Inside and Outside the Japanese Classroom

I met Phyllis around 2007 when she was teaching English at a foreign languages university in Japan. It was her second stay in Japan. Directly after college she’d come over as with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme), teaching English in the elementary and secondary schools. Phyllis also taught in an English language program for international students at the University of Idaho, where her experience in the classroom was very similar to mine at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Phyllis’s story

Phyllis: I came here with the JET program at twenty-two. I thought of myself as a strong and independent woman who didn’t need any help. But I did a lot of the time, and the people who helped me were very gracious about it. I know that when I screw up people will dismiss me as a stupid gaijin [foreigner], but there’s a certain amount of self-pride you have to let go because you can’t possibly know everything, and it’s incredibly egotistical to think you could.

Only once did I make a cultural mistake and then immediately realize what I’d done. I’d been living here for almost two years. We were at a dinner. My house mother was going to give me a taste of something from her plate, so she reached across the table to put it on mine. I saw her and raised my chopsticks to take it from her. Instantly everyone in the room gasped in shock. That chopstick behavior was reserved for funerals.

As a JET teacher on my first trip here, I was sent to the board of education in my town, which sent me out to schools. For my first six weeks the students were on vacation. I went to an intensive language class for a week, then JET orientation for a week. Then I spent a month sitting at the desk with nothing to do. So I studied Japanese language for four hours in the morning, and in the afternoon I read a cultural book which was full of things about culture. I knew it would be an “in” into my life in the countryside if they could see that I was making an effort to understand and behave properly in their culture, especially since it’s such a group mentality.

Before that, I’d had a Japanese college roommate for two years. When she came home upset about something, I was the one she talked to about it. For example, one day she told me her boyfriend asked her if he could pick her nose.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Well, he wanted to pick my nose. Do American boys do that?”

“No. You don’t have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Having been through a lot of cultural stuff with her helped me immensely because I learned to take things with the flow. Later, when I was teaching in the US, I had students ask me about cultural things, and I was glad they felt they could ask me. One student had a roommate who was having her boyfriend in for the night. She said, “It really makes me uncomfortable, especially when I’m studying and they come in and go to bed.”

I told her, “If you were North American you’d tell her to take that somewhere else. You have to say something, or she’ll keep doing it.”

Here, a lot of the foreigners I’ve talked to have an issue with the way Japanese walk, which my boyfriend described as like they’re always stumbling around drunk. It’s an aimless walk, very slow and lethargic, not focused on what they’re doing. I’d thought I’d been feeling held back in a crowd because I have longer legs. I’ve heard other foreigners complain about getting stuck behind people.

Carol: When I’ve come over from Korea I’m struck with how different pedestrian traffic is. In the passageways in Korean subway stations people walk more like individuals, while here in rush hour you’ll find apparent strangers hurrying along in a clump, then an empty space, then another clump. I was told not to speed up to get out of the group because it’s rude, even when you don’t know anyone. 

That makes sense. Although I always zoom past. In the underground mall at Omega the other day, I was trying to get around people, and I couldn’t because the hallway was split almost straight down the middle, with people walking—on the left—in one direction and the other side walking in the opposite direction. In a mall at home everybody would be going in whichever direction.

My boyfriend is 6’2.” He’s okay with crowds at home, but here crowds are a little too much for him. On a train or a subway, people will suddenly move right up on him, really invading his personal space. Of course in Japan everyone is looking out the windows. Nobody looks in. The Japanese don’t seem to have any problems with the lack of personal space on public transport.

Carol: In Korea people may ask you questions or reach over and adjust your collar. If they’re sitting they may offer to hold your bag on their laps.

Phyllis: Here no one will adjust your collar or offer to take your bag. It would be too pretentious. You might want your collar that way. I’ve even had a student ask, “Is it okay for me to take this hair off your sweater?” Without asking permission it was not okay to correct anything about my personal appearance. Once I was standing in front of class for half an hour with my fly open. It was a short zipper, and there were some other attachments on the pants, so it wasn’t gaping open. During the break a Korean student came up, giggled and whispered, “Teacher—zip, zip.” I was grateful she told me, but I’m sure my Japanese students would have never said a word. It would have been too embarrassing to cause me to lose face.

Even if I say something they know is wrong, they won’t correct me, like maybe in a class that meets on Tuesday and Thursday, I say, “In class Monday…” They won’t correct me, even after class. Everybody just assumes everyone else knows. It’s odd thing how uninvolved my students can be.

Carol: Students have corrected me about that kind of thing in Korea after class, and I’ve said, “Why didn’t you tell me in class when it wasn’t too late to do anything about it?” So eventually they would. The most difficult thing has been getting students to ask questions when they didn’t understand. That’s considered too presumptuous too.

Phyllis: At the beginning of the term I get general oblivion from my Japanese students until they have a chance to be relaxed with me in the classroom. You could drop a quarter and the sound would just shatter the room, but after the first couple of weeks when they relax a little bit they’re much more open, and I get questions like, “How old are you?” So I say, “I was born in the year of the rat.” That gives them a couple of choices if they want to guess my age.

Any foreign teacher will tell you that during the first week the students’ giggles are really annoying. If you ask a question and they don’t know the answer, it’s hee hee hee hee, even from the men. But this is definitely a masculine culture. For example, the brightest girls are usually the quietest because they don’t want to appear to be showing off. Being passive is an accepted cultural norm, but being vocal means not being feminine. I tell my students to get over that. The male students get very intimidated when a woman corrects them, unless it’s the teacher. Strangely enough, if you put a male and a female student together for conversation practice, in most cases the man is more passive. He lets her do the reading, tell him about it and tell him the answers. I don’t know if this is so he can get her opinion and correct her. But if the students are in a group of maybe four, the guys talk and the women don’t. The man has to show that he knows what they’re talking about. Japanese students are very reluctant to break out of the norm.

Generally they don’t reveal anything about themselves except in their writing. I had the students do an anonymous Dear Abby writing assignment, and they really opened up. “I don’t know what to do. I have a boyfriend in Tokyo. I live here, and I’m not moving. I can’t decide if I should break up with him.” So I wrote back to “Dear Tokyo Boy Trouble.” Some of the students would probably been less open if I’d had them put their names on the papers. But they do seem to feel comfortable writing than speaking.

For a speech assignment I said, “Pretend that you’re a mom or a dad, and you need to talk to your children about something that’s happening right now that they’ll definitely need to know in the future.” I got some amazing personal commentary about what’s going on in the world. And it wasn’t anything they could have plagiarized.

Plagiarism is a big problem. The other day a student read a presentation in front of the class, and only two out of the twenty sentences were hers.  The constructions alone told me she didn’t write it, not to mention the vocabulary, which included some words that I didn’t know. I have handouts where I explain that in Western academia you can’t do that. “The words either have to be your own or you have to give credit for them, otherwise you’re stealing someone else’s words. If you give this to me and say that it’s yours then I’m correcting someone else’s English. And I don’t want to waste time on someone else. I want to focus on you.”

When I was in Idaho, I had a Korean, a Chinese and a Taiwanese student who went on the internet and found book reports which they turned in as their own. I highlighted passages and showed them in class, but without showing the names. I said, “This is not acceptable. I want to grade your work, but don’t treat me like I’m stupid. I’m your teacher. I know where you have problems in your language, and that’s why I work so hard to help you correct it. Honor yourself and honor your family with your best efforts. I’m going to give you a chance to resubmit your work after the weekend. I’ll take it on Monday.” After that I had bowing and sincerely apologizing from the grandmother’s grave. “We’re so sorry, so sorry, this won’t ever happen again.”

In Confucian cultures it’s expected not to have your own opinion but to quote the greats. Here a lot of things don’t exactly sink in. “This is plagiarism, this is why you don’t do it. Questions?” Then they do it the next time. “Okay, let’s go over this again.” It’s like teaching them how to write a thesis statement. It takes a long time for them to get it, much longer than you’d expect. Then all of a sudden the light turns on.

When I was in Idaho, one of my Japanese students was really interested in Arab culture. It was neat to watch a friendship bloom between her and a young woman from Saudi Arabia. When we talked about feminism in class, the Saudi woman said it was a misconception that Arabic women are demure and passive and didn’t have an opinion. The Japanese woman was shocked that in Japan women had fewer career options than they did in Saudi Arabia, where women were so restricted in their public roles but not in their public roles as women. You have to have women doctors and lawyers for the female clients. She said it sounded as if Arab women had more freedom than Japanese women did.

It was interesting to watch the students in conversation class when I had them paired with someone from another culture. There was a Japanese man and a Korean woman who worked well as partners. She was much more forward than Japanese woman probably would have been, so they challenged each other on things they were talking about in class. I had an Arabic man and a Japanese woman who were paired together. They had wonderful communication, possibly because she was so intensely polite, and she didn’t assert her opinions so much that he was offended by it. He showed her absolute respect as well.

There were a lot of prejudices that the students admitted to me privately. A Korean student told me, “My grandfather said that all Japanese were bastards, and I never wanted to interact with one, but here I am playing soccer with them.”

I found my Taiwanese students were inspiring to the rest of the class because they were so hard-working. One started in my class one summer, and when I asked him what his name was he didn’t understand me. But by the following spring he was the most fluent in my level 4 class, the one right before you take regular university classes, so on the TEOFL exam he would have scored between 480 and 500. Amazing.

The program in Idaho was an intensive program—four hours a day, five days a week, with optional classes in the afternoon. They were very small classes. The largest class I ever had was 15. There were very few distractions unless they liked potatoes and horses. During the week they studied because there was nothing else for them to do. Our activities coordinator planned something for almost every weekend—ice skating, kayaking, skiing, fishing, swimming. There were some interesting cultural museums. The students learned about the history of the Chinese railroad in the area, and they went to Seattle to watch a Mariner’s game.

We had a lot of Japanese and Korean students, especially for the year-long classes, but enough people from other countries that students were exposed to a pretty good mix of people from around the world. Outside of class students would still go off to speak their native language among themselves, but we tried to have coffee socials where they could mix and make friends. It was very much like family, which the Japanese particularly liked. They want to feel very close to their teachers. I was moving, so I gave some furniture to some of the Japanese students. That made them feel well taken care of.

When North American teachers first come to Japan, they’ll say, “I can’t cross that boundary between teacher and student. I don’t want to be their parent or their friend.” Yet I’ve found that the Japanese really would like to have you as a mentor and a confidante. They want to be able to come in and cry to you. “Oh, my life is so terrible.” There’s a counseling component to being a teacher, and they expect that. Our program in Idaho was set in a town with 15,000 people plus another 10,000 students. We went to parties with them and made cookies with them. Sometimes I hear from foreign teachers here in Japan, “I don’t see why my students hate me so much. I’m always in the office for office hours.” The Japanese have a different idea about teachers here, which is truly in loco parentis.

I’ll be here for another year. I came here mainly to meet financial obligations. Then I’m planning to teach in other places I haven’t explored yet. Maybe I’m off to see the world, like South America.

The most energetic and engaged students I’ve had were Tibetans in India, where I worked for six months as a volunteer. They were sitting on a cold cement slab under one light bulb. No desks or pencils or pens or paper. Sometimes I had chalk. In Tibetan society, teachers maybe even more revered than they are in Japan, but my students also had such a strong desire to communicate, a compelling need to share what they had experienced and what their lives were like. I could go back and teach there forever, but I’d need a Japanese job to pay for the trip.