Don's Diary

March 30, 2001

March is the end of the academic year in Japan, so I begin the last week of my fieldwork. Clear out of the apartment, which has been home since last April. Wonder if my accumulated memorabilia could possibly weigh under 20kg to get through customs.

Drag my case to the sake shop from where it will be delivered to the airport for Y3,000 (£17). Relieved of this burden, review my field notes. As an associate professor I have lived a charmed existence in Hikone city on the edge of Lake Biwa. Free of departmental politics, I have devoted myself to what I came into higher education for: to teach and research Japanese students in Britain and to participate in the system of education that produced them.

Japanese universities pay local travel costs but I love my bicycle. To reach the department I skirt the bamboo forest towards the lake where herons stalk the shallows in search of fat carp. This university is one of many institutions torn down, completely re-built on the same site, and re-launched under a different brand.

Wonder at the arrogance of British universities that recruit Japanese students to under- resourced, ill-equipped campuses, and marvel at how much the students are prepared to pay.

The joy of having complete autonomy with regard to teaching content and methodology is inexpressible. No obligations with respect to curriculum, assessment or quality assurance. Learning outcomes are not part of the discourse. The quality assurance agency would be de trop here.

Hiromi, my teaching assistant, embraces me warmly - after a year she has internationalised her verbal and non-verbal communication style. She still calls me Sensei, but now prefers kissing to bowing. With 50-plus students per class, she was invaluable reading the Japanese script(s) and distinguishing between the various Suzukis, Tanakas and Satos. However, they are only assessed - to use the term loosely - at the end of the academic year. So no pressure on me.

Visit Junior College for graduation. Like similar institutions all over Japan it is in financial crisis despite charging fees of more than a million yen. My platform-booted, orange-haired students have been transformed into graduands resplendent in kimonos with sleek black coiffures. There are 20 English majors, but next March there will be only eight. The English department has been closed and the staff fired.

Ride the Haruka express train through Kyoto, past blue-tiled roofs shimmering in the early spring sunshine and dark pink plum blossoms, en route to Kansai International airport. Britain, on the brink of mass higher education, has much to learn from Japan. Never felt so stress-free and healthy at the end of an academic year. How long it will last?

Patricia Walker is director of the English Language Centre, Staffordshire University. Her research in Japan was supported by the Daiwa and Sasakawa foundations.

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