Finding Contentment in Japan—and Once in Korea

The view from Hakkenzan (Eight Swords Mountain) just outside of Sapporo. The mountain consists of very steep ridges that resemble a sharp blade. Climbers occasional fall and die when they trip on the trail.

I first met Mark in the early 1990s at the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center in Seoul. I was teaching English at Dongguk University, the Buddhist school, and he was studying philosophy at Seoul National University, the country’s top university.  It was a time of intense student activism which greatly affected the climate on university campuses and in the country as a whole. Mark had some decided views on the subject, as he told me in an interview, (Link) After graduating from SNU in 1992, Mark stayed in various Buddhist temples in SE Asia, then returned to Korea to work as a translator, then as an English teacher in Chuncheon.

Recently, some twenty-seven years later, we talked about the situation teaching at a Japanese university, which we compared a bit with teaching in Korea. We talked over Skype when he was in Japan and I was in the Philippines.  Many thanks to Mark for the photos.

Mark’s story

I left Korea for the US in 1999, taught Korean in California for three years and then spent ten years in Washington DC, teaching at George Washington University while I was doing my PhD in Second Language Acquisition. I moved to Japan in 2012, and I’ve been teaching at Fuji Women’s University in Sapporo for five years. I really like living in Japan. Two years ago, I married a woman from Okinawa, and I plan on staying right here until my retirement and possibly past that.

A couple of first impressions. Almost all the westerners who live here say it’s really an easy place to live. Very convenient, everything works well, and the service culture is unbelievable. There’s no inconsistency in it. You go into a convenience store, and they greet you, and they see you’re in line, and they serve you. Unlike in the US, you don’t ever run into somebody who’s having a bad day. That’s amazing, and it makes everyday life really comfortable. In the service culture people do want to make money, but they also want to offer a service, whereas in the US many people are focused on making money all the time.

You may have seen my rant on Facebook about the website which would take your money and then renew automatically, whether you wanted to renew or not. It was very difficult to cancel, which I’m sure was a business decision.

When I first came here, I’d go to City Hall with paperwork, and if I was in the wrong place or had the wrong form, I didn’t get “we don’t do that here—go away.” Someone would make a phone call and figure out what I needed and where I needed to go. People are really nice that way.

That’s why in the expat community here, and I think in other places in Japan, everybody’s been around forever. It seems like whenever I meet someone they’ve been here for twenty or thirty years. People come and just stay.

From the peak of Hakkenzan, just outside of Sapporo

The culture is very different from Korean culture. The downside of Japanese collectivism is that people don’t reach out to strangers. It’s not about what people think, or that they don’t want to be talked to. There’s a sense that they don’t want to invade your space. It pervades the culture. Korea is very different in that strangers talk to you all the time, especially if you know the language. You can go anywhere, and people are constantly interacting with you, whereas in Japan no one ever starts up a conversation with me on the train. I might start one and find the other person is quite happy to talk and seems to enjoy it

In Japanese culture people are very averse to taking risks and making mistakes, and that makes it hard teaching a language here because learning a language is all about looking silly and making mistakes all the time. But the culture also puts a lot of emphasis on teamwork and doing things together, which makes teaching easier.

So how is teaching Japanese students different from teaching Korean students? From what I’ve heard I think it would be difficult for me to work in Japan. I just don’t have the patience to wait five minutes for a student to answer a question.

Unfortunately, teachers don’t have much interaction with students. I have a seminar on Second Language Acquisition with eighteen students. Two of them really like to come up after class and ask questions about things they didn’t understand. That’s really useful. It’s hard when you as a teacher don’t get that kind of feedback.

Then with the oral classes it’s really hard to get people to speak. Last year I set up an online chat with a friend in Taiwan. We just had the students talk online, which was great for my students because the person sitting across from them didn’t speak Japanese. In order to communicate, if they didn’t know an English word they’d find a picture on their smartphone and share it or use some other means to get a point across. I thought, “That’s exactly what they need to do.” Get past what their education has stressed about speaking perfect sentences with perfect grammar.  For a lot of them I think it was the first time they had to focus on communicating, and for some it was a real revelation.

When I was at Dongguk I set up an email exchange with someone who was teaching in Japan. I think it worked out pretty well for the students who were involved.

Jozankei, a famous hot springs located just outside of Sapporo

That’s a good idea too, doing it with writing. I had an exchange set up with a teacher at Hallym University in Korea, someone I met at a conference, and I’ve done a lot with this group in Taiwan. It’s nice, because in addition to learning English they are also learning about the other student’s culture.

Is your language acquisition class taught in English?  

Yeah, although next semester—I keep telling myself I’m going to do it–I’m going to try to summarize each class in Japanese, maybe at the start of the following class, so the students get everything in Japanese. It would also give them the Japanese equivalents of the terms we’re using in English.

What size are your classes?

They’re all pretty small. I have a seminar in Cognitive Linguistics which gets up to maybe 25 students. But the size of our classes is being cut now. They’ll be really small, like maybe ten. I don’t know if that’s optimal or not or how much thought was put into it, but if you had a really small class you could just sit around in a circle and talk.

The few times when I’ve had very small classes, like under ten students, they’ve usually worked out very well, particularly for advanced classes. When I first arrived at Dongguk, I’d have eighty students in an advanced conversation class. I just cut down the size of the classes myself. On the first day I’d walk into the classroom and say “follow me,” and we’d all troop over to my office for individual interviews. I’d take the top forty and tell the others to see me next semester. Maybe eight students would discover they’d have to work, they’d drop out and that would leave me with thirty-two students, or eight groups of four, which was quite manageable.  

This model of the teacher at the front of the room lecturing, which you still see here, is so outdated and so silly, particularly when you have videos and books and everything else. You need to be able to interact with students. I have some classes of twenty-five or so. I’ve enjoyed them because I could put students in pairs or get them doing projects together. I don’t think it’s typical of Japan, but our students are pretty good. The first, second and third year students do their homework and come to class so regularly that I may have perfect attendance for the semester. But in Japan the fourth year students are expected to run around looking for jobs, so their attendance drops.

At Dongguk all my students were bright, but I got tired of their coming in late or not doing their homework, so the first five minutes of every class was a quiz with three items on it. There were no make-ups. At first they didn’t like it very much, but they came on time and prepared.

I’ve done a little bit of that, and I think I’m going to do it more. It’s nice because then it really makes people pay attention to each class instead of just cramming at the end of the term. You want their knowledge and skills to build on each other.

Sitting in a cafe in Sapporo. The snow starts falling around the beginning of December (or often earlier) and then stays on the ground nearly until April. I’ve read that the city gets more snow than any other large city in the world.

In the early or mid 1990s  I looked at Japan briefly as a job possibility. The people I knew said that in general foreign teachers couldn’t stay very long and that for a tenure-track job you had to be younger than was at the time.  Then there were these long faculty meetings. It looked as if it would take a lot of effort to get what I already had in Korea. And eventually I got tenure.

I’ve looked at Korea as a possibility before I came here. But here I have tenure. I have a PhD, and I’ve held the rank of professor at other institutions.  So I’m just part of the system. In Korea I found almost no universities offer that now. It was almost all this short contract stuff. The pay was really low, and the living cost not that cheap, whereas here I find the living cost surprisingly cheap. Restaurants are generally more expensive than in Korea, but my apartment’s cheap and I find living here quite affordable. So just in practical terms I thought Japan was better.

But here we have meetings like I’ve never seen in my life. We’ve had meetings that started at 4:30 and ended at 9:30. There’s no break, there’s nothing. You’re sitting the whole five hours. Everything has to be decided by consensus, so you have to hem and haw until it all converges. There’s no delegation of responsibility. For example, we’d have ten people sitting around deciding which picture to choose for a pamphlet and where to put it.

I think back to when I was at George Washington University, where we completely changed the program when a new five-year plan came in. We had program evaluations, we had major-major changes. Did we ever have a meeting that was more than thirty minutes? I don’t know that we ever did. There were no slotted times for meetings, and it would have been impossible to meet for five hours. We just decided who would do what task, and that would be it. No actual work was done.

Here we have meetings where we’re actually doing stuff—ten people deciding how to word a document. It just goes on forever. Because the Japanese have a tradition of meetings I think people don’t take into account the cost to us as individuals or to the institution. If tomorrow it was decided that meetings could only last half an hour, I think people would adjust and it would all be fine. So that’s a real drawback. I’ve had weeks where I had three five-hour meetings in addition to teaching and grading homework and office hours. It’s just insane.

That would drive me nuts. I’m allergic to any meeting that lasts for more than an hour.

I’m the same way. I go home exhausted from sitting in one place for five hours. And this is after a whole day of teaching. But I’m in a good situation because I’m in a small university, which is kind of nice, mainly because there haven’t been many foreigners teaching full-time here, so I’m not seen as one of the foreigners. I’m just part of the faculty. But that said, my one big gripe is that a lot of our top people here are older, and their idea of a foreign faculty member is only that of a native speaker of English. We specialize in teaching a second language, and my PhD is in second language acquisition. When we’ve had program changes, the literature specialists haven’t bothered to ask me for input in designing the program. To me that mentality is quite odd. If I were in a meeting where a literature program was being redesigned, I’d never think of ignoring the person sitting there with a PhD in literature. I think it’s the mentality of the older faculty members. There’s so much deference to age. In the US people would probably argue against that.

You find that same kind of mentality in Korea, of course. The worse example I’ve seen of it was at Ehwa Woman’s University, where the native speakers taught in an institute that was micromanaged by the Korean teachers of literature in the English department who didn’t know anything about teaching languages. [For a good story about this stereotyping of English teachers, see Trecia’s story. (Link)]

I was at Dongguk for a little over seventeen years. For most of that time I could do anything I wanted, and I did, writing my own textbooks and all that.

With my own classes here I can also do anything I want, including picking the topic for my seminars. I really like my situation here. Minus the meetings it’s quite good.

Inside the universities you have a lot more autonomy than people do outside. One of the things I don’t like about Japan is that the work situation can be abusive.  People have to work overtime without getting paid for it and put in very long hours. I miss seeing working people stand up for themselves—we’re also missing that now in the States. But at some point, I always tell my wife, if people get really fed up with it, they need to stand up and change it. But people don’t. They’re very cowed by the authority of these companies.

Well, there are lots of advantages to being in academia. Unfortunately, there are not the advantages in the States that there were when I was growing up in as a professor’s daughter. I found that the job market in higher education was not good even before Ronald Reagan was elected for the first time, but it deteriorated very rapidly since. With a PhD and publications it was difficult for me to find the kind of job my dad had had for decades. So in 1983 I switched over from German literature to linguistics and English as a Second Language, went back to graduate school and got out of there. I went to China and then to Korea in 1988. It was a perfect time to land in Korea with a master’s degree. The PhD wasn’t really part of my credentials, but it helped with the snob factor. I considered myself very fortunate. Dongguk was good for me. But nowadays, as I’m sure you know, the situation for academics in the US is not good.

It’s stressful. You meet people who have a PhD from a good university. They worked very hard, and they’re so desperate for a job. Yeah, the situation has changed. My step-mother is teaching at a community college with a master’s and has worked there her whole adult life, but that’s so hard to do now.

The teaching situation in Korea seemed to change after 2000. Our administration decided it was actually going to start administering things. They changed regulations, which might result in unintended consequences, like my getting a 17-page class roll with 499 students on it. Later they started controlling class size. A few years later the non-majors classes were nominally in charge of young Korean faculty member who had no experience teaching them. I found this very annoying, but it turned out it was just a meeting over lunch, one or two a semester.  There were rumors that the Ministry of Education thought the country’s English skills had reached the level where native speakers weren’t needed anymore.  At the same time, more qualified people were coming into the country, the universities were increasing their demands, and people who’d been teaching for years with a bachelor’s degree or a master’s in something else were starting to worry about losing their jobs. It was not the environment I found in 1988 when a master’s degree was somewhat unusual and a PhD was a rarity.

Right. When I was looking for jobs in Korea I was amazed that there was nothing good at all. There are a lot of qualified people now, but the jobs don’t seem to be there. It’s hard to find tenure-track positions. I’ve been to conferences where everyone I talked to was just on a contract. The disadvantage of that is you might teach for ten years and then get kicked out.

I left Dongguk just before I turned 65. There was a possibility of staying on—maybe—but I decided thirty-seven years in front of a classroom was enough and I had other things I wanted to do.

After 65 I can switch and be on contract and teach for another five years, but I don’t know how I’ll feel nine years from now. I’d been hoping to get into writing books and textbooks. I have some ideas, and I’m going to start turning some of my course materials into books. By the time I retire if I can make money I’d rather do that.

My composition textbook and the semantics-based workbook which came with it were published in Korea, but both are out of print now. On the website I have a downloadable version of one of the textbooks I wrote for my students at Dongguk. When I couldn’t find a publisher, I thought it was okay. I’d used it for ten years and it served me well. Then after I got this website I made it available to other people teaching Korean students. If I were to use it now I’d update the discussion questions a bit, but I think it’s still pretty usable (Link)

Have you stuck your nose into the textbook publishing business in Japan to find out how things are?

I haven’t. I’ve looked at textbooks here and been struck by how similar they are, almost copies of each other. It’s rare that you come across something that is really the result of a lot of thought. Some of these from the big companies, the pictures are fantastic, but they have errors in them. I was shocked.

I’d also like to write a book on language acquisition that didn’t use technical jargon, for the common reader, not just for academics. And for that I was thinking of just writing the book first and then presenting it to publishers. I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t feel intimidated. I’ll write the way I want to, and if I can’t find a publisher I’ll do it on my own. Computer technology has made the process of putting out a book pretty simple.