Friday, November 16, 2007


For those of you who are already stifling a yawn, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not actually going to be talking about politics. I'm going to talk about talking about politics. While that may not sound a great deal more promising, I'm hoping you'll bear with me.

When we first got married, my husband was a ravenously politically-interested sort while I was fairly indifferent. Since we live in the same domicile and we're both very talkative sorts of people, his political knowledge naturally trickled down to me (or, it may have been a process of osmosis since we sleep in the same bed and no one can really say what goes on while you sleep). While I am interested in larger issues, politics has been something which I cannot bear because it's one of those things which should be extremely important but is so full of manipulation, maneuvering and power playing that it's reduced to a game. Seeing so many rich people playing transparent verbal games in order to maintain or acquire positions of power leaves me rather heartsick.

This morning, nothing demonstrated how pointless political discourse can be better than the Democratic candidates debating on CNN. We were treated to the same usual parade of non-answers, attacks, empty promises, and posturing. In the back of your mind, you know that even the most genuine-sounding candidate isn't going to act on his or her convictions once the election is won. To be fair, this isn't entirely the candidates' fault. Issues that politicians have to deal with are actually very complex and the attention span and scope of interest of the average person are quite limited. Truth be told, people prefer simple answers to complex questions that fit in with their particular world-view. If you haven't decided I'm a big liar who has tricked you into listening to a talk about politics and turned away, I'm getting to the part where I'm talking about talking about politics and the aforementioned, while perhaps a bit boring, actually applies to what is to come.

Several months ago, I got a new student. He's my second retired gentleman who studies English and the first student I've had privately who has expressed an interest in discussing political and social issues. Since I'm not particularly politically minded, it's been a bit of challenge for me to keep digging up fresh material about which I can converse in a reasonable fashion given my limited knowledge of such things. Fortunately, the spillover from my husband's interest, which has actually waned quite a bit over the years as he's also grown a bit dispirited with the whole matter, keeps me at a level whereby, if I read an article, I can discuss the content adequately.

One thing that has happened on more than one occasion is that this student, who is a very nice fellow, has been emphatically critical of other Japanese folks for their relatively passive approach to politics. He has often lamented the fact that Japanese people forgive and forget (or at least forget) rapidly and keep the same corrupt people and parties in power. He's also disappointed that he cannot discuss serious topics with his friends and peers when they get together and that most people seem to be mainly interested in trivial matters.

On these occasions, he also says how much he admires foreign folks because they tend to discuss serious issues when groups of them congregate. I actually tried to mildly disabuse him of this notion as I'm not so sure this is true of all or most foreign people. I've known a lot of people who are equally obsessed with dumb little things as Japanese people. I think one of the main differences is that western folks are able to take a trivial matter and blow it up into a (supposedly) huge societally relevant one. For instance, in a recent Consumerist post, it was noted that Starbucks was rolling out Christmas-themed cups, music, and decorations very early. The average Japanese person probably wouldn't notice or care but the average American can take this tiny little bit of information and turn it into a rant about how the commercialization of Christmas is getting worse and worse and we're all being manipulated by corporations to extend our enhanced consumption around the holidays. It's amazing what sort of havoc a few cups, a few yuletide tunes and some tinsel can create if your mind is working overtime to justify your ire about such things making a premature entrance in your anything but humble opinion.

My student is not to be dissuaded from notions that Americans are all political animals, but that's really not the topic at hand. I merely lacked the focus to keep this topical car on the proper track. The issue is how we talk about politics and, when I say "we", I mean my student and I. While discussing the current relationship between Iran and the United States and remarks made by George Bush and Tony Blair, my student suggested that the U.S. should not have removed Saddam Hussein from power but sought to gradually limit his powers through sanctions. He and I have discussed before that sanctions tend mainly to harm the innocent and he's essentially indicated that war does much the same. However, when I mentioned that the other problem with sanctions is that no matter who imposes them, there will always be some other power that would be more than happy to undermine such sanctions in an act of opportunism thinly-veiled as political opposition. For example, if the U.S. placed sanctions on Iran, inevitably, some powers (I'm looking at you, France) would be sneaking up to the back door, knocking quietly, and offering to trade whatever it is that the U.S. was attempting to prevent entry of into the country in exchange for some nice, tasty oil.

This sort of point always stymies my student. All of his answers to political and social problems are relatively simplistic and show a limited understanding of the complexity of these sorts of problems. There's one problem. There's one solution. He's very much a reflection of the audience politicians tend to pander to. It's very gratifying to think that there's a workable, clear solution to world and national problems. Any candidate who muddies the picture with a series of hypothetical pitfalls to any potential solution isn't going to hold the listeners' attention for long and may be seen as avoiding making a decision.

The problem isn't that my student lacks the knowledge to discuss such topics as world issues as I'm sure he has far more than I. If we were to take part in a pop quiz on current events, he'd likely run circles around me in a head-to-head factual competition. The problem is that most Japanese folks are not schooled to ask all the "what if" questions that western folks are educated to consider. The limits my student has and his resulting frustration that he cannot answer my questions or respond to my points is a direct result of growing up in an educational system which emphasizes rote learning and answering every question with one and only one correct reply rather than applying critical thinking and debating a variety of points.

Having discussions with students that show that they have thinking which often goes only one level deep is something both my husband and I have experienced time and again in our interactions with them. It makes discussing topics of any depth very hard when teaching because the students reach dead ends rather rapidly when offering their ideas and are at a loss for words when you bring up alternative issues. It's also one of the most important points that the Japanese educational system needs to address if they want to continue to compete with the rest of the world as they've long passed the point where working overtime and getting high test scores is going to be enough to keep up with other countries. Unfortunately, change is very slow in Japan and I don't see a generation of people with excellent critical and analytical thinking coming along any time soon.


Miko said...

You have some interesting students!

As for me, I have a very firm "don't mention the war" policy in my classroom. (Well, not just the war/s, but politics, religion, scandal, or anything that might bring the vibe down. I'm a happy and upbeat person, and I run a happy and upbeat ship - and anybody who doesn't go along with me will come in for a flogging!) However, to my astonishment, five of my ladies approached me earlier this year to start a separate discussion group. Now we meet weekly - in secret - and at their insistence I lead discussions regarding such things as women's rights, political corruption, and environmental issues. I'd rather not talk about any of these things at all, so it's always a challenge to stay one step ahead of them! But we are all enjoying it immensely, and I am surprised to learn that so many women in Japan have such a thirst for knowledge, and long to exercise their brains on other things than bargain-hunting and PTA meetings. I personally am not interested in any of the issues that they raise, but I appreciate that they trust me, and I want to do right by them, so you can expect me to ask for your assistance from time to time, as you seem much more apt at dealing with these things than I do.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu! (Thanks in advance, Shari!)

Shari said...

This particular student is unique. Of course, they're all sort of unique when I compare one to abother. This man is just unique in the seriousness of his interests.

Like you, I don't bring up serious topics unless it is explicitly what the student desires. I think my role is to give them the kind of lesson they want, not to entertain or educate myself. I have my husband for discussing serious topics should I wish to explore them. It is a challenge though to prepare for a lesson with someone who is delighted to discuss the Middle East situation. When I offered to talk about an article on Iraq, he was happier than I've ever seen him in a lesson.

I think this particular student is a bit hard on his countrymen regarding their interests, but I can't say that I've encountered too many students who aren't in the mold he casts them in with a few notable exceptions. As part of the first lesson I do with students, I specifically ask them what they aren't and are interested in in terms of conversational topics so that I can focus on things they will enjoy and be interested in.

My husband tends to encounter more people than I who are interested in deeper topics but his workplace is the type of environment which attracts people with more advanced abilities and he also works in a place where students request teachers so they tend to request him because he talks about such things. I'd say less than 10% of my students want to discuss serious issues and he says about 25% of his do.

My female students are relatively varied but most of them are tightly focused on particular goals (esp. learning business skills and cross-cultural communication points). Others seem to mainly be interested in discussing relationships, food, and lifestyle issues. Honestly, I don't judge people by what they want to talk about (though the gentleman in my post does). I judge them by their genuineness and kindness. I don't think you can evaluate people by the type of chat they prefer, particularly in a teaching situation. It's all about the content of their "souls" rather than their brains.

Shari said...

P.S. I'm not sure if you were having me on or not about helping you with these sorts of situations but I'll say the following in regards to any discussion of a serious topic:

•No problem ever has a simple solution or it wouldn't be a real problem. It'd be solved and quickly go away.

•Every solution will carry a host of difficulties and drawbacks that should be considered and explored. This is where the real meat of a deep discussion can be found.

•There are always more angles to a problem than are immediately apparent by a cursory consideration and they can only be explored by putting yourself in the shoes of a variety of concerned parties and looking at in from various perspectives.

•Opinions are never "right" or "wrong" but they are supported well or poorly by facts. Discussions should include an analysis of how much support a particular opinion has based on facts.

tornados28 said...

Your Japanese student certainly is misinformed regarding Americans interest in Politics. Although American involvement in politics may be higher then the typical Japanese, it is still very pathetic as evidenced by the terribly low voter turnout rates in the United States.

I liked you example of the Starbucks Christmas produucts comming out early. It is true that it seams in the U.S. that Americans tend to blow things out of proporting and make way to big a deal of some issues. So what if Starbucks starts seling xmas stuff early. The reason they do is because it is us Americans who want to buy it so don't blame Starbucks, blame yourself.

Shari said...

I've tried twice now to convince him that his view is too favorable in too his regard (especially his notion that it applies to "young people"), but he's pretty convinced. I think in both Japan and the U.S., we're relatively comfortable and that leads to a high amount of apathy. Comfortable people tend to preoccupy themselves with trivialities.

The Consumerist article was rather timely in illustrating how people make so much out of some dumb little thing. I kind of wondered if my student's perception that we're all so involved in issues is based on that tendency to make everything seem more important than it really is.

Thanks for commenting!

Chris Salzberg said...

Hey Shari,

I mentioned this post (along with a few by other bloggers) in an article I wrote for the December issue of Number One Shimbun (publication of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan) posted online here.

Have a look when you have a chance, and keep up the great blogging! I try to read as much of your stuff as I can given time constraints.

Shari said...

Hi, Chris, and thanks very much for the link to the article and for reading and taking the time the comment.

The article was very interesting and well-written. I think you make some good points. :-)