Book set in Japan: Learning to Bow

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Oshieru wa manabu no nakaba nari.

Half of teaching is learning.

If you’re thinking of travel meaningfully by teaching in Japan, you may want to try this memoir.

On the other hand, I was happy to read this book in retrospect, after completing a year teaching with the JET Program (a Japanese government initiative that pairs native English speakers with public schools), so I could compare and contrast our shared experiences.

In Learning to Bow (1991), the author becomes a JET and spends one year (1989-1990) teaching at a junior high school in Tochigi Prefecture. During his time, he tries to understand Japanese society primarily through its education system and his interactions with his Japanese colleagues and their friends and families.

At the start, Feiler sometimes writes in a rather hyperbolic and high-handed manner:

“I came to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Education, to teach English language and American culture in Japanese schools as part of a program to bring native English speakers into the heart of Japan.”

Many of his initial interactions with Japanese people emphasize his difference to them: his white skin, his brown hair, his physical height, and his perceived inability to use chopsticks and speak Japanese.

Feiler often gets exasperated when he hears statements like this:

“Only a Japanese person can understand the heart of another. You can’t figure us out because you are a foreigner.”

Similarly, although I am not Caucasian like Feiler, many students would often remark and gesture about my “small face.” Also, because I come from a tiny, largely unknown country of Trinidad and Tobago, they couldn’t figure out my nationality and often thought I was Indian, Filipino, or Brazilian.

I also experienced repetitious questions about whether I liked Japanese food, whether I could use chopsticks and speak Japanese, and why I chose to come to Japan over any other country in the world, particularly “America.”

Despite his sometimes arrogant writing style, Feiler makes some astute observations about the Japanese education system which I can corroborate. Like him, I also saw how the system prepared students for life only in Japan by emphasizing community spirit and Japanese pride and patriotism over internationalization.

 “While Japanese schools prepare their students to be citizens of Japan, they fail to teach them to be citizens of the world.”

I can also confirm his observation that the hidden curriculum promotes Japanese values like the general intolerance of diversity (especially of burakumin and returning Japanese expats), gaman (endurance), the sempai code (respect for your superiors), and amae (dependence on others). These concepts largely underscore the sacrifice of individualism in favor of conformity and groupthink. In fact, Feiler’s comparison of the Japanese education system to the art of controlling nature through bonsai is spot on:

If you would form a tree, do so while it is young.

Like Feiler, I also identified with the challenges of team teaching and using a Western approach to pedagogy in the Japanese classroom. On another note, I don’t think his kissing a female student’s hand to illustrate different ways to say hello would fly in the 21st century school in Japan!

One sore point I have with Feiler’s memoir is that it sometimes reads like a boring textbook, littered with overly-generalized statistics and Japanese history/culture tidbits. Also, in many cases, the quotes at the start of each chapter appear to bear little resemblance to the content and seem to exist only to demonstrate that the author is “well read.”

All in all, this memoir, which is written from the perspective of an American Caucasian male, is an okay introduction to the experience of teaching in Japan but if you’re thinking of making this your next step, please read widely to get a more balanced picture. Thank God for blogs, eh? 🙂

Did you ever read Learning to Bow? What did you think?

17 thoughts on “Book set in Japan: Learning to Bow

  1. I’ve never heard of this book or author, but he sounds interesting. Japan is still high on my list of places to visit. Teaching in Japan must have been quite an experience too!

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  2. It’s so amazing reading about your personal experiences in relation to the book. I was waiting for your post since you mentioned about it, and this has been such a wonderful read. One of my best friends at one time spent time in Japan as a teacher and I have many anecdotes from him too. I also think you have dissected the book so much better.

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  3. I haven’t read the book but would be very interested to do so after reading this post. I’ve actually contemplated applying to the JET Programme but I’m not sure I’m cut out for teaching, especially ESL 🙂 How would you describe the experience?

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    1. It’s really something rewarding if you go with the right frame of mind. To be a good ESL teacher in Japan, you have to be well organized, flexible, humble, and ready to learn too. You also have to consider the differences in pedagogy in Japan versus Western educational methods/philosophies. Japanese students are also very different to Western students. Above all, you have to be very energetic (genki) or else the students and your team teachers will sense that you don’t really want to be there/teach ESL in the first place. Hope that helps but if you have any more questions, feel free to email me.

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  4. Sadly I’ve never read Learning to Bow but I think it will be a necessary introduction for expats in Japan. I’ve always been fascinated about Japan for its rich culture,and I think it’s high time they started identifying with world. Their culture might be shaken but it doesn’t mean it will vanish. Prologue, if I visit Japan, I’ll go to the library and look out for Learning to Bow.

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  5. Japan does have a very interesting and unique culture and I agree, if you’re planning to live there for a while or work there, it makes sense to read up as much as possible to understand it before you get there. Learning to bow sounds like a book with insightful observations from a foreigner’s perspective and I completely understand the one sentence that captures it beautifully “While Japanese schools prepare their students to be citizens of Japan, they fail to teach them to be citizens of the world.”

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  6. It sounds like an interesting book with great insight into the Japanese education system. I like the author’s quotes and comparisons especially when he compares their education system to the art of controlling nature through Bonsai. Nice to read about your experience in Japan in relation to the book. It must be an interesting job to teach in a country like Japan.

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  7. Sounds like an interesting read, especially for anyone planning to move to Japan. I’ve heard it is one of the most difficult countries to integrate into their lifestyle. It is always nice to read about someone who went through similar experiences to feel you’re not alone. I’ll have to look at reading it!

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  8. I am familar with Japanese culture because I have many japanese friends here in Switzerland and we have been spending 6 weeks in Japan. Teaching english in Japan is very popular and I wish we could do the same but english is not our strong asset! We have heard a lot of times that for the japanese studying abroad is not consider to be a good thing. To the point that once they get back home to Japan, some company don’t want to hire you of fear that you work ethic has been too westernized! That is just sad because I think it could do more good than harm.

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  9. I have heard about the culutural difference , however did not know in detail . This is a very informative post . It is strange that in india eductaion abroad is often consiered good eventhough the eductaional system in india itself is very well established. Considering both are asian nations its such a huge difference in the school of though!

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