Today is my last day of teaching junior high school in Itakura. I still have 3 more weeks of teaching after this (at the 4 elementary schools and 3 kindergartens in town), but the junior high was where I first started teaching and where I had enough time to get to know the kids and my co-workers -- with only one week every two months at each elementary school I always feel like a visitor. So my time at 板中 (Itakura Junior High), a home-base of sorts, will be over come 4PM today.
I'll always remember the baseball kids saying, "HELLO, JOHN! HOW ARE YOU, JOHN?!"; "JOHN! I LOVE YOU JOHN!" throughout the day and asking random questions, "JOHN! HAMASAKI AYUMI?!!" I'll remember the day after the election when the kids wrote オバマ ("Obama" in Katakana), knowing that I was a fan. I'll remember Kobayashi-sensei's confusingly repetitive broken-English explanations of the lesson plans that usually ended asking, "Is okay?" 5-7 times. I'll remember Taguchi-sensei screaming, "うるせえ！" (slang for "You're loud!") to the kids in every other class. I'll even remember Tsubaki-sensei, even though he rarely brought me to his classes. And of course, how could I forget the Japanese versions of Disney songs blasting from the outdoor speakers at 3:30PM cleaning time or the mysterious alarm that goes off every day at 11:30AM that nobody seems to notice but me.
On the teaching front, I think the kids have definitely improved their English but they have a long way to go. And frankly, it's not something that's ever going to be fixed until the Japanese decide they want to create a real English curriculum, and not just the gesture towards it that they have now. I had Japanese 6 times a week in college, and Spanish 5 days a week from elementary school through high school. In the junior high, some kids are having English once a week, and in the elementary schools only once a month! It's stuff like that, coupled with general Japanese shyness about using their limited knowledge of a foreign language, that makes it difficult to ask directions in English on the street in Tokyo without seeing a blank look or an uncomfortable smile.
I say all of this with the sincere caveat that if these kids don't want to learn English, so be it. But with English as the lingua franca, the educational system needs to realize that their opportunities to get a high-paying job, or to understand other cultures, are going to be hindered if they don't get more fluent in English. I'm the first to tell you that English isn't the only language in the world -- hell, I came here to get better at Japanese -- but learning any foreign language, especially English, opens your world up to many other cultures. It's been suggested that just the process of learning any foreign language in earnest opens up new neural pathways and boosts your general creative and rational thought. So these kids would benefit from learning English (or another foreign language, though you can make the case that modern English is so diametrically opposed to the structure of Japanese that it is especially beneficial) even if they never left Japan. I hope the Japanese government loses what I suspect is some residual isolationist tendencies, and offer intensive English training in the schools.
Teaching here was often frustrating because the lessons were so mind-numbingly facile, but as I look at the clock to see how much time I have before class, I can't help but think I'll miss it.