BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;

BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;

BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE


Chapter 25

The Gaijin Educator

1. The Tama Experience

2. Family Education Affairs

3. Akita International University

4. Columnist and Blogger

5. Paradise Found

6. Conclusion – Status Lost

 
(In 1997 I am asked to become president of a small, all-Japanese university at Tama in the Tokyo western suburbs.)  

(In the previous chapter I give the reasons for this unusual request, and why I agreed.)  

------  

1. The Tama Experience  

Arriving at Tama I told myself I wanted to find out whether Japanese university students really were as idle as they were said to be.  

That turned out to be fairly true.  

But I also discovered that when they were doing the things they wanted to do – when they had motivation - they could show extraordinary energy and commitment.
 
Though the university had only 1,500 students, clubs proliferated like mushrooms. The annual two-day university festival saw an unbelievable outburst of organization competence and events, all powered by student voluntary labor.  

The university drama club gave performances close to professional standard, despite never having the chance to perform before proper audiences.  

Motivation in the Classroom?  

Next move was to see if one could inject some of the same kind of energy and commitment into the classrooms. That was not going to be easy.  

The entire university system in Japan seems designed to make students, and teachers, feel they exist in what some describe as a nuruma-yu or ‘warm bath’ atmosphere – in a state of soft somnolence.  

Failing students, or making them work hard, was seen as unfair and unsporting.  

After all, they had paid their university fees. The university was therefore under an obligation to look after them through to graduation, it seemed.  

(On one of the many Education Ministry committees I was invited to join I was told that payment of the very high university entrance fee amounted to a contract to provide education through to graduation. 

(In theory at least a parent could sue a university that tried to expel a student simply for failing grades.   

(This was an interesting concept, I thought. How did this mesh with the Ministry’s call for more rigorous grading of students? What happened to those with consistently poor grades?  

(Ministry silence.)  

True, Tama had better teachers than most. Many had experience of the outside business world and at least had a degree of maturity – something badly lacking in most university people, as I had discovered to my cost earlier at Sophia.  

(Some of the stories I heard about other Japanese universities were even more horrifying).  

Even so, we did have our share of what the students call amai or ‘sweet’ teachers who make few demands on students.  

So I decided to try to run a course myself, where there would be demands.  

----- 

First move was to get rid of those term-end exams, where teachers feel obliged to pass almost anyone who shows up, regardless of what they write in the exam.  

(I once had students who would simply write about how much they liked me and how they hoped I would not fail them.)  

To fail large numbers of them would in effect be seen as an admission of one’s own incompetence as a teacher.  

So I decided that from day one students in my class would have to prepare for and take weekly short tests (quizzes).  

One aim was to do something about those idle students who would just show up occasionally for lectures, and hope that was enough to gain a pass.  
Results of the short tests, scored on a scale of zero to ten, would be returned each week.  

Only those with a term average of six would pass. A no-show was rated as zero.  

Soon the idle ones would realize they were in trouble and leave the course, in time to sign up for classes with one or other of the more amai teachers.  

I would be left with the more dedicated students.  

In the process I would also provide some of the all-important motivation to study.  

In particular, I could try to operate on what I see as the only basis for university teaching – require students to read some relevant text in advance of the class and spend class-time answering questions or explaining points in the text.  

(That in fact was the basis of the tutorial system I had gone through at Oxford.) 

There is very little in this world of undergraduate standard of knowledge that does not have something of quality written about it.  Why should teachers waste everyone’s time just repeating that?  

Regular weekly short tests would aim to discover whether students had in fact read the required text in advance of the class.

True, having to correct over 100 short test papers each week and hand out results was onerous, especially given the appalling handwriting of most Japanese students.  

But the plan worked out well enough, though hopes other teachers would do as I did proved rather optimistic.  

Provisional Entry  

It was at Tama that I developed another idea, one which would not just improve motivation but would also help rid Japan of its wretched ‘exam hell’ for university entry.  

I called it zantei nyugaku, or provisional entry (to the extent the system came into use, zantei nyugaku was to be my contribution to the Japanese language).  

Confronted with the fact of bored and idle students in our midst at Tama, I realized that many were only there by accident.  

They had taken entrance exams for several universities roughly equal to us in terms of entrance difficulty, hoping they would be lucky enough to pass at least one exam.  

Somehow they had just passed the Tama exam (in Japanese, as it turns out,  ‘tama-tama’ is yet another of those,  probably of Polynesian origin,  double words, and means ‘by chance’ ) and had gone there regardless. They had little interest in Tama itself or its specialized education.  

They just reckoned that if they sat out the required four years (five years if they were really bad) they would graduate safely.  

Universities would not want to hold on to them forever.  

But under my scheme, students whose entrance exam grades were close to the pass-fail line, above or below, would be told they could only be accepted on a provisional basis.  

If at the end of first year their results were satisfactory, they would be accepted as regular students.  

Otherwise they would have to repeat the year, or find themselves another university.  

That way we could hope to deter the rubbish.  

But serious and committed students who due to bad luck or other factors had just missed the entrance exam pass line would be happy to accept those conditions.  

Indeed, some (mainly sons of small company owners whose fathers were desperate to have them trained as their successors) would be happy to enter Tama under any conditions.  

In short, not only was the scheme a good way of testing genuine desire to enter Tama.  

In effect we would be using end of first year results as a test of suitability for continued university study – certainly a better test of suitability than the standard university entry exams which were simply tests of ability to memorise high school textbooks.  

And we would ipso facto be able to provide a study incentive – even if for only one year and even if only to those provisional students.  

-----  

But as with many of my other ideas for improving university education, the merits that seemed obvious to me were not so obvious to others.  

Over protests I managed to have the scheme adopted by my university professorial committee.  

But it ended up being called doryoku nyugaki – entry through effort – with my original version heavily watered down.  

However, and as I mentioned earlier, I did manage to get a mention of it included in the final report of the 1999 Obuchi national education reform commission.  

And at the university I was to move to after Tama – Akita International University (see below) – it was to be adopted in full, with excellent results.  

At the end of first year there the provisionals often had better results than most of the regulars.  

Some teachers also mentioned how the provisional students had motivated regular students to work harder.  

(I should add that there was nothing radical in my ideas. In most US and Australian public universities, all or most students are zantei nyugaku in the sense that entry is easy for all but many are weeded out if they fail year-end tests or GPA targets.)  

(Only in Japan could the idea be regarded as dangerously revolutionary.)  

(True, the Oxford I knew in the fifties was ‘Japanese” in that few of those who managed to pass the difficult entry process would later be failed. But we were graded strictly in very comprehensive graduation exams – A, B, C and D. Those with C or D results found it hard to get good jobs.)  

(I was lucky enough to get a B.) 

(Once when I mentioned this Oxford system to a committee of Japanese businessmen,  one said that he would prefer the C or D students, provided they had been active in sports. Their results proved they had not wasted their time listening to useless teachers in meaningless classes!)  

(Out of the mouths of babes and senior Japanese businessmen sometimes comes truth, at least where Japan is concerned.) 

…..  

My six years at Tama passed happily enough (the original four year appointment was extended a further two years).  

I too was enjoying the nuruma-yu - in my case freedom from most administrative work.  

Duties were mainly light – ceremonies (of which there are many at Japanese universities) , attending conferences, speeches at various functions.
 
Each year student quality improved as our graduates moved into the society and became the all-important OBs that every university has to have – former graduates (old boys) who help fresh graduates into jobs into the firms they have managed to enter.  

We also came to be recognized for our efforts, such as they were, to provide education more serious than that in many other universities.  

Parents do not like to pay for bad education for their child, even if the arbitrarily decided status of your university decides most employment chances for your graduates, regardless of the quality of the education you have provided. 

(You have to hope that continued efforts to raise quality will eventually raise your status – which seems to have happened at Tama recently.)  

I came to like many of our teachers, and respect their dedication. Even in a flawed system most Japanese will do their best, even if they can do little to change the system.  

Tama confirmed for me was something I had realized earlier when teaching on the Sophia main campus – the merits of Japan’s zemi or seminar system where students are placed with a teacher of their choice for their third and fourth years.  

The bonding and attention they get does much to solve the motivation problem, and sometimes the job-finding problem. Later Tama accepted my proposal it be extended to second and even first year students.  

(In their first confusing years, students have a special need for attention and bonding.)  

--- 

I was also impressed by our still-fledgling graduate school, where some business experience was an entry requirement.  

There, we had no problem of motivation. Most were mature students paying their own way.  

Indeed, it was there that I discovered a key element in Japan’s education dilemma.   

Most teachers want to teach properly.  But faced with students who do not want to study properly they have little incentive to teach properly, which in turn adds to the students not wanting to study properly which in turn… 

The key is to find a way to break the vicious cycle.  

With mature graduate students who realize that their futures depend on good study the cycle is broken neatly.  

----  

But I would be exaggerating to say I did much for Tama over the six years I was there, other than provide a figure-head, and help get the name of the university into the media.  

Perhaps my main contribution was enforcing a ban on smoking.  

Also, in a bid to do something about the harm caused by three years of bad English teaching in high schools (partly the result of the need to prepare students for university entrance exams) I also decreed a ban on English as a compulsory subject in our entrance exams.  

( See my Japan Times article of February 2009 for further details of my motives.) 

The move gained great media attention, and great Education Ministry disapproval. 

Others also disapproved, and even suggested I had done this as part of the general dumbing down of university entrance exams by universities desperate to attract students.  

And this, despite my having foreign language courses increased from one to two years (but using the teaching techniques I had found effective and ending the traditional ways of teaching languages). 

In the end my meddling with the entrance exam system was fairly meaningless since well over 95 percent of students continued to choose English it as an entrance exam subject. 

And my teachers of English soon reverted to their favorite techniques – heavy emphasis on translation and vocabulary.  

My efforts to reform English language teaching in Japan would have to wait till later, if ever.  

Bad habits, like smoking, tend to die out slowly. 

Post-Tama  

As my time at Tama started to run out I began to enjoy thoughts of semi-retirement.  

True, I had no physical need to retire. I was in good shape, playing squash regularly.  

Farming and development work in Boso also kept me fit.  

But I was already well into my sixties. The lecture circuit was running down, at last.  

I was keen to be doing more in managing my Boso property (see Chapter 17 ).  

I was also keen to do something about my dormant Chinese and Russian before it was too late.  

Most of all I wanted to do some serious writing about Japan.  

Yasuko had reached retirement age at the Ajiken where we had first met (it is now called IDE or Institute of Developing Economies) and was enjoying her freedom.
 
And while I had accepted IDE’s request to head their MITI-financed school set up to teach Japanese and Asian graduates the principles of economic development (IDEAS it was called), that too was a mainly titular position.  

(Apart from anything else I had little desire to get involved greatly in propagating the ideas of the MITI-related scholars, namely that unlimited free trade was the key to Asian development.)  

Family responsibilities were also getting lighter. My two sons were at or close to university graduation and finding jobs.  

2. Family Education Affairs  

Both sons had got into the elitist Keio, mainly thanks to their English language ability (English carries inordinate weight in entrance exams for many universities).  

Older son, Dan, had gone the conventional ‘escalator’ route – entry to Keio’s elite secondary school which guaranteed his entry to Keio, where he joined the economics faculty.  

There he had discovered just how bad Japan’s elite universities can be, but had held on long enough to graduate.  

(For one crucial exam he had been asked to write an essay on Asian economic progress through free trade. I helped him with what I thought was a good original essay, pointing out how protectionism had also helped some economies at times, Japan especially.  

(But his teacher like many others at Keio was a market fundamentalist fanatic.)  

(So Dan was failed. Contradicting your teacher and injecting your own ideas  is one of the greater sins in Japan’s education system.  

(But did that mean that I, an economics professor with much Asian experience, was also failed?)  

---  

Second son, Ron, had also made things difficult for himself.  

Again,  thanks to his English ability he had got into a quality secondary school, this one famous for being able to get most of its graduates into one or other of Tokyo’s top four universities, with one third going to Tokyo University.  

But that precisely was the problem.  

For three years the students did nothing but focus on the textbooks that guaranteed success in the entry exams for those top universities.  

Young Ron was keen on chemistry. But for two years he never once was allowed to use the school chemistry laboratory.  

Just memorise the chemistry textbooks, he had been told. Laboratory experiments were of no use when it came to university entrance exams.  

He had also got into trouble when he took a week off to go and work as a volunteer after the Kobe earthquake.  

So he decided he did not need that kind of education, and just walked away from the school. Technically, he had joined the growing ranks of Japan’s jookoo kyohi (school attendance refusal) students. 

Fortunately Japan has a system whereby you can also take a special nationwide exam (daiken) to qualify for university entry.  

Working from home he disciplined himself to do the required study, and passed. He was then able to take the entrance exams for Keio University.  

But he too was to be badly disappointed by the flawed university education system. So he poured his energies into squash, ending up as one of  Japan’s top players, despite having to compete mainly against fulltime squash professionals.  

A determined lad, with some of his father’s obstinacy perhaps.  

3. Akita International University  

With the children graduated and the lecture circuit out of the way,  I was finally free.  

But then came the unexpected.  

Someone I had not seen for some years – the former president of Tokyo Foreign Languages University (Gaidai) and well-known China scholar, Nakajima Mineo – was asking me to join a committee for establishing a university in Akita.  

It was to be on the campus which Minnesota State had set up some years earlier, in a bid recruit students for its own State universities.  

Their Akita campus had provided a two year preparatory course in advance of going to the US for eventual graduation there. (Quite a few other US states and universities had set up similar operations during the heady seventies and eighties.)  

But with the fading of the kokusaika (internationalization) boom and the collapse of the Bubble economy, almost all had all pulled out.  

Minnesota lasted longer than most, but eventually it too succumbed.  

With help from Akita prefecture, Nakajima hoped he could take over the unused campus buildings to set up a regular four year university where the entire education would be in English, including during a one compulsory year abroad.  

But  unlike the US universities he would get formal recognition from the education bureaucrats.  

Would I join the committee, please?  

--- 

I said yes, tentatively.  

(It would have been hard to say no since I was, after all, claiming to have a strong interest in language education in Japan.)  

Before long, however, the request had become: would I agree to be the vice-president of the university he planned to establish.
 
This time I tried to say no, but ended up saying yes.  

Nakajima Mineo  

My connection with Nakajima was curious.  

He was well-known as a conservative activist, enjoying good ties with the Japanese rightwing, the Sankei and Yomiuri media stables especially.  

That would normally have been a good reason not to want to get too involved with his new university.
 
But he was also a China scholar of some repute, even if in recent years he had joined the rightwing clamor predicting China’s impending economic collapse, and the need to rescue Taiwan from Beijing’s clutches.
 
Many years earlier he had suddenly rung me out of the blue, saying he had just read my chapter on the Sino-Soviet dispute in the Japanese translation of my ‘In Fear of China’ book.  

He congratulated me on my research, saying that no other China-watcher had worked so hard to discover the true origin of the dispute - the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis.  

Could we meet and talk about it?  

(I should add that to this date, and apart from one or two Chinese scholars, no one else has appreciated the work and research I put into that chapter, or the way the mistaken version of the dispute led directly to the tragedy of Vietnam .)  

Years later he had asked me to join the Gaidai shimon kaigi (advisory council).  

There too I had developed some sympathy for his efforts to cope with the factionalism and inertia that afflict most Japanese universities, Gaidai especially.  

----  

But while I appreciated the past attention, now he wanted me to become the vice-president of a university in distant snowy Akita when all I wanted to do was to start to enjoy life.  

I still had to remain Tokyo based, to take care of my rather foolhardy investment in Boso land and houses. I could hardly ask for the normal vice-presidential salary on that basis. 

But once again, and as with Tama, I was promised a fairly easy advisory and titular role, with only some teaching, and a salary appropriate to those relaxed duties.
 
Eventually and after repeated requests I agreed, mainly out of curiosity to see how the experiment would turn out.  

I also managed to invent a rather uninspiring English name for the new university - Akita International University or AIU. (In Japanese it was Kokusai Kyoyo Daigaku –literally International Liberal Arts University)  

AIU  

As an experiment in the power of publicity and novelty to attract quality students when student numbers are declining, AIU has been an outstanding success.  

But as an experiment in turning out fluent English speakers equipped with the education needed to function on the world stage, the university still has some way to go.  

I got almost nowhere trying to persuade our PhD saturated English-language teaching division that language teaching should focus on concentrated listening to content-filled materials, rather than lectures on English grammar and composition.  

On the other hand I never suffered from the fact that politically Nakajima and myself were poles apart. On the contrary, he was later to defend me from rightwing attack. 

However, he did seem to want to become even more conservative in his politics and attitudes (he was part of the move for a revival of Bushido values to save Japan).  

He remained deeply critical of Bejing, even as it was obvious that China had become a key player in world economy and politics.  

But we related to each other as academics should, with respect for each others’ professional qualities. When it came to maneuvering through Tokyo’s education politics and bureaucracy, and establishing links with foreign universities, he was expert.  

That was largely why he had been able to set up his radically different university.  

And that was why my rather artificial relationship with the new university has managed to survive.  

New Directions?  

With the sudden drying up of the lecture/interview circuit (explained in the next chapter) I found myself with a lot of spare time.  

AIU only required me to show up occasionally, mainly to give some courses there and attend management conferences.  

The air travel and overnight hotel stays were unpleasant. So too was the cold, raw atmosphere of a brand-new university in Japan’s far north.  

Personnel squabbles were draining.  

True the quality of some of the students, drawn from all Japan thanks to the publicity Nakajima had gained for his experiment in international education, was a compensation.  

But a visit to China to recruit partner universities had opened my eyes, again, to the dynamism and progress of the new China – so very different from the Cultural Revolution chaos and backwardness I had seen only a few decades earlier.  

Returning to Japan with its negativism, its struggling economy, its apathetic students and its backward politics was sad.  

Time to move in some new directions, I felt.  

If it could not be to China (then still difficult to break into) maybe it could be in another more intellectual direction.  

Fortunately that chance was soon to come, in the direction of Spanish and Latin America. More details later.
 
4. Columnist and Blogger  
 
For years I had had an on and off relationship with Japan’s main English-language newspaper of quality, the Japan Times, writing occasional pieces and providing interview comment.  

But while I was at Tama they had asked me in to join a group of ‘names’ backing their rather desperate attempt to get a license for a new FM radio station.  

I agreed, and later had suggested they let me write regular opinion columns for them.  

First efforts were fairly amateur; my years as correspondent for The Australian still had not taught me the secrets of good column writing – conciseness, personalism, direct views etc..  

Good writing in today’s busy world is a ‘speaking and listening’  process. Most of us, when we see worlds in print, instinctively translate them into sound and ‘listen’ to them as if the writer was speaking to us.  

It is very much an emotional, sub-conscious process, which is why good writers can have such influence.  

That also is why good writers like to avoid the passive; we do not use it much in normal speech.  

(But one editorial rule about simple writing gets it wrong – the rule that says you should not use brackets and dashes too much.  

(Editors do not realize how brackets, dashes, colons etc convey the pauses and intimate after-thoughts that readers like to hear in any realistic conversation.)  

The Japan Times persevered with my scribblings, though with the occasional censorship and cuts at first.  

Eventually I reached regular status, where I could pick virtually any topic I liked and run with it for close to 1000 words.  

I even had a syndication into Singapore for a while, though they preferred shorter articles there.  

Being able to get my words into permanent hard print rather than the ephemeral airspace before a microphone was a satisfying experience.  

Going Website 

But even better was to come.  

Getting published regularly was giving me visions of grandeur - I wanted my own website.  

A computer expert who had done much to wire my Nakadaki community with Internet helped set one up for me.  

There I was able not just to list up my JT articles over time. More importantly I could rescue and display many of my past writings, in particular the articles filled with the past pain and futility of trying to explain China and protest the Vietnam War to an Australian audience, apathetic at best, hostile at worst, and basically ignorant forever.  

Reviving those writings was cathartic.  

The past had suddenly become the present.  

5. Paradise Found  

More was to come.  

The Japanese claim to be a maritime nation. But  deep down I suspect they are afraid of the sea.  

Historically, and apart from the pirates raiding the Chinese coast and elsewhere in Asia, they were a stay-at-home people.  

This in turn could also have helped imposition of the sakoku or island isolation policies of Tokugawa in the past. 

But to come to the present, it could also explain the strange lack of marinas and yacht leisure today.  

Yet  I think I can say with authority that much of  Japan’s coastline is as beautiful as any in Europe, with parts able to rival the Riviera and Adriatic coastlines.  

By accident I was able to discover one of those parts, close to Tokyo, and close to the Riviera ideal. 

----  

The Asian financial crisis of the late nineties – yet another economic disaster bestowed on us by those nice Americans – had seen yet another downturn for the Japanese economy.  

Suffering most were the small ship owners.  

One of them in years past had carefully leveled out a site on an isolated hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, near the fishing port village of Ohara, about 30 minutes from my Nakadaki site and only a little over an hour from Tokyo.  

He had even built himself a private tunnel to give himself access through to the top of the high ridge on which the site stood.  

There he had built himself a simple pre-fabricated holiday house. 

And while the house may have been cheap, the view could only have been made in heaven.  

The Asian crisis had left him and his small fleet of ships stranded financially. He was desperate to sell.  

----  

There is always a catch 22 problem in finding good real estate.  

To find something good you need to live in an area for some time and have the contacts. But to live in that area for some time and have contacts you need real estate.  

Fortunately living and working in the east coast area of Boso peninsula for some years had given me knowledge and contacts I needed.  

And while I liked the Boso hills where I had developed my community, I had the typical foreign desire (not shared greatly by many Japanese, fortunately) to have something by the ocean.  

When one of my contacts told me there was a large piece of land with ocean views and house going cheaply on the coast nearby, attention was grabbed.  

When I was told the land was cheap because it was in a national park (where on paper there are building restrictions), attention was grabbed even more firmly.  

When I actually saw the place I was intoxicated. In my years of traveling the globe I had never seen anything as perfect.  

Facing due south, surrounded by hundred year old sub-tropical trees, protected from severe winds and looking out to ocean horizons with a view of a tiny beach and bay (once a fishing port) surrounded by massive cliffs immediately below, I could not believe my good luck.  

Thanks to that tunnel entrance it had complete privacy. Not a single human or house was in sight.  

And all this so close to Tokyo civilization! 

Heaven on Earth.  

It took me all of ten seconds to decide that this would be my future home. 

There I have been able to base myself now for almost a decade – writing, storing my books and papers, meeting people.  

And I was able, foolishly perhaps, to continue to my very time-consuming and expensive hobby -more land development and house building (an abandoned playing field next door was also available cheaply and now has a tennis court and four rental houses on it).  

Later, and thanks also to the Boso connection, I was to discover yet another hobby, this time on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Latin America.  

But that is another story.  

6. Conclusion – Status Lost
 
Sophia had kept me busy for almost twenty years. Tama and AIU for another ten.  

That is a long time to be involved with what passes for the Japanese higher education system.  

Meanwhile the world outside Japan was changing.  

But so too was Japan, and not necessarily for the best.  

I had already earned some enemies by criticizing the Koizumi structural reform mantra of the early 2000’s, and the childish, petulant, ignorant personalities of the people behind it – not just Koizumi but Takenaka also.   

(Later I was to be proved 100 percent correct, with even the formerly pro-Koizumi people turning very negative.) 

(Japanese traditionally have been able to make these flip-flops easily.  It is a cultural thing, only to be expected in a society with weak ideological sensibility.) 

(But in Japan, as with the West over Vietnam, China etc,   the world does not welcome, or even want to remember, those who opposed the conventional wisdom of the time). 

Now I was to be targeted by Japan’s powerful ultra-rightwing , mainly for my views of policy to North Korea – the abduction issue especially.   

Here I was to be targeted with the venom and sneakiness that only those people are capable of.  

In the nation with which I had become so involved, and had come very much to like in some ways, I was to go from persona very grata to virtually persona non grata,  almost overnight.  

More to follow.

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