I taught English in Japan for 20 years. I thought it would be one or two. Most of that time, I taught week-long live-in intensives, which were more lucrative than in-town classes. In these venues, I established a nice rapport with students in surroundings that were often lavish, bonded in light, friendly ways, then, with these uniformly anonymous salarymen, cut the cord of acquaintance forever. A remembrance:
I spent last week teaching Tomen Trading Company freshmen at a beautiful resort at the foot of Mount Fuji. The classroom was adjacent to my plush bedroom, so each morning I awoke simply walked next door to where my students were waiting for me. The bedroom was huge, with an American style bathroom and a big tub, fresh towels every day, a refrigerator for fresh vegetables, and outside the window a stunning view of Mount Fuji, looming a few miles away. The dining facilities were modern and expansive, with white-clad cooks providing a choice of Japanese or Western fare. Outside lay broad lawns and manicured gardens, carefully framed views of Fuji-san, all this luxury bespeaking the wealth and power of a large Japanese corporation.
Aside from the Japan Self-Defense Forces firing their artillery like clockwork every morning on its training grounds near the foot of Japan’s sacred mountain, rattling our windows with each fusillade, it was quite peaceful. The JSDF apparently does this all year long. I found it disrespectful to Fuji-san and worried it might trigger an eruption. A contingent of U.S. Marines was recently relocated to the Mt. Fuji military zone as part of the downsizing of U.S. forces on Okinawa. One of the teachers, Carl Windsor theorized the reason Marines started firing their 155mm Howitzers Monday mornings at 6AM, two hours earlier than called for in the U.S.-Japan security agreement, was their anger at having to leave their Okinawa island paradise. Carl, a Vietnam veteran, was no less angry. Awakened with a shock, he dove under his bed thinking it was 1969 again and shells were incoming. When he told his students about it, they thought it was funny. He didn’t.
Our group of teachers must have seemed a motley crew to Japanese eyes, perhaps not so different from the unwashed Portuguese sailors who stumbled ashore here 450 years ago. There was Jack Shipman, gaunt and bearded, dressed in black. He likes to answer his phone as Rock Hartley and is always falling in love with stunning young women who stand him up on dates and then turn out to have boyfriends. Jack is either telling you how he detests Japanese women or emitting lascivious groans describing The One He Passed In The Street Today. There was Dick Handley of Nottingham, a cheerful young English army veteran of the Falklands and North Ireland who drinks like a sailor and swears like a fish. Or is it the other way around. He told me an impressive war tale of being stabbed in the neck in the Falklands by an unwise Argentinean soldier who had been playing dead and soon really was. His friend Kenneth, from Manchester, had an even more unintelligible Cockney accent than Dick. Kenneth’s obscure words were unnerving due to the chopped angularity of his features and a quiet touch of the serial-killer in his eyes. Maybe I just haven’t met enough Brits. Then there was Danny, wonderfully gay. After a few days he came out, referring explicitly to his sexuality, though there had never been any doubt. I liked him immensely: he told lots of gay jokes and fit right in. No, that’s not what I meant.
My class was the “A” class: all top students. They were reasonably fluent for beginners and totally co-operative. There is a fundamental sweetness to young Japanese guys. We held mock business meetings where they discussed proposals for a flex-time policy at their company, how to help retired workers, how to deal with an extortionist planning to poison their company’s fruit juices. Ten hours a day of English is a load and staying awake was an issue. In Japanese business meetings, lowering the head and closing the eyes is acceptable body language. It can signify deep thought, though I suspect everyone knows when people are nodding off; tolerating it preserves your right to do the same on another day.
Handling Japanese students is baffling. After ten years of autocratic, grammar-focused high school and college English, very few can actually speak the language. Rather, there’s a strong aversion to it. Western English schools mold their fly-by-night foreign teachers into a strange mix of cheerleader, drill instructor and entertainer. “Language consultants” are forever trying to cajole opinions out of people who inherently group-think, for whom teachers are there to provide knowledge received in silence, to be regurgitated later. Western teachers too often assault students with corny exhortations and clownish exhibitionism. The hardest thing for us is the slowness and the silence. A beautiful phenomenon, really, it can pour into a roomful of Japanese like a breeze through an open window. They sit there untroubled within it. They are processing things, waiting, editing, sensing. There’s no rush. The seconds tick by. Silence is just okay. The Westerner begins to writhe in discomfort. Inexorably, tension fills the pit of his stomach. It is as if a spotlight is shining on him. After all, he’s a teacher, dedicated to “improving communication skills.” And so he breaks too quickly into the aural vacuum with a pointless comment. Or he calls on a student to speak just before another might have taken matters in another direction, perhaps a more interesting one.
They do not feel our experience of silence any more than we feel theirs. They don’t know I’m suffering. Or do they? Is there in my discomfort an insight for them into the secret panic of our ostensibly confident culture? Do we fill silences because we are afraid of them? Don’t we often batter each other and defend ourselves simply out of our underlying insecurities? We are isolated from each other in some way the Japanese are not. How nice it would be if Americans could sometimes just be quiet together.
Neither able nor willing to be browbeaten into an assertiveness they’re unlikely to achieve, my students hunger for the little English expressions, the phrases and key words to make themselves better understood. The same mistakes appear over and over: “Almost my friends enjoy skiing,” “Please choice anything you like,” “Let me introduce you about our new product.” So I make sure to fix these and give them some short cuts to make their English easier. I tell quiet little jokes. So I get good evaluations. It’s a learned game .
On Friday night, all the freshmen gathered for a huge party. Kirin beer flowed like gold, and there was food aplenty. The boys were loosening up. The heavy weight of English study had slipped from their shoulders. They were all the way through the door now, the grind of high school competition and testing behind them, young men who’d made it into that big corporation, set economically for years to come. A turning point in the party came when a corpulent, drunken student set himself up on a chair in the middle of the big hall and ceremoniously dropped his pants to perform the feat of snapping two sets of chopsticks by sliding them through the rear of his underpants and then bending over. When he had done this, to the cheers of this crowd of young professionals, the one and only female member among these sixty – she had unluckily sat directly in front of his display – bent over in her chair, and began sobbing. Our school’s sales rep, the only other woman present, came over to comfort her for a moment. Then both ran from the big room, effortlessly ignored by the group, including the company’s senior personnel manager, smiling approvingly at the whole spectacle.
In 1946, Douglas MacArthur, called the Japanese a nation of twelve-year-olds. My charges were twenty-something, young men just out of college about to begin lifetimes of service in Tomen Trading, seventh largest in Japan. They’d been passive and malleable in class. In a larger group, a different mood prevailed. Other guys got up to do funny dances with their pants down or, stood on chairs to publicly compare chests and nipples with each other. A former collegiate boxer stripped to the waist and circled the room pounding his fists into the upraised hands of his compatriots. When he’d completed one circuit, the crowd roared for another and another time around the big circle, until he finally collapsed back into his seat exhausted. Innocent horseplay, I suppose, but unavoidably, visions of World War II flashed through my mind. The other teachers sat mystified, except for our approving ex-British soldier, who was quite popular with his class for teaching them how to call each other a fuckin’ cunt. The young woman student who had left in tears was in fact the first woman ever to be admitted to the company’s management level program. The next day she was smiling at one and all, an inpenetrable mask firmly reattached.
At the party, the teachers were challenged to do something to add to the festivities, but everyone cowered in the back. Except for me. I know a stage when I see one. I got up and sang all six verses of Marty Robbins, “El Paso,” introducing the tune in a Western accent: “How many y’all been to Texas?” (blank stares) then switching to a Mexican one to teach them to do a manic mariachi laugh: “Aaahhh-ha-ha-haaa….” For the last line, “One little kiss and Felina….goodbye,” I lay down on the floor and died. It was a huge hit. We left with our heads held high — but stunned by what we’d seen.