Saturday, October 27, 2007


Early on in my time in Japan, I spent a few hours a day (for about two years) in the conversation lounge area of the school I worked at (Nova's "Voice" room). In this area, the teachers had free conversation with students. For those who don't know about the English language school situation in Japan, there are roughly two types of lessons. One is following a textbook to study specific phrases or grammatical structures and the other is just chatting with students so they have a chance to practice their English. The worst part of spending time in the conversation lounge was that the students were often completely passive so the teachers were constantly under the gun to come up with topics. Generally speaking, this resulted in the teacher choosing a topic which he or she had concrete opinions about because, when queried, students tended to react with indifference or be mute.

I can't recall any specific conversations I had at that time since it was so long ago but I do remember feeling at times as if I had to "educate" the Japanese with my perspective and contrary opinions on important topics. I remember that they rarely argued back or offered their own perspectives or opinions except for maybe on statement of support or opposition and this made me feel as if I'd somehow "won" any discussion in which they disagreed initially.

My behavior back then pretty much sums up why the Japanese people feel Americans are strident, pushy, and unable to control their feelings. To them, we are little better than children in this regard because we feel it necessary to disgorge our opinions at the slightest provocation. What's more, we often do so at great length and with increasing volume if our passions are aroused. In most cases, if a student expresses an opposing opinion, a newbie teacher will verbally stomp all over the student until he or she mumbles something in surrender.

The truth is that those of us who engage in verbal tangles with Japanese people over weighty issues aren't winning with our superior points. In many cases, the Japanese people are simply withdrawing from the discussion because they value getting along more than asserting their opinions and they've grown up in a culture which values restraint over expression, particularly in a situation where someone might be perceived as an authority figure (such as a teacher).

One notion you learn after some time in Japan which appears to be absent in American culture is the idea of restraint when expressing opinions and ideas. In the U.S., arguing is almost a sport and we all want to win. Unless we're dealing with someone who is in a position of power over us (like a boss at work), we rarely tend to back down or keep our notions to ourselves, even when there is the potential for a relationship to be damaged or lost as a result of the strident expression of one's views. The right and habit of being vocal is an integral part of American culture which is likely rooted in the rebellious beginnings of the country and certainly incorporated into the constitution.

In a country like Japan where restraint and a focus on group harmony are the cultural norm, this can cause some pretty big clashes. In fact, one of the greatest problems for cross-cultural relationships (both romantic and friendship-based) can be that one party is showering the other with input while the other is staying mum. On more than one occasion, I've had students tell me, "Japanese people don't like giving opinions," as they struggle to deal with a question I've asked. It's not that they lack the English but rather that they don't have a practice of thinking deeply about such topics or of expressing ideas about them. That's not to say all Japanese people are like this but most are to varying degrees.

I've come a long way since my smug days of offering my opinions in the Nova Voice room. That doesn't mean I don't offer them when they are solicited but rather that I offer them more briefly and with a far more open-minded attitude rather than thinking I'm right and have to prove it.


Miko said...

I must have some exceptional Japanese friends (well, of course they are, otherwise they wouldn't be my friends!) but I'm often surprised out how opinionated and downright strident some of them are when it comes to making themselves heard. It often feels that I am the passive one in the friendship! However, although we might disagree from time to time, I have never had an outright argument with a Japanese friend. If we did that, we would have to stop being friends.

Hey, did you know that Osaka women have a reputation for being pushy and forceful? Sometimes I don't like it very much, but at least I'm never kept in the dark about their true feelings. I'm glad I live in this part of Japan, I have a feeling the people are a good match for my temperament.

All told, it's very true that Japanese people value keeping the peace more than anything else. It's one of the things I've come to really appreciate, and nowadays I can't help feeling annoyed when I meet a person (Japanese or foreign) who behaves disageeably or uncooperatively. I can't help feeling that it's immature.

All over for Nova, eh? Poor things.

Shari said...

I've met a few Japanese people who were opinionated and forthright but most of them weren't from Tokyo or had spent some time abroad. In fact, when I do telephone tests with students, I can immediately tell simply by how they speak that they've spent time abroad. It's not their English ability but how they project themselves.

I have had a few experiences with people from Osaka and visited there at one point. I think a lot of the Tokyo-Osaka rivalry is based on the great disparity between their characters!

I think the fat lady hasn't sung for Nova yet (the documentation they filed gives them 11 days to try and pull a rabbit out of their hats - no pun intended), but she's definitely scheduled to make an appearance soon.

Miko said...

In my school I have a few ladies from Tokyo who have moved to Osaka (or thereabouts) because of husbands' company transfers. They are beautiful, poised, and elegant. Frankly, they have a hard time fitting in. However they have been made very welcome by my regulars, and are slowly starting to relax. One of the things that startles them is that Osakans tend to laugh a lot, and make light of difficult life situations. (Another thing that surprises them is that we eat a lot of sweets in this part of Japan! Yes, really!) Something that catches my attention, as a teacher, is that they often have a far higher level of English in terms of grammar and general comprehension. However they experience great difficulty in expressing themselves, because they fear making mistakes and looking bad. I have to spend a LOT of time reassuring them that it's okay to make mistakes, and that they don't have to be perfect, much more so than with my regular ladies. I wonder if this is a Tokyo thing?

Anyway, on the topic of conversation, it must be a very unnatural situation to have to suddenly make "natural conversation" with a person with whom you have nothing whatsoever in common! I imagine, say, a 26-year-old girl from London trying to find common ground with a half-senile 71-year-old Japanese man ... how on earth do they get the conversational ball rolling, in that case? It seems very strange to me! I bet you learned a lot about how to make small talk during your time with the Nova Voice room. You should write about it some more.

Justin K said...

Nice post. I suppose it depends much on the topic. Anything on religion, politics, war, etc I would be pretty similar to the Japanese people you speak of. There is no changing opinionated peoples minds, so stating an opinion and then listening is my best course of action. No matter what is said no opinions will be changed.

Other just random topics, that should be different of course. I have always placed a big importance on listening skills instead of speaking. As my Grandfather has told me before, "I never learned anything from speaking, only listening."