Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Being Not-Japanese in a Japanese School

Image from the 土佐女子高校 website

“She’s Chinese” the home room teacher said, pointing to a seven year old girl, a look of frustration (disgust?) on her face. “She doesn’t understand a word of Japanese.” “That’s ok” I said. “I’m teaching English.” At the start of the class I gestured some feelings (yawning for sleepy, smiling for happy) then asked the children their feelings. When I asked the girl, the teacher leaped in between us. “She’s Chinese, from CHINA” she said. “Yes,” I said, “I know. She can gesture just as well as everyone else.” The girl looked at me uncertainly and smiled. “Hap-py?” I gave her a thumbs up, and the teacher backed off. I taught them some animals (happily no cocks in this class), then distributed some bingo sheets. I said the first animal, and the girl looked at her sheet uncertainly, then looked at the kids beside her to see what they were doing. The teacher bustled over. “This is bingo” she said loudly, wringing her hands together violently. “BINGO. BI N GO. BINGO.” She turned to me, threw her hands in the air as if to say “this is impossible” and stomped back over to the corner of the room. And sat down next to the girl and repeated the name of the animal. She pointed to the correct square. I circled it. Then I pointed to three squares in a row vertically and gave her a thumbs up, then horizontally, then diagonally. “OK?” I asked. She squirmed excitedly, catching on quickly, and nodded vigorously. Not being the most gracious person, I shot a look at the teacher with my eyebrows up. It’s not that hard to communicate. It really isn’t.
If you live… I was going to say a multicultural country, but really, pretty much anywhere in the world except Japan, you will at some point have spoken with someone who was not fluent in your own language. For many Japanese people, nothing fills them with more dread than the thought of trying to communicate with a non-Japanese person. The stated aims of English lessons (literally “foreign language activities”) in elementary school are to encourage students to think openly about communication, using both verbal and non-verbal ways to communicate. The lessons are based on communicating things that matter (do you like soccer? Can you swim? How do I get to the library?) rather than the “this is a pen” type fare we teach in JHS. The communication aspect of the curriculum is, predictably, the section most often ignored by the Japanese teachers, who instead agonise over the correct intonation for “tomato”. As little kids, communication comes naturally. When the six year olds talk to me, if I can’t understand what they say they will gesture, point, draw a picture or think of a synonym. By the time they are in JHS, if they say something I don’t understand they say “it’s impossible” and give up. There’s nothing innate about this behaviour, it is learned. Or rather, the openness of the young children is knocked out of them as they get older. I appreciate the stated aims of the elementary lessons, but I wish we could put all the teachers through a crash course in communication too.
Of course, it isn’t just communication. At another school, three young children from Spain with no Japanese ability began attending classes. The teachers used google translate to communicate with them fairly effectively, but they treated the children in a way that made me extremely uncomfortable. One little boy, aged seven, was having a particularly hard time settling in. The girl who sat next to him was very kind and helped him a lot. One day he threw his arms around her neck, proclaimed that she was his very best friend, and kissed her cheek. The teacher dragged him into the staffroom so violently that he fell and was literally dragged across the floor for the last few meters. She flung him to the ground and shouted at him in Japanese for a while, until he started crying (having no idea, I imagine, what he had done wrong). The principal came and used google translate to tell the boy that he had done something terrible and that he had scared and hurt the little girl. They told him that he was never to touch another student and that he was going to be moved to a new seat so that his victim didn’t have to be traumatised by sitting next to him. In the middle of this the girl herself came into the staff room and said that she had been a bit surprised, but she wasn’t at all upset and that she understood that he had only wanted to thank her. The teachers said she didn’t know what she was talking about and to go away. After raining a heap more abuse on the little boy they sent him off to the counselling room. After he was gone the teachers discussed the shocking situation. “Foreigners” they said, oblivious to my presence, “are just like animals.”
At no point did anyone venture a thought that there may be cultural contexts in which kids kiss and hug each other. At no point did anyone wonder why the little boy was so confused about the trouble he was in. I wrote before about my frustration with the way intercultural differences are treated as cosmetic with no deeper consideration or discussion. When that is how your education system treats other cultures, situations like the one I described above are inevitable. And if you can’t imagine that other people think in different ways and about different topics, you can’t communicate with them effectively (let alone negotiate) even if you share a language. Eryk has a thought-provoking post about this very problem here: On Having no Comment in Japan.
I’m not suggesting that all non-Japanese kids have a hard time or are treated badly in Japanese schools. In fact, Beppu City in Oita Prefecture provides simultaneous interpreters to attend classes with students who don’t speak Japanese until they get settled in, as well as a comprehensive range of other supports for international families. But the thought processes that lead to unpleasant situations like the ones I have described are depressingly common.

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