Tag Archives: China

Diligently, pedantically, reluctantly

New CrownWhen I first lived in China, I remember often meeting people who spoke impressively fluent English. On a train, walking down a street, at an ‘English Corner’ where people went to practise their English together, I met people who had studied for years, often on their own, who were keen to speak English and were eager to share opinions. I heard people speak with enthusiasm about Voice of America radio programmes, and was sometimes perplexed to be asked to speak ‘Special English’, which was VOA’s slowed-down version of the language for students of English. I remember on at least one occasion meeting someone who told me I was the first native speaker they had spoken to. And yet their English was very good; fluent, confident and accurate.

Then I came to Japan, and was perplexed to find how little English was spoken here, despite the many years of English classes in junior and senior high school which everyone receives. I began my English-teaching career in Japan at a language school, teaching little kids the name of every animal under the sun, a range of shouty toddler verbs (point! touch! run!) and not much grammatical glue to hold everything together. On the days when I wasn’t teaching little kids, I taught English to adults. They seemed to enjoy the classes but it was more a hobby, a social activity than an intellectual endeavour. It was fun, it was a lovely introduction to Japan, but it wasn’t like any approach to language study that I had ever encountered before.

After two years at the language school, my next job was at a private high school, and for the last twenty years that is the teaching environment I have found myself in. It is something I know well, but I also know the limitations and the frustrations. The challenges of teaching English in Japan have been written about many times, the apparently never-ending supply of weird and wacky English often posted online. I do it myself.  So it was with some sighing and eye-rolling that I approached an article the Japan Times published several weeks ago, titled, ‘English fluency hopes rest on an educational overhaul’. That old chestnut.

At the heart of the discussion are always the questions, why is the standard of English so low in general, when students spend so much time studying English? Why can’t Japanese people speak better English? And what’s up with all the weird stuff? People unfamiliar with the Japanese education system make the mistake of assuming that English is studied as a language, as a form of communication, that the goal in learning this language must be to be able to express yourself and communicate effectively. Those people are wrong.

The study of English in Japanese schools has always been primarily with one specific goal; to be able to pass entrance exams and enter university. All teaching methods, all textbooks are influenced by this one aim. All the private universities set their own exams, but for the national universities there is the Centre Test, a weekend-long marathon of tests administered around the middle of January and taken by all students hoping to enter a public university. The English component of the entrance exams, both private and the Centre Test, is heavily influenced by TOEFL and TOEIC, with lots of multiple choice questions. There is very little requirement to manipulate the language, and unless you are interviewing to major in English you probably won’t have to speak English either.

To do well in these exams, you need to study English grammar to a very high level, and learn a lot of very long words. In the teaching of this grammar, I have heard Japanese colleagues breaking down sentences into types, in a way I am unfamiliar with. It is rather like the classification of species. There are books of very long words, archaic and ridiculously formal, which must be memorised, but the lists are so random I wonder how anyone focuses. The idea of learning anything by lexical set is an alien concept.

This brings me to another aspect of the Japanese education system which emphasises a skill which I remember being actively discouraged from at school: memorisation. Of course, at school I had to study vocabulary, learn grammar rules, but memorisation, the rote learning of something simply to be able to regurgitate it exactly, that was not part of my education. It is a skill that Japanese students need to develop, and the amount of information they assimilate in this way is impressive. Somewhere in junior high school all students memorise all the countries in Africa. For a test. After the test they forget it again. The same goes for vocabulary tests. Memorise it, regurgitate it, next.

One method that Japanese English teachers use to encourage students to develop this skill is the memorising of chunks of English text. This has the unfortunate consequence of having the students focus on the memorising to the exclusion of all else, including pronunciation, which becomes garbled. But the student passes the ‘speaking test’ (which is really no such thing) and the idea that pronunciation is not so important is somehow planted in their minds. Another unintended consequence of this studying to such a high level, is that students are reluctant to speak because they feel unable to manipulate such complicated language, when the reality is, no one uses language at that level unless writing a formal letter or making a speech.

In all this, the teachers are trapped as much as the students. They teach from textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省 Monbu-kagaku-shō), also known as MEXT, or Monka-shō, the Ministry formally known as Monbushō. While they seem to have a lot of time allotted for English classes, the amount of material they are expected to cover means that there is no time to review previous lessons, there is just one headlong dash through grammar and vocabulary at dizzying speed. It produces pressure and stress and a lot of people who really don’t like English. But it’s a means to an end, and that end is a university career that can affect the rest of your life.

Despite all this pressure, there are students who are enthusiastic about English. Travel and technology have made English more accessible, relevant and interesting. I have known many students who love English, who enjoy the challenge of communication, who somehow manage to juggle the demands of the academic study of English with their determination to speak, to write and to be themselves in another language.

Although the current state of English in Japan is largely due to the requirements of the educational system, I do wonder about these pronouncements that Japan is going to improve the overall level of English. I wonder for several reasons:

While the stated aim is to improve English ability, the approach can be haphazard. Having declared that children in elementary schools would begin learning English, elementary school teachers were required to start teaching – despite the fact that they are not trained teachers of English, often don’t speak English, and are just a step or two ahead of their students in what the lessons cover. More animals, the fruit and vegetables of the world and probably some verbs for good measure. Oh, and some greetings, such as ‘How are you?’ – ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ Everyone is always fine.

These regular articles about Japan needing to improve the level of English spoken by its people raise questions about Japan and where it sees itself on the international stage. Why do successive governments make these pronouncements? If they want to really change the system, they need to start with the university entrance exams. Nothing changes without them. Is English the language Japan needs? China is a near neighbour, as is South Korea. Why are those languages not taught more?  What is Japan going to do if it achieves its improved English? Just as in the UK, where very few public figures are ever heard speaking another language (though Tony Blair did like to pontificate in French sometimes), Japanese people don’t have many role models when it comes to just having a go and trying to communicate. I sometimes wonder if talking about it and tinkering with the system is just a way of making it seem like something is being done.

Goodbye 2013

tokyo sunsetWhen people hear that I teach in Japan the most common reaction is some kind of assumption that all the students (a) work incredibly hard, (b) are unquestioningly obedient and well-behaved and (c) are quieter than proverbial church mice. My response to this is (a) their industry is the same as students in other countries, some work very hard, others do not and many are hindered by a lack of study skills, (b) they are certainly less of a challenge than the students my friends often teach in the UK but not unremittingly well-behaved, and (c) I work at a girls’ school, are you kidding?

As I have mentioned before, I think Japan is a country which is often portrayed in a stereotypical manner, and the appetite for wacky stories in foreign media is always there. What people say to me about my students is an extension of what many people believe to be an accurate portrayal of Japan and its people. It is frustrating to live here and watch with disbelief as yet another journalist files a stereotype-laden report, or takes one incident and extrapolates to imply a general truth. In over twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet a Japanese person who conforms to all those stereotypes, the quiet, obedient automaton.

Over ten years ago, a Swedish gospel singer came to visit the school, and as she sat on the stage waiting to begin a question-and-answer time after she had performed, she remarked that she could tell she was at a girls’ school because there was a noticeable level of chatter in the hall. Some things are not a surprise. What may come as a surprise to people who only know of Japan through cliché’d news items is the levels of noise in Japan sometimes. It is not always a land of zen-like tranquility, as anyone who has ever walked past a pachinko parlour can tell you. Politicians, right-wing sound trucks, recycle companies, roasted sweet potato vendors and purveyors of laundry poles are all capable of disturbing your wa (和), or harmony, as you relax at home, walk down your local street or take the train.

There is a word in Japanese which has a lot of different meanings, but Japanese language learners probably first encounter it as ‘noisy’: urusai (うるさい). My dictionary, however, offers all of the following as possible meanings: noisy, loud, annoying, troublesome, bothersome, persistent, fussy, particular and fastidious. I would say a person who is ‘urusai’ is a wa-disturber, and this year the leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been disturbing all kinds of wa. That their antics have not been more widely reported internationally is disappointing. I have heard Japanese friends express concern that this is how Japan slid towards militarism in the 1930s.

So, just to do my bit to draw attention to what Japanese politicians have been doing this year, here are their greatest hits:

* In May, Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka declared that the ‘comfort women’ (women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WW2) were ‘necessary’. You can read about it here:


* In July, the Deputy PM, Taro Aso (also a brother-in-law of the Emperor) suggested that Japan could learn from how the Nazis pushed through unpopular legislation. You can read about it here:


He was referring to the current government’s desire to abolish Article 9, the part of the Japanese Constitution in which Japan denounces war and the means of war. Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, has been getting more and more bellicose and would very much like to ditch Article 9 and arm Japan to the teeth. There is a hefty, so-called Self Defence Force, but Mr. Abe wants more. There have been groups all over Japan for a long time to protect Article 9, but this year it has come under serious threat.

* In September PM Abe reassured the IOC that Tokyo is and always will be safe from any danger that may come from the crippled nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. Following his statement and Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics, the word ‘lie’ was used by parts of the media to refer to his comments. You can read about it here:


* Of course, the news that has rumbled on all year is the ongoing dispute between China and Japan (and Taiwan) regarding sovereignty over the group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. In November China  declared an ‘air-defence zone’ over the islands, just the latest move in this very dangerous dance. You can read about it here:


* Finally, at the end of the year, Mr. Abe decided to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as Prime Minister. While millions of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, the souls of hundreds of war criminals, including a number of executed Class A war criminals are also enshrined, and it is this fact, and the apparent honouring or worship of these souls which so infuriates China and South Korea. You can read about it here:


So, Japanese politicians, I would say that you have been very ‘urusai’ this year, that this war-mongering is deeply troubling, that your lack of sensitivity (or deliberate disregard for other people’s and other countries’ feelings) is equally concerning. What are you doing to the country I love? This has not been a great year for Japan. With the exception of the successful Olympic bid, which did seem to boost spirits, 2013 has been a steady stream of worrying news from TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi and the constant sound of rattling sabres.

So for 2014, my first prayer is for a concerted effort to really do something about the giant mess that is Fukushima Daiichi. The situation there is scary and there are many people who don’t know if, or when, they can ever go home. My second prayer is also related to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; that the people who are still living in temporary housing almost three years later be re-housed in permanent new homes. My third prayer is for peace between the countries in East Asia, that we can all be much better neighbours than we have been in 2013.

12:30 blue skyFor myself, this has been a very mixed year, but I am ending the year feeling positive. I have travelled and seen friends, and in my life in Tokyo I have so many blessings. I have a job I love, friends and colleagues I am grateful for. In the last fifteen months I have found a new joy in writing this blog and been amazed that people read it. It’s a very humbling feeling. I am going into the new year with plenty to think about, lots of things I want to do.

Yesterday I was in Shibuya and saw a lot of people with suitcases, on their way somewhere to celebrate the New Year. When I went out to do some grocery shopping this afternoon I noticed how quiet everything was already. With the exception of the crowds in the supermarket there weren’t many people about. Tomorrow I am going to start the year the same way I did this year, walking a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for another sunny day.

Goodbye, 2013. You’ve been an interesting year; not the best, but not the worst either. The neighbourhood has gone quiet, and I can hear the sound of the local volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (夜回り) or night patrol warning us of the perils of starting a fire. My new year cards are written and mailed, it’s time to curl up and relax.

new year postbox

My neighbour Tokyo

neighboursTokyo is a huge, crowded city. Not so enormous that you can’t walk around it in a day, but full of millions of people. It’s easy to feel small, isolated, lost. It can also take a long time to make Japanese friends. I’ve written about this before; I don’t think it’s unreasonable on the part of any Japanese person to take their time getting to know someone, and in fact think that British people are exactly the same. Neither culture displays the same ready friendliness someone from North America would. It’s easy to think this is some kind of closed-off, unfriendly attitude on behalf of Japanese people in general, especially when you first arrive and really want to get to know people.

I came to Japan after living in China, where the business of making friends is completely different. In Chinese it’s quite normal to announce the formation of a friendship not long after meeting someone: 交朋友吧? (Jiao pengyou ba? Shall we be friends?) Together you agree to a friendship, you are now friends.

In most countries it doesn’t work like that, and certainly not in Japan. I have a lot of wonderful Japanese friends, but I’ve been here over twenty years. That is not to say that Japanese people haven’t always been friendly, but friends? That took a while. I’ve made this point before, but I will say it again; Japanese people are the same with each other. In cities, houses and apartments are small, it is not common to invite someone into your home. People meet in cafes, bars or restaurants instead.

My nearest neighbours are not friendly at all. In fact, I would categorise them as Not Friendly and also Somewhat Antisocial. Although our buildings are only a couple of metres apart, someone plays the piano after 11pm quite regularly, I can often hear someone using a hairdryer at 2am, and I have seen their adult son try to start a fight in the street because a delivery truck was trying get past his parked car. Now that summer is here, they delight in wind chimes. One wind chime can be a pleasant sound, an occasional gentle tinkling on a hot day. My neighbours work on the principle that more is more, and quite regularly line up five or six to ring manically in a strong breeze. The man of the house likes nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than to go out into the narrow road and practise his baseball pitching by bouncing the ball against the wall. They appear to love loud, repetitive sounds. It can be annoying, but since I have seen evidence of their very un-Japanese willingness to be confrontational I have never said anything. By contrast, the family who live at the end of the road are always friendly and greet me whenever I walk past. When one member of the family inadvertently watered me along with her flowers one day she even spoke English to offer a mortified apology.

The shops in my neighbourhood are always friendly. If I go into the small drugstore next to the station and buy cold medicine I will receive a handful of cough drops too. The employees in the tiny post office are more helpful than their counterparts in my local post office in the UK. Even the people in the convenience stores, working early and late shifts and sometimes not seeing me for weeks on end are  smiley and sometimes stop for a chat. I know it’s not the same as other countries. Most shops in neighbourhoods, even in a city like Tokyo, are still locally-run, and apart from the convenience stores they are not usually part of a chain. They all know their customers.

So this is my neighbourhood. The shopkeepers are friendly, but my neighbours are a mixed bag. Some greet me, others do not. I don’t know their names, they don’t know mine. Apparently the police will have checked with them when I applied for permanent residence, and no one torpedoed my chances. I must be doing all right separating my rubbish and have not alarmed anyone with overt displays of antisocial behaviour (unlike my immediate neighbours, I may add).

My brother lived in an apartment in London for a number of years, and every summer I stayed with him for a few days. I saw other people in the building but apart from a nodded hello I never spoke to them. I don’t know how much my brother knew them either. This is big city life in a country where the people are naturally reserved. It could be Tokyo, but it could also be London. People are busy, they spend their days on crowded trains and working hard. Of course we all want a little space, somewhere we can retreat to.

It takes time to make friends here, but the ones I have made are truly wonderful. I’m happy in my neighbourhood and with my neighbours, although I am slightly wary of the ones right next door. I appreciate being allowed to have my own little bubble in the heart of this great city.