Monday, February 19, 2007

Teaching Spoken English in Japan, Unit 731, and the Konoe Guards

This is an article about what’s laughingly called “cross-cultural communication,” which means, basically, how do you bridge the gap when you live in a foreign country where you’re considered a war criminal if you wear shoes indoors, even in the dead of winter, and you’re not exactly accustomed to that. To be fair, it goes without saying that cultural relativism cuts both ways—Japanese (and others) arriving in the United States are shocked when they're exposed to American cultural customs that are wholly alien to them.

A fascinating December 20, 2006 BBC World article, “'Paris Syndrome' strikes Japanese” describes how every year, an average of 12 Japanese, mostly young women in their 30s on their first trip abroad, suffer nervous breakdowns in Paris as a result of extreme French rudeness. “This year alone, the Japanese embassy in Paris has had to repatriate four people with a doctor or nurse on board the plane to help them get over the shock,” BBC journalist Caroline Wyatt reported. “The Japanese embassy has a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock, and can help find hospital treatment for anyone in need. However, the only permanent cure is to go back to Japan—never to return to Paris."

Between 1989 and 1992, at the beginning of the JET Program, three young foreigners committed suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. They couldn’t wait for the plane ticket home. Counseling and better preparation on the part of the Japanese Ministry of Education have reduced the casualty count drastically, I understand, but even so, my year as a JET teacher in isolated rural Japan was pretty tough sledding sometimes.

I was asked to write this article in the summer of 1999 by an editor at The Asahi Weekly, a leading English-language Japanese newspaper. Every weekly issue has a page devoted to teaching Japanese readers new English vocabulary words, and I was asked to write up an article about what it was like teaching English in Japan. It turned into an account of the some of the difficulties inherent in teaching spoken English in Japan. Under the title, “Repeat After Me: Teaching English in Japan Under the JET Program,” it was published in the August 29, 1999 issue of The Asahi Weekly. I’d like to thank my friend Heather Holland, a noted Asian affairs journalist, for recommending me to The Asahi Weekly as a writer for their weekly column.

Even though I taught in a third-rate commercial high school where most students were not interested in college (a sure ticket to the grim working class in Japan), I did have a hard core of students who were passionately interested in learning English, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for them. These students were never going to end up in Tokyo University or Kyoto University (the Japanese Harvard and Yale), but I felt passionately that these children of factory workers and shop clerks deserved the best education in English possible.
I knocked myself out teaching up to five classes a day. That’s five hours a day on your feet, gesticulating madly like Mick Jagger to keep the students interested, and you can’t sit down, because in Japan, teachers aren’t allowed to sit down while teaching (you lose face, I was told), and you’re not allowed to drink water while teaching either—it looks unseemly, you know.

I also made it a point to share my knowledge of Japanese history, politics, and culture with my students. I’ve studied in detail the period 1931-1952 (fascism, the Pacific War, and the Occupation), and I impressed on them what an amazing journey their nation had undertaken—to go from pure feudalism when Perry arrived in 1853, to rapid industrialization, to the radioactive ashes of defeat in 1945, to postwar preeminence as the world’s second biggest economy. I told them how proud they should be of their grandparents, who pulled Japan up by the bootstraps after the Second World War.

My Japanese “go-between” English teacher, Yoshio Yamada, clearly didn’t like me sharing my knowledge of Japanese history with my students—he was a first-rate tennis teacher, and his father, a former member of the dreaded terrorist Black Dragon Society, had served as a member of the elite, ultra-right-wing Konoe Guards during the Pacific War. The Konoe Guards were the official Imperial Japanese Guards, dedicated to protecting the Imperial Family, so fanatical that they attempted a coup after Hirohito surrendered in August 1945. Their leader was the ultra-fascist Prince Konoe, former prime minister and member of Hirohito’s inner circle, who thoughtfully committed suicide in December 1945 when he learned he was about to be arrested as a war criminal.

Japanese history—and society—is amazing. You’ll never know who you’ll meet. At a seedy late-night sushi bar outside the Himeji train station one cold winter night, I met a male masseuse who told me about one of his clients in Osaka, the man who had been the official photographer at the Japanese Army Unit 731’s notorious death camp in Harbin, Manchuria. He’d been the guy who’d taken pictures of all the horrific chemical and biological experiments on innocent Chinese civilians and captured Allied POWs, and the masseuse told me, in between bites of tuna, that the old son-of-a-bitch still had nightmares.

"Repeat After Me": Teaching English In Japan Under The JET Program

As a JET teacher, the major obstacle I encountered to the effective teaching of English was the lack of motivation among my students. This was largely because they were attending a commercial high school, and therefore were not college-bound. Another problem was that I was teaching Oral Communication, which is not a subject featured on the grueling Japanese national college entrance examination. It was often remarked on by us JET teachers that demanding as the test was, why should the kids bother studying spoken English if it wasn't on the national exam?
The mistakes in spoken English that I most often noticed among my students were grammatical in nature. Verb tenses were frequently incorrect—the present tense was employed rather than the past—and many times, articles like "the," "an," and "a" were dropped altogether. In their writing, they often made mistakes in spelling and punctuation.

In terms of pronunciation, the greatest bugaboo among Japanese speakers is that shared by most Asian speakers of English—incorrect pronunciation of the letters L, R, and W. Imagine my horror, then, when I had to teach them how to pronounce my full name, which happens to be Wolcott Merrow Wheeler! It's nothing but Ws, Ls, and Rs, and its pronunciation represents a nightmare for most Japanese speakers. Kwaidan, des ne! [What a nightmare!]

As an antidote to these problems, I found the team-teaching approach favored by the JET Program to be most effective. The ALT—a native speaker of English—is teamed with a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English). Since most of my students spoke absolutely no English, the JTE had to translate everything I said. However, when the JTE made mistakes in pronunciation and grammar, my job became one of diplomacy. On the one hand, I didn't want to cause the JTE sensei to lose face by being corrected by his or her gaijin [foreigner] ALT (me); on the other hand, I didn't want the students to learn the incorrect English being conveyed by the JTE, since it was, after all, my job to teach them proper English.

Some teachers made it quite clear that they wanted any mistakes corrected in front of the class. Others, I felt, were more sensitive about the issue. When I began teaching as an ALT, I always deferred to my JTEs. But as I became more comfortable with them, I felt more relaxed about pointing out errors. For instance, when a teacher misspelled a word on the blackboard, I had no problem correcting the spelling—because I knew the students were copying the spelling and, in the tradition of Japanese students, would be committing it faithfully to memory that night. But I always went about it in a very delicate way, saying in a gentle tone of voice, "Excuse me, sensei, but I believe the word is spelled this way." I never said it in an accusatory tone of voice and never in a spirit of oneupsmanship, and always made it clear that the JTE was the leader of the class. The important thing was never whether the JTE or I was right or wrong—only that the students learned proper English.

Sometimes the JTE would make a serious grammatical mistake in the heat of the lesson, when it was obvious that interrupting him or her to make a correction would both needlessly interrupt the class and cause the teacher embarrassment. In those instances I waited until the end of class, when I approached the teacher and informed him or her—again, in a gentle, non-threatening way—that possibly there was another answer to the grammatical question they had posed. In the next lesson, the JTE would teach the correct grammatical rule, never having lost face.

I should add that in my school, there was most definitely a small hard core of very motivated and committed students whose ability to speak, read, and write English often surprised and impressed me (especially since they were not attending an academically-oriented high school). They earned my greatest respect, because I am well aware of how difficult it is to learn a foreign language, especially when you have to switch from Asian ideographs to romanized spelling, or vice versa. To this day I find learning Japanese a challenge, so I have tremendous respect for brave Japanese who dare to tackle the dreaded English Godzilla.

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