2014年6月4日水曜日

Polite Society and the Classroom in Japan

I've been in Kobe for two months now, and every week I have participated in the Tuesday afternoon English classes that Brian Bresnihan teaches. On Tuesdays, he teaches an advanced English class, and then a seminar class which is also advanced. I've observed the way he teaches and how students react to the class assignments, and I find his classes to be much more "open" than classes taught by Japanese teachers.

Students are talking and recording their conversation on their smartphones.

Students are talking and recording their conversation on their smartphones.

After recording their conversation, they were asked to transcribe the conversation.

What do I mean by "open"? For homework yesterday, students read a certain passage and discussed the passage in pairs. The topic was about politeness. The passage said that some people think that politeness means letting others do whatever they want, but such a way of thinking is wrong. Sometimes we must upset individuals or whole societies. While discussing that passage with a student, we talked about politeness in classrooms.

In Japanese culture, generally people tend to follow the will of a group, which is normally the will set by one member who has seniority, authority, or the respect of the rest of the group. This behavior is first learned in classroom environments where classroom presidents/leaders are selected and teachers enforce school policy by encouraging classmates to monitor and "correct" each others behavior. Students learn that it is difficult to disagree with a group because they may be bullied or ostracized by the group. Instead, they conform. This is where the forming of honne (one's real opinion) and tatemae (one's public, "safe" opinion) first begins and continues into adulthood.

Upsetting a group is considered "rude", and reaffirming the group's position is considered "polite". If one upsets the group, one upsets the "harmony" of the group, the 和 (pronounce "wa") of the group. Japanese leaders promote group harmony starting from the classroom all the way to national politics. Thus, one can say that Japanese society is "polite" society, otherwise the harmony of society is disrupted.

In that context, the passage students discussed yesterday implies that sometimes the "harmony" of a group needs to be disrupted. One student said that she thought that American society is better in this way because it is more "open", whereas Japanese society was more "closed". Although she thought it was important for people to be polite, she believed that being true to oneself is more important. In other words, she doesn't like the honne/tatemae culture.

I explained what the author of the passage was saying to one student who didn't understand and then I asked how she felt. She agreed. I mentioned that disagreeing with a group is difficult, using the example of the classroom environment. She said that it was hard and that there is bullying in classrooms related to being "polite". She said that she had a friend that was trying to bully another student, but that she stopped her from doing it. Although it was hard at the time to upset her friend, in the end it had a positive outcome. Upsetting individuals or groups is hard at the time, but in the long-term, it is better for someone to be upset.

So in the sense that one is free to disagree in the classroom environment in Brian Bresnihan's class, it is "open". However, there is another sense in which is it open, but that is more easily understood by comparing it to a "closed" classroom environment, which I'll write about next.
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