Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Part 2)

Last time I talked about some of the good aspects of conformity in Japan. This time I am taking the gloves off and am going to talk about the bad. I must warn you, a lot of this comes from personal experience, so if it starts sounding like I am griping, I apologize. But the way I perceive it, there is just a lot more "bad" which comes as a consequence of conformity than good.

Briefly, the good amounts to strong group ethics, supporting the family and parents (which often times means living at home permanently), a feeling of unity, and a close-knit culture which realizes that manners and politeness are required at every level to keep society flowing smoothly, and where negative criticism is rarely ever spoken out loud because this would stir up tension and effectively ruin the "Wa" (or peace and harmony) of the group.

Overall, it creates a peaceful atmosphere where you can be at ease. Where being part of the group is seen as desirable. It creates the perfect atmosphere for nation wide cultural festivals too, because everyone can partake in them without anyone ever overstepping the bounds of social etiquette too much (unless they are drunk--then they find excuses to go crazy).

But at the same time, it has a few negative consequences. Such as the fact that everyone thinks it's perfectly healthy and fine to smoke cigarettes, and do it all day long, and in your face. It's not perceived as rudeness, or even wrong, because it's simply what everyone does.

Meanwhile, another good aspect is that it forces you to tip-toe around the feelings of others (a good thing in and of itself) as it makes you work extremely hard to get good at thinking before you speak. Group related functions always do.

But at the same time, at least for me, this is the most exhausting thing about the Japanese way of life. It is the constant struggle to think about what I say and how my words will effect every little thing and every person in the room. I am horrible at it, mainly because I am a talker and, more importantly, an American talker. In other words, I like the sound of my own voice a little too much, so it's hard for me to zip the lip, so to speak.

But in almost a decade of living in Japan, I have improved considerably. I now spend minutes on end thinking of what to say in important meetings, so that I can make every word count. This is an art form the Japanese have mastered. I struggle with it daily.

I only raise this example, because it shows how a culture of conformity can both be beneficial to you but at the same time be slightly harmful.

While giving thought to every word allows me to interact with others on a higher plane of respect and manners, it creates barriers too. I can never make intimate personal friends on first or second gatherings because one simply isn't allowed to show their true self. Every thought, every word, is highly controlled, and it takes twice as long to get to learn anybodies real personality because their individual personality always is suppressed by the societal expectations of conformity to the group mind and the social etiquette.

For example, it is great to be able to never have to take negative criticism or face embarrassment and have so many people be so polite all the time. The problem is, sometimes it is hard to tell if they sincerely mean it, or if they are simply blowing smoke up your ass. For all you know, they might hate your guts, but for the fact that they are adhering to a culture of conformity which prides its niceties above individual quips. It sometimes can breed an environment of artificial compliments and, regrettably, people spend more time trying not to step on each others toes than actually addressing their real concerns.

Subsequently, this creates the infamous "talking in circles syndrome" common to Japanese daily life. It affects everything from school functions, such as PTA meetings, to corporation and employee relations, to national politics. As a side-effect, it also makes agreement hard to come by when one person doesn't quite agree, or worse still, it makes it near impossible to state the problem straight forward and then tackle the issue.

Every year I join what is known as Kenshukai (which means Research Education) which are Prefecture wide events in which you travel to various school districts in your area (or ward if you live in the city) and "study" teaching methodologies and then comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each school system. The way this differs from genuine pedagogy is pedagogy actually focuses on the new ways to teach and how to implement new techniques which will improve learning and education. Kenshukais, however, are bogged down by the incessant diplomacy of the Japanese. If there are real problems, they often only get hinted at, in a roundabout way, and never are put fully on the table.

The best example of this, that I have seen, was when my old Board of Education invited Mrs. Matsuka, founder and CEO of the Matsuka Phonics Corporation in Japan, to give a lecture at the mid-year Education Research seminar. She came in from the city, and in not so many words, flat out said that the teachers were to blame for teaching English the wrong way in Japan.

Silence fell over the crowd. And afterward, hands shot up across the room. Instead of posing questions of how do we change the way we teach English, which would be a discussion of pedagogy, what happened was strange. People raised objections by saying it was impossible to change the curriculum as mandated by the Japanese government, they said even if they tried it they wouldn't have time to prepare (even though they are at school all summer long working while kids are on vacation), and they acknowledged that the Japanese way of teaching English was not adequate but, in effect, said it couldn't be helped.

But, but, but... It was all excuses... for not adopting the right techniques and methods of English education.

I was flabbergasted by this response. But looking back, I realize what they were doing was simply a mass exercise in "not rocking the boat."

Here they were faced with a radical CEO of a successful company which taught the right way of teaching English--a proved methodology which works--and a success record. But Matsuka was butting heads with the very education system itself. Instead of objecting to her radicalism, they simply dismissed her methods, and nobody, not a single person, said--yeah, I'm willing to risk sticking out as a rebel if it means my students have a real chance of learning.


Not a single educator in the room was willing to go out on a line and take Matsuka's side, because, it would mean rubbing up against the system, and it would mean trying to convince the parents, politicians, and policy makers that they weren't only wrong--but so wrong that they had erected a system which works against the goal of integrating English as a second language in Japan.

As an aside, it was no skin of her back, as Matsuka simply charged her going rate for giving lectures and was off before they could recuperate from what had hit them.

But the lesson I observed was clear. The group conglomerated together to resist the one proved way which actually works when it comes to integrating English education in any non-English speaking culture. They did so because they were all under the impression that it was impossible to change the system, impossible to incorporate, or impossible to execute, for whatever reasons--and this is how they all felt about it. End of discussion.

This is what is effectively known as group-think. Where the group thinks the same, and because everyone else holds to the same beliefs, it is believed as true simply because their is an ubiquity of like belief.

This can be good when one is well informed and correct about an issue. But when the consensus is wrong, as it occurs, it usually means the entire group will be wrong too.

Instead of dealing with the issues, they grow dismissive of anything that doesn't conform to the group-mentality, and this resistance to anything which goes against the group is a way of using conformity to override the radical opinions of those people who dare to stand out. Once rejected, the person is either made to submit to the group or they are made an outcast.

Now, I use the example of English education in Japan, since that is what I am most familiar with and have analysed it in detail. But this same problem of group-think dominates the way Japanese respond to real world issues and spills over into their politics and everyday life too.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had an idea rejected or been dismissed for rasing a cross-cultural point by the simple phrase "But this is Japan. That's not how we do it in Japan," or simply "This is the Japanese way."

They use it, almost as if to say, because you're not Japanese you couldn't possibly understand. No, I am afraid I understand all too well. It is because you are Japanese--and so is everyone else--that you refuse to accept any other way but for the Japanese way.

In the next article, part three, I'll talk about the ugly aspects of conformity in Japan. The aspects which create things such as racism, the secluded "island mentality" which contributes to an unease with foreigners and foreign cultures, or the opposite extreme, xenophilia.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Conformity in Japan: The Good
Every day, my elementary school students walk to school wearing their bright red and yellow caps and colorful tote bags. Their school uniforms are cute, and serve a dual purpose. One, they are designed to alert cars that a gaggle of school children, like little yellow ducklings, is headed their way. (You can read more on Japanese school children's uniforms after the jump.)

This is more important than it initially sounds. Japan is a highly dense population packed into small areas of land. It's half the population of the entire U.S. of A crammed into the area of the State of California. On top of this is the fact that something like 90% of Japan is mountainous, thus the population density increases as it fills each and every valley to capacity. Yeah. Packed!

Secondly, like many things in Japan, the uniforms serve a function of group orientation and conformity to school dress codes. This means all the kids look practically the same. They all have on the exact same outfit. They all have black hair. They all have black eyes. This serves to cut back on bullying, since it creates a uniformity of style and looks among the children, no matter their financial class within the society. It also is less distracting and causes less of a stir because children do not feel compelled to wear distracting styles or colors just to get attention or to stand out.

When I first came to Japan, during my first year as an ESL instructor I was horrible with names and faces. The saying that all Asians look alike (although not entirely true) rings fairly accurate when dealing with Asian children who haven't developed unique facial features or body types. Basically, they're all the same little round faces with bright eyes. Cute, but eerily similar.

Additionally, Japan is comprised of a country which is inhabited by primarily Japanese. Unlike cultural melting pots, such as Europe or the U.S., Japan is a small island with tens of millions of the same people, who all share the same culture, history, language, and all are the same ethnicity. What this means is that there is little to no variation among the Japanese with regard to the cultural traditions of Japan. What is the same for one Japanese citizen is basically the same for all Japanese citizens across the board. This makes it hard to pin-down national identities. As a consequence of this, there is hardly any variance between political and religious ideologies of one group vs. the whole entire group. It's what makes Japanese politics, in my opinion, a shell game (i.e., a farce). On top of this, foreigners residing in Japan make up less than 2% of the nations population. This is why Japan is often described as a * homogeneous society. It's all Japanese doing Japanese things all day long in Japan.

For most Japanese, this is the way they like it. It reinforces what they call "Wa" or the peacefulness of society (Japanese Wa is commonly translated as "group harmony." Although this only captures the basic qualities of Wa and doesn't do the full meaning justice).

This is why things which challenge the status quo are viewed as bad, immoral, and harmful to Japanese society--even when we can objectively state that they're not.

The unspoken rule that tattoos are "evil" is one such example. There is nothing inherently immoral about sporting a tattoo, except for the fact that the Japanese have collectively decided that tattoos are too similar to irezumi, the classic style of ink-etching popular among the Yakuza.

The funny thing is, very few Yakuza even have tattoos. I've seen more high school girls with tattoos than I have actual Yakuza with any ink. Yet you will still get booted from your local gym and be omitted from the local bath house if you ever get caught with one.

I would bet that most Japanese people who have lived abroad and have received ink work have, on average, more tattoos than the the entire crime syndicate in Japan. This popular myth of the tattoo denoting a gangster is reinforced by Japanese cinema, which always paints its gangsters in full color sleeves, with ukiyoe styled dragons tangled around geisha fighting of samurai on their backs, and have given the Japanese the impression that all gangsters sport tattoos. This media based, yet highly unrealistic, portrayal of Japan, however, feeds the stereotype that anyone with a tattoo must be seedy and suspect.

Yet in almost a decade of living here the only Yakuza I met was a Buddhist monk, and he was a rather nice guy, at least I thought so. He didn't have any tattoos.

But this is how Japan treats things that are alien to Japan--with suspicion. At first I thought this was bad--since it is completely uncritical. But reflecting on it, I can see how it helps the Japanese coalesce around an idea--namely that tattoos are bad. It's an imperfect idea, but at least they can feel comradeship by all thinking the same. There must be a certain level of comfort that comes from that feeling of like-mindedness, almost like trust, otherwise I doubt they would do it so much.

Tattoos aren't typically a part of Japanese culture, so tattooed people get treated suspiciously, even though their is no basis for any such reservations. I highly doubt any of my Japanese friends have ever had a confrontation with a tattooed fiend. But because this is Japan, everyone takes such beliefs for granted, and low and behold, everyone remains reluctant to accept tattoo art as, well just that, art.

This shows how close-knit Japanese society really is. General attitudes don't merely permeate a subgroup within the national group, but takes over the national mind-set.

Another good example of how this collective mind-set seems to work is the example of the many popular diets which pop up. Almost overnight a diet fad will become a *national craze. A few years back (c. 2008) there was a popular talk show which talked to one of the models confessed to losing all her fat due to a simple diet anyone could do. A banana diet! (It was such a craze that it even made the international news section of Time. Meanwhile, googling "Japanese banana diet" nets you over a million related links. For the history on the origins of the Japanese banana diet click here.)

Overnight, literally, people flooded the supermarkets and bought all the bananas. I recall this event so distinctly because I always buy bananas, my favorite fruit, for m breakfast. Needless to say, I went to the store, and every single banana had been sold. Every happy yellow bushel of banana goodness gone! For about two weeks I couldn't find a single banana anywhere. Believe me, I looked.

Following trends like this plays a large role in Japanese homogeneity, because it is a way for others to jump on the band wagon and show conformity. It's a way to proudly advertise that you are part of the group! In Japan, group-think is viewed as a positive factor which people should aspire to.

In my country, the U.S., this notion is actually looked down on and frowned upon. People don't want to be the same. We Americans pride ourselves in our uniqueness, independence, and this is reflected in the fact that, in the U.S., society is highly autonomous.

This breeds a competitive behavior not prevalent in Japan. In fact, Japanese are not very competitive at all. This doesn't mean they lack the drive to work hard or do well, but they are not confrontational about it. In fact, from my seven years of experience in Japan, I have found that Japanese people go out of their way to avoid confrontation wherever possible. This is evident in the fact that I cannot tell you my Japanese friends religions or political ideologies. These things just aren't spoken about--as they create too much of a division in the like-mindedness of the society.

Anything which creates a division, like religion or politics, is viewed as something to keep on the low down. They don't want to raise Cain here in Japan, after all--that would seek to interfere with their precious "Wa," so religious and political ideologies in Japan are safeguarded and kept rather secret. They are treated as a private matter. Even sex is less private than religion or politics in Japan! I can talk about sex with my Japanese guy and gal friends, and have all kinds of ribald laughs. My wife's best girlfriend and I often tease each other in a way which borders on the risque, but for the life of me, I could not tell you what her religious or political position is--and she's practically family!

Conformity, then, helps to promote unity--or at least the sense of unity. This, I find to be an excellent trait, and something I have come to admire about Japan.

All this might sound a little strange to people from more diverse cultures, where conformity is hard to come by, and diversity is prided over similarity. But this is just one of the interesting quirks which makes Japan, well, Japan.

Next time, in part two: Conformity in Japan: The Bad, I'll talk about how conformity can be a negative influence as well, and how it can sometimes hurt Japan.

Monday, September 03, 2012

ESL Websites and Resources (Expanded)

Nearly all of these websites focus on ESL learning and together form a useful database for English materials, such as flash cards, word puzzles, worksheets, and English based activities and games ready made for your convenience.

1. Eigo Note Blog (www.eigonoteblog.com)

2. Eigo Noto (www.eigo-noto.com)

3. Boggles World ESL (www.bogglesworldesl.com)

4. A4 ESL (http://a4esl.org/)

5. ESL HQ (www.eslHQ.com)

6. Eigo Batake (http://eigobatake.x0.com/)

7. MES English (www.mes-english.com/games.php)

8. Genki English (http://genkienglish.net/)

9. Matsuka Phonics (http://www.mpi-j.co.jp/)

10. Dave's ESL Cafe (www.eslcafe.com)

11. My Vocabulary.com (www.myvocabulary.com)

12. Livewire Puzzles (www.puzzles.ca/)

13. ESL-Tower (www.esltower.com) 

14. Kids Can Have Fun! (www.kidscanhavefun.com)

15. KizPhonics (www.kizphonics.com)

16. Hiconicimage (hiconicimage.com)

17. Have Fun Teaching (www.havefunteaching.com)

18. Activity Village UK (www.activityvillage.co.uk)

19. Class Helper (www.classhelper.org)