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  Some Thoughts on Classroom Management Problems Faced by Foreign Teachers at Japanese Universities

Robert W. Norris

2004. In Bulletin of Fukuoka International University, No. 12


This paper examines examples of Japanese university student classroom behavior that often irritate foreign teachers, the characteristics of Japanese communicative style, and the role of the university in Japanese society. It concludes by suggesting some ways that foreign teachers can promote active learning by adapting their own cultural expectations in order to accommodate and take advantage of the expectations of their students.

Keywords: classroom management, communicative style, role of the university, Japanese students, cultural expectations


Imagine the following scene at a Japanese university English class being taught by a foreign teacher new to Japan. The teacher gives a short self introduction, explains how she will teach the class, tells a couple of jokes that no one laughs at, then asks, "Are there any questions?"

No students raise their hands. The room is filled with silence and stares.

The teacher then says, "OK, we're going to practice some conversation, but first we need to do a demonstration. Would anyone like to volunteer?"

No one volunteers. The room is filled with silence and stares.

The teacher begins to feel a little panicky and frustrated, so she picks out a student and says, "How about you? What's your name?"

The student hesitates, then says, "My name is Junko Takahashi."

The other students laugh.

The teacher says, "Where do you live?"

The student again hesitates, shifts nervously in her seat, and says slowly with a katakana accent, "I live in Kurume."

The other students laugh.

The teacher wonders why, but plods ahead and asks, "So what is Kurume like? Is it a nice city?"

The student gives no response. She tilts her head to the side and smiles. The teacher waits. There is a tension in the classroom. Then the student leans toward the student on her left and starts talking in Japanese. Then she leans toward the student on her right and talks to that student in Japanese. The teacher begins to get a little angry. The other students start chattering among themselves in Japanese. The first student turns around and talks to the student in back of her. Finally, she turns back to the teacher, smiles, and says, "I like Kurume."

The other students laugh again, this time more loudly.

The teacher tries talking to two more students and the same situation is repeated. The bell rings and the class is over. The teacher is frustrated. She feels she has lost control of the class. She has the impression that Japanese students are rude and lazy and have no interest or ability in English. She is already starting to regret taking the job.

Like the teacher in the above situation, foreign teachers often find a variety of Japanese student behaviors that conflict with their own cultural expectations. Among the things that foreign teachers complain about the most are:

a. Japanese students seldom initiate discussion, ask questions for clarification, or volunteer answers.
b. They seem to respond only if there is a clear cut answer to a question.
c. When asked a question, they frequently discuss the answer with surrounding students.
d. They seem to have a lackadaisical attitude about tardiness, attendance, and homework.
e. They often sleep in class.
f. They often chatter in Japanese while the teacher is speaking.
g. They sometimes copy another student's homework and hand it in as their own.

When a foreign teacher deals with the above types of behavior on a daily basis, it is easy to develop a negative attitude and lose the motivation to teach. If this happens, both teacher and students suffer. What can be done to improve the chances for better interaction and learning to take place? Ideally, both foreign teachers and Japanese students need to make some cultural adjustments, but, in my opinion, the teacher should take the first step by gaining an awareness of the characteristics of Japanese communicative style, the educational background the students come from, and the role the university plays in Japanese society.

Characteristics of Japanese Communicative Style

In American classrooms the style of interaction between teacher and students is usually one based on inquiry, argument, and individual expression of ideas. Students engage in direct dialog with the teacher. This style of exchange is indicative of that valued by American adults. Those students who cannot adapt to it often fall behind. According to Anderson (1993), minority children such as blacks, native Americans, and native Hawaiians are often hindered in the classroom because their home environments don't always prepare them to interact in culturally-sanctioned ways in classes conducted by white, middle-class teachers.

In the same way, Japanese students' cultural background does not prepare them to interact in the classroom in the same ways as British, American, and other western students. It is not surprising that Japanese students might have problems participating the way western teachers expect them to.

Anderson (1993) lists the four main characteristics of Japanese communicative style as group-mindedness, consensual decision-making, formalized or ritualized speechmaking, and listener responsibility for clear communication. He contrasts these with the western characteristics of individuality, decision by majority, spontaneous expression of "creative" or "original" ideas in public and private interaction, and speaker responsibility for clear communication.

Group-mindedness begins early in a Japanese child's life. When the child behaves badly, mothers in Japan tend to scold him or her by emphasizing how embarrassing or strange the behavior is and that other people are watching. Clancy (1987) refers to this as "conformity training." Elementary schools and junior high schools reinforce group-mindedness through stressing teamwork and cooperative activities and tasks that have students working together to clean classrooms, carry out art projects, generate answers to problems, and plan activities such as class parties.

Consensual decision-making is closely related to group-mindedness. Anderson (1993) gives an example of this in the Japanese university classroom: When a Japanese teacher asks a student a question, she doesn't initially evaluate or comment on the student's answer. Instead, she asks other students to comment and evaluate. Only at the end does she comment or summarize what the group has said. Interaction between students and teachers in western classrooms tends to be "dyadic," involving the teacher and one student directly. Students are encouraged to challenge the teacher and express their own opinions and ideas.

Ritualized speechmaking also starts in early education. In elementary school, students' responses are often structured like mini-speeches. When called upon by their teachers, students stand up straight, give their answers in formulaic expressions and loud voices, then sit down. According to White (1987), since this kind of performance is ritualized and predictable, it eliminates the children's responsibility for their own comments. White (1987) notes that personal responses are not given until after the students have gained confidence in their skill as performers. Anderson (1993:106) writes that "in contrast to the West, ritualized performance in Japan appears to be prerequisite to personal expression."

Another example of ritualized speech-making can be seen in the jiko shoukai (self introduction) phenomenon wherein most Japanese introduces themselves by referring to the company, school, or group they belong to (e.g., "Fukuoka Kokusai Daigaku no Norisu desu. Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu."). In the West, children are encouraged to express something that will distinguish them from others.

Concerning listener responsibility as opposed to speaker responsibility for clear communication, Anderson (1993:106) explains:

In western cultures it is considered the speaker's responsibility to make sure that a message has been transmitted clearly. If the speaker fails, the listener can ask for clarification and the speaker rephrases his or her remarks. In Japan, by contrast, the main responsibility for interpreting a message is often said to fall on the listener, who may be too embarrassed about not having understood the message to request clarification. This embarrassment plays a major role in the reticence of Japanese students in foreign language classrooms.

Another example of listener responsibility versus speaker responsibility for clear communication can be seen in the different usage of aizuchi, or responses to utterances. In Japan, the listener will respond several times with nonverbal gestures or verbal aizuchi such as hai, naruhodo, hontou ni, a sou desu ka to each sentence by the speaker. Westerners, on the other hand, usually respond to entire ideas and opinions rather than to each sentence by the speaker. Also, western speakers often signal they are finished speaking by asking for the listener's response (e.g., "How about you?" "What do you think?" "Wouldn't you agree?" etc.).

According to Anderson (1993), interaction patterns in Japan are usually learned throughout elementary school and junior high school. In high school, the focus is on preparing students for university entrance exams. High school students come to see the teacher as an authoritative lecturer. Their role is basically that of passive listener. In recent years, "internationalization" has caused many changes, but the way students learn as children to relate to their peers and teachers is still fundamentally different from that of the West.

The Role of the University in Japanese Society

In addition to the characteristics of Japanese communicative style and the passive style of learning Japanese students experience in high school, the foreign teacher should be aware of the multiplicity of views concerning the role the university plays in Japanese society and the way Japanese students view their university experience. Professional critics, both Japanese and foreign, often give a negative portrayal and conclude that it is a useless institution that fails in its primary purpose of education. Foreign teachers themselves are often shocked at the lax academic standards that exist at many universities.

Of particular relevance to the foreign teacher dealing with university students on a daily basis in the classroom is the view about the university years giving Japanese youths a chance to mature.

In junior and senior high school, Japanese students' lives are, on the whole, strictly regulated. There is little room for independence. The ideals of endurance, maximum effort, and self-denial are taught. Group consciousness and conformity are promoted. According to Kelly (1993), students must undergo continuous testing, wear identical uniforms, and follow distinct rules for behavior and dress. Students who resist are often subjected to teacher ridicule and peer scorn. Even what the students study and how fast they must master it are regulated by the Ministry of Education. Students are burdened with memorization of large amounts of information. In order to keep up with the heavy load, many students also attend cram schools. Kelly (1993) states the average Japanese high school student spends about fifteen hours a week on homework, three times more than the average American high school student. There is little time for Japanese high school students to socialize with their peers.

The result of these years of effort and endurance comes when the students take their university entrance exams. Entry into a good university not only ensures a promising future, but is also proof that the higher achievers have complied with the system and assimilated the values of self-denial, obedience, and respect for the system. Those who are able to persevere and succeed in the rigors of "examination hell" by entering the most prestigious national universities may be behind in the socialization process, but they gain a great sense of self-determination and confidence. They also gain respect from Japanese society, which sees them as achievers -- the kind of people who, when faced with a challenge, can rise to meet it. Kelly (1993: 180) elaborates on this phenomenon:

It may be true for these elites that the intensity of the socialization has eroded their individuality and independence, but these are qualities cherished more by westerners than Japanese. From the Japanese point of view, these high-achievers have gained far more than they have lost. An understanding of, and ability to utilize, the power of the group.

The biggest drawback of Japan's junior and senior high school education system is the immaturity of the students. They have become dependent individuals with little experience and ability to think and act on their own. If they entered the work force immediately after high school, they would have great difficulty in functioning. The four years of university, then, becomes an important time of transition, a time when the focus is more on growing up, personal development, social skills, and taking on individual responsibility than on academic study related to a future job.

In essence, the Japanese maturation phases in high school and university are reversed in comparison to those in the United States. Kelly (1993:180) states:

In the United States, it is more important for a person to develop individuality in high school, and then later, learn how to meet the challenge of society at university. Japanese culture, with a sociocentric rather than individualistic orientation, has the priorities -- and thus the phases -- reversed.

Another key role the university plays in society is that of finding jobs for students. This is an important concern for parents, who usually see the university years as a required step toward gaining a good job for their sons and daughters. As university graduates, their children have a big advantage in being employed by a good company. Parents view university connections for finding their children employment as more important than the university education itself. These connections often take the form of the "seminar clique." Kelly (1993:176) explains:

Seminar students establish ties with their professors and form a kind of habatsu clique which will later, upon graduation, provide them with personal introductions to employers. Since the teacher-students bonds in these relationships last well beyond graduation, the professor can ask previous alumni, now working in particular companies, to help place the current crop of job-seekers.

Kelly (1993) goes on to classify Japanese university students into three broadly defined types: Club Types, Society Types, and School Types. Each type takes a different road toward education and the process of maturing into adulthood.

Club Types are heavily involved in shared interests and sporting activities. These students give first priority to their clubs, which take up a large portion of their free time. As a result, Club Types are often less than enthusiastic in the classroom. That is not to say they are lazy and apathetic. Often they get an intensive education, particularly in Japanese group dynamics, within the club itself and learn how to handle responsibility. Kelly (1993) says that a sense of responsibility and knowing how to operate within a group are precisely the qualities most Japanese employers look for in new recruits, particularly those from sports clubs.

Society Types include those students who concentrate their energies on part-time jobs, friendships, romance, travel, and other activities that focus more on having a good time than on study. Earning money and having some freedom to control their own lives gives Society Types a sense of adulthood and independence. They can gain a sense of control over the environment that had previously controlled them. In many cases, Society types were not high achievers in high school and have low self-esteem. The competitive atmosphere of the classroom or club does not fit them well. Society Types are probably the most difficult for foreign teachers to handle. Their needs are much greater than the other types and motivating them is a difficult task.

School Types represent the "20 percent that study [because] ... they have chosen that singular path toward an understanding of life" (Kelly, 1993:184). These students tend to get the highest grades and show the greatest interest in foreign language study. That is not to say, however, that they are more industrious than the other types. The Club and Society types may be just as industrious, but in different areas from the classroom.

In reality, the distinctions made here do not completely define any individual student, but represent general tendencies. Most students are more likely combinations of all three types. The key point for foreign teachers to be aware of is that there are competing culturally-connected interests to those of foreign teachers and what they expect from students in foreign language classrooms. In order to deal effectively with Japanese university students, foreign teachers need to have an understanding of those competing interests and what the students are gaining from them. Kemp (1995) maintains that foreign teachers, for their own empathetic development, should become as informed as is practically possible concerning the academic, cultural, and social backgrounds of their students

What Should a Foreign Teacher Do?

Even if foreign teachers have an understanding of the characteristics of Japanese communicative style, the educational training students have received before entering university, and the role the university plays in Japanese society, how should they proceed in terms of the classroom management difficulties they face. Shimazu (Samimy, 1993:7) suggests that they should alter their classroom behavior to fit in more with conventional Japanese classroom practice. Samimy (1993:7), on the other hand, argues that the students need to bear responsibility for their own learning by adjusting to the "classroom discourse patterns of the target language."

Who is right? Cogan (1995:36) believes that Samimy, in assuming that the notion of "communicative competence" is always the guiding principle that should be adhered to in pursuing course objectives in an ESL context, does not take into account the specific EFL teaching situation at Japanese universities. Cogan (1995) emphasizes his point by stating that the majority of students will receive no more than 40 hours of conversational English instruction during the  four years they attend university. It is doubtful whether real communicative competence can be achieved with such limited exposure to spoken English. In addition, these students are not being prepared to live in an English-speaking country or to interact with native speakers of English on a regular basis. If  it ever becomes necessary for them to use English for communication, it is more likely that they will have to interact with people from other Asian countries, whose styles of communication may be more similar to their own. Cogan (1995:36) believes that foreign teachers should take the first step toward cultural compromise in the classroom

Once a foreign teacher meets his or her students for the first time in the oral English class, the encounter will be, like it or not, a cross-cultural experience for both. Whether the experience will be perceived positively or negatively depends on the amount of cultural adjustment both sides are willing to make. In my view, the onus should be on the teacher to ensure that this cultural encounter is successful, by virtue of the responsibilities invested in him or her in their role as teacher.

Cogan (1995) goes on to propose setting up an oral course that focuses on the idea of culture and the students' immediate perception of cultural differences. Cogan (1995:37) states that the teacher could work from the obvious tensions between what the students are used to and what the teacher is used to and that "the teacher would need to spell out the differences between the classroom discourse practices of their own culture and that of their students'." Cogan (1995:38) is also careful to note that such a course would not aim to teach students how to behave appropriately in other cultures, but rather "increase awareness and acceptance of other cultural norms and their validity."


Returning to the list of Japanese student behaviors that tend to irritate foreign teachers, we can see that these are probably culture based and not necessarily signs of rudeness, laziness, or rebelliousness. Not initiating discussion, seldom asking for clarification, and seldom volunteering answers may be connected to the students' history of passive learning in lecture-style high school classes that focus on memorization of facts and preparation for university entrance exams. Taking too much time in answering questions and discussing the answer with surrounding students in Japanese may be connected to the communicative style characteristic of consensual decision-making. Sleeping in class, tardiness, and bad attendance may be connected to a different view (by those who make up the Club Type and Social Type) of the university experience wherein peer pressures in club activities and part-time jobs take precedence over attending class. Handing in the same homework and chattering in Japanese may be connected to group-mindedness and the Confucian idea of the importance of copying a master's work to improve oneself.

How far the foreign teacher needs to compromise her own culture's values, influences, and expectations in order to accommodate those of the students is something each teacher must decide on her own. I am inclined, however, to agree with Cogan. My own experience has shown me that if the teacher explains her expectations clearly to the students and lets them know how she plans to conduct the class from the beginning, the students are normally quick to adapt and the results are much better. The following is a list of personal suggestions for bridging the potential gap in expectations between Japanese university students and foreign teachers.1

1. In the first class of a new semester, be very clear about class rules, grades, and absences. Be consistent in sticking to those rules. If the students expect to be absent occasionally to attend games or other club activities, the teacher can make a deal with them on how to make up the absences by doing extra homework or reports. In order to create awareness and acceptance on the studentsヘ part, take time to discuss cultural differences and similarities in classroom behavior.

2. Take advantage of the Japanese communicative style characteristic of group-mindedness by using small group activities. Give some kind of responsibility to each member of each group. For example, one person may be a secretary recording the group's ideas, another a reporter who reports to other groups, another an interviewee, another a captain who answers for the group to the teacher. Give students chances at performing each responsibility.

3. Even in lecture-based classes, let the students know what is expected of them from the beginning. Don't overlook any obvious points. Before beginning your presentation, make sure everyone has paper and pencil in hand. In my own American Culture and Society class, I tell the students to take notes on certain key points. After the presentation, I have them pool their notes, choose a captain, go over the notes, and come up with a set number of questions to be asked by the captain. Using this method, I rarely have any problems eliciting questions.

4. In conversation classes, use a lot of patterns, but let the students fill in their own vocabulary to personalize the contents. Choose topics that are relevant to the students' lives and have intrinsic interest. Use activities occasionally that get them out of their seats and moving around. Use the jan-ken game (paper, scissors, rock) to determine who does what (this helps overcome the student tendency not to volunteer). Mix up group members frequently as students will often not voluntarily socialize with others outside their own clique.

5. Try to create an atmosphere of trust and relaxation. Go out of your way to engage students in personal interaction outside the classroom. Encourage them to compare themselves not with other students but with their own selves in working toward improvement. Find out who is working part-time at night and what students are in what clubs. Show them that you care. 

This last point is especially important. In addition to an awareness of the mores, values, behaviors, and attitudes associated with Japanese students' culture, the foreign teacher should be empathetic. Empathy has a high ranking in Japanese culture. Lebra (1976:38) says that in Japanese culture omoiyari (empathy) is "among the virtues considered indispensable for one to be really human, morally mature and deserving of respect."

By gaining an understanding of cultural influences on communicative style and behavior, showing empathy and creating a comfortable environment, adjusting expectations, and structuring activities that are culturally sensitive, the foreign teacher can turn a potentially frustrating and confrontational experience into a professionally rewarding one. We need to look beyond the immediate world of the classroom and see the larger picture of our students and the culture in which they live. As Kelly (1993:187) says,

Japanese college students need gardeners who will fertilize them with questions, anecdotes, ideas, and understanding, but as much as possible let them grow on their own. It is not uncommon for Japanese to speak of one special teacher that they will forever carry in their heart. And always, their words portray a teacher of life rather than of a subject, one who gifted them with humanity.


1. For detailed lesson plans and ideas for teaching Japanese students, see the author's homepage at:

2. This paper is a revised and extended version of the paper I read on September 20, 2003 at the 52nd Kyushu Ippan Kyouiku Kenkyuu Kyougikai Conference held at Nakamura Gakuen University.


Anderson, F. E. 1993. The enigma of the college classroom: Nails that don't stick up. In Wadden, P. (ed.) A Handbook for Teaching English at Japanese Colleges and Universities (pp. 101-110). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clancy, P. M. 1987. The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese. In Schieffelin, B. and E. Ochs (eds.) Language Socialization Across Cultures (pp. 213-250). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cogan, D. W. 1995. Should foreign teachers of English adapt their methods to Japanese patterns of learning and classroom interaction? The Language Teacher, Vol. 19, No. 1.

Kelly, C. 1993. The hidden role of the university. In Wadden, P. (ed.) A Handbook for Teaching English at Japanese Colleges and Universities (pp. 172-192). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kemp, J. B. 1995. Culture clash and teacher awareness. The Language Teacher, Vol. 19, No. 8.

Lebra, T. S. 1976. Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Samimy, K. K. 1993. Advice for Japanese ESL/EFL students. TESOL Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2.

White, M. 1987. Elementary schools: Harmony and cooperation. In White, M. (ed.) The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children (pp. 110-133). Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Copyright (c) 2004-2024 Robert W. Norris. All rights reserved.

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