Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When Japanese are "Gaijin" (Foreigners)

A sense of separateness is not easy to measure. Most people have no idea how their own feelings would compare with those of other peoples. Nationalism runs rampant throughout the world. Unconscious racial and cultural arrogance and disdain for others is pronounced in many nations around the world. But I think the Japanese sense of distinctiveness -- is itself very distinctive.

The strength of the Japanese feeling of separateness becomes more clear-cut when one considers Japanese attitudes toward other peoples. Japanese seem to have a sharp awareness at all times of themselves as being "Japanese" and of others as being first of all "not Japanese."

Again such attitudes are hard to measure, but I believe the Japanese seem to feel them more strongly than do other peoples -- except for persecuted minorities or simple tribal peoples. The first answer of a Japanese to the question "Who are you?" is likely to be "A Japanese."

Any person who goes abroad is probably surprised at the strength of his or her own nationalistic feelings, but most Japanese are less able than most others to lose consciousness of their national origins even momentarily and are more likely to see themselves always, not just as representing themselves, but as someone being exemplars of the whole Japanese nation. A Japanese who distinguishes himself in the world is much less likely to think of himself or be thought of by his friends, acquaintances and fellow citizens as "little Ichiro" who made good, but as a "Japanese" who became famous.

The uncanny inability of the Japanese to place themselves in a foreigner's shoes is very strange. I have had a weird experience with a Japanese tourist in Canada (my home country), one which stands out in memory. About 8 years ago, I was in Vancouver visiting my old friends who, when seeing some Japanese tourists nearby, asked me to exhibit my newly acquired language ability and speak in Japanese. I soon chose a Japanese man and his high school-aged son, and approached them with a typical tourist question: "Can you recommend some good restaurants around here?"

The father looked at me caustically, perhaps shocked that I could speak "his language," then replied that he could not recommend any since he, too, was a "stranger" there.

"Stranger?" I said. "You mean you're a 'gaijin' (foreigner) here."

"No," he emphatically replied. "I am Japanese, not a 'gaijin' (foreigner). You are the one is a 'gaijin' (foreigner)."

However, unable to understand the fantastically ludicrous nuance of this dialogue, my friends were duly impressed that I had merited such an emotional response.

Ishihara, Koizumi, Abe, Aso, and most other Japanese I might venture to say, might have responded in the same way as the man did. Not until the Japanese can see themselves as "gaijin" (foreigners) in distant lands, as we all are, will their everwhelming desire to be internationalized be realized.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fixing Japanese Education not Impossible

The Japanese education system is in horrendous condition. My children attend a Japanese public school. I talk to many parents and teachers. I also have 5 years experience as an inspirational speaker, and I have given more than 150 lectures to teachers, students and parents all over Japan. I have exchanged ideas on education, bullying, suicide, violence in the school and juvenile crime with more than 500 educators.

Even though the situation has rapidly worsened, the education authorities have shown a lack of will or wisdom, or both, to do what is necessary to fix the system. I believe a few matters should be considered:
- Students feel very put upon. They have an education system forced upon them in which the have no choice of courses and no input. In addition, they are taught what to think, but not how to think for themselves.
- Generally, teachers are insensitive to students and the struggles they face. They often neither teach nor nurture. The system is not designed to do that.
- The authorities, starting at the top, allow no effective means to punish students -- not even denial of club activities. Teachers are not taught in college how to deal with problem students, and many principals are afraid to take a stand for fear of losing their jobs.
- Parents, unable to nurture or discipline their children, demand that teachers do something that the parents themselves cannot do. Many teachers eventually pull into their shells and try to protect themselves. Children now have equal rights with parents and teachers, and in confrontations, it is usually the child who wins.
- Children have not been taught -- neither in the home nor at school -- moral direction. The message of the day is "We make our own rules," and I have heard students say this many times.
- Some principals have complained to me that it is impossible to teach morals and ethics apart from religion, in which these beliefs are rooted. The Japanese education system is founded upon Humanism, a nontheistic religion that lacks moral absolutes necessary for moral development.

The solution to this problem will not be easy, but it is also not impossible. We need to make the effort, pay the price and work to fix the system. We can do it!