Category Archives: Japan: working

In the meantime, some puzzling assertions

…were made by some of my students the other day during a lesson. I haven’t really posted that much about my job, since I guess there’s rather a lot of “students say the funniest things!” going around the internets regarding Japanese students: I would love to be able to read Japanese well enough to know if there’s a similar “eigo no sensei say the funniest things!” meme surfacing on the Jpnz student blogs (I suspect so).

Still, I intend to post someday about what I do, which is teach business English to salarymen, and how it is actually a pretty surprising and rewarding job at times. Not least because my students are often times not quite what one might expect from the outside, given the stereotypical view of salarymen working for a traditional large Japanese IT company. Usually, I’m pretty surprised in a positive way by just how motivated they are to learn English, and not just in an economic, business sense either. I’ve also been challenged quite regularly on the way I see things from a western perspective: a discussion with two students on capitalism, trade unions and the Japanese models of business hierarchies (what I would call paternalism) was quite enlightening.

Anyway, despite all this, I’m still confronted sometimes with the surreal cultural gaps between my culture and some of my students’. I recently started teaching an executive class, which basically means that the students in this case are the heads of departments within the company, and as such are a bit older than my other students – from mid-forties up to late fifties. From the first lesson, they seemed a bit more outspoken and relaxed, and as such, the lessons are quite back-and-forth. We were talking about some differences between the UK and Japan, and the diet thing came up. “Japan and the UK are both islands,” said one of my students, “but the Japanese eat way more fish.” He asked me why I thought this was so. I don’t really know the answer, but I suggested it had something to do with various historical and geographical factors – the fact that there are different types of fish in the sea around Japan, the fact that Japan’s landscape terrain includes lots of not-very-hospitable-to-grazing-cattle mountains, and plenty of easy access to sea-fishing, the settling patterns of the population in more coastal regions, the lack of indiginous cattle and so on. At this point I asked the other students what they thought the reasons were.

“Well, it’s a lot more simple than that…” said one guy. “Japanese people have longer intestines. In fact, their intestines are twice as long as the intestines of foreigners.” It appeared this was a bit of a consensus in the class. I told them that I didn’t think that was true. I think the guy who said it was a little surprised that I didn’t believe him. “How do you know this is true?” I asked. “Who says so?” One of the other students was laughing. “Japanese medical knowledge says it is true.” Hmm. Well, we had a brief discussion about this (another student then introduced a theory which was basically, from what I could tell, an evolutionary theory that all people are descended from either “hunting tribes” or “farming tribes” and that ALL Japanese people are descended from “farming tribes”) but it was getting a bit off topic so we continued with the lesson.

I was pretty curious about the origin of this belief in different intestines; I’d heard about it as a rumour, as being something said to foreigners, but never actually had it outlined to me clearly by a Japanese person before. Of course, the questions that always get asked about whether foreigners can use chopsticks or eat raw squid or whatever: well, maybe the motivation behind these questions is a belief that foreigners are innately (physiologically) different or maybe the questions are just about different cultures and expectations. But as to the possibility that genetically, we have different intestines: just, well, hmmm that sounds implausible to me. I mean, is that even possible? That genetics could influence intestinal length to such an extent? Or is this just an example of nihonjinron – which is quite the cultural phenomenon itself? I tried googling about it, but all I got were other westerners as puzzled as I am as to where this belief comes from…

In which some things get cleared up

This week has been a week of pronunciation mix-ups slightly reminiscent of a 1970s British sitcom. In one of my classes I was teaching language to use for the internet. Two students had a conversation practise, which went something like:
“What do you use the internet for?” (the practise question.)
1st student, excitable salaryman in his 40s: “I use it to do my wanking!”
2ns student, trainee buddhist monk and keen yoga enthusiast, good at English: “Wanking?”
1st: “Yes, wanking, anytime is convenient, day or night.”
2nd: “Banking?”
1st: “Yes, online banking.”

Also, I found out that I had been mispronouncing the word ‘curry.’ In Japanese, this word is written in katakana, the alphabet used for foreign imported words; they use the English word ‘curry’, although it is written as “ka-re” and pronounced something like kah-ray. However, lots of things are written like that, eg オレンジジュース ‘oh-ren-ji-jyuu-so’ and, although they say the word as it is written in Japanese they will understand the English pronunciation also. Not so with curry, which would always be met with blank stares until I said ‘kah-ray’. Well, I found out that there is a reason why they don’t write it transliteratively – the Japanese slang for clitoris is ‘kuh-ri’. Turns out I’ve been asking the man in the shop for the wrong sort of ramen for nearly two years.