My Early Cross-Cultural Ninja Training
In the earliest years of our marriage, my wife and I lived for two years in Japan. There, we encountered marked differences in how Japanese and Americans do business. During the second year of our employment in Japan, the boss of our “afterschool school,” or juku (塾), Mr. Ushida, offered our services as foreign teachers to the Obihiro junior high schools to be cultural ambassadors and guest English teachers.
This came without us being aware of the “deal” he was working out.
Starting a New Job
Caroline and I learned about this change of status a month before our new duties would begin. While it sounded like it may be an interesting opportunity, I was a little leery. Namely, I imagined us moving from school to school without time to develop relationships with students or depth of curriculum. Because of this, I was anxious to begin planning the actual content of the lessons.
I asked my boss when we would be able to meet with the public school teachers to begin the planning process for the classes. He told me he would find out. But the weeks passed by without any opportunity to meet the teachers or talk curriculum.
Finally Mr. Ushida announced we would be meeting with the school district officials on the day before classes were to start! This seemed like very little time to be ready for class, but I figured that I could work hard in the afternoon and evening and be ready.
At Last, a Chance to Prepare?
Mr. Ushida accompanied us to the school district office, and we were ushered into a room filled with school and local government officials. The press was there, too, and, instead of an opportunity to meet teachers and discuss curriculum, we found ourselves the center of a press conference with lots of fanfare, news reporters asking questions, etc.
I attempted to ask an official if we would have an opportunity to prepare lessons, but was told to just come the next day.
Teacher or Tape Recorder?
Accordingly, I showed up at Obihiro Number 3 Junior High at the appointed time feeling quite unprepared to enter the classroom. During the first class, I was introduced to the class, then the teacher asked me to sit down, and he proceeded with his regular classroom lesson which consisted of reading a chapter of the textbook and answering multiple-choice grammar questions about the dialogue.
The only thing he asked me to do was to read and repeat the dialogue with the students, so they could get their pronunciation correct.
I left the school completely frustrated. After all, here I was an intelligent foreign teacher with a master’s degree and a lot of expertise in teaching language being used as a tape recorder for pronunciation practice!
When I arrived back to the juku, I stomped into Mr. Ushida’s office and began to complain vociferously. “This is a total waste of my abilities! Why didn’t we discuss curriculum before the classes started!”
My boss was taken aback and flustered. He tried to calm me down, but I left his office even more frustrated by his lack of understanding my situation.
No More Tape Recorder
Later I was talking with another teacher in the school, Nomura-san, and she said she would help me. She went to talk with the boss. After she did, I learned I’d no longer have to simply recite dialogues anymore. In fact, the teachers wanted me to prepare a conversation lesson for the next day’s classes.
The next day went better. The teachers of the classes at Number 13 Junior High School gave me the freedom to teach the class for 15 minutes and do a mini-lesson.
After school, I again talked with Nomura-san at the juku and expressed again my desire to do more than a mini-lesson. The next day, the teachers mysteriously allowed me to run the entire class.
Without even realizing it, I was learning to become a cross-cultural ninja!
A Lesson about Curricular Planning
When I saw my colleague the next time, I asked her why we hadn’t been allowed to talk with teachers before school had started. She told us Japanese didn’t do things that way. For this type of program, they would develop the program in response to successes and failures into a more effective program.
I realized that my American way was to plan out an entire unit before we even started, then to evaluate after I had finished delivering the unit to make it better for the next year.
Becoming aware of these differences was a huge step in understanding for me.
In the end, I realized both methods worked. But I was too uptight because of my upbringing in a “pre-planning” culture. I also realized there could be real value for the students in the course correcting approach.
Another Cross-Cultural Ninja Lesson About Business Communication Style
Through this situation, I learned a great deal about communication in Japan. Japanese don’t like direct confrontation.
Apparently, my office visit had flustered and confused my boss, Mr. Ushida. Japanese people value wa (和), or harmony, and seek to maintain smooth relationships without confrontation. I was basically breaking the harmony of the situation.
The way I should have proceeded was to talk with a colleague to act as a go-between. Once I discussed my dissatisfactions with my colleague, she would then talk with my boss. I had accidentally done that when I spoke with Nomura-san. She became my go-between, and things improved dramatically after that.
Cultures can have specific ways of doing business. If you don’t understand the culture’s modus operandi, you will flail as I did.
Learn from my mistakes, and become a brilliant cross-cultural ninja yourself!
What experiences have you had with cultural business misunderstandings?