Friday 14 June 2013

Balance of Trade

I was a judge at a speech contest a few months back. The day started well enough; cup of coffee and a sit down with the organizers and other judges to go over the grading criteria. One of the organizers said that he’d introduce us to the contestants and audience at the start, and asked us how we’d each like to be described. My initial suggestion of, ‘Sage, Polymath, and Renaissance Man for the Coming Millennium’ was rejected as ‘factually inaccurate’ so I had to settle for ‘ALT at school X’. I then asked if he could at least do it in the manner of a wrestling ringside announcer, but this too was deemed ‘inappropriate’. Some days you just can’t win, eh?

Literally so for some of the entrants to this particular competition. Not that there was any great judging conspiracy – “We was robbed, I tells ya!” – but because it was split into two sections: a real contest for the Senior High students, with trophies and everything, and an exhibition section for the Junior High kids. Theoretically the JHS section was just ‘for fun’, a theory which provided at least a modest fig leaf for the blatant sucking-up those kids (and/or their parents) were doing towards the teachers from the better Senior Highs who were in attendance.

Fortunately I was judging the Senior High kids who, at least when they remembered to tailor what they were saying to their audience instead of some hypothetical walking thesaurus made flesh, were actually pretty good. Unfortunately that meant I had to sit through a couple of dozen of the JHS speeches first. It’s fair to say there wasn’t a dazzling diversity of subject matter or delivery. I think maybe six speeches were titled ‘My Dream’ and another three or four, ‘My Hope for the Future’, or things to that effect.

They probably had something more colourful in mind.

Now, bear in mind that these were thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who had chosen to enter an English speech contest for ‘fun’. I really don’t mean that derisively, but try as I might I can’t seem to make it sound any other way. Whilst it’s probably fair to say that many of these kids have to manage without lunch money more often than the majority of their peers, I read SF books and write a slightly sarcastic blog for my entertainment – and start sentences with the word ‘whilst’ – so I’m really in no position to cast aspersions (also: ‘aspersions’).

No. I mention these students’ choice of leisure activity because it directly bears on the topics they spoke about. They all wanted to be translators or interpreters. Even a couple of speeches with titles like ‘Never Give Up’ or ‘Fight The Power’* were really about striving towards a goal. The goal of being an interpreter. That’s selection bias for you. What a bastard.

It’s the inverse of not being able to see the wood for the trees; individually each of those speeches would have been fine (I’m sure), but as a group it was hard to pick out much individuality from the tangled homogenous mess of pointed lists and disconcertingly robotic hand movements. I certainly didn’t envy the ‘judges’ for that section because while/whilst they weren’t judging per se, they were expected to give individual feedback to each entrant after the event.

Fortunately one of the JHS judges was more perceptive/motivated than I was, and in his closing summary he talked about how the trend he noticed this year – of students wanting to use English to explain Japan to the world – was in a direct contrast to previous years when it had been more about using English to enable Japan to understand the world. A noticeable switch from the importation of ideas to their export.

In case you were unsure how it worked.

I don’t quite know what to make of this. I hope it’s true, to an extent. There’s a significant and persuasive school of thought that Japan’s engagement with foreign languages – which means English – is determined almost solely by the still pervasive desire to ‘catch up with The West’. Why take the risk of messy and confusing engagement with the outside world when you can bring it home in convenient portions and examine at you leisure in safely controlled and delineated conditions? The definitive (i.e. only) scholarly book on the JET Programme is aptly called Importing Diversity, and this attitude feeds directly into the preponderance of the Grammar Translation method of tuition and the emphasis on receptive language skills over productive. English is not a living language to be used, but an (enemy?) code to be cracked to the competitive advantage and greater glory of The Motherland. Walking past the kids’ classrooms during one of their regular English classes (i.e. not with me) and seeing their silently bowed heads and concentrated scribbling it’s hard not to imagine that this is how Bletchley Park might have looked if the UK had a larger population resource and a culture that stressed uncomplaining repetition as an adequate replacement for original thought. Why bother going to the trouble of inventing the Bombes or Colossus when you can just get an endless and compliant workforce to do it instead?

Repeat after me...

And so, in a way, it’s encouraging to see the next generation of students moving beyond that reflexive assumption that English, and thus by implication engagement with the wider world, is only useful for the things it can provide to Japan. We might be reaching a tipping point similar to that of renaissance scholars who assumed they were just rediscovering the ideas of ancient Greece but had in fact been pushing beyond them for several decades before anyone realized it. I realize that’s a ridiculously lofty way of stating it, but y’know, pushing boundaries is good n’ that.

Not that it’s without problems, of course. Rising national confidence is a tricky beast in Japan (it’s a tricky beast in any country). It’s healthy and encouraging to see the country getting over its knee-jerk inferiority complex regarding ‘The West’, because lord knows Japan would be an significantly better place without its ingrained assumptions of superiority and hierarchy, but as with the bullied fat kid who eventually snaps, hulks-out, and burns down the school there are very real concerns about how that ‘confidence’ is expressed. I’m sick to the back teeth of all the historical revisionist bullshit, but feel compelled to mention it here merely for the sake of completeness.

More immediately I’m a little concerned about the students at the speech contest, and how realistic their expectations are (I know. Teenagers in Naivety Shock. Hold the front page). I’ve seen far too many Japanese commentators suggest that negative reactions to Japan around the world are a result of Japanese people being poor at expressing their ideas. They undoubtedly are poor at expressing their ideas, but as ever it’s about content as well as delivery. A lot of those ideas are poorly received because they just plain suck.

On the fortunately rare occasions my wife and I argue, and on the even rarer occasion I come out on top, she sometimes accuses me of being ‘better at arguing’ because of my cultural upbringing. Again, there’s some truth to this but it’s often another one of those convenient fictions for her to hide her pride behind. I didn’t ‘win’ the argument because I’m better at arguing, I ‘won’ because I had better arguments. I ‘won’ because I was right. Or at least more so than she was.

And this is what I think these students may eventually discover. Japan has many great ideas to export to the world; it also has many poor ones and some that are flat out odious. Sometimes it’s not that ‘people don’t understand Japan,’ it’s that they do understand and just disagree. The shift from import to export is a step in the right direction, but trade only really works when it flows in both directions.

*Not really.


  1. Dude, we were separated at birth:
    - we have an identical take on ALTdom and speech contests (and did you find the boys were judged more favourably than the girls by the local 'educators'?)
    - Sandman
    - I did not have to Google 'Bletchley Park', but I would have added a Borg analogy to the locals
    - Have I not, on my own blog, said as much as:

    "I didn't ‘win’ the argument because I’m better at arguing, I ‘won’ because I had better arguments. I ‘won’ because I was right. Or at least more so than she was... Japan has many great ideas to export to the world; it also has many poor ones and some that are flat out odious. Sometimes it’s not that ‘people don’t understand Japan,’ it’s that they do understand and just disagree."

    Fuck me if the Japanese as a nation, and as individuals (wife) don't revert to 'ad hominem' in a piss-poor attempt to deflect criticism: the surest sign of fallacy.

    1. "Why you are laughing? Shut up!"

      Oh, man. Thanks for posting that. It completely passed me by. I really, really should have found a way to tie it in to everything here.

  2. "students wanting to use English to explain Japan to the world"

    They can't even explain Japan in Japanese half the time. What the world wants to know about Japan doesn't need to be explained by anyone really... The world wants to know when the next PlayStation or Ghibli movie will be released. Or how they can buy up Japanese bonds waiting for the bond market to crash...

    I'm really f@#king impressed when I meet a Japanese student who says something like "I want to be an astronaut and English is necessary..."

    1. I teach a bit of a musical child prodigy, and since I told him that if he masters English he'll be able to give better introductions on the international stage he's really come out of his shell...

    2. One of my ESS kids wants to be an air traffic controller, so realises English is necessary and joined. Little things like that are just enough to keep the hope alive.

  3. "Oh, man. Thanks for posting that. It completely passed me by. I really, really should have found a way to tie it in to everything here."

    I was wondering...waiting. :)

    I just showed the door to an excellent student trying to be an International Law Attorney. She said my "Devils Advocate"/Socratic teaching style got on her nerves some times. O.K. tell me what you'd like?
    "Not that" she replies.
    Elaborate for the sake of having a Goddamned conversation please.

    "Like that...I don't like that"

    Wow...nice elaboration. If Uniqlo ever sells skin please buy some because your's is not thick enough. You don't have the guts or interest to engage in a debate about something you have strong feelings about....and your taking up prime real estate. You're done here.

    **Her brother is at Todai and her younger bro is a future Doctor if he wishes since he is smarter than Todai boy. Sis? ..she will latch on or not since she is 3rd year H.S. and needs to get ready for an interview. She sidestepped the Center by getting a TOEIC 700. Took 3 tests but she is at the table waiting to be served partly because I insisted/demanded the TOEIC starting in H.S. grade 1.

    Her engines are primed and ready for job is done. Hopefully she pulls the stick out of her ass before it interferes with her future financial potential.

    I'm not a fucking babysitter....and fuck speech contests in the ass.....the first time I saw one and the kid who won was so animated he looked like he had turrets I never looked back. If he pulled that shit in Hawaii people would think he's insane.

    Now I did suggest the design of a "Conversation contest" with 8 potential surprise topics and 36 questions within each. It sonded/sound genius to me but nobody wants to be pushed that hard :(

    1. I've had the bones of this post on file for a few months now. Sod's law that when I do decide to finally flesh it out it's in a week where something perfectly related happens and I miss it entirely. I almost wish Ant hadn't made me aware of it.

      I was under the impression that arguing a position that you didn't necessarily hold was a fairly fundamental skill for a lawyer? Doesn't bode all that well. Still, good luck to her. You only lead a horse to water, after all.

      And as for the last question I was going to ask, I see you've already answered it in some style. Cheers for that.

    2. What's ironic is that after the horse has turned itself into an ass by refusing to drink, it suddenly needs your help to keep from drowning.

      "Shut up. Shut up!" Oops. Looks like it's too late...

    3. Hey, I was just wasting time at lunch and clicked on 'Japan Times' due to a seizure. If you look at all the crap I have linked on right and left columns of my blog you can see that I cast my net wide, if not deep.

      You are all not crap, goes without saying.

      'Devil's Advocate', 'Socratic Method', "arguing a position that you [don't] necessarily hold", 'Scientific Method': these are the intellectual glories of Western culture against which nearly every other tradition can only hold up 'The Appeal to Authority'. This also sets Japan apart from 'Western' countries. Would once have added 'The Rule of Law'... but it hasn't been a good decade for us with that, so let's move on. Sure these are "honoured more in the breach than the observance" but they aren't appreciated and barely conceivable in a Japanese context.

  4. back in the day i was sent to a speech competition with the briefing that these were publc workers. the firs speech was about health care and i thought the woman speakig was a doctor. i had to ask each a question after their speech and i asked "as a doctor, whats the biggest health problem you come across?". turns out i didnt know what "public worker" meant. boy was my credibility as a judge smashed.

    1. Bluff it out. Pretend that you're seeing how good they are at spotting mistakes. Usually works for me...