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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

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ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS MACKENZIE

HAVE YOUR SAY

Cultural relativism, Meiji, phonetics and eigo woes

Some readers' responses to Nicolas Gattig's Nov. 22 Zeit Gist column, headlined "MacArthur, identity theory and Japan's lingering eigo woes":

Woolly-headed relativism

Nicolas Gattig's article is typical of the woolly-headed "relativistic" thinking prevalent nowadays. It also demonstrates the tendency of Americans in Japan to buy into the notion common in Japan that there are only two countries in the world that count.

If, as members of the world's third largest economy, Japanese are indeed so intimidated by Westerners as to be unwilling to express themselves in English, what does that say about the rest of the world?

Mr. Gattig mentions Koreans a couple of times in his article. The Korean Peninsula — an area that has been invaded 3,000 times in its history — has suffered far more from imperialism (including Japanese imperialism) than Japan ever has. The peninsula is still divided to this day as a result of power struggles between the U.S. and the USSR and China. By Mr. Gattig's reasoning, Koreans should all be gibbering basket cases instead of passionate communicators.

However politically incorrect and "culturally imperialist" it may be to say so, maybe some of the blame does actually lie with the rigidly conformist education system, designed by the ruling elite to produce obedient workers who don't ask questions.

JIM MAKIN
Chiba

Spanish spanner in the works

I think you might have been trying a bit too hard in this one. Explain to me why, when I studied at an international university in Spain, the Japanese students had the same issues with Spanish?

I don't remember Franco ever occupying Japan.

TONY RAJKOWSKI
Minneapolis

Perfect storm of phonetics, culture

I disagree with Nicolas Gattig's views. MacArthur, the bomb and the American Occupation did not cause the Japanese people to be messed up for generations.

The reluctance to make waves in public is a cultural trait. MacArthur's comments about Japanese mentality was due to his not understanding Japanese respect for authority. If the Emperor had not asked the Japanese people to accept defeat and "to bear the unbearable" but had said not to ever allow foreign soldiers to step on Japan's sacred soil, history would be different.

The difficulty the Japanese have in learning a foreign language is due to the very limited range of the Japanese phonetic alphabet. English, Korean and Chinese have a much wider range of sounds. Combine poor English speaking skills and cultural conditioning and you get a not very reactive student.

ARCHIE MIYAMOTO
Los Angeles

Blame post-Meiji elite, not West

Nicholas Gattig's article is unfortunately too steeped in cultural relativism to accurately address the reasons why Japanese too often have trouble learning foreign languages.

MacArthur was certainly a "brass hat, prima donna," as Harry Truman wrote, but his stated opinion of Japanese people as "like a boy of 12" did not shape Japanese culture. MacArthur was given this idea by none other than Emperor Hirohito, who said this to suggest that the Japanese people were collectively too immature for democracy. This may be read in Herbert Bix's Pulitzer-winning biography of the late Emperor.

Japanese people's "woes" with foreign languages are the result of Japanese social engineering after the Meiji Restoration, not pompous Western attitudes, as Gattig unsuccessfully implies.

The members of Japan's first diplomatic mission to the U.S., which included Yukichi Fukazawa, the founder of Keio University, were shocked at the uninhibited expression enjoyed by common American people. The Japanese leaders decided that, after 250 years of isolation, Japan certainly needed Western technology, but not Western ideas such as freedom of speech. Hence the paucity of creativity and analytic thought produced by Japan's educational system.

As a corrective to Mr. Gattig's polemics, I recommend the works of Masao Miyamoto and Saburo Ienaga for solid information on Japanese social engineering and thought control in education, media and popular culture.

If any Western thinking should be criticized, it is cultural relativism and it's cojoined twin, political correctness, which insist that "Caucasian" people and Western culture are inherently bad and all other peoples are its passive victims. I strongly disagree with these concepts.

While Japan was closed to the outside world, the West got the Enlightenment and Japan got kabuki. There's nothing wrong or imperialist about preferring one over the other.

DONALD FEENEY
Fujisawa, Kanagawa

Japan needs to break the bubble

While many of your points do ring true, there is one that I must disagree with, vehemently.

One issue that you failed to point out is that there is a general belief in Japan that English is not really necessary unless you are going on vacation. The older generation shows little or no interest in learning or using the language, thus the younger generation will follow suit.

Most important, though, is the "bubble" that Japan and the Japanese continue to live in. You stated that "Japanese democracy is maturing and 'Globish' is emerging as a new form of identity-free English," yet I fail to see this 'Globish' identity.

As a teacher in Japan, I have yet to see an interest among my Japanese colleagues about global issues, other than global warming. They tend to be totally ignorant or oblivious to the social, political and economic problems around the globe.

I have no doubt that the Japanese people are intellectual, but they often seem out of tune with the global issues that affect everyone. At times they even seem unaware of what is going on within their own country.

While I agree that the Japanese education system needs to be revamped and modernized, English teachers also need to be trained properly and schools should move away from employing Westerners with little or no interest in teaching, or no teaching background.

We reap what we sow: Poor education will produce poorly educated. At the same time, Japanese must become more attentive to the global village we are now a part of.

JASON PIERRE
Fukuoka

The natives can be intimidating

I'd like to let you know my thoughts and experiences after reading your article.

There are at least two kinds of English speakers. One is the kind living in Japan. They have more patience when listening to Japanese people speaking English.

The other is obviously English speakers in their own countries, where Japanese people are a minority. They think, "How can she work here without much understanding of English?" and express this, even while they seem to be listening patiently.

Not all of them are like this, but this kind of attitude and feeling intimidates Japanese people who are English learners. This could be another reason why Japanese people have poor English skills when compared to others.

The environment is important when learning a culture and language. Having said that, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" applies. For example, if you are in an English-speaking country, do what they do.

One of my friends told me to act like them, show expressions like them. Japanese people are good listeners but they need to ask more questions of people from other countries.

M.Y.
New South Wales, Australia

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