When I fall into despair over my poor Japanese skills, I’m buoyed by the realization that I speak English fluently, no small feet for many in the world, and a major feat for the Japanese, some would say. Several months ago, Hirata-san joined me and some coworkers for lunch. He told me, in a stilted and nervous voice, that he was happy to be practicing English conversation. I took him for a beginner and was impressed by his bravery. Sawada-san quickly educated me. You see, Hirata-san had been a top English student in high school, even earning an impressive award at the national level. What a shame. All that academic achievement with almost no ability to use English in the real world. I’ve heard many examples of “book smart” students like Sawada-san, most likely the product of an educational system that places too much emphasis on passing tests rather than promoting behaviors that allow fluency to blossom.
I occasionally catch glimpses of this system when I watch students studying on trains or in cafes. I see them slide translucent red bookmarks down the pages of their English vocabulary books, revealing the red-inked definitions below. Once, on a crowded return-trip from Mount Ōyama 大山, I stood behind a high school girl who was holding a book close to her face. I could read the English vocabulary words and was baffled by an item on the list: ‘abide’. Now, ‘abide’ isn’t the most obscure word, but it rarely, if ever comes up in (American) English conversation. Other than quoting “The Big Lebowski.”, I’ve never spoken this word, and rarely see it in print. Why should a student waste her time learning a word like ‘abide’? Shouldn’t she be listening and speaking the language instead?
There is a perception that the Japanese student of English is too concerned with learning English PERFECTLY, which inhibits their enjoyment of the language and prevents them from using it more often. This is encapsulated in a scene from the remarkable series The Tatami Galaxy 四畳半神話大系 (2010):
“This is difficult…Conversing in English like this is a tough road to travel.”
“Here we go again…As I put the grammar together in my head, improving and polishing the thought, the conversation has already proceeded to the next stage.”
“Damn, I’m taking this way too seriously. [“I stalk stray cats”] However, if the other choice is spouting some grammatically incorrect English, I will take pride in being a man of few words.”
Ignore the rules of grammar, I say! Americans, at least, ignore proper English all the time. Japanese students should throw away their textbooks, throw back a few beers, and follow the popular fact/myth that foreign languages are easier when you’re drunk. They should head out into the real world and use those skills. Challenge themselves! Who knows what they might find? Perhaps something like this?
Using English in the real world: an excerpt from Dark Horizon:
This is an excerpt from Dark Horizon おとなになったら使うかも知れない基礎英語 (TWJ BOOKS), a Japanese/English language book described by its author as “a vulgar yet playful book of insults.” The book’s writer and illustrator is Brian Reyes ブライアン・レイス, a former English teacher and 16-year resident of Japan. As a teacher, Brian was exposed to New Horizon, a textbook that Brian says has been used by a majority of public schools in Japan since 1965. In New Horizon ニューホライズン, students follow the exploits of a few characters over the course of 3 years. Brian expanded this universe, imagining what the characters would be like 10 years later if they fell on hard times. Brian described to me:“In my version of the book, the character Mike is homeless, Emi is a prostitute and good ol’ Ann Green sensei is a suicidal hostess. They have rude conversations and Japanese can learn some very rude English insults. I included Romaji in the book, so it works well for English speakers to learn naughty Japanese phrases too!”
The book teaches such words and phrases as: – Addiction 中毒 – Sexual harassment セクハラ sekuhara – Excuse me, but does this smell like chloroform to you? 「すみません、これクロロホルムの匂いする?」 .
New Horizons characters: before the fall…
Dark Horizon characters…
Like any good language book, Dark Horizon includes an audio CD, and currently is available at Amazon.co.jp, DMM, Sanseido, Kinokuniya, and other major bookstore chains throughout Japan. I recently interviewed Brian by email. The (essentially) unedited Q&A is as follows:
1. I assume you’ve used New Horizons? Is it a good textbook?
Brian Reyes: Yes, when I was teaching English at junior high, New Horizons was the standard textbook at the time, and still is in many schools. New Horizons has been published since 1965 I believe, though it has gone through several iterations over the years, the most recent one being this year. As an English textbook it’s not so great, if it was, perhaps there would be a greater number of Japanese who spoke English! I hesitate to fault the book too much in this department, because it suits the methodology used in most Japanese classrooms.
2. How closely does Dark Horizons follow the teaching method of New Horizons?
BR: The characters from New Horizon are in this book. Athough they share similar names, they are very different from the New Horizon characters. (The character Mike Davis who was a 1st year student in New Horizon is now in his 20’s and homeless.) Japanese students in high school to adults in their early 30’s would remember some of the characters from their junior high school days. Each chapter has a conversational dialogue between the characters much like the original textbook, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. It’s more of an insult phrase book for different situations. It teaches you when to use the phrase, and which phrases might get you in trouble. There are also some tips/descriptions for some of the more difficult phrases.
3. Do the publishers of New Horizon know about DH? What were their thoughts?
BR: No, It doesn’t really have anything to do with them anymore. It’s a work that was inspired by the textbooks I used as a teacher. The characters have changed and it’s not a textbook.
4. Have you noticed any change/improvement in Japanese English ability over the past 16 years?
BR: I have seen improvements especially in places like Tokyo that are international hotspots, but outside of the big cities not much has changed. I work in an office where my floor has around 400 employees and maybe there are about 15 English speaking employees (including the foreigners). Still a long way to go!
5. Other than teaching English and writing/illustrating “Dark Horizon”, what kind of work have you had in Japan?
BR: I taught English for a number of years, then freelanced for a while doing graphics and illustration. Currently, I am in Tokyo working in online marketing for a Japanese company.
6. Can you tell us a little more about yourself? (Where in Japan have you lived, hometown in the US, hobbies, etc).
BR: I’ve lived most of my time in Nagoya 名古屋, but I also have spent time in Kyoto 京都, Nagano 長野, Okazaki 岡崎 and then of course Tokyo. I was born and raised in NYC, lived in Florida for high school, and then everything after that was Japan. It was my first trip outside of the US and I pretty much didn’t leave after that. I am comfortable and find Japan suits my lifestyle much better than in the US, though I am open to travel anywhere!
The author of Dark Horizon, hard at work
7. What kind of feedback have you gotten from students on “Dark Horizon”? Is the book intended to instruct, or is it more of a humor book?
BR: I don’t know to tell you the truth. Now that I am in Tokyo and busy with work and trying to promote my book, I haven’t talked to any students directly about my book yet. It has some pretty crass and rude phrases in there, so I am sure it will incite a riot or at least the anger of a teacher or two. We did have a lot of fun recording the audio CD that accompanies the book, I’m quite proud of that. You can definitely learn a thing or two from the book, as not every phrase is an insult and the audio CD is very well done. There is a pretty well known insult book called “Making out in Japanese” which has been around for as long as I can remember. This is like that…on steroids and asking to get punched in the face.
8. Any thoughts on writing more books like this?
BR: Sure, I have lots of ideas for subsequent books and my publisher would be delighted to publish more, if this one sells well. I was even so bold as to write “Season 1” on the cover. Fingers crossed for “Season 2!”
The Tokyo Files: Thank you, Brian. Good luck with the book!
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More excerpts from Dark Horizon:
“Words from story used in phrases”
“Things an Otaku would say about or to an idol…”
An appealing cast of characters: