To be or not to be? — they simply can’t decide


Japan is often criticized for the time it takes to make decisions. The government drags on making decisions from natural disasters to nuclear power and whether to allow gambling casinos.

Ha! You should try to teach English to Japanese university students, where it can take an entire 90-minute class for them to think of something to write about. And that’s after I’ve given them the topic. When I told my students to write a 500-word essay about their most recent vacation, the entire class looked up at me — horrified. “Muzukashii! (Difficult!),” said one student. “Muri! (Impossible!),” said another girl. “Pass!” exclaimed another, as if English class was a TV quiz show. She was so exasperated, I expected the jimaku for “Pass!” to appear in the air above her head, complete with bold red letters and a few exclamation marks — perhaps accompanied by a lightning bolt.

You have to understand that my request was outside of the description of a student as being “one who eats and sleeps full-time.” It’s like asking your cat to write an essay.

But after the initial shock, and once they realize they have to do this, the hemming and hawing over what to write about starts. My students are bright girls. Who need 90 minutes to make a decision on what they’ll write about.

“Why not write something about your part-time job? Or your trip abroad?” I suggest to one particularly troubled student.

“OK.” But then she starts ruminating. “Dou shiyo kana? Which should I do, the trip abroad or the part-time job?” She can’t decide between the two (as if it really matters). “This is so difficult!” she finally says. She puts her head down on her desk and whimpers.

Sigh. I wonder how these girls date. Should I go out with the guy in the red sweater, or the guy in the green sweater? The guy with the glasses or the guy with the contacts? The guy with the shoes or the guy with the slippers? Oh this is so difficult! Whimper.

The class is now silent. The students, all young, beautiful, lethargic girls, drape themselves over their desks like cats, some with arms crossed and heads snuggled perfectly into them, purring, while they wait for a brilliant essay idea to hit them.

While one girl plays with her elephant eraser, another says, “Kawaii ne?” while looking at her Winnie-the-Pooh pencil, as if willing it to write the essay for her.

I can imagine these girls’ horoscopes: Aries — you will have a difficult time making decisions today. Pisces — postpone any major decisions. Aquarius — ignore people who try to push you to make decisions.

I can tell you that putting off decision-making is learned very early on in Japan. It starts when mothers answer for their children when the kids are asked questions, even if it’s just which color lollipop they’d like. While the child stands there hesitantly looking at the lollipops, the mother swoops in and says, “She’s shy!” Well, of course the child is shy. But that doesn’t mean she can’t make a decision.

“Shy!” the mother says again, reinforcing what really is more a command than an observation. The child retreats further and hides behind her mother’s pant leg while clutching it. This hardly encourages children to make decisions.

Finally, the mother says to the cowering child, “How about the red lollipop?” And the child nods her head.

By the time Japanese children get to school, they’ve been through the “shy machine” that manufactures perfectly shy Japanese children, and none of these kids has learned to make decisions for themselves. Many of my university students still can’t tell me which color lollipop they’d like.

Before graduation this spring, one student had two job offers: one with a clothing company and one with a travel agency. After she graduated, I asked her which job she ended up taking. “Neither,” she said. I wasn’t sure if I should congratulate her on deciding not to decide.

Instructional pamphlets abound in Japan. Walk into the DIY store and there are booklets on how to make a flower box, how to make a picnic table, and how to make an array of simple things. Go to a Japanese restaurant and there will be osusume mono: the store’s “recommended item.” In the U.S. the menu might suggest: “Try our famous beef burgers,” but in Japan it’s: “Our recommended item: beef burgers!”

In the clothing store, there are bound to be cute little hand-written signs in multi-colored ink that tell you: “Pair this belt with these jeans for a super cute look!” The bakery has signs that say: “These hand-made mini-cakes are so delicious for a tea party!” While Japanese people rather like being told what to like, I abhor it. Let me make my own decisions! Forgive my assertiveness.

I can’t help but think this predilection for waiting to be told what to do plays a role in the inability to make decisions — within government, within corporations and within society. And where a desire for consensus is paired with an aversion to debate, is it any wonder that the result is indecision? We have to get past “What should we do?” and get on to “Let’s do this!” faster.

Back in the classroom, a few girls start picking up their pencils and writing. The others are still thinking. They are doing everything they can to come up with a topic. For example, doodling on note paper in pink ink, apparently, helps one think. Putting sheep stickers on your electronic dictionary is somehow therapeutic. Drawing manga characters uses up some of that page space. Can you imagine what these girls’ o-baachan carts are going to look like someday?

Perhaps students at a more prestigious university are different. Maybe they wake up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to write an essay on macroeconomics and how to get Japan out of debt. I better buy a ream of paper and a few color ink cartridges to print out my manifesto. I hope the store has really good photographic paper so my Power Point charts and graphics will print out beautifully. I really wish Amy’s class was all day long. I love writing class!”

Forty-five minutes into the class, there are a few stragglers who haven’t come up with a topic yet. They are, no doubt, wondering if they should wait until next week to decide. Since half the class time has passed already, there’s hardly enough time left to come up with a topic today.

Am I worried about these students and their inability to make decisions? Not really. Because I know that someday they will get jobs where they will have to sit at board meetings. And at these meetings, no decisions will be made.

  • If you really knew as much as you claim to later in the article, why would you expect the reaction to your task in class to be otherwise?

    They come from a culture where what to do is rigidly prescribed, so asking them to “start from zero” is basically asking for the reaction you are getting. It is the same in China. You have to tell them what they are going to write about. Whether or not they want to be “led” is irrelevant, as it is all they know. Responding to direct, specific instructions is what they do. It’s called being conditioned to pass tests, instead of to think conceptually about the world around them. And, at this age it is too late to undo the damage that the groupthink mentality has wrought.

    Anyone who dreams of infusing individualism, creative expression, and autonomy better start with younger students — and in a system where it’s possible. As it stands, public school monopolies that verbally beat the groupthink into kids (so by the time they are a teen it’s too late) makes combating what you decry impossible.