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Japanese Culture in English (a new event!)

Hello to the abyss that amounts to the readership of this page. It’s been a while since I last reflected on the job here, but with a lot going on over the past couple of weeks it feels like a good time to get typing again.

As we moved into April and the new year of my job began, I awaited the usual school visit requests, but—unfortunately—they didn’t arrive as expected. Annually, we have two main guest teacher events on the schedule in May and June: a series of classes at Yasu Elementary School with the 3rd graders, and one visit to Yasu Nursery School. So confident was I that those requests would come as usual that I started planning in advance who I would ask to come on the visits with me, and the types of activities that we might be able to do. However, as time went on it soon became apparent that these visits had been forgotten about. We’re technically not in charge of managing the programme anymore, so Takeda-san appealed to the School Education Division at the city hall about it, and they said they would raise the issue in a meeting at some point. I guess they did that, as a request did eventually come, but only after a painstaking wait (we received the request form at the beginning of June!) and for just two visits, rather than the usual six or seven. Even more regrettably, I was already busy with another (English) class on one of the requested days, so had to cancel one of them and take a larger group for just one sole morning at the school. In the event, the visit went fairly well, though with limited preparation time I was left with a few regrets. Thankfully, Bolivian musician Miguel (one of the guests I originally had penciled in!) came to meet the children and perform some of his music, though could only do so for 20 or so minutes, and we also had some really interesting presentations from guest speakers from Italy, Thailand and Singapore. As always, it was outside of the presentations, in the more informal breaktimes, when we could really enjoy meeting the children, and that time made me wish that we had had more time with each presenter to do some more fun activities and games together. Hopefully next year we will be able to return to a normal schedule with the programme.

For whatever reason (probably budgetary!) the management of the programme was taken away from us as of last year, and, as to be expected, there have been some issues as the School Education Division have tried to organise the school visits. I think the one thing we can learn from this first semester is that we need to engage in much more consultation. The School Education Division doesn’t have historical data relating to the programme, and they therefore don’t know what the regular visits are (or when they take place). It’s easy for me to say that they weren’t proactive enough in discussing the visits with the Yasu Elementary School teachers, but perhaps we should have shown them the concrete information from previous years, rather than just vaguely reporting that we usually get a request from the school in early April, then they could have relayed the information to the new 3rd grade teachers at the school. It’s possible, after all, that after last year’s issues (the whole visit was cancelled last May and we made a selection of video introductions instead) the new teachers didn’t know how the guest teacher programme was used in the 3rd grade classes at the school.

The one type of visit that the School Education Division are very proactive in organising is for the English classes, and, like last year, we were able to join 5th and 6th grade classes across all the elementary schools in late June and early July. I think the students all had a positive experience with the guest teachers in their English classes, but I think our main function is as a motivational tool really. We only spend 20-30 seconds with each child practicing English, but hopefully knowing that they will be practicing with a native English speaker will motivate them to practise hard in their preparations. As things stand (at the start of the summer holiday), we are still awaiting a request to visit Yasu Nursery School, but hopefully that will come later in the year. In the normal pre-Covid years, early July would see YIFA putting all of our efforts into our sister-city exchange programme with Clinton Township. However, last year’s postponed visit to America has had to be put off for a further year, so a gap opened up in our schedule. On that basis we had to create a new one-off event for this year. An English class seemed to be the most attractive idea, particularly in terms of raising a small amount of income as well (to cover the loss of the sister-city programme budget). We ran through a few ideas (e.g. business English, travel English) but, as our association is focussed on cultural sharing and awareness, I ended up liking the idea of a run of classes aimed at Japanese residents, centered on how to talk about Japanese culture in English.

The basic idea was an interesting one, and I decided that I would try to teach a different topic each day. For the purposes of the advertising campaign for the event, I had to come up with the ideas for these topics long before I had any concrete notion of what the content of the lessons might look like (that became something of an issue!). I decided on the following five topics: Japanese Cuisine, Japanese Society: Customs and Traditions, Traditional and Modern Japanese Culture, Nature and the Environment in Japan, and Travelling in Japan.

As well as those general topics, I also decided that I didn’t want the lessons to be based around direct instruction (‘useful phrases’ etc.), but more focussed on discussion and giving opinions. In order to be able to facilitate group-based speaking practice among the 10-12 students, I enlisted the help of some friends who were able to come and join the lessons. On various days, Susan (from America), Carlie (from Australia), Alex (from Italy), Jennifer (from the Philippines), Lea (also from the Philippines), Joan (from Singapore), and Julee (from Nepal) all came to help in the various groups. Their help was invaluable; the classes wouldn’t have been anywhere near as beneficial to the students without their support, and in fact I would have had to have changed the entire plan without them!

The event reached its capacity in terms of applications extremely quickly. I think this is in large part due to the fact that it is a new, one-off, and somewhat unique event, but also because Japanese people are quite nationalistic about their own culture, and very interested to hear outside opinions about it. The key evidence for that is the famous book ‘Japan as Number One: Lessons for America’ by Ezra Vogel, a translation of which bizarrely sold huge numbers of copies in the early 1980s across Japan.

Considering this interest, I tried to find old documentaries from Britain about Japan that I had previously enjoyed. Adding subtitles, I used edited-down versions of these videos in the classes as a ‘hook’ (to use ESL/EFL terminology); a means of stimulating opinions and encouraging discussion. The clips I used were from various programmes such as ‘Japan with Sue Perkins’, ‘Adam and Joe Go Tokyo’, ‘Rick Stein and the Japanese Ambassador’, ‘Satoyama: Japan’s Secret Watergarden’, ‘The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei’, and many others. I chose them quite carefully to make sure they were relevant to the various topics, as well as being funny or interesting as well, and they were a very well-received aspect of the lessons.

Overall, the five individual lessons went very well. Individually, three of them were excellent (cuisine, culture, travel), one was quite good (society), and one was not good enough for my high standards (nature). The key considerations in giving a lesson are to have a coherent lesson flow, including various and engaging activities, and to allow the students as much time to practise speaking and listening as possible. It is also important, as much as possible, to keep the language used in the class to the level of ‘i+1’ or ‘comprehensible input + 1’; that is the idea that the language used should be just higher than the individual students can comfortably reach, to drive them to expand their level of understanding. Of course, this latter concern is somewhat challenging with a class of varied levels, as we had at the event, but was still something that I considered after lesson 1, taking into account the ‘general’ English level as I viewed it in that first lesson.

In terms of these core considerations, I tried to keep a similar structure for each class, involving a warm-up q and a activity, followed by an activity to work on basic description or discussion of aspects of the culture focussed on (e.g. types of food). I usually then moved on to a discussion point (e.g. characteristics of Japanese food culture), then showed a video to reinforce what we had been discussing (e.g. a video where a British chef visited Japan to learn about Japanese cuisine to reinforce what the main characteristics of Japanese cuisine are). At the end of the lesson, I concluded with one final key question (e.g. ‘What is Japanese cuisine?’). From a pedagogical perspective, the classes all followed a very good structure, leading naturally to their final conclusion, through varied activities, and I was very glad I was able to plan them in this way. The two that failed somewhat were the ‘Japanese Society’ lesson, where we looked at customs and etiquette and I wanted the students to consider what of them would be most difficult for foreign people when they first arrive in Japan. The points discussed, though important points in themselves, didn’t relate too strongly to this main theme of the lesson (i.e. people ended up discussing cultural events, rather than customs of society), so I felt that I failed in letting the students know what the objective of the lesson was. Still, in an overall sense, that lesson was a success, though I did learn that I needed to be clearer in relaying lesson goals to the students.

The relative failure among the lessons was the one related to nature and the environment. A main issue initially was that the subject didn’t lend itself to the structure that the other topics did (i.e. warm-up, description, intro of main theme, analysis/ discussion, conclusion and key question). Following a warm-up, and a short activity where we considered the main environmental issues facing Japan, we moved into the core of the lesson. Rather than simply practicing describing elements of Japan’s environment (e.g. volcanoes, onsen), which I didn’t think would be a benefit to the students, I reflected on a subject I had studied back in my postgraduate career, Society and Nature Studies, which looks at perspectives of how human society and the natural world intersect, and cross-cultural difference in terms of these differences. In order to encourage the students to consider individual and cross-national difference in terms of this perspective, I had them complete a Venn diagram with a variety of things (e.g. roads, music, volcanoes, wind, televisions). I then asked for raised hands as to where in the Venn diagram the individual things should go (nature, society, or both), and hoped that that might stimulate discussion. Unfortunately, the topic was a bit too academic for an EFL class, and I don’t think I was able to let them grasp the topic too strongly. I ended up mostly analysing the diagram by myself, and that section of the lesson then inevitably ended up as too teacher-focussed. It was followed with quite a long video clip, so the students went for around 25-30 minutes without having much speaking time at all. The video should have been good in terms of reinforcing the theme of intersection between nature and society as it was a documentary about Satoyama, which are traditional places in Japan based on residents’ connection to nature. The activity following the video called for the students to list the ways in which society and nature meet in Satoyama villages, but there weren’t too many ideas, perhaps because people were a bit confused as to what kinds of things they should be considering. The following discussion of how the students individually have a connection with nature in their daily life was more successful, though the concluding activity, where I wanted the students to consider ways in which we could overcome the environmental issues we’d listed earlier, both in terms of our connection to nature, and through our human society (i.e. technology), was not such a success. I reflected after the class that I had been too wedded to the need for the lesson to have a coherent thread, and was left unable to switch away from the content of the lesson, which was too academic (for non-native speakers of English). I knew that the content was going to be difficult, but thought I would be able to explain and simplify things enough for the students to get along with it. I’m not sure they all could, though they all did their very best to. In spite of my failures in the lesson, I hope that it was interesting and beneficial to the students in one way or another.

Overall, I was delighted with how the lessons went. It was a one-off and unique event for us, so I had to do something somewhat special, and I think I managed it. The difficulty of doing one-off lessons to students of unknown English ability about quite an unusual topic (no information about similar lessons to learn from on the internet!) was clear. I had no idea really how the lessons would go; whether they would be too easy, too difficult, what the students wanted to gain from the classes, or whether they would be engaged enough in what I did prepare. In the end, if I consider the spectrum of how well or badly they could have gone, I can only be happy as I reflect back.

Here are a few pictures taken at the event:

I am in the middle of an extremely busy time for myself at the moment, as just as that event finishes, I am waiting to start a new event! Next week starts the first Summer English Club aimed at elementary school students. We did the same event last year, but I have changed the content this year to make it more fun for the children, with lots more game-time, but hopefully still lots of English practice time as well! I will write again about that very soon. To anyone who has made it this far down the page, I am truly grateful! Thanks a lot, Phil



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