Jack Seward’s ‘intellectual curiosity of the Japanese’

Features Trends & Culture - May 19th, 1989

DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS I have lectured rather frequently to adult audiences in both Japan and the United States in addition to having taught at university level in my own country and observing education scenes extensively in Japan. Reflecting on my experiences with Japanese audiences, I find that one impression is stronger and more lasting than any other; namely, the intensity with which they approach the learning process. Most Japanese enter classrooms and lecture halls in the same mood of subdued reverence that we Westerners display only when entering places of worship.

The Japanese have, in fact, what I think of as a “learning posture”: de rigueur attitudes and behavior that must be adopted by anyone who is being taught by someone else. These are analogous to the pose obligatory for being photographed: stiff, erect stance, hands straight down at the sides, unsmiling visage. They adopt this learning posture quickly and naturally whenever knowledge of almost any kind is being imparted to them. This posture—or syndrome, if you will—comprises not only deep respect for knowledge being imparted, but also for those persons imparting the information.

Once, when I was rooming in a Japanese home, I watched the entire family receive a Japanese woman visitor on a Sunday afternoon with all the ritual and near-adulation I would have expected them to reserve for, say, the Imperial Family, but the visitor turned out to be a teacher at the kindergarten attended by one of the family’s children.

Principally, there are three areas in which Japanese learners have, in my experience, dif­fered from those in my own country. First of alt, the Japanese do not come to a lecture with any expectation of being entertained, whereas American and many European lecturers believe it advisable or even mandatory to “warm up” their audiences with a funny story and thereafter to sprinkle tidbits of humor throughout their talks. The organizations which have arranged my lectures at seminars in the United States uni­formly distribute questionnaires to the attendees at the end of the session, asking that they grade the efforts of us lecturers who have tried to provide them with information. (The Japanese would be shocked at this presumption of asking pupils to assess the performance of teachers) Even though humor was not a specific subject on which we were graded in our “report cards,” it was my observation that the lecturer who got the most laughs usually received the best marks overall.

But in Japan these warm-up jokes are the exception, not the rule. On the few occasions when I have ill-advisedly assayed humor before a Japanese audience, some auditors were kind enough to laugh. . .but then they looked around as if wondering if they had wandered into a comedy theater by mistake. They had come to learn, not to have their risibility aroused, and the expressions on their faces made it clear that they did not expect the two functions to be mixed.

Secondly, even though the custom of ap­plauding lecturers seems to be spreading in Japan, it is nonetheless less prevalent and, when practiced, more more subdued. Unless he is advised of this in advance, the foreign lecturer in Japan may feel his efforts are a bleak failure— if he bases his judgment on the number of those who clap their hands with enthusiasm. The Japanese feel, however, that applauding could also be taken as a presumption. Approval of a lecturer is a form of judgment, and such judg­ment should be exercised only by those with superior knowledge or of higher position. They tend, therefore, to leave a lecture as they entered: quietly and respectfully.

Lastly, I have never seen any member of a Japanese audience, during the question-and-answer sessions, use his question(s) as a vehicle to demonstrate his own cleverness, eloquence or erudition or to utilize the opportunity as a soap­box to advocate his own (sometimes contrary) philosophy or to launch himself into a jeremiad that might be only indirectly related to the topic of the discussion.

This same intensity in the pursuit of knowledge can be observed in Japanese classrooms at all grade levels. (In fact, I have heard educators speak of the ideal system of education as being characterized by “American scale, German dis­cipline and Japanese intensity.”) And this single-minded pursuit of knowledge, with respect for all its trappings, is a reflection of the intellectual curiosity of the Japanese—a characteristic visible not only in their school system, but also, later in life, in their voracious reading habits, their TV programming and their on-the-job training.

When the Japanese as a people set out to learn something from the West, or at least con­sider it for possible adaptation and assimilation, they do so on a scale and with a determination that is truly formidable. The kenshu (study and research) groups the Japanese have been dis­patching to the globe’s farthest corners for at least the past two decades are sights so familiar as to have become stereotypes.

THEIR ENTHUSIASM FOR THIS LEARNING activity, however, can sometimes ruffle tempers and earn enmity, as I witnessed recently in Houston, Texas, where I had two visitors from Japan. These two men were from a small chain of sporting goods stores in Japan and wanted to survey similar stores in the U.S., to see how they compared. One day they set forth—without me as a guide—to browse around in several such local outlets.

At the third establishment they visited, the manager tried to sell them something and, in the ensuing confusion (the visitors spoke very little English), he got the impression the Japa­nese represented a chain that had bought this store and several others in the Houston area. According to the account I was given later, the manager repeated his question twice: “You say your chain has bought our store?” Each time the visitors, not really understanding but trying to be agreeable, replied, with a smile, “Yes.”

They then proceeded to take pictures of every­thing on the shelves, leading the manager to think they were taking inventory. After the departure of the visitors, the manager called all his employees together and told them the store had been bought by Japanese interests. After that, he telephoned the owner of the store, who tele­phoned me (since my name had been given as a reference). To say that he was apoplectic with rage would be an under­statement.

Aside from such occasional misadventures, however, Japan has benefitted largely from this aku-naki chishiki-yoku (insatiable thirst for know­ledge). It has enabled her to supplant the United Kingdom as the world’s top shipbuilder. (Japanese schools graduate 300 naval architects every year, in comparison to only 20 in the U.K.) When I first went to Japan, her steel industry was in ruins. She had no iron ore and little good coal. Since then, new equipment, hard work and knowledge have ena­bled Japan’s steel industry to rise to the point where quite recently the United States Steel Corporation announced it had purchased Japanese technology with which it was expected the company would be able to in­crease its raw iron production by 34 percent.

If there is any one factor that can explain Japan’s “eco­nomic miracle,” it is this group-oriented pursuit of learn­ing. In schools, this intense pursuit is characterized by one purgatory and the two phe­nomena of juku and the kyo-iku mama.

Juken jigoku (examination hell) refers to those two times at which pupils move upward from junior high schools into (non-compulsory) senior high schools and then from there on to college. Because there are more would-be students than there is school space for them, the entrance examina­tions are competitive. Those who fail to enter either give up such aspiration or join a class called ronin (from the old word meaning “wave-men,” or master-less samurai), to loiter or study or both until they can arrange another shot at entry. The difficulty of these examinations and the tortuous process of preparing for them spawn enduring legends, and the despondency concomitant upon failure has produced an annual crop of suicides.

To prepare for these tough entrance examinations, as many as six million of Japan’s 10 million primary school pupils go to juku (private after-hours schools) to enhance their chances of entering the higher-level school of their choice. With at least 600,000 of these juku in existence, they have become a flourishing industry in themselves and cater as well to more millions of students who need help to enter col­lege. There are, in fact, juku that prep children to get into certain elite kindergartens and even juku that better one’s chances of entering other juku. One of these (Tokyo’s Japan Entrance Examination School) is so highly regarded that children fly to its Sunday sessions from far-off towns.

These after-hours institutions of learning rely mostly on the same rote memory system that characterizes the public schools, drilling their students for end­less hours in the dates, places and names that appear so often in the multiple-choice entrance exams.

There are those who ques­tion the value of the rote method, pointing out it is enough to know how to find such facts without storing them semi-permanently in one’s mind, Mr. Toyokichi Endo, a leading critic of the juku and a teacher himself, calls these schools “unhealthy and un­natural” institutions that can turn children into “monsters capable of coping with en­trance exams, but little else.” Be that as it may, UNESCO has sponsored comparative international tests in which Japanese children, by a wide margin, surpassed American children in science and mathe­matics.

Kyoiku mama—or “educa­tional moms” — are those Japanese women who believe, with unerring apperception, that graduation from a “good school” is the most vital in­gredient in one’s chances for a secure and successful career in Japan and who, reminiscent of the phenomenon of the “Hollywood mother,” relentlessly ex­hort their offspring to study, study, study, while lavishing gifts on teachers and renting hotel rooms where their child­ren can have privacy during the grueling entrance examina­tions.

This class of women has now spawned a “super-education mom” who is called “mama-gon” (“gon” being the last part of the names for many of the monsters that star in Japan’s science fiction mov­ies and TV serials). It is the “mama-gon” who counsel their children, if you sleep four hours, you will pass. If you sleep six hours, you will fail.”

Although much Japanese television is no better than what is shown in other countries, it docs offer those who want to learn a plentitude of programs with which to sate their appetites. One can easily tune in programs that teach the viewers how to play golf, how to select fruit, how and when to plant flowers, how to speak any of several foreign tongues, how to build a cabi­net, how to appreciate art, how to exercise, how to understand the stock market, how to give first-aid treatment, etc.

I have before me a recent guide to Sunday TV programs in Tokyo. Aside from the off­erings of the NHK Educa­tional Channel, I find such fare as Political Debate, Technical Lecture on Home Car­pentry, English Conversation II, Health Promotion, Baseball Class, TV Art Museum, Liter­ary Travel, Gardening, Doc­tor’s Advice to Expectant Mothers, and many more — all on one Sunday morning.

There is so much educational matter on Japanese TV that at times I have been forced to wonder if anyone is really out there in all those tatami rooms, absorbing all this weighty, solemn stuff. As if to allay these doubts, I recently read that some years ago when com­puters were first becoming popular in Japan, there was a series of TV programs that undertook to acquaint the pub­lic with the ABCs of computering. The TV station offer­ed for sale a textbook to ac­company this series. The response was overwhelming. More than one million copies of the text were sold through the mail.

There is one facet of the intellectual curiosity of the Japanese, however, one wishes could be diluted: specifically, the curiosity that focuses on the Westerner in Japan. If one minds being the focus of such attention, Japan is not the country he should consider for residence.

While I do not find myself basking in it, I have become-after more than 25 years residence — inured to the curiosity to the extent I feer strange without it.

When I return to my home in the U.S., I find myself feel­ing uneasy as I move about downtown Houston, until I realize that it is because no one is paying me the least mind, that I might have to resort to the performance of an abandoned highland fling, clad in kills over an orange leotard, or a frenzied tarantella to get anyone to look at me.

In my earlier years in Japan, I would at times, when moved by the devil, stop in front of a shop window where no one had been standing and stare fixedly at whatever merchan­dise was on display just to see how long it would take for my evident interest to collect a crowd of curious onlookers.

When I walked the streets alone, I was ever the object of studious stares, but when I had a Japanese woman on my arm, it was she who garnered more attention. This pleased but, at the same time, puzzled me—until I reflected that the onlookers had likely transferred their attention to my companion in order to see what it was about her that had attracted the interest of a for­eigner to begin with.