Missionary Japanism

Motivation in language learning has often been divided into integrative and instrumental types – either wanting to become a part of the target culture/community or needing the language for some practical ends.  What to do then, when students’ openly stated reason for learning English, and a reason publicly promoted by textbooks, teachers, and the government, is the very opposite of integration: to spread one’s own culture around the world and foment an international appreciation for yourself and your country using English as the means?

「外国人に日本文化を教える」”Teaching foreigners about Japan/Japanese culture”, as an officially sanctioned source of motivation for many English students in Japan, carries with it the assumptions that:

  1. Japan comprises a single national culture of which all Japanese are experts and no non-Japanese are,
  2. The world outside Japan comprises a similarly homogeneous group of English speakers whose lives would be improved by knowledge about Japan, and
  3. Spreading respect and “understanding” are worthwhile goals, while expert status remains confined to Japanese nationals.

I call this missionary Japanism (「伝道的日本主義」if you prefer) and believe it is a force in modern Japanese culture and particularly in ELT that deserves identification.

the_reception_of_the_rev-_j-_williams_at_tanna_in_the_south_seas_the_day_before_he_was_massacred_1841_b-088-015
I claim this land in the name of ジャニーズ事務所

Confusingly, this ideology is sometimes articulated in language that overlaps with the ideals of internationalism as it is more commonly understood.  “Go out into the world” and “meet new kinds of people” both sound like they could be said be young people anywhere.  The first time you encounter “…and teach them to appreciate Japan’s 4 seasons” you’re likely to wonder if you’ve been inadvertently working at some kind of new Emperor cult.

In fact for what I suspect is a large portion of the population, missionary Japanism is synonymous with internationalism – there is no perceived possible relationship between Japan and other countries or between Japanese individuals and non-Japanese individuals besides a one-way extolling of unique Japanese virtues.  Anything else would be undesirable or nonsensical.  Missionary Japanism assumes that Japan cannot be improved by input from the outside, and adopting foreign customs would make Japan and individual Japanese less authentic (“authentic” being synonymous with “pristine” and “unadulterated”).  That is, this is one of many interpretations of internationalism that seeks to make borders stronger and thicker, not to erase them.  And make no mistake: the “understanding” missionary Japanism seeks is not intellectual comprehension but rather approval and acceptance (“seek ___’s understanding” and “please understand” are common euphemisms used by officials when they want to public to acquiesce in the face of some unpopular proposition, the implication being that only someone who didn’t understand it would find it problematic).

The type of official internationalism that demands that the inheritors of Japan’s legacy venture into the world only to a) expand Japan’s “soft power” or b) self-sacrificingly give the locals a taste of Japan’s cultural sophistication is something every young person is exposed to.  Besides TV and other media, it appears in textbooks and is a regular topic of bestsellers.  In Japan one of the most socially acceptable justifications for showing an interest in the Great Other is that you’re doing it for the greater glory of your in-group – something churchgoing American teenagers taking time off from school to build a church in Central America would certainly understand.  Whether young people actually feel this way, just find the excuse a convenient way to placate their elders, or fool themselves into feeling this way is an open question – but there is no denying the power that this trope has over the discourse of English education in Japan.

To the extent that young people actually believe this, it is clearly unhealthy and works to undermine their success in language learning, flying as it does in the face of our growing understanding of what usually works and doesn’t work as motivation to learn languages.  Language teachers know that “I want to be accepted by my Argentinean neighbors” is a better motivator to learn Spanish than “I want to teach my Argentinean neighbors the beauty of Mt. Rushmore”.

I have also personally seen the assumption that foreigners all over the world are intensely curious about Japan and eager to adopt a fawning posture re Japanese exchange students/missionaries disappoint and disillusion learners more than a few times.  I have had students who did short studies abroad and came back complaining that their host families “weren’t interested in Japan”, where those families were actually just acting on the assumption that the student was there to learn about Canada.  I also witnessed groups of JHS and HS students performing what their teachers must have thought would be impressive displays of Japaneseness in the form of a karaoke performance and a karate technique showcase by non-karate practitioners in front of highly nonplussed groups of American and Australian students.  I was also accused once back in college by a Japanese friend of a friend, after a misunderstanding escalated into a small dustup, of “not understanding Japanese culture”, as if that should put me in my place.

This way of seeing studying, English, and Japan’s relationship to the world has everything backward.  You learn languages or just learn things in general to build a deeper and truer understanding of the world you live in.  English in particular allows you quicker and more direct access to what is currently the largest body of collective knowledge on almost any subject.  If people outside Japan want something Japanese they will come to Japan, not wait for exchange students to happen upon their town bearing instant Sapporo ramen.

I have a few recommendations for teachers and others who often encounter this ideology, and it’s not simply refuting it as my mother did when asked by a Japanese businessman on an airplane “what do Americans think of Japan?” (answer: “They don’t”).  Where students are actually planning to do some study abroad and are infused with passion for the Word of Yamato, I suggest you let it be.  Whatever gets them on that plane is probably worth a bit of forbearance, although if they come back as my student did still wanting to show the rest of the world origami maybe a bit of teacherly direction is in order.

For students who are not heading out of Japan anytime soon, I suggest a reverse soft power approach – create a class culture in which students watch the US (Canadian, Australian, etc.) top 10 Youtube videos, have seen Jimmy Fallon’s frequent and popular bits, and know where Gangnam is.  The React series is perfect for quick introductions to popular culture and how people feel about it.  Including students in what actually is the current world youth culture will hopefully overtake whatever imagined version of world culture exists in their heads that animates statements like “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is really big overseas”.

Another tactic is to emphasize “small c” culture, i.e. not the kind of stuff that is normally included in World Expo exhibits but personal interests and values that the students actually hold.  Tell them explicitly that if they ever run into someone from outside Japan, that person will be an individual human being who seeks interaction with other individual human beings, not a UN representative seeking the most effete culture that Japan has to offer.  You are more likely to impress someone with your knowledge and passion for something you really care about than your membership in a political entity that also contains Noh theater.

Oh, and I’m not recommending that teachers act as missionaries for their own home cultures either – although many jobs ask you to do just that – or that the civil religions that are Japanism or 日本人論 have no positive effects.  They probably do, but their role in ELT is almost definitely regressive.

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3 thoughts on “Missionary Japanism

  1. This is on the mark (no pun intended)! It is so very true . When we hosted “Yuki” during the summer of 1979 in Michigan, we took her camping and let her drive our farm tractor. I suppose those might be Michigander things to do, but there is no deeper meaning to undrestand or experience. It is just as it is…something to be taken at face value.

    Liked by 1 person

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