Friday, May 12, 2006

How universities work in Japan, my fond memories as an ESL teacher, and battle of the sexes, Japan style

Some of the biggest differences between Japan and the U.S. can be seen in higher education. Japan has an extensive system of public and private universities which educate 44% of graduating high school students. In the U.S. the top universities are private schools like Harvard, Princeton and MIT, while State schools are lower in the rankings. In Japan this is reversed: the public universities are where everyone wants to go, in large part because they're much cheaper than their private counterparts like Waseda or Keio. Students study hard to get into top-ranked national institutions like Tokyo University at least in small part to lessen the financial burden on their parents and show oya koko (filial piety, e.g. thanks and respect to their parents for raising them). While Japan's national universities might offer a good education, they're dependent on the public purse for their operations and are generally running out of money all the time. A visit to some of these campuses with their drab brown concrete buildings built in the "Late Contemporary Chernobyl" style can make you think you've been transported to the old Soviet Union. The money problem has gotten so bad that some schools have started licensing their name -- if you want to try a Kobe University- brand steak, you can find them for sale in finer shops. One of the biggest problems with Japanese universities is that students must work so hard to pass the entrance exams that it's generally expected that they'll goof off once they get admitted. This makes me sad, considering all the ways my mind was challenged during my own time at college. Another problem: too many universities. Despite the sagging Japanese population and dearth of students, new universities continue to be built every year.

I really enjoyed my career as an ESL teacher, and during that time I came into contact with many different kinds of Japanese people, from kids who were being exposed to English for the first time to high school students who wanted to learn how to actually use the language they'd spend six years learning the grammar and vocabulary of. I always tried to show a positive, cheerful face to my students (Japanese people expect Americans to be "cheerful" at all times, I've learned), and let them know how great it is to learn English, since it allows you to make friends all over the world. I've met interested students, bored students, and housewives who thought that studying English was the most thrilling thing in their lives (clearly they needed to get out more). I'll never forget one student I had who drove a tanker truck delivering white kerosene to gas stations. Whenever he couldn't communicate something in English, he's try saying it in Japanese with an outrageous American accent. It's not considered good form for the teacher to laugh himself into a ball during class, but it was difficult keeping my amusement bottled up sometimes.

The subject of how men and women interact in Japan is a complex one, and I've come to realize how closely related it all is to language, despite the obvious "which came first, the social attitude or the linguistic term" question. For the most part, English is largely unisex, with the same words being used by both men and women, with a few exceptions (like profanity). Japan is quite different, and much of the language is "hard wired" for use by women or men only. For starters, there are different pronouns for boys and girls to use. Guys generally use the polite "boku" or the manly-sounding ore (OH-ray) to refer to themselves, but girls get the more feminine watashi or atashi (or if they're trying to be annoyingly cute, they refer to themselves in the third person, like characters sometimes do in anime). For the second person pronoun, men often use masculine omae (OH-mah-aye) or the slightly condescending kimi, both of which contain an element of talking to someone at a lower social level, like an underclassman. Women usually use the neutral anata, and both sexes will often substitute a name, e.g. Fujita-san, in place of a second-person pronoun. There are quite a few words which the Japanese use every day but which sound incredibly sexist if you analyze their actual meanings. The most common word for husband is shujin, which really means "master" if you look at its kanji. Two words for wife used by older Japanese are kanai (lit. "in the house") and okusan ("Mrs. Interior"), implicitly stating that wives never leave the home. Of course, these are just words and no one considers their meanings all that deeply, just as we don't tear English words apart for their Greek and Latin origins that much, but it's interesting what you can uncover when you dig deep into a language.

J-List loves to bring you the best PC dating-sim games from Japan, translated into English. We've got dozens of great CD-ROM and download games for all tastes, with hilarious stories, extremely dramatic love themes and all manner of cute characters. Our latest game is Doushin - Same Heart, a fascinating title in which you play from the viewpoint of the three Suruga Sisters, Ryoko, Maki and Miho. At any time in the game you can "zap" from one character to another and continue the story from their point of view, which adds an incredible element of depth to the story. A great game by Crowd, the company that brought us X-Change, X-Change 2 and Tokimeki Check in!, so we know it'll bring you many hours of enjoyment (and lots of in-jokes from the other games). It's being duplicated right now, but you can still order now and get free shipping on it!

The Japanese eat a lot of noodles, and we are no exception. This is a meal from our favorite udon/soba restaurant. Today I got the udon with the mini-bowl of curry that was delicious.

My daughter got Curry Udon, a delicacy of Nagoya, and we kept raiding her bowl because it was so good. It's basically a giant bowl of curry soup with udon boiled in, mmmmm!

It's nice to have a beer after a hard day's work (especially on update days). This is Asahi's invention, a one-serving "Steiny Bottle" with a pull top, a way to sell more beer to consumers.

These are a local famous food called sansai, a kind of edible wild plant found up in the mountains, and since we've got mountains coming out of our ears here, there are a lot of sansai. They are frankly delicious, although it took me a while to come to terms with them. If you've ever played the classic bishoujo game Season of the Sakura, Mio was going to the mountains to pick sansai, but since I didn' thave space to explain what the heck this was, I changed it to mushrooms.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Experiments with Japanese literature, my impressions on positives and negatives education in Japan, and squid ink pizza

Coming to Japan brought many surprises for me, and not just the usual things like beer vending machines and ikasumi (squid ink) pizza. One revelation I had was that Japan's education system, which back in 1991 seemed the envy of the entire world, was in fact far from perfect. Japan introduced compulsory education as part of the sweeping reforms of the Meiji Period, when the country abandoned its feudal system and became a Constitutional Monarchy trying to immitate the powers of the West. Currently, Japanese children are required to attend 6 years of elementary school and three years of junior high. High school is optional, although nearly all students go, and there is competition between the various city-run and private high schools in any given area, e.g. Maebashi Commercial High School is best for students who want to learn a business-related trade, but Takasaki Boy's High School has the best academic reputation, etc. Unlike schools back in the States in which each student had his own schedule of lessons for each hour, Japanese classes are always together for the duration of a school year -- the same students in the same classrooms, all day long -- while teachers come and go each hour to teach lessons. This difference alone is representative of the "individualism" of the U.S. (each student going to his own class on his own schedule) compared to the "group identity" of Japan (all students together as one defined group).

It's hard to come up with an exact list of the issues I have with education here, since nothing is as simple as it looks at first glance. On the one hand, the near-absolute stress on "uniformity" of education, of treating every child as if they were exactly the same, rubs me the wrong way as an American. Japan's top-down education structure, in which almost all cirriculum is decided in Tokyo and followed to the letter from Hokkaido to Okinawa, is somewhat necessary if for no other reason than because of kanji, which has to be learned in a standard order for people to become literate. But what about "special" kids, like my daughter, who is fluent in English? When she enters junior high she'll have to take English along with all the other kids, starting with the phrase "this is a pen," despite the fact that she'll probably know more than the teacher. On the other hand, having students stay together as a cohesive unit for the entire school year teaches students the importance of wa (harmony) and gaman (putting up with things they might not necessarily like), important skills to have in any society. This group- based learning tends to foster lifelong friendships among classmates, too, and my mother-in-law still gets together with the people she went to high school with 50 years ago. (For a good look at how class relationships work, I recommend the excellent Ghibli film Ocean Waves, one of my favorites.) While I've come to see the many standardized tests for subjects like kanji, abacus and even penmanship as a positive force on kids -- my son really wants to pass the next level of the Step test, and this motivates him to study his English -- I am fearful of the effect of the dreaded entrance exams on my kids. Also, Japan's education system relies too much on facts and too little on overall understanding. My wife can tell you what date the Kamakura Shogunate was founded (1192, which the Japanese memorize using the phrase ii kuni o tsukuro or "let's make a good country"), but generally can't explain how it was important to Japan's history as a whole.

I've undertaken many areas of study in my quest to understand Japan from as many angles as possible. I've hitchhiked from one end of the country to the other, meeting various people along the way. I've toured hundreds of kilometers on my bicycle, explored Japan's culture of onsen bathing in a dozen prefectures, and learned (or tried to learn) traditional calligraphy. I've delved into Japan's manga culture, from true works of literature by Osamu Tezuka to the lighter offerings of more contemporary mangaka (manga artists). I even went through a phase when I wanted to study Japanese literature, exploring the classics of the Meiji and Taisho eras using a book intended for junior high school students (much more approachable for me). I enjoyed reading through some excellent books, like Kokoro by Souseki Natsume (the tragic story of a love triangle between two friends and a landlady's daughter, told from several points in the story) and the short stories of Dazai and Akutagawa. One day I got it in my head to read my favorite novel, Flowers for Algernon, in Japanese, which was a bizarre experience -- in places where Charlie makes spelling mistakes in the English edition, he makes kanji errors in the Japanese version. Hemmingway also translates very nicely into Japanese.

Do you want to help J-List evangelize its unique brand of Japanese pop culture? Got a website? If so, we hope you'll consider joining the Friends of J-List, our affiliate program set up to help give back to people who link to us. The program is excellent, with many ways to link to either the J-List or websites using graphics (hosted by us, so there's not even a bandwidth cost to you), text links, category links, and more. Go here for more information!

Thomas Bento Box -- Thomas & Friends. Thomas the Tank Engins is very popular in Japan, and this is a great and very rare item for collectors.

Took the kids to McDonald's, which I dislike a lot less now that you can order a "shaker salad" instead of french fries. McD, which has been having to reinvent itself in Japan as well as elsewhere, has started making ebi, er, shrimp products, like a new Shrimp McSomething (some kind of chicken fillet with shrimp substituted, I forgot the name) and the new Shrimp McNuggets, pictured here.

One of the sad things about the Japanese is, they're not that charitable. It's hard to see, but this Donald McDonald Foundation (yes, Ronald's name is Donald here, deal) is filled with 1 yen coins.

They have these cool video games kids get to play for free (with purchase), which spit out trivia cards. One of the questions was, what is maneki neko called in English? "Lucky Cat" sounds so funny to the Japanese.

So, we're driving in our MPV, enjoying out navi system, as they're called here. Somehow, the computer seems to know when traffic is slowing, and it colored our road red for us. How does it know to do that?

Technology is sure amazing.