V Japanese University Students'
             Attitudes in Class (1)

   I frequently have the following questions asked by non-Japanese teachers. Why do Japanese university students sit in back rows in classrooms ─ why not sit in front where they can hear and see better? Why do they sit in a group, boys in a boys' group and girls in a girls' group─ why not sit in a mixed way? Why do they look sideways at a friend sitting next to him or her when he or she is called on by their teacher─ why not answer by him- or herself? Why do they avoid eye contact with their teacher in class─ why not look the teacher in the eye and keep eye contact with him or her? Why don't they ask questions during class─ why not even try to interrupt the teacher and ask him or her a question or two? Japanese students often look very unfriendly, uncooperative, and sometimes even dishonest.
   Some of my non-Japanese colleagues have also asked me these questions. I can understand how they feel, how much they are frustrated, and how unhappy they are with those Japanese students. Most teachers from overseas have trouble getting Japanese university students to sit in front rows, to look them straight in the eye, and to speak up. When they found out that it is almost impossible for them to make Japanese classes be active or positive and to help them to be more responsive or cooperative, they end up being frustrated with the Japanese students' response. Some of the non-Japanese teachers, quite unfortunately, start talking badly of their Japanese students, saying that they are incomprehensible, impossible, inhuman (like robots), and even stupid ?

They haven't been brought up so.

   However, no matter how often non-Japanese teachers try to encourage Japanese students to sit in front rows, and if their Japanese students want to learn to speak English, they must speak up and be heard, they will sit in back rows and remain silent or unresponsive in classrooms. And no matter how earnestly non-Japanese teachers say that by maintaining eye contact a person can convey "sincerity" (unfortunately the Japanese counterpart of the word is used in a different connotation) and he or she can create a friendly atmosphere in classrooms, the Japanese students may well remain silent and hesitate to sit in front rows or look the teacher straight in the eye.

   In classrooms Japanese students are often uncomfortable with non-Japanese teachers because foreigners' style of classwork, conversations or attitudes toward them are different from those in their own society and because Japanese students easily get puzzled by the foreigners whose expectations are based on their own experiences. So if non-Japanese teachers easily get frustrated or upset and openly show their frustration in class, Japanese students would most probably have negative feelings about the teachers and start being more unresponsive in classrooms.
   Japanese people of the students' parents' or their grandparents' age (and their great grandparents' age,…) were brought up to be submissive or obedient to older people and to their teachers. To these people "to learn (=manabu) simply meant" to imitate" and "not to become original." For those Japanese, learning from great or sacred people (Confucius was one among many), was the goal, or at least one of the goals, and learning didn't expect originality from them. It shouldn't be forgotten that in Japanese tradition there has always been an aspect of learning to do things in the way their ancestors once did. Originality hasn't been very important for the Japanese. As a result, in Japanese classrooms, students still tend to learn "facts" and memorize them as well as possible. They weren't encouraged to asked questions during class or lecture, nor were they encouraged to interrupt the teacher talking or lecturing.
   In Japanese society also, eye contact, especially between people of different social status, hasn't been encouraged and so, they aren't very good at looking other people directly in the eye. Today's young people have been brought up by these parents or adults and have just looked at the people around them and consciously or unconsciously are behaving in the Japanese society or in classrooms according to their behavioral codes.

Having more cultural flexibility

   Japanese students may look very shy, excessively self-conscious, or may be afraid of making mistakes, or they may not want to appear pushy in classrooms, or rather, peer pressure tells them to just listen and not show off.
   When communicating with Japanese people, therefore, language can be only half the battle. What is left unsaid may be equally important and it is what non-Japanese teachers often fail to notice. The Japanese university students' tendency to sit in a group in classrooms simply means that they feel more comfortable sitting in that way than sitting apart from their friends.
   Even today many Japanese people will think that too much talking and self-assertion are the proof of immaturity and that quietness or silence is the proof of deep thought, as the saying "still waters run deep" goes.
   In Japanese classrooms non-Japanese teachers are well expected to be patient and friendly; they shouldn't be upset easily by silence, delays or by vague and indirect replies. Though today's average Japanese students are more self-confident than their parents or grandparents (or great grandparents,…) once were, many of them may still be a shy type. Such being the case, non-Japanese English teachers are also well expected not to embarrass their Japanese students or surprise them by suddenly asking them to speak up or to maintain eye contact with their teacher; rather, they are expected to tell them to relax and encourage them to try to organize their thoughts in English and learn to speak it. If they understand the reason they learn English and their goals are made clear, they will stop being unresponsive and try to meet the non-Japanese teachers' expectations.
   I know many non-Japanese people who have succeeded in encouraging Japanese students to be culturally flexible and be active, relax, responsive, cooperative in classrooms and getting them to sit in front rows, in a mixed way, to positively participate in classwork and speak up.