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Welcome to TokyoFreePress Thursday, March 23 2017 @ 07:24 PM JST
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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.
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Once again about Yahoo! Japan's automatic "Translation" service

In the June 1 TFP story, "Yahoo! Japan's translation service is telling evidence of problems facing Japan with languages, IT and beyond," I discussed the same issue. But now I'm coming back to you with another example of the chimp's translation.

This time he was told to work on my recent piece titled "Please stop bullying me, bad bear, or I'll kill myself." The chimp gave me back this parallel translation in 15 seconds.

Again I'm taking the liberty to quote the first several paragraphs below here on the assumption that Yahoo! Japan won't find it insulting, just like it took the liberty of having the translation software of Cross Language Inc. destroy my sentences, perhaps on the same assumption.
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Correction

In my article, English education in Japan (TFP, September 1), I based my argument on TOEFL-based ranking tables for English skills among the OECD countries. However, as Brady Strachan from Canada pointed out, the results of the "OECD" survey didn't really add up in that the U.S. comes as low as No. 25 in the 2002/2003 survey, for instance. When trying to double-check on this point, I could learn the following:

1) I thought I was citing the ranking tables from the OECD website because I had previously come across similar ones when I was browsing through it. But I was wrong. Actually I was downloading the tables from a different site named Economic & Social Dataranking run by Kenji Suzuki, assistant professor at the European Institute of Japanese Studies.

2) Japanese staff stationed in the "Tokyo Center" of the OECD are so uncivilized species as to hung up on me before I could finish my first question: "Could you help me locate in your new website, SourceOECD , English skills data by country....?"

3) As the assistant professor at the EIJS suggested, I sent a mail to the ETS (Educational Testing Service) to ask how it defines the nationalities of the TOEFL examinees. I suspected the ETS possibly defines the examinees' nationalities not based on their actual nationalities, but on the countries in which the TOEFL tests are taken. My hunch at this moment, however, is the ETS won't get back to me very soon.

I think Mr. Suzuki of the EIJS assumes it right when he says these low scores for the countries whose official languages include, or whose official language is, English are just representative of the actual levels of TOEFL examinees because they are, more often than not, immigrants from non-English-speaking countries or regions.

Whatever is the case, one thing is for sure. My argument in that article dealing with English education in Japan holds true no matter what.
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Japanese Way of Learning English, and Its Disastrous Consequences



Take a look at the most recent results of the OECD's survey on English skills among non-English speaking member countries embedded at the bottom of this article.

Japan has been glued to the very bottom of the ranking since the inception of this comparative survey. And when it comes to a broader comparison among 151 nations, including non-OECD members, Japan ranked No.140. It's no wonder ranking-conscious Japanese people try to look away from the particularly painful OECD statistics. Some may ask what if the OECD had used some other yardstick than TOEFL scores on which it actually based the ranking. Maybe with something else in use as the evaluation method, Japan's position would have been elevated a notch or two. But I do not believe that would have made a great difference to the ranking.

Japan's disastrous showing in this respect is all the more intriguing because no other nation in the world has tried harder to improve the people's overall English skills. · read more (4,225 words)