What exactly is it that I do here again?

20Jan07

I get a lot of questions from friends about my job here in Japan, and lots of requests for “descriptions of everyday life,” so here it goes. I’m currently working at Osaka University in the position of Gaikokujin Kyoshi (which is translated as “Visiting Foreign Lecturer”) in the Graduate School of Language and Culture. The position is a full-time position and that means that I teach seven classes in the first semester of the year, and six classes in the second semester. In addition to teaching, I’m expected to keep up with my area of research (19th-century American literature) and participate in various faculty projects. A 7/6 teaching load might sound insane by American standards, but the system of university teaching is quite different here — classes meet only one time a week for 90 minutes. Essentially then, my teaching load is about the same as that of a 4/3 load at an American university. Japanese university courses are far more test-oriented than U.S. universities, and students here often take between 15 and 20 classes in a semester.

In Japan, all university students — or at least all public university students — are required to take four semesters of English. I teach conversation courses and listening courses that fulfill these requirements. I’m exceptionally lucky to be teaching at Osaka University, which is ranked third among public national universities, because the students are smart and willing to work if you let them know that that’s what they should be doing in your class. The biggest problem with conversational English in Japan is that students spend their last three years of high school cramming for university entrance exams; this means that they have enormous dictionary knowledge, but almost no practical experience with speaking at all. Many people are astounded to learn that many people in Japan have six years of English under their belts because so few Japanese people are able to put this aspect of their education to use. My students, for example, have an immense knowledge of vocabulary — it’s truly impressive — but they really have had extremely little opportunity to engage in conversation in English. What this means is that on the surface my students may seem to be poor at English, but in fact, they’re very good at reading, they have a broad vocabulary, and they have a generally good test-knowledge of grammar. What I find in my classes is that once I can get students to realize that what I’m interested in is communication rather than the production of perfect sentences they’re fairly enthusiastic speakers, and many of them end up being able to have conversations at the end of the semester that they wouldn’t have been able to have at the beginning (of course, some students make no progress at all).

The picture at the top of the page is one of Osaka University’s many ginkgo trees. The ginkgo leaf is the symbol of Osaka University, which makes some sort of sense since ginkgo is supposed to act as a memory enhancer. Osaka University’s other symbol is Machikanewani, a giant fossilized alligator that is supposed to be the largest of its kind in the world. I actually teach in the building that currently houses the prehistoric Machikanewani, but I have yet to meet the old fellow personally. Osaka University is mostly famous as a school of science and technology and it’s engineering faculty and its medical school are especially well known. In fact, Osamu Tezuka graduated from Osaka University (which is also known as “Handai”), and he had his famous character Black Jack follow in his footsteps. Currently Osaka University’s most well-known professor might be the robotics professor who has developed an absolutely uncanny female “android.” There’s some disturbing video somewhere out there of one of the professor’s assistants prodding the robot in the face while the robot recoils with a pained expression, but all I’ve been able to find is this lovely bit on YouTube. Professor Ishiguro’s ultimate goal is to develop a robot copy of himself so that he can teach his courses remotely. Perhaps I should start making inquiries about a Trane-bot?

Although there’s no requirement, I do wear a suit to work most of the time. Not only do most of the Japanese faculty members wear suits, but I’m one of the younger faculty members in the department so I like to use the power of the suit to create some professional distance between myself and the students. Plus, it can be enjoyable to wear a suit — like dressing up. And there are many fine and beautiful ties available in Japan. Of course, the suit comes off in summer when the heat and humidity become so unbearable that they drive the cicadas out of the ground, screaming. That’s when it’s time for Cool Biz.

This last year I taught some outside courses at Kwansei Gakuin University in addition to my normal load at Handai. Kwansei Gakuin is a highly regarded private university, and I was very curious to see what the students would be like there. The buildings at the Kwansei Gakuin Uegahara campus actually remind me quite a bit of Stanford, and I imagine that the differences between the student culture at KGU and at Handai might be similar to the differences in the student cultures to be found at Stanford and California’s top-level public universities. My KGU students were invariably intelligent, diligent, and nice, but it was clear that, in general, they were far more privileged than most of my Handai students (one of the ways you can tell this is by the way the students dress, another is the fact that vacation/study abroad is immensely common among KGU students). KGU is particularly famous for its American-style football team — the KGU Fighters.

In addition to teaching part time at KGU, I also volunteered to judge a couple of speech contests sponsored by the KGU ESS club (I think ESS stands for English Speaking Society). The most exciting of the contests was the Western division of the 55th Annual All-Japan Inter-Senior High School English Oratorical Contest. You can see the contestants pictured above (the girl on the far left won — she had spent some time living in England and her English was impeccable). We judges are pictured in the third photo down from the top of the page. The contest itself was rather intense, and the students and their mentors took it very seriously. After the prizes were awarded, there was a debriefing period in which each of the students could approach the judges and ask questions about their speech and their ranking. They all seemed very understanding, and genuinely interested in our comments, but it was a bit hairy when the parents and teachers would start interceding with questions . . .

And on an entirely different note —

“My my medical exam”: One major difference between Japan and the U.S. is, of course, the medical system. There is virtually (though not actually) universal medical care in Japan, and Japan tends to emphasize preventive care far more than the U.S. does. You might wonder why a country of stress-infused smokers and drinkers ends up with one of the longest life spans in the world. Sure, diet is involved — but that can’t be everything, can it? Perhaps the yearly mandatory medical check that all public institutions and most larger private companies require has something to do with it. I had my blood checked, my urine sampled, my heart rated, and even some kind of sonograph of my throat since I’m 35 now and might develop throat cancer at any moment. I haven’t gotten all the results back, but for the time being it seems to be a clean bill of health. However, even if there is a problem, don’t I want to find out about it now, while my body is healthy and whatever it is will be in the early and treatable stages? This practice must save Japan billions of dollars every year in offset emergency medical expenses, not to mention the extended life span. They even checked my vision and my hearing and asked me nice questions about how many hours of sleep a night I end up getting on a regular basis.



2 Responses to “What exactly is it that I do here again?”

  1. 1 Anonymous

    Hey Train – Thanks for the enlightening article on your life in Japan. We have all been wondering what you have REALLY been doing over there!?! -Pamela

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    But is it really what I REALLY do?


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