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Guide to Japan and Teaching English in Japan

Ryan Olson Thousands of people come from all around the world to work on the JET Program every year. Most work as Assistant Language Teachers, but there are also many positions at municipal offices. This guide by former JET Ryan Olson tells it all, including the pitfalls to watch out for.

January 08, 2009

A Guide to the JET Program - Japanese Students: Maybe Not Quite What You Expected!

The stereotype - what stereotype?
Remember that Japanese education norms, and therefore students, are very different from what we're used to. Don't give too much credence to preconceptions you may hold about studious and well-mannered Japanese students.To be sure, such students do exist, but in most schools hardly in numbers worthy of their stereotypes. I was shocked after my first week at a public junior high school. Although some of the students were quite friendly and enthusiastic, I found most to be oddly quiet ('entirely disinterested' seemed suitable at the time) and a number to be outright rude. I'd ask a question to the class or to an individual and receive either a blank stare, or worse, the student would simply gaze at his or her desktop. I soon realized that I was not the unique recipient of such seemingly disrespectful treatment, the Japanese teachers seemed to get the same thing.

The JET Program currently has people from over 40 countries. 94% are from English-speaking countries (2001).

Student Silence
Although I still occasionally find the lack of response disrespectful, I have learned to realized that lack of response is itself an acceptable response in this culture. Whereas in an American school such a student would most likely be coaxed or scolded into providing some sort of verbal acknowledgement to a question, Japanese teachers seem to accept the blank stare as a legitimate 'pass' on a question. Yes, it drives me crazy, but we all learn to deal with it. When, on occasion, a student does choose to verbally acknowledge a question, it will almost always be preceded by a brief meeting (oh, don't mind me, I'll wait) with surrounding students. This stems from the Japanese decision-making model (implicit consensus --> formal proposition --> adoption instead of proposition --> debate --> decision), and tends to strike us Westerners as something akin to cheating. Well, I suppose they don't do it during tests.

Related to this is the great difficulty experienced in getting Japanese students to express themselves. I could write pages on this topic alone, but you'll all see for yourselves within a week of your first class. Suffice it to say here that any question without an obvious 'correct' answer -- or at least a limited range of set possibilities -- is likely to earn you a whole lot of confused looks. Many of my students can manage something as innocent as "What sport do you like?", but anything more adventurous, say, "What do you think about (anything)?", is usually entirely confounding. Unfortunately for us, the truth is that many of the most important implements of language education, that is, questions and statements which easily generate interesting discussion, are quickly mitigated by cultural barriers.

Married couples on the program can request to work close to each other but this is not guaranteed.

Any solutions?
Many teachers and education officials are aware of this problem, all the way up to the Ministry of Education. Proposed solutions are questionable, however. We recently learned that some genius at the Ministry of Education came up with the idea to introduce debate into the junior high English curriculum. Although perhaps a seemingly good idea at face value, what the policymakers seem to have neglected is that most Japanese students can't even debate in their own language, much less English. Many of us suspect that the proposed debate curriculum will serve only to make English an even more foreign and less accessible subject to all but the most extroverted and liberally-minded students.

So anyway, when you come bursting into your first classroom with your goofy English and all that, don't be surprised when your kids don't quite burst out back at you. Don't be insulted, and above all, don't lose your temper. I guarantee that by doing so you will do nothing more than relegate yourself to that class of 'mean' teachers whose apparent respect from the students is nothing more than a mix of fear and contempt.

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