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A Resounding Nothingness: Silence in Japanese classrooms


“The rising sense of desperation that English teachers feel when a deafening silence envelopes the classroom”


People might tell you it’s because the students are shy. Or that they are afraid of making mistakes. Some will venture that they lack opinions and yet others will argue that it is actually an integral, acceptable part of the culture. But none of these explanations changes the frustration, even the rising sense of desperation, that English teachers can feel when a deafening silence envelopes the classroom and the students’ expressions are studies in poker-face.


So-called Japanese shyness? Sure, shyness can occasionally be a factor with some introverted types, but the issue is more complex than concluding that our students are merely a collection of bashful personalities.


Fear of making errors?  To some extent perhaps, but this is not the primary conversational de-motivator that it’s often made out to be. So then, why does it happen and what are we to do about it?First, let’s think about when and why awkward silences take hold in our countries of origin:


  • Your ‘unconventional’ Uncle Bob tells an off-colour anecdote as part a wedding speech, and it is apparent that not only has he not read the room AT ALL but also that he is completely pickled. (inappropriacy)
  • A comment at the beginning of a staff meeting is directed by your boss, apparently into the ether: ‘Can’t beat the weather today!’ You presume that this is a standard social utterance. But then it becomes clear that she/he expects, even asks, you to respond. (rhetorical and/or non-directed questions treated as interactional)
  • An unattractive potential suitor asks you, ‘Why won’t you go out with me?’ Cringe. (embarrassment)
  • “Hey, how’d it turn out for you? (How’d what turn out?) (vague). “Still mad about it I bet, aren’t you?” (willfully obtuse or oblivious to contexts)


“Obtuse and vague teacher questions can stonewall even the most gregarious”


In fact, many of these social silencers appear in Japanese English classrooms too. For example, obtuse and vague teacher questions can stonewall even the most gregarious of students, such as simple questions that the teacher stretches out until the students are utterly confused:


Teacher: So what has the character Fred done that he feels guilty about? (Pause) What is the basic source of his guilt? (Pause) What has motivated his response, one that Fred is clearly distressed by? (Pause) I mean, what usually causes a sense of guilt in people? Is it a sense of failing to live up to standards? Of some moral failing? Or is it something else? If so, what?

(The classroom enters the great abyss of silence).


Or questions asked by the teacher to nobody in particular:


Teacher: ‘Did everyone remember to bring their textbook?’ (Waits for response).


Students: (Well, I brought mine but how the hell am I expected to answer for everybody? I thought this was a rhetorical question).


Teacher: ‘Ok class, how do you feel about the new disease prevention policies?’


Students: (Do you expect that we have some set, collective class answer to this?)


“Better to mouth a platitude or stay silent than sound like a blowhard”


Of course, one might correct this problem by calling on a specific class member, but…:


Teacher: Jiro, we’ve just watched the video on world poverty. So, how do you feel about it?


Jiro: (What do you want me to say? I expect that you want me to say that poverty is terrible and parrot the obvious theme of the video but it’s not like that will be any revelation for anybody here. So I’ll just shrug).


Teacher: (Hmmm, Jiro seems unenlightened and unconcerned about the problem of world poverty. It’s a good thing then that I’ve brought it up in my class). ‘Ok, Jiro. Please think about it. Anyway, let’s change then to Yoshimi. Yoshimi, what’s your opinion on the video?’


Yoshimi: (I have no opinion. I mean, every moron and his mother knows that poverty is terrible and that we should try to change it so that’s hardly an opinion). ‘I think poverty is terrible and we should try to change it.’


Teacher: Great opinion, Yoshimi! Exactly!


Opinion questions rarely work in your standard Japanese classroom. One feature of ubiquitous Japanese humility is that most people do not venture opinions on subjects unless they feel competent or knowledgeable in that field – better to mouth a platitude or stay silent than sound like a blowhard or know-nothing. They don’t lack opinions — it’s just that they don’t feel that it’s their place to expound, as if their opinion is worth the class’ focus.


“Hey, this is education, not group therapy!”


Hovering behind this belief is an implicit cultural understanding regarding education culture. In most Asian cultures, students do not view the English classroom as an appropriate place to indulge others and waste their time with something as subjective and ephemeral as one’s opinion. This is not that old chestnut that, in Asia, the teacher is viewed as an indisputable God-like authority, but rather the sensibility that opinions are nuggets best shared with friends or other intimates. And, if they are to appear in the classroom at all, the content and framework should be set well in advance so that students can offer up a response that might be edifying for all concerned.


What actually happens in most such attempts at classroom conversations is that students are trying to read the teacher’s expectations: ‘What would you like me to say?’ This, too, is a hallmark of many Asian societies, in which bold directness is seen as socially uncouth, even childish. Better to say that which is expected of you or what you think your interlocutor wants you to say than to stray into socially dubious waters. Most of the world in fact does not conform to the American/Australian model of brash forthrightness in seemingly any and all encounters.


East Asia, and Japan in particular, represent the antithesis of this interactional approach. Rather, delineated roles, socially understood, with largely fixed scripts and expectations are preferred. The notion that formal, public classroom education should manifest itself in the trivialities of students’ feelings, opinions, and musings is quite foreign to such cultural milieus. Hey, this is education, not group therapy!


“(The) silent negotiation of power  is particularly heightened in Japan”


However, even in cases where teachers are cognizant of the above, students can be loath to unpack themselves. For example, even in smaller, more intimate groups, such as in ESS chats you may hear this:


Teacher: So, as you know, today our topic is foreign travel. Haruto, have you had any foreign travel experience?


Haruto: (I should not speak first because I am a 2nd year student and there are 3rd and 4th year students present. If I do so I will appear presumptuous. However, sensei has forced me to speak so I’ll be as humble as possible) ‘Yes, I have. I went to Singapore and Canada.’ (Full stop. Haruto stares at the table top).


Having ‘the right to speak’ is not something confined to hierarchical-conscious Asian societies. At any town hall meeting in Anglo-America, it is usually the in-deep veterans or selected expert voices who are expected to take the floor and weigh in, until the appropriate signals are given for the peripherals and newcomers to edge their way in. But this silent negotiation of power  is particularly heightened in Japan. Japan is not a Zen playground in which silence somehow permeates as a profound philosophical force (as any variety TV show, izakaya, or shopping center ambience will immediately show), but almost everyone is cognizant of situations in which it is understood implicitly about who has the right to expound and who does not.


Silence is also used as a means of covering up a potentially embarrassing situation. If there is any truth to the ‘silence is valued in Japanese culture’ motif, avoiding potential embarrassment is probably where it comes into play most:


‘Chiemi, what’s your answer to number 8?’


Chiemi: (Damn! Number 8 is the only one I have no idea about. If I give the wrong answer, sensei might be disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint her. and I’ll look bad too. So, I’ll just stay quiet until the unwelcome question goes away).


“A much more fertile social skill is the ability to ‘comment'”


Finally, I have to make mention of the undervalued notion of ‘commenting’ as a response skill as it is (not often) practiced nor valued in Japanese English classrooms. Students often feel that they are obliged to ‘give an opinion’ so they’ll offer up a suitably tepid one (‘I agree that poverty is bad’) to fulfill the requirement but, and I want to bang my fist down heavily here, having opinions on everything is far from required in life, nor is it really beneficial, unless you want to come across as a contentious bore. A much more fertile social skill is the ability to ‘comment’, and thereby to expand a conversation, to say something of interest that indicates involvement or interest — actively engaging the other. Gaining skills in making conversation-generating comments is a tactic worth developing.


But, once again, don’t expect this type of engaging interaction to be the default mode of discourse in the Japanese, or East Asian, classroom — it’s not the right time or place (inappropriacy).



Mike Guest

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