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Important tools teachers need to know about Japanese culture

By Andrew WaAs the ESOL population is growing, classrooms are becoming growingly diverse. Therefore as a teacher, it is important to be aware of the differences between American culture and the culture of an ESOL student. ESOL students, such as those from Japanese culture, have many accepted “norms” that could be misinterpreted from an American standpoint. Japanese culture is greatly influenced by their remote location from the rest of the world and many factors throughout history have played an important role in the shaping of Japan’s culture.The Japanese culture is very concerned with respect and with not embarrassing one another; the interest of the group comes before the interest of the individual.  In Japan, when communicating, people are very formal with one another and as are students when communicating with their teachers. Because Japanese culture differs so much from American culture, it is important for a teacher to be aware of the differences between the two cultures so that the students are not misunderstood.The Japanese culture is very unique and distinct from any other culture in this world. Since Japan is in South Asia, a region considered remote from most other countries, the Japanese culture teaches people that they must depend on one another. In America we would refer to this type of dependence on one another as collectivism (Samovar 61).While their seclusion from the rest of the world gives Japanese a strong sense of self, it also results in them feeling self-conscious around others. People who are from Japanese culture tend to have a fear of not being rejected by others. Furthermore, Japanese sometimes fear outsiders referring to them as “Gaijin”. (Japanese Culture) Knowing this can help a teacher understand why a student from Japanese culture may seem anti-social or more reserved than the other students.A period of feudalism in Japan had a strong effect on Japanese culture. During that period of feudalism, Japanese were devoted to their “Warlords” who took care of them and once this period was over, citizen became loyal to their government. Japanese obedience also steams back to that period of feudalism where they were expected to conform to certain standards.Feudalism also contributed to the fact that Japan is a collective culture because it forced people to conform and put the interest of the group before the interest of the individual. (Samovar 132)  In Japan, decisions are made and approved by the group not just the individual. Knowing the effect feudalism had a Japanese culture makes it clear why someone from a Japanese background may fear of becoming an individualist once he or she is being transplanted to a new culture—a culture that does not stress too much attention in collectivism such as that of the United States. By understanding this period of feudalism, it makes it easier to understand Japanese’s extreme loyalty and devotion to their culture and to each other.As Japanese culture is very unique, so is their dress. Japanese wear outfits referred to as kimonos, which are brightly colored and have different patterns unlike anything worn in American culture. These kimonos have changed and evolved through out the history of Japan; but it is always reflecting the ways and customs of the time. Kimonos started in the Jomon period in Japan. It is made out of hemp, carried through the Yamato, Asuka, Nara, Heian, Muromachi, and finally the Edo period. Kimonos from the Heain period, about 792-1192 A.D., are the most extravagant type of Kimono sometimes layered up to twenty times.These types of Kimonos are still worn in Japan during holidays or formal events.  Also in Japan, Kimonos are worn on special religious events. For example, on November 15th of every year, children go to the temples dressed in their Kimonos to worship. Japanese dress is unique as are most things in their culture and is very reflective of their culture’s past and present.In terms of communication, the Japanese culture tends to be much more formal in comparison with the casual communication in American culture. Respect for others and elders are of the utmost importance in the Japanese culture. Some things that are considered respectful in Japanese culture are actually considered rude and disrespectful in American culture.  For example, in American culture, to avoid eye contact with someone with whom you are speaking is seen as impolite and may make the person with whom you are speaking with uncomfortable. Yet in Japanese culture, to look someone in the eye for a long period of time is considered to be bad mannered and offensive.This formality carries over into the classroom in Japan. Students stand up upon the teacher entering the classroom (Samovar 206).  Because respect is of such importance in Japanese culture, citizens would do everything possible to avoid disagreements and arguments. Therefore those from a Japanese background may avoid using the word “no” out of respect for others. A student’s refusal to use the word “no” may make an answer or situation confusing for a teacher. Also when communicating, Americans often think of a smile as a friendly gesture or as a mark of happiness, but in the Japanese culture it can mean something quite different.Smiling is often done in order to doge a question and is also used to hide feelings from others (Samovar 181). Yet another difference in nonverbal communication is that in Japanese culture, silence is seen as a sign of acceptance or agreement not indecision or doubt. (Samovar 1978) Because communication behaviors in Japanese culture can differ so drastically from American behavior, one can see why it is important to be aware of these differences within the classroom so as to not misunderstand students.Japanese students not questioning their teacher or challenging their ideas once again goes back to the issue of respect in Japan. Because of this, students from Japanese culture may come across as uninterested and unconcerned with their grades and seem as if they do not want to ever face a challenge.This results from the fact that students in Japan are taught to not question their teacher or their grades. It is called “Shikata ga nai” (Kelly, Japanese Culture). When translated “Shikata ga nai” means that when faced with a situation that seems to be beyond human control there is “nothing you can do about it.” This is the accepted norm in Japan, much different from the straightforward often-confrontational American culture. Since American students and Japanese students have such different attitudes towards schooling and confrontations, it is important that teachers be aware of these differences.Japanese culture is very distinct. So the differences between American and Japanese culture can be quite dramatic. Respect is of major importance in Japan therefore students from Japanese culture may never want to challenge a teacher and come across as being uninterested and shy. Also because Japanese culture is based on collectivism, students from a Japanese background may, at first, be uncomfortable making decisions for themselves. As a teacher, it is important that these differences are known and understood in order to make the student feel more comfortable in the classroom and to not disrespect a student’s culture.

Works Cited

 Hou, Alex.”JP Net Kimono Hypertext”. 12 Oct. 95. 29 May 2006 < http://web.mit.edu/jpnet/kimono/index.html>“Japanese Culture: a Primer for Newcomers” 2004. 27 May 2006.Kelly, William. “The Edge: Japanese Family Adaptation”.  1997. 29 May 2006Samovar, Larry, Richard Porter. Communication Between Cultures 5th Edition. California: Wadsworth/ Thompson Learning, 2004.Andrew Wa is a retired teacher from Seattle, Washington. He wrote this peace for CSMS Magazine.

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