Kensaku Yoshida Lecture on English Education in Japan

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Prof. Kensaku Yoshida, who is a major player in English education policy in Japan. He is currently the chair of the committee in charge revising the English examination for the Center Exam for admission into universities in Japan. He is also on, if also not the chair, of the committee that is planning the next course of study for English education in Japan schools as well. Although as Yoshida stated that individuals involved or researching English education policy in Japan rarely make presentations in English, this was the second lecture of his I have attended. It wasn’t too long ago that I attended this previous lecture and was a bit concerned about whether it would be too similar to be worth attending. However, that was not the case and I was left with a lot to think about after the lecture. Here are some of the key points from his lecture along with my own thoughts, ending with a bit of a pep talk for myself and others as we head into the spring break.

Entrance Exams

The English examination section for the Center Exam, the main university entrance exam for students in Japan, will become a four-skills test (evaluating listening and speaking, as well as reading and writing) from 2020. However, according to Yoshida, how that will look is still unclear.

Yoshida is interested in having already established tests, such as Eiken, TEAP, IELTS, etc., be used for this portion of the examination. As he stated, these exams are already proven to correctly evaluate students language ability and have already established test taking times and locations. TEAP, which was developed at Yoshida’s home university of Sophia, has already begun to be used by Waseda as part of its admissions package, for example.

Yoshida is a strong proponent of using already existing exams such as these to determine admission to universities, so he spent some time discussing the benefits. He also mentioned there was resistance to this within Monkasho, so the four-skills entrance examination could end up being a modified version of the current Center Exam. He seemed to not want to go into too much detail in it due it not being his first choice.

In addition, although Waseda has decided to start using an already established four-skills tests, he mentioned other prestigious universities, such as the University of Tokyo, thought, or as Yoshida said, knew, they were already getting the best students and felt no need to change their own entrance examinations in any way. In other words, they are not really considering including a four-skills English evaluation test.

I wonder, though, how teacher behavior will change if elite schools don’t follow through on implementing a four-skills exam. A lot of private cram schools and private secondary schools pride themselves on the number of students they send to schools like the University of Tokyo. Though Yoshida mentioned that the goal of changing the exams was to change teacher behavior in terms of how much Japanese they use in the classroom. He related being told by teachers that who were asked why they didn’t use English in the classrooms that it was due to the entrance examinations, but now they say with a four skills entrance examinations they don’t know how to do so. But if the elite schools don’t change, teachers may not need to move away from that initial reason of not teaching English in English.

Another issue is cram schools, which is rarely discussed in these situations but also a place where students spend many hours studying English, but to pass entrance exams, in classes which are mostly taught in Japanese. I have rarely seen any juku classes, to be honest, so that is only a guess. My assumption is Monkasho’s worry is disrupting this market – and angering parents who have spent a lot of money on these schools. All assumptions, though. However, how cram schools react to these changes is something to look into in the future, as well.

In any case, the bottom line is that what the four-skills entrance examinations from 2020 will look like is still not clear.

Changes to Elementary School Education

Elementary school education will also be changing. I taught at elementary schools in the early 2000s. In one ward I was doing English activities, which at the time was revolutionary but is now a part of the regular curriculum of fifth and sixth grader everywhere now. It is giving students an experience using English rather than teaching English. I am not sure what the difference is then or now, except that students aren’t evaluated nor should there be any explicit grammar instruction. That also means that there isn’t necessarily a need for trained or licensed teachers of English in these classes. The homeroom teachers should be able to run these classes and activities.

That will change with the new course of study with third and fourth graders participating in English activities while 5th and 6th graders will have English classes as a regular subject. However, one issue of this is time. There is just no time in the currently schedule to add these classes. Third and fourth graders were supposed to have two hours a week of English activities, but Yoshida said that is almost impossible to make room for two hours of English education in the fourth year schedule. In addition, fifth and sixth graders were supposed to have three class hours a week, but that will probably be only two. In addition, there is the possibility of there being only one full class hour a week and then three fifteen minute modules, to be placed before or after, or in between classes as opposed to a second full class hour of English being added to the schedule.

Even within this plan, Yoshida said that here are just not enough licensed teachers in Japan, whether Japanese or non-Japanese, currently to over these classes. I wasn’t clear on what the system would be, but it seems Monkasho and Yoshida envisions a training and/or licensing system to allow experts into the classroom, both Japanese and non-Japanese, that can work side by side with the homeroom teacher, in order to teach students language systematically so that they can be accurately evaluated.

Whatever this ends up looking like, there will be a need for more elementary school English teachers japan in the near future.

How Teacher Beliefs Affect Their Own Classroom Behavior and Student Motivation

One interesting in aspect of the presentation was on the perennial issue of why Japanese students do so poor in English. As always, survey data was trotted out that Japanese students thought English was important, just not for them, their lack of interest in going abroad or in their careers, etc.

What was striking, though, was that teachers also felt the same way, that English was important but not for their students. This could mean, for example, that teachers who felt this way would revert to Japanese in class because they just didn’t think their kids needed or, perhaps, could even learn English, so they may just be trying to get through the day as opposed to encouraging or supporting their kids learning.

Yoshida mentioned that research in bilingual education in the US, where students potentially came from disadvantaged backgrounds that it was important that teachers always believed their students would eventually succeed even if students were having trouble in the short term.
I remember when I first came to Japan on the JET program and taught in Niigata, I wondered if students actually needed to learn English.
These days, though, I feel it is essential, for better or worse, to know English to be an informed, engaged citizen of the world. (I relate a story about this in my bio on my personal homepage explaining why I feel my job and career is important). I often cringe when I think back on how I thought about teaching English while in Niigata and how I do so today, but I always connected it to my training and experience. I hadn’t explicitly tied it to my own reasons for teaching English, but that also seems to have played a role.

He also discussed an issue he had mentioned in the past, the role that non-native teachers and non-native forms English could play in encouraging English education. This is something I agree with, essentially, even though it creates a problematic internal dialog since I am a “native” teacher of English in Japan. But I saw it for myself when I taught English at elementary schools in the early part of the century. Student ability and interest in English was much higher when their own homeroom teachers were using English and engaged in English classes than those who were not.

Yoshida answered a final question on the hiring of non-native speakers in Japan. The questioner asked about it being seen as cost cutting measure. Yoshida answered that right now Americans were the largest group of foreign teachers in elementary schools but that the second largest nationality were Filipinos. He thought that since data showed Filipino teachers could speak Japanese and were long term residents, they could communicate better with the Japanese teachers and staff and could be doing a better job that the American teachers, so it wasn’t necessarily a cost issue.

I hope my long experience in Japanese schools, Japanese language skills, background in linguistics and education policy, etc., make up for my nativeness., I also believe I do have confidence that my students not only can speak English but they actually need English to survive and thrive in the world today. Since native teachers, however, can’t really be a model English speaker that our students in Japan can become – since they can never become a native speaker of English — I realized it is essential for us to be confident and have high expectations for our student’s future success as English speakers.

How native speakers can do this without shattering the confidence of their students by understanding that their students will never be native speakers is another blog post, probably a PhD thesis or two.

But one simple takeaway is that while student motivation may be a variable that we may or may not be able to increase, our own belief that students can become competent English speakers is vitally important. This is especially important when we teach and interact with lower level students. As Yoshida said himself, they are doing fine and will take care of themselves is those students who, for whatever reason, don’ think they can achieve success in their study of English, that need our help and encouragement and support the most. Believing in our students, even when they don’t believe in themselves, is the least we can do for them.

If you made it this far

Thanks! Of course, none of my own opinions reflect those of my employer or the schools where I teach. In addition, apologizes in advance if I misinterpreted or misunderstood any of Yoshida’s ideas. There is still more I can discuss from his lecture — I didn’t discuss at all the can do statements in the new course of study, which do not reference any level of native speaker ability and are based on the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages — so I hope to hear your ideas to perhaps build upon them in future posts.

Thoughts on 君の名は。/Your Name — spoilers ahead!

(spoilers galore most likely so don’t read ahead if you care about those things. I am also writing this as if you have already seen the film, so I am not giving a summary, just thoughts)

So, I finally went to the local multiplex to watch Your Name. I’ve always been a bit down on popular box office hits, so I actually wasn’t sure I wanted to see it in the end, but I had some time and an urge to see it.

Because I do care about spoilers, I try not to see or read anything about a movie I plan to watch — not even a review. So I really don’t know much about the film’s background or the director/writer/auteur Makoto Shinkai. I really dropped out of the anime scene when I actually moved to Japan in the late 90s — which is another caveat for my thoughts. But when I started seeing the ads for the film pop up on JR train posters, I knew he had made some films because I had seen some of this older films on display at video stores during my Year of Tora-san. He seems to have a pretty distinctive style.

Tora-san is important, as well, because the last caveat is that I rarely watch new films these days. I’m pretty much happy watching old films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on TV, DVD, and theaters throughout Kanto.

Anyways, with that perspective, here are some random thoughts.

I spent the first half of the film wondering if the rural area was real, which from the unique features of the place that I didn’t recognize, I was pretty sure it wasn’t. (Since I live in a pretty rural area west of Tokyo, the beginning complaints of the lack of things to do in the countryside was pretty fun to watch, though I disagreed slightly, since I am older) Tokyo, of course, is recreated in loving detail. I was also wondering why, then, this even needed to be made as an animated feature and not with actual people. Of course, since (last spoiler alert!) Mizuha’s rural town is demolished by a meteorite, makes sense it is both fictional and animated.tr

I enjoyed the movie overall, the body/gender switching comedy of the first part — though Mizuha’s turn at being Taki seemed to be more interesting than Taki’s turn at Mizuha. Taki and co’s trip to search for Mizuha’s hometown was fun, the more dramatic time travel finale was interesting, as well.

Thinking about it afterwards, though, that the most emotional part of the film, for me, was the scene with Mizuha and her friend Kazuhiko as they blow up the electricity substation and then try to convince everyone to flee. Honestly, the film should have ended with Mizuha now alive trying to remember Taki and Taki doing the same. The ending where they meet isn’t particularly emotional because it seemed like that it would obviously happen. A lot of that is, I think, due to the fact that the characters are not driven by any internal drive. Obviously Mizuho died but then somehow is brought back to life due to Taki’s interest. But Mizuha also went to Tokyo first, so it was all some weird fate? That we are all connected somehow is the theme, but then why are Taki and Mizuha connected.

I mean, Kazuhiko blew up a power plant because he put his faith unconditionally in Mizuha, but I am supposed to believe that Taki and Mizuha are supposed to be together due to some connection in the universe? I

Even with the smartphone diary, which seemed interesting at first, but, I mean, why didn’t they just try to call each other from the start. At least a scene where they tried that from the beginning but they never could get through to each other might have made more sense.

That lack of action from the main characters seems to be what was missing for me, personally. If it is just fate and everything is fated to happen, then there is no real emotion and no real drama, is there?

As an aside, I was really interested in how Tokyo was portrayed. I wondered why JR had so many signs advertising this movie, but since JR trains and stations where lovingly recreated I realized quickly JR East was also received some heavy advertising in the film.

What I also found interesting was that a few scenes were shot/animated at Yotsuya Station. Yotsuya Station is next to a large Catholic university, Sophia, with a church quite easily seen from the station. In addition, there was one shot where, just behind a part of the station, there is a large Catholic bookstore. None of which you could see in the film, of course — or I didn’t, anyways.

I had been thinking about how animating everything allows animators to “clean up” a cityscape or landscape to make it match what they would like it to be or imagine it to be. So to have chosen Yotsuya as a location in a film with a lot of Shinto themes and motifs throughout seemed an interesting choice, to me.

(Of course, that I found this interesting may say something about my worldview and why I didn’t necessarily find an emotional connection? Not sure myself..)

Anyways, I think the comments are working, so if you have seen the film and have your own thoughts, be interested to hear them.

Lake Wobegon is America’s Shibamata?

Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion were seemingly always in the background of my life. The time I listened to it most was when I lived in Yokahama in the early 2000s. My (now) wife and I would often go on a drive on a Sunday and as we came home we would listen to his show, the music and his stories, on the radio, Eagle 810, Armed Forces Radio, to be exact.

I listened to his last show live, over the Internet, the other day. To be honest, since moving back in 2012 I haven’t listened to it much. Reading various articles, it seems I am not alone. I was rather fond of the show, even if I hadn’t been a regular listener to it. However, reading through the various articles about the end of the show, I came across this in a New York Times article

Yet Mr. Glass believes that many people mistake “Prairie Home” for quaint, homespun nostalgia, even though the tales from Lake Wobegon are, as often as not, richly emotional, contemporary and quite dark.

In recent monologues, Mr. Keillor has lambasted the gun lobby, told of people’s relatives being buried alive and mentioned a would-be suicidal woman left bald after she accidentally set her hair on fire in her gas oven, a presumably fictitious anecdote that is trademark Keillor: equal parts alarming, heartbreaking and funny.

“Like Howard Stern, Garrison Keillor created a packaging that nonlisteners took as real,” Mr. Glass said. “And the actual show is so much more complex, and human and complicated than nonlisteners think it is.”

Feel this can also describe the Tora-san films.

Both started about the same time, in the late 70s/early 80s. Both defined their organizations, with Shochiku said to be saved from bankruptcy by Yamada’s series and PHC helping establish public radio. Even with Keillor working in radio and Yamada working in film, they both had a their own company of players and staff that followed them throughout.

Obviously the big difference is Keillor is both Yamada the director and Atsumi the performer in his Lake Wobegon and the USA to their Shibamata and Japan. And, of course, Keillor is to me a lot like Tora-san is to many people in Japan, he is there, I’ve listened to his show from time to time and also read a book or two of his, much like many people in Japan have seen a few Tora-san films, maybe on TV when they were kids.

Having watched all the Tora-san films at least once, some several times, I feel I know them now much better than Lake Woebegon and Garrison Keillor’s world. However, the reason why I like both is probably the same.

Perhaps being a bit worried I may be wrong, due to not knowing or being able to recall enough Lake Woebegon stories to be correct in this, but Shibamata is just as much a creation as Lake Wobegon, even though Shibamata actually exists. Shibamata, and the Kurama household, always existed outside of time. Though the family was actually quite untraditional. as Yamada points out in this interview with Baisho Chieko, his family represented something good and decent. The same with Lake Wobegon, a place that everyone knows people are above average.

Both Lake Woebegon and Shibamata are rooted firmly in place and the history of the nations where they were created, and yet it is this firm rootedness in place and language which in the end makes the stories more broadly universal. And yet Tora-san films never really established themselves in the United States. Keillor has this one page about him in Japanese and found just one book of his, Lake Wobegon Days, translated into Japanese. (I also just found it in my local library)

The Amazon page describes the book as

「今日も、僕の故郷レイク・ウォビゴンは静かでした」…。ささやかであるが日々を精一杯に生きる、アメリカの草の根の人たちの暮らしと精神生活を描き、アメリカの未だ知られざる魅力を伝える。

Which I can (quickly and perhaps poorly render in English as )

“Today, my home town of Lake Wobegon was quiet,” with everyday people living their complete lives, these stories talk about a yet unknown beauty of America, the grassroots people, and their spiritual lives.

That isn’t that all different from how one would describe Tora-san films to someone unfamiliar with Japan.

I am hoping to travel to Hokkaido this summer, but, while I do so, I plan on reading Lake Woebegon Days, in English, most likely, but with a new perspective than I would have had before.  And hopefully think more about this connection between the two.

Thoughts on Tora-san 42

Some random thoughts about Tora-san 42, which I watched yesterday.

1) I first wasn’t too impressed with 42, just because there wasn’t much Tora-san in it. From the very beginning, when Tora’s nephew Mitsuo delievers the opening monologue instead of Tora, you know its going to be a different film. Over the past 24 hours or so, though, I’ve had a change of heart. The change of focus from Tora to Mitsuo is somewhat jarring, but it once again disproves that “every Tora-san film is the same.” There are similar elements throughout, but anyone who thinks if they’ve seen one Tora-san film they’ve seen is wrong.

Mitsuo himself — since the character starts as baby — is one of the few that clearly changes throughout the series. Now that he is nearing adulthood, there are many stories to be told, especially that between Mitsuo and his parents, Tora’s sister Sakura and Hiroshi. Although Hiroshi’s father was a college professor, he himself didn’t go to college, so he shoudn’t be surprised his son isn’t that interested in college, either. As Tora pointed out, Hiroshi waited around for years while working at the print shop in love with Sakura. And although throughout the series everyone, including Tora, have encouraged Mitsuo to do well in school, the series views towards formal education have been, not surprisinginly, ambiveant at best. He can’t continue to study for college exams forever. Since his love interest, played by Kumiko Goto, is in the next few films, as well, I’m now intregued where the series will go from here.

2) After spending the last few movies talking about how I rarely, if ever had seen a shrine in the film, Tora is working a shrine festival in this one. And after discussing the lack of product placements so far, the camera lingers on a Lawson convience store sign a bit too long for it to be a random shot. 7-11 actually appears in Tora-san 26, but it’s appearance seemed a very natural part of the story. The way the Lawson sign comes in and out of the frame in this one, made about 10 years later, is very different. Something to look for when I watch the series again.

3) One of the recurring themes of Tora-san films is how Tora lives a happy-go-lucky life. Which is true in one respect. However, one scene at a festival has one of Tora’s fellow tekiyas matter-of-factly informing Tora that a friend of theirs had passed away. Of course, while Tora can’t really die — remembering that the reason the film series exists is because viewers were really angry that the TV series Tora-san was killed off in the last episode of that series — Yamada never fails to leave reminders throughout the series — sometiemes small ones, sometimes whole movies — that Tora’s life is actually much more difficult than he lets his family, or even the viewer, know.

Tora-san's Birthday

Finally, while asking Google-sensei exactly which movie 7-11 appeared, I came across the news that today is actually Tora-san’s birthday. (or at least one of them) So, Happy Birthday Futen no Tora, wherever the wind has taken you on this day.

Ken Takakura and Yoji Yamada

Earlier this year I watched The Yellow Handkerchief  (幸福の黄色いハンカチ). There are several reasons to watch it. Directed by Yoji Yamada, costaring Chieko Baisho, cameo by Kiyoshi Atsumi, beautiful road trip through Hokkaido, all based on a story by Pete Hamill.

Then, of course, there is its star, Ken Takakura. Recommended.

Its available for rent on Youtube right now, as well.

A few thoughts on Tora-san 40

A few days ago I tweeted some thoughts on Tora-san 40..

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Tora-san Tanka 1

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Overall the parts of the movie didn’t add up to a fully satisfying film. The main “madonna” storyline with the doctor, played by Yoshiko Mita, being torn between her role as a mother (and the expectations of her mother) and the needs of the small community to which fate had brought her was interesting. There were also several touching and funny scenes with Tora-san himself. In the end, though, I wouldn’t be able to place the film anywhere outside the middle of the pack.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was once again no dream sequence. The dream sequences were often very elaborate and theatrical, so I wonder if budget cuts led to them being replaced with Tora-san monlolgues? The plots of the last few have also shown a change from “stereotypical” plot, having Tora-san not coming back to Shibamata until the middle of the film rather than at the beginning. Tora has also left home after returning not because of a family fight but because there is someone that needs his help.

This was the last film released in the Showa-era. In the first Heisei era Tora-san movie he goes to Vienna. This was also the first Tora-san movie I saw 20 years ago while at University. I wonder how much I’ll remember?

Thoughts on Tora-san 38

Some thoughts on Tora-san 38, (known as Tora-san Goes North in English and 男はつらいよ 知床慕情 in Japanese) which I watched this morning.

I’ve been posting some quick thoughts on twitter as I’ve gone through all the Tora-san movies from the first this year (and slowly posting those tweets here), but finally decided I had enough to stay to post a longer blog.  I will highlight various parts of the story, so if you haven’t seen it and are worried about spoilers  (such as they are in a Tora-san film),  I suggest not going any further.

This was the first Tora-san movie in sometime that did not start with a dream sequence.  Instead, it was a Tora-san monologue explaining how he left home when he was 16, setting the stage for a more serious story than the past two.

The best Tora-san stories are those where Tora-san is clearly in the wrong at some point, and he attempts to make amends.  In this film, Tora’s uncle is recovering from an illness in the hospital.  With the dango shop shorthanded, Tora volunteers to help, although he actually can’t do much.  Finally, he ends up slacking on the few responsibilities he does have, upsetting everyone.  He first leaves the store to drink with Gen and some other guys from the neighborhood.  When he comes back and hears his family complaining, he decides to head north.  That’s the way to start a good Tora-san film.

Once in leaving the naichi (as a taxi driver calls the rest of Japan) for Hokkaido, he ends up staying at the house of a local veterinarian, played by Toshiro Mifune.  Mifune’s character is a widower whose daughter moved to Tokyo, marrying someone who didn’t meet his standards.  Although the daughter is the “madonna” of the film, the story is really about the veterinarian and  his daughter relationship with the the local snack-bar mama  Tora doesn’t have to be at the center of the story for it to be a good Tora-san movie, but he needs to play a role. And he does here, helping the taciturn veterinarian connect with both women in his life.  Throughout the film, Tora seemed to stay in the small town of Shari, in eastern Hokkaido, because he enjoyed the camaraderie that existed between him and the local community.  He unsurprisingly left once he felt that camaraderie began to mean something more to everyone.

38 also provided, as always, scenes of a changing society. There is Mifune’s character, who explains how animals and people lived together as almost family in the past. There is the failed farmer who Mifune meets just as he’s driving away from his farm for the last time. There is, however, also a more comical scene where this changing society is played out: Tora attempting to give gifts of thanks to people who must (now) refuse.  In earlier films, Tora would often say “keep the change” to store proprietors when, in fact, he didn’t leave enough money to pay the bill in the first place. In the previous film, his attempts to tip a JR conductor and give a present of some bananas to a local government official were both violently rejected by those receiving those gifts.  In this film, he attempts to bring gifts to everyone in the hospital, including the doctor.  The doctor rejects this, saying he treats everyone equally.  Tora’s attempts to give the doctor a gift are rebuffed, violently, by the doctor, resulting in Tora from being banned from the hospital. Is Tora trying to bribe the doctor to give his already recovering uncle better care or is it just his way of saying thank you to the doctor. In either case, it is something that would have been acceptable earlier that is no longer acceptable now.

Finally, I want to highlight the scene Sakura asks Tora what he would do if his Aunt and Uncle sold the shop? Did he think he would still have a place to come home to in Shibamata?  The answer is clearly no.  In the end, while the world around Tora continues to change, Tora’s existence depends on his family staying at the dango shop in Shibamata.  He wouldn’t be able to wander around if not for his family. This is the first time that I can recall that this fact is explicitly mentioned. Many times after a Tora-san movie, I want to head out for a trip somewhere.  After this one, being someone who’s lucky enough, like Tora, to have family who still live in the same place where he grew up, I was ready to go home.

Next up is 39, which is the last appearance of Akemi, the daughter of the owner of the print shop.  She’s been in an unhappy marriage throughout her appearances,. I’m wondering if the director and scriptwriter Yamada will let her follow her dreams of living freely, like Tora, whom she admires so, or will he have her ultimately settle for good enough with her marriage.  At the very least I’m hoping the story won’t just be blown off.  Then 40 is 40, Yamada never disappoints on the x0 films.  Finally, 41 was the first Tora-san movie I saw almost 20 years ago in Miriam Silverberg’s Japanese pop culture class at UCLA.  Wondering how much I’ll remember from that time.  Both excited and sad to head into the final stretch.