generally use more polite (but usually not full-on honorific) language with their seniors. Which is fine if everything goes according to textbook form when seniors are one year older than juniors and so on. But how should a 25 year old freshman address a 20 year old 2nd year student? After all, age also affects the choice of polite forms. And here’s a double whammy that my wife encountered in both her student and doctor trainee days: When my wife was a freshman she joined the volleyball club and, naturally, used polite forms with her seniors. But a few seniors actually failed a few years and thus became underclassmen in relation to my wife. Now which forms to use- upward or downward? Well, the rule is that the initial relationship (the volleyball club in this case) usually trumps the later. BUT, when my wife got her medical license and started practicing in the hospital these former seniors were still students doing the rounds- often with her showing them the ropes. And there is no way that a graduated MD will be using polite language to someone who is still a student, although, psychologically the memory of these students as club seniors is hard to eschew. Apparently, in such cases the use of polite forms might reverse according to settings (the ex-seniors using polite forms to my wife in the hospital, but with her deploying the niceities if (for some reason) she was on the volleyball court with them again.

4. Ellipsis of subjects, circumlocutions, and other clarifying linguistic guideposts-
I was in a park talking with a Swiss guy who lives nearby recently when a dog entered the park, unattached to owner, and looking a bit lost. After petting and consoling the animal for a few minutes, an older woman entered the park holding a torn leash. She headed rather uncertainly towards us. The Swiss guy asked, “Anata no inu desu ka?” (Is that your dog?). This immediately struck me as awkward (and I could sense this with some, ah, authority because the Swiss guy had not been in Japan as long as me and his Japanese was clearly weaker).

Now, some NJ readers might be thinking, “What exactly was wrong with that Japanese? It sounds textbook”. And you know what? It’s not “wrong” per se, but calling a stranger “anata” can be dicey and the “no inu” bit just feels relationally, well, odd. If you’ve been around awhile, you’ll know what I mean. But as I sensed this, I also realized that I didn’t know how to ask that very simple, basic question with any kind of immediate authority or certainty. I’d be tongue-tied for a few seconds. Given time to think, I would have come up with: “Kainushi desu ka?” (Are you the pet’s owner?) or “Otaku no inu desu ka? (Is this your house dog?) both of which are more natural Japanese gambits. Again, if I had time to think.

But the fact is you have to THINK of these circumlocutionary forms, they don’t roll off the tongue as easily as, “Is that your dog?" When this happened, and my inability to come up with the best expression for a standard Japanese situation sometimes still eludes me even after twenty years here, I could understand how our students- after years of study- can feel uncomfortable making even simple utterances in English, believing that there must be some more suitable circumlocutionary formula for, “Is that your dog?”.

The dropping of explicit subjects and objects can be another minefield (*although it occurs in English too, especially in responses, it is not as 'default' as it is in Japanese), most notably in complex narratives (think of gossip about who did what to who) or instructions for complex actions. No service person in Japan says literally, “WE will call YOU and then YOU WILL have to tell us the model number”. Rather, the pronouns, relations and possessives will be hinted at through verbal inflections and context.

Even Japanese people have trouble understanding what is expected occasionally. And they will especially do so when talking to someone like my wife who tends to come up with sudden expressions like, “Hasn’t been done?” when no topic or subject has been broached in the last ten minutes. It turns out that she’s talking about the construction of the new shopping complex that she looked at online earlier and is now reminded of it because she is looking at another building, which happens to be painted the exact same color. What a linguistic doofus her husband must be for nor catching on!

Later, numbers 5 through 8:
- Formalized (must use) expressions
- Word meaning ranges (semantic cognates) vs. Latin/Greek-based languages
- Local dialects
- A lack of some basic stand alone terms (e.g., language, temperature, number)

Your thoughts?

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October 12, 2010

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (part 2)

Continuing from the previous entry (scroll down for that).....

5. Formalized (must use) expressions-
So anyway, I arrive at work on a non-busy day at 8:40. I check emails, inkan a few papers that the secretary brings, put a few items away and then head to the toilet. On the way there, I pass by one of the Gakumuka office workers in the hall. I offer up 'Ohayo gozaimasu'. "O tsukare sama" ("Thank you for your hard work" or, literally, "You have worked hard and must be tired") they respond. It is 9:00.

This always throws me off. It seems odd to offer a post-work remark at such a time, in fact it can almost seem mocking somehow. I wonder if my saying 'Good morning' was then somehow inappropriate. Geez, why can't we just say what we comes into our head? English seems so free and easy in this regard. (I suppose that the riposte to that is that in the world of the Japanese workplace that IS what comes into their heads naturally).

It's the same with simple social graces. I'm out on the streets with my daughter and my neighbour and her daughter. We have to go in the for dinner. And I struggle for the right words. Now, I can say, "We have to go in for dinner" in a hundred variations in Japanese but it feels wrong because, again, a formulaic phrase seems required. So I eventually mutter, "Mou soro soro desu" (Well, it's about time).

There are certain social rules about opening and closing speech events in English too of course but not nearly as many, nor applied so religiously, as in Japanese.

6. Word meaning ranges (semantic cognates) vs. Latin/Greek-based languages-

Generally speaking, English native speakers can get the gist of a lot of written European languages because with Latin-Greek words, a lot of roots are shared. And not only are the words shared but the semantic range of the word will be close or even exact. It doesn't take a linguist to know that Pannenkoek Saus on a Dutch menu equals "stadium debris" (OK, pancake sauce).

But Japanese? No. Where is the demarkartion line between desk and table drawn in English? Not where it is in Japanese. What J word is first in your head when you think of the English word "serious"? Majime, right? Except if you want to say, "It is a serious injury" or "this is a serious political issue", in which case you would use two entirely different words. Japanese adjectives and adjectival nouns in particular cross English semantic borders.

Yes, this one is a two-way street. I'm sure Japanese learners of English find the fact we lexically distinguish between "lights" and "electricity" a bit jarring. And the fact that there are sometimes no single cognates for key emotional words in the 'other language' must make Japanese feel a bit "setsunai".

7. Local dialects-
Yeah, yeah. I know that in Britain I may "have to take a lift to get to the chemists'" (and that they will pronounce sentences like, "You'll need vitamins to deal with the privacy issue in the aluminum controversy" in a way that God never intended) but in Japanese it is not concrete nouns but verbal clauses that tend to carry the local brogue. So, the standard "have to do something" (nanika shinakereba ikemasen) becomes (the now famous) "Dou genka sento ikan" in Miyazaki. Or "...senbai ikan" in Northern Kyushu.Since the verbal clause carries the main thrust of the utterance it is easy to get lost in local Japanese. You may know that the speaker is saying, "solenoid" and "manifest destiny" but you are likely to miss the "not" or the "can't". Somehow, dealing with "Good on ya, mate" doesn't seem quite as far of a jump.

Recently we held a department meeting where the two dominating speakers spoke: 1) a chanko-nabe-level thick, almost exaggerated, Kansai dialect and 2) a Miyazaki countryside patois. I might as well have been in a meeting in Korea.

8. A lack of some basic stand alone terms-
Simple, common words change in Japanese depending upon what their combined forms are. A good example is trying to find a stand alone cognate for "academic". You might come up with "gaku" but this is almost never a term you use alone. It has to be "academic record" (gakureki) or academic skills (gakuryoku), or even "an academic" (gakusha). What's "number" in Japanese? Bangoh? But number four in a list is "yonban" not 'bangoh". And on a paper "4" is a "suji" until it is is configuring something. "Language" is "go" but that word never stands alone. "Eigo" , "gengo" etc. "Kotoba" (usually translated as 'word') can mean language (e.g., "The language he used was inappropriate"). So can "bunsho", usually translated as "sentence""paragraph" or "text". How about "temperature"? "Body temperature" is "taion" with "on" referring to the warmth. But "tai" means body so you can't ask the "taion" in reference to today's weather forecast ("kion" is correct here). Or you can just ask about temperature using the term, "do", BUT you can only use "do" with a number, much, like "degrees" in English.

Other examples that add to what I've been talking about will be appreciated. And even counter-examples, if you wish.

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October 19, 2010

Getting a university teaching job- Q&A from a reader

Everyday bags of letters from blog readers arrive on my desk telling me that they have been good teachers, utilizing progressive methodologies, and so, come April 1st, couldn't I bring the glad tidings of a contract extension as I ride through the nation handing out seasonal goodies.

Today, I'd like to respond to one such letter from Jason Sturgeon, a letter that I think represents both the situation and querstions that many readers may have about the nuts, bolts, and financial rewards, of a university English teaching job in Japan...

Jason writes: I came to Japan in 2005 on the JET program and have enjoyed life here so far. I intend to stay in Japan my whole life, BUT not making a mediocre salary the whole time. I want to step up my career and my salary. To that end, I'm searching for information on what I can do and how to do it.

I was interested in teaching English at a university level not only for the rise in pay, but also for the more interesting things I could do. Teaching at middle school is ok, but I don't feel like its MY work. There's always someone else designing and deciding the lessons. Plus working at a university allows you the opportunity to do research, which I'm very much interested in. (I've been reading a lot about bilingualism in children and the Language Acquisition Device and would love to poke further into that study) So, here are some of the things that you might be able to help me out with. First, what kind of salary range do you think the average foreign professor would fit into?

I'm not expecting to get rich quick, but I also can't keep making the amount I'm making now, or I'll be in some trouble come retirement time. If you can tell me what your salary is, that would be helpful for me, Also, assuming that you make more the longer you work, getting promotions and such, what is the salary range of a professor starting out versus the salary of a professor near his or her retirement? I've found some information on this topic on Japanese websites, but the data is old and seems inaccurate. More than one site said that a full-professor (one who has been working for 20 years or so) makes anywhere from 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 yen a year. That sounds really high. I was wondering if you could confirm or refute that claim.

Yeah, let's talk money. It does matter. But keep in mind I can speak largely only of my own case. OK- Each month my pay slip says I get about 325,000 net and about 420,000 gross. But wait. This includes paying into my pension, all national health (and other) insurance plans, all taxes, the lot. All benefits are provided. Now, add the following to this: we get bonuses twice a year that come to just over 4 months worth of salary total. Next, 'teatte' or stipends for extra work on various committees- maybe another 100,000 over the year. I also am granted an outside class or two which adds about another 50,000 per month. My research funds are separate but generous.

The raise per year is negligible, about 2%. I've been teaching here for 13 years, and have 24 years' teaching experience in total (I'm 50), all post HS. Interestingly, my monthly net pay at a senmon gakko in Tokyo 20 years back is higher than my current salary, at least on the payslip, but not so when all the benefits are added together. Also, my previous position at this university was the now outmoded 'Gaikokujin kyoushi', for which the monthly salary was about 20% higher than now but with fewer benefits and much less job security. (Job security will always be the issue for teachers trying to enter the university scene- regardless of nationality).

Private universities (mine is National) may pay more for veteran teachers with PhDs from prestigious universities but tend to have less job security and benefits. And certainly being a Full Professor anywhere will bump you salary-wise above the Associate Profs (like me) and Lecturers, but the chances of that happening are generally close to 0.

Jason: Next, what kind of qualifications do universities require of their English professors? I've heard that either a masters degree in linguistics or a TESOL degree is necessary, but which one? Or do you need both? Along the same lines, could I expect to make more if I had a doctorate degree, or would that be making myself overqualified. I have also heard that you need to have "publications" in order to be considered for a position at a university. If that is the case, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. What exactly counts as a "publication".

A Master's in the field is an absolute minimum for getting your foot in the door. And 'in the field' will generally mean Applied Linguistics or something close- and only one such Master's is enough, although an additional teaching certificate (I have one) never hurts. A PhD almost always helps but not necessarily. I was starting my PhD when I began here and yet was actively discouraged from pursuing it because 1) it would put me in a less affordable salary bracket, 2) the then reigning professor wanted to be the head hog without any fear of 'competition', and 3) it was thought that it might interfere with the daily work I was supposed to be doing.

As for publications, I know that this a dilemma for those not in universities but who want to enter. After all, most non-university teaching jobs have no need for publications, as a academic research is not considered part of the job since contact hours are the real work. A publication will generally mean an academic journal that is refereed. Any teaching materials' publication would also hold water. If a post-grad thesis is published, that is also acceptable. So, for those with no background in this sort of thing, I suggest getting involved with some group research wherein you'll get your name published but may not have to take a lead role (new academics do this all the time). Action Research, where a teacher delves into solving actual classroom dilemmas but usually without the full academic paraphaernalia can also get published and is more accessible to younger teachers and researchers.

Jason: Also, what kind of work hours do you have? I'd like to know the minimum per week, the maximum per week and the general average per week. I know that some parts of the year are busier than others. For the purposes of this question, work hours means time spent either at the office, or at home doing university related tasks, including administrative tasks.

You could conceivably come into the university only to do your classes and the surrounding prep (copying) etc. and then go home BUT you would never get a contract renewed if you took this tack. You would not be considered a teacher with long-term or promotional potential. Most universities operate a data base of your 'worth' to the institution in which all your publications, presentations, extracurricular duties, related social (such as this blog and my Yomiuri columns) and professional associations and commitments, admin work and committees, both leading and simple membership. You will also these days be expected to regularly produce research results AND try to raise money for such (as with kaken-hi scientific research grant applications). Without getting involved in all of these things, your database score will be unlikely to justify keeping your contract the next time renewals or cuts come around.

And holidays of any length are very rare, at least at national universities. If I can scrape a week together in the off-season when there are no committee meetings, special courses, intensive private work with students (grad theses, seminars), and administrative or extracurricular duties, I consider myself lucky. At some private universities I hear of teachers regularly taking a month or so off and chilling out- absolutely unthinkable for me, and NOT because I'm a workaholic or anything.

Personally, I am in the office- and usually active- from 8:30 to 5 PM every weekday but will also do some work at home. I have 7 90-minute koma contact hours per week. Weekends too may be taken up with obligations, especially involving research trips, conferences, organizing/participating in special events and lectures, and even follow-up 'semi-obligatory uchiage' parties But nobody is really checking you on a regular basis. There is no time punch card. I can visit my home at times as I live within walking distance and no one would notice or care- but then again (blows own trumpet) I've built up 13 years' worth of trust here.

In general, any information you can give me about your own personal experience would be the most desired and useful to me. Stories and information from a source "straight from the horse's mouth" seem more real than averages and stipulation. I feel like if it happened to you, it's very possible I could have the same thing happen to me.

One thing comes to mind immediately Jason, It REALLY helps to be active and known in the local teaching community, both J and E. Join teaching organizations and participate. Attend training sessions. Go to meetings and conferences. Most university jobs are offered to known quantities, through connections- although usually at first as limited part-time gigs. New foreigners often become recommended by veteran foreigners whose judgment is trusted by the staff of the university (usually the Kyoujukai- Professor's Working Group).

Does any vet have anything to add to Jason's inquiry? Or do readers have any similar questions? Comments are open...

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October 29, 2010

An "interview" with controversial human rights activist Orudo Debiru

Today- a Uni-files interview with the controversial activist and newspaper columnist Orudo Debiru
(For those who don’t know, Orudo Debiru is a naturalized Japanese citizen, originally from the U.S. His main claim to fame is his activism for human rights, especially the rights of non-Japanese in Japan. He is also wholly fictional and if he happens to resemble some actual person from say, Hokkaido, that’s because you, dear reader, made an unwarranted connection. Today he joins us with one of his most ardent, and equally fictional, supporters- Jay Newbie).

Uni-files: Debiru, in a recent newspaper article you argued that even non-Japanese living outside Japan, including those who have never set foot in Japan, should have the right to vote in Japanese elections. You also argued that they should be eligible for all the public and social services offered by the Japanese government, including pensions and welfare benefits. This seems to be a bit radical don’t you think?

Debiru: No. Otherwise you’re discriminating between Japanese people and non-residents. Why should only Japanese have access to the benefits of ‘Team Japan’?

Newbie: Japan owes something to the world. It can’t just always be take, take, take. Japan has to give in return.

Debiru: Japan is the only ‘developed’ county that doesn’t provide the vote for it’s non-citizens who live elsewhere.

Uni-files: Really? No country in the EU does that, nor do Canada, U.S., or Australia.

Debiru: What other countries do is irrelevant! What’s right is right! Are you saying that it is right for Japan to be discriminatory?

Uni-files: Debiru, you and your supporters often mention that some attitudes, policies, or states of affairs occur ‘only in Japan’ among developed countries. It seems that you buy into notions of Japanese uniqueness or exclusivity. Do you?

Debiru: Not at all! The notion of Japanese uniqueness is a nationalist myth!

Newbie: Of all developed countries, only the Japanese think of themselves as being unique. It seems to be part of the Japanese mentality. They believe whatever the government tells them. You won’t find this type of belief in Western countries anymore, only in Japan.

Uni-files: Ok. Let’s move on. You've also blogged about “how the Japanese authorities plan to incarcerate all foreign residents as a precaution against the foreign criminals”. I haven’t come across any such policy statements. Can you ground this?

Debiru: Well, I was scouring the internet looking for anything that might prove my preconceptions about the ulterior motives of the Japanese authorities when I came across another blogger who talked about how his upholsterer in Inaka Prefecture thought he had overheard a conversation at a vegetable stand about the local district council becoming more vigilant about registering foreigners for social services and helping them with securing housing. And I can substantiate it too- with a link to my blog. Anyway, to me, being told to ‘stay in your house’ in this manner is equivalent to incarceration. And the registration is clearly a way of rounding up the foreigners- just like a criminal dragnet.

Newbie: In any civilized country this would cause mass rioting in the streets. But because the Japanese are such compliant sheep, not to mention the blatant racism here, no one will stand up for us. The Japanese just pretend that foreigners don’t exist. They stare at us like we’re from another planet.

Uni-files: That must be tough for them to do, both ignoring your existence and staring at you at the same time!

Debiru: This is just the start of the whole racist process. Next thing you know, your pension is declared null and void and your 'ha-fu' kids are kicked out of school for not being Japanese enough.

Newbie: Wow, Debiru. That was your best answer yet!

Uni-files: Let me ask about these racism charges a bit. For example, I know that you oppose the fingerprinting of non-Japanese at airports but can this really be called racist? After all, it is based upon citizenship, right? For example, Debiru, you are racially Caucasian but, as a Japanese citizen, you don’t have to be fingerprinted. And someone who is racially ‘Japanese’- although Japanese isn't even a racial category- but doesn’t hold a Japanese passport still has to be fingerprinted. So while it may be other things, how can you say it is ‘racist’?

Debiru: Don’t feed the troll, Newbie. Don’t feed the troll.

Uni-files: Ok, next question. Regarding a specific recent blog entry of yours... You recently criticized the city of Sonzainashi for exploiting non-Japanese. Apparently, the city authorities had developed a ‘Welcome Foreign Guests’ plan in which selected hotels, hot springs, eateries, bars and so on offered English information and services and had started a promotional campaign that actively encouraged non-Japanese to visit. So, what was the thrust of your criticism?

Debiru: When they carry out this facile, deceitful put-on for non-Japanese they’re only doing it because they want their business. “Let’s take the foreigner’s money away from them” is the real motivation. 'Yohkoso Japan!'- Yeah, right!

Newbie: I consider it a form of robbery; another way of victimizing us, the weakest members of this society.

Uni-files: You guys seem to be very negative about anything to do with Japan, even when Japan scores an apparent success.

Newbie: That’s because Japan places everyone into an us and them paradigm. They do it all the time. They have institutionalized the formula. They use it to justify oppressive policies. We would never do that in the U.S. We have laws that forbid it and an education system that teaches us not to do so.

Uni-files:So, given that Debiru is Japanese, would you put him among that number?

Newbie: Well, I mean, he’s not really a Japanese in the same way they are. (Debiru stares at Newbie). Well I mean, like, he’s not exactly Japanese like them. So to speak. He’s a different Japanese from all the other Japanese. (Debiru continues staring at him). Well, of course he’s just the same as them in that he’s a Japanese citizen. But Debiru is more…ummm... progressive. (Debiru smiles).

Uni-files: OK. Back to the point. Wouldn’t you at least agree that public order and efficiency here is quite excellent?

Debiru: Japanese public order is maintained by coercion and implicit threat. It’s fifty years behind most other countries in this regard.

Uni-files: OK. How about robotics? Or even toilet technology?

Newbie: Robotics here is 36 years behind every other country in the world. And Japan is 23 years behind as far as toilets go.

Uni-files: On what basis can you make such bold claims?

Newbie: Three months ago in the U.S., before I came to Japan, I visited another state for the first time. And their toilets were better than here. Not as xenophobic.

Uni-files: Ok. How about manga and animation? Surely Japan’s ranking in these…

Newbie: You sound like a Japan apologist, acting as if racism never occurs here. Like nothing ever happened in Nanjing!

Debiru: Speaking of which, China has overtaken Japan as the world’s #2 power so Japan can’t possibly be leaders in those fields and therefore must be on the decline in all catgories. And it is this frustration at being a washed up, has-been society that it causing Japanese to lash out at foreigners.

Uni-files: Really? How so?

Debiru: It happens all the time. Read my blog.

Uni-files: I don’t doubt that there are individual cases but I don’t see it as systemic.

Debiru: If it isn’t systemic, why would I have so many blog posts? That’s all the proof you need! Anyway, just on our way over to this interview the taxi driver spat at us, called us ‘Dirty foreigners’ and told us to ‘Get out!”.

Uni-files: Wow! In twenty years in Japan I have never even come close to experiencing anything remotely like that. Can you elaborate? He spat at you?!

Debiru: Well, he was making disgusting sucking sounds with his teeth so that you could hear the saliva washing around. To me that’s spitting.

Uni-files: I wouldn’t call that spitting…

Debiru: Stay on topic! The point is he would never have done that if the passenger was visibly Japanese.

Uni-files: I see. And he called you a ‘dirty foreigner’?

Debiru: Well he called us “gaikokujin no kata”.

Uni-files: But that’s a very polite way of just saying ‘foreigner’! Where’s the ‘dirty’ part?

Newbie: Well we already know that the Japanese are racist and xenophobic so we can safely assume what he must have been thinking.

Uni-files: And the ‘Get out!’ part?

Newbie: He asked us where we wanted to “get out”. (awkward silence) It's semantics.

Debiru: Not only that but I am not a foreigner. I’m a Japanese citizen. (starts sniffling) I was… racially profiled!

Newbie: (patting Debiru’s slumping shoulders) There, there. Now you are a racial profiling survivor!

Debiru (brightening up): If Japan had an anti-discrimination law with any teeth he’d have his ass hauled off to jail.

Newbie: Exactly. And you know what, you’ll never see the weak-kneed Japanese media or the history textbooks pick up on stories like this either. They don’t want to hear about these high-octane truths.

Debiru: This is precisely why we need laws against racism, xenophobia, being opposed to immigration, questioning multiculturalism, and other wrong and hateful thoughts.

Uni-files: So you’re in favor of more state authority and policing over what people think?

Debiru: Are you kidding? The police and judiciary here are totally inept and corrupt. They should stay out of people’s lives… ummm…except for the lives of those people who hold unhealthy views.

Uni-files: One more thing about this case. You say that you were racially profiled because the taxi driver believed that you were a foreigner, which by the way, is a mistake that most non-Japanese would probably make as well. But how do you know that the driver was in fact Japanese. Couldn’t he have been ethnically Korean or Chinese? In other words, didn’t you profile him equally?

Debiru: (closes his eyes) Don’t feed the troll, don’t feed the troll.

Uni-files: Ok. Last question. I’m wondering how you chose your Japanese name.

Debiru: It’s the closest phonetic approximation to my previous name. In fact, I asked to have a different, more suitable name first but was refused by the [iyami deleted] Japanese authorities.

Uni-files: And what name was that?

Debiru: Martin Luther King.

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October 19, 2011

Has Charisma Man jumped the shark?

We'll call her Terrie. Terrie from New Zealand. She was quite glamorous-- and very aware of it. We worked together as teachers. The previous evening she had met my wife, who is Japanese, at a school-related function. She remarked how attractive my wife was. Thank you-- that's nice to hear. Then Terrie went on...

"White guys can upgrade their girlfriend levels when in Asia, can't they?"
"I mean, you know. Your wife is very attractive. If you were still in Canada or New Zealand you probably wouldn't ... well...". Terrie never had a problem with bluntness.
"You mean, if we were back in the old country guys like me probably wouldn't have a shot at babes like you?"
"Exactly. Now you're getting it!". She was being only half tongue-in-cheek. I appreciated the frankness.

Terrie later married an Irish guy living and teaching in Japan. Ironic, that.

I wasn't bothered about the insinuation that I was living above my allotted 'significant other' station in Japan (as if all the men back in Canada are Porsche-driving Brad Pitt-lookalike investment bankers with Stanford post-doc degrees). Terrie's teasing and my response were both light-hearted. I never get offended by such remarks and I still don't (in fact the only thing I get offended by are people who claim to be offended all the time). But over time I've just grown tired of it. You know, the whole White-English-Teacher-in-Japan-as-Charisma-Man motif. Johnny Bravo Goes to Nova.

Charisma fans...

Like most people, I enjoy the Charisma Man comics. The pretext of the dopey white loser from 'Planet Canada' who is transformed (at least in his own mind) into a desirable English-teaching he-stud superman when in Japan is clever. And everyone gets tagged. White guys are pathetic, untalented, wimps whose egos and self-images soar to preposterous proportions in Japan. Western women, Charisma Man's mortal enemies, are cantankerous, aggressive shrews. Japanese women are treated as goggle-eyed, bimboesque playthings. Japanese men are portrayed as goofy, socially awkward, xenophobes. Non-white, non-Japanese people don't seem to exist. Of course the stereotypes are overblown- and we thus occasionally we spot a bit of ourselves or people we know in the caricatures. Harmless self-deprecating ironic fun.

No, the problem isn't with the comic itself but rather how the personae has been appropriated by the NJ community as a catch-all, go-to prototype for just about any Western male in the EFL profession in Japan. It was once amusing but now it has become too predictable.

The thing is, among NJ circles in Japan the only caricatures among the above that people feel confident about actually applying (without fear of reproach) are the two about the males. (not being Japanese I can't speak for the men here but I think they get the worst stereotype rap, and particularly from the type of people who rail against any type of stereotyping).

Back-home loser

But ok. I'm supposed to be 'privileged' as a WM in Asia so I have to take the lumps that come with it. The group who allegedly controls the power and the narrative has to accept being a legitimate target-- or so the whole social karma meme seems to go. We have to accept the barbs with good grace. So I will suffer the slings of being thought of as a spotty-faced, romantically-challenged, back-home loser, whose only previously qualifications were manning the grill at a fast food joint-- even though this portrayal is highly inaccurate (I got promoted to the drive-thru window!)

But Western WMs whining about oppression is unseemly. So instead, let me put it in terms of the Charisma Man label not only being inaccurate but also as having become tired, passe, hackneyed, overdone, past its sell-by date. It has become the default 'touche' reproach of choice for the most minor of alleged WM transgressions. In short, it has jumped the shark.

'Cholesterol Man?'

Perhaps we need a new character to represent the WM English-teaching-in-Japan demographic (how about a cynical 40-something, left-leaning, highly computer-literate, twice divorced borderline alcoholic, with a bit of a paunch, poor grooming and fashion sense, who thinks 50-year old political slogans are still radically subversive-- Cholesterol Man, anyone?) Why? For one thing, I would say that economics has caused the number of fly-by-night English teachers to have dropped and long-termers are now ubiquitous. Jobs are precious- more teachers are more serious about being serious. And it's also because the reality is that we live with some of the burdens of the Charisma Man image but without reaping any of the benefits. I wish it were true that comely women threw themselves at me with abandon but that hasn't happened -- oh, for days!

And of course attempts to validate the Charisma Man caricature are particularly insulting to Japanese women, since it assumes they are so isolated, naive, or insulated that they have low, or no, standards when it comes to rating the attractiveness of foreign men-- as if they have never as much as seen a photo of men like Jude Law or David Beckham. 30 plus years ago, sure we may have been a touch exotic in the smaller J-burgs perhaps, but in the new millennium, when every Japanese woman under 40 has either travelled abroad or has at least seen a few thousand or so foreign men in their cities? Sorry- dream on, Romeo! Any such illusions of self-grandeur Western men have in Japan these days evaporates about 15 minutes after Mr. Newbie has passed through immigration control.

'You actually have qualifications?'

I also wish that my Charisma-isms were so highly regarded in the workplace that doors opened up for me without effort but really, how many foreigners here can say that their foreignness has been a catalyst, rather than a detriment, in terms of gaining long-term employment or meaningful promotion? I know that in my own position I have to keep proving to some of my peers that I have an academic pedigree, that I can and do produce research and am not simply here as the token ( and by extension, expendable) foreign guy (beautiful as I may be) who chats in English to goggle-eyed students. You know, things like being labeled 'Mike sensei' at faculty meetings (which is particularly galling if your name isn't 'Mike'), being introduced as 'our foreign teacher', or having peers be surprised that you actually have a graduate degree in the field and a list of publications.
(Disclaimer- while only the latter has happened at my current place of employment, I have encountered all of them in various locales previously-- from both Japanese and NJ, male and female alike-- as have many other teachers in positions similar to mine). We don't need these scenarios exacerbated by the Charisma Man shtick.

"Licentious Linguistics"

I attended a presentation called "Licentious Linguistics: White Western Men as English Teachers in Japan" by Dr. Roslyn Appleby from the University of Technology, Sydney at the Beijing AILA Conference earlier this year. Appleby's observations (she hasn't worked or lived in Japan herself) were based upon several interviews with young Australian men, most with minimum teaching qualifications, who had in their formative (between graduation and finding a career) years worked as English teachers in Japan. And... here comes the part that you will not believe so please grip your armrests tightly ...they spent a lot of time carousing with local girls. Moreso, it seems, than in becoming serious, skilled ESL teachers. Whodathunkit?!

Moreover, the presenter noted, the image of meeting an attractive WM chat partner (or more) through the Eikaiwa school was a part of many advertisement campaigns (forget for a moment that just about every such school expressly forbids dalliances with customers since any would-be-lothario is siphoning off potential income from the business as well as the fact that attractive WF are equally present in the ads). Businesses using attractive or eligible-looking role models to lure customers?! Surely not!

And guess what? Germans occasionally drink beer!

Not surprisingly Charisma Man outtakes occupied a good number of Appleby's presentation slides. The problem is that these days just about every white guy teaching English in Japan gets tagged with the Charisma Man brand at some point, especially if his wife/gf is Japanese. I think the current criteria for being labeled a Charisma Man, other than being a white male in Japan, consists of roughly, 1) having drunk a beer in close proximity to another white guy and 2) having ever talked about local women. A typical claim may go like this:
WM: (to the izakaya waitress) I'll have a Suntory Premium. (The waitress goes away. Then, to a fellow imbibing teacher) Hmmm. Friendly waitress.
Fellow Imbiber: Jeez, get a load of Charisma Man here!
WM: That's it. I'm outta here. I've got a softball game at my frat house tonight. (Chugs his beer)

Such Charisma Man accusations occur even if the person in question has been here in Japan over ten years, speaks the language, is happily married, does his academic research, doesn't feel obligated to chat up young ladies in bars, and has no illusions about his worsening metabolism or memories of a hairline. I mean, I can enjoy self-delusion to a point, but as a middle-aged university teacher I cannot allow me to envision myself as Charisma Man to my students anymore than I can daydream that I am Sidney Crosby when I go ice-skating.

Casey's 'unfair' response

Anyway, after Appleby's presentation, I was approached by a fellow Japan-based dead white male university teacher who had attended the same presentation and looked a bit put out. We'll call him Casey. Casey is a man of such gentle countenance, so widely known for his philanthropy and egalitarianism, that he makes Peter Gabriel look like a football hooligan. There is more chance of Ichiro Ozawa starring in a Takazakura Revue show than there is of Casey chatting up ladies in the local izakaya.

"Mike, what did you think of that presentation?" Casey asked. Now, any fist-waving histrionics about it being a man-hate fest wouldn't be warranted-- it wasn't like that at all. It was well-presented, nothing incendiary. I remarked that I didn't understand the point of making this into a presentation theme. I mean, some young Aussie males go abroad to teach English, are less than serious about ESL, and chase girls. I'm not sure how or why that is something that needs to be conveyed at a linguistics conference.

"I thought it was a little.... unfair", Casey replied. "Not really representative of English teachers in Japan". He added (correctly IMO) that the sample of men interviewed represented a pretty narrow sub-culture of white, Western men in Japan, namely 'bogans' (actually, Casey didn't use that bit of Aussie slang but if you're not familiar with it the mere sound of the word should tell you all you need to know). This is far from representative of the WM diaspora in Japan, and although Appleby acknowledged this fact in the presentation itself, the promotional blurb for the presentation certainly doesn't do anything to minimize the "Tsk tsk, Charisma Man= WM English teachers in Japan" association.

Now I'm just waiting for someone to comment about how 'Charisma Man' my attitude is in this article. After all, I've made a few lame jokes, have referred to women, beer, and sports and the article is accompanied by a photo of my badass WM visage. Rest assured that such comments will cause me to pull at my jagged spike of blonde hair and bang my ruggedly chiseled jaw on the keyboard.

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November 29, 2011

On Demo Lessons, English Contests, Heroism, Coddling, and Mental Illness

A number of issues to discuss today.

1. English Teacher as Hero?

Let me start by suggesting that you watch this life-affirming, heartwarming video showing an 8-month old baby boy with a cochlear implant hearing his mother's voice for the first time . I'm linking this because one of the doctor/professors at my university (one who I know quite well having helped with his English publications and played golf with him) played a pivotal role in the development of this device. The man's a hero.

There's a part of me, of everybody I assume, that wants to be a hero too-- something that can make you look back on your life and allow you to say that you contributed to humanity so that you will be fondly remembered. Actually, I'd settle for being one of those veteran teachers who received a batch of flowers, a teary speech of thanks from the graduates, and a Sensei-with-the-students memorial slide show at the annual year-end Thank you party.

But this always happens to someone else. I'm jealous. And even though these affairs are inevitably maudlin and a bit contrived, sometimes I want to be that special teacher who the students hold dearly in their hearts-- who they refer to as an inspiration later when they are inventing, oh, even better cochlear implants.

But the reality is that teachers who try to too hard to be loved by their students can also often be seen as saps, pushovers-- 'pashiri' in Japanese. It's a bit like that overly needy guy at the singles bar-- the eligible ladies can smell need like an investment banker can smell an unearned bonus. And, yes, sometimes the most feted teachers have reputations as hardasses.

And while the teacher who gains plaudits has often done something way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty, a real self-sacrifice of time and effort for his or her charges it is also possible that even if you do go all out you may still earn little no more recognition than an o-tsukare-sama from one of your peers.

While I think I am generally quite liked by my students (knock on wood) I just can't imagine myself being a life-changing force for them. Correct me if you think I'm wrong, but there seems to be little that an English teacher can do (at least with university students) to become that hit movie-inspiring catalyst; the To Sir With Love type of mentor. Perhaps English teachers shouldn't strive to be heroes but merely aim at doing a good, solid 9-to-5 job and have no expectations beyond a basic appreciation from the students (and a half-decent salary).

But what I'm wondering is-- have any readers been, or seen, English teachers lauded as heroes by students? How and why? I'm curious.

2. Demonstration Lessons and American Idol

Ok, admit it. You have watched American Idol, even though it is to music appreciation what Greece is to fiscal responsibility. Since the candidates are given about 15 seconds to strut their stuff, the talented ones are pretty much required to indulge in a bout of vocal histrionics the whole time to show range and, I suppose, 'soul' (even if the tune would be more effective sung in a near monotone- I'm still waiting for some Celine Dion-esque diva to cover 'Autobahn'). It's basically a display of surface showmanship designed to impress celebrity judges, and is hardly indicative of what being a fully-fledged 'vocalist' entails.

This reminds me a bit of English class demonstration lessons (which fortunately, we are not required to do here at Miyadai since we don't have to actively recruit, being a national university and all). The problem with demonstration lessons is that you are expected to do an appealing, representative, and educationally sound lesson-- but in 20 minutes, and with a bunch of students who don't know you, the school, nor each other.

Now, generally speaking, one's best lessons tend to be those that have the following properties:
1. The lesson is connected to the one before and will connect to the one after. It fits naturally into the overall curriculum and stated purpose of the course.

2. There is a balance between teacher talk and student talk.

3. There has been sufficient introduction, presentation, or other groundwork laid before the meatiest part of the lesson-- the main task for the students-- is introduced.

4. As mentioned earlier, the students are at ease with the teacher and with each other. And the teacher knows what the students' abilities are, as well as what they have or haven't studied previously.

5. There is at least 60 minutes to pace and flesh the lesson out, especially to reinforce key teaching points at the end.

And yet none of these qualities are options when doing the standard 20 minute song-and-dance demonstration lesson.

So, my question to those readers who do demos is-- How exactly do you manage it?

3. English Contests in Japan-- And who should really be eligible?

As most readers know, in Japan there are numerous English speech or debate contests. Theoretically, any student enrolled at a Japanese school school can enter (am I right?).

So what about Pete? Pete is Canadian and has been in Japan only two years as his parents have been temporarily placed in the Nagoya office. He is, in every sense, a native English speaker. If Pete enters the contest would it demotivate other students? Does it somehow detract from the meaning or purpose of the competition? So, do you rule Pete out? If so, on what grounds?

Then what about Tatianna. She's from Poland and has been in Japan for six years but has a pretty good facility with English due to her family's past and some education in Poland, not to mention that her father's international business is conducted in English. But she's not a native speaker so should she be eligible? If you were a judge and you saw her Western face would you judge her more harshly even though she's not really a native English speaker?

Would you judge her more harshly than you would Ryo? Ryo is as Japanese as miso soup but he spent six years in the U.S. so his English is pretty close to native. Other students might feel disadvantaged by Ryo's appearance in the contest given his lengthy sojourn abroad, but it would be hard to disqualify him. Or would it?

Then what about Izumi? Izumi's case will dovetail with many Uni-files readers', I imagine. Izumi is half-Japanese half-whatever, and of course a Japanese citizen, and has grown up almost exclusively in Japan. However Izumi speaks English to her Australian father at home so her English is native-like. And she looks more Western than Asian. Izumi has an advantage to be sure... but is it an unfair one?

Is it any more unfair than the student who excels in science contests in no small part due to the fact that her mother is a Professor of Biochemistry at a prestigious university?

If you were a judge, would you treat all of these contestants equally and objectively? And if not, shouldn't we tell the contestants who might not get equal treatment that they shouldn't waste their time because they have no chance of winning from the outset?

I understand how a judge might think it's unfair for Pete to compete against your regular Yusuke or Sayuri in an English speech contest but where and how would you draw the line for participation and equal assessment? I can understand that it might feel 'unfair' or against the spirit of the competition if Pete wins the English speech contest, Tatianna is 2nd, Izumi 3rd and all others, your regular Yusukes and Sayuris, just also-rans. And it might further foster the notion that 'English is for foreigners'.

But I'd like to know how you would handle this...because otherwise we might be wasting Pete, Tatianna, and Izumi's time and effort.

4. Mental illness? Anti-social? Or just weak-willed?

We've all come across students who appear to have mental disorders and, in some cases, clinically confirmed mental disorders. The big question is, how do you handle this in terms of grading and credits?

In some cases, you don't have to. The student with the disorder may be as intellectually capable and hard working as anyone else in the class and their effort and test grades end up reflecting this. And on the other extreme side of the equation, students who display full blown psychosis and simply can't function properly probably shouldn't be in class and need more intensive treatment. But I'm talking about that middle ground.

You know, someone suffering from diagnosed depression or PSTD that is affecting performance. Do we cut them some slack in terms of grading their performance or, while considerate of their situations, are we bound only to grade the actual class performance regardless of external factors because otherwise it is unfair to the other students, since their grades are connected only to performance and not to personal issues? And if we choose to fail the afflicted student,shouldn't we be worried about the adverse effect this will have on their already fragile state?

The choice to fail, or at least defer a passing grade, might seem callous but if we make allowances for students with depression, we can start making that allowance for a number of students in the class. We could make them for the anti-social students, the impossibly shy, the permanently sleepy, or the perpetually bored. After all, it is arguable that they too are suffering from some disorder even if it is hasn't been clinically diagnosed. Mental disorders exist on a continuum-- having had a doctor check it from a list doesn't make it any more real than the problems of a person who never thinks to visit the psych ward.

Claiming some sort of exemption due to depression could become a convenient excuse. Even if the disorder has been clinically diagnosed, well, that may not mean much. These days the mere suggestion that you feel depressed is often sufficient to draw a get-out-of-work letter and/or meds from psychiatrists (I read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test recently on these matters-- I also know from Japanese doctors that this practice is much more common in Japan than it used to be). The problem is that since Fred feels depressed (as we all do at times), gets an official diagnosis and medication, we feel like we should go easy on him-- while Betty, who might have the same degree of depression as Fred, simply toughs it out and goes on with her work, home life, and social life despite how much of a struggle it all is. But we don't treat Betty with the kid gloves-- nor is she asking for them.

This raises another issue for me-- should depression be an excuse for rude and anti-social acts? Should we look the other way when students with a diagnosed depression walk into class 30 minutes late, immediately put their heads down on their desks, are unresponsive to the teacher or peers, and leave whenever the feel like it because, hey, they're depressed dammit!

It seems to me that depression should never be an excuse for anti-social or just plain rude, inconsiderate behaviour-- the pathology of being a sociopath is hardly a standard by-product of depression. The depressive is rarely psychotic and so can still judge the merits of their own actions. You and I both know enough people who have suffered from quite severe mental illnesses who still maintain a certain amount of social grace and persevere with duties and requirements even though they feel like zombies. (And yes, I've been subject to extreme changes where my spirit seems to be running out of my hands like water, where the real world almost appears like an apparition, and death and life do not seem so distinct-- thankfully much less so now than when I was younger).

So, the question once again is, how do you deal with students with diagnosed mental disorders?

5. Is it coddling?

As some readers may know I advocate giving students as much information, help, detailed outlines, and guidance as possible before they do tests or graded assignments-- with the goal of (hopefully) helping them to produce the best possible result. This includes giving them succesful old tests or assignments to look at, a list of textbook pages for study, I provide graphic outlines of what I expect them to do, do practice runs, prep classes etc.

But, after a recent presentation in which I mentioned this approach, one attendee suggested that this might be coddling students too much. This seems to me to be a reasonable argument-- that by giving them too many preparatory pointers I may actually be making them more dependent on the teacher, inhibiting the development of their autonomy, and not letting them use their own academic study skills to work things out.

So, the question (yet again) is... where do you stand on this?

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January 10, 2012

Language Wars: This is Japan! Speak Japanese!

Recently, while in Vancouver I overheard two Asian men, likely Vietnamese, conversing in that language in a supermarket. I felt myself burning up inside. This is Canada! An English-speaking country! 'Speak English!' I thought to myself. Later, on the same trip I met up with my brother and his wife, who is originally from Thailand, at their home. Occasionally, my brother spoke to her in Thai. I couldn't stand it any longer. Why were these foreign languages creeping into English territory! "Speak in English! This is Canada!" I scolded him. Then he swore at me-- which was OK because he did it in English.

All right, I confess. Neither of the two anecdotes above really happened. However, I've met, both in Japan and elsewhere (often at linguistics conferences), people who seem to think that it would be a natural reaction-- that not only are native-English speakers generally linguistic chauvinists but also believe that such attitudes are default settings-- acceptable, normal behaviour regarding one’s mother tongue. Not surprisingly such people are likely to take a similar attitude with their own languages. Yes, I've been told, bold-faced, that I would certainly feel chafed if I heard people not speaking English in Canada, wouldn't I??? (putting the whole French issue aside for a moment).

As (I imagine) with most readers of this blog, my answer is absolutely not. It is unthinkable that I would ever think, let alone react, like that. In fact I will speak to my wife in Japanese anywhere in the world-- if only the two of us are talking. My rule is that on any given occasion the most acceptable language is that language which aids in reaching whatever the communicative goals are. Language is a tool and I'll use whichever tool is most likely to get the job done. As a tourist in a Anglophone country I will learn the greetings in the local tongue but beyond that will have to depend on English (sometimes apologetically so). The fact that my mother tongue happens to be the most widely spoken and understood in the world doesn't change the fact that this is the language that is going to get the job done for most outsiders.

I don't like English

My students often assume that English is or was my favourite subject. But I don't particularly like English. Nor do I dislike it any more than I like or dislike your average, ohhh, shovel. My mother tongue has little emotional impact for me. It is merely a tool, a means to some communicative end. But it seems that quite a few people find this hard to believe.

The idea that a language can have a personal, emotional impact or be treated as a political weapon, having any function beyond being simply a means of communication, is hard for me to absorb. I can remotely imagine being raised using a rarely-heard tongue which has since been superseded by linguistically hegemonic forces and feeling it tied to my personal identity-- but for me that's an academic exercise.

In fact, I've often gone out of my way to place myself in situations where I can't or won't hear English-- especially during my backpacker days when I ventured through about 50 countries all over the globe- a majority in which English was not widely used. I never felt that a part of me was lost in such English black holes, rather I felt stimulated by the unfamiliar environment. But maybe it's easy to feel this way when yours is the big language on the block.

‘We feel ashamed when this happens’

Recently I visited a tiny, nondescript, but unique craft beer shop located in the absolute suburban boonies of Kawasaki which from the outside looks just like your average Mom 'n Pop shop from the 60s. The proprietors (three middle-aged Japanese sisters who love craft beer- especially Belgian brews) were extremely happy to chat with me during my visit since I had come 'all the way from Miyazaki'. I asked them if they get many foreign customers (Japan-based beer connoisseurs may know of them online). A handful, they said. Can they all speak Japanese? I asked. No. What should we do then? How can we improve our English to speak to them? We feel ashamed when this happens.

I told them that it wasn't incumbent upon them to learn English when the visitor is on their turf. It was the visitor's responsibility to learn the local language. And if the person was in Japan only temporarily I'm sure they could muddle through basic beer talk and purchases, but that there was hardly obligation for the sisters to learn English solely for this purpose-- and certainly not to the point of feeling ashamed. They were both shocked and relieved to hear this response, as if they didn't expect it at all. They assumed that English-speakers assumed (or even deserved) some type of linguistic entitlement.

There seems to be a widespread belief in Japan that somehow Japanese are obligated to speak English to Westerners, and more to today's point, that somehow we expect or demand it. Because of this, some who can’t speak English feel a sense of shame or even dereliction of duty. And for some, this (unfounded for the most part) belief can lead to resentment and overt defensiveness.

‘You’re forcing me to use English’

Among those who are most prone to this response are, ironically, Japanese professors of English or other academics who are proficient in English (although this phenomenon is hardly limited to Japan). It seems that some see using English in Japan as a kind of kowtowing, the appeasement behaviour of submissive colonial subjects. I know of some cases where professors of English actually have rules that absolutely all conversations that take place between Japanese staff and non-Japanese staff must be in Japanese-- of course this includes all teacher meetings and briefings too. I know of cases where a Professor of English has demanded that non-Japanese English teachers give him a report in Japanese wholly and self-admittedly for the sake of testing that NJ teacher's Japanese level. I know of a few who tell their students in their initial classes things like, "I hate English".

Once I asked (in Japanese of course) one such Professor why he held this type of policy. He answered that if foreigners weren't functional in Japanese they would be 'forcing' him to use English, which he seemed to regard as a particular burden. This, he added, represents typically arrogant Anglo-Saxon self-centeredness-- the assumption that eveyone had to speak English to them (yes, I know that Anglo-Saxons are often wrongly conflated with NES). This was followed by the predictable, "This is Japan. They should speak Japanese!" mantra.

But most notable to me was the fact that the offense taken did not seem to be concerned with functionality, that such an NJ would be more useful if they were more proficient at Japanese, but was more emotionally laden-- that a lack of Japanese proficiency automatically constituted a type of cultural, even personal, disrespect.

I've also met some academics and intellectuals who believe that Anglo-Saxon native English-speakers in particular are on a very conscious mission to propagate their language, willfully and acting as catalysts in making the language a global standard-- hoping to put ourselves in the linguistic driver's seat while everyone else is a mere passenger. And that we think this should be the case, believing English to be a superior language and all. (No, the ELTNews doesn't get kickbacks from the British Council).

Competing lingua francas in the workplace

English teachers in Japan in particular face a dilemma in this regard because there are competing lingua franca forces at play in our daily lives. Our basic working language is English, at least in the classroom. And there is no shortage of Japanese colleagues who prefer to interact in English. Now, I've blogged on this point before (in 'The Politics of Hello') but who am I to deny the Gakucho, who speaks English very well, when he opens a dialogue with me in English.

Oddly though, the are also many who open dialogues with me in English but later, when talking to others, begrudge my alleged 'insistence' upon using English-- they seem to have assumed that I can not or will not use Japanese from the outset. (Sometimes students believe this too- even though I occasionally give some information or a summary in fluent Japanese in class they are surprised when they nervously come to my office for something and discover that I can and will deal with them in Japanese-- if that's the language they'd prefer to talk in).

The 'J or E?' dilemma

On the other hand, what should the protocol be when, at a meeting held in Japanese, a senior professor asks me a question-- in English? Since all other committee members are Japanese and have varying degrees of competency in English I think Japanese provides the most functional response, although I may add a brief English summary to please the questioner (who may have asked because he/she doesn't know I can manage in Japanese).

On the other hand, if Professor A addresses me in English and I reply in English, Professor B, who is standing beside A, might well assume that Professor A is kowtowing to the arrogant neo-colonialist. Then B may think- Why don't his type bother to learn the local lingo? On the other hand, if I answer Professor A in Japanese it might sound like I'm not playing his game, that I will choose the mode of discourse, and moreover am insinuating that A's English isn't good enough to engage him/her in. It's a dilemma.

I also have a minor dilemma when walking into Indian or Turkish (or similar) restaurants in Japan. Which language is going to be the most functional? Since their daily working language with most customers is going to be Japanese that would be my first choice. But sometimes they greet and treat me in English. If I sense that they are more comfortable in English then I'll go that route. However, if I use English from the outset I'm afraid I might come across as your typical Panama-hatted, white-suited "Speak to me in mah language boy!" plonker. And yet again on the other hand I may look like a show off or somehow unnatural using Japanese when the restaurant staff is perfectly conversant in English (though in fact they often are not).

The reciprocal use of English

I've had students in Japan though who've argued that when they go abroad as tourists they try to use English so when foreign tourists visit Japan they should learn Japanese. I remember once asking such a student where they had used English abroad and they answered, "Thailand, Italy, and France". Hmmm.

I delicately mentioned that if we are to hold the principle of language equality then tourists and other visitors from Thailand, Italy and France should also speak English in Japan since no one in this entire equation is a native-English speaker. The reciprocal use of English as a second language holds both ways. Since they were still perplexed, I added, "Well you didn't speak Thai, their native tongue in Thailand right! You used English. So..." The point was made. Then again, some of these students were the same ones who thought I must live in an American-style house (while I was in Tokyo!) and that I got paid in dollars...

Of course none of this justifies the attitudes of some NESs who walk into any and every non-English speaking scenario and treat the locals as if they were still living in Bumfluff, Idaho. If you can't manage the local parlance (i.e., you are a tourist, or if that person's English is clearly going to be superior to your version of their language, or if you truly suck at foreign languages but not for a lack of effort) showing at least some sense of humility and moderation is called for-- you are on their turf after all. But the widespread belief that English NSs can't or won't do so is, in my opinion, largely unwarranted.

It goes without saying (although obviously I'm saying it anyway) that if you plan to live and work abroad you should do your damndest to learn the local lingo. You are obviously of more use at any workplace in Japan if you can manage meetings, information and interactions in Nihongo. But this is a functional reality-- like the fact that getting your car insurance or explaining your computer defect will run smoother when you do it in Japanese.-- it should not be an emotional or political one. Interpreting language inability as refusal, or unduly attributing chauvinist motives to the NSs in advance, and thus taking offense against the violation of the sanctity of your linguistic turf seems to me to be a bit overwrought.

Functionality trumps sentiment at this point.

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July 13, 2012

Dem's Fightng Words: More on pragmatics, strategic competence, and jerks

As some readers may know, I wrote an article addressing the 'micro-aggression' debate in my Indirectly Speaking column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper on June 12th. There were a number of responses to the piece, mostly directed to my personal email address, but also a few which appeared in online forums. This blog entry will address some of the critical points raised by readers. A little later.

But first... let me relate a few real-life experiences that will hopefully enhance some of the points I want to make.

"It must be tough for you in Japan"

Let's go back to my wedding party held in rural Kyushu several years past. An older guest, a little bit worse for whiskey-wear, approaches me. "It must be tough for you in Japan," he begins (in Japanese, natch). Why? "Well, you don't really understand our country, our culture." I see where this might be going but, hey, he's a guest at my wedding party so I'll try to be gracious. "Actually, I'm not sure anyone really understands an entire country or culture," I respond. "But I feel quite comfortable with a lot of life in Japan". "But your understanding is chuto-hanpa," he spits out. "Hell, you don't even understand the word 'chuto hanpa' I bet!" "Sure, it means half-baked, lacking, like that," I reply. "Oh, so you read a dictionary! That still doesn't mean that you understand Japan!". He is literally in my face now, eyeball to eyeball. "Uh yeah. Fine. Whatever." I take my leave.

Micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? Well, soon after the encounter, I asked my wife-- "Who is that guy?" "Oh him, he always gets obnoxious, especially after a few drinks. Just ignore him". Later I see him haranguing some young people at the party, scolding them about how young people today have no morals, guts, depth, etc. He is right in their faces.

So, again-- micro-aggressive or pragmatic failure? I say: neither of the above. The guy is outright aggressive. He's in your face and wants to be. He's violating social norms and doesn't care. He's a... let me try to find an appropriate academic term here... a jerk.

"Why did you marry a Japanese?"

OK. Let's try another one. "Why did you marry a Japanese?" I was asked this by two different people soon after the wedding party. Now, I should start off by stating that the questioners gave off no sense of challenge, the kind of paralinguistically pregnant jutting chins which imply the question really means something like, "Why are you taking one of OUR women?", or "What's the matter can't you find a woman in your own country?". These were innocent questions. Innocent but a little awkward.

I answered coyly, "I didn't marry a Japanese woman. I married (insert wife's name here)." In other words I hardly married her for her nationality or because I was clinging on to some outdated notion of alleged J female subservience. I'd married a person, not a nationality. I didn't force this response down their throats but I did try to set them straight on my marital motives.

Micro-aggressive, racially-charged question on their part or something else? I'd attribute it to a certain inter-cultural awkwardness. They'd been focused upon cultural motives when for me the decision to marry was obviously an individual one. (I recall that ex-US ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer was asked a similar question, believing that his interlocutors expected to hear something about the virtues of Japanese womanhood from him. Instead he answered, "Because I love her.")

"Will you be returning to Canada?"

Finally, one more item from the same event. My mother-in-law asks me, "Will you be returning to Canada?" Racially-charged indicator of expectation or legit neutral query? Obviously the latter. Many ex-pats return to their countries of origin and the mother wants to know if her daughter is likely to be spending her life abroad. In fact it would be strange if she didn't ask this question! Given who is asking the question, and when, it hardly takes a linguist to accurately peg this as a legitimate inquiry.

Now, it's true that the examples above don't always address raw pragmatics, which is generally a matter of indirect speech acts and subsequent uptake, but they're certainly in the same ballpark.

My own Japanese pragmatic failures: "Excuse me, I'll return"

And I can also certainly think of cases of my own incompetency using Japanese and not being fully cognizant of the uptake in Japanese society. A good example would be playing outside with my son when he was younger, along with a few other neighbourhood parents and their children. At 6:30 it's time to head inside for dinner so I announce to the other parents, "Sumimasen, kaerimasu" (Excuse me, I'll return).

More competent Japanese users will be aware that this sounds rather abrupt as though I'm pissed at something and am more or less walking off. If I had said "Mou sorosoro desu" (Well, it's about time) the uptake arising from this very indirect phrase would have been spot on. So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for those Japanese who have no ill intentions but mismanage the social formulae.

But this brings me right to some questions and doubts that readers had about the article (I should point out that the vast majority of responses were overwhelmingly supportive).

How is it an English-learning problem if it occurs mostly in Japanese?

A few readers correctly pointed out that since most of these infelicities occur in Japanese it can hardly ascribed to a lack of knowledge of English interpersonal strategies or pragmatics.

That's true. The problem in such cases is not an issue of second-language competency, but one of dealing appropriately with second-culture members. Suddenly, the social norms that mark the first culture, or most any culture for that matter, either go out the window or are, at some level, believed not to apply to C2. (This notion is particularly enhanced, IMO, by a longstanding emphasis upon explicating 'cultural differences' as the basis of culture learning).

The fact is that some people lose their interpersonal footholds when engaging other cultures. It's a bit like talking to extraordinarily attractive women/men or famous people, you can become a bit self-conscious and start sounding like a dumbass pretty quickly.

The other point I want to make here is that my column deals with English-teaching, as does of course my job, so the content had to be connected to English teaching. And indeed my English-learning students do manifest many of the problems that I addressed.

Aren't you admitting that pragmatic failure equals micro-aggression?

Another reader questioned my quoting of pragmatics stalwart George Yule, stating that pragmatic failures can certainly be seen as aggressive and generate ill-will. After all, doesn't this seem to support the original micro-aggression thesis that I'm doubting?

Missing the uptake, mismanaging pragmatic forms, or mis-conveying your intentions regularly lead to misunderstanding, confusion, friction-- true. No one doubts that such cases exist. For example, answering, "So?" when someone says, "I need some ice" as you are opening the fridge would be taken as a rebuff but is it always intended as such? Likewise, answering, "I see" and not actually bringing the ice (or by rendering the original request a bit too obliquely-- "This drink tastes good with ice") could also lead to friction, a sense that the other person is either trying to piss you off or is refusing to play the social game. But isn't it true that some people are simply not adept at these interactions or somehow misinterpret them without intended malice? So when we consider intercultural encounters in particular, we are hardly forced to take a tour down the interpretive path of racial micro-aggression.

Strategic competence and pragmatics: Any notable difference?

Another reader wondered if it was legit to separate strategic competence (our ability to manage interactions, particularly how to avoid or fix breakdowns) from pragmatics. The two are connected but shouldn't be conflated. When we offer hints about how to open, close, elaborate, negotiate or confirm utterances, we are focusing upon strategic competence-- and a failure in these areas can easily lead to what was misdiagnosed as micro-aggression.

Pragmatics, which is also a part of the wider field of socio-linguistics, is, as stated earlier, concerned with indirect speech acts, illocutions, implicature (how we understand the implications of a speech act), and uptake. These are connected to strategic competence, but are better separated in a discussion regarding the sources of alleged micro-aggression.

Yet another reader felt that I had implied that pragmatics was something that only highbrow, well-educated teachers were aware of but that in fact many teachers would have a working knowledge of pragmatics even if they were not conversant regarding its wider, egghead-y theory and applications. That's true-- and addresses an impression I did not intend to convey. Any competent, alert teacher will be in tune with socio-linguistics in some form-- academic or otherwise.

Where's the quote? And why not quote the source directly?

Another reader brought up the fact there was no direct reference to the original Japan Times article that I was referring to. He thought this detracted from the force and validity of my response. I agree. I had originally included the JT reference (date, page etc.), the online article URL, and the related blog URL. But the Daily Yomiuri editor told me that they have a policy of not making undue reference to the JT, as a 'rival' newspaper, so these references were removed. My copy editor disagreed with this policy, as do I. I duly relayed this reader's criticism to the DY editor.

The same reader also thought it unfair that I directly quoted George Yule, Jim Ronald, and an unnamed online source (who had agreed to be quoted, although the website where his quote was placed-- was soon thereafter closed by the website owner), but not the original JT writer and blogger of whom I was being critical.

The critic said, I had merely paraphrased the original writer and therefore could be interpreted as being deliberately misleading or strawman-izing. This is a legitimate point. There were certainly many quotable items from the original piece that would have been as self-damning as those used in my critique, and using them would have lent my argument more credibility.

"Why does this stuff only seem to happen to you English teachers?"

Finally, there appeared a critic who claimed that they almost never encountered these awkward or allegedly aggressive comments, that their relations with Japanese people were quite normal and strongly implied that there was something wrong with the whole English-teacher idiom if we had frequently experienced or were bothered by the phenomenon. In fact, this critic served me a healthy reminder that the vast majority of NJ-J interactions don't contain these infelicities, a fact that we should never lose sight of. But it is also true that if you are in the English-teaching field you will be more exposed to awkward interactions simply by virtue of the number of people you have to meet and interact with on a superficial level.

Also, this reader seemed to want to denigrate the English-teacher in Japan meme more roundly, but I'll address this in another blog entry.

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August 01, 2012

Let's laugh and point at those lowlife English teachers!

I’m tired of apologizing for myself. Yeah, I’m an English teacher. You’re a cook. He’s in retail-- runs a small business. That guy’s a financial advisor. My brother-in-law drives a truck.

Hey, we could scoff at that too! Except when you realize that the trucks he drives are those earth-shakingly enormous super-monster-goliath mining trucks, the kind that send the pulses of prepubescent boys who watch Discovery Channel racing. And he makes about $80 an hour. You’re not scoffing now. Now, I'm not sure what else he'd do if he didn't drive a truck, but in his field he has driven himself (yeah, a weak pun I know) to the top of the heap and provides well for his family. He's a decent working man doing OK. So no one scoffs- nor should they.

I could introduce myself by saying that I’m a professor at a National University. It's true, so sometimes I do. This always wins me some politeness creds at immigration. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll soon find out that I’m an English professor and, well, that’s still just an English teacher, not a real professor, isn't it? Am I supposed to be ashamed? Apparently.

Why? Apparently, my only skill is that I speak my mother tongue and that if I were back in Canada I wouldn’t have a job or be of any social value. Maybe a late night shift at a convenience store or gas station would be my calling. I’m a dork and a loser ‘back home’ but think I'm a freaking hero in Japan.

Oh really? Like every time I visit Canada all the other guys my age are neurosurgeons and high-powered executives, dressed in Brooks Brothers splendor, with a tanned healthy blonde on each arm, keys to the Lexus dangling conspicuously. Yeah, right.

It’s true that I don’t have great mechanical aptitude, that I’d look about as comfortable handling a lathe as Ayako Imoto would parading in a Milanese high-fashion show. And I’ve lost my muscle tone for lying pipe. Hey, I barely have the muscle tone for looking at pipe. But if Mr. Pipe-Layer and Mr. Lathe-Handler come to my classroom I will kick their asses when it comes to the class management of 35 students or developing a viable ESP curriculum.

But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about other English teachers in Japan. Teachers like Clark Steamhamm.

Clark is decent at academics and is inclined towards the humanities. He’s fairly articulate and conversant. He studied humanities at university for stimulation and to stir his curiosity, not for job-training. He got an MA but hadn’t given too much thought to an actual vocation thereafter. Clark likes to travel. He hears of a gig in Japan teaching English and comes over. He finds that it suits his skills and sensibilities. He gradually picks up some ELT-specific certifications, hones his classroom skills, and eventually gets his feet in the door of a Japanese university. He then begins a PhD program in Applied Linguistics and ultimately gets a steadier position at the university. He writes papers, does research, presents at conferences, takes roles in professional organizations. He gets married, has kids, buys a house. He'll be here awhile.

So do we scoff at Clark? After all, he’s just an English teacher. What would he do ‘back home’? (As if ‘back home’ is a relevant issue for Clark now). Hey, the guy has a steady job. He’s an academic, a minor academic to be sure but…. He has educated, furthered, and marketed himself so that he can buy a house and raise a family in reasonable comfort. Ha ha! What a looser!

Next let’s look at Ed Skidmark. Ed’s less academically inclined than Clark—he just doesn’t have the patience for it. Ed stops in Japan while backpacking through Asia and meets a girl (this will become a common theme). He likes it here and decides to stay, living in rural Kagawa Prefecture. But what to do? Ed decides to start up Ed’s Maple Leaf English School in his small town, since there is little competition and an apparent market. Ed develops some business acumen and some social skills because he is now an entrepreneur, a businessman. He learns Japanese and works hard to establish his business in the community. He also develops some fine practical teaching skills over time. Ed marries the woman he loves, and has kids. Everyone in the town knows him and his school. He has financially rocky moments, but he does OK.

Do we laugh and point at Ed? After all, he’s also just an English teacher—and one without an advanced degree. But he’s a self-made man, running a business, and establishing himself in the community. Ha ha—what a dweeb.

OK, how about Leonard Swatcloth? Leonard came to Japan because his real love is pottery—Japanese pottery, at which he is quite adept and he can always sell a few pieces at exhibitions, but he knows that this is hardly a profession in which he can safely retire. So he teaches English on the side—maybe at Ed’s school. He gets a few local qualifications and becomes a decent teacher, although it never becomes his passion. But it helps him support his pottery jones and he feels fulfilled because of this. How then shall we poke fun at this skill-bereft Charisma man?

Finally, let's look at Dane Chocolate-Lather. Dane got his BA in the UK and got hired on the JET Program. He’s not sure he’s suited to teaching, and only occasionally enjoys it. But he met some people from a well-known ELT publishing company and managed to shoehorn his way in as a local sales representative and, possibly in the future, a materials writer. This role suits him better. But hey, it’s just ELT-- so he’s about as successful as that guy zombied out to hell in front of the Sunderland methadone clinic every morning, right?

OK. Let’s look outside of English teaching. Do we laugh at the guy who comes to Japan and can cook some basic dishes from his home country? The guy who opens an ‘ethnic’ restaurant in Toyama and manages to make a decent living while improving his cooking skills, not to mention honing that all-important entrepreneurial and social acumen. After all, just about anyone can cook a few dishes from the old country! So why can't we apply the same sophisticated critique to him that usually applies to English teachers: Moran!

Or the guy from Brisbane who shuns English teaching completely-- it's just not his thing at all-- but decides to open a bar in Japan, which becomes moderately successful. Screw the business acumen and social skills, anyone can pour a beer! He’d sure be useless ‘back home’ right? I mean, you sure never find people who open bars and serve drinks in Australia! No, they’re all rocket scientists and structural engineers!

And then there’s the guy (*note-- I am conscious that all my samples are males, this is because it seems that females are off the finger-pointing hook to a much greater degree for just being English teachers than are males—which does indicate an implicit sexism in the charges, true) who gets his degree in business admin and starts out by apprenticing in a minor financial firm in Salem. But he gets tired of being reined in, being way down the decision-making ladder, and thinks he would have more freedom if he took his knowledge of investments to the foreign community in Fukuoka. He gets the necessary licenses, starts pressing the flesh, and—if he gives a bit of winning advice and a few profitable tips, he gets established in the local financial advisor scene. Yeah, absolute rock bottom scum. A leech on society.

Sure, we could also point to Fergus Totalform, who basically flits from teaching job to teaching job in Japan, has no real qualifications for teaching, and doesn’t apparently care much about it (his ‘hobby’ seems to be not having his contract renewed). He drinks way too much and borrows money from other ex-pats who can then wave it bye-bye. He's burned a lot of bridges. We all know of guys like Fergus. But of course there’s absolutely no one like this in Canada. No one.

Does this all sound like someone threw a stick into a pack of dogs and the one that got hit is yelping? Maybe. Or is it just a response to a few people from outside the ELT Community who have no idea of what's involved, how we get established and build lives here but, for some reason, feel superior. I don't really need the respect, nor do I ask for it. I just want those people who point the fingers to know who the hell they are pointing at.

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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.

Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.

Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.

Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.

One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.

So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.

The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.

Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.

And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.

4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?

I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.

Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...

5. Is there really a problem?

All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?

Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.

The international test results canard

Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.

And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.

6. So just who is responsible?

If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.

Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.

Stop blaming...

Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.

And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.

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March 14, 2013

Racism in Japan: Where Medamasensei gets it wrong

The Tokyo subway. About 11 PM on a weekday. It's 1994. I'm heading home from a gathering, reading the Daily Yomiuri. A Japanese man, wearing an expression of disapproval makes eye contact. He has an air of over-confidence when approaching me, rather rare in Japan. He speaks in broken, yet reasonably competent, English but his lines seem too well-rehearsed.

"Your newspaper doesn't say the truth. White people killed off American native people, sent Japanese Americans to prison during war. It is genocide. American newspapers are run by white people. Hide facts about racist white acts. You are not told truths about racist white history. American media. American education. Same."

I didn't smell any alcohol and there was no real hint of physical aggression but nonetheless this intrusion was unwelcome. Nearby commuters were also shifting uncomfortably sensing the unpleasantness.

Thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, I made some dismissive comment about not being American and the newspaper being Japanese but it was clear he wasn't listening. He had his mind set. He had a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, a bone to pick, and I was his target, his captive audience. He went on at some length berating 'my' media and education until, thankfully, my station came into view.

Pulling the rug from under one's rhetorical feet

I think most readers would equally find this rude and annoying. But why? Let me list thy ways:

1. He was factually incorrect about the alleged absence in North American media and education regarding past racist policies inflicted by people who look like me. Maybe more could be done but the notion that this is avoided or not known to the general populace is just wrong.

2. It's neither his role nor responsibility to inform me, as if I have no access to 'the truth' that he is now bestowing upon me, as a stranger on a train. As a result, from the outset I am suspect of his motivations-- he just wants to vent at a suitable target, which automatically makes any point he is trying to make less effective.

3. By using the Daily Yomiuri as his foil, and not knowing my nationality, nor the education I've received, he has pulled the rug from under his rhetorical feet. His attempts at criticism lacked credibility and applicability.

Medamasensei-- Personable and charismatic but...

Which brings me to 'Medamasensei' and a Youtube clip he posted a few months back entitled Racism in Japan. Apparently, he was harassed for uploading this clip by some Japanese nationalists (I have a side comment for such people at the end of this post although I somehow doubt that the average uyoku reads my blog) and since then Medamasensei has posted a response , also on Youtube.

Miki, his real name, seems like a well-intentioned, charismatic, and personable guy. I sense that he has a real concern for his students. He teaches English at a high school in Okinawa. He is, as is obvious in the clip, an American of Japanese ancestry and is reasonably competent in Japanese.. But despite his good intentions I think Miki has made some of the same mistakes that my 'subway interlocutor' did, which weakened the force of his message and gave his uyoku critics some unfortunate ground.

Let's start with the motive. Miki is an English teacher. And he's American. So why is he giving a lecture to Japanese students about alleged Japanese attitudes and behaviors in Japan? No doubt the students will start off with this schema. Does he have a bug up his ass, a chip on his shoulder, does he just have a bone to pick with us as a captive audience? One can't help but think that it's a set-up to vent or point fingers.

Imagine a Chinese language teacher from Beijing working in Canada suddenly 'teaching' a group of Canadian students, in English, about government or media censorship in Canada. Moreover, what if it was apparent that he assumed that Canadians were oblivious to the idea that government or media censorship existed in Canuckland and that it was his duty to inform them. The implications might make the audience a little defensive, doncha think? Not because they are in denial but because they smell a rat. Sounds a little like the guy on the train, right?

'Racial discrimination' but not about 'races'

Miki also used a number of unfortunate examples that weakened his point and cast doubt upon his argument. He was using the word 人種差別 (racial discrimination) but used examples of Okinawans vis-a-vis mainland Japanese, and even inter-island prejudices within Okinawa itself. But this is not racial. The same holds true for his discussion of the dowa/burakumin.

Even his argument about discrimination faced by Koreans in Japan is unlikely to be interpreted as 'racial'. People in the Korea, China, Japan triangle will generally acknowledge that some countrymen, or even themselves, may hold prejudices or general dislike towards the other countries (usually governments more than individuals) but such animosity is likely to be thought of not as 'racial' but as 'national'.

Then there is the dubious example of the baka-chon camera. I asked four Japanese about the alleged slur it contained. Two had never heard the word. Two others laughed at the word and described it as an outdated hick phrase used by old people who were none-too-smart about using cameras, hence the term. The idea that it meant that the camera was "so easy to use that even dumb Koreans could used it" seemed to them to be far-fetched in the extreme. If this is Miki's Exhibit A it does seem like he is grasping at straws. Given that in his response Miki shows a demonstration of Japanese nationalists in Shin-Okubo (Tokyo's most Korean neighborhood) a few months back marching while holding up placards saying, "Kill all Koreans" and "Koreans, go hang yourselves," Miki seems to have whiffed on the baka-chon front.

Is Japan in denial? Or is there a problem with the question?

This brings us to a key question. Why did only two of Miki's students raise their hands when he asked them if they thought there was racial discrimination in Japan? One answer is that high school students don't raise their hands for much. You could say, "If you are human, raise your hands," and perhaps get only a handful of responses. I can't help but wonder whether if Miki had asked the question negatively, "Who thinks there isn't any discrimination in Japan?" there would still be only two hands in the air.

Imagine again the Chinese teacher lecturing Canadians on government censorship and asking, "Is the media in Canada censored and controlled?". I imagine most of the students would argue, "No. Canada has a free press, freedom of expression, etc.". This now gives the Chinese teacher the opportunity to claim that Canadians don't know or are in denial while pointing out selected cases where media were asked to withhold information. Gotcha.

But let's assume that all Miki's students were alert and actively participating. And even though the examples he cited didn't conform to the notion of 'race', could it be that so many of his students, and by extension so many Japanese, are in denial about racial discrimination in Japan? Here's where it gets tricky.

I asked four Japanese people point blank: "Do you think there is racial discrimination in Japan?" Three times in English, once in Japanese (there is no real semantic difference). The four were:
a) The Japanese spouse of a foreign national and mother of a mixed-race child. Well-educated and traveled,
b) A Japanese doctor. Highly-educated, well-traveled, internationalist, very conversant on social and political affairs.
c) A mixed-race (Western-Japanese) high schooler.
d) An ethnically Korean Japanese.

Without exception, their initial responses were, "What exactly do you mean?". I played naive: "Just what I said".
a) Do you mean systematic, or widespread, like it's somehow representative of Japanese character?

b) Do you mean like apartheid in South Africa or pre-civil rights white-on-black in the U.S., where governments explicitly discriminated against their own citizens?

c) I don't get it. Everyone in Japan is Japanese. (I responded, "I mean, for example, someone like you- bi racial"). But I'm fully a Japanese citizen so I have the same rights and am subject to the same laws as any other Japanese.
(Later...) So what you mean by 'Is there racial discrmination in Japan?' actually means, 'Do any pure 100% Japanese discriminate against non-Japanese?' (Clever, that)

d) Occasionally, I hear of some people speaking ill of Koreans, but is that racial? We're all Asians. And does 'looking down on' or 'speaking ill of' or 'not liking' meet your definition of racial discrimination?

"I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against"

Next came some clinchers...

a) If all you mean is, "Is there anybody at all in Japan who has prejudice towards people of other races or nations. Are there any cases or people anywhere in Japan?" then the answer is obviously yes*. But that's so obvious I didn't think that's what you meant. I thought you were speaking more generally, referring to some kind of established policy.
(*Her gestures and facial expression here had that "Are you kidding me?" look)

b) It goes without saying that some individuals hold prejudices, like anywhere else. But as policy? Like apartheid? No. (My response: "I mean by type or attitude, not by scale"). "Of course, it would be foolish to say that no one in Japan has these attitudes. I thought you meant something more institutional or fundamental."

c) Actually I get more annoyed by foreigners in Japan assuming that I'm discriminated against, often raising the issue, assuming they know what it's like to be me, telling me how I must feel. I prefer some Japanese guy speaking to me in broken English to that.
(Ouch! Food for thought)

d) There's a touch of negative attitude on occasion, if that's what you mean by discrimination. More in my parents' day though On the other hand, Koreans get associated with cool sometimes too due to pop culture, esthetics, and so on. But Japanese look down upon other Japanese for various reasons too and Koreans do the same thing with other Koreans.

You can probably see that one common denominator here is that the question was not initially assumed to mean, "Any cases of discrimination by any Japanese individual ever" because that just seemed too leading and obvious. The uptake of the term was more that of 'official policy' or some popular groundswell, a systemic, widespread characteristic of Japan(ese). The different nuances between prejudice, discrimination, and simple dislike came in for questioning too, as did Japanese as a nationality vs. ethnicity.

"We get that stuff a lot"

I also asked about education against discrimination in Japanese schools:

a) Of course. In moral education class throughout the system we were taught to respect and keep the dignity of others. We were taught to treat others equally. The Dowa situation, even though it's disappearing, was discussed. There was a lot about respecting other nationalities, cultures, differences.

c) Yeah we get that stuff a lot. That we have to understand and be kind to our fellow man, regardless of religion, race, hairstyle, and so on. It's been pretty standard stuff from kindergarten on.

So, just as North Americans receive a fair dose from public education and media reflection about some shameful parts of our racial or discriminatory history-- even though discrimination still exists-- so do the Japanese (and I see no shortage of this sentiment in both popular and serious Japanese media too).

We: Aware, with raised consciousness. You: Morally undeveloped

What some Japanese seem to object to is the insinuation and assumptions, like the guy on the train was making with me, that they haven't been informed of this, that they are morally unaware, even retarded, consciousness not yet raised to 'our' level. If we take that attitude then aren't we in fact the ones being prejudiced and/or discriminatory?

I think though there are some gaps in the understanding of racial discrimination in many places throughout the world. The model for racism seems to be, as the doctor hinted at, U.S. white-black or South African apartheid. I've traveled to countries with highly dubious records of racial minority treatment who've assumed that their local model, notbeing the same as pre-civil rights U.S. or South Africa's, somehow doesn't meet the litmus test for racial discrimination. That needs to be fixed.

I also find it ironic that despite Miki's inarguable statement in his follow-up video-- his point that racial discrimination is carried out only by 'some' people about 'some' others-- certain members of the online non-Japanese community have attributed the nationalists' harassment to "The Japanese" as a whole. Full face palm and desk headbang for that.

"It seemed kind of illogical to me"

Maybe that's what Miki was trying to do, to help his students avoid racial generalizations. But as the Japanese wife/mother, who watched Miki's Youtube clip, said:

"If he had asked, 'Do you think Japanese people sometimes hold prejudice or discriminate based upon gender, socio-economic status, university ranking, home region, nationality, race etc'. everybody would have said 'Yes'. I'm from a country prefecture so I sense it a little when I mention my university or hometown if I visit Kanto or Kansai. But he used the term 'racial discrimination' and then talked about all these other things. And yet his conclusion was as if he had now proven to them that there is in fact racial discrimination in Japan. It seemed kind of illogical to me."

Miki could have placed the issue about common prejudices into an English class and found out his student's perceptions that way, letting the student's use their own voices before making judgment. And this could have lead to some fruitful discussion in which Miki could have used his energy and enthusiasm to make some valid points regarding some problems faced by foreign residents in Japan. Unfortunately, when I saw Miki's video I was instead reminded a little of the guy on the train in Tokyo.

Of course, some readers might feel that it's unseemly to rake a guy, who simply tried to raise consciousness and address an important issue, over the coals but the point is that these laudable goals were not likely to be achieved-- not with Miki in the missionary position (cough, cough) with his assumptions. In fact the whole thing may have backfired-- meaning, many of the comments on Youtube and elsewhere critical of Miki were not from raving nationalists but from readers genuinely skeptical of Miki's MO and examples. Teachers have a lot to consider before they enter soapbox mode if they actually want to be effective or influential.

A note to the nationalists

And, as promised, a note to the nationalists (who are as likely to read this blog as I am of winning the Kentucky Derby, but what the hey) who tried to harass Miki for his videos: (although I should note here that, looking at the history of this blog, threats of calling up or informing workplaces when one finds a view disagreeable are not limited to the political right)

Although I am strongly anti-nationalist (in regards to any nation, as I consider nationalism to be irrational and artificial tribalism), I'll agree with you nationalists about one thing. Japan is a great country. I have chosen to make my life here because there is so much that is admirable about the people and the country. You are lucky to have been born here and I too feel an emotional connection to this country. But do you think you make Japanese people or Japanese culture look good when, in the name of your fine country, you become over-emotional or wish to censor those who you disagree with? Do you wish this to be seen and regarded by outsiders as "Japanese behavior"? Because, trust me, such responses can and do make your country- my adopted home- look worse than you claim Miki did. Don't do it. For your country.

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