Know the biggest challenge you’ll face in Japan during the COVID crisis? Turns out it’s trying to determine what hotties with hard bodies look like under those masks. Nobody wants to get all the way to the bedroom only to have an episode of, Oh jeez, put it back on, put it back on. Ken Seeroi’s all about mitigating risk. That’s why I keep a selection of cute wigs on hand, just in case. Then if anybody’s disappointed, at least I can throw one on. You’d be surprised how good I look with bangs. Trust me, “surprised” is an understatement.
So I’m in the university office last Tuesday, and this is Ms. Eguchi, from behind her mask— “Ken Sensei, please don’t make the final assignment too hard.”
She’s concerned I’ll fail my entire class of undergraduates again this semester. I’m concerned too, considering the problem at hand, which is that I’ve never seen her face despite having a body that reminds me of warm hills and ample valleys.
“Perhaps I should provide each student with a cushy down pillow,” I countered, “to keep their thick skulls from bouncing off the desks when they fall asleep.”
“I’m sorry, what?” replied Ms. Eguchi, tilting her head. “Dick skulls?”
“Umm, uh, never mind. I’ll give the easiest conceivable assignment.”
“I’m sure their dick skulls will appreciate it,” she chirped cheerfully.
“We probably shouldn’t mention this conversation to anyone,” I said.
Homework at a Japanese University
With that in mind, I crafted this most challenging assignment:
Create a PowerPoint presentation about any city in the world. Your presentation must be ten slides or more. Include demographics about ages, ethnicities, religions, etc. You have two weeks to complete it.
I couldn’t imagine an easier assignment that didn’t involve crayons and paste. Then three weeks later, this is what I got from a sophomore named Takemoto-san. This is verbatim what he wrote, and it’s a pretty representative sample:
- Slide 1: There are many interesting cultures in Malaysia
- Slide 2: They eat spicy foods with right hand
- Slide 3: They care for water
- Slide 4: They wake up with a chicken voice
Well, too many spicy foods will do that. You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. I was like, Okay, Malaysia…country, not a city…four slides not ten…week late…Eh, give ya a “B” for chicken voice.
Is Japanese University a Joke?
Now, i don’t want to say Japanese university’s a joke. I just can’t think of any other way to finish that sentence that doesn’t include an expletive. Although the reality is, there’s nothing wrong with Japanese university. It’s great, as long as you leave the mask on.
Japanese universities do exactly what they’re designed to do, in the same way a 49-cent hamburger fulfills its purpose in the universe. It’s not pretending to be a sirloin steak. You want a lunch on the cheap and Ronald McDonald’s like, Here’s your Happy Meal. You get a smiley red box and now you’re happy. It’s good to have incredibly low expectations.
Grading Scales in Japan
Or, you could just lower the bar. By which i mean the grading scale. Because in some fantasy, not-Japan world, it’s slightly hard for students to get A’s. Well, that makes Ronald a sad clown. Frowny box. So to remedy this unfortunate reality, Japanese universities have invented the “S.”
I was like “S? What the F’s that?”
“Oh,” answered Ms. Eguchi, “S is for students who get 90% and above.”
“isn’t that an A?”
“No,” she said patiently, in the same way you’d explain a can opener to a cat, “80’s an A, 70’s a B…”
“So B’s the new A? Is it even possible for students to fail?”
“Sure,” she said. “if they miss more than ten classes.”
“Ten classes? That’s a third of the freaking semester. Are you out of your—Ah, never mind.”
I say that a lot. I don’t know why.
Teaching at a Japanese University
I figured I’d just buy her a cute wig and be done with it. I’ve learned to, let’s just say, “adjust” my expectations, downward. So now, welcome to Seeroi Sensei’s class, where this was the midterm assignment:
Write a one-page paper about how technology is changing our lives. It must be typed, double-spaced, and written in English. You have two weeks to complete it.
Guess what sixty percent of the students turned in? If you said “An existential essay on nothingness worthy of Camus himself,” congratulations, you just graduated Japanese university with a Ph.D. The few submissions I received resembled the scrawled ramblings of death row prisoners and desert island castaways. Here was the winning entry:
Internets will make us happy?
Technology makes something new that people want all the times. Then, what do people of today want? They want convenience, and it is more than now.
“Internets” surely give people a lot of information. They can’t live their own life without “internets”.
Convenient things are made for people’s happiness.”Internets” are surely convenient. But convenience doesn’t always work for it.
Thoughtful stuff. Actually, that wasn’t half bad. Clearly, Google Translate has come a long way, although convenience doesn’t always work for it.
Technology in Japan
Honestly, I was thrilled to receive any typed assignments at all. What I came to learn was although my students had iPhones, many didn’t own a PC or have internet service at home. So when I asked for assignments to be emailed, several hand-wrote papers, then sent me photos of their scribblings. Japan’s a technological backwater.
It’s hard to know if Japanese universities are comical or tragic. They certainly don’t stack up well against schools, well, pretty much anywhere. But the reality is that Japanese universities are designed to fit the needs of Japanese society, and don’t serve the same purpose as universities elsewhere.
The Purpose of University Education
Which begs the question: What’s the purpose of a university education anyway? On the surface, “to learn stuff” seems like a good answer, particularly if you’ve never gone to university. Ideally though, higher education challenges you to conduct research, learn independently, consolidate information from disparate sources, and question your own assumptions. That’s known as “critical thinking,” where even if you’re dead sure the stupid shit in your brain’s right, you search for situations where it might be at least partially wrong. And that journey of examining your own beliefs leads you to a deeper understanding of the issues. Or to conclude that you are, in fact, a singular genius adrift in a sea of idiots.
And in Japan, you very well may be. Because students here generally don’t learn critical thinking skills. Their entire education is devoted to rote learning, which continues through college, until they graduate with the discussion and problem-solving capacity of middle-schoolers.
But to get a handle on the actual purpose of Japanese university, you’ve got to understand Japanese K-12 education.
Japanese K-12 Education
There’s a line down the middle of every hall in Japanese school. You walk on the right side of the line, not the left. The line goes up the stairs to your classroom, and in the classroom, you align your assigned desk with marks on the floor. At the start of every class, the designated student leader for the day shouts “Come to attention!” and you jump up. Everybody stands stock still, nervously eyeing everyone else.
“Now we start the first period!” shouts the leader. You and everyone else repeats the call, “Now we start the first period!” “Bow!” barks the leader. Everyone bows. “Sit down!” You do, spine straight. If you slump slightly, you risk being yelled at, or possibly hit. This goes on for every period of the day, every day, for the rest of your school life. Students who don’t obey invite discipline from other students and the teacher. Teachers hit students with hands, shoes, baseball bats, or simply shame them into obedience.
Foreign teachers new to Japan often jokingly remark, “Japanese students are so shy.” That’s bananas. It’s not shyness you’re seeing; it’s fear.
Teaching in Japanese Schools
Before teaching Japanese University, I taught at close to twenty elementary, middle, and high schools. Here’s a happy scene from middle school I won’t soon forget:
The muscular karate teacher tackling a learning-disabled student to the ground and pinning him in a headlock. “Will you try harder from now on,” he growled, “and focus on your studies?”
I was like, “Umm, you sure that’s the best way to motivate a twelve year-old?”
The boy was underneath, with the sensei laying his weight on him. “Say you’ll try harder or I’ll keep you down.”
The boy never uttered a word, which was probably the right answer. I wish I could say such situations are unusual, but they’re emblematic of the way Japanese society runs. When tourists come to Japan, they coo, “Oh, Japanese people are so nice and polite,” as if that’s normal. Yeah, ever seen a dog show? Those mutts didn’t just decide to prance and jump tiny hurdles of their own volition. Punishments and rewards are great motivators, and Japanese folks have refined the art of stick-and-more-stick to a high level. Hey, who needs carrot when stick’s so good for whackin’?
Signs in Japan, Everywhere Signs
There are signs on the wall of every school showing the proper sitting posture. Signs above the sinks illustrating how to wash your hands and brush your teeth. Signs in the bathroom describing the proper way to use the urinal. Take one step forward. Do not spit in the urinal, or discard gum or paper. Flush once when done. Thank you for your cooperation.
Out on the exercise field, you march, high-stepping, and chant in unison, “1-2-3-4…” under the summer sun till your skin bakes brown, and in the winter till you’re blue. It’s military academy, all the time, every day. Outside of school, signs in buses, trains, stores, and on the street tell you just the right way to perform every action. And it goes on for years, until you join the collective and enforce society’s rules, move overseas, or end your life. Well hey, it’s good to have options.
It’s not uncommon for Japanese children to attend school from morning till night, then afterward go to cram school, then go home and do homework. There’s not a lot of time for reflection and critical thinking when you’re saddled with a language of over 2,000 finely-detailed characters that must each be precisely handwritten. Japan places an insane importance on proper penmanship.
Getting into Japanese University
But if you study really hard, take notes exactly as proscribed, endlessly repeat the sentences your teachers chant in just the right order, and pass tests by meticulously regurgitating what you’ve been taught—“There are 51 states in U.S.A.”–then you might pass the university admission exam.
At which point, you get to relax. Nah, just kidding. You’ll probably have to work a part-time job at night, sliding chicken hearts onto skewers and grilling them up for salarymen who’ve missed the last train, cleaning up cocktails at a dance club, or if you’re a young lady, rubbing the thighs of skeevy old geezers at your hostess bar, some of whom just might be your professors.
Joining a Japanese Company
And then at eight a.m., there you are in my English class, struggling to stay awake. That’s not your fault. Now, I’ve taught at seven universities in Japan, two at the graduate level, and have come to understand the expectation. Japanese university is hard to get into, but easy to graduate from. The first two years are for fucking off and working nights to pay tuition. The last two years are for fucking off, working more nights, and interviewing with companies.
Japanese companies aren’t looking for students trained in independent problem solving. They demand workers who can be molded to their precise specifications, who are capable of applying their rules exactly as delineated. What you learned in university, eh, nobody remembers that anyway. You’ll be given a thickly detailed handbook, drilled in corporate procedures, and quite possibly provided with a dorm room surrounded by your coworkers. You can expect to endure weekends and evenings attending company functions with your bosses, and spend vacations on company outings. Your time is the company’s time; your life, the company’s life. Eventually you’ll get married to the guy or gal who works at the end of your row of desks, and have obedient children who’ll grow up to repeat the cycle.
The Purpose of English Class
Students entering university know this. They’re well aware that those four years may be the only moment of respite in their otherwise highly regimented lives. This goes double for English class. Where a Japanese teacher may snap them back into line, foreign teacher-dude is cool with students. He or she’s friendly, makes jokes, and relates.
That’s what “foreigners” are for. It’s why they’re hired. Hell, if we wanted someone to actually teach English, universities would stick with the legions of Japanese instructors who’ve been drilled in grammar, who’ll stand at attention and recite scripts more perfectly than any native speaker ever could. But foreign instructors, heh, they’re just gym teachers with big bags of basketballs. Nobody’s trying to get you into the NBA. We just want you to run around, make some sloppy layups, and not sprain any ankles. Good hustle. Next time, try dribbling with only one hand.
Although as a general rule, doubling down usually works better than giving up. A teacher’s job is to encourage students to challenge assumptions, approach problems from different angles, and engage with the issues facing our rapidly changing world. That includes providing direction and resources, as well as listening, supporting, and remaining cognizant of the realities students are facing. And then ultimately doing whatever it takes to move each individual forward. Hey, you know it’s a good class when I’m the only one leaving in tears. Truth is, Japanese university isn’t a joke. It may actually be the most important period of their lives. And English class, I like to think, even more so. It could well be the only opportunity for Japanese students to get a glimpse of a world outside their own, maybe lighten up a bit, and perhaps briefly, even try thinking for themselves.