Last time I was here, I promised a bit of a scoop on how Spanish students (and people) are different from the Japanese. Well, it’s been over a month since I promised that, so I’d best get down to it.
I’m a very busy chappy these days. I’m working from 9-6, which is a darn-sight harder than I’ve been used to in Spain. It’s also work where I constantly have to think, to focus and concentrate and do it right. So it’s different from the potato harvesting I used to do, where I could just switch off my brain and keep going ’til my arms get tired. And although it’s not as hard work as some of the summer camps I’ve done have been, it’s more continuous. At least at those camps, I got a lot of time off, could properly relax, and then at the end of the month, it was over. Here, it’s three months. When I reached that one month point and realised how much I had to go, I sort of slumped down in to it.
Now, however, the end is in sight again – it’s about a month to go to the end. I talk negatively, but I love my job. I love teaching, and doing a job when I can see a noticeable change and improvement in my students. And I love teaching students at a university age. 18-22s are easier to teach than kids, and more fun to teach than adults. My students – they’re serious and fun-loving, they’re intelligent, perceptive, thoughtful, and friendly. It’s because of them that I’m seriously considering taking another contract out here.
So, I talked a bit about how the place is different out here. But the people? Well, if anything, they’re more different…
Individual vs. the Group
This is something that I still don’t feel I fully understand about the Japanese. Japanese society values the work of a group, of teamwork, much higher than it does individuality. As such, no one student likes to step forward with all of the answers, like they do in Spain. Here, they say one or even two, and then step back and won’t answer, leaving the opportunities to others. More, though, they won’t leave the room until the others are ready to leave… even if they’re ready to go with their bags, if other students are still taking notes, they won’t move. This isn’t just one or two of them. This is 90% of my students. Working as one…. it sounds good on paper, but seems so strange in practice. Here’s a little story to go with it. A story my students told me, some ancient history… forgive me for being thin on the facts, you can research the truth if you like, the story of the 19 Byakkotai on Mt. Iimori.
幾人の 涙は石にそそぐとも その名は世々に 朽じとぞ思う
Ikutari no namida wa ishi ni sosogu tomo sono na wa yoyo ni kuji to zo omou
“No matter how many people wash the stones with their tears, these names will never vanish from the world.”
It was 1868. An army marched to assault Tsuruga Castle, in Aizu. Samurai were sent out to ambush the approaching army.
Amongst this ambushing force were a troop of teenagers – young men between the ages of 14 and 17. Sons of samurai and noble, they had been training to become samurai since a young age, and were supposed to be part of a reserve force. But numbers were needed for the ambush, and so they went.
The ambush was partially successful, and amid the smoke and powder of the muskets, the invading army were diverted, but not defeated. However, this group of Byakkotai were separated from their army. Tired from the fighting, they climbed nearby Mount Iimori to see what was happening, where they were needed, and there, from the side of the mountain, they saw their castle shrouded in smoke and flame. Despairing, knowing that their castle and lords were lost, they committed seppukku. All 19 of them.
I heard this story and asked my students – why? At such a young age, they are so far from their potential as warriors. Why should they die pointlessly, why die at their own hands? Why not, if they so badly wished to die, go out and take some of their enemy with them? Or why not retreat, train, and return to reconquer, older, wiser, better fighters. Because, my students say, they were taught that to commit seppukku was the most honorable form of death. To regain all the honour lost in letting their castle fall – this was the only way.
But that’s not the end of the story. The end is that the castle never burned – only the buildings in front of it. In fact, Aizu’s samurai won that battle. But lost 19 more men than they needed to. They 19 samurai are honoured by the poem composed above. They are still respected for their sacrifice. They were used as model soldiers in Japanese propaganda for the Second World War, and probably, due to this, led to many more deaths as soldiers threw away their lives not in the pursuit of victory, but of honor.
Individual vs. Family
You’d think that, with all of their respect for the group, that the Japanese would have strong family bonds. And they do – for honour. For the family’s honour. But I would say that they don’t have the love and affection and closeness of a Spanish family. Maybe that sounds unfair, but let me explain.
We joked in Spain about how 30-year-old men still lived with their mothers. It isn’t just extreme cases – if they’re unmarried, and can’t afford to buy their own place, and work in the same city – well, they usually live with their mothers. And fathers. And unmarried sisters. They cook together, they eat together, and every now and again, they hang out together. Kids don’t go to the best university for their subject, but the best university that’s close to home. This fosters close family bonds, but leaves the kids – especially the sons – pretty dependent. They don’t cook or clean… so they’ll stay ’til they find a wife.
The Japanese are totally the opposite here. They’ll go to more distant universities for what’s good for them. They’ll even come to universities like mine, where 95% of the students are guys, studying engineering or I.T., and won’t spend any time socialising with girls. Or drinking. Which to me seems to defy the point of uni.
What’s more, they all live in little apartments on their own, not sharing with friends, so it’s a much more solitary existence. To the question “what do you do on your birthday?”, most of the answers were “I eat cake alone.” ALONE!!! Perhaps it’s just that birthdays aren’t very important here, but get this – they don’t know their parents’ birthdays, or their siblings birthdays. They don’t give them presents. And as a result, more than half of them don’t know for sure how old their brothers and sisters are. “Uh.. 6 or 7. Or 8.” was one answer I got. From such a strong family upbringing like mine, this just seems alien.
Directness / Politeness
We moaned in Barcelona about the rudeness of the Catalans. And it’s true, they’re rude. But sometimes, they’re actually just being direct. They do what they want, and don’t think they should be criticised for that. And sometimes, that’s good.
Here, the expression “It’s difficult” is used when what they mean is, “It’s impossible. I can’t do it.” More infuriatingly, they have this tendency not to answer questions they know the answer to. I ask them a question, and I see their lips moving with the correct answer… testing it out. Yes, that’s it! But it’s still a push to actually get them to say it in front of the others. I sometimes wonder how far to push them, how much my behaviour must just seem like the Catalan behaviour did to me – rude. But actually, I’m just being direct, and if this gives them a taste of Western culture, then all the better.
There’s other things, too. The Spanish are incorrectly famed for laziness, and correctly famed for their lateness. I’d always be in class at the right time in Spain – but it would start 5 minutes late, when the students came. That is “punctual mode”. Meeting with friends, 20 minutes late doesn’t seem to even need an apology. Here, people are always on time. 5 or 10 minutes early is pretty common. The students who are late, I tend not to criticise, though. Maybe I can foster some laziness. And on that subject, a lot of them half part-time jobs to get them through uni, and engineering students already work really hard.
Then – and maybe this is just my small city – it’s really clean. It never smells. And there’s practically zero crime. I wouldn’t leave my window open when I’m out, but the one time I did, I wasn’t really concerned that my stuff’d be nicked. Whereas Barcelona smells funny and people pick your pockets.
The Japanese are not used to games in class, so it comes as a novel surprise. The Spanish kids get cranky if there isn’t a game.
I could go on, but this post is already pretty long without being particularly “creative”. I have some ideas for poems and a story that are slowly building, but I apologise for my slow rate of production. I don’t think I’m going to get that much done this next month. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get driven by inspiration, and you’ll see more of me here.