Stick to the master plan

June 20, 2013

The first step in tackling plagiarism in Japan is making students understand what it is, as it is a Western concept that does not fit well within Asian culture. To describe it, the Japanese word ukeuri is often used, but this essentially means “to reproduce someone else’s words” and is generally viewed as desirable.

The master/pupil relationship is key to Japan’s hierarchical society. It is a parental-style bond and confers kudos on the master and offers instruction and connections to the pupil. Apprentice artists often incorporate part of their masters’ names into their own to denote their training and loyalty. And it is said that if you speed up those delicate tentative pluckings of the 13-stringed Japanese koto, they are identical to traditional lively ballads that were brought over from China and painstakingly transferred from master to pupil.

The Japanese education system is built on rote learning and memorisation of the masters’ works (as approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). You copy the master. Copying the right master shows intelligence, and the ability to reproduce the master’s words is a measure of accomplishment.

Referencing one’s sources is not common practice in Japanese academia. Footnotes and citations are generally not included in academic books. You must trust the author, especially if he is a professor at a high-ranking university.

I once reported to the student affairs committee a student who had downloaded an essay by a professor from a top Japanese university and passed it off as his own. I expected a reprimand for the student: instead, I got one. I was told not to waste the committee’s time but simply to tell him to resubmit more of his own work. I did and the student complained that while the English faculty insisted on 100 per cent original work, the others only required 60 per cent, so he was transferring.

Another reason students plagiarise is because, as Brian McVeigh notes in Japanese Higher Education as Myth (2002), students don’t expect academics to read what they write. When I was asked to proofread a student’s MA thesis and found it to be largely copy and paste, I didn’t make a fuss: I simply informed the student’s supervisor, although I did ask around my foreign colleagues at other colleges for advice.

“Let it go,” they told me. “If their supervisor has intimated that the student is going to pass, they’ll pass.” In the master/pupil relationship, if you criticise the student you disrespect the professor. The plagiarism only came to light during the MA viva when the supervisor asked the student: “You didn’t copy, did you?” “Of course not,” she replied. But one of her sub-supervisors went away and took a closer look at the work.

The outcome was that the student was assigned a new professor and given a year to rewrite her thesis. I read the new version and commented on how good and original it was this time.

“I should hope so,” said the new professor. “I wrote it.”

The student graduated.

“To think it would never have come to light without the sub’s intervention,” I said to a colleague.

“Oh yes?” came the reply. “Before the viva, he had awarded the thesis an A star.”

“How come?” I asked.

“Because before you raised the issue of plagiarism, neither the professor nor the sub had actually read it.”

“Not even her professor?”

“He trusted her to do good work and didn’t want to insinuate otherwise by actually reading it.”

In Japan, the pupil must not fail the master. But, equally, the master cannot flunk the pupil.

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