Essay in a Language Seeking Life

It is close to nine in the evening sometime in the year 2001. An email is just in from the vice principal at the international high school our son attends. (We live in Japan.) In it he explains to me what is explained to my parents back in America when it is me who is in high school and it is time for me to take a Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Back then there is a ready made package of talk that is given to parents; that package has not changed much in thirty years. That email starts me wondering. Wondering, I begin writing. At this moment the testing ordeal is being brought home because it is our son who is involved. His future is to be determined--to one degree or another--by a few hours spent in an uncomfortable and unhealthy sitting position in a coldly stressful atmosphere trying to answer questions about things in which he might have little or no interest. Just what is it about these exams that is so important? It seems that being human in this age is in part about keeping ourselves statistically fit according to whatever criteria happen to come down from the powers in the system that happens to be. Exams are a way to measure. SAT exams have become for some part of a socioeconomic rite of passage in America. In other places, in other ages, there was feet binding, penis tying, rib crushing girdles, male or female circumcision, and much else that is condoned and seen as important by those particular societies for reasons which seem valid to people then. It can be interesting to look at what we as human societies fancy from one age to another, from one culture to another. Statistics, exams, certification--that whole package--are so important now. Not many look at these anthropologically though. ***** My writing nook has a little window. My wife asks a carpenter to cut one in the wall so I have a bit of light. The windowʼs glass is glazed so that from outside looking in I can't be seen distinctly. I am a blur. It is a window that, looking out of it, seems permanently iced over. Could I see clearly through it, or if I open the window, I have a partial view of our neighbor's house and, if I lean forward, can look at a parking lot farther down the street. My wife, Morie, is Japanese. I am from America and am an ethnic mixture. A fusion. A Scottish German English Russian Jew. My father's speculation has it that I am part American Indian too (Osage it would have been) mixed in through my maternal grandmother's side from when her people were mud hut dwelling sodbusters in Kansas.

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Now, with what is called our mixed, interracial, or international, marriage, our children are fusions even more. In America it is as a white person I go through life. My skin has an earthen tone that is nothing like white, but "white," in American society, doesn't mean an actual color on a spectrum. One thing that growing up in America teaches me, even if it is not a formal lesson like ones at school, is that white people are privileged in ways that many coded with colors other than white are not. Another thing that growing up there means is that forces behind the scenes keep me in the dark about the color business, or in the white. Labeled by my society's color coding as white, coerced to live within that color's social and psychological range, I innocently absorb attitudes that are racist. With no choice but to be the color my world puts on me, I--along with every person who has ever thought of himself or herself as "white"--directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, get along in life by burdening those who had neither asked for nor agreed to a subservient role. We each are an accomplice to an injustice, and, for those who believe in it, it means bad karma. Though unable to articulate it at that young age, there is a wilting, unwholesome feeling to that process of becoming white, there is a sense of complicity in an immoral act. This comes with the benefits being light skinned offers. ***** My father's mother is Jewish. She immigrates to America with her family from Russia. They sail to America from Liverpool, England, and it is said by my cousin Marilyn that my grandmother might have been born while crossing the Atlantic. She grows up as a Hebrew, but when she marries my grandfather she converts to his religion. He is Christian, a Methodist. Through the two of them, different religions, different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, come together. Often--as is told me later in life as a middle aged adult--theirs is not often a peaceful joining, but they manage to stay together until death does them part. My paternal grandfather dies when I am three or four. My grandmother lives with us throughout much of my childhood and, in all those years of her bickering with my mother, with my father, or, later, with me, throughout those years with her perpetual harping on sundry points, I can't remember her ever once mentioning anti-Semitism or any kind of discrimination. She doesn't talk of the Holocaust or the ovens. Her family has not experienced that. Though there are pogrom in the Russia her family flees, she is not yet born. But, with her conversion to Christianity, marrying outside her religion, does she ever feel rejected by her Jewish relatives? My father tells me that her parents initially are against her plans to marry my grandfather but that after they meet him and see what kind of fellow he is they consent.

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After marriage, does she ever feel isolated or unwanted surrounded as she is by my grandfather's connections, surrounded by those who attend his church, his friends, his family? She grows up in Philadelphia and, married, lives in Eastern Pennsylvania in a small partly industrial town surrounded by fields and pastures. Royersford. Many around her have German or Dutch surnames. My cousins on her side of the family, around my age, across the river in Philadelphia are brought up Jewish. Because of that fact are their lives in some way more restricted than my own? Or less? When one of those cousins, Sara Lee, travels with her husband to England during the Bush administration (2006) she meets, she says, with anti-Americanism as well as antiSemitism. If it is me alone there might be just the anti-Americanism. Is there a qualitative difference? I'm thinking there must be for her, especially since she is not unaware of history. On the other hand my wife, a Japanese, and I are aware, when we live there a couple years after being married, that there are people in America who do not consider us a genuine American family, and we become aware that there are people in both America and Japan who do not approve of mixed race marriages, or miscegenation, which in the U.S. when I am young is still illegal in some states. We are aware of all this. Is it ever allowed for any of us to be just human? From what I can gather from our family history the answer is no. On the Scottish side, things--English aggression--in the home country drives people off the land to work the mines. That is what they do when they immigrate to America. They settle in Shenandoah, which is a coal mining region of eastern Pennsylvania, and work in that industry though not in the mines. He is a hostler at a coal mine, that ancestor. The Jewish side comes from Russia but before Russia they are—according to an uncle--in Spain. Spain they are forced to leave because of the Inquisition. Then they are forced to leave Russia due to the pogrom. Do I come from an environment where the way of looking at the world is not bright and sparkling? ***** At school some classmates no doubt suffer more than me because their skin color is darker. Because of their skinʼs color, many, most, or all are often at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into higher education or finding a job. Until a certain age, until exposed to a scene beyond my immediate family, I am unaware of the word race and what it means in my society.
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The first experience I can recall is sometime before elementary schoolʼs third grade, since we move to a neighboring town where I enter fourth grade. The little circle of recently built houses, including the one we live in, borders on “The West End,” which is a part of town where African-Americans are a majority, the Black section. At the outer perimeter of one curve of our housing circle is what we called “the field.” When we are old enough to venture away from our own yards and our mothers' watchful eyes that field is mostly where we play. It is an area of undeveloped lots, a place full of a kneehigh grass (weed) with one tree, a pin oak, off near a street that ends our turf. That field is our outdoors. Those grasses or weeds, that single tree under a sky are all that is left-after that housing development goes up--to transmute nature into our feelings of life. One afternoon while I am playing alone a dark skinned boy wanders over into that field from his home in The West End. His name is Billy. "Wanna play?" What we do to entertain ourselves is gone from memory but after a while it is snack time. I invite Billy to our house for milk and cookies. My mother seems happy enough to have him as guest. After Billy goes home my mother praises me. What for? For inviting a "colored boy" into our house. My mother has nothing negative in mind or any underlying message to put across, but the fact that she divides us that way, according to skin color, is my first memory of an awareness of racial difference. It seems to me now that I may have absorbed at least some color consciousness before that time with Billy Meekins, but that incident stands out vividly in memory, maybe as innocenceʼs end. But there is something before that, though it is not a clear memory: going to a local grocer with my mother, seeing a Black child and asking her why that child's skin is black or brown, did he or she get burned. I feel lucky that my parents didn't raise me to believe anything stupid about people with darker skin. Or about people with lighter skin. As I grow into the surrounding world, though, there is stupidity all over, with neighbors and their kids, in the scene at school and in the schoolyard. There the expressions white cracker and chocolate bar are heard every day. Also heard is the word nigger, which is used profusely by some kids, who get it from adults or an older sibling. Paralleling the way our natural surroundings are impoverished by houses constructed for a baby boom population (including my family) is the way our heart nature is devastated by racism. There are activities too, such as organized sports, religion, and scouting, that are supposedly building us up healthy in spirit, mind, and body; is there no racism in these? In those schoolyard and playtime scenes I am being forced to identify with one group as opposed to the other, to feel I belong with those with whom a skin color code has grouped me. The social law is to belong or be considered a traitor and be rejected by those lighter skinned kids, by "my own kind," as a “nigger-lover.” (In "respectable" society the social dynamic at work probably is not expressed so crudely; it may be more
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subtly "suggested," but the effect is the same.) As I come to accept that division by color--as we all inevitably have to at some level--whatever innocence or goodness that may have blessed my childhood is lost. We each are put into a cage of race. Therein we are given an assumed identity. Coming out of that cage, if ever we do, it is possible we might feel at a loss as to who we, what we, are. It is impossible to say for sure what kind of indoctrination is operating on darker skinned children. Something is happening. They are being told about whites. Is it negative? Are some parents telling their kids not to play with whites the way some white parents tell their kids not to play with blacks? Indoctrination? As a child I have no idea what misery light skinned people historically have brought upon darker skinned people. The walls that defend the little white world I grow up in do not allow me to get a sense of the depth and depravity of skin based ways of seeing, how skin color constructs the very scene that shutters my vision. I am typically white American in my ignorance and am lead to think I am happily so. Indoctrination? We are too young to be aware that dark skinned individuals and dark skinned communities are under perpetual indoctrination by their light skinned “fellow citizens” even though they may have never met a white person. An American way of living, operating through the persons of little boys and girls in a schoolyard, violates our human natures, cuts us off from ourselves, makes us not whole; it sets us off on a destructive quest for happiness. Without a community of ourselves, without free access to each other, there is an emptiness, and in America pursuit of money has ever more stepped in to replace a human community lost. Dividing us the way American society does, according to skin color, prohibits our entering each other's lives. As children we are, yes, there together in a classroom, in physical proximity on a playground, and we are with each other on teams playing sports, but do I know much at all about the dark skinned ones I spend my school days with? Outside the activities structured by school or community, interracial mingling is for some still stigmatized. There are things we become aware of through freely interacting as friends or as lovers, but when association outside the locker room or school room is frowned upon or barred, how much of our world can we see? In high school we talk some, but no one speaks. No one dares. One sister, Vicki, speaks. We are juniors and there is a time of “interracial tension” moving some to behave in hateful ways or in reaction to that hate. Vicki Burroughs is the only one who speaks--ever--in that school. “How do you think it feels,” she asks us all sitting in that classroom (there was discussion about the recent incidents), "when most of the people around you don't even want you with them?"
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That, spoken, is the only real learning that goes on in that school. In our childhood there are other harmful things we are exposed to, such as war indoctrination and the threat of nuclear mass destruction, and there are more immediate phenomena such as the DDT fog sprayed in our neighborhood to get rid of mosquitoes. Children on our circle run after those trucks, frolic in the smelly clouds. No one tells us it is DDT and we do not know what DDT is or that it is toxic and can make us sick. No one tells us calling someone nigger will cripple us. Headed for Japan, stepping onto that plane at Philadelphia's international airport, I am inwardly a bit terrified of being myself. My nature, my spirit, has been under attack, abused by the world I grow up in; It teaches me how to abuse others, which is connected to abusing myself. That me is a person who grew up wounded many times, scarred, a person who, as a result, maybe takes hurting others as a matter of course. Is there some faint hope in me at the time, a hope that living among the Japanese will heal me, will cure me of myself and let me live unafraid? Am I looking to be--as a clearly marked outsider--more freely myself, more fully human, than what is allowed in America? Is Japan, to me at the time, a place to escape an American storm? ***** In America the fact of my being American is subsidiary to other concerns such as my socioeconomic condition, my religious or political affiliation or lack of one, my educational background, my skin color, or whether Iʼm a “good guy.” These are prominent, more than the fact of my being American. Here in Japan, though, being American means more, it means Western and foreign, not Japanese. The rest--outside social status in my own country--is irrelevant. I'm a gaijin (foreigner, outsider) and that condition in one way or another works into life's every social aspect here. Almost every day here in Japan I am reminded that I am an outsider. It may be something so seemingly insignificant as a passing group of school boys who shout "Haro!" (hello) after they think they are at a safe distance. Or it could be a waitress at a restaurant who looks at my wife for confirmation of an order I have just given her in Japanese. Or a red-faced drunk now with courage to try his English on me. Or the looks on faces when I enter any public place, that here comes something different. None of this really upsets me. Tuning it out becomes a survival strategy. It's like not hearing the constant engine noise on the highway a hundred yards down the slope from our townhouse community. My presence here and my being an outsider cause some sense of irregularity for the Japanese too. Is out of the ordinary perceived as a threat? “Threat” is too strong a word. Something potentially problematic or bad.
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One bit of irony is that soon after my arrival, through at times an English language newspaper, its letters from readers to the editor, and through several non-Japanese Western acquaintances, I am propositioned with the notion that the Japanese are prejudiced, are racist. Because, supposedly, they don't like foreigners. They call us “gaijin,” which, to some, has a negative aura. They keep us distant and at the time through convolutions of bureaucratic procedure make it legally challenging to remain here or to become a citizen. These Japanese, then, who had been Westernized at gunpoint, so to speak, or by the cannons on Perry's ships and after, and later Westernized again by atomic bombs, these Japanese, according to some, are racist. It is hard to measure the social devastation the forced opening of Japan by the West brings. It is argued by some that Japan's own colonial expansion, its rapid industrialization and foreign aggression were defensive reactions to Western colonialism in Asia. With defeat in WWII, the prewar ideology the Japanese manufactured to support Japan's modern nation building and overseas expansion programs--such as the emperor worship and sacred land propaganda (which to me seems incongruous with the very idea of modernity)--is in the same condition as Tokyo: charred remains. The entire society--including all the schools and religious institutions--had been brought into a world of make believe. But, with defeat, what remains to believe? What is there for people as life supports? After the war, what moral code by which to raise their children is viable? What is to be taught in schools? What frame of reference is there? How approach the concept of nation? These are all ripple effects of Perry's arrival. Of being no longer a country shut off from rest of the world. America would come to fill that vacuum. It might be said that in Japanʼs translation of American style democratic individualism much is lost or misinterpreted. Gail Lee Bernstein, in Harukoʼs World: A Japanese Farm Woman and Her Community, reports an observation made by an elderly Japanese woman: “Young people are getting selfish. They misunderstand the word democracy and think it means freedom and selfishness” (p. 104). Professor Bernstein quotes Harukoʼs husband, Shoichi: “. . . parentʼs had lost all confidence in themselves on account of reforms in the schoolsʼ ethics courses since the American Occupation, which replaced the traditional values of filial piety and obedience with democratic teachings that seemed to give official sanction to assertiveness.” [English versions here and above are Professor Bernsteinʼs.] Can it be said, even, that in America the notions democracy and individualism are correctly interpreted? Who can say? Who can judge?

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***** There are times I feel confused about I'm doing here. My job is teaching, teaching some dimension of English. Here the language is broken up as speaking, listening, reading, writing. I teach a course in American Studies. There is a course I used to do in poetry, another in translation studies, and right now there is one on 1960s counterculture in America. My confusion might be a result of living in this world, where relations with others are precarious as are relations with our social institutions and jobs. Am I, as a teacher, a descendant of those in an ancient sacred profession, or am I a replaceable part hired to show up in a room, a white Western face, a token gaijin, to put in a school advertisement? My own sense of it is what matters and that is what this writing is about. My experience of schools in Japan has been going on--at this writing--for 32 years, more than half my life. Never have I been through any aspect of Japan's school system as a learner; it has always been as a teacher, a foreign teacher, an import, an implant from somewhere outside. This writing is based on various teaching experiences in various settings: part time at a junior high school, full time at a high school, full time and part time at universities, full time as contract teacher at a private English language school, and as a private tutor. I'm an immigrant, although my citizenship is still with the USA. It is possible for me to become a Japanese citizen, but I do not because I dislike bureaucratic procedural nuisance. Looking from where I am at what is called education in Japan, I do not get a clear image of what is or is supposed to be happening. There are statistics of course that we can refer to find out what is going on. Statistics are overabundant here in Japan too, as they are in any country now where there is easy access to computers, but do they mean any more than that now there are computers? Is the world any better for all the statistics? This writing is not about statistics. This is a contemplation of the various blurs in existence that are given the name education. It is an attempt to make something out of it all, to make of it a personal sense, a human sense--as opposed to a statistical accounting. ***** I am 26 years old when I come. At the time, 1980, there is no prerequisite for coming to Japan as a teacher of spoken English. For a job teaching here all that is asked for is a
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college degree. One's major is not an issue, nor is experience. Is there a notion that teaching is such a mechanical thing that anyone can do it by repeating a step by step formula over and over? Considering what other young people from America, coming also to teach, have done as preparation it doesn't seem that I am too awfully unread. My readings on Japan are a book on Japanese art history. A few D.T. Suzuki books on Zen. A book on Japanese religions. A Reishauer book on Japanese history. Hobsbaum the historian on Japan's modernization. The Chie Nakane book on feudalism and modern corporate structure. The Benedict book. There is a language book a linguistics professor at Delaware gave me. Japanese is a language I want to study but my regular graduate school course work is already an overload; fitting in an extra class is not possible. In my little spare time my lessons in Japanese begin, all on my own with that text and later in the language lab at school, listening to tapes, practicing pronunciations and phrases over and over until the muscles in my throat and mouth can better shape sounds so I can say things more smoothly. Compared to someone who'd majored in Japanese studies I know very little. What I learn isn't nearly enough, but once here my efforts with language and culture continue. Upon arrival a group of us (a fresh batch of YMCA instructors) are met at Narita Airport by our orientation program director. A good guy, knowledgeable, fluent in Japanese. He appears to know how to interact well with people here, or it seems that way to me then though I can't really tell what is being said back and forth. We have a one week orientation with him in the Mitaka ward of Tokyo. It is helpful. ***** Before stepping onto that Narita-bound plane at Philadelphia International Airport, I have positive things in mind about Japan. Otherwise why would I commit myself to two years here as a contract teacher? Japan is the land of 弧掌難鳴 “ko-sho-nan-me,” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” as it had been rendered in English (by whom I don't know, but maybe by Suzuki Daisetsu). That is the famous Zen koan attributed to a Chinese monk and then, another version of it, to priest Hakuin. Japan, to me, is a land of satori, enlightenment. Zen is like a hero to me, shining in empty brilliance. It isn't until a quarter century later reading a book called Zen At War that I learn of Japanese Zen's support for the nationʼs imperial warmongering exploits. That seems shameful now, but, in such matters, what religion is innocent? Many Christians seem to ignore or forget--if ever they knew--that Christianity is a supposed to be a pacifist religion.

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Enlightenment and gentle-looking raven-haired lovely women. Am I a victim of Western cultural stereotypes concerning Japanese women? Maybe there is a tendency everywhere to see greener grass on the other side. Are those stereotypes really products of the West or are they made in Japan? Are Western men importing stereotypes already made by Japanese men? Why would any men need to create stereotypes of women? Also, in another dimension, there may be a longing in me to come to Japan to lust out on its women. To be skibby without censure. It is an inner moving I am stupid enough to think is hidden and secret. Is it my idea, then, to find release for such urges with these Japanese women who, I imagine, do not live under the same (puritanical) restrictions as women in America? These women: do I think to bring them away to my dark chamber and pleasure myself, Scott free. These women, my lust whispers, are outside America. Whatever propriety there may be in their own society does not matter because their society is not my own. Am I shameful? Or am I just young and a jungle of hormones? The man-woman thing goes on an on it seems. At any rate things don't often go the way a libido likes. In Japan or anywhere I've heard of. Life is rife with fantasies. ***** In the American society I am leaving there are, I hear, negative portrayals of Japanese. On television, old war movies are still being shown on UHF channels, but I can't recall anything particularly objectionable except for the fact that the Japanese were the enemy and therefore the bad guys. The American soldiers called them “nips.” There is a line from a war movie that sticks in my head. An American sergeant instructs a G.I. wielding a flamethrower “Spray the whole hill! Itʼs filthy with Nips!” On T.V. German soldiers are called "krauts." Are these usages meant to be offensive? They are the enemy so I assume these words are uttered with ill-feeling. For “realism.” Apart from the war movies, if I am exposed to negative images of Japanese while growing up I can't remember what they are. That negative image world must have passed me by, but then again I'm not of Japanese descent and am not sensitive to such things and neither are my surroundings conducive to sensitivity. There is, where I grow up, prejudice against African-Americans. There is no shortage of horrible names for them. There is anti-Semitism. Looking through my high school yearbooks, looking at studentsʼ last names, I marvel at the ethnic diversity of our school. There are Italian names, Polish names, Irish names, German names, Scottish names, English names--and our high school is between ten and twenty per cent African American--but there are no Japanese names, no Chinese,
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and no Korean. This is in southern New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. There are at the time (1972) no Japanese around which is why citizens do not feel threatened by a Japanese presence. There is no Japanese community that might be seen as competing for grades, jobs, or political power. Except for the war movie content, I can't remember hearing anything disrespectful about Japanese people or about Americans of Japanese descent. If I'd been born a generation earlier, growing up during the war instead of after it, I'd have been bombarded by racist anti-Japanese propaganda. Is there an anti-Jap tap that can be turned on and off? On the other hand, back in grade school my neighbor and I watch a Japanese program called Ultra Man on TV almost every week on a winter afternoon after school. The episodes are dubbed into English, which itself is for us one of the show's attractions, since the English sounds humorously off, out of place, not synchronized well with the characters' lip movements, and it is a quick, choppy, mechanical, intense, martial sounding English we hear and imitate playfully. The monsters Ultra Man battles and eventually defeats make us grin skeptically because they look so obviously fake bouncing around in those floppy rubber costumes. We enjoy watching; those shows are a source of pleasure and watching them does not make me think anything positive or negative about the Japanese as a people. In the world of electronic equipment, though, there are negative images of things Japanese companies make that are spreading throughout American society. Transistor radios are what I remember most vividly. To a local park we often play at comes a classmate with a transistor radio. Its sound is weak and scratchy. Probably it needs new batteries but what one of us claims, grabbing it away from its owner and shaking it, knocking on it with a bent finger joint, is "Ah, it's made in Japan!" and that means shoddy merchandise. Maybe it is; I have no way of knowing. My father, before I was born, while he was in the U.S. Navy, is stationed in Japan during part of the Korean War. He has favorable things to say about Japan and about Japanese people. There are souvenirs which he brings back: sake cups, prints, a jewel box and other things; these are regarded as decorative items in our house. He does not bring any swords, he brings nothing of military significance. My father never has anything bad to say about Japanese people. There are times when we as a family go out to dinner we go to a Japanese restaurant. As a growing boy who likes to eat, Japanese food tastes good: therefore Japan must be an okay place. That is me as a child, my reasoning ability. Beginning in high school there is talk of Black studies. In college I hear things about Women's studies, but the only exposure, in a school environment, to anything connected with Japan is a haiku by Basho about a frog and a pond. That is back in elementary school or high school. About Japanese Americans, or any Asian Americans, their history, art or culture, there is nothing from kindergarten through graduate school.
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Nor, come to think of it, is there anything connected with the Polish, Italian, Irish, Scottish, or German backgrounds of my classmates. Except for St. Patrickʼs Day, when we all wear green. Exposed to various images of Japan, it is reasonable to say that I internalize the positive more than whatever there might be that is negative. The positive translates into a two year commitment teaching in this country. Two years that stretches into 32 years and counting. ***** It's nice to respect others and to respect other cultures but at times it can be trying. Why is that? Most immediately this concerns the culture that hosts me, within which my everyday family life, social life and toil goes on. Sometimes it is hard to respect a people, a culture, a society. Given the forces of conditioning, too, that make our own culture the absolute center of the universe (MY culture = THE universe), respect and understanding become ideal behaviors that we might read about or hear about in a sermon or lecture, but which are most often realized only superficially, if at all. There are many potholes, pitfalls. Ideals are better than their opposites. Too, itʼs easier to appreciate things in another culture from afar, if one doesnʼt have to live there. Japanese culture makes it hard if not impossible for many Japanese not to marginalize me or to go on with their lives as if I or immigrants like me do not exist. In the same way, American culture is not geared wholly to satisfy those who immigrate there. Immigrant groups historically have had a terrible time in America. Things in both countries are better than they used to be, but there is still room for improvement. A visit to a shopping mall in Japan might illustrate my point. Only about 0.0001 percent of the items for sale are of interest to me. All of it is aimed at selling to Japanese consumers. Its shops are filled with things mainstream Japanese might want to buy. Many goods are things Japanese women might buy, and there is much merchandise for the young, especially young women. What clothing there is for men is either too small for me, or, more to the point, is not my style. Recently we visit a new mall. In the entire four floors of shops the only thing that I consider buying is a bottle of massage oil. In the same way that customers like me do not exist for the purchasing agents who fill these malls with merchandise, taxpayers like me exist only faintly--if at all--for city planners and government bureaucrats. There seems to be a monolithic notion that
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Japan is all Japanese. Itʼs that mono-culture thinking that Japan as a whole is pretty much made of. It is instilled from a young age through the school system. I am an anomaly. The presence of non-Japanese who are not tourists continues to be problematic here. How does it feel to know that I am anomalous, or that my being different is viewed as a problem? This is the way things are, and, if I were someone who for some reason needs a feeling of merit or self worth that is attainable only from the powers that be or from the surrounding mono-culture Japanese community, it would be my tough luck. ***** It is important to note that much of what passes for Japanese culture--the particular undertakings that have been selected, appropriated, advertised, or sanctioned as Japanese culture--are from “traditional culture,” and that the word traditional has been carefully modulated so that it means traditions of upper, privileged, classes of ages past. These versions of Japanese culture adopted by the middle class include activities such as flower arrangement, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, classical dance, etc. At any rate these are what foreign visitors are shown as being exemplary of Japanese culture. In this class-directed higher culture there was art going on that goes beyond class and culture and time. Still, while artists were designing exquisite rock gardens for wellendowed temples and painting folding screens for high and mighty patrons, so many people at a lower social strata were hard up for basic nutrients. I'm not blaming the artists for not resolving the situation. It seems that some Buddhist paintings do look at the suffering of the poor; the poor, sick, and suffering appear therein. In Japan, though, is that just a convention of Buddhist art brought over from China? Are the artists or viewers at all moved by the actual suffering of those in their own society? Many of the finer points of the arts I am too unsophisticated to appreciate. I have no eyes for some things. One of the masses, my orientation in the world focuses me on work: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay is something my father brings me up to appreciate. (Yet, thinking about that these many years later, it seems that honesty is synonymous with quality) What, then, is so wonderful about a carved bamboo tea scoop I see at a department store exhibit? It sounds contradictory perhaps because it might be thought that someone raised to be work oriented would value such an object for all the work that goes into it. A tea jar that has 76 coats of lacquer. It's possible the word “work” has different dimensions in different environments. “Work,” obviously, for me at the time, is not a criterion for artistic value. How something lets me feel is what it is all about for me, and these objects simply do not move me. Tea bowls do. Hand-fashioned, often unevenly glazed or even unglazed, their earthen nature is allowed to come through. Holding one feels like walking the earth. To many of them there is a warmth, a gentleness that is not smooth, and there is a graceful
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imperfection of shape, like that of the earth itself with its roughness, bumps, and lack of perfect symmetry. Tea bowls attract me. ***** The elegantly curving Buddhist temple roofs in art books I come to see in person. Flowingly outreaching, inviting, yes, but around me are not temples and pagodas. Downtown the buildings are concrete, rectangular, grayish--another aspect of human heart. These places we go to work in are not all that different from what's to be found in an American city. There are exceptions and special places that exist as kind of an oasis amidst the downtown bustle. To see what feels good to look on usually means going somewhere. I am not lucky enough to live within whiffing distance of a temple's incense or within walking distance to its garden. The International Style in architecture is popular in postwar Japan. It distresses me that a society which once shows so much taste could now be so, it seems to me, tasteless, but I realize later that it's again a matter money and social class more than lack of taste. We're a democracy now, and, as with America, function matters more than elegance. ***** An apartment for rent within my income means a tiny cold water flat. Tatami mat living room floor. Unfurnished, but with a bath, a kitchen sink and private toilet, it is a cold damp cheaply built two room adventure in exotic living without insulation. The tatami mats are new, their scent pleasant. They are good to lie on, just breathe. That newness, that pleasantness, soon fades. The school that employs me is in a new building, its classrooms spic and span. Fluorescent lights are paneled into ceiling board. There are long three-person metal desks with fake wood-grain surfaces glued over plywood and folding chairs with plastic over just a hint of foam on metal seats. Through large sideways sliding windows there is a view of a tiny playground below for a kindergarten the school also operates for not an inexpensive tuition. Classroom walls are off white. In the roomʼs front is plywood and filler board lightweight wobbly podium with a folding chair for a teacher. A blackboard--still the kind for chalk. Otherwise empty. No decoration. Just this room with metal and plywood furnishings. With the lack of any decoration the chairs and desks and walls themselves become the atmosphere. It could have been a meeting room at a company office. It makes me want to go out and find a warm body to hug.

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Buses are, during rush hours, jam-packed, people pressed tightly up against one another for close to an hour; it is too close to a stranger for too long. There are times when an attractive woman boards. As others squeeze in after her she gets pushed back into me. The warm flesh of her buttocks is right at my pelvis and her fragrant morning shampooed peach scent hair right under my nose. At times pressing back into me is a balding fellow with dandruff, or a chubby fellow who smells of salami or pepperoni sausage, or one unbathed and stinking with the previous day's body odor or previous night's booze. Roads here, in this city, are narrow and congested, though now there is work going on widening some of them as well as new roads that are under construction. Commuting by motorized vehicle takes a lot of time to go not such a long distance, and in this city, Sendai, public transportation is expensive compared to larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka. I am unable to imitate those who stand reading squeezed on a bus as it heaves to and fro. Someone lends me an old bicycle. I mean old, like out of a bicycle museum. It was quite an experience riding it. Smooth, it is an old Cadillac of a bicycle. ***** Many people can be warm and friendly, human, even though surroundings might be decrepit or dingy (places built long ago, before the war). Some of the buildings are--as becomes painfully obvious--built for smaller people: door jams are too low for me; I get dizzy bumping my head until ducking becomes habit. Even with all the inconveniences and discomforts such as wearing those one-size only slippers--provided everywhere for guests--that are always too small (would it be impossible to have some made in larger sizes?), many here who live or work in dilapidated places are warm and friendly. Thereʼs an elderly couple who run a ramshackle bicycle shop nearby that has since been rebuilt. One day the old fellow brings over mountain vegetables he and his wife gathered by hand (and we, in time, reciprocate with something). Even though where I come from letting things in a such a state of disrepair--as it was--connects with low moral character (= low real estate value), these are fine people and they can go out of their way to be helpful. It's possible that instead of sinking money into repairs they use it for their children or grandchildren. The various childhood observances all seem to be costly, as are the extracurricular lessons that many believe are necessary for advancement. Too, it's hard to keep up with tremors and quakes. There can be a flip side to all the geniality--people can be arrogant or mean-spirited here as they can elsewhere. Is this a tea bowl in its "wabi" simplicity (poverty)? The tea artists absorbed the life around them, human and non-human.

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There are individuals with sensitive gentle minds. Beautiful people. Much gentler than I'm likely ever to be. (I need to accept the me I'm unacceptable to.) Do I come to Japan hoping for something somehow qualitatively different in people, something not in the spectrum of individuals in my native land? Or is it that there is no way of knowing what to expect, not really, and is that point itself an attraction? ***** Problems with respecting and appreciating life in Japan begin for me at work. It is not so much a problem with individuals. Some people, while fine in their own person, while maybe good natured enough, make it their daily business to try to thwart me with their trivial rules. Japanese come across this too, though many Japanese seem to more readily accept it all, possibly because they grew up with it. I do not like it. They do not do this intentionally: for them it is a matter of doing their job. Still, people here carry on in a way that seems more humane than the nasty-faced clerks in my home country. Are there fewer sour puss crabby clerks and officials here in Japan? Someone should conduct a survey. There seem to be enough uptight stressfaced Japanese who go by the manual, rule by little rule, maybe while going even foaming at the mouth. They, the Japanese in the workplace, would like me to respect their way of doing things, but isn't respect a two-way street? There is and has been, up front, a certain politeness, a sense of respect from the workplace Japanese towards me, which may be just formality. (“Polite” conversation can be extremely anemic, prudish, and boring.) On the other hand it seems that more and more busyness arises that requires me to fill out and turn in more and more forms; more and more trivialities pop up, nuisances, that in all truth I cannot interpret as signs of respect. Alas, bureaucracy. People bow, speak in polite formality, act with respectful attitudes towards each other, but then we are saddled with many truly irksome tasks. What, then, is "respect," really? Just a face people put on? Someday someone will write a book that will let us see the forces, largely under surface, at work in Japanese society, the submerged customs that still shape personalities and behaviors. When that book comes out will we see that the Japanese--like people elsewhere--though wanting to think of themselves as being modern and forward-looking are in some ways still tied to taboo and superstition? Or:

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Will a time come when we discover that our sense of who we are is fixed in a society that is organized and conducted by people who cannot be honest? With themselves or with anyone. Honesty is a way of seeing, one that is genuine, that comes from a place in us that is beyond value. As such it has no place in our world. People who see and say honestly are always outsiders. Mostly the Japanese I live among consider me a “special” member of some sort, an extended-stay guest, but only to the extent that I play along with their social games, comply with their rules, or in general fit in with their culture. ***** It is not that I shy away from work. I can dig in. If I feel motivated. But I have never learned to appreciate what seems to me to be meaningless, unnecessary work, which there is a great deal of here in Japan (the department store elevator girls even though the lifts are fully automated, or the ones who stand before an escalator bowing to customers) and which everyone seems to accept as elegant manners. Or filling out forms--in Japanese or English--that no one is likely to care about, just because it's seen as “duty” to fill out that form. I have to turn in the same form every year certifying that my educational status is unchanged. (Yes, I graduated from the same schools I reported twenty-five years ago.) There are oodles of examples. Too many annoying irrelevancies and things that defy common sense. This is not written about any one particular company or school; this is a review based on 33 years (at this writing) of work experience at various places in Japan. Someone from India tells me that Japanese like to make things difficult, more difficult than they need be. His is an opinion I share and it is comforting to hear it from someone from Asia, someone who is not American (or European). ***** The idea of not thinking of myself, that at the workplace one should selflessly manifest obedience and conformity, may be a ghost from Japan's feudal, Zen, or samurai militaristic past (or combination of them all) that haunts educational institutions even now. Many schools are what if not preparation sites for an authoritarian paternalistic corporate sector? The daishu ichinyo notion ("all acting as one") is administratively the easiest—which, to many, seems to mean “the best”--approach to some, or many, tasks, most of which no one really wants to do.

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Is there anything to the Zen sense that carrying out tasks selflessly will bring us enlightenment (that merging oneʼs mind with a Buddhaʼs mind will pull us away from always focusing on ourselves), or is this an ideological addendum imposed on Zen in order for its institutions to receive state recognition, land, or special financial concessions? It seems to me that in work we are each inwardly moved to do--as opposed to being assigned something by someone above us—there is more chance for individual growth as well as real social benefit. But does the male-dominated corporate nationalistic state really want people to grow? Or do they want people always children thinking, living, playing inside the box? ***** Meanwhile, back in the beginning, the schedule awaiting me at an "English conversation school" was Monday through Friday. My classes are all in the mornings and evenings. There is a two-hour class beginning at 10 a.m. and one beginning at 6:30 p.m. Afternoons are more or less open, though I am supposed to sit at my desk and make lesson plans or just sort of hang around the workplace making pretend Iʼm doing something. I don't; I go off to study Japanese or walk around getting acquainted with the city's downtown. My Japanese workmates may resent my several hours of freedom. If they do they keep it to themselves. What a "conversation school" is, here in Japan, or is at the time, is a for-profit entity that employs teachers of spoken English, teachers who come mostly from English-speaking countries, and I've heard that it helps if one is white. A white face, according to an article I read (written by a dark-skinned American of Hungarian ethnicity), has a higher market value as a teacher of English. Though native Japanese English speakers and people from other countries who are somewhat fluent in English occasionally turn up. Back then, most of the teachers in this city are from America, but now there are many from Australia, Canada, and the U.K. These teachers, with some teaching materials and usually at least some background preparation for language teaching, go into classrooms at their respective schools and try to do something with the Japanese people who are paying money to learn to speak English. English conversation here, or eikaiwa, is "real," or practical, English, supposedly aimed at actual communication. There is another kind of English, called Eigo, which is what is taught in most schools, public or private, within the educational system provided for in Japan's constitution. This is "English" that prepares a student for entrance exams. Juken eigo, exam English, is another way of saying it, but it isn't really language at all since no one can use it to communicate. The blur, again. Why must the English language be one of the tested subjects for entrance exams. Why is it there with math, social studies, etc.? The reasonable answer that comes to me is that in this age the English language is in widespread use all over
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the world and that for economic reasons some Japanese people would have some need to be able to communicate through English. If this is the case, then, why is the exam English education so insistently not training people to be able to communicate? How do all the practices and drills done in preparations for entrance exams translate into actual communication ability? One sort of examination exercise, to give a brief example, is making a meaningful sentence out of a jumble of words. It's like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Starting from: John _____ _______ ________ into ________ _________ and ______ _______ was _______ ________ __________ it. We must fill in the blanks from a jumbled word list [the, able, woods, to, hit, find, ball, the, one, no] And, if we do so correctly, we arrive at: John hit the ball into the woods and no one was able to find it. This exercise seems to involve the ability to construct a meaningful sentence from the few words given and from a list of mixed up words, and there is nothing so very wrong with that, but what communicative ability is engaged by this exercise? What communicative ability is developed? If a student does enough of these he or she would no doubt become good at doing this sort of language puzzle, but is doing a language puzzle the same as communicating? How does this puzzle play translate into reading skill or writing skill, or into listening or conversational ability? When we are reading a book or a newspaper are we mentally recognizing meaningful syntactic patterns from randomly scattered words? Doing such puzzle piecing exercises, will a learner become more able to read a newspaper article and make justifiable inferences from what is written? Will a learner become sensitive to a writerʼs tone, etc? Maybe at some level there is some connection between the exam exercise and actual reading skills, but reading, it seems to me, is a multidimensional act that involves much more than puzzling, and to reduce reading to that one dimension for teaching or for examining does not seem valid. Wouldn't it be more effective to just engage in communicative acts? (From what I'm told, entrance exam testing now is better than in the past. It used to be that an entire passage from a British writer such as Somerset Maugham had to be memorized verbatim.)

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The blur: how much of a person's communicative ability can be viewed through the dimension of a paper test? With such tests we are necessarily limited to what can be done with pencil on paper, to what can be arranged to fit a format: written language worked while sitting at a desk. We create an artificial environment and reduce language to whatever dimensions we think are measurable. Then we observe performance and make evaluations. I'm wondering if such artificiality and reduction isn't more a matter of convenience, of having some (supposedly rational and therefore justifiable) method of keeping some people out while letting others in. Language is not there on the paper. Paper, printing--the text you are reading now--is machine technology. What is happening is that machines--and those who control machines (which ultimately points to those who direct our societies--if indeed there can be said to be direction)--are determining for us, dictating to us, how we evaluate our language behavior. People with machines determine our way of learning. Marx is right about that. Language is in us and is inextricably entabernacled in our lives. Yet in academia, that "church of reason," we aggressively ignore language's inalienability. We are unable to let go of our treasured examinations. Why? Why don't the Japanese do away with English on the entrance examinations? I don't know. It seems reasonable to assume that if there is no more English on entrance exams, teachers at lower levels will be able to focus on English for communication. Like societies of the past with foot-binding and notions of evil left-handedness, those who control Japanʼs English education seem addicted to certain irrational behaviors. ***** My arrival here seems to mark a transition. Before me is a time when just about anyone can be hired to go into a classroom with any popular magazine, Sear's catalog, or Christian Bible, show some pictures, and come up with some sort of language learning activity. Instructors rely on ingenuity--not on readymade texts and drills. Statistically back then there are supposedly four jobs for every one gaijin teacher. It is around this time too that people begin talking about credentials. Certification is coming on the scene. A credential of some sort eventually becomes a power instrument, a means of getting in and at the same time a means of keeping others out. It is a status symbol too. People begin arriving with certification in TEFL. They presume to know a great a deal about language learning; I notice that few of them speak any foreign language. Once here not many acquire much Japanese. They can say the buzz words

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about language acquisition that they learn in classrooms, in texts, and in workshops back in their home country, but they have no personal sense of what they are doing. Can it be said that these certified "experts" are more effective than, say, a missionary teaching English with a Sear's catalog? Certainly edubiz [sic] is making money selling all those degrees. It is not as a specially trained language teacher that I come to Japan and to my new job. The course work I'd just completed at graduate school is in language (linguistics) and literature (British and American). Adventure spirit is in me. Life somewhere else has its appeal. Greener grass. It isn't as a motivated teacher I come. Teaching is something to do, something to try to do and do well if possible. As work, it has a beginning, it has an end. Back at Delaware I earn my tuition plus a stipend working as a teaching assistant (T.A.), teaching classes in remedial writing, or working with small groups of ESL students in a language center. I take a course in TEFL methodology. Otherwise my language studies are a course in grammars (structuralist, transformational-generative), a course in semantics, and a course in history of the English language. I am not a specialist in language teaching, but I am not completely ignorant of the current scene and its issues. Before leaving the U.S., I send off to myself by surface mail a box of teaching materials I collect at Delaware. In it there are sample lesson plans, activity sheets, a course book. Also in it is a book is about applying counseling learning, which is new on the scene then. It is by a man named Stevick. It is something that makes intellectual sense. I consider myself fairly up to pace with what is happening, in America at least. Other methods and approaches coming out at the time are the Total Physical Response method and the Aural Comprehension method. I am more up to date than most who are teaching here. Hot off the press, so to speak; new from the factory. Neither the administrative staff at the conversation school nor the other teachers have heard of any of these. The difficult if not impossible thing for me is trying to actualize any of these new approaches in a classroom of individuals who are in no way prepared for anything innovative, anything different from the routine classroom experiences they have since they start school as children. Each comes to a room with a preconceived--albeit personalized to some degree--notion of what a teacher is and what a student is, what a teacher does and what a student does. A teacher stands, often fixed in one spot at a podium, moving only to write on the board. A teacher instructs the students to repeat, to answer. A teacher corrects. A teacher gives examinations, and a teacher thoroughly prepares students so that they will be able to answer the questions on exams. In one class I try Stevick's technique of using different colored rods of various lengths. Some learners make fun of them. They are like a child's toys, one adult claims.

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Starting up work here is walking into a world in many ways--on the surface at least-quite different from my world at graduate school. In my head are new language teaching approaches that seem logical and wonderful on paper. People here, though, are conditioned already by an educational system and by their own culture. The theories I know from school are all by and for minds trained in Western thinking. Those theories required--though none of my readings state this point--an extending or widening of learnersʼ behavioral patterns to include those new dimensions the new theories propose to open. The task is not unlike that of a missionary, it seems, trying to convert someone to a different religion. I am not prepared for any of that. After that one methodology course at Delaware, my image of a learner is abstract: a learner is an object projected by a theory, a stick figure that appears in a textbook or manual, a fictional entity whose existence and behavior is authored by educational psychologists and learning theorists. A learner is a construction of a 20th century scientific modern Western mind. If that mind is wholly or in part insane or violent or greedy or jealous or racist, along with everything else, what then of that mind's constructions? In my training it is true that brief mention is made about a need to make language teaching theory and methodology culturally sensitive, which means that the theories and methodologies themselves are insensitive. They are things concocted in a laboratory, so to speak, in metaphorical test tubes. They come from Western academia (and all it encompasses, for better or for worse), and they are based on a particular mode of conceptualizing things. The theories are abstract, purposely made that way, and are, supposedly, relevant anywhere, anytime, and in any circumstances. Such theories are called universal. A human being is a speck of dust in a universe. Theories move across boundaries. That fact might be a kind of intellectual imperialism: one mode of knowing and living spreads over the earth: oil rigs at the South Pole, trash in outer space. At grad school we are lead to believe that this is all very heady stuff we are taking in. It is intoxicating to think how intelligent and wonderful we are, knowing so much. But, who knows, someone looking in from outside our Western curtain might dismiss our knowledge scene as sterile, stuffy, racist, and dangerous. *****

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What those Japanese who gather with me in classrooms are exposed to since junior high school when English language instruction begins for them, the standard fare they all are required to undergo, focuses on learning for entrance exams (juken eigo). As mentioned earlier, here in Japan English is one of the subjects tested on entrance exams for high schools and universities. English language for these exams is not authentic; it is "adjusted" (adulterated) in ways that makes it into a power instrument: a means--with test scores and all the connected rigmarole--of keeping certain people out of the establishment, away from sources of social, political, and economic power. My students--at the conversation school they are mostly adults--come from a learning environment in which English language learning difficulties are fabricated. English language learning for them is more a social rite of passage than an attempt at learning to communicate with other human beings. The individuals who come to my class have come through the ozei takamashiku uniformed regimented experience that standard education is in Japan. Most male school kids--junior through senior high--when I come to this country wear uniforms that are black and which seem to me military in style. Others are in neckties with blue blazers and gray slacks that make them look like aspiring company drones in their sarari [sic] man suits. Even their belt's color is predetermined. Girls wear sailor girl uniforms modeled, I hear, on schoolgirl dress in England. These remind me of those required by catholic schools back in the U.S. School children do not appear unhappy. Most seem bright-eyed and cheerful. Some mope around looking gloomy, or as if they are burdened by some weighty emotional matter. The cheerful countenance may be the way children are taught they are supposed to look: a face to put on. On an elementary schoolʼs gate, a sign reads (which I render in English): It never fails to refresh, a "good-morning" and a smile. It is considered unsocial to look as if you are bored or disgusted or down or gloomy, even if you are. That's the way street punks look: angry, down, disagreeable. One is supposed to "perk up" and appear genki (good, up, happy, cheerful, energetic), to not bring everyone else down. In a way that's true about where Iʼm from too. We learn to overcome whatever is bothering us and put on a smile for everyone. Or at least that was the case back home, in my family and to lesser extent at school. Why all the dullness, the concrete, the walls painted gray, the dark uniforms, the rainy day surroundings? Maybe it doesn't seem drab to them. Why arenʼt there big yellow smiley faces painted on walls? A scene from a movie comes to mind. It is set in Calcutta and there is a local oyabun, or chief thug, a Mr. Big who controls everything in "his" part of the city. He is explaining to the main character, played by Patrick Swayze, how to keep the locals obedient, docile, easily manipulated. He uses chickens to get his point across. Left unfettered the chickens run all around and get into different things and make mischief, but if you put a
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heavy weight around their necks--in the form of small sandbags--they remain peacefully in one place. Is this connected at all with the social practice here of keeping young people uniformly dressed in drab clothing, of keeping them busy almost every day--including Sundays and summer vacations--throughout the year with school club activities? Just to keep them off the streets, out of mischief? Teenage crime is certainly much less than where I come from. ***** It is difficult to register these Japanese who are with me in a classroom as "other." To be in such close physical proximity and then to have to step back and think of them as like me yet also unlike me, different, from a different scene: it isnʼt easy. It is natural to think of others with us at a certain time and place as "WITH ME," so "LIKE ME." I do that, project myself onto a scene and cast the various elements there according to my liking. Bad habit. Is it helpful to regard those we live among as "other," separate, different, distant, and to respond to them from that removal? Is there any choice? Does an appreciation of diversity require me to step back and hold my own personalized reading on a leash? Much of their behavior--all but what touches me deeply--I am unable to respond to; there is no conditioning in my native environment. Mothers, housewives, would tell me their son or daughter is taking entrance exams that year. I think to myself "so what?" What I don't understand is that in telling me about their child's exams the mother is telling me that the situation in their home is taihen (strained or difficult). Other Japanese would immediately respond in sympathy since they already are geared to what happens in many Japanese households when children have to sit for entrance exams. Such exams don't exist back home apart from SATs, but no one I know prepares much for them. I don't, and it isn't a taihen situation in my family. Life goes along as usual, no big adjustments. This Japanese mother is telling us she cannot attend our year end class party because her child is studying for exams. Another tells me she had to give up her part time job because her child is studying for exams, so she can be at home. It is difficult to empathize with someone in a scene I have no sense of. She feels a motherly duty to go through “examination hell” with her child. Those I live among, am still living among, theirs is a world in which their thinking and behavior runs more rather than less in line with grooves that are laid out long ago. Custom. In some ways people are connected with age old tradition and in some ways connected with what is called modern.

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Not yet completely divorced from a vaguely Western/American view of things, my social and cultural origins are still with me, for better or for worse. That Western view of things itself has been shaped by events and by the various conditions that lead to what happens. Widespread changes that come with science, exploration, modernization, industrialization, with their various psycho-social repercussions (i.e. a nuclear family mode of living instead of an extended family atmosphere). These create isolation. Being peripheral in Japan is an exclamation mark on all the conditioning--often painful--that comes before. These large scale happenings--of which Perry and the black ships are one instance-impact the Japanese too though not always in the same way. That story's narrative includes an underlying racist superior/inferior agenda. The people in my classroom maybe look at me from an isolation, but was there the additional distinction that they are looking at a person belonging to a group of “white” Western people who long ago cast the Japanese and others--because of their non-whiteness--in an inferior role in our human drama? Although "race" (skin color-based ideology I mean) never appears on the surface of my interactions with people here, the fact of my foreignness does. That foreignness though, in my case, means Westerner, and is the fact that Western is “white” a matter that is best left unsaid, for fear of losing face? Or is just that Japan--unlike America--is not traditionally a skin color driven culture? As well as being set off by foreignness, it may be that here too--as in my home country-I am stuck with a particular color and the world wide web spun for that color long before my birth. (Why is it that in order to learn from those I live among I must learn of my own life? Why is it that self knowledge and knowledge of the other occur as one? Is it because the seer is the seen, the observer the observed?) ***** It's not that the Japanese are totally without a free flow of spontaneous behavior, but, in Japan, ceremony, formality, and custom occupy a much larger dimension of social experience than they do in the America of my youth. Perhaps it is because my life in America is as a young person that makes it seem so free of formality. As an adult my development in America is negligible: I am 26 at departure. Many, like the mother in our class, are--in our group situation at least--not locked in but attached to their custom-governed way of life. Some are attached more strongly than others.

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What--to me--is tedious conformity to prescribed behavior is accepted and important to the way of life here. Still, many Japanese don't seem to like cold formality. They like formality--authority--with a warm, smiling, big-brotherly face: mama and papa the state ideological apparatus. They like formality and officialdom as a structuring force, a social reference, and that force seems to put them at ease, make them feel at home and secure even if to me feels uncomfortable: tense and unnecessary. It is interesting, too, that even though on the one hand people revere officialdom, on the other it seems it is a source of humor that verges on ridicule. This is privately, though, and quietly. ***** A British teacher once tells me that the students who come our way (non-Japanese teachers) are already "educationally damaged," by which this person means that they are conditioned to be unimaginative, unoriginal, and verbally unresponsive "learners" (or perhaps "non-learners" would be a better word), that they are trained to function within the comparatively narrow parameters of standard education, parameters which themselves are the disabling force. What the person seems to be saying, ironically enough, and no matter whether I agree, is that our Japanese students have been conditioned in ways that are inconvenient to "us" (non-Japanese Westerners) but that are convenient for the powers that direct Japanese society. ***** Is education an attempt to convert someone, to train another to accept certain things about themselves (identity, career, patriotism and other such corporate-state sponsored brainwashing) and their world? Or is it to allow a person to come to a wider, deeper, fuller appreciation of the Unknown, of life itself? Coming here as a young man largely ignorant of the numerous forces--besides home, school and to some extent religion--in my own society that condition me, there is next to nothing that helps me gain a sense of what happens to these Japanese people in their worlds. What else is there--at a loss confronting these others--but to fall back on, to grasp hold of, my own Western background and its various attitudes and imaginings. Even though I do not know where these come from, they are what there is. Do I think the Japanese and their ways of doing things are somewhat backwards, not as efficient as, not as developed as, not equal to, Americans'?

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There for me in my backgroundʼs cultural tapestry is the idea that liberal morality and individualistically democratic society are things the Japanese want or need, that they want to raise themselves to America's level. (Some Japanese do look to America as a model and see it as being "ahead" of Japan, if only a materialistic superiority. Some.) ***** The ones who come to my classroom—back in my early days at the English language school--are looking for novelty more than anything else. Only it is not novelty in learning styles they are after. Is diversion a factor in their presence? Are my foreign face, my foreign voice, my foreign attitudes entertainment? For some, being there is an escape: an "educational" excuse to get away from the house and its endless things that need doing. It may be liberating for some. For others it is a chance to keep active, to study something, to polish and improve, to gain merit. That is what they tell themselves, or what their society tells them. Many Japanese are always studying something. Diversion is partly why they come. It's partly why I am here too. Here we are: housewives young, middle age, or older, retired businessmen, grandmothers and grandfathers, a college kid here and there, a few college professors. Some do have some degree of interest in English and pursue English study as they would a hobby. Some are planning a trip abroad or planning to study abroad and want to brush up their English. Some are there after taking classes in ceramics for a few years or are into water colors before. What is frustratingly obvious to me is that few who come to my classes are willing to put forth the effort needed--and it is a significant effort--to attain fluency or anything like it. Please remember that I am just out of graduate school where I worked in a language center where students from abroad are mostly highly motivated. Not to be judgmental but, compared to the students back in America, those in this conversation school are out for a picnic, a leisurely drive in the country. Mostly they come--if there is no other event that interferes (PTA meeting, etc.)--take part in that day's two hour activities, and leave off English until next weekʼs class. English study for many of them is closed within a space and time. It might prove helpful if we understand certain things about our students. Many teachers project students who are ideal motivated learners. That is how our theories and textbooks have them. Our expectations, assumptions, and frustrations stem from that illusion. Illusions come with the territory. Else how would one even make a textbook or plan of study, one that recognizes that many of the "learners" are really not interested? What would such a textbook have in it: so many blank pages? Now it can be understood why we, in our profession, distance ourselves from the sometimes dismal reality. It's likely that we need to. Distancing may be a survival skill. Likewise we want to think of ourselves as ideal motivated teachers because we are certified and we are professional and we attend conferences, go to workshops, publish
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and keep abreast. Yet many of us don't really want to know what it is we teach. Few of us have a good sense of words ourselves. A “sense of language" is not one of the requirements we need to get certified. There is a workshop, one presentation at which is billed as a technique to be introduced that will “force students to think creatively.” During the question and answer session someone asks the presenter--not in a flippant tone--if she thinks “forces" is the right word. “Well,” she replies, “I was in a hurry.” ***** Observing actual performance, looking for possible improvement, very few practice the words, the pronunciations, the expressions or phrases that are introduced in class; very few practice them at home, repeating them the many times that is necessary in a fabricated learning environment (in which they are not immersed totally in the foreign language-culture). Almost no one understands the kind of commitment language learning requires. There is little or no sense of language as an art. Where is the Samurai spirit? The movie The Last Samurai is playing at the cinema now. Where is the quest for perfection, the discipline? Few care whether they become good at it or not. Nor does their school care much. Individuals coming to my classes are neither artists nor samurai. Are any truly dedicated or devoted to any particular pursuit in life? Maybe they are devoted mothers, loyal sarari men, or whatever. ***** There is one fellow, Mr. Abe, whose limbs are crooked, whose legs and arms are in braces. He needs crutches to get around. His jaw is deformed too so that even his native speech is hard to understand. Mr. Abe decides to study spoken English. Many Japanese would applaud Mr. Abe's gambaru spirit. The classroom on the day he enrolls for is on the third floor; there is no elevator. Up the stairs he goes on his rear end using his crutches to push. Then down when class finishes. Privately I wonder why Mr. Abe does not choose something his particular condition will allow him to do. No protest or complaint comes from me, even though he needs intensive speech therapy. Maybe the garbled language he comes out with is the result of years of speech therapy. There is no such background information available and I am too timid to ask. It is possible that psychologically Abe-san needs the empowerment (supposedly) attainable from challenging something so utterly impossible for him as spoken English.

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The group that day--a Thursday morning--is an intermediate class. Class level is a fairly meaningless designation. Mr. Abe has no English. He's been to a special school at which English is not offered. That doesn't matter to the conversation school. They disregard ability whenever it is convenient, and it is always convenient to get someone's fee (= accommodate their wishes). For that matter, the school's administration doesn't have too many principles when it comes to education. They are obviously interested in making money and keeping the customers happy so if a student stops by the office to complain that my class is too difficult the manager summons me, tells me to keep the level low. Students truly interested in language learning would not come to this school. They'd go to some special foreign language school in Tokyo or Osaka or go abroad into an intensive course. My own expectations are mistaken, misplaced; I wrongly assume students will be motivated and try hard. It's best to have no assumptions at all; then there will be no disappointment. ***** It cannot be said that I am a highly motivated teacher. I do not spend much time preparing classroom activities. Mostly itʼs so simple no preparation is required. I pursue my own interests. I tell myself that if students are not really going to try, why go to all that trouble. One aspect of my coming to Japan is diversion. My intention is not to be a zealous English teacher 24/7 but to do a decent job and then let it go. I want to look around Japan, absorb it, drink it in (literally and figuratively), learn something different, flirt with Zen, talk with people, check out the women, frolic in nighttime neon--not spend six days a week in a classroom doing rudimentary English conversation. Teaching English is not something I dream of doing, but something to do while I dream, some way to make a living. Even so, I am expecting students who really want to learn. If the goal is not fluency or functionality or some greatly improved degree of competency, then why bother with language learning? Why do we gather in a classroom? (There are some, it's true, who are already quite good at English, who just want to keep their skills tuned up.) If we're not going to try to be "good" at it then what are we doing? Are such thoughts my own Protestant ethic corporate state social training: always looking for results? Have I forgotten my own youth, the way I go out to a friend's backyard to shoot hoops or play a pickup game, lightly playing just for fun--not necessarily trying to “excel?” I am not paying to be coached, though. Money as criterion. Am I blaming students for just wanting to enjoy themselves? To do that should they be paying someone to coach them?

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Proficiency in another language is not essential here, not for living in Japan as a Japanese. Not now anyway. People can get along fine without it. Otherwise they'd find a way to better acquire a foreign language. Maybe Japan will find a way to do away with all the hard work and commitment and let it all be just fun and Mickey Mouse. Why would any school--public, private, university, or for-profit conversation school--offer language classes in which the ultimate goal is not proficiency or becoming "good" at it? Is it because there is money in it? The less students learn the more they're told they need to study the more courses they will enroll in, the more materials (CDs, DVDs, textbooks, dictionaries paper and electronic) they will buy, the more English educational TV programs they will watch, the more money comes in? Is a school training people NOT to be good at something? Are schools and teachers getting paid to undermine actual learning, getting paid to NOT do a job well? Government propaganda regarding English language learning can give conflicting cues. Some politicians push it. One, condoning it, at the same time cautioned youngsters not to learn it too well because their soul is in the Japanese language. When a leader--at a national level--makes a statement saying that Japanese should learn English but not learn it too well because their Japanese soul is in their Japanese language it is easy for an “educated” person to dismiss it as atavistic, rear guard, ethnocentric rubbish. Looked at another way, though, it makes me curious as to just what is ethnocentric and what is reaction to Western racist cultural imperialism (which comes now in a new, softer version, with a more color-friendly packaging). Because it does appear that with language comes culture, and that if learned effectively English language will implant Western assumptions into a learner's head. What a learner does or might do with those acquired ways of seeing I cannot say, but since those Western assumptions traditionally have contained beliefs about skin color values and much other nasty business, concern is understandable. Will learning English result in a colonization of mind? On the other hand, it is likely that Japanese young people are exposed to enough ethnocentric conditioning from native sources to counterbalance any perils in English language learning. Young people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, pulled by supposedly opposing forces. Society itself is a culprit. It conditions us to acquire knowledge in a personal, egocentric dimension. “Intelligence” is seen as being for “my god,” for “my country,” for “my family,” or for “me.” In that way any amount of knowledge doesnʼt help--it warps us, twists us. Instead of being an aid to our survival, knowledge becomes ignorance as it helps perpetuate our worlds of division, conflict, and destruction. Is, then, the whole enshrining of Nihongo the national language--by TV scholars, nationalist linguists and intellectuals—with its glorious beauty and total uniqueness--the dwelling/telling place of Japanese souls--in fact a retreat--in the face of English language/Western culture's onslaught--into pride?
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***** Let's have a good time then. That is my conclusion at the time, back then at the conversation school. Picking up more Japanese language, I am gradually able to converse in the language my students speak. Basic conversation. I begin using Japanese with classes; I am now like Japanese teachers who teach English through Japanese language. It is much easier that way. Trying to conduct a class using English only is a very frustrating experience. I tell myself I am not being paid enough for all that frustration. There is a teacher named Robert, young like me. He is sitting one afternoon at his staff room desk with his head in hands and when he looks up at me I see that his eyes are watered. “Why can't they understand even simple basic English . . . elementary school stuff! They've all had English for at least six years! They all sit there as if they're deaf and dumb!” Robert; he left after one year. Such is the scene. It is my discovery (contrary of course to what my training teaches, which is that it is unprofessional, unscientific--not beneficial to my students--to use their language) that students become more lively if I mix Japanese with English, and if I respond to Japanese if they chose to use it. Their listening ability is not enough to let them listen to a several minute stream of English giving them instructions about an exercise. Even if instructions are in print in a textbook, some students do not get what they are supposed to do. I say things in both languages, and let them use their own language. Then I tell them how to express what they have on their mind in English. Mostly though no one bothers to write down what I tell them or write on the board. One fellow does. One day he tells me that he has twenty-four notebooks filled with what I've said in class. Yes, there is a blessed one once every so many years, someone committed to learning. God bless Mr. Murayama. At the conversation school we aren't supposed to give exams or grades or any of the traditional schoolroom fare that demands an amount of student (customer) work or preparation. It is all for "fun," and to make it seem rigorous would get in the moneymaking way. *****

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How do the members of our groups view me? Do they see me, Scott Watson, that which my name labels? Do they see AMERICAN (= superpower, supernation, superman)? Do they see a young white male, a foreigner-possible-crime-perpetrator, a non-Japanese therefore possibly dangerous evildoer, possibly one of the dregs of humanity who has washed up on Japan's shores, a foreign devil bringing bad culture to their sacred land? Are they afraid of foreigners? Would they approve if their daughter wants to marry one? Do they have some insular inbred fear of foreign people? Are they appreciative that I've come this long way to help them learn English? I can't answer for everyone. Back then it never occurs to ask them what they think of me. If they don't like me they will not pay their fees, they will change classes, drop out, take up bird watching? Some attend a few times and are never seen again. A few who improve I advise to move up to a higher level but they do not want to change; they enjoy my class. “My” class: class atmosphere is an important thing, more important than progress with the language, and it does not really mean they like ME; it means the environment is one in which they feel comfortable. I am just one element in creating a group scene--not the prime mover. Whether there is someone friendly to sit next to is just as important as who the teacher is. At times there are class organized social gatherings. They always bring me into these. We go to English movies. We go sight-seeing and cherry blossom viewing. There are year end parties and home barbecues. There is even a dance party while the movie Shall We Dance (the original Japanese) is at the cinema. ***** People constantly ask my advice on how to improve their English. It is sort of a stock question. There are superficial signs of motivation but not much actual improvement. Eventually my own disappointment--though it doesn't bring me to tears as with Robert-moves me to try to understand my students' backgrounds, especially as related to spoken English. The first item I find is an article in an encyclopedia outlining the Japanese government's policy on education and its statement of the purpose of education. About English I read--in Kodansha's Encyclopedia of Japan--that since the end of the war (WWII) the focus in Japanese schools has been on spoken English. That is very interesting because every day I am in contact with people who haven't progressed very well in their school studies in spoken English. If that is what they have been doing those six years, three in junior high and three in high school. What happened? How much can we trust what an encyclopedia says? So much for the bushido spirit, the pursuit of perfection? Maybe it is unfair to mention The Last Samurai, all that Hollywood stuff up on the silver screen. Maybe perfection is something else here, if it is anything at all. There are tea bowls that are bent, lopsided, not smooth, so you might think they are made by a physically challenged person, but these are appreciated as art in the Japanese tea bowl world.
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I recall arriving in Sendai the first time. There is a family I stay with for three weeks, my homestay host family. It is very kind of them to have me. There is a daughter in junior high school and a son in high school. One evening son brings out a textbook for his English course. Indeed there is "spoken English" there on the page. Yet Hide--who has already three years of English in junior high--cannot, as a second year high school student, say very much of anything in English. There it is. The language is still there on the page. Here is--so far as I recall--a dialogue from Hide's text: Taro: Hello. How are you? Hanako: I'm fine, thank you. My name is Hanako. Please tell me your name. Taro: My name is Taro. I am a boy. Hanako: It's nice to meet you, Taro. Taro: I have a dog. My dog's name is "Gen." ...... The youngsters must be fascinated with such fare. This, remember, is the fifth year of English learning. Then there are drills on using the possessive case and on intonation for forming questions, which is why many come away with, if they come away with anything at all, an artificially high pitch at the end of a question, following the upward pointing intonation arrow in their books, like a jet taking off into the sky. Glancing at the new vocabulary list for that lesson, each English word listed is followed by its pronunciation, but the pronunciation key is in the Japanese katakana script. Katakana is used mainly for transcribing foreign words into Japanese. What makes it absurd for use as a pronunciation key is that a word that is for example one syllable in English might be pronounced as two or more sound units in the katakana system. My name, Scott, becomes four units through this katakana rendering: SU-KO-(tsu)-TO. People come into my classes having learned that the "official" school and government (Education Ministry) approved pronunciations for even simple words like "and" "if" "but" are AN-DO, I-FU, BAT-TO. They are never even required to try to learn the target language pronunciations. Years later, with a family of my own and one son in a Japanese junior high school, I go to a "parent participation day" and sit in on an English lesson. A paper is passed around on which the learning objectives are listed. It is all very professional and efficient33

looking. Itʼs done on a computer. One objective is to introduce "Do you like ___?" Various words are to be substituted to fill in the blank. One is be-su-boh-ru. Their teacher does not teach them how to say “baseball.” The pronunciation is ignored because that teacher cannot pronounce it correctly? I sit in my little desk watching as my son and others do this "conversational practice" by going around the room asking each other "Do you like BE-SU-BOH--RU?” No one requires them to do it right; they just go on and on from one grade to the next without ever having to pronounce the words the way a native English speaker might. It is clear why so much of the language that is supposed to be English is so utterly unrecognizable. Years after my experience at a conversation school, teaching now at a university, I realize how much time and effort it would require--the one-on-one work that would be needed--to correct all the language damage each individual has sustained during the six years of compulsory "education." There just isn't time and that there aren't many-students or teachers--who really want to make the effort. They need language "therapy," pronunciation rehabilitation clinics, etc. There are spoken English classes at some universities with seventy or ninety or even more students. ***** It is amazing how complex conversation is. A conversation classroom, you would think, would be just as multifarious, at least more so than the standard academic lectures where an instructor explains things a, b, c. There's the psycho-social dimension, one aspect of which is how to help students overcome fear--hence lack of confidence and shyness; there's the mind-spirit dimension: how to "read" the underlying intent of what is being said, the sense of the language and sense of the person; there's the cultural background (the humor, the irony, the sarcasm, the code of manners...); there's the total unpredictability of a spoken event, not to mention the more traditional aspects such as pronunciation and sentence structure. Plus, there's the dimension of what is a sort of acting ability (it might be called) when it comes to a student learning to convey feeling in a foreign language. Conversation is rich. It's a jungle of diversity: all that is going on in a speech act. Regular academic classes might seem one-dimensional by comparison. ***** The school scene reflects the way the land itself is uglified [sic] while undergoing industrialization. Japan is not the only such country to be made ugly by its inhabitants in the name of progress, or profit. Nor is Japan the only country where the learning act is co-opted by a corporate state, which is what all the statistics and grading systems feed on and into.
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We breathe devastation every day. Many Japanese tell me "Japan is a beautiful country." In a way it's precious that they think it is. It is, in many places, still, beautiful. Yet would one want to hum “America the Beautiful” on a walk through one of its slums? Babbitt way back in a Sinclair Lewis novel by that name goes by train on a trip from the Midwest headed east and, at one point, looking out his window, marvels at the scenery; Babbit thinks the factory-blighted landscape he sees is beautiful, inspiring. All the factories, all the production going on! Flames from tall stacks! Smoke. It is true that there are places of fine scenic beauty still around in Japan, though often, as tourist destinations, they're covered with hotels and inns, with souvenir shops and, lately, with fast food restaurants. Such places are buzzing with busloads of jabbering sightseers. Do I care about any of this when I am younger? It is true that leaves turning yellow, orange, and red in the mountains are a gorgeous sight but these places are not what most of us see every day where we live and work. We see power boxes, transformers, power lines. Our ears are filled with trucks rumbling, sounds of engines and rubber on asphalt. Besides that, the mountain roads are bumper to bumper during foliage time; many view what they do from a car's window, or from a charter bus with it's uniformed tour guide's ceaseless microphoney [sic] narration. What we, most of us, are exposed to is advertisements all over everything everywhere. Riding a public subway means we must look at ads all over the walls and ceilings. We are a captive audience; itʼs as if our eyelids are taped open for this forced viewing. People have been "taught" to think their country is "beautiful" without being given a chance to develop their own sense of what beauty is, if it is anything at all. In the same way, many, if asked, will praise Japanese schools, particularly the ones each attended. This comes from school pride no doubt. I have pride in my old school too. That is honest. It is honesty restricted to a particular dimension. On the whole, I'd have to say that it is a poor excuse for real learning. Asked what education is for them, many students here respond that it is a chance. Yes, education--if it is really education--is a chance, but the fact that so many respond in the same way, often with the same words, suggests that this is a conditioned response, like the way people answer at job interview questions: always with an uplifting retort. It becomes a matter of telling people in authority what they want to hear. That's the safe way. Say one thing in that place, something else in another setting. *****

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In learning about the Japanese, one comes across the "samurai ethic." Parts of that ethic are appropriated for the convenience of the powers that be--all the "morality" that is needed to legitimize all the moneymaking teaching going on. The buzz words are "responsibility," "pride," "loyalty." All the greed, needless destruction, and uglification is disguised as order, harmony, and morality. "Honorable" work. At the conversation school I ask for a raise. The answer is "no": my contract does not encompass the possibility of my getting married and needing more money. The attitude in which this reply is given, though, is that I am a selfish American who doesn't in the least understand the Japanese cultural principle of being a loyal teacher who serves and sacrifices and does what's best for the school. It is that old "serve the feudal lord" samurai spiel. Meanwhile a school takes money from it customers, gives them little real education, and puts Mr. Abe in an intermediate class. They are happy with that because they are behaving in a Japanese way. The medium is the message? Mcluhan came up with the expression after a visit to Japan. There is obvious satisfaction in being a "good Japanese," which is something like a "good person" in English, or "a good Christian," which seemingly is what life's really all about and which brings it all in line with what it's all about in the West as well. It is all about suffering in illusion, the mess of notions concerning our own goodness that we proposition ourselves with and mostly come to accept because without a potential belief in our own goodness what's the point of being who you think you are? ***** My own schooling is all about absorbing Western/American approaches to life. "Life" means the commercial-religious way of life Western civilization prescribes, or, in some cases dictates. One acquires a belief system to spiritualize the territory, the eating and killing field. We bow our heads, say grace before we chow down. We construct a Godbacked work ethic before we "do good" by consuming a river or a forest. A "good American" is supposedly patriotic, which strangely always connects with supporting our nation's military enterprise ( = racket). For God and country. We are taught the Boy Scout virtues. I remember the army-looking uniform. There is much said about good citizenship. What is meant by “a good Japanese"? Is it someone who does what he or she is told? Someone who serves the power structure? Someone who doesn't cause trouble, doesn't rock the boat except when there is group support--labor unions and that sort of thing? My schooling was about acquiring ways to perpetuate a Western way of life through Western attitudes and modes of being. Knowledge is part of it. "Logical" thinking is another. "Validity"--all these are ways to worship the system.

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The alumni offices at each of the three universities I make my way into all manage to track me to the other side of the earth. They send me envelopes hoping for my annual "pledge" of financial support. Words like "loyalty" and "gratitude" appear in their letters. I remember how long it takes one of those schools--when I am a student--to send someone to fix the plumbing in my dormitory, how much care there is for me as an individual or for anyone else. At our dormitory at William & Mary, called James Blair Terrace, there are cock roaches all over the place. Rat shit in the halls. Plumbing backed up, toilets that won't flush, communal showers and baths so filthy I donʼt want to bathe, afraid of contracting a disease just stepping in a stall. Few clean up after themselves. Immature, still. There is a permanent crew employed. What do they do? An old black man mops a floor, takes trash out to a dumpster. Everyone says it's a good school. I call the dorm the James Blair Terror. Blair was the founder of W&M. It was financed by tax on tobacco and duty on furs and animal skins. It is education of the masses out of which I come and into which I enter here. Mass education. We learned the mass, the secular mass, the masturbation of the civ-dot-com we grow up to work in and worship and warship. To endure. That's supposed to be a good thing. It was in the samurai movie Morie, Jimmy, and I recently see. Endure hardships. Good for the character, good for the spirit, good for being a good Japanese, a good person. Goody goody goody. I'm becoming a samurai. Iʼm becoming Samuel Beckett. Samurai Sam. I don't know which. The school scene at one level is about knowing but leaves me often at a loss as to what it's all about, what it's supposed to be for. There are students who take an interest in things. That makes it good, otherwise it seems so often a waste of time. There are students who shut down, complaining that the learning environment, the classroom atmosphere, is uninspiring; they come to class and go to sleep. They're bored, they complain, the teacher is not stimulating; the student talks to a neighbor, does work unconnected with the lesson, puts on mascara, or texts a friend. What students mostly see of a teacher is his or her back since many teachers spend a great deal of time writing on a chalkboard, or a teacher lectures, drones into a microphone; the students passively receive the package of talk. There is little or no discussion. Yet I go on doing my job, even trying to do what I do well, to make a sincere effort even though I know it may be futile. Will anyone benefit? *****

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How much emotional contact is made in school? What contact is there with a field of knowledge? Is it all mostly shadows with no real substance? A good teacher--one who feels the experience--would he or she even be allowed into the system? Things are set up to keep open-eared open-eyed openhearted individuals out. People geared to the system are wanted. No one else. On the other hand, what truly sensitive being would want into the dull, company-like grind? Too many rules. Too much bureaucracy. Too much knowledge covered with the dust of state or corporate or social sanction. Too little that is fresh and alive. It is interesting that when the need for change is sensed, when the Japanese feel they need to renew or update their ways of learning, the changes that do occur come through the educational bureaucrats--the ones who are at least part of the problem to begin with, who, with all their possibly well-intended planning and governing, kill spontaneity. ***** Teaching-learning is best and naturally done as we interact with others. There is life in language. Language is for life. If we can't feel them they're just words, words on a page, words in the Taro and Hanako talking text. One dimensional. Without substance. There has to be some feeling in them, some plea. For life. These are my personal observations of the scene. The happenings the memories the inconsistencies and my own egotistical twistings. I'm not a perfectly objective observer if there can be such a being. Martin Buber says a teacher needs to learn from students. What if the scene is one in which we are not allowed to be fully human? What if it's an overall scene in which we don't see each other as humans? There it is: the point exactly, that the seeing act and all it arises from is what makes us human. To not have this vision dehumanizes us. Language, ultimately, comes from life--the way our species came to live it--and isn't the feel of life loveʼs? Aren't my students life's too? They are but many don't see it. Nor do I see all. Our concerns are routed elsewhere, away from essentials. It is all life, but depending on each individual's path it is seen in various ways. Some choose to focus on what grade is received. How many points. How many words we know. How prestigious is the school we attend--all the socially and scientifically reinforced ways of being. Those people are able to look at things that way. It's just that some ways are more destructive than others, and some ways preclude others. People walking along, eyes riveted on a cell phone text: how is it they cannot hear the grasshopper at their feet?
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***** Can learners invent and create on their own with English, a language which exists for them solely within the confines of a textbook, as a schoolroom's predetermined exercises? English for them is so much chalk on a blackboard. So many structured activities. A teacher's voice directing lessons at them. More recently a computer screen is added. English is something programmed at a distance; English is problems to be solved on a test. It is a personless dimension, a faceless, voiceless, void; a dead language. Who kills it? English in their lives means--beyond the entrance exam complex--getting a certain score on a TOEFL test or TOEIC, for being employed; English for them exists for commerce and economics. It is banished from the realm of living and dying beings. It is not felt. It has no weight. The intelligence that organizes our education comes mostly from monoculture, which is the same culture that mass produces hamburgers. Teachersʼ thinking too tends to be conditioned by corporate-bureaucracy directed monoculture. Its tentacles reach everywhere. Bureaucrats determine the way teachers are trained. This is reflected, for example, in a freshman composition classroom (at an American university), how we are told to keep to the point in writing: "Don't meander!" Another rule. Or how we are taught to structure our writing according to main topics and supporting details with all the Roman numeral and letter outlining as if our writing is a Greco-Roman edifice. It's as if the only possible form writing can take is that which is sanctioned by bureaucrats: the essay that compares and contrasts, this kind of essay and that kind of essay. That is the way writing is taught in universities. No serious writer I know of works like that. (Granted, there aren't many serious writers with us.) Genuine writers mull things over; their writing comes from long gestation. Then they cut and change, they revise and revise and revise until it feels right, until it is fecund. They don't organize their writing the way students are taught in college composition classes. Professors, though, do often write as they were taught in school to write, they write to please bureaucrats and to please other professors. They write for their own little closed circuit academic worlds. Their writing touches no one deeply. Whom else would academic writing interest? That is a matter best left to a reader's taste. In the same way that some people don't seem to mind living among grey concrete buildings or breathing stale air, there are those who don't object to a certain kind of writing. Maybe they don't know any better. Our senses have been dulled.

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***** How much do these youngsters really want to know? There are quite a few who don't take notes who don't practice or review or prepare who come ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes late to class chronically and those who don't come at all who aren't seen and schools are being blamed, blamed by society, blamed by the media, blamed by the government, blamed by parents, blamed by the kids themselves when they graduate and travel abroad only to discover that they never really learned enough English to communicate and can't speak in a way that is recognizable to anyone. It's all the schools' fault, supposedly. People on TV, university professors even, perpetuating the Nihongo Myth, explain to viewers why Japanese people have trouble speaking English. It's because, one says, of the structure of the language center of the Japanese brain. English--Japanese fumbling with English--is ridiculed on T.V. Kids and adults make fun of each other, their "broken" English, their Japanese English. It's something to play with, as well as a form of social leverage, something to snub others with--even adults, even "educated" people. "I can speak English and you can't." "I can't speak English and you can." Something to mark out a territory, to identify who belongs to what clique. Exclusion or inclusion. There are psycho-social dimensions to English language learning in Japan that do not exist for other languages. Does anyone in a school know, really, what language is for? The students, the administrators, even the teachers: do they know what it's for? Corporate Japan seems to provide a master narrative, one that is in line with an international corporate totalitarian goal of control without responsibility, though it isnʼt yet clear to me whether anyone or everyone who works in a corporation is fully aware of the psychological and social outcome of their activity. Corporate Japan needs more effective English speakers to more effectively do business on an international scale. For example, the Japanese govt. + pharmaceutical industry + medical school complex wants their doctors to better be able to present their research papers in English at international conferences, acquire more international patents, which translates into huge profits. It's all about competition, and money. These are commercial concerns which, despite their being connected with the "real" world, do not address the language issue AS language at all. A school, yes, is partly a commercial entity within a commercial culture that long has been--since civilization itself appeared on the scene--all about how economics is the only approach to survival since, to be civilized, we've sacrificed abilities gained through long evolution to survive in nature. Our sense of sight, hearing, smell, etc.--all are weakened by our living within civilization's walls for millennia).

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Outside those walls, though, in each so-called savage community, all aspects of life are charged with spirit. Within what we call their primitive culture even utensils, for them, are alive. In a highly developed culture like Japan's, though, I cannot appreciate a lacquered tea jar or bamboo tea spoon, maybe because they are not--as I am not--in their living breathing environment, but are on display in a museum or department store gallery as something worth a lot of money. Places where we are cautioned “Do Not Touch.” Neolithic cave paintings likewise are infused with life. As are words. As words are now despite our disinterested posturing. A tea hut in a garden (where those utensils actively participate in creating a cosmos) is also a part of an economically oriented world, but it is also apart and different from that world. So is a school. A place to learn, as well as the learning act, refers to something else the way some Japanese gardens open to--let in--what's outside or beyond. So that the unknown--mystery--comes into making the garden how it is. When money and power are not harmonized with spirit, things gets blown into senseless abstractions. There's no denying that jobs, earning money, advancement, accomplishment, and so on are all aspects of the world as it is. I must live among others who believe in these as their religion or whatever. Realizing—by which here is meant not an intellectual comprehension but with our living letting something be--that schooling is mainly all about power and money, getting jobs, getting a certain social status, being “successful”--is not going to make money and power go away. Still, education that is for and about such inherently empty manifestations does not even get us looking. Seeing clearly IS the knowing, the intelligence, of Odysseus. His knowing is not book learning; his knowing is how to react, knowing what to do, in each different situation. Knowing for survival, for life. Knowing, for us now, need be no different. It is learning to steer away from illusion, away from the knowledge factory; it is learning how to walk that path between the real and the unreal, is learning to live a life. That is our Odyssey, and that gives our lives, our learning, vitality.

Scott Watson Sendai, Japan

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