Thursday, February 09, 2006


Though Jon often said so when we worked together in Omuta, I had never witnessed first hand the lack of basic geography flaunted by Japanese students. Well all that changed this afternoon, thanks to an exercise in blind ignorance courtesy of two 10th grade students.

Flicking through the same text book that brought Jon so much misery in Omuta, I came across the European cities lesson and decided to give it a go.

Now I should point out that this lesson isn't a gimme by any means. What with the things that happened in the eastern bloc in the 90s, even I had to pause to think which country Belgrade was in. But there is no excuse for what happened next.

I asked the first student, A, which country London was in.

"United Kingdom".

Close, but that refers to a number of countries.

"Uhh.. England?" she ventured.

Correct! I had high hopes for A - she is one of the better English students in the class. I didn't know it then but this guess was as good as it would get.

Turning to the second student, Y, I asked him to tell me another country in the United Kingdom. Now I wasn't expecting much, seeing as this is a guy who wears a hair clip, covers his written work with girlish hearts and prefers prancing and gossip to studying. But his straight-faced suggestions of Malaysia and Brazil were, in the words of Mr T, "absoludicrous".

Moving on from the UK, Madrid was next. Real Madrid, I hinted. "Ahhh!" enthused Y. "England!" (failing to note that England had already been mentioned). Even Paris, which I foolishly assumed to be a shoe-in, proved difficult. We went through Italy, Europe and Russia before my mentioning of The Eiffel Tower and "it begins with F-R-A-N" gave it away.

Other efforts by A and Y? Berlin is in Stockholm apparently and Vienna is in Australia (but for the al they would have
been right).

The lesson ended and A and Y went back to studying and prancing respectively.

The only lesson learnt was theirs to me - that most Japanese kids don't have a clue about cities and countries other than their own. This view was bolstered after the lesson when I tried it on some other students. The result? The Japanese kids were next to useless. The Koreans were marginally better. The Taiwanese were the best by far, though only scored around 50 percent.

And the teachers? The department head was very good, and was able to narrow down his choices when unsure. He proved to be the exception, as the three other teachers I spoke to knew England, France, Germany and Italy but that was it.

The reason for this lack of knowledge? History. Japan was cut off from the rest of the world for centuries and they are still years behind the west when it comes to basic geography. Then there's the fact that Japan was considered to be a group of many countries in feudal times and before, and this mentality remains, albeit faintly.

So how to fix things? Having an unbiased geography syllabus in schools that doesn't consist solely of a sports teacher shouting words from a bygone textbook at 40 kids might improve things a little.


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