Some years ago I was teaching an advanced English class in San Francisco that featured a hodgepodge of students from all over the world. Just as the range of cultures and accents extended from Europe to the Middle East to Asia and South America, so did the array of communication styles. Yet while the Egyptians, Koreans, Colombians and French all commented on a host of themes with varying degrees of passion and volubility, it was often the same segment that monosyllabically toiled through the topics: the students from Japan.
One man from Nagoya summed up this phenomenon in a survey, where he concluded: “I had many chances, but sadly, it was not possible to talk.” Earlier on, a colleague of mine who had lived in Japan remarked on the same student’s absence of progress: “He will never be fluent. He’s too Japanese.”
Japan’s meager English skills, especially the reluctance to speak, have provoked many a sigh and shrug from frustrated instructors — and even the students themselves. Among the commonly cited reasons behind Japan’s English deficit are the fossilized education system and its focus on grammar and translation, the Japanese fear of making mistakes and the resulting lack of confidence, and even the cultural fondness for ambiguity and guarded nonanswers such as “case by case.”
All this would suffice to brew a perfect storm of eikaiwa silence. But in the case of Japan it is worthwhile to explore the relation between culture and English output more deeply. Some of the most interesting new research in the field of applied linguistics is identity theory, i.e. the idea that our sense of self is formed and constrained by society. The fantasy can go both ways: As members of a certain culture, we may become what we imagine ourselves to be like, yet we can also adapt to the conjecture of others.
Any time someone speaks in a foreign language, two different cultures are interacting. In the process, the speakers may assume identities based on the economic, historic and sociopolitical relations that have existed between their cultures. Naturally, the balances and imbalances of power are an important part of these relations. Especially for a culture as aware of rank and as subordinate to hierarchy as the Japanese, the idea of proper station has also shaped its relations with other countries.
Of course, in second-language acquisition, the game is rigged from the start. Communicating in a foreign tongue means to knowingly employ underdeveloped skills, which is to enter willy-nilly into an imbalance of power with the native speaker. As a result, learning English is never just about language. It is also about acceptance and vulnerability, about being judged by the interlocutor as a competent, equal being.
In a fair conversation, both sides are assured of their right to speak, to impact the discussion and accept responsibility for the successful exchange of information. Unlike the French or Koreans, however, many Japanese speakers of English — Osakans are somehow excepted — do not seem to feel they possess such a right. Their interactions in English can resemble a plodding interview, the candidate shy and apologetic, almost painfully insecure.
Is this Japanese silence in English in part a result of assumed identities, a reflection of its power relations with the West? For in Japan, the imbalance of power extends far beyond making sense of irregular verbs and prepositions; instead, it has deep and complex roots in history.
After the Meiji Restoration, Japan played catchup to the advanced industrial economies of the West, which led in the end to the frenzied rush into World War II, the violent attempt to attain equal first-nation status.
Ironically, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by atom bombs, America had not only won the war but also cruelly, decisively and permanently established dominance over the defeated. The new supreme commander general, Douglas MacArthur, seemingly reveling in the role of victor and occupier, went on to dismiss post-surrender Japan as a fourth-rate nation “thoroughly beaten and cowed,” and yet likely to “adulate a winner.”
For the next seven years, MacArthur’s neocolonial “revolution from above” served to remold the country and cement the assumption of superior Western culture and values. In his Pulitzer-winning account of the postwar years, “Embracing Defeat,” John W. Dower notes that “the occupation of Japan was the last immodest exercise in the colonial conceit known as ‘the white man’s burden’ ” and that “almost every interaction between victor and vanquished was infused with intimations of white supremacy.” The Japanese had to learn English to accommodate the conqueror, whereas “Our Job in Japan,” an instructional film for Occupation forces, laid out America’s task as “to enable the Japanese to read, speak, and hear the truth.”
For “America’s Japan,” this meant weaning the populace off the blind obedience to the Emperor. Still, it resembles the mind-set of many white men and women “burdened” with the Japanese today. In countless language schools, business meetings, even in talks between lovers and friends, the Westerner automatically assumes the identity of expert explaining the world to the unversed Oriental, helped by the deference of the Japanese and their martyr-like embrace of dullness. The gasbagging eigo sensei teaching truth to the little Japanese — our job in Japan still?
Gen. MacArthur, who reportedly never had meaningful contact with any civilian Japanese people, said after leaving his post that his charges, “measured by the standards of modern civilization . . . would be like a boy of 12 as compared with our development of 45 years.”
Sixty years on, native speakers of English complain about the tight-lipped Japanese, yet how many do truly extend them the same right to speak that they claim for themselves, based on real respect and equality? Isn’t the dirty little secret that many Western people today, even those who sincerely appreciate Japanese culture, in the end, truth be told, believe themselves to be intellectually superior to their Japanese interlocutors? Isn’t the ethnocentric supposition that Western logic, enlightenment and business expertise trump the Japanese on all counts, and that these are the yardsticks by which intelligence is appraised?
Keenly sensitive to interpersonal attitudes, the Japanese fall into the rank assigned. They cede their right to speak as they feel out of their depth, both with their English skills and, presumably, their intellect. According to identity theory, if you talk to people like a parent, they may answer — or clam up — like little children.
To cure the imbalance, it will take cultural deconditioning. As the U.S. experiences a humbling decline in power and the eurozone is buried in sovereign debt, as Japanese democracy is maturing and “Globish” emerges as a new form of identity-free English, both sides of the language divide should assess and renegotiate their identities.
Westerners should be honest about if and why they believe themselves to be superior. Just as the “Lehman shock” served to raise doubts about the West’s business expertise, Internet chat room and TV shoutfests mark a dearth of its fabled logic. Intercultural equality entails the top dog making concessions, such as that unscripted Power Point presentations are not the apex of human intelligence.
On the other hand, if the Japanese wish to be taken seriously as speakers of English, they must be smart about it. They should avoid paternalistic teachers who are in love with their own voice, and seek out those who take time to ask questions and listen with interest. Most of all, the Japanese must stop using the old excuse that passivity and poor English are a part of their national identity.
Old habits die slowly, yet Japanese firms going global must step up to the plate. MacArthur brought democracy and suffrage, but in the theater of culture, the right to speak cannot be conferred; it is claimed. Just ask the Osakans.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. He teaches at Shukutoku University, Tokyo. Send comments and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org