The infurating rigidity of the Japanese Education System

The rigidity to which JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) stick to their English textbooks is sometimes frightening. With the second years away on their annual trip to Kyoto – a trip which I really would have loved to go on- the school is quiet, and the desks around me empty. The JTE who sits to my right has left me to stew in silence, with no second years to teach, and no third year classes to speak of, I am left with the first years. Ah, darling middle school first years. Children who are trying so hard to fit into adult clothing and bearing the weight of a uniform for the first time. I find the attitude of the first years to have the largest variation, in this school anyway. Despite my initial fear of teaching them, I always feel happy after my classes, especially now that I can recall some of them by their faces, knowing who they outside of the classroom. With no classes yesterday afternoon and just two classes today in 5th and 6th period, I decided to plan a fun sort of game for them which practices ‘he/she/I/we/they’ etc. So the task goes like this; they all write their names on a scrap of paper, mix them together and then pull a name out of a hat, and by hat, I mean the tote bag I use to carry my lunch and files to school. Once they have a name of a classmate, they write three things about them; a descriptive fact, a like of theirs and a random fact to finish. When their name is called, the student will stand and present these facts while rest of the class do their best to guess who the person is describing. It’s a pretty simple task, exercising their writing, speaking and listening skills. I even put a cute little clip art on their worksheet. I always take their level into consideration, not wanting to stress them out by doing tasks  that are far so out of their reach they loose confidence. And so, considering they are already half way through their first year, I felt like this was a nice,easy task which I could help with if they hit a snag.

The JTE who teaches the first years, however, makes me nervous. During one of our recently classes together she would repeat words after me in a more american accent when we were going over vocabulary, like my accent wasn’t valid, before stopping me form participating in the task all together. I wanted to cry and leave the room I was so angry. Not only was she silently telling me that my accent was neither desirable nor correct, but it also made me look like an idiot in front of the students, and I’m worried its lowered their confidence in me as someone who can help them with English. I want to be seen as a strong role model, as someone who can travel to a new country and find a job, making them feel like its something they could do to. That, and it kicked me right in my Welsh pride, which is something I am not okay with. So undermining me in front of the students was not something I was happy about. Anyway, back to topic.

So, as we were printing out the worksheets out for the students, my teacher gave a nervous laugh and said, “Oh, this may be a little hard though, when using like.”

I blinked over at her “They can’t use like? I’m sure they’ve used it before?”.

“Oh yes, they know ‘I like’ but not ‘He likes.”

Now, for one, they don’t really need to use ‘He/She likes’ for this one, but the conversation was spinning me out.

“They don’t learn that until next week” she laughed lightly, but I could only stare.

If they are learning it next week, isn’t this the perfect opportunity to introduce this grammar point? Even if they don’t feel confident enough to use it, we could briefly explain that when ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used, then ‘like’ because ‘likes’. I watched her walk away with an expression that could only be described as befuddlement, my body racked with frustration. Following the textbook can be important, the chapters acting as a good checklist. However, within the chapters, the work is all interchangeable, so what difference would it make to introduce something a class earlier than its ‘scheduled’. I have a lot of good things to say about the Japanese education system, but also a lot of bad.

There’s a running ‘stubbornness’ in Japanese culture that I’ve seen not only within the education system, but in other areas of life too, such as Japanese transportation. For example, During the Christmas break when I was doing my year abroad in Japan, I booked my night bus for the wrong day, so when I turned up at 11pm with my friends to go to Osaka and the middle aged, stoic faces bus driver told me I had to wait until tomorrow, thus travelling the full nine hours alone, I was near tears. With the bus looking empty, I asked “Is there no way I could go today?” You know, since I’ve paid already and everything. He just shook his head regrettably. Even the young bus driver, clearly fairly new to his job,  looked at me with pity in his eyes, whispering something similar to his co-worker, saying there was room. “No, there is no room, you will have to come back tomorrow.” The night resulted in me dragging my suitcase back to my apartment and getting drunk on leftover Christmas wine, only to find out that my debit card had been blocked and watching half of atonement. My friends told me the next day that the bus had been practically empty the entire way from Kyushu to Osaka.

Now, I’m not a person who likes to judge or pass comments on the cultures of others, knowing I would not like others to do so to mine, but in these instances, the rigidity and lack of give that Japanese people oversize in certain situations really makes me want to punch a biscuit.

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