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October 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

Thank You Japan, Mario Rinvolucri , UK

Mario Rinvolucri  taught English to Japanese late teenagers in the Cambridge Eurocentre in the 70’ies and then, half a generation later, to women University students from Gifu Province. In the 80ies and 90ies he went on two teacher training tours of the archipelago, ending in the JALT annual conference. He also taught groups of Japanese teachers sent to UK by the Mombusho ( Japanese Ministry of Education).



There is a small but significant cohort of teachers in the world who go beyond their own frontiers to teach their mother tongue in assorted countries round the world. There are Chinese teachers of Pu Tong Hua fanning out across the world to work in the 500 Confucius Centres. There are Italians introducing humanistic teaching ways across the vast areas of Brazil. Obviously you will all be familiar with expat EFL native speaking teachers who export themselves with their pluses and their minuses.

I belong to the last mentioned lot and am becoming more and more aware of the debt of gratitude I owe to people from several  countries for, inevitably, teaching me certain aspects of their culture, their communal way of being and thinking that has forced me to broaden out from my own narrowly focused  sets of behaviours and beliefs.


My upbringing

My mother was German +Liverpool Irish and my father  was a very Piemontese Northern Italian. I was home schooled from ages 4 to13 in a small North Welsh village. Apart from a younger brother I was without companions of my own age until age 10. Then I went off to scouts in the local town, once a week.

Each summer, when I was 11, 12 and 13, I was dispatched to Italy where I had the chance to socialise with four other boys, all brothers.

In 1953 I was dispatched to a boarding school 200 miles from home ( Ampleforth). During the first year there I was in a state of deep confusion. I was like an under-sized mangy wolf cub trying to integrate into a well experienced pack of know- the- ropes dogs. I made only one semi-friend who died in his late 20ies from drug abuse. ( I could only feel  kind of OK with another outsider/ non-belonger.)


My first cloudy awareness  of things Japanese

With this childhood background I at first found the Japanese I met in my classes to be weird. Had they all done therapy training? They seemed to be natural listeners? They shut up and took on board what you said to them. If I said I had a younger brother there was no “ me too” response like “ Oh I’ve got three!” At first I thought them horribly reticent, just wouldn’t/couldn’t  open up.  Why be like that? How perverse can you get?


Stumbling towards  observing these students semi-accurately

Often I would ask a teacherish question and the reaction was frequently “ I don’t know”.  My inner reaction was to think “ these Japanese girls have to be mighty ignorant.” It took me some time to slowly realise that they felt that the accuracy of information was important; “ when in doubt there is no shame in admitting ignorance.”

It took me even longer to realise the careful way in which Japanese people make a sharp distinction between factual information and a personal  opinion.  Once I began learning a smattering of the language I very soon got taught: “to omo imas” or “ that’s just what I think”.


A way of seeing and feeling English as an alien way of communicating

When I heard that the Ministry of Education ( Mombusho) would often prepare Japanese teachers of EFL for three months teacher training in UK by sending them on a Western-style one week debating course in Japan. This was to accustom them to the aggression and cut and thrust of speaking English normally. The Ministry felt that Japanese EFL teachers needed to be confronted with the ways of a rough, aggressive language without being too hurt by its lack of innate politeness.


What! Getting angry won’t do!?

I am a pretty choleric person ( in other words a grumpy bugger) and  you will understand my shock on hearing that if two cars in Japan have a small accident, both drivers get out of their vehicles, bow and apologise to one another.  With a German mother and an Italian father it behoves me to have no small car accidents in Japan!


The group controls the individual

There is an often quoted saying in Japanese: “ a nail that sticks out will be hammered in” . I immediately reacted negatively  when I first heard this categorical affirmation. It was only when I saw it happening in the school in Cambridge where i was teaching in the 90’s that I realised  how powerfully real this could be. When the President of the Gifu University came to visit the school in Cambridge, there was one girl who aired a series of grievances that troubled her. In Japanese terms she was outrageously outspoken but Mrs Kamiya  simply listened to her. There was no need for the Gifu University President to reprimand her....she well knew that the other Japanese students would hammer the nail in.....which they did with all the power of  group belief. Maybe this girl had been seduced into grotesque Western aggressivity and had learnt English emotional culture too well, maybe believing it to be universally applicable.

On a TT trip to Japan I was amazed at the Japanese ability to sensitively vary one’s role-behaviour.

Keiko-san greeted me at the school gates in an able “ Western” way that helped me to feel in rapport with her. On entering the building we donned ordinary school slippers, leaving our outdoor shoes on huge racks.

Outside the headmaster’s office, we changed into more ornate slippers. Once inside Keiko-san’s language became much more formal as she introduced me. She assumed the role of an amenable, acquiescing teenager.......

Her first lesson was at 10.30. Her 50 students all stand up as we enter. Here she takes on the role of a severe priestess, checking the preparatory work the students have done the evening before at cram school.  The aim of this lesson seems to be checking and testing plus dignified setting of the next dose of homework.

After lunch she takes me to her afternoon elective club activity which is English songs. Here she is a relaxed, happy kind of elder sister to the group. A more humanistic atmosphere lesson would be hard to imagine: her students clearly loved her role switch from the morning.

After school she tells me about the loads of pastoral duties she has, like finding jobs for students who are leaving school. Week-ends are often taken up with trips or cultural activities. If the kids are caught misbehaving in school uniform in town the police bring them to her to be dealt with. At the end of the day she supervises the students sprucing up their classroom.

I wonder if you can really believe what I have written above. Yet the culture shock of that day in Matsuyama is still with me. And we seem convinced in Europe that the main task of a teacher is to iteach their subject, and little else. A “sensei” ,or master, is a much more complex role, halfway to being the kids’ parent.

Keiko-san, like most teachers in Japan, would never think of actually taking the  full official holidays that are due to them by statute.


My general attitude to things Japanese

My attitude to the things I have  gleaned over the years  about Japanese ways of  behaving, based on their  deeply felt beliefs, is one of deep respect  and a feeling that in many ways their culture is humanly superior to mine and that they have good reasons for feeling that Gai-koku-jin  are a genuinely odd  lot. The Japanese world view is that there  are Nihon-jin ( Japanese people) and Gai –koku-jin( or  “other-country-people”. I believe the Jews divide the world into two groups, Jews and Goys.


Here are some of the main things I want to thank Japan for:

  • Thank you for showing me the childishness of many aspects of my choleric nature. Throwing tantrums should stop by the time you are three.
  • Thank you for revealing to me the importance of actually listening to other people and the pleasure in so doing. If I want the water to fill my bath what is the point of pulling the plug out?
  • How can a boy who socialised so late in life and so painfully and in such mental confusion as I did feel anything but wonderment at people as deeply socialised and group-aware as these folk are?
  • My contact with the people of the Rising Sun has strengthened my belief that flexible fluency of role-assumption is vital in any teaching.
  • I think I have always worked fairly hard but when I watch the massive diligence of people at work in Japan I feel  like a second year apprentice.  Thanks for strengthening my belief in the hard slog.
  • Thank you for helping me realise the joy in things adumbrated, hinted at rather than spelt out galumphingly. The haiku master, Basho?
  •  Finally thank you for Hokusai, who at 80, declared that, granted  a few more years,he might, maybe, become a fine artist.
  • In June this year I will be 79!


PS I wonder how many native speaking teachers of English may want to thank a culture other than their own for scooping them out of the unconsciouscertainties of their “anglo” comfort zones.

I wonder how many same-culture-as-their-students -teachersfeel gratitude towards their target culture for planting spring flowers on hillsides where there had been none before.


Do write letters to our editor, Hania Kryszewska, and share you r experiences as outsiders

becoming, at least to some extent, insiders.

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

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