Welcome to the strangers among us

August 10, 2007

Alan Macfarlane's experience of teaching in Japan led him to ponder whether we adequately prepare for foreign students

When W. E. Griffis visited Japan in the 1870s, he wrote: "It acts like mental oxygen to look upon and breathe in a unique civilisation like that of Japan... [it] is like walking through a living Pompeii." Some 120 years later, I felt the same thrill when I visited the country for the first time. The British Council gave me a brief set of notes to help me when I arrived. I have often wondered why our universities do not provide similar support for the huge numbers of foreign students who must find UK education and culture so puzzling - and likewise for the teachers of such students who usually understand so little about the background of the people whose ideas they try to shape.

Let me give a small example from my experience of Japan, which I have visited six times for academic reasons and whose students I have supervised in England. We know that the deepest philosophical and linguistic concepts of Japan and the West are very different in many ways. But few people are told explicitly what these differences are.

Although the language contains many possibilities, speech in Japan is vague and fluid. Language is deeply contextual and changes with the personal relationship. The effect of the speech patterns is that there is no confrontation, little abstract exchange, but rather a binding together. Communication should never lead into disagreement. Interpersonal harmony is essential, and argument or debate avoided. I found this puzzling when I taught in Tokyo University, for I could not get the students to debate or argue with me. Unlike my British students, these postgraduates sat quietly and refused to express opinions or disagreements or even ask questions.

Much of British education is based on confrontational exchanges, where teachers and students are taught to think by way of an intellectual game or battle. This is derived from a combination of Greek Socratic method and medieval English common law disputation. Such an approach is puzzling to my Japanese students. They also do not understand the emphasis on originality and a critical stance in British research, for they come from a tradition that places a high value on memory, conformity to great past masters and accuracy in detail.

Japanese grammar does provide ways of indicating positive and negative, but in practice these are hardly used, except between people in a very close and long-term relationship. Because of the relational nature of thought, many things are both one thing and another simultaneously in a way that is not allowed by the binary logic of the West. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll's White Queen, this allows many Japanese to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

If two ideas clash or contradict each other according to strict logic, that can be overlooked, for reason is fallible and inferior to emotion and intuition. A Japanese is able to hold contradictory views without conflict. The parts may clash, but the whole still functions, as with a work of art, where irregularities and imperfections are made whole in the final synthesis. This works aesthetically but conflicts with the logical premises of such devices as the syllogism, the Cartesian method of deduction and the belief in an absolute and objective truth, on which much Western education is based.

There is a very complex inter-personal etiquette to deal with relative social status in Japan. Combined with the linguistic ambiguities, this puts an immense strain on each individual. Negotiating with strangers, in particular, is very tricky. I have noticed that when I talk to many Japanese, even when I get to know them quite well, this puts them into a stressful relationship. They frequently mop their brow, for perspiration stands out even in cool weather.

Stated baldly, these remarks sound Orientalist and exaggerated. All I can say here is that I have always been surprised that given the very high number of foreign students and academics we now interact with at British universities, teachers are not given more guidance about the cultures from which these visitors come. I would have found interactions with my Japanese students and colleagues very difficult without frequent visits and readings on Japan.

Many teachers do not have the chance to visit Japan, China, India or the other civilisations from which an increasing number of our students are arriving. The least we could do is to provide short simple virtual tours of other cultures by way of books or films and complement this with explicit instruction tailored to each country, as to how their cultural assumptions, particularly in relation to education, are different to those in Britain.

Alan Macfarlane is professor of anthropology at Cambridge University. His book Japan through the Looking Glass is published by Profile Books, £16.99.

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