Friday 11 November 2011

Jumping on my Tu-Tu

I was trying to prepare for a debate lesson the other week. Teaching debates in English class is very popular over here. And like lots of things which are very popular over here it’s a nice idea on paper, but awful in practice.

I love debate, argument. I’m such an ivory-tower idealist that I still cling hopefully to the concept of public discussion as meaningful way of approaching a mutually acceptable truth, as opposed to the diametrically-opposed cock-waving sessions it appears to have devolved to. So I adore the idea of teaching it, and of students learning it.

Debate, though, isn’t really a linguistic exercise; it’s an exercise in critical thought and communicative ability. Obviously language and communication are intimately linked, but they aren’t the same. It’s a medium/message thing; having a fully functional grasp of syntax and a large vocabulary doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to use them effectively. Or if you prefer, there’s the old joke about a man visiting the doctor to take the cast off his broken hand –

“Doctor, doctor. Will I be able to play the piano now that my hand is better?”

“Why yes, of course.”

Really? I couldn’t before.”

The Japanese education system is very, very effective at a lot of things. Maths and science scores are consistently among the best in the world, and the number of students who stay in education until 18 is likewise incredibly high. These aren’t easy things to achieve, especially in a country of 120 million people. However, in prioritizing these (and other) things, there is a price to be paid, and part of that price is that the Japanese education system attaches no value whatsoever to critical thought, and essentially no value to communicative ability, whatever the language.

You’ll of course remember that these are the two skills which are vital to debate, and you’ll begin to appreciate the problems. Throw in the fact that they’re trying to do it in English (and only English) – a medium most students have an, if we’re being generous, imperfect command of – and you’ll appreciate the somewhat ambitious nature of the task. It’s like throwing someone with no artistic ability or experience into a life drawing class and expecting them to produce this. Using finger-paints.

But I digress (imagine that). I was trying to sort out some kind of debate lesson. The example the textbook uses is ‘Equal Roles’. Gender equality, relations, and all that. A good choice in a society where these issues are less recognized than elsewhere. But the specific topic was school uniform, and whether girls should have to wear skirts. Relevant to the students, yes. Fun and engaging, not so much.

It would be really, really easy to get very preachy about this kind of stuff. My wife is still on maternity leave, and her provisions for that are incredibly generous. My paternity leave provisions however were non-existent. I was and remain incredibly jealous of the amount of time my wife gets to spend with our son. He’s less than a year old and I already feel that I’m missing huge tracts of his life. That’s the most immediate example I could think of, and I could easily talk on it for hours.

So, maternity/paternity leave – not a great choice. Liable to degenerate into me ranting at the students about a subject they have neither interest in nor experience of (hopefully). What else? Pop-culture is always good, provided you can avoid looking like the proverbial trendy vicar, trying to get down with the kidz

I thought about explaining my (conceptually watertight) theory on larvae and cocoons, but felt that the students might not respond well to being reminded that they are in fact all insects. There’s no pleasing some people. 

Insects. There's no pleasing some insects.

Picky bastard

But maybe there’s a way of using the pop angle, and getting a bit of ‘international’ education in as well. The differences between Japanese boy and girl bands and those from the rest of the world are fairly obvious. I’ve already made my feelings on J-pop pretty clear (you found the Easter Egg at the end of that did you? If not, you’ve got a treat in store), but there might be a useful comparison to be made.

So let’s have a look at that. How are they different? How are they the same? I could compare Arashi and Michael Jackson. In terms of Japanese sales, Jackson’s death was a hugely lucrative career move. Maybe Arashi could selectively cull one of their members for a similar effect in America? If so, which one? AKB could do the same, it’s not like they’d miss one or two members, though of course there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t rise immediately from the grave.

Hmm. Maybe not. Using the classroom to promote murder for financial gain might be problematical, ethically speaking.

Though the whole East/West Boy/Girl comparison might have some legs. Literally in the case of  Girls’ Generation or Kara (they're pretty much interchangeable) and their fabled ‘Hip Dance’. From the amount of slavering attention it got on the music shows you’d think that no Japanese pop-star had ever jiggled their arse in front of a camera before.

I'd thought so too, to be honest (I’m back in the past tense now, keep up). There’s the whole Moe concept to contend with. The fetishization of the cute and naïve, as opposed to the more 'adult' sexuality apparent in much western pop-culture. Again, skirting the edge of what’s acceptable in the classroom, but I figured if I could show some examples of at least superficially ‘strong’ women it would be a step up from the doe-eyed ‘you want to put it where?!’ submissiveness exhibited by mainstream Japanese girl-groups. Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) as the soundtrack to the revolution, You Go Girl, etc.

Allowing for that fact that I’m both a parochial Brit, and that my interest in pop-music calcified in about 2007, I figured I’d see what Girls Aloud had to offer. I’d describe them as a guilty pleasure but fuck it, some of their tracks are genuinely good. The benefits of a decent producer, I guess. Anyway, Biology is catchy and actually has a vaguely relevant theme once you unpack it. Though on watching the promo I started to feel that if I showed a class of teenage boys a video with that much cleavage in it I’d just be asking for trouble.

Western pop-culture is just so overly sexualized, isn’t it? Screwing with my lesson plans, perving on 15-year-olds while simultaneously screeching about the ‘paedos’ battering against the doors of innocent families everywhere. Not like here; at least the Japanese are consistent in their perversions. At least their filthy, creepy stuff is properly segregated in the curtained-off area of the video store. You wouldn’t find any tits and groins in amongst the candy-pink fluffery of a Japanese pop promo.


This is just a Peeping Tom’s wank fantasy, isn’t it? Frankly the only thing separating it from porn is the lack of a money shot.

Fuck it all. School Uniform it is then.

Credit where it's due.


  1. I was the President of the debate team at College and I was asked to step down after making a girl cry. She got emotionally hung up on a point and I kept reaming her with it because I woulda' lost (what is considered losing anyway) if we had stuck to the facts. I followed the prof's instructions to a tee and he had to back away from his own advice.

    It was a fucking sham. I have been asked many times in life if I was a debater and I tell that I was and was asked to stop.

    Even at the University level there is a kind of P.C. bullshit woven into the whole thing.

    It's not a popularity contest. There is no loser. 2 ideas put forth with 1 emerging. If the "loser" is open minded they might learn something at worst and maybe see some important things in a new light at best. I never feared losing a debate because it's not really losing at all.

    That freedom assured I never did lose by their standards until being asked to step down. I think good debaters have fewer friends.

  2. Depends on your goals, I guess. If you really are going down the clinical, dispassionate examination of ideas route (which is pretty uncommon, tbh) then more power to you.

    If you're viewing it as a method of convincing other people of the merits of your argument then making them cry probably isn't such a great idea. Obviously you can rise above ad hom attacks, but surely it's better not to give them the opportunity?

  3. I think I just wanna make people cry and physical assaults end with me in handcuffs while verbal assaults cost me friends. So debating is an easy "Emotional Stimulus Package".

    Maybe my Prof realized I was doing it for the less ideal reason. I kept my facts (or my opinions with supporting facts) straight because otherwise it would be me looking like the asshole that I am from the start ...keeping my ass covered structurally allowed people to only realize it later.

  4. Ah, Making people cry. Isn't that why we got into education in the first place?

    I managed it with a JTE in class once. Nobody told me he'd just returned after five months sick-leave following a nervous breakdown. This is why I need to be kept in the loop, people.