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August 2002 - Issue No. #47 p.17-18

Teaching about Discrimination to a Class of Japanese

by Arudou Debito

Hokkaido Information University, Japan


Success in teaching social issues depends greatly on classroom receptiveness. Recep-tiveness depends a lot on the experiences and walks of life of the audience; in my experience, the least sophisticated thought comes from pre-adults, sophistication peaking at adult family-raising age, then receding late in life with the self-justified social categorizing tendencies of the elderly. Thus, my optimal time to start exposure to issues of discrimination is in the latter half of college, when people are less afraid to make mistakes, more ready to challenge the status quo in their unparented collegiate outburst period, and more ready to cross-pollinate their thoughts with friends late at night--before the job market kicks in and life's pathways and social circles appear to get set. This article offers tips to college professors on how to heat the intellectual iron for striking.

Basis for my Generalizations

Hard knocks: speeches to the Government of Japan (3), press confer-ences (3), neighborhood convocations (over 10), international forums and panel discussions (over a dozen), and college students (up to twice a week for 8 years, plus intensive weekend classes). Audiences of all ages and up to 400 people. For details::

My Teaching Preferences

Teaching about discrimination under the aegis of a Debate English class in 90-minute weekly classes or 8-hour intensive courses of 50-100 college students.

English Language Level: Assume low intermediate at best, making this technically not a language class.

Materials:Current events or stories on discrimination culled from the vernacular press, overseas issues with sufficient teacher intro, debates pulled out of thin air by the students (rare), or from my debate textbook (Speak Your Mind ISBN: 4-925103-29-7).

Tips for Interactive Debate

  1. 1) Introduce the topic. Make the subject matter matter to daily lives, or make it interesting, if an overseas issue.
  2. Read materials, silently at first (chances are students haven't done their HW), then together (omit silent reading, if time is short); allow more time if the material is in English.
  3. Ask poignant/pointed questions (ex. "Do you think gaijin is a discriminatory word?") Do an in-class poll Pro or Con.
  4. If you can winnow ideas down to one basic question, put it on the blackboard (be prepared to change question mid-class, if points get exhausted).
  5. For more social effervescence, aim for a reasonable balance of PRO/CON before starting the debate in earnest.
  6. Allow students to volunteer points by stating their opinion clearly in the Intro-Reasons-Conclusion pattern.
  7. Write points in brief on the board (check with students that the words you choose are acceptable) in "Pro/Con/ Don't Know" columns
  8. Allow students to murmur among them-selves between points--this is why big classes can be advantageous. Allow the air to become open, electric, and fun.
  9. Use humor to defuse the rare heckler or conscious racist.
  10. Don't be afraid of playing Devil's Advocate when the excitement dies down or nobody offers a counter-argument. Keep reductio ad absurdum ready after explaining that you're dealing with the slippery slope of a point, not the person personally. Never belittle or make your students look or feel stupid; their own points will do that for you.
  11. Keep your opinions out of the fray for as long as you can--let students cross-pollinate and make their own discoveries without believing they're swallowing the teacher's line. But keep your aces for when social-boxers seem to be getting the upper hand. Often a teacher's duty is to bring the students through more than a century's evolution of thought in ninety minutes. Drop the clanger when the time is right.
  12. When bringing the class to a conclusion, retrace students' ideas in brief and show the class counter-arguments made; a recap allows the day's dynamism to sink in for after-class student rumination.

Tips for Lecture Format

Outside of a debate class (or when there isn't time for assisted discovery), the above advice has limited applicability. Lecture modes are obvious: 1) make it matter, 2) make it interesting, 3) mix the facts in with anecdotes of a personal, particularly humorous, nature, 4) give yourself a break: open up the floor to Q&A after 45 minutes of stimulating thought, or allow 15 minutes at the end if necessary. If there's a host, make sure s/he knows about Q&A period so a confederate (sakura) can be planted in the audience in case Qs don't come.


Legitimacy: It's not very PC to say, but much of the audience will give leeway or bonus points to a speaker who is visibly foreign-looking. Meaning Japanese people may actually have more difficulty getting taken as seriously or getting the impact across if the issue involves foreigners. Often I felt I made more waves at events by being a White Speaker of Japanese than my Japanese panel peers did.

Language:Note when teaching Japanese students, English is not the preferred communication mode. Unless you, as a non-native speaker of Japanese, are in a fairly advanced English-language class, you will have to do most important brain picking in Japanese. Thus you must know the specialized words in both tongues, understand the class's counter-arguments (however rough, raw, or unassembled), and learn the means to keep the point bubbling to the point of social effervescence: the language of incite and insight. You will also have to read the crowd, be sunny and humorous yet firm at the right times, and know when to drop a point if agreeing to disagree becomes necessary to preserve the enjoyability of the forum. Personally, I prefer the class to be entirely in Japanese (if an English class, devote half the class to language learning, the other half to picking brains in Japanese) in order to make the ideas less-easily dismissable as "foreign thus inapplicable". Likewise, of course, you will have to know the historical context of the social issue inside and out, in two languages.

  • Avoid concepts like "global standards", outside pressure (gaiatsu), international isolation (murahachibu) or comparisons with other countries, unless you must. The reason is that this plays into the hands of Nihonjinron, allowing counter-arguments stressing the "uniqueness" of Japan and begging the question of Japan ever changing at all.
  • Stress instead the human side of the equation: how discrimination or the pertinent social issue impinges upon people's lives, the social costs to Japan, and specifically how things would be better if this problem were redressed.
  • Appealing to simple logic works less well, since cultural convictions are hardly ever logically-based. Appeal to sensitivity and bonhomie instead.
  • Mind your own culture shock when certain hitherto unutterable sentiments come out in public. Never assume that any standpoint is inconceivable or unworthy of your consideration--for the more public you go with this activity the more "out there" the opposite tacks will get. Deal with them in ways that show respect yet your clear opinion about them. Otherwise the counter-argument will linger and dangle.


It is often said that Japanese don't like to talk about "difficult topics". I don't believe that. It's all a matter of warm-up, interest in the topic, openness of forum, and atmosphere control. I have had some incredibly sophisticated discussions with all manner of Japanese; the main difficulty is getting the thoughts across in Japanese--for most people interested in social issues in this country will of course be Japanese speakers and will want the discussion on their own terms. Do this, and you just might find yourself making more inroads and assisting more progressive thinking in Japan than you ever thought possible.

Arudou Debito, Hokkaido Information University, Nishi Nopporo 59-2, Ebetsu, Hokkaido, JAPAN
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