by Kosuke Takemori
“Let’s add to the place you belong to, and add to each other.” This is the phrase I put at the front of my classroom. I currently teach at a high school and I’m in charge of a class called the “Liberal Arts and Communication Course.” I’m going to have this class for the whole three years, so my students will see this phrase until they graduate.
I spent some time in diverse cities in Canada and the U.S. when I was in college. What I liked there was the willingness to find common ground. We are all different, so what is important is to look for where we can understand each other. What matters is not our differences but how we can stand together. Even if this desire is not necessarily shared by every single person, I saw this kind of attitude in so many ways there. That impressed me
because I realized that I didn’t often hear this way of thinking in Japan. We, Japanese people, tend to regard ourselves in the same way or expect others to behave in similar ways, and we end up focusing on differences. When you stand out, it is often thought of as a negative thing simply because you are different. When I became a teacher, I decided I would try to think the other way around.
That might have had something to do with my own problem. I always thought of myself as a “bumpy” person with many flaws as well as strengths. Of course, I would try to overcome my weaknesses, but I also thought it would be a little too tough if I’m only evaluated based on what I’m poor at. Even if I’m inadequate in a certain way, if I can contribute to others with my strong points, that would be fine. That’s what I always thought and I believed this should be the case for everyone. If we can add to each other by using our strengths, we don’t necessarily have to focus on someone’s weakness as a problem. This might sound a little too naïve but I always felt what should be more emphasized in Japan is to focus on what you can do well and how you can do it even better.
This could be paraphrased as “what is important is your personality”, which sounds like a cliché in education. However, this was what I truly felt when I lived in the U.S. again after I turned thirty. We often hear phrases such as “just the way you are” or “be yourself” in English. These also sound worn out, but they struck me after I went to a high school in Seattle and started to live there as a foreigner. I felt like I truly realized the meaning of these phrases for the first time. When I was in Canada or the U.S. as a college student studying English, I always wished I could be like a native speaker. My goal was to get as close to the native level as possible. That however, was simply unrealistic. And, unnecessary in the first place. In the end, I am a foreigner who was born and grew up in Japan and learned English later. So, what I should do is speak English as a foreigner. That is because I’m a non-native and because that is me.
The reason why I came to think this way might be that I’m over thirty years old now and have lost the intense passion that I had when I was younger. However, I have felt so much better after I realized this natural thing: I’m a foreigner, so I speak English as a foreigner and that’s okay. I don’t have to be like a native speaker. I should be myself with my background as a Japanese person, and just speak my own English. That is important, and through this, I would try to find common ground with others. That is what I should have done, instead of trying to be the same as a native speaker. I can be different.
The students in my current class also have their own backgrounds. It’s not just about their nationalities or cultural heritages. Even if they are raised by so called Japanese parents, their personal backgrounds are extremely diverse and they are all completely different individuals. Then, how can we add to each other? Thinking about this on a daily basis is what they can learn at school. I believe this more because I myself have a lot of weaknesses. And it might sound stereotypical, but we are good at behaving according to the group or place we belong to. Wakata Koichi, a Japanese astronaut, emphasized the Japanese spirit of wa (harmony) when he became the first Asian commander of the International Space Station. That is the strength of Japanese people. If we can contribute to others by embracing differences and finding common ground at the same time, not just fitting in and focusing on differences in a negative way, that would be one good way we can show the world our Japanese identity. This is what I wish for my students and what we do together in the class is a small but important first step.