Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A refreshing new approach to English Literature

I had several friends at Waseda who were majoring in English literature. On first meeting them, I was very excited to meet some people with common interests, and maybe they would have an entirely different viewpoint on works in the canon. So, I asked:

"You're an English literature major, right?"
"So, who is your favorite author?"
[Confused look]
"Ah...I don't know?"
"Okay...what's your favorite book then?"
[Still confused]
"Ah...I don't know?"
"Well...what's a book you like then?
"-Yeah, you don't know, I get it."

This puzzled me at the time, but I wrote it off as just a problem with the intellectual laziness of my particular friends. Recently though, I've come to realize that of the many English teachers at my school - several of whom were English lit majors - none could name any book they particularly enjoyed. As it turns out, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a person majoring in English literature could be without either a favorite author or book, or really, even a book they liked. You see, English literature majors at Japanese colleges don't really read books.

Let me emphasize that:
English literature majors in Japan don't read books.

If you study English literature here, it seems you are not required to actually read a book written in English. You are not even really required to read a chapter of a book. What you do is go to class and, along with a teacher, analyze a small excerpt, say a page or so, from a book. I mean "analyze" of course, not in the sense of "examine methodically and in detail for the purpose of explanation and interpretation." No no, not in the sense of "literary analysis" I mean "analyze" in the sense of "resolve a sentence into its grammatical elements," or, more succinctly, "parse." This in mind, it could be argued that you are not even required to actually read anything.

So what? Well, the only purpose of studying a language - or speaking a language, for that matter - is for communication, and one studies a foreign language to open new paths and modes of communication unavailable in one's native tongue. This communication is either verbal or written, so we are either talking to one another in another language, or we are reading something written in another language.

I love speaking Japanese. To me, there is a vast difference between what I can say and how I speak in English versus Japanese (not just related to my linguistic insufficiences in Japanese or over-efficiencies in English) It's fascinating, and a hell of a lot of fun to talk to people in Japanese and come to see the differences in the languages and how they both control and sometimes constrain how we communicate.

I love Japanese literature. That was, of course, the whole reason I started learning Japanese in the first place; I wanted to read some of my favorite novels in the original language. At UCLA, I read those novels, modern work and poetry, and even learned Classical Japanese (kind of like Middle English to Modern English) so I could read poems more than a thousand years old. I found that any translation of the work was a pale copy stripped of much of what made it "literature" in the first place, especially between languages so disparate. Haiku in English are a joke:

Ancient pond/Frog jumps in/Sound of water

It's crap, right? Yet this is a famous, great poem in Japanese. Now imagine Shakespeare translated into a language without definite or indefinite articles, or translating Salinger into a language without sarcasm.

As I think I've said many times before though, Japanese schools don't emphasize speaking at all. Everything is geared towards preparation for entrance examinations that test only obscure grammar knowledge, and so teachers just hammer home lessons on syntax and vocabulary. In a way, it's fortunate that they just teach grammar points though, because they usually can't speak English. Even the best teachers rarely speak better English than I do Japanese, and they've got at least 10 years on me.

So most teachers are dismal speakers, of course partly because they are products of the same educational system, but also because they don't try to improve their English. They don't actually try to speak English with others, because they don't seem to see the point. If they were sincerely interested in communicating, they'd be better at it. But then again, to really know the benefit, you'd have to actually speak with others. And these same people who don't enjoy speaking English also don't enjoy reading English.

So what can you possibly get out of a foreign language like English, if you don't want to speak or read it? What pleasure can you get from NOT being able to communicate your feelings or understand those of others? What new worlds or modes of thought can be opened by NOT ever reading anything the way it was written? Well, succinctly, you get NOTHING.

And so, we have a system full of teachers who don't even appreciate the whole point of learning a language teaching a bunch of people who are instinctively prone to not appreciating the point of learning anything; ie: teenagers. How can these sort of teachers ever impart any meaning to the study if they themselves cannot recognize the value? Why should their students, how could their students be expected to care about the subject if none of the teachers do?

Well, they can't. And all signs suggest that they don't.

Despite a kind of national past-time of studying English, nobody I've met looks back on their high school classes fondly. I gave a survey to all 400 first-year students this year and the last, and in response to the question "do you like English class?" more than 60% answer "No." Seeing as the students handed in these surveys to me personally with their names attached, I'd venture to say that some were too timid to be honest, so the actual number of students who don't enjoy English is probably above 80%. The reasons are fairly constant; the grammar doesn't make sense, there are too many words, spelling is too difficult. Certainly, these things are true, but should they be reason alone to hate a language?

But what reasons are there for them to like the language? I can't blame my students for not caring, because I'd hate English too if I were them, and I certainly never would have studied Japanese if someone who doesn't speak, read, or enjoy the language had purported to teach me.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Last October I taught a class to all the first year students about Halloween. As part of that class, I handed out some candy to the students who finished the Halloween-themed activity the quickest. I thought this would just be a nice one-time treat for the kids. But since that day, I have been hounded by a small cadre of girls with only one thing on their minds:
And, only one English phrase in those minds:
"Give me chocolate!!"

Everytime I pass one of these girls in the hallway, the exchange goes as follows:

Girl: (Waving in my face) "Harrow Mistah Adamusuuu!"
[Students seem to really enjoy drawing out the last syllable of my name]
Me: "Hey. What's up?"
Girl: (Now waving an open palm in my face) "Give me chocoretto!"
Me: (Shaking my head and laughing) "Sorry, I don't carry chocolate around all the time."

She stares for a second at me blankly, tilting her face to the side in a way reminiscent of the cock of the head of a confused labrador. After a few seconds, however, she snaps her fingers and smiles.

Girl: "Ahaaa, yes yes...I understand. Mistah Adamusuuu, give me chocoretto PLEASE!"
Me: (Rolling my eyes)

The path this usually takes is me heading back to my desk with the girl or girls in tow. At this point, I have turned this into a sort of conversation exchange in which I ask them to explain why should receive chocolate. Usually, this invokes an answer like, "Because I need it, Mr. Adams." This is so hilariously - and unintentionally - sexual that I never fail to laugh. If they can speak to me in English for a bit, I'll toss them a Hershey's Kiss. Reminiscent of how one might toss a treat to a labrador. I'm not sure whether this is a form of enabling or training, really.

The spectacle of this steady procession of demanding girls to my desk tends to amuse the surrounding teachers. The sarcastic female teacher thumbs her nose at their "disgusting, grabby little paws," but still smirks. The Beach Boys Sensei, however, just sighs, and pronounces somberly:

"They're like the girls begging American soldiers for chocolate after the war."

This is a joke, though it takes me a few seconds of looking him in the eyes to know for sure, and a few more to know for sure whether I am really allowed to laugh at it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Situational morality in Japan

The younger kendo guy's wife is giving her husband and I a ride, along with the English teacher who hates his job and loves to curse. As we pull up to a red light at the intersection of a major highway, the wife points out that in the lane next to us going the other way, a large chunk of heavy plastic - something that might have fallen of a truck - is sitting in the middle of the road. It's not immoveable or particularly dangerous by itself, but certainly enough to cause an accident if jammed in a wheelwell. "Wow, that's really dangerous!" they all agree. As we watch, a car making a turn onto the road nearly runs over it, barely swerving at the last second to avoid it. The three adults in the car are still watching, rapt. That is, just watching. I am sitting on the left side of the car and so (roads being backwards in Japan) on the opposite side from where this is happening. I look over at the the teacher sitting on my right, waiting for him to do something. He in turn looks out the window and exclaims, "Yeah, that is really dangerous, isn't it?" Then he turns his head right back around. Nobody makes a move.

Finally, it is abundantly clear to me that nobody is going to do anything about this, so I check the light, tell them not to drive away, and open my door. I walk around the back of the car, pick up the hunk of whatever the hell it was and chuck it off the road. As I walk back around the car I see the person behind us eyes-wide in a state of shock after witnessing what I just did. Getting back into the car, the three inside start clapping, crying out "Sugoi! Sugoi!" ("Amazing!") I shake my head, because it's nothing I should be applauded for, it's something that a person should do; to me, really something they should be punished for not doing.

This was a particularly glaring example for me of the difference between my Western morality and that of the ordinary Japanese. Our morality is unconditional, a kind of categorical morality. Things are either morally right or they are morally wrong, though we often disagree as to what is which. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, those ideals of right and wrong were traditionally laid down by God, but they could just as easily be understood in a secular, philosophical sense. The point is that widely, our society works on the basis that there are universal things that we take to be right and wrong, and we act accordingly, bound by these rules individually. In this particular case, it would be wrong for me to watch while some innocent person was harmed. We deal in absolutes.

But, the Japanese morality is not absolute, it is situational. Japanese society is based on relationships to others. The very word in Japanese used to mean "human being" in Japanese, 人間 (ningen), is written with two kanji characters that mean "person" and "between" respectively, giving the word the loose meaning of "between people." A person is what lies between others; more directly, a person is defined by their relationships to others. Traditionally, this would be the Confucian relationships between parents and children, adults and rulers etc. Now, it would encompass the family, friends, classmates at school or coworkers. One basically is identified through these groups- but not only passively, actively; students and teachers at school introduce themselves as "Hamamatsu Minami High School's So-and-So," workers at a company might say something that literally translates as "I'm Japan Airlines' Maiko Iba." (ha)

I used to wonder why Japanese schoolchildren wear uniforms; in the US I thought they were either for religious schools or those with disciplinary problems. Neither is really an issue in Japan (well, discipline would be a problem in some schools but certainly not a high level one like where I teach). I could see how they work to crush individuality, but it seemed like they're doing such a great job of that every day in class already that uniforms are quite superfluous in that respect. I was even more confused as to why kids would wear their uniforms even on weekends and vacations when they didn't have class. Understood in the context of the social structure however, it makes perfect sense. Kids wear uniforms to identify themselves as part of a group - students - and, in fact, the uniforms of particular schools are easily distinguishable, making even further stratification possible. Even the suit of the salaryman - or Japanese businessman - can be another group marker. People's lives seem determined by this "inside" and "outside" dynamic.

As belonging to a group is how a person is defined, so their value within that group is defined by their behavior within. Largely, one's life is supposed to revolve around living within these social circles and cultivating relationships, I suppose. People are bound to correct behavior based on their obligations and connections to others. The constant consideration of others that this necessitates accounts for the fabled courtesy and politeness of the Japanese. That's the upside.

The downside, is what happens when another person is not within this inside circle. That is, what happens when you have no connection to another person, and so no real societal obligations to them?

Think of the car itself as a functioning example of this "inside" and "outside" concept. The people inside the car can watch something happening outside with a sort of moral distance because they have no connection or obligation to those not inside the car. They don't know them, they don't work with them, they've never met them. If someone inside their circle were to be in danger, they should act, but outside of that, there is no bond placed upon them in this situation. To me, it doesn't matter that I don't know those who might be affected, the fact is simply that it is wrong to allow others to potentially be hurt due to ones own inaction. That is, my action stems from a morality based on universal imperatives that decide what is right and wrong, while their morality is situational. When taken outside of a situation, it often ceases to operate or decide behavior. This is not to say that some Japanese people wouldn't help, just that no one is expected to help, or would be judged for not helping. The formality that drives the decisions on moral behavior is what makes the fabled politeness of Japanese people to me chilling, as is not really politeness in our sense at all.

There's an expression in Japanese that aptly describes the situation: "The traveler discards all shame." Japanese tourists are regularly much more rude and ill-behaved when traveling in foreign countries than they ever would be in Japan, because leaving the country frees them from their societal obligations towards others. This detachment has been pegged as one characteristic that made some of the Japanese soldiers in WWII so able to committ heinous and dehumanizing acts against the peoples of Korea and China. The Japanese were free from the bounds of their country and its expectations, and the other Asians did not belong to this inner group of Japanese that would accord them fair treatment, but instead basically existed outside in an area in which actions against them were held to no moral standard.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the Japanese are somehow alone in the tendency to marginalize connections to another group in order to easily ignore basic human obligations to one another; this is obviously a constant underlying all aspects of abusive behavior within human civilization, from petty racism to genocide. I am, however, particularly struck by how dangerously open their society leaves them to this sort of moral ambiguity. If they can ignore another Japanese person in such a cavalier way simply because they don't belong to one of the same social circles, imagine the possible attitudes one could have against foreigners, who are basically not even placed in the same circle of humanity as the Japanese themselves.

My three friends in the car are, to me, incredibly kind people. The two teachers work tirelessly to help their students succeed, and if I needed their help, they would no doubt be there. But, it's precisely this fact that makes such an innocuous event so unnerving to me. When these things happen, I feel as though my basic assumptions of human nature have been shattered.