As I mentioned before, one of my students is taking a course at a junior college on one of the military bases. I've been assisting her with her homework and she got her final grade a few days ago. I'm pleased to say that she got an "A" in the class though I'm not so happy that she feels my assistance makes this my grade rather than hers.
My student already has a Bachelor's degree in pharmacy from a Japanese school so she has academic experience but she had problems structuring her replies to essay questions. I'm not sure if her problem was related to having studied pharmacy in school and not having to approach tests from the viewpoint of offering opinions (rather than data or research details) or if it has something to do with how Japanese universities structure their tests.
Her main problem was that she didn't talk "on point" when she answered a question. She tended to offer tangential information which was about a similar topic but wasn't addressing the crux of the question. I tried to teach her to meander around the answer less and to simply get right to it.
To offer a more concrete example, she had a question about whether or not the age of criminal culpability ought to be reduced but rather than say that it should or shouldn't and why she felt that way, she talked about a case in Japan that compelled the Japanese government to lower the age of culpability from 16 to 14. While the case was interesting and related to the general topic, it didn't support any particular opinion.
Many of her lessons were spent with my trying to rework her replies so that her wandering around the point became examples for opinions and my helping her see how to address the question as stated. I'm not sure if she actually "got it" but she definitely got a lot better at getting closer to it by the end of the semester. I'm pretty confident that she'll need far less help next time.
I wonder if this is her particular issue or part of a larger tendency among Japanese people to be vague and indirect. One thing that her writing strongly reminded me of was the business letter sample homework that I used to correct for students at my former job. The students were told to accomplish two straightforward tasks; write a letter asking for details about a pair of trekking boots and ask a hotel that they had stayed at to look for a lost address book. In the case of the former, the students would often begin the letter with long, irrelevant personal tales of having to go hiking and needing good boots. In the case of the latter, they'd start off with extended apple polishing which came across as buttering up the hotel staff.
Even though students were explicitly told not to do these sorts of preambles that are common in Japanese letters, they did it anyway because they were uncomfortable getting down to business. The problem my student had wasn't exactly the same thing but both situations were reminiscent of taking the scenic route to the point.