Thoughts on life after the PhD
I feel like I’ve been hearing a similar story for close to a decade now about Japanese youth. It goes something like this: they’re much more risk-averse than their parents’ generation, and they have a diminished interest in the world outside of Japan. The word uchimuki (inward-looking) comes up again and again. And their timid attitudes are being blamed for all kinds of problems in Japanese society.
Reading Chris Burgess’ recent Japan Times article on this subject and Hiroko Tabuchi’s longer piece from last year in the NYT, though, I realized that some of my suspicions might be correct: it isn’t necessarily that Japanese youth are inward-looking or risk-averse. It’s that potential Japanese employers are wary of hiring new employees who’ve spent time abroad.
During my first years as a teacher in Japan, in the early 2000s, I can remember hearing from numerous students on a regular basis that experience overseas was key to career advancement. And regardless of their careers, plenty of them just wanted to do it. But as the graphs seem to indicate, there’s been a noticeable decline in the number of Japanese students studying abroad, from a peak of over 80,000 in 2004 to under 60,000 in 2010. And that seems to be at least partially due to Japanese companies’ less-than-welcoming attitude toward new employees who’ve studied abroad.
It’s incredibly frustrating to read Burgess’ and Tabuchi’s articles and realize that so many Japanese businesses appear to be stuck in an endlessly inward-looking rut. The qualities that these companies seem wary of–creative thinking, taking initiative, asking questions, worldly thinking–are qualities that any other company would seek out. And they HAVE been seeking them out–where Japanese companies have been openly discouraging applicants with overseas experience, foreign companies are a lot more interested in hiring.
I can see this inward-looking company mindset in Japan’s English language education industry, in a practice that I like to call “English-ing” (currently writing a really lengthy piece on that one that I hope I’ll finish someday). In a nutshell, “English-ing” can be defined as the common practice of appearing to teach English–in conversation schools, in elementary schools, in universities–but in fact giving students a series of highly structured interactions with “natives” that do little to move them toward fluency. Instead of communicating, students in these institutions “practice English conversation” in the same way one might study algebra.
English-ing has essentially turned language study in Japan into an abstraction. From a very young age, everything about English is othered–the people who speak it, its unfamiliar grammar, the places it’s used, the cultures that are connected to it. It is utterly foreign. It causes the majority of people who try to speak it in Japan to break out in a sweat, desperately uttering some version of “I can’t speak English,” a phrase that has long since become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is presented not as an avenue of communication but as a contrived series of exercises, lists, and exchanges that have no practical use beyond the novelty of interacting with people who are frequently presented–on TV shows, in the news, even in language textbooks–as a different species.
English-ing as both a teaching and learning style is a multi-billion yen industry in Japan. The question of why it continues to dominate when it has so obviously failed to produce fluent English speakers is difficult to answer. But its influence is everywhere, especially in these companies who apparently want their new employees to have English skills but not be internationally minded. I’m reminded of students I encountered who studied voraciously but told me they would never go to the U.S. because it was “too dangerous.” Or the man who was one of my best students but told me, with a smile on his face, that he could never accept the idea of his daughter marrying a non-Japanese man. Or the students who bought endless books full of lists of idioms and phrasal verbs and could rattle off their meanings to me in alphabetical order, but who could barely have a conversation. Or the students who saw me and other native English speakers as exotic novelties, and who could never comprehend the idea of having a non-Japanese friend.
This is the kind of English skill that certain uchimuki Japanese companies want. They want employees who can rattle off a few English words here and there but who’ve never ventured beyond Guam or Hawaii. They believe that it’s possible to become fluent in a language while remaining utterly divorced from its culture. They want rudimentary verbiage, but without any of the critical or creative thinking that often accompanies foreign language study and time spent abroad.
I sincerely hope Japan is reaching a tipping point when it comes to this inward-looking philosophy. I really want to tell my students to go out into the world, to not just learn English but to take risks, screw up, and acquire all kinds of crazy ideas that they might not be exposed to at home. But as long as the companies at home that many of them still want to work for continue to view their overseas experiences as baggage rather than assets, I don’t blame them for being a little uchimuki. Better to look inward when your head gets smacked down every time you try to look too far afield.
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