Teaching in Japan: A Memoir


This is the second in a series of summer blog posts where the author discusses her experiences teaching Japanese high schoolers. You can find the first blog post here.

I officially finished my first week of training for Toshin English Camp in Tokyo, Japan.

Next week, we begin working with high school students, helping them develop speaking skills and discover their “life mission.” I am incredibly excited.

One aspect of training involved understanding the Japanese education system. Americans tend to perceive Japanese students as hyper-focused on academics. The widespread existence of cram schools doesn’t do much to help this perception. Accounting for both cram and public school, some students spend over ten hours a day in the classroom.

However, contrasted with the image of hyper-focused Japanese students are accounts of my Japanese students falling asleep during lecture — from sleep deprivation, and more specifically – from studying too long.

Since university acceptance is almost solely based off of standardized test scores, there’s little incentive for students to pay attention in the classroom. Grades hold little weight, and students rarely fail out of class. As a result, students can become lazy and unmotivated. One of my coworkers, who participated in a Japanese exchange program in high school, said that he used to battle his Japanese classmates in Nintendo D.S. games during class.

Of course, this information is only based on hearsay, and I am far from an expert on Japanese schooling, but it’s interesting nonetheless to compare American perceptions of Japanese education with perhaps a more nuanced reality.

Fortunately, our students are the best and brightest: around 30% of students at the University of Tokyo, the best university in Japan, are Toshin students.

Unlike in the United States, where students often interrupt lecture to ask questions, there is very little interaction between students and professors in Japanese classrooms. Japanese students are fairly passive—part of the goal of this week is to train them to ask questions and assert their opinions. We are exposing them to a very Western type of education, partially in the hopes that they will choose to study abroad.

Another aspect of training was getting to know my coworkers. Most them us are Ivy League students, with representation from Johns Hopkins and UChicago as well. All of them are remarkable interesting. One was a background break-dancer in a 50 Cent music video who enjoys mountain uni-cycling. Another spent the first semester of her junior year working on a boat off of Cape Cod. Another, a neuroscience major from Harvard, is spending his next year working in theater in France.

After work, we spend a lot of time together, grabbing drinks at themed bars (we went to a Harry Potter one, but the dementors never showed up), exploring new eating places (like a food commune), and attending festivals at local shrines.

This weekend, we went on a group excursion to Lake Yamanakako, where we hiked, swam, visited the botanical gardens, relaxed in onsen (hot springs), played with sparklers, and rode on swan shaped boats. The highlight of the week was Saturday’s barbecue, when we grilled meat, drank wine, and bonded with a group of rowdy Japanese people sharing the venue with us.

They gave us Japanese beer and issued a rousing toast ending in “kampai!,” the Japanese equivalent of “cheers!” In return, we too issued a toast. It was quite the cultural exchange.

I am super excited to begin working with the high school students. Look out, Harvard — one of them is coming to Cambridge next year!