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.
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.
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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?
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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.