Jun 12, 2015

Teaching English in Japan: Perpetuating Stereotypes?

Teaching English in Japan:  Perpetuating Stereotypes? photo

In today's English lesson our text book's protagonist is flying from Tokyo to England.  So begin references to The Beatles, orders for steak and kidney pie, and tea served in pots that even grandma would banish to the attic.

Of course, you always drink tea, don't you?  The Japanese teacher inquires of me.  Well, I am English after all.  I should be in my element with this.

Err.  Actually I tend to go for coffee myself.  A look of disappointment.  But yeah, most English people are crazy about tea!  I continue.  Things picks up.

I must be one of the awkward ones.  The nation's ugly duckling.  A coffee drinker who doesn't own a single pressing by The Beatles and is not sure which member of the Royal Family is which, or care for that matter.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first assistant language teachers (ALTs) set foot in Japan, charged with boosting foreign language proficiency (largely English) and encouraging the flow of cultural exchange.  Despite more recent policy to have ALTs teaching English in pretty much all public schools (including at elementary level), the education ministry announced the other day that mandatory English testing will be brought in for junior high schools by 2019.  Why?  Well, it seems students aren’t making the kind of progress in English that had been hoped for.

Teaching English in Japan:  Perpetuating Stereotypes? photo

So, who’s to blame?  ALTs?  Teachers?  The system?  Everyone?  Well, probably a bit of the latter.  However, as the nation’s ALTs near the end of their first term at school, feverishly eyeing-up a six-week summer break, it’s a good time to take stock and reflect on the role the ALT plays in this system, particularly when it comes to cultural exchange.  Perhaps there is more that could be achieved here.

Recounting this writer’s experiences in the gig, as soon as I walked into my first class as an ALT at a junior high, fresh off a plane from England, I was quickly saddled with a cultural legacy left by The Beatles and some fuzzy images of Princess Di and royal weddings.

I baulked at these out of touch references.  Yet, filing through papers left behind by my predecessors revealed an impressive variety of nationalities all using the same kind of blunt references to long since past it celebrities and cultural dinosaurs.  Either my desk hadn't been cleaned in a while or something else was going on.

I soon learned that to try and break away from these anchors to a nation's culture was for the students and teachers to be cast adrift with fears of never finding common cultural ground.  In the resulting panic there was a scramble to grab at whatever was near and familiar, hence the constant return to out of date stereotypes.

The situation is often exacerbated when the ALT is required to wax lyrical about cultures and places that are unfamiliar to them.

Back to the textbook.  We head off to Venezuela to make superlatives about Angel Falls.

Can you talk to the students about Venezuela?  The teacher.

I don't know very much..... .

OK.  OK.  Don't worry.  Do...your...best!  Each word enunciated and followed with an exasperated laugh to try and avoid possible confrontation.

The lesson is about to start.  I approach the class and remember a YouTube clip in which Hugo Chavez calls George W. Bush the devil.  I say something about Caracas and baseball instead.

I can only speculate about how much of what I said was true, or relevant, but I'm pretty sure it was littered with casual stereotypes.

Teaching English in Japan:  Perpetuating Stereotypes? photo

Venezuela, Thanksgiving, Maori gestures and high school etiquette in Houston.  There seems to be an assumption that the ALT will, or should, know more about the world than the Japanese teachers.  It's like, because this is something happening outside of Japan, and the ALT is also from outside of Japan, then they must know more about it than us, inside Japan.

It's been more than one hundred and fifty years since Japan came out of its self-imposed isolation but perhaps there is still some reluctance to dabble with all things foreign.

A look at corporate Japan may also shed some light on the struggle facing students’ English proficiency.  For this is a world that seems to need full control over its English.  It almost fetishizes it, primping and prodding it into nonsensical repose, slapping it up in pornographic neon and making it dance for money in vacuous, executive made pop music.

At times it can feel as if Japan doesn't want to learn English and accept its rules, it just wants to play with it or turn it into economy.  In the same way, it isn't actually interested in learning 'culture' from the ALTs.  It just wants to put them on show and have them dance to Michael Jackson records.

But in those low moments of cultural frustration, that surely many of us who've lived overseas have experienced, it's too easy to lay blame on the host country.

Japan is trying to learn about foreign cultures and improve its English, and is employing ALTs to be a part of that process.  However, it's possible that some of us didn’t do, or aren’t doing, enough. We’re perhaps guilty of coming over here on an extended jolly with a desire limited to filling our own cultural palettes and not those of our hosts.

Placing an emphasis on ALTs to do more in dealing with the problem of perpetuating stereotypes requires not only a change in attitude but also a change in how we respond (or not) to the sometimes stereotypical views of our hosts.

This is not without its challenges but I,for one, didn't come over to Japan to promote The Beatles and David Beckham's latest tattoo.  I allowed myself to get boxed in by my hosts preconceived ideas.  In part, it's because these hosts have welcomed me so warmly and seem so terrified at even the slightest whiff of confrontation that it can be hard to break out enough tough love to oppose any misconceptions.  I'm aware too, of the rigid hierarchical structure that tells me my superiors are not to be questioned (particularly in front of the students).

But something has to give.  As an ALT I saw too many students who seemed to have no idea why positive cultural exchange is a good thing.  Small wonder if they associate English with boring stereotypes and the indignity of being forced to sing along with The Carpenters.

Or we could just give them a test!  There’s nothing like the prospect of failure to panic people into studying harder!

Calling all ALTs and language teachers in Japan!  And those of you thinking about teaching in Japan.  Let us know about your experiences, good or bad.  Feel free to pen your thoughts in our POSTS section, or click on Q&A if you’ve got any questions.



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.


  • Jimbo

    on Sep 3

    Hi Tomuu, Thanks for commenting on my blog and your post brought back a lot of memories for me. I was an ALT on the JET programme from 1997 to 99. I do not think things have changed so much. As ALTs, we tend to focus on mostly pop-cultural icons or tell what we know about the West but that does not help students' intercultural understanding. Looking at the JHS textbooks, they seem like they are trying to get students to focus on other areas of the world than the West. Intercultural understanding is more of an activity rather than an accumulation of knowledge. It is about making the effort to understand individual people, their habits, values, and world views. This makes us reflect on our own world views and realize that our views are just one of many. When I was an ALT I always felt a little bothered about being the school's foreigner. I think that if schools really want to internationalise then they should accept non-Japanese English teachers. Both sides would have to make concessions for this to happen. Non-Japanese teachers would need a serviceable Japanese and a willingness to understand and follow school traditions and rules. They would also need minimal qualifications in education (When I was an ALT, I did not know anything about teaching and new zero Japanese. Probably things have changed a little.) Japanese schools would need to change their perception of English education as well as reduce the work week (hopefully for all teachers) to make it easier for the non-Japanese teacher to do things like visit home. Anyway, thanks for letting me rant and good luck.

  • Tomuu

    on Sep 4

    No worries Jimbo. Rant away. I agree. By 'non-Japanese English teachers' are you referring to ALTs or the 'main' teachers? I think a big stumbling block to getting qualified ALTs into schools would be pay. A lot of these 'dispatch' companies that manage ALTs simply don't pay enough money for those people who have good qualifications. I think we need to see Boards of Education 'cutting out the middle-man' so to speak, and hiring good ALTs directly.

  • helloalissa

    on Apr 28

    Thank you. I've seen an old article in Japanese addressing all the problems of dispatch companies and why the ALT thing isn't working. It's a matter of systems being slow to change, if at all. The board of education and school staff is well aware that the system doesn't work. The direct hire option isn't much better as the salary is only slightly higher after tax and company health insurance costs go up. The boards of education are trying to get the lowest salary as well, a race to the bottom if you will. As ALTs, we can listen to our students (whenever we get a chance to), make it fun for them, and enjoy what we do (Carpenters songs and all). If we take anything the students know and like from the English world, Justin Beiber or whatever it is, and the Japanese teacher lets us work with that - it's a good opportunity for 'authentic material' in the public school. If we keep pushing that (introducing a little Matt and Kim, or whatever we actually listen to), and the students like it, that's even better. Maybe 40 years ago, ALTs actually liked the Carpenters (doubtful), and no one has introduced the teachers to something new?

  • Tomuu

    on May 4

    @helloalissa Thanks for the comment. "a race to the bottom." - I like that! Yea, I think the BOEs are operating under tight budgets. I think for my part I was probably too quick to give in when students didn't know who I was talking about when they asked me what kind of music I liked, or who was popular back home. Or maybe my tastes just didn't fit. But, yea, I think it's good to find a cultural reference that the students are into, and try and bring that into lessons.

  • helloalissa

    on May 4

    @Tomuu "A race to the bottom" isn't mine at all. Not sure where that was first used to reference ALT salaries. Continuing with the music theme, I think I stereotyped the students as much (if not more) than they stereotyped me. For example, referencing Arashi & AKB because they're the only groups I know everyone has heard of. (When most students don't even like them.) Maybe I was scared to let them know I don't like what's popular. Last year I made an attempt to listen to some Western pop music so I could find a few artists I could stand and be able to reference them. Students ask really funny questions about what we like and what's popular in our countries, and sometimes we have to make something up because we don't know anything about it. It can be funny or a stereotype. Favorite movie- Totoro. Favorite game- Mario. Favorite food- tonkotsu ramen (or the local specialty). Part of it is trying to hide how much Japanese I know, but part of it is a cop out, just like small talk. Students like when they can relate to us. People like when they can relate to each other. That's why we want to answer with something they know. I've had students share what they like with me - Japanese or English language stuff - and that's awesome. I think if we take the time to write down something for them to check out online later, they'd love it. Not that they will definitely like what we like or even check it out, but they'll appreciate the genuineness of, "This is what I like, even if no one here has heard of it (yet)."

  • Tomuu

    on May 6

    @helloalissa Ha! I was guilty of stereotyping Japan during class, too! Like you said, I referenced Arashi, SMAP, et al, on many an occasion. And yes, it was because I didn't want to get into this thing of saying I don't like them and somehow trying to explain why. This is definitely a situation that works both ways. All this being said, I was well chuffed when some students came to me asking about Guns n Roses, Hendrix, The Rolling Stones e.t.c (there must be some stereotyping in there, too), until they asked me to be the vocalist for a band they were in during some kind of school performance!! Not my finest hour, I have to say!!