I recently read Greg Goodmacher’s introduction to his book, Multicultural Perspectives, and his opening comments brought back memories of my own cultural awakenings. When I was about 8, I saw an Indian-looking woman in my hometown. What was that strange dress that she was wearing and where had she come from?! As I grew older I collected stamps from mysterious, exotic, faraway places like Zanzibar, Vanuatu and Japan! Wonderful magazines such as National Geographic and the Family of Man fired my imagination. Experiences like these made me even more determined to escape from my small town and explore the wider world.
And so I traveled the world, working in or visiting about 40 countries in 6 continents. But it wasn’t until I became an English teacher that I had my real cultural awakening. I can clearly remember my students’ questions, about British history, about British manners and customs, about national holidays and festivals. I remember that on more than one occasion I was embarrassed by the gaps in my knowledge, and of course, I hurried to fill them. How could I have traveled all over the world, learnt from so many cultures, yet know so little about my own?!
Twelve years ago some of my students came back to Japan from a study abroad program, and it was their turn to feel embarrassed and frustrated. Apparently they hadn’t been able to answer their hosts’ questions about life in Japan. I’d been asked to teach a presentation course, and in order to make it more accessible for the students I decided to focus on topics that I thought would be familiar and easy for them to talk about. I listed topics such as: explaining Japanese writing (katakana, hiragana and kanji); explaining Japanese wedding and / or funeral ceremonies; explaining the typical features of traditional Japanese houses; explaining the differences between English and Japanese communication styles; explaining Japanese manners and etiquette. Yet the students seemed quite unable to explain even these familiar topics! They had, of course, considerable knowledge, but couldn’t easily communicate it.
To help them, I set about creating worksheets that would scaffold their knowledge and enable them to explain their own culture by asking the right questions and giving appropriate answers. This is Japan is the result. Over the past ten years I’ve grown ever more convinced that as well as learning about other cultures, we need to learn about and be able to express our own. Whether students are going to work or study abroad, whether they are going to welcome homestay visitors or simply make friends with foreign guests (who will ask countless questions about the strange things they see around them!), our Japanese students need to be able to explain Japanese lifestyle and culture.
To their credit, most students appreciate this. When I start my classes with a few questions, such as:
“What are the differences between hiragana, katakana and kanji?”
“How are Shintoism and Buddhism different?”
“What kind of things are important when you’re making Japanese food?”
“What’s special about o-bon?”
… students tend to struggle, but they also realize that if they want to avoid embarrassment in the future, they need to make an effort to express themselves. Hence the need for a systematic approach that provides them not only with vocabulary and expressions, but also the opportunity to use them. This is Japan concentrates on getting students talking, not with a boring question and answer format, but with genuinely entertaining and challenging task-based information gap activities such as “Temple and Shrine Bingo” and the Famous Japanese People quiz “Who Is It?” Lessons are easy to prepare, extensive support materials are available from the MLH website, and adapting the text for writing practice, presentations and testing is almost effortlessly simple.
Please give This is Japan a try. If you’re a non-Japanese, like me, you’ll enjoy learning so much about Japan from your students. If you’re a Japanese teacher of English, you’ll be able to guide your students to the greater depth of understanding and expression that you already know is so important. Now, where was I? Oh yes, “What’s the difference between o-musubi and onigiri?!