Saturday, April 30, 2011

Progress Report

Some obscure quirk of the scheduling system has left me with no class on Friday, which leaves me, in turn, with time to spend on other matters.

Classes so far seem as if they'll be manageable--  the formidable Japanese placement exam I took last week placed me in the highest pre-advanced level available, meaning that I've officially moved out of the "conversational" phase of my Japanese training, and into the phase in which I am made to interpret official-looking bar graphs and prepare class discussions on the world's compulsory education systems. (Yes, really.) I suppose that this should be a flattering development-- after all, after years of hard study, I'm finally being asked to engage with "authentic" materials in my second language. On the other hand, as I reflected in the midst of Thursday's discussion on "how to read a pie chart", the exalted level to which I've advanced is in fact nothing more than a repeat of Ms. Bowers' 3rd grade social studies class-- only this time, instead of daydreaming my way to a "Exceeds all Expectations", I'm struggling to remember the words for "increasing ratio" and "change over time" and taking notes like I'm trying to burn a hole in the table. At least my handwriting is slightly better in Japanese (graceless) than English (indecipherable schizoid petroglyphs). Too bad they don't grade on Penmanship here.

My other classes, regrettably (or fortunately- I haven't quite decided) are taught in English, part of AIU's reputedly brutal international curriculum. I've nabbed a slot in the coveted Ikebana class, as well as a few others-- two 400-level seminars on the Japanese Constitution and International Law.

Here I'll throw another bone to the armchair national-character theorists: I was surprised to note that  all of the English-language classes require students to power through topic-oriented written material roughly as advanced as you'd expect for an American class on the same topics. I'm reading, for example, a Latinate jargon-intensive law-school intro book for International Law and a collection of history and law essays on the Constitution of Japan. However, the classroom sessions focus, not on the advanced content they're allegedly covering, but on the mechanical aspects of how to critically examine an author's tone for bias, formulate theses, and carry out basic classroom debates-- all of which, is, of course, hair-pullingly frustrating if you've already got these skills down and keep being called on to find the topic sentence in a paragraph when you'd rather be talking about content germane to the course.

One is, of course, tempted to use this evidence to attribute the deathly silence that I've had to sit through in both classes' "discussions" so far to that "cultural emphasis on harmony over debate and on factual knowledge over creativity" that gets trotted out in defense of American Exceptionalism every time Japanese 8th graders turn out to be able to add, subtract, and read at grade level 40% better than the USA. Certainly my professors seem to think this way-- the Law and Constitution prof personally thanked me after class for serving as a "model for the other students to follow in how to have a class discussion".

Perhaps there's something to it-- but since, on the other hand, some of my new Japanese acquaintances have already shown themselves more than eager to engage with me on, among other things, nuclear power and the Okinawa question during lunchroom chat sessions (in Japanese), I've got to say that I'm not buying the whole "culture of consensus" thing. I will, however, own that it's considerably harder to say:

"Given lingering tensions leftover from the Second World War, the Self-Defense Forces should probably not be reorganized as an independent army as such; however the Futenma base should be either moved from Okinawa or transferred to the control of Japan..."


"I'll have the fried eggplant, please".

no matter which language you're speaking.

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