Talking Salon '98
Japanese, Australian, and British School Life
co-hosted by Joetsu International Association
and Japan-Australia Society of Joetsu

Seminar in Session
Talking Salon in Session

Danni Henderson, an exchange student from Australia
Hiroshi Matsuhashi, a high school student
Alan Lansdowne, an ALT from UK

Danni Henderson

Danni with Mr. Abe, her interpreter
Danni with Mr. Abe, her interpreter

Good evening. My name is Danielle (Danni) Henderson. I am 17 years old and am from Australia. I came to Japan on exchange this year in March, and I will go home in January of next year.

In Australia I live in the capital city of South Australia, called Adelaide. Adelaide is surrounded by the ocean on one side and small mountains on the other. It is a beautiful city, and it has a population of about one million.

At the high school I went to in Adelaide, I studied Japanese for four years. This was optional and quite truthfully, I wanted to quit studying Japanese after the first year. But my parents, who have a fascination with foreign languages, kept pushing me and telling me to keep studying it for another year, and another, and another. They found me Japanese tutors who just did my homework for me, and they encouraged me to keep going. So, here I am four years later, on exchange in Japan.

I have been here for eight months now, so the things which surprised me initially about Japan, I have gotten used to. Now I have trouble remembering what they were.
Last year I took part in a two week homestay program to my high school's sister school in Soja City, Okayama prefecture. I made the trip with about 20 other people from my school. I can still remember now how excited we were to be going to the country we had been learning about for so long. 

Because I took Japanese as a subject at school, I had some knowledge of Japanese culture and lifestyle. However, before I went to Japan last year, when I thought of Japan, I thought of advanced technology, sushi, rice, slippers, sumo and samurai. These stereotypical images I had came from movies and from stories I heard in Japanese class.

As I know now, Japan is so much more than all of those things. Last year when we arrived at Osaka airport, I was surprised at the clouds of people, and about the humid weather. Osaka seemed so big and colourful, as we saw it through the Shinkansen windows, yet before long we could see nothing but green rice fields.

In Okayama, where we met our host families, everyone was very excited to see us. This was my first experience of being a "gaijin." Everyone smiled and stared at us and we felt like we were on display.

Living in a Japanese house for two weeks was great. I slept on a futon, used an ofuro and had my breakfast and lunch made for me. Those two weeks in Okayama was a great experience for me, but as I've discovered, two weeks is very different to a whole year. The big difference being, as I  was only in Okayama for a short time, I was treated like a guest. Whereas I am more like a family member here in Joetsu.

My family in Australia has four children, and when we were young my parents decided they wanted us each to be able to have the opportunity to spend a year living in a foreign country. Two years ago my older brother went to France, and last year my sister to Holland. Quite naturally, next it was my turn. 

Last year I had no intention of going on exchange, but my parents took me to some meetings and it sounded really interesting. Because I knew I was going to Japan last year, I wanted to go somewhere different on exchange. The country I chose was Germany, but as fate had it, I ended up in Japan.

When I found out I was going to Japan, I wrote a letter to the exchange organization, requesting to be placed in Tokyo --- as it seemed so big and exciting. A friend of mine from Adelaide, wrote the same letter, yet for some reason I ended up in Joetsu and he ended up in a small town in Mie prefecture. I looked up Joetsu on the Internet in Australia, and was delighted to find it was a city famous for skiing. Seeing as it doesn't snow in Adelaide, I thought living in Joetsu would give me a great chance to improve my skiing ability.

Before coming to Japan this year, I attempted to educate my friend, now in Mie prefecture, about Japan. I told him all about the large variety of vending machines, the new cars, the elaborate toilets with seat warmers, and of course about the food. Japanese food takes some time to get used to. For foreigners, the tastes and flavours are strange. I have really come to like Japanese food.

When eating Japanese food, I think you have to have an open mind., and be willing to try everything. Before coming here, the thought of eating raw fish made me feel sick, yet now I can eat anything from sashimi to anko. One thing I cannot eat is natto.

There are so many tasty foods in Japan, and when I go back to Australia, I want to make them for my family and friends to try. One of my favourite things about eating Japanese food is using chopsticks. I have improved a lot with chopsticks, and I have every intention of using them when I return home. 

This year on the 17th of March, I and 68 other Australians left our country to fly to Tokyo to become AFS exchange students. We arrived at 6:00 am on March 18th. My first and only impression of Tokyo then was how cold it was. In the first three days I managed to catch a cold and had to stay in bed. Luckily I had a new host family who were willing to take care of me. That was another surprise. In Australia when we have a fever or a cold, we sometimes take some medicine, but usually we just drink hot honey and lemon drinks and then go to bed until we feel better. That is not the same in Japan, as I soon discovered. I had just left my family and friends in Australia, and because I felt terrible, I was homesick and all I wanted to do was sleep. But my host family had other ideas.

DanniThey tried to give me  lots of medicine, and insisted on waking me up every five hours to take my temperature. At one stage they said they were going to take me to a hospital and I was shocked. This is because in Australia we go to the doctor if we are sick, and to hospital only in an emergency. I guess my host family were just trying to take care of me, and make me feel at home, as everything was so new.

During the two weeks of spring holidays is when I came to realize just how much Japanese people enjoy watching television. My host family enjoy watching TV every day, and I found it strange because we go out a lot more in Australia. I didn't like watching TV every day because firstly, I couldn't understand anything, and secondly I wanted to go out and do things. In Okayama, because we were only there for two weeks, we were always busy doing things and going places. I guess when I first came to Joetsu I thought I would be busy doing various things.

That was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make this year, due to the fact that in Australia young people go out all weekend, both night and day. We go to parties and to friends' houses etc. One of the things I'm most looking forward to doing when I go home is going to parties. I think Australian teenagers have a lot more freedom to do as they please, as compared to Japanese high school students.

In April I went to Niigata City for the first time. I saw all of the shops and restaurants and came back to Joetsu feeling jealous of the seven other AFS exchange students studying in Niigata. Joetsu is certainly a change from my home city of Adelaide. One of the difficulties I faced here was the fact that I am the only exchange student in Joetsu. Lots of times when I wanted to meet with other exchange students, I couldn't because of the distance between Joetsu and Niigata. I think in the future, two exchange students in Joetsu would be more beneficial than one. 

What first struck me about Japanese schools, is how old they are. The first day I went to Takada High School was during spring holidays. Being holidays, there were no students there, so the whole school seemed dark, gloomy and lifeless. Not to mention cold.

Before I knew it, spring holidays had finished and it was time to begin school. I wasn't nervous at all, but I came home feeling like an alien from another planet. Everyone stared at me, and some people waved. As people introduced themselves to me, all I thought was that everyone looked the same and that there was no way I was going to remember anyone's name.

In the first few weeks I got so sick of being stared at. Even when I smiled at people, they often didn't smile back and most people just ignored me.I gradually came to realize that it wasn't that they didn't like me, as I thought, but they are were just shy. Even now some people are still shy around me.

To begin the new school year, all of the students had to work together to wipe away dust that had settled over the spring vacation. And this was my first experience of cleaning at school. I guess in Australia we take for granted the fact that there are people who are paid to come and clean up the mess we make. However, in Japan students do all of the cleaning, including the teachers' offices. I have to admit that cleaning is one of the things about Japanese schools that I really dislike.

Just to mention a few things, in Australia we always change classes, so we are never with the same people. Each student's schedule is different. Because we have the opportunity to mix with different people during classes, I think Australian students have a larger group of friends than the Japanese do. Another difference is, where in Japan you always eat lunch in the classroom with the same people, in Australia we are not allowed to eat lunch in our classrooms. This is because unlike in Japan where each class has their own room, Australian classrooms are used for different subjects every lesson.

In Japan there is a ten minutes break between lessons, whereas in Australia we go directly from one class to another. But we have a twenty minutes break in the morning called "Recess." During recess and lunch we go outside, unless it is raining, to eat, drink and talk with our friends. Spending these breaks outside gives us a chance to meet many different people and to get a breath of fresh air.

I was surprised at how quiet the classrooms are during lessons here in Japan. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom and talk while the students take notes. The students don't ask questions and they only speak when the teacher calls on them for an answer.

Australian classrooms are often very loud because there is a lot of group discussion. Usually questions are answered by those who raise their hands voluntarily. We have more of a chance to be creative too. For example, we often do oral speeches, or acting, and we watch videos and do practical experiments in class. Especially in years eleven and twelve, the teachers are always there to give us support and guidance about school subjects and future education. They treat us like adults.

The first time I went to a school assembly in Japan, I felt like I was in the army, the way a teacher stood on the stage before us and barked orders for everyone to stand up, with their hands to their sides and then bow. We do not do anything like this in Australia. We do not have to stand up and bow or say a greeting at the beginning and end of every lesson like Japanese students do.  In Japan, doing this is a way of showing respect between the teacher and the students. Australian students often joke around with their teacher if they like them, and as a way of showing respect. 

Volunteers supporting the event
Volunteers supporting the event

I was so relieved to find out that Takada High does not have a uniform. Before I came to Japan, I thought I would have to wear a sailor-like Japanese uniform, complete with huge white loose socks. I couldn't believe just how many school girls wear loose socks, considering in Australia we believe the smaller the socks are, the better.

So luckily, Takada doesn't have a uniform and I was very happy about that. Most Australian schools have school uniform and my school was no exception. Unlike Japanese uniforms, which are usually the same style and colour, Australian uniforms are always different, depending on the school. You can easily tell which school a person goes by their uniform.

The first few months I spent here, I found I was always comparing Japan to Australia. Whether it was food or culture or lifestyle, I was unconsciously comparing the two very, very different countries. I had to stop and remind myself that Japan is Japan and Australia is Australia. They are in no way, the same.

I have had a lot of difficulties this year, with school, with my host family and of course with language. When I was having these problems, all I wanted to do was give up and go home. But this year I have learnt a lot about the importance of persevering, and I have kept going. This year I have certainly learnt more about myself and about my strengths and weaknesses.

I used to think Australia was so boring and that foreign countries seemed so much more exciting. However, after being away from my country for so long, I have come to realize just how proud I am to be an Australian.

Going on exchange is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I feel privileged to have been able to do it. As they say, time flies, and I couldn't agree more. I can't believe how quickly the past eight months have gone, and no doubt the next two will fly too. 
Thank you.

Visit Australia '98
Link to his article at "Visit Australia '98" section

Hiroshi at Talking Salon
Hiroshi Matsuhashi

Alan Lansdowne
Alan with  Mr. Abe, his interpreter
Alan with Mr. Abe, his interpreter

I have been invited here this evening to comment upon my impressions as recently arrived English language assistant in Japan, and also more specifically in the Niigata Prefecture and in Joetsu City.
Faced with this brief my immediate concern is that I will be unable to give a fair comparison of the language teaching professions in the UK and Japan respectively, since I am an expert in neither. 

Furthermore I have only ever experienced the language classroom in the United Kingdom as a student and I have only ever experienced the language classroom in Japan as a teacher or assistant teacher. I would like to emphasize at this point that I have had no formal training as a language teacher, possess no qualifications to teach English and any views I have on language teaching stem only from my experience of learning French and German at school and learning German, Spanish and Russian at university.

Nevertheless I shall attempt this evening to illuminate from a personal perspective some of the differences between the language classroom in Japan and the language classroom in the United Kingdom which I have experienced in the general approach to foreign language teaching in both countries..

To begin with, I want to talk about the differences between the Foreign Language Classroom in the UK and the Foreign Language Classroom I have experienced in Japan. Nine major differnces occur to me at this point in time:

1) In Britain anyone wishing to become a teacher must undertake a year long course (called a PGCE) in addition to having graduated from university with a first degree. Nine of the twelve months of the course are taken up by classroom practice and review of classroom techniques. Student teachers are trained extensively in the practice of pedagogical methods and are taught how best to convey information to students and help them to learn. Though I am only an assistant teacher, I do conduct a number of solo lessons and I was rather shocked to find myself plunged into the language classroom with no training of any sort from Monbusho when I first arrived in Japan. I still receive very little guidance from Niigata Kencho concerning how to teach. 

2) Whilst both Japanese and British students are responsible to a certain extent for how much effort they put into their classes, the job of Japanese and British teachers differ in that in Britain, it is the teacher's duty to make the students responsible for their own attitude in class. Because of this a class which behaves irresponsively is considered to have a bad teacher rather than to be a bad class. In Britain there are considered to be good teachers and bad teachers and whether the class does well or badly is generally considered to be the responsibility of the teacher.

3) In the UK, the students are often asked questions and expected to contribute as much to the class as the teacher. Sometimes the teacher will say very little all lesson and the students will conduct their own speaking, listening, reading and writing activities according to the teacher's introductions for the whole hour. In this manner the students are taught to take responsibility for their own learning. The class is encouraged to be active rather than passive.

4) Students do not sit one or two to a desk but in group. This means they are ready to work together whenever a group activity comes up.

5) The teacher does not stand at the front of the class the whole time but moves around, both whilst explaining something to the students and when listening to the students practicing in pairs or in groups. The teacher asks the students questions and confirms or expands on their own answers. The teacher in the UK does not tell the students the answer before encouraging them to try to work it out for themselves.

6) The students are expected to respect the teacher and to give him or her full attention when he or she is speaking. They look at the teacher when he or she walks around the room, they do not talk to their neighbours for any length of time without reprimand from the teacher. If they put their head on the desk and close their eyes, or chew gum or read books or pass notes or anything else, the teacher will usually embarrass them in front of the class. They will be asked to announce to the class what they were whispering to their friend, the book will be confiscated and returned later, the note will be confiscated and may be read out or if they were not paying attention they may be asked to repeat what the teacher just said. Students who are frequently made to look like idiots in front of their peers are usually loath to repeat their actions in front of the same teacher.

7) The teacher does their best to motivate and enthuse the class. They recognize that no-one will learn anything from a boring class so they try to make the class as interesting as possible with use of engaging and fun activities, use of tapes and videos; sometimes even use of computers. The lesson structure is varied as often as possible to attract and hold the students' attention.

8) Many of the class activities involve imagination and creativity. Students are asked to think up stories in the foreign language or describe another person's perspective. Students are frequently asked to make up dialogues in the foreign language in pairs or groups based on some guidelines, which they then perform in front of the class.

9) Above all, the classes are student rather than teacher oriented. The teacher responds to the students needs and the classes progress through the students performing activities rather than the teacher lecturing from the front of the classroom.

Alan and Mr. NIshizawa, his student
Alan and Mr. NIshizawa, his student

All the points I have just mentioned apply generally to the way most if not all classes are taught in the UK and are not only specific to the language classroom. Whilst I have no experience of any classroom but the language classroom in Japan, I feel the atomosphere in the Japanese language classroom is simultaneously more formal in approach and less strict in practice than in the UK.

I'm sure everyone here will recognize is that the focus of English Language learning in Japan is on reading and writing, whereas the focus on language learning in the UK and other European countries is primarily on speaking and listening. I often find the quality of written work by the High School students I teach far exceeds their ability to participate in an English conversation. I'm sure many of you would agree that if you know any English, you find it easier to write it than to speak it. You may be interested to know that because of the focus of my own language education I find it easier to speak French, Spanish, German and Russian than to write these languages.

I find that my team-teachers at one of the schools I work at - and I have no idea whether this is typical of Japanese High Schools or exceptional - concentrate in their solo lessons almost entirely on grammar rather than on overall language practice. Foreign language grammar appears to be taught as a specialized quantitive discipline, rather than being presented as a tool to wield vocabulary in different situations. No doubt it is easier to teach a foreign language as a set of abstract quantitive grammar rules, but it is of little benefit to the student, who may still find it extremely difficult to compose a letter or participate in a discussion in the foreign language.

One of the reasons I feel why many Japanese students find English so difficult is because they are expected to know and retain so much with apparently very little of this sort of repetition or practice. I have seen no evidence of vocabulary tests and lots of evidence of continual reference to the dictionary by the students in the classroom, which is not discouraged by the teacher. If nothing is memorized in the classroom and the dictionary is always a handy reference, it is little surprise that the students must work so hard to prepare for their language exams.

 Until the age of sixteen, I was not allowed to have a dictionary in French or German lessons since we were generally expected to learn all the words that we covered. As I see it, and I would reiterate that I am no linguistic expert so the following points are merely personal opinion, there is one more reason why Japanese students might find learning English difficult.

It is that learning a language from reading and from grammar not only slows the rate of learning and impedes ability to communicate actively -- I am open to correction -- but also presents the discipline of language learning in a significantly different light. It is hardly needed to be stated that the nature of oral and written communication differ somewhat in their degree of formality. I feel that a bias towards reading and grammar skills when learning a language has several consequences:

In addition to having spent eight years learning French and German in foreign language classrooms in the UK, I spent some time "very briefly" in English language classrooms in France and Germany. Any comparison with schools from those countries, based on personal observations should be disregarded as any kind of objective overview, though as a rough guide I feel that the oral skills of the students at the average Japanese High School are inferior to those in most western European countries -- who to be fair have the benefit of MTV and a number of other English language cultural imports -- and equal only to that of the students in the UK, who are renowned in Europe for their relaxed attitude in learning foreign languages.

This, of itself, does nothing to suggest that the language teaching process in Japan (which after all, still maintains different aims) is potentially less effective than in Europe; but contributes to the case that the non-communicative approach of Japanese foreign language teaching, the Japanese national curriculum and ultimately the Japanese university entrance exams present a significant factor in the level of fluency in spoken and written English possessed by Japanese students.