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Japan Trivia 10: An ESS (英語同好会)

The sparrow language he
tweets at the Starbucks
terrace is more compre-
hensible than Jangrish.
Here's why.
ESS stands for English Speaking Society.

Some 50-60 years ago, every high school or college had an ESS or two primarily because it was considered trendy or highbrow to speak what they thought was English even among Japanese students.

If they had any other reason to learn colloquial English that way, it was because they wanted to befriend gaijin (foreigners, especially those with blue eyes) and socialize nicely with them.

In those days the Japanese people fantasized about mixing with gaijin even more than their children and grandchildren do today. They joined an ESS in the expectation that they might be introduced to a gaijin by a group member.

It's also noteworthy that their burning desire for crosscultural interaction had nothing to do with the way WWII ended. Even Germans would serve their purposes.

There may have been a handful of exceptions. They had more down-to-earth reasons such as using the language on actual business scenes after graduation. Even so they were practicing English in the wrong way because fluency in small talk wouldn't help a bit in real business.

In general the Japanese have never understood that English, or any other language for that matter, is nothing but a tool of communication. When you don't have your own thoughts or feelings really worth sharing with others, the tool is totally useless.

Don't misunderstand me, however; I am not subscribing to ESP, or English (learning) for Specific Purposes, the "proprietary" method some professors and researchers at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University have been advocating in the last ten years.

From my first-hand experience working with retarded faculty members of the AGU and its Business School, I can tell for sure that the education system does not make any difference to Japan's disastrous showings in English proficiency.

Take education on information technology, for example. What will happen if you cram your student's empty brain with English IT jargon? Absolutely nothing, because IT is not a goal in itself, either, but a tool with which to pursue it. The same can be said of literacy in any other area of expertise.

Despite the claim by the AGU professors that ESP is an innovative methodology, it actually dates back to Japan's catch-up era which started in the 1860s. But as everyone knows, the nationwide drive for fukoku kyohei and wakon yosai all proved an unworkable prescription by 1945.

150 years have passed since the seclusion policy was lifted, and it's been 65 years since the war defeat. Now the entire nation has grown into a huge ESS, as if thousands of English Speaking Societies have all been converged there.

So I was really surprised when I saw a bill on a bulletin board in this neighborhood that read: "Why don't you join our ESS where you can discuss various topics with Japanese citizens and foreigners every Sunday? You can attend our meeting at the minimal cost of 1,000 yen ($11) per session."

Momentarily I developed an illusion that my clock had been turned back to the 1950s.

Wondering what's going on there, I called the organizer to ask if I would be allowed to bring up any topic in his ESS. He was a Japanese and about my age. He affably answered my question in Japanese: "Basically yes - but we don't take up political or religious issues. We have had a bitter experience in the past when someone raised touchy issues."

I said: "So you are just chitchatting there, right?" He quickly modified what he had said seconds earlier so I wouldn't hang up. "But it really depends," he said, "We just want to keep a harmonious atmosphere among group members."

That's why I have made it a rule to join in only when I have nothing particular to do, feel physically strong enough to take a ten-minute walk to the place and the weather is not so lousy.

The first time I joined them, I learned the basics of their code of conduct and practical rules associated with it.

The man I had talked with over the phone turned out to be the organizer as I had assumed him to be. He also looked like one of the founding members of the group since its launch twenty years ago.

The self-appointed organizer seems to have authority to decide who to take the chair in the next session. Small wonder he has never told (and will never tell) me to take my turn, although I have already handed the Internet-illiterate guy some printouts of my blog pieces carefully excluding poisonous ones.

The person who is arbitrarily selected by him is, in turn, given the right to determine the next topic(s). He or she is supposed to prepare photocopies of an article picked from a newspaper (e.g. The Japan Times) or a magazine (e.g. Newsweek.) It's out of the question to bring in his or her own writing.

A guy from California and a woman from the U.K. whose husband is Japanese show up alternately as the moderator and English teacher.

Other members are predominantly Japanese citizens living in the city of Yokohama. Their age and background vary on the surface, but they have one thing in common: they all suffer from a psychogenic illness which I have named Post-Black-Ship Stress Disorder. Unlike other types of PTSD, it's infectious and hereditary.

No wonder they do because the port city is the place where the unequal treaty called Convention of Kanagawa was signed 152 years ago.

They are only sitting there, wearing a mysterious smile all the time. They feel at ease because all they are supposed to do is to read out in turns a paragraph or two of the given material.

I can't but accept all this stupid arrangement. But in the first session I attended, I suggested that at least the chairperson should give us photocopies of the material a week before it is discussed so that we can save time to be spent for reading out these sentences in awful accents and intonations as if we are schoolchildren.

I muted out the last ten words of my suggestion because I thought it would be counterproductive to insult them unnecessarily. Yet, the moment I said this, I got caught in a crossfire not only from the organizer and the moderator, but from all other attendees. The change-resistant folks turned down my request for a farfetched reason: it's impracticable for the chairman to do so because he never knows how many people will come back and how many of those who aren't present this week will come in the next week.

Especially I can't stand the British woman who is much more of a Japanese than I am. She says she has been in Japan for more than two decades. The only thing where she differs from the Japanese is her arrogance. On the surface she sounds like a caring person, but essentially, she is one of those benevolent colonialists.

She is too used to servile locals, perhaps including her husband, who constantly snuggle up to her just because she has blue eyes. She has been spoiled so much that she believes deep inside Caucasians are superior to Mongoloids.

It seems as though she thinks: "Even though the Japanese sometimes outdo us, we always reserve the right to determine whether to say: 'You did a good job,' or 'There are many things we should learn from the Japanese.'"

The broad once warned me that it was impermissibly rude to point my finger at the person who I was speaking to. I swallowed my objection to her lecture on good manners because at that point I recalled their code of conduct: harmony should be put before anything else, just as Shotoku Prince said 14 centuries ago. A beat-up Japanese broad sitting next to me had already started glaring menacingly at me as if to say: "Just one more verbal attack on the British lady, I'll kill you, dirty dotard."

Actually I wanted to say: "We are all grownups. We did not congregate here to listen to your lecture on how to behave. Gestures vary from country to country. For instance, a Japanese tends to feel insulted when someone motions him over with a beckoning sign particular to Westerners. But that's something we should learn to tolerate."

Another thing where I find her attitude utterly abhorrent is the fact that she always interrupts me when I speak out too much, or too often - by Japanese standards, that is. I am a person who thinks it's a total waste of time to discuss nonissues, and to keep quiet whenever he finds the topic more or less relevant and worth discussing.

The reason she stops me so frequently is because her role there is to encourage, or force, to be more precise, other people to speak up as often as I do whereas deep inside she knows they don't have their own opinions to share with the rest of the group - which is evident from the reaction of these supposedly shy and modest people. They keep fidgeting for 15-30 seconds before mumbling out an incomplete sentence or two.

Most typically, they say: "Oh, yes, ... but ..." Sometimes they use the conjunction "so" in place of "but." Either way, the rest of the sentence is always left unsaid because most probably they have nothing to add to begin with, or at best, they think they are understood by the perceptive gaijin listener without spelling out their unorganized "thought."

It is true that there are a few people who seem to have a lot of experience dealing with gaijin. They certainly know how to complete a sentence. Yet it is obvious that they are just parroting, strictly on an ear-to-mouth basis, what they have heard from their gaijin bosses in the past. A rally of words never keeps going any longer than five seconds because gaijin's answer always settles the problem instantly like Vox Dei.

But from the Japanized Briton's point of view, that is enough presumably because that's exactly what's going on in Japanese gradeschools, or even Japanese companies doing business internationally.

The guy from California is a little better. He has a certain amount of intelligence.

When introducing myself for the first time, I said that one of my favorite pastimes is to play devil's advocate. In response, the Californian said he shares the same pastime, but other people did not have the slightest idea about what a devil's advocate should mean. Some of them quickly produced their handsets to consult an online dictionary.

The last Sunday, the chairperson of the week gave us yet another bland story from Newsweek titled something like "Love is a battlefield." It's about the "tragedies" American soldiers and generals returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are going through back home. According to the article, not a few returnees are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and some of them have ended up in divorce as a result, and so on and so forth.

While other group members kept saying, "What a pity," "I sympathize with them," etc. as they were supposed to say, I raised a question: "Don't you guys think they deserve all these consequences? The draft system is no longer in place in the U.S., or does it? They all volunteered to do what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan."

A couple of weeks earlier, the British woman had asked us how each of us would describe business practices and ethics of the Chinese. I said: "I was really impressed when I heard the president of a Chinese manufacturer of 'ePad' telling a Japanese TV reporter that Apple Computer has pirated his proprietary tablet computer technology. He said if and when Apple started selling its iPad in China, he would certainly file a lawsuit against the American company. When compared to Japanese businesspeople, I can't but respect such a guy."

Actually I just wanted to say it's sickening to see the Japanese people always act so weakkneed and compliant with their Western counterparts. But the moderator looked really stunned at my comment because she didn't understand I was just playing devil's advocate at that time. She just said, "Mr. Yamamoto's view is very interesting." (Thank you for taking my joke so seriously.)

But this time I really meant what I said about U.S. soldiers who have returned from Iraq. Just the same they all raised eyebrows.

I continued: "We all deserve our fate, don't you think?" Everyone looked embarrassed and fell silent. No buts, no sos, no nothing.

Then the moderator was reminded that he was there to resume harmony. He asked me; "Have you seen the film 'Patton' before?" I replied: "Yes, I think I have. But what does the ruthless general have to do with the misguided foreign policy of the U.S.? These guys all started off as busybodies and have ended up as crybabies by now."

At that point, the week's chairperson thought this was too much. He cut in, still under the guise of neutrality. He said, "That should be more than enough. This is not the right place to discuss such a thing, I guess." (Tell me where to find the right place.) He seemed unaware that his remark was an opinion in itself.

When they were moving on to the next topic, I walked over to the organizer to hand a 1,000-yen bill and say, "I must be going now because I have another appointment." Actually I had no other appointment on that morning but I thought I might as well have had an early lunch at the nearby Starbucks where I often share a sausage pie with sparrows who fly over to my table across the street from the Yokohama Park.

The organizer said to my back, in his usual apologetic tone, "Please come back to us the next week." But I wasn't sure if I would comply.

Certainly I would do so if he understood the group members owe me much more than I owe them. I think he should pay me something from the money he collects from the participants. But actually he pays the 2-hour rent for the room and the remainder goes to the moderator and teacher of the week.

Toward the end of the futile round trip to/from the venue of the cozy "debate" I saw my good friend Lara standing in front of her family's restaurant. We spotted each other and had a standup meeting to update each other on what had happened in the couple of weeks since we last met. It was a pleasant talk because between the two of us, there are no taboo issues to get around and we never expect each other to dish the dirt on anyone we are not really concerned about.

Lara's heartwarming smile cheered me up. As always it suggested that to her I am a human being - mentally sound one. Just one hour or so earlier, I had been a monster who was practically diagnosed as a case of ASPD (antisocial personality disorder) by these sufferers of PBSSD.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I will carry on for some more months, or even years, as long as bright, charming and unassimilated young ladies, such as Lara, are around in the city where I am living the last days of my life.

Equally important to me are the people of Okinawa, Japan's Tibet, who have refused to become fully assimilated into the ESS culture, even after the "return" of their islands to Japan in 1972.

These people are always on my mind.

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Japan Trivia 10: An ESS (英語同好会)
Authored by: samwidge on Friday, June 25 2010 @ 05:03 PM JST

Mr. Yamamoto, you always amaze me with your vignettes of life. I often find myself wishing that you could put each new essay at the top of your Website's home page so that more people would discover the remarkable content.

I found myself daydreaming about this particular contribution for more than a week now. In old age and growing deafness I joined a class on American Sign Language. Unfortunately, something has changed in my brain and I was profoundly unable to learn.

That you have such ease with language is marvelous and that you see so very many angles in any discussion gives you a big advantage.

Sure! Everyone is occasionally a jerk in one sense or another in these conversations. That was only a mild surprise.

The thing that you revealed is that I have been vastly mistaken about Japanese attitudes in the aftermath of war. I had thought that your people would be bitter and angry. We were told that occupying American soldiers had to be extraordinarily careful because there always were people ready to kill them. Now you say that Japan was eager to learn English and cooperate.

That makes sense in a way but comes to me as a shock.

There seem to be practical reasons to learn English. Bottles sold in America usually are labeled in four or more languages. Of those, English invariably takes less space. English is the language that accompanied the balance-beam scale, a British invention.

As I understand it (you may wish to correct me on this) English cursive writing was especially convenient because it worked well with the new fountain pens developed in 1841. Your own written words seem to require more ink and more difficult writing implements.

We Americans arrogantly suppose that our special skills and power push the rest of the world to use English and that the British, Canadians, Australians and others simply do not count. You and I know far better that English has slipped the bounds of nationality and that there is something else that compels.

It cannot be our products. It cannot be our movies. It cannot be our music. All of those are falling on hard times.

So what, really, is the reason for English's popularity?

I think your essay has given far better hints than any other I have seen.
Japan Trivia 10: An ESS (英語同好会)
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Saturday, June 26 2010 @ 03:53 AM JST


Let me add something about the popularity of English:

Maybe you can't generalize the reason why English has taken place of Spanish as the Lingua Franca. But in my case, there are two reasons I've been learning English so enthusiastically.

In 1945 I was a 9-year-old kid, but I had already become used to those cheap, whining songs that all told the sickening stories about soldiers sacrificing themselves for the cause of defending the emperor against hairy barbarians from the West.

I can't forget how I was shocked when I heard Sentimental Journey by Doris Day and Les Brown. Aside from the resonance of the Major 7th code at the ending, I was struck by the rhythm of the music and lyrics. Doris Day sang: "... like a child in wild anticipation ..." The vivid articulation was something we Japanese had never known before. (And still they don't know as is evident from Japanese "jazz.")

As you know, Japanese is spoken very flat, and there is no rhythm in it whereas Chinese is too wavy to find an invigorating rhythm there. Then I became hooked on Frank Sinatra and many other musicians. Even today, my YouTube partner and me are delving into the articulations particular to genuine jazz.

If I had come across James Brown or Michael Jackson in the postwar era, I might not have been so enthusiastic about learning English.

Secondly - while in business I somehow learned that words and thoughts are inseparable twins. There's no such thing as a bright idea that is expressed in stale words. Likewise, there's no such thing as fresh words that express worn-out ideas.

These are why I did a surgery to separate the conjoined twins. I'm afraid at least one of them could not survive the operation. But I don't regret a bit because my original mother tongue is something to be likened to a linguistic salad.

Yu Yamamoto