For any native-English speaker residing in Japan, it’s easy to make a few bucks teaching the so-called “International Language.” I’ve been doing so on and off for 15 years. A few days ago, I had a very interesting discussion with a junior high school student named Eriko. This occurred as a follow-up to her reading her journal assignment to me. This teenager is somewhat of a novelty in Japan because she lived in the U.K. for three years. There she acquired English, as opposed to studying it, much as a normal Brit does. Although her English is not fluent, she has the ability to “think in English” more than the average Japanese who is studying it as a foreign language. Although Eriko has an advantage when it comes to learning English, there is also a downside for Japanese who have lived overseas; they are designated as Returnees, pronounced in Japanese as “kikoku-shijo“ (帰国子女).
In all things (including ethnicity), Japanese are very discriminatory; not to be confused with outright racism or bigotry…at least not these days. Not so long ago, any Japanese who left Japan and returned was instantly beheaded—no questions asked—upon stepping foot onto Nippon shores. Why you ask? Because Japan has an isolationist mentality so anything from outside Japan has been and still is (if only on the unconscious level) viewed with suspicion, if not outright evil; especially new ideas and religious beliefs. Following Japan’s defeat in WWII, the new government had no choice but to encourage the nation to embrace the U.S., along with its western ideology; so nowadays returnees aren’t discriminated against nearly as much as just a couple decades ago. But it still remains.
What was interesting about Eriko’s journal was how she expressed her views on the English teaching method used at her school. Her English teacher—just like every English teacher in public and private schools—is Japanese. After taking the time to mention how much she liked her teacher’s personality, she expressed confusion about why the lady was teaching English because she was not competent in using the language. “She uses the wrong words many times,” Eriko said before comparing this language learning experience to her school in Britain. “In the U.K., the foreign language teachers were natives from France, Germany, China…even Japan.”
Like Eriko-san, I too was bewildered by this phenomenon when I entered a Japanese high school for the first time. I spent nearly a decade in a few schools and universities but I worked mainly at two different schools; one in Hamamatsu City and the other in Kyoto City. At both schools I encountered English teachers who couldn’t hold an everyday conversation in the language they were supposed to be teaching. As you can imagine, this came as quite a shocking disappointment after hearing all the hub-bub about how great the Japanese education system was supposed to be. Even the few teachers who were able to use English effectively to communicate could never be confused with a teacher. They’re speaking ability more closely resembled a foreman of a crew of illegal-immigrant Mexican laborers. Allow me to explain. Whenever I worked at factories in the U.S. where there were many Mexicans, only one or two could speak English and he would usually be the conduit between management and the workers. However, this guy could never hold a position where he communicated directly to customers because he spoke guttural English, which was okay for basic communication but far from fluent.
So why do Japanese insist on using these inept teachers? Could it be that Japanese are so dull-witted, so obtuse, they don’t realize their teachers cannot pronounce certain letters (r’s, l’s, and v’s), or notice that at times their assistant language teachers, who are natives of the U.S., Canada, or Britain, cannot understand what the Japanese teacher is saying (in English), or vice-versa?
The answer to these questions is a resounding “No.” Always remember there are two sides to every story; so there is a method to the Japanese Education System’s madness.
After Eriko and I spent a few minutes correcting the grammatical errors in her journal, I asked her if she had any questions. She wanted to know my opinion about her critique. So I told her. After assuring her this situation is the norm in Japan, I asked her what she knew about colonialism.
If you look at many countries in Africa or Asia, or any melanin-rich area that has been colonized, you’ll find many Caucasians teaching in schools; not to mention being in other positions of leadership. But rarely do you find this happening in Japan. Throughout world history, it has been normal procedure for a conquering nation to assume control of the religion and education after defeating a country. Consequently many of the “old ways” are outlawed along with any meetings or rallies that might encourage returning to the outdated, evil ways—or perhaps even an uprising. Hence the term contraband meetings. Since the Japanese are wholly a communal people, to take away their religions, leadership, and way of life would be akin to mass genocide. The U.S. government, having ascertained this, decided not to exploit Japan’s defeat the same way other European powers have done in other Asian countries. After all Japan, for the most part, is lacking in natural resources plus the U.S. needed a headquarters in the Far-East region.
Once Eriko came to understand what colonization would mean for Japan, she seemed to accept the lesser of two evils without any more comments or questions.
In the next edition of the Japan Series, we’ll explore the society’s mores and values more deeply. Until then: Jya, mata-ne! (じゃーまたね!)
Takuan Amaru is the author of the trilogy Gaikokujin – The Story