Sunday, October 27, 2013

Conformity in Japan: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Part 3: The Ugly)

Resistance is futile.

It has taken me longer than expected to write this article mainly for two reasons. First, I've been extremely overwhelmed this year. This year has been non-stop trial and tribulation and has been one of the hardest years for me that I've ever experienced. 

I started a new job that paid less than half my old job, and to make things worse, I was lied to about the salary and the quality of the school. On top of suffering financial strain due to the aforementioned lackluster job deal, I've been extremely busy. My daughter started preschool and I've been driving an extra hour out of my already overly busy, overly long, commute everyday; raising my daily commute to ***three hours instead of one and a half, and that has given me stress--both mentally and physically. Rush hour traffic and the time spent in the car is realling beginning to take its toll on my lower back, and I'm this close to tearing out the car seats.

I have had so many challenges this year that's it's not even funny. In fact, it's worse than not funny. Earlier this year my father took his own life, unexpectedly. Nobody even saw it coming, because there was nothing particularly wrong--at least that any of us were aware of. We're still at a loss to explain it. So that's been tough. 

The second reason that I've taken my sweet time getting to finishing up this series is that I truly love Japan--more than I can express in words--and in my mind it feels something like a betrayal to criticize and badmouth a country that has come to be like a second home to me. 

But that said, I have to be realistic and honest about it. Japan is great, but she isn't perfect.

As I mentioned in my previous essays, conformity is the real binding strength of Japanese society, but at the same time, it is also what causes Japan her greatest hardships.

I've talked about both the good and the bad, but now it's time to talk about the ugly.


The Pacific Conflict was a great example of this. Japan thought Imperialism was the way to go, and everyone went along with it. Japan was the first Asian nation to grow as powerful as any Western imperialism, and they were able to rival all of Europe and the United States in terms of economic strength. What they lacked, however, was diplomacy.

You see, in Japan they were under the rule of an emperor, and his cabinet of advisers, half of whom were military affiliated. That means, those who had the emperor's ear were all about deploying a command and conquer type plan to ensure Japan maintain her new-found economic greatness.

In a land of conformity, where the majority rules, there is no disagreeing. They simply do not allow for the difference of opinion.

This lead to wars with Russia, Korea, China, Australia, and eventually escalated into the bombing of Pearl Harbor--and war with the United States and the Allied Forces.

Here's the thing though--the Japanese Emperor was AGAINST the war!

But even he, a veritable god (in his time), could not persuade the majority--especially when they are all power greedy cabinet members with one track minds about how to maintain Japan's might in the global economy.

In today's Japan, things are much better. But at the same time, things are still far from perfect. Or, for that matter, even ideal.

Japan is a nation divided by generational barriers.

On the one hand, young Japanese people in their twenties and thirties have access to technology, the Internet, smartphones, and are interested in other cultures beyond simply that of Japan's.

But the older generation, for the most part, is not.

I have experienced extremely shocking incidents of racism in Japan. Being singled out as a minority, being profiled, stopped at the train station and have my things searched through by the police, more than once, for no other reason than I look different--is always a drag.

But this attitude stems from the older generation. No millennial or gen X Japanese person would ever dream of stopping all foreign looking people simply because they're foreign. Profiling would never enter their mind. After all, looking suspicious has nothing to do with the color of your skin. But the policy makers of an aging Japan would certainly think profiling works. This stems, in my opinion, from a hangover from the war era and the way they were probably raised (racism begets racism, after all).

This unwitting racism takes many forms. Consider the 60 year old principle at my old school, for example. He was raised to think the foreign invaders were evil intruders wanting to steal their land and rape their women. They were instructed to throw rocks at the American soldiers. And they were taught to hate the foreigners. So imagine the heads of state, all men from this generation, and the top officials in the police, all from this generation, unable to shake the fear lingering in the back of their mind that foreigners may be evil and are therefore likely suspect?

That kind of brainwashing is hard to get over. So a lot of the racism I experience comes mainly from these types of people... from one very specific generation.

I've never been singled out by a young Japanese person in the decade I have lived in Japan. But I have been punched, standing in the customs line at the airport, by a random drunk 60 year old Japanese man, for no apparent reason. If a Japanese young person gets drunk, they usually just want to try using English with me. But that's the extent of it. But I have often been harassed by old Japanese men--for no reason--other than I was in their direct line of sight.


In Japan you often can find Japanese people praising Japan to high heaven. Entire television shows are dedicated to talking about how great and wonderful Japan is on a weekly basis (never mind nobody running these shows has likely ever been to a foreign country). And what's more, they want everyone in Japan to be reminded of how great Japan is every damn day.

If a show talks about a foreign culture, the celebrity guests puzzle over what oddities other countries are, and then talk about how in Japan they do it a different way--but express it in such as to insinuate that in Japan they do it in a better way.

Such one sided praise feeds into an underlying nationalism, and conservative worldview, which is at odds of what Japan needs to become in order to adapt to today's multi-cultural global society. It's ancient Japan competing with modern Japan--and the generational rift re-emerges.

It also leads to bad policy making due to a limited, or lacking foresight.


Instead of outsourcing and hiring more foreigners to come take care of their elderly, Japan spends billions of dollars in robotics research. Not entirely a bad thing mind you, but it won't be enough to fix the rapidly aging population. With so many of Japan's farmers retiring, and so many young people moving to the cities, their agriculture infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. Instead of bringing in foreigners to help stabilize the farming industry, Japanese farmers simply keep working into old age--with no one to replace them.

By 2016 there will be approximately six elderly people in retirement homes for every single thirty year old working in Japan. That's just too many old people for Japan's current economy to sustain.

But knowing this problem, why the continued reluctance to change?

Truthfully, I can't help but feel that part of the problem might be because of their reluctance to bring in foreign assistance. Bringing an influx of foreign nationals would force Japan to be less nationalistic in its stance with regard to foreign policy. Japan currently exists under the paradigm of "do what's best for the Japanese" not "do what's best for Japan."

It's paradoxical, because the Japanese make up Japan, but instead of doing what's best for everyone, they seem to abide by more selfish goals--at least as far as policy making goes. Whereas my home country in America has think tanks specially designed to address very specific American concerns, like how to improve education, how to deal with global warming, and so on, Japan has none of these. It seems the Japanese mindset is akin to--Japan works--if it's not broke, don't fix it. But after living her for practically a decade, it's very apparent, that Japan barely works. There is room for much improvement.

So instead of dealing with the issues that challenge Japan head on, and doing things like making new laws to accommodate foreign workers, well, this is Japan! No need for that. Why bother bringing in foreign aid, passing laws, and having to adjust your society to accommodate something explicitly non-Japanese when you could just build more robots?

These are just some of the biggest problems facing Japan today.

But worse than all these combined is the penetrating apathy that conformity breeds when conformity proves to be counter productive.

Think of it like this, conformity is a double edged sword. It's great for slicing through your problems, but if you fall on it, you'll be cut in two too.

If a group of Japanese do not grasp a concept, or cannot seem to adequately address or assess a real potential threat, then the rest suddenly begin to reflect this attitude. It exists at all levels in Japan. Elementary school first graders will play a bingo game, and the ones who never get a bingo, cry miserably--because they failed. Japanese politics is the same way. When it succeeds, it goes above and beyond, but when it fails, everyone falls down on their swords.

Japan seems to be a country destined to either succeed together or give up together. And that's why conformity is so ugly in Japan.

English education doesn't work? Well, let's scrap all funding for English education then! Never mind that it's been taught completely wrong for over three decades.

That's how Japan fails together!


Understandably, however, I can't blame all of Japan's failings on a misguided socialistic conformity which occasionally backfires. All I am saying is that this misguided conformity seems to always resurface wherever a genuine problem arises.

It's never just one thing, but it is always something plus the conformity issue. As I mentioned in the previous essay, tattoos are viewed as taboo here in Japan. But only because it's a conformity issue and nobody questions it. Nobody says, hey, wait, maybe tattoos aren't bad? Maybe I'll let you work at my establishment or join the city gym or come to the bathhouse because you're a genuinely good person. Nope. Tattoos are bad. If you have one. You're bad. So conform already, because hell, it's not about you. It's about everybody else.

Of course, this sort of thinking impacts all areas of Japanese life. It is impossible to ever walk away from the pressure to conform to society's norms. It's not like America, where standing out and being yourself is applauded.

Standing out, like having a tattoo, is seen as taboo. In fact, what is having a tattoo other than an attempt to stand out? That's the thinking anyway.

Instead, in Japan, it's about holding hands and not rocking the boat--together. Sing kumbaya and that kind of shit. That head banging, tattooed, metal head type person who stands up and rocks the boat too much is pounded down, like a pesky obtuse nail. And they will keep pounding you down until you stay down.


Much of Japan's legal system is predicated on this type of unquestioning, socialistic, attitude as well. It's not so much whether or not you follow the laws, per se. It's that you follow the laws the same way society follows the laws as a whole.

Which is kind of shooting yourself in the foot, when you stop to think about it.

It's basically like ignoring the speed limit simply because everyone speeds anyway. And then the police not enforcing the speed limit because they know everyone speeds anyway. So what good is the law to begin with?

But if everyone follows some unspoken rule, then by god, everyone will do that thing--because it's Japan. To keep with the driving analogies, there is a strange thing Japanese people do that is NOT a law, but you would be forgiven thinking it was one.

At a red traffic light, at night, everyone who comes to a stop turns OFF their headlights.

Suddenly the only thing illuminating the street is the red glow of the traffic light. If it sounds horrifyingly dangerous, it is. I see more cars start up on a green who forget to turn back on their headlights than any where else I've been to in my entire life. Why even do this strange thing?

Well, because it's something most Japanese people just do.

Who knows why they started it? Maybe they're being polite. Maybe it's a type of Japanese respect being paid to the other driver. Is it safer? Not in the least. But everyone does it none the less.

The saying when in Rome, do as the Romans do is a good rule of thumb when visiting a foreign land for the first time. But having lived in that foreign land for a decade, sometimes there comes a day when you have to say, wait a minute, this is wrong. This does us no good. Let's stop with this and try something else.

But in Japan, such a notion is sacrilege. And that's the ugly.

But hey, they have nice castles. So it's not all bad.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Bento She Needs

It's not the bento she deserves, but it's the one she needs right now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Part 2)

Last time I talked about some of the good aspects of conformity in Japan. This time I am taking the gloves off and am going to talk about the bad. I must warn you, a lot of this comes from personal experience, so if it starts sounding like I am griping, I apologize. But the way I perceive it, there is just a lot more "bad" which comes as a consequence of conformity than good.

Briefly, the good amounts to strong group ethics, supporting the family and parents (which often times means living at home permanently), a feeling of unity, and a close-knit culture which realizes that manners and politeness are required at every level to keep society flowing smoothly, and where negative criticism is rarely ever spoken out loud because this would stir up tension and effectively ruin the "Wa" (or peace and harmony) of the group.

Overall, it creates a peaceful atmosphere where you can be at ease. Where being part of the group is seen as desirable. It creates the perfect atmosphere for nation wide cultural festivals too, because everyone can partake in them without anyone ever overstepping the bounds of social etiquette too much (unless they are drunk--then they find excuses to go crazy).

But at the same time, it has a few negative consequences. Such as the fact that everyone thinks it's perfectly healthy and fine to smoke cigarettes, and do it all day long, and in your face. It's not perceived as rudeness, or even wrong, because it's simply what everyone does.

Meanwhile, another good aspect is that it forces you to tip-toe around the feelings of others (a good thing in and of itself) as it makes you work extremely hard to get good at thinking before you speak. Group related functions always do.

But at the same time, at least for me, this is the most exhausting thing about the Japanese way of life. It is the constant struggle to think about what I say and how my words will effect every little thing and every person in the room. I am horrible at it, mainly because I am a talker and, more importantly, an American talker. In other words, I like the sound of my own voice a little too much, so it's hard for me to zip the lip, so to speak.

But in almost a decade of living in Japan, I have improved considerably. I now spend minutes on end thinking of what to say in important meetings, so that I can make every word count. This is an art form the Japanese have mastered. I struggle with it daily.

I only raise this example, because it shows how a culture of conformity can both be beneficial to you but at the same time be slightly harmful.

While giving thought to every word allows me to interact with others on a higher plane of respect and manners, it creates barriers too. I can never make intimate personal friends on first or second gatherings because one simply isn't allowed to show their true self. Every thought, every word, is highly controlled, and it takes twice as long to get to learn anybodies real personality because their individual personality always is suppressed by the societal expectations of conformity to the group mind and the social etiquette.

For example, it is great to be able to never have to take negative criticism or face embarrassment and have so many people be so polite all the time. The problem is, sometimes it is hard to tell if they sincerely mean it, or if they are simply blowing smoke up your ass. For all you know, they might hate your guts, but for the fact that they are adhering to a culture of conformity which prides its niceties above individual quips. It sometimes can breed an environment of artificial compliments and, regrettably, people spend more time trying not to step on each others toes than actually addressing their real concerns.

Subsequently, this creates the infamous "talking in circles syndrome" common to Japanese daily life. It affects everything from school functions, such as PTA meetings, to corporation and employee relations, to national politics. As a side-effect, it also makes agreement hard to come by when one person doesn't quite agree, or worse still, it makes it near impossible to state the problem straight forward and then tackle the issue.

Every year I join what is known as Kenshukai (which means Research Education) which are Prefecture wide events in which you travel to various school districts in your area (or ward if you live in the city) and "study" teaching methodologies and then comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each school system. The way this differs from genuine pedagogy is pedagogy actually focuses on the new ways to teach and how to implement new techniques which will improve learning and education. Kenshukais, however, are bogged down by the incessant diplomacy of the Japanese. If there are real problems, they often only get hinted at, in a roundabout way, and never are put fully on the table.

The best example of this, that I have seen, was when my old Board of Education invited Mrs. Matsuka, founder and CEO of the Matsuka Phonics Corporation in Japan, to give a lecture at the mid-year Education Research seminar. She came in from the city, and in not so many words, flat out said that the teachers were to blame for teaching English the wrong way in Japan.

Silence fell over the crowd. And afterward, hands shot up across the room. Instead of posing questions of how do we change the way we teach English, which would be a discussion of pedagogy, what happened was strange. People raised objections by saying it was impossible to change the curriculum as mandated by the Japanese government, they said even if they tried it they wouldn't have time to prepare (even though they are at school all summer long working while kids are on vacation), and they acknowledged that the Japanese way of teaching English was not adequate but, in effect, said it couldn't be helped.

But, but, but... It was all excuses... for not adopting the right techniques and methods of English education.

I was flabbergasted by this response. But looking back, I realize what they were doing was simply a mass exercise in "not rocking the boat."

Here they were faced with a radical CEO of a successful company which taught the right way of teaching English--a proved methodology which works--and a success record. But Matsuka was butting heads with the very education system itself. Instead of objecting to her radicalism, they simply dismissed her methods, and nobody, not a single person, said--yeah, I'm willing to risk sticking out as a rebel if it means my students have a real chance of learning.


Not a single educator in the room was willing to go out on a line and take Matsuka's side, because, it would mean rubbing up against the system, and it would mean trying to convince the parents, politicians, and policy makers that they weren't only wrong--but so wrong that they had erected a system which works against the goal of integrating English as a second language in Japan.

As an aside, it was no skin of her back, as Matsuka simply charged her going rate for giving lectures and was off before they could recuperate from what had hit them.

But the lesson I observed was clear. The group conglomerated together to resist the one proved way which actually works when it comes to integrating English education in any non-English speaking culture. They did so because they were all under the impression that it was impossible to change the system, impossible to incorporate, or impossible to execute, for whatever reasons--and this is how they all felt about it. End of discussion.

This is what is effectively known as group-think. Where the group thinks the same, and because everyone else holds to the same beliefs, it is believed as true simply because their is an ubiquity of like belief.

This can be good when one is well informed and correct about an issue. But when the consensus is wrong, as it occurs, it usually means the entire group will be wrong too.

Instead of dealing with the issues, they grow dismissive of anything that doesn't conform to the group-mentality, and this resistance to anything which goes against the group is a way of using conformity to override the radical opinions of those people who dare to stand out. Once rejected, the person is either made to submit to the group or they are made an outcast.

Now, I use the example of English education in Japan, since that is what I am most familiar with and have analysed it in detail. But this same problem of group-think dominates the way Japanese respond to real world issues and spills over into their politics and everyday life too.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had an idea rejected or been dismissed for rasing a cross-cultural point by the simple phrase "But this is Japan. That's not how we do it in Japan," or simply "This is the Japanese way."

They use it, almost as if to say, because you're not Japanese you couldn't possibly understand. No, I am afraid I understand all too well. It is because you are Japanese--and so is everyone else--that you refuse to accept any other way but for the Japanese way.

In the next article, part three, I'll talk about the ugly aspects of conformity in Japan. The aspects which create things such as racism, the secluded "island mentality" which contributes to an unease with foreigners and foreign cultures, or the opposite extreme, xenophilia.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Conformity in Japan: The Good
Every day, my elementary school students walk to school wearing their bright red and yellow caps and colorful tote bags. Their school uniforms are cute, and serve a dual purpose. One, they are designed to alert cars that a gaggle of school children, like little yellow ducklings, is headed their way. (You can read more on Japanese school children's uniforms after the jump.)

This is more important than it initially sounds. Japan is a highly dense population packed into small areas of land. It's half the population of the entire U.S. of A crammed into the area of the State of California. On top of this is the fact that something like 90% of Japan is mountainous, thus the population density increases as it fills each and every valley to capacity. Yeah. Packed!

Secondly, like many things in Japan, the uniforms serve a function of group orientation and conformity to school dress codes. This means all the kids look practically the same. They all have on the exact same outfit. They all have black hair. They all have black eyes. This serves to cut back on bullying, since it creates a uniformity of style and looks among the children, no matter their financial class within the society. It also is less distracting and causes less of a stir because children do not feel compelled to wear distracting styles or colors just to get attention or to stand out.

When I first came to Japan, during my first year as an ESL instructor I was horrible with names and faces. The saying that all Asians look alike (although not entirely true) rings fairly accurate when dealing with Asian children who haven't developed unique facial features or body types. Basically, they're all the same little round faces with bright eyes. Cute, but eerily similar.

Additionally, Japan is comprised of a country which is inhabited by primarily Japanese. Unlike cultural melting pots, such as Europe or the U.S., Japan is a small island with tens of millions of the same people, who all share the same culture, history, language, and all are the same ethnicity. What this means is that there is little to no variation among the Japanese with regard to the cultural traditions of Japan. What is the same for one Japanese citizen is basically the same for all Japanese citizens across the board. This makes it hard to pin-down national identities. As a consequence of this, there is hardly any variance between political and religious ideologies of one group vs. the whole entire group. It's what makes Japanese politics, in my opinion, a shell game (i.e., a farce). On top of this, foreigners residing in Japan make up less than 2% of the nations population. This is why Japan is often described as a * homogeneous society. It's all Japanese doing Japanese things all day long in Japan.

For most Japanese, this is the way they like it. It reinforces what they call "Wa" or the peacefulness of society (Japanese Wa is commonly translated as "group harmony." Although this only captures the basic qualities of Wa and doesn't do the full meaning justice).

This is why things which challenge the status quo are viewed as bad, immoral, and harmful to Japanese society--even when we can objectively state that they're not.

The unspoken rule that tattoos are "evil" is one such example. There is nothing inherently immoral about sporting a tattoo, except for the fact that the Japanese have collectively decided that tattoos are too similar to irezumi, the classic style of ink-etching popular among the Yakuza.

The funny thing is, very few Yakuza even have tattoos. I've seen more high school girls with tattoos than I have actual Yakuza with any ink. Yet you will still get booted from your local gym and be omitted from the local bath house if you ever get caught with one.

I would bet that most Japanese people who have lived abroad and have received ink work have, on average, more tattoos than the the entire crime syndicate in Japan. This popular myth of the tattoo denoting a gangster is reinforced by Japanese cinema, which always paints its gangsters in full color sleeves, with ukiyoe styled dragons tangled around geisha fighting of samurai on their backs, and have given the Japanese the impression that all gangsters sport tattoos. This media based, yet highly unrealistic, portrayal of Japan, however, feeds the stereotype that anyone with a tattoo must be seedy and suspect.

Yet in almost a decade of living here the only Yakuza I met was a Buddhist monk, and he was a rather nice guy, at least I thought so. He didn't have any tattoos.

But this is how Japan treats things that are alien to Japan--with suspicion. At first I thought this was bad--since it is completely uncritical. But reflecting on it, I can see how it helps the Japanese coalesce around an idea--namely that tattoos are bad. It's an imperfect idea, but at least they can feel comradeship by all thinking the same. There must be a certain level of comfort that comes from that feeling of like-mindedness, almost like trust, otherwise I doubt they would do it so much.

Tattoos aren't typically a part of Japanese culture, so tattooed people get treated suspiciously, even though their is no basis for any such reservations. I highly doubt any of my Japanese friends have ever had a confrontation with a tattooed fiend. But because this is Japan, everyone takes such beliefs for granted, and low and behold, everyone remains reluctant to accept tattoo art as, well just that, art.

This shows how close-knit Japanese society really is. General attitudes don't merely permeate a subgroup within the national group, but takes over the national mind-set.

Another good example of how this collective mind-set seems to work is the example of the many popular diets which pop up. Almost overnight a diet fad will become a *national craze. A few years back (c. 2008) there was a popular talk show which talked to one of the models confessed to losing all her fat due to a simple diet anyone could do. A banana diet! (It was such a craze that it even made the international news section of Time. Meanwhile, googling "Japanese banana diet" nets you over a million related links. For the history on the origins of the Japanese banana diet click here.)

Overnight, literally, people flooded the supermarkets and bought all the bananas. I recall this event so distinctly because I always buy bananas, my favorite fruit, for m breakfast. Needless to say, I went to the store, and every single banana had been sold. Every happy yellow bushel of banana goodness gone! For about two weeks I couldn't find a single banana anywhere. Believe me, I looked.

Following trends like this plays a large role in Japanese homogeneity, because it is a way for others to jump on the band wagon and show conformity. It's a way to proudly advertise that you are part of the group! In Japan, group-think is viewed as a positive factor which people should aspire to.

In my country, the U.S., this notion is actually looked down on and frowned upon. People don't want to be the same. We Americans pride ourselves in our uniqueness, independence, and this is reflected in the fact that, in the U.S., society is highly autonomous.

This breeds a competitive behavior not prevalent in Japan. In fact, Japanese are not very competitive at all. This doesn't mean they lack the drive to work hard or do well, but they are not confrontational about it. In fact, from my seven years of experience in Japan, I have found that Japanese people go out of their way to avoid confrontation wherever possible. This is evident in the fact that I cannot tell you my Japanese friends religions or political ideologies. These things just aren't spoken about--as they create too much of a division in the like-mindedness of the society.

Anything which creates a division, like religion or politics, is viewed as something to keep on the low down. They don't want to raise Cain here in Japan, after all--that would seek to interfere with their precious "Wa," so religious and political ideologies in Japan are safeguarded and kept rather secret. They are treated as a private matter. Even sex is less private than religion or politics in Japan! I can talk about sex with my Japanese guy and gal friends, and have all kinds of ribald laughs. My wife's best girlfriend and I often tease each other in a way which borders on the risque, but for the life of me, I could not tell you what her religious or political position is--and she's practically family!

Conformity, then, helps to promote unity--or at least the sense of unity. This, I find to be an excellent trait, and something I have come to admire about Japan.

All this might sound a little strange to people from more diverse cultures, where conformity is hard to come by, and diversity is prided over similarity. But this is just one of the interesting quirks which makes Japan, well, Japan.

Next time, in part two: Conformity in Japan: The Bad, I'll talk about how conformity can be a negative influence as well, and how it can sometimes hurt Japan.

Monday, September 03, 2012

ESL Websites and Resources (Expanded)

Nearly all of these websites focus on ESL learning and together form a useful database for English materials, such as flash cards, word puzzles, worksheets, and English based activities and games ready made for your convenience.

1. Eigo Note Blog (

2. Eigo Noto (

3. Boggles World ESL (

4. A4 ESL (

5. ESL HQ (

6. Eigo Batake (

7. MES English (

8. Genki English (

9. Matsuka Phonics (

10. Dave's ESL Cafe (

11. My (

12. Livewire Puzzles (

13. ESL-Tower ( 

14. Kids Can Have Fun! (

15. KizPhonics (

16. Hiconicimage (

17. Have Fun Teaching (

18. Activity Village UK (

19. Class Helper (

Saturday, July 21, 2012

English Teaching in Japan: And Why It Hasn't Worked

I have almost a decade of teaching experience in Japan. Much of it is ESL teaching but also I have done work with a Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education sponsored think-tank that focused on teaching methodologies to enhance English learning in Japan with the goal of English fluency, as well as worked as English Coordinator for the 3rd Annual Hiroshima English Language Camp, again, in Hiroshima, Japan. Now, I have migrated down to Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, to help spread valuable information about the correct way about teaching ESL to the Japanese. I'm not trying to be snooty, there is actually a correct, and natural, way to acquire English--otherwise there wouldn't be any English speakers.

What I have learned over the years is that the Japanese education system wants instant English ability, and so they have developed their entire English training curriculum around a "cram-and-exam" based learning system similar to how TOIEC and TOEFL are set up. But this is the wrong way around--as these tests are designed to test an already developed proficiency NOT inrease English retention and knowledge. In other words, the current Japanese model of English education expects its learners, who have never studied English before, to already be FLUENT in English! It's such a ridiculous expectation that it makes the English education system in Japan look terribly ridiculous. This embarrassment of Japan's failure to teach English properly and instill it into their students has created an erroneous mind-set which assumes that English is too difficult a language for the Japanese to learn.

This is total nonsense. English is one of the EASIEST languages in the world to acquire. It is what has allowed it to become the dominant language around the world--the ease at which it can be learned and applied, as well as adapted to suit the culture's specific needs. Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and even Spanish have all been dominant languages in the world at one point or other, but none of them have succeeded because, unlike English, they are much more culturally specific. English is, as I like to say, a mutt language. A not so eloquent way of calling it a heterogeneous miscellany of assorted languages. It is a hodgepodge of other languages, which, interestingly enough, makes it pliable, and allows it to be both culturally diverse and extremely adaptable.

The English language is easy to simplify down to a simple set of loose grammar rules and phonics forms which, if properly learned, can allow one to become entirely proficient.

Japan has largely bypassed the only proved method of teaching non-native speakers English--i.e., PHONICS. It's how ALL native English speakers learn to recognize the sounds, develop an ear, and it is how we all learn to read and comprehend English words. The grammar comes later. English speakers, whether they recognize it or not, typically follow phonics based curriculum when they learn as children, which are the natural English language learning techniques codified.

I have found some great phonics programmes available to ESL learners which I'd like to share here.

The first is the Japanese based company MATSUKA Phonics Institution, MPI for short.

Japanese website:

English website:

I have used MPI for my main lessons at the Elementary school level--and it gets AMAZING results. Most of my JHS school graduates gain their basis for English proficiency from the phonics lessons we did at Elementary school. In Hiroshima, I had JHS students passing the Eikentei pre-1st and 2nd grade exams... whereas other schools are lucky to have anyone pass the 3rd grade exams let alone ace them.

Phonics works. Really. It does.

There is, however, something to be said of getting them while they are still young. The younger the more primed they are for acquiring a secondary language, as their ear has not fully hardened to their own language yet. Which, I find, stresses the importance of teaching phonics based programmes earlier rather than later. The earlier the better.

But the Japanese system is designed to omit phonics based learning by making an inflexible and overly crammed schedule which reduces English proficiency by using a 'cram-and-exam' style--short term memory based--teaching system. It is a joke. It also explains why most Japanese study eight or more years of OFFICIAL English yet retain nearly NONE of it. They lack the reading and recognition base that phonics provides. Without this base, their latter skills drop out once they forget the wrote memorization they drilled for endlessly in JHS and high school. If they have the phonics base well developed, by the time they get to JHS and high school they are only reinforcing and adding to the language architecture firmly established by the sturdy phonics base.

Another reliable phonics program is the Hong Kong based KizPhonics. Most of their materials are available online--for FREE. You can also purchase their workbooks and they have competitive prices.


Also, they have extremely in-depth guides which explain their phonics based programme and how exactly phonics works. It is a bit technical, but I have found it is necessary to relay this information to ALL of my schools, since here in Japan, NOBODY has heard of PHONICS, apparently.

I usually spend a month or so convincing my schools to switch over to phonics based programmes, and this involves TEACHING the ADULTS what PHONICS is exactly. So I have a whole PowerPoint demonstration designed to do just this.

Eikaiwa based programmes are supposed to be for those who already are proficient English speakers. You cannot start with eikaiwa teaching with non-English speakers and hope to get results, but this is exactly what the Japan system tries to do. It is no wonder that after decades of English learning Japan continuously ranks among the lowest and least English proficient nations. They simply teach English incorrectly, and this leads to poor English users and an overall embarrassingly poor English proficiency when compared to other nations which teach English as a second language.

NOW, here is my GRIPE. Every time I leave a school system in Japan for another school, even if it is in the same gun or prefecture, the previous school DROPS the phonics based programme I worked so hard to erect and immediately the children's English ability evaporates into thin air. Meanwhile, the schools revert back to teaching English incorrectly, and this often makes it impossible for the students to learn English properly in the future due to the fact that they have to unlearn the WRONG methods and learn the CORRECT methods--all over again. This is why English learning in Japan has failed so miserably over the years. About the only way to overcome this handicap is for the Japanese ESL students to study abroad--in and English speaking country.

That's my two cents. Take it for what it's worth.


Tristan Vick

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2 Haikus

Here are two English haikus I wrote for the "Kusamakura" 17th annual International haiku competition in Kumamoto.

My days grow shorter
My memories grow fuller
I was younger once

Zephyr blowing hot
Shaved ice is my favorite

Red, blue, delicious