When I turned around from the chalkboard, there was chubby Mr. Kamei with his plump fist stuffed inside his waistband. We were in the middle of English 301 and he’d either developed one fearsome case of poison ivy in his pants or was masturbating like crazy. This is what it’s like teaching college in Japan.
Half the class hadn’t even bothered to show up. Everybody was job hunting, or sick, or out of town. Any excuse not to come to English, even though you’re a Senior English major. All right, because.
“Jeezus, stop that,” I said, and Mr. Kamei looked a little puzzled, but pulled his hand out and ran it through his hair. Eeuuwww.
The two girls in the back were doing their make-up, the big guy working as a nightclub bouncer was unconscious with his head on the desk, and the geeky kids in the middle were updating their Line profiles. Nobody had a notebook, much less a pen, and almost nobody had bothered to bring the textbook. One girl had hers open to the wrong page and the blonde kid with the guitar had a manga stuck in the middle of his.
“Okay, great class,” I said. “For homework—and 30 percent of your grade—write a one-page paper describing what you think the world will be like in 50 years.” This was the easiest assignment I could dream up.
“This is,” I said, “the easiest assignment I could dream up. Flying cars, robot bartenders, cure for cancer, whatever. Just make sure it’s typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, as we discussed.”
Aaaaand… next week. I get four papers, two hand-written, one in pencil on a the back of a chemistry printout. To his credit, Mr. Kamei turned in the best one, which I was hesitant to touch—a flimsy paragraph of single-spaced Arial, entitled “Will Flying Cars Cure Cancer?”
Did I mention that Japanese university’s a joke? So far I’ve taught at five, and of the thousands of students I’ve had, 98 percent couldn’t bumble their way through a rural Arkansas community college.
Request Numero Uno for teachers at Japanese universities is: Please don’t fail everyone. Sorry, that was a typo. We meant anyone. Please refer to the following grading scale: Students who show up to half the classes warrant a C, regardless of performance. Those who do crayon drawings for assignments are displaying additional artistic talent, and deserve a B. Any half-ass approximation of actual classwork (except when done by a Chinese foreign-exchange student) is worthy of an A.
To get an F, a student literally has to not exist. And still the administration will change it to a C, because even if you’re no one, well, no one fails university in Japan.
So here’s Professor Seeroi in the university Admin Office, talking to the little fat lady behind the desk:
“Excuse me, umm… but why’s Matsuda Yuki on the roster for English 306? She got an ‘F’ in 305. On account of she doesn’t exist. Never came to a single class.
“Oh, Matsuda,” said the little fat lady. “It’s okay, Ken Sensei.
“It’s Seeroi, and I seem to remember ‘okay’ as having a slightly different meaning . . .
“Her parents came in and worked everything out,” she said.
“Her parents? Well, unless they taught a crash-course in English over the summer, she still failed . . .
“No, Ken, she got a B.
“A ‘B’? Are you mental . . . ah, great. . . Fine, I’ll change my grade-book to reflect her newfound proficiency.”
As long as your parents can pay the tuition, you’re set. The standard of education might actually be lower than in high school. I suspect there are some real exams in Engineering or Physics, but hide out in the Liberal Arts and . . . let’s just say nobody’s pulling all-nighters in dorm rooms debating issues while stuffing down handfuls of Doritos or arguing philosophical points over cans of Natty Lite. I mean, it’s not exactly Trump University.
Studying for Standardized Exams
But let’s back up, to middle school, where students study for tests, with right-and-wrong answers, that determine the high school they get into. There’s little discussion, considering the pros and cons of immigration, abortion, religion, nuclear power, war, crunchy peanut butter versus smooth. Teachers stand at the board and lecture, and students are expected to memorize facts and formulas, then regurgitate them on demand. Sensei says smooth is best, you write smooth. Then you move up.
To high school, where you study for harder tests with harder formulas that determine what college you go to. Aerated peanut butter, what’s that? Who cares, just spell it right. And once you get into college, if you go, you’re largely free to screw off and stop studying. The first two years are for partying, and the next two for job-hunting. The end result being—-having never been challenged to evaluate any real-world issues—-the average Japanese college graduate literally has the reasoning skills of a middle-schooler.
The Language Advantage
About a year ago, I read a study (which I wish to hell I could locate again) that made the case that children raised with more phonetic languages, such as Spanish and Finnish, had a notable advantage over children whose native language is English, because they learned to read and write much earlier. While American, British, and Australian children puzzle over words like “plough,” “epitome,” and “Worcestershire,” children in Spain are steadily progressing through more and higher-level books, enabling them earlier access to advanced skills such as reasoning, synthesis, and discussion. They simply read at a higher level than English speakers of the same age.
Or put another way: English speakers are held back, retarded by their nutty language.
This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that children starting school several months later than their peers enjoy a lifetime of advantages. The average six year-old is bigger and more developed, socially and intellectually, than the corresponding 5-and-1/4 year-old. Older students in the same grade thus outshine the younger ones, garnering praise and support from teachers, a process that continues through years of schooling. A small advantage that ultimately makes a huge difference.
So if Spanish-speakers are the six year-olds, English-speakers the five year-olds, then . . .
And then There’s Japanese
And then there’s . . . the language where students are still studying the alphabet into high school. Even worse than Chinese, where at least you’ve got one reading per character, Japanese folks struggle for years with how to pronounce their own words. The language itself retards—hinders—learners, putting them at a massive disadvantage. Kids in Spain are reading Kiss of the Spiderwoman , kids in America Harry Potter, and kids in Japan . . .
Naruto, the adolescent ninja. What’s Japan famous for? Literature? Movies? Music? Web design? Please. Comic books. Anime. Illustrations everywhere. You’re hard-pressed to find an instruction sheet in Japan that doesn’t include some cute bear or penguin gesturing with his little paw or flipper about how to sort your trash, sign up for health insurance, or microwave a serving of pasta.
Why is Manga so Popular in Japan?
Every bookstore, magazine stand, and school, has a significant portion of its bookshelves packed with comic books. Why? It’s generous, and a bit dismissive, to say that Japanese folks simply love “cute” things. It’s probably truer to note that a significant segment of the population isn’t accustomed to reading, or thinking, at an adult level. Young adults here read comic books for the same reason children do elsewhere: because they’re fun, funny, and not too hard. Sure, a few deal with “real” issues, but it’s not like we’re talking To Kill a Mockingbird. Who doesn’t like ninjas and pirates? No one in Japan, apparently.
Are Japanese People Retarded?
Since I gravitate toward simple answers, let’s just go with, uh, Yes. Yes, they are. Not “retarded” as in “stupid,” but rather the original meaning of the word. A little late, a little slow. Japanese folks lag behind in education simply because their language requires them to spend far longer mastering reading. This significantly delays their progress.
Japanese people themselves are aware of this; if not individually, then at least as a group. In recent years a flood of new words has entered the language, and guess what, they’re all written with the Japanese phonetic alphabet, katakana. Thousands of words—“soap, shampoo, shave cream, toothbrush, shower gel, towel”—all written in the Japanese phonetic-equivalent of English, and we’re not even out of the bathroom yet—“hair tonic, sponge, moisturizing cleanser, conditioner, face wash.” I could go on. Nobody bothers to make kanji for stuff anymore, because half the time, no one can read it.
Ever wonder why Japanese people have such trouble learning English? Just look at how well they speak their own language. Not great, is how. Granted, they’re pretty good at talking about the weather, and shopping, and food. And that can be serious too, of course. Nothing like a healthy debate over which ramen is best. There’s salt broth. . . miso broth . . . red miso broth. . . pork broth. . . shrimp broth. . . Bubba, what you mean Japan ain’t got no rich culture?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be harsh, just real. It’s the language I chose, too, which in retrospect was, eh, kind of retarded. But why be part of the solution when you can be part of the problem? That’s the Seeroi family motto.
Of course, it’s possible to work through Japanese and eventually read, think, and discuss issues at a high level. If it takes longer than with other languages then, well, we live longer too, so there. Plenty of time to learn all that other stuff after retirement. Ah, the Golden Years. Why rush around walking and running when crawling’s easier, not to mention more relaxing? Did I mention how cute manga is? And we can all agree that kanji’s cool, right? Right. That’s not nothing. It may be retarded, but it’s not nothing.