Why do some Japanese use universities like parks?

I’m not at all sure about this, but I’ve been working in universities quite a lot in the last two years and it seems to me that a small but substantial minority of the people coming through the gates are people with no connection to the university just having a stroll, including people doing so with small kids. Don’t remember that from my own university times, though that was very long ago and I was probably too busy being drunk and/ or pretentious to notice stuff like that anyway…

Why do the Japanese say “national language” (kokugo)?

In Language and Society in Japan Nanette Gottlieb argues fairly persuasively that it is mainly used by nationalists for nationalistic reasons, and that more neutral and leftwing people prefer the term “Nihongo”.  As the school syllabus still uses “kokugo” but NHK uses “Nihongo”, I think that one word gives quite an insight into where Japanese society is right now.

Why the sign language boom in Japan?

I don’t know how many people are actually studying sign language, but there is a lot more of it on TV and on the Yamanote line screens than there used to be.

I think it is partly to fill the gap left by the collapse of English conversation as a hobby, which proves more than ever that for most people in Japan English never had anything to do with international communication.

Why are there still so many chalkboards in Japan?

The most extreme example I’ve come across is a university I gave a workshop in that had two projectors and huge screens, but still had chalkboards rather than IWBs, or indeed just plain whiteboards. It’s not like the Japanese are generally anti-technology…

While working at another university with chalkboards recently it occured to me that the manic tapping noise I was producing and the sheer physical exertion were very conducive to a Japanese view of teaching and learning being mainly hard work. Sure there must be other more mundane explanations though…

Why is Eigo de Asobo so crap?

I simply can’t think of why this NHK English-language programme for kindergarten kids is so terrible. Yesterday’s edition was pretty typical in that they only taught two words, one of which is already used in Japanese (shoes) and the other of which is useless (yum). Then there are the same old songs with misleading or absent mimes (why not point at a belly button if you really have to include that word??), unnecessary translation at odd places, jumps from sketches where only one English word is used to animated songs that don’t seem to be graded at all, etc.

Here are the only explanations I could come up with:

- Decisions on what language to use are made by non-English-speaking staff and managers, in typical Japanese office style

- The English native speakers hate their job and so are just taking the piss

- The Ministry of Education doesn’t want anyone to actually speak English in case they become less Japanese by doing so or work out that there are different ways that Japan could be

- The two Americans on the programme were sent by the CIA in the 80s to sabotage Japanese attempts to learn English and so hold their economy back (also one possible explanation for TOEIC)

Why do some Japanese students seem so uncomfortable in class?

Some are uncomfortable, but there are two other relevant factors.

One is modesty, as giving the impression that it is all a doddle would be seen as a kind of boasting. Another, possibly connected, is the Japanese tendency to emphasize the effort you are putting in, seen also in the exaggerated huffing sounds made during physical exertions.

Why is Japanese language education behind science and maths?

In Learning to Bow Bruce Feiler repeats the common argument that science and maths suits rote learning more than language, but actually discovering things for yourself and avoiding a lecture style are at least as important in maths and science as they are in language teaching. If maths and science programmes on NHK Education are anything to go by, there is no lack of knowledge in Japan of how make students work together to work things out for themselves in exactly the way we TEFL teachers are taught to make our English-language students do. This means that simply teaching English in the way maths and science is taught would be an improvement!

Where Bruce Feiler does have a point is in saying that English teaching has copied Japanese language (kokugo) lessons such as the methods for learning kanji, and these are indeed less suitable for a foreign language than copying almost any other subject in Japanese schools. The other negative impact of kokugo on English is that actual lessons are as much a lesson in nationalism as they are in language, and the same is often true of English.

Another factor is that the positive things I have said about maths and science education in Japan are mainly true for primary schools, and English has until recently started in Junior High School when the rote learning is properly in control.

Why the Japanese obsession with exams?

The historical reason for it goes back to the end of the Edo era when the class/ caste system (samurai, farmers, townspeople/ merchants, and untouchables) was scrapped. Understandably the knowledge of class didn’t disappear at the same time, and indeed it is still said that people hire private detectives to check that there are no eta (untouchables) or Koreans in their future son or daughter in law’s family. Prejudice against particular regions, gender and disability are also common, as is preference for people with a shared school, hometown etc. All this means that interviews in Japan could nicer approach any kind of fairness, even nowadays and certainly not in the Meiji period when the whole system was set up.

The other factors are:

- A Confucian trust in exams

- Not being allowed any hobbies, voluntary work etc while preparing for entrance exams, and therefore having nothing to write on a university application form

Why doesn’t Japan do better in international university rankings?

They don’t do that badly- but we are talking about an education-obsessed country that has a far bigger economy than the UK, and the UK does a lot better. Explanations I have heard include young research high flyers leaving Japan for countries where they don’t have their supervisor putting only their name on their research for the first thirty years, not being able to attract similar talent from other countries, not getting lots of money from alumni, and language problems with getting published in the big (usually English language) journals.

I don’t know if these surveys can actually take the education people receive there into account, but the vast majority of the (few) Japanese I know who went to top universities seem totally incapable of imaginative thought and particularly ignorant of the world outside their chosen area- much more so than people in the junior college that I worked in. Of course, that might well have been forced out of them by the preparation to get into those universities and so not necessarily the fault of the unis themselves.

Why do we hear wildly varying accounts of discipline in Japanese schools?

Because the main weapon of Japanese teachers has always been peer pressure, so much so that traditionally classes with no teacher are left for hours or even days to get on with it under the instructions of the class monitor and the pressure of the other kids to behave. However, in some classes – or even whole schools- that peer pressure is rather one to appear too cool for school, etc. In others it could be to go totally wild.

The same explanation works quite well for explaining the extremes of discipline and lack of discipline in WWII, how the protests of the 1960s turned into virtually no protests today, and why Japanese sci-fi is so fascinated by the idea of a complete breakdown of the social order- because it could happen! Of course, peer pressure exists in every society. I think Japan uses it more as a form of control than almost any other country, though, apart maybe from the ones with reeducation camps…

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