How Japanese education works against critical thinking

I was recently asked to write some recommendation letters for a graduate of the university where I work. She is now in the UK and wishes to apply for an MSc. I wrote the following in my letter of recommendation:

Generally speaking, Japanese education, especially at the secondary level and even at the tertiary level, requires the memorization of a large number of facts. Demonstration of understanding of the significance of those facts is not a high priority, nor is the development of critical thinking skills. Even in smaller classes at university (for example “seminars”) which might be assumed to provide an environment conducive to the exchange of opinion and the testing of one’s arguments by means of debate, such debates or other oral activities which might be considered normal, indeed vital, in higher education, are unfortunately rarely to be found. The dynamics of Japanese groups and the protocols of Japanese communication tend to strongly prohibit such activities, with the result that skills of self-expression (stating an opinion and defending one’s thinking) and of critical thinking are sadly weak in the majority of graduates from institutions of tertiary education in this country.
This has both negative and positive implications: the negative ones are obvious; as for the positive, the fact that it is Japanese group dynamics and communication protocols that tend to so strongly inhibit the development of these skills means that it is highly possible for a Japanese, taken out of a Japanese environment, to learn and develop these skills. I quote from a recent academic article which discusses Asian students studying in Western universities (in this case, in the United States): “Speaking of Chinese students, Harris (1997:43) maintains that ‘many are serialist learners by acculturation not personal inclination’; given the opportunity, they will respond positively to alternative approaches with which by nature they are more in sympathy. Harris goes on to conclude: ‘if this is correct, it follows that it is feasible to bring such students to a point of greater learning versatility by the use of educational techniques designed to do just that.’ He makes the further point that [Asian] students may …become more flexible as their confidence increases.” (Harris, R. “Overseas students in the UK system”, in D. McNamara and R. Harris (eds). McNamara, D and Harris, R.(eds.). 1997. Overseas Students in Higher Education. London: Routledge. )
(Plagiarism and the culture of multilingual students in higher education abroad, Sowden, Colin, ELT Jounral Vol. 59/3, July 2005, p.228).

So, the theory is that Japanese students also might flourish and develop critical thinking and other skills necessary, once they are taken out of the environment that stifles the activities necessary for critical thinking to develop. To test my theory, I wrote to another former student who is now here studying this, asking him how he thought his education in Japan had (un)prepared him for studying in the US, especially for a Master’s program. This is his reply:

Well, my list will be endless if I think of what I unprepared/underprepared for a MA.
note taking
critical thinking
relationship with professors (how much can i be friendly to them? How much can i get help from them?)

I would say that what I UNDERprepared is all academic English skills, especially in writing. Japanese people well know that they definitely need more work in oral skill, but they often tend to think “my writing will be okay even though it’s not good right now.” In a graduate program, in my experience, professors’s expectations to students’ writing skills is very high, higher than in undergrads….Taking writing classes for 6 months before getting to grad school was not enough for me. I needed more writing experience at the undergrad level. I think I didn’t learn how to write in detail (paraphrazing, summarizing, making topic sentences, etc).

And unprepared things were, as you see, analytical/critical thinking. I never learned the importance of finding a deep meaning/description in texts. Good writing is based on good analytical reading. I could read. I could look up a dictionary; but I had real hard time ‘reading meanings’ between the lines (what theory? Based on what assumption?). Japanese students tend to just read, not getting used to interpreting the texts or interpreting the interpreation that an author made (Among my reading requirement are Derrida/Geertz/Foucault… yes, reading is also crucial for writing well).

But the biggest obstacle for me to survive in a MA program is Discussion. I knew how hard the reading and writing would be before getting into the MA, but I didn’t imagine that in-clas discussion was that hard… teachers may ask student to be a discussion leader. Was I ready to lead an in-class discussion? Heck no. you know being able to talk and being able to discuss are different matter. i can speak English/talk with classmates, but I couldn’t discuss a topic with classmates (and in front of a professor). So discussion was what i unprepared most, I guess, because I didn’t know how to prepare.

Basically, I was unprepared/underprepared in all stuffs. So were other Japanese students and will be, I think. You know that is because of my long experience of “jyugyo wo ukeru”(= receiving a class, being presented a class by a teacher) in the japanese education system. I think i didn’t have much experience of “jyugyo wo toru” (+ take a class from school/teachers). Discussion and critical thinking were, have still been, very foreign to me.

Umm… Japanese’ abilities and suitableness for taking an MA program… Umm… Generally Japanese students who go overseas for a graduate school are very motivated and industrious. In Japan, going to grad school is not as common as in the US ( or in other countries?). Going to graduate school is very rare action for Japanese. “Positively abnormal”, I would say! Strong motivation must be in japanese grad candidates’ heart, and they will make the best effort to be successful in a program.
another possible advantageous thing that Japanese have is the ability to co-operate with people. I believe Japanese students are good at group studies or projects since they have a good sense of harmony ( and the attitude that they won’t say ‘no’!)….Adding to your comment, all Japanese have 12 years’ experience of passive learning (though 1st&2nd grades of elementary school could be exceptional). Teachers talk, students listen and take notes, period. It is very hard for us to adjust to active learning suddenly at a college or oversea. The passive learning has alerady been normalized in them. Analyzing what teachers/textbooks present and rising a hand are foreign custom in Japan, at least in Japanese education, i think. Presenting your own opinion in class and share it with classmates is seen as just show-off. Non-active attitude in class is defintely culturally constructed and normalized.

When new [Japanese] students come to PSU and ask me for some tip to survive American school, I always say “Get used to making mistakes.” this is my rule of thumb to learn a foreign language. I may have got used to making mistakes too much recently(LOL). recently I focus more on better conversation flow (how smoothly can i converse with native speakers) rather than grammatical accuracy in my speaking. I don’t if this is good or not. but I believe that “getting used to making mistakes” was one of the biggest breakthrough that i had experienced. Now I speak English ok even in class because I accept the fact that i make mistakes. Classmates know that i am not American. I don’t think like ‘i take a risk’ any more because having/presenting my own opinion is not a show-off here in the US.

Japanese college students will be fine with active learning environment once they get to feel okay about making a mistake!!

5 thoughts on “How Japanese education works against critical thinking”

  1. Sorry I posted the comment above but wrote the wrong link for my name and blog name. Please click on JH to see my blog.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting post. I agree with the guy above me that Japanese are really no more devoid of critical thinking skills than other cultures. Let’s take Americans. There are quite a few Americans that will express an opinion without being able to support it. There are also quite a few Americans who struggle to write a good essay. So, I really do not think that there is a lack of critical thinking skills in Japan. Also, in my blogging project right now, my students are currently talking to other English teachers about several topics and supporting their opinions. (Please see )
    I do find that many Japanese learners struggle with American-style discussion, but I do not think it is because they lack critical thinking skills. I find that my students will speak in class if they know in-advance when their turn will be. My students rarely will express their opinions freely and out-of-turn. I believe that this has more to do with sociolinguistic rules than it does with critical thinking.
    Does Japanese education work against critical thinking? Well, I think it depends more on the teacher. Given that many of my students do exhibit critical thinking skills, I don’t know if I can agree with such a generalization.
    Changing the subject, Marco, thanks for taking the time in posting such a thought-provoking blog and I look forward to future exchanges.

  3. I’m a Japanese who is in a grad program in the US. I have to admit that I don’t like group discussion (although I like one-to-one discussion very much). Yet, I don’t think Japanese have less of critical thinking than Americans or any other nationals on average. I often find my peer students’ arguments lack much foundation and can be easily attacked (which I do though not comfortable). I agree they are good at saying anything that comes to their mind, which I admit is a great asset in learning environments, nonetheless.

  4. I was thinking the same thing. I feel sure it has strong possibilities. Care will be required when proposing or introducing the idea to students. Blogging should be something liberating, not another brick in the wall (or hoop to jump through).

  5. I wonder if the prolonged interaction in English with non-Japanese through the use of internet based P2P applications, like weblogs and social networking tools, can provide Japansese students with an experience akin to being “taken out of the environment that stifles the activities necessary for critical thinking to develop”?

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