The Japanese Way of Learning and Teaching

“The pupil is there to learn,” said Mencius in China in the fourth century B.C., and this is still a powerful view in Japan today. The pupil is there to learn, and the teacher is one who knows. If the pupil fails to understand what the teacher tells him, or fails to do what the teacher shows him, the fault is in the pupil. There is only one thing to do, and that is to make stronger efforts.

In the West today there is another view, what one might call the individualist view: “The teacher is there to teach.” If the pupil fails to understand what the teacher says, or fails to do what the teacher demonstrates, the fault is in the teacher. He should find other means of making it all comprehensible and interesting to the pupil.

These are generalizations, and like all generalizations, woolly. What does the difference amount to in practice? If it is really there, it should show up in every learning-teaching situation.

I have often taught chess to beginners, both Englishmen and Japanese. When I show them the moves and some of the basic tactical situations, there seems to be no difference in the way they pick up these things. In showing them how to bring out the pieces in the opening I say, “You must mobilize all your pieces before you even think of winning pawns or launching an attack. Otherwise you will be countered.”

Both the Japanese pupil and the English pupil say, “Yes, I understand.”

Then we try an opening, and I leave a pawn where they can take it for nothing, though at the cost of their mobilization. Both of them grab the pawn, and lose almost at once. I say, “Didn’t I tell you not to take pawns till your mobilization is complete? When you are taking the pawn, your opponent brings out another piece. So he has more active pieces than you, and he will win.” They both say “Yes” and we try again.

After a few games, I again leave a pawn unprotected this time as an even more tempting bait. I see them hesitate. Neither of them can possibly foresee the counter-attack, which is quite subtle.

The Englishman says to himself, “I know he told me not to take pawns till I have finished mobilization, and it’s true that I did it before and he won quickly. But here it’s a bit different; I can win that pawn for nothing and there’s no counter-attack he can possibly make.”So he takes the pawn, and to his surprise the counter-attack is unmasked and defeats him.

The Japanese on the other hand tends to think, “He told me not to take pawns till I get all my pieces out. I did it before and he won quickly. Now it’s true there doesn’t seem to be any possible counter-attack here, and it seems crazy not to win the pawn. But … he told me not to, and he is an expert chess player. So … I won’t.” And he doesn’t. He still loses, but not so quickly, and I show him afterwards how the counter would have annihilated him if he had taken the pawn.

The pattern can go on for a long time. The Englishman is much more likely to disregard my advice when he sees some very tempting chance, but the Japanese more often sticks to what he has been told: he is willing to override his own judgement. He recognizes it is limited, and has more faith in the superior knowledge and experience of the teacher.

What is the result of the difference in attitudes? I should say that the Japanese in general makes more rapid progress in playing elementary chess. It soon becomes impossible to bowl him over rapidly, because his position is a correct one. He may not understand the reasons for all the moves he has made, but when a “mix-up” comes, his position has defensive and attacking resources, and he has a good chance of finding them.

On the other hand, the Englishman actually lives through his mistakes and their results. He knows from actual experience, not merely from a theoretical explanation after the game, what happens when one grabs a pawn in the opening. And if his opponent grabs a pawn, he knows how to counter-attack. But there are also disadvantages to this method. A pupil can go on questioning and questioning so that in the end he never in fact learns much. It sounds fine that he should “find out for himself.” But in chess, for instance, it took the masters nearly a century to learn not to grab pawns in the opening. The ordinary amateur at chess has not got a hundred years to spend learning the same thing.

The Japanese method shows up well when it is a question of simple straight-forward things. Teachers of touch-typing, or the piano, say that Japanese girls are the best pupils because when they are told not to look down at their fingers, they don’t. Girls of most other nations cannot resist the temptation to peep occasionally. But with more complicated matters, the long-term results may not be so good if the teacher does not explain the reasons for what he is teaching.

And quite often a Japanese teacher simply says, “Do this. Don’t do that.” It may be much later before the pupil understands why. When he does come to understand, of course, his respect for the teacher goes up even more. But he may develop a habitual attitude of thinking, “Well, just because I don’t understand what he says, it must be all the more profound.”

Listening to a lecture, or reading a magazine article, Japanese are willing to put up with incomprehensible passages; they are impressed rather than resentful. A Westerner would complain that the teacher or writer is incompetent in presenting his material; he should not choose things which those he is addressing will not understand.

Naturally there are many cases where a beginner is simply not equipped to understand the real reasons why a teacher says “Do this,” or “It is like this.” Then the Japanese teacher’s failure to explain may seem reasonable. But what often happens is that his pupils tend to follow the method unquestioningly, and may repeat the routine which they have learned, in circumstances where it is no longer appropriate. On the other hand, an English teacher always tries to give some reason for what he says – even if he has to invent one.

In judo there are some cases where the opponent has to be pulled forward along a curved line. When a Japanese pupil is shown this, he simply accepts it. But many Westerners ask, “Why a curved line? Surely a straight line would be shorter and quicker?” And a Western teacher likes such a question – it shows that the pupil is alert and interested. A traditional Japanese teacher would simply think it cheeky. There is a scientifically sound reason for the movement to be along a curve, but to understand it requires wide experience. So I have often presented an English judo pupil with another explanation, which sounds scientific, and he is satisfied. I do this because I have found that he won’t try hard at something which he thinks has no real reason behind it. The Japanese judo student is quite prepared to believe that there are many things which he cannot expect to understand; also he believes that the teacher understands them and will tell him what to do. This attitude gives him faith and energy.  But it can lead to blind acceptance, and the imitation of things which are irrelevant. In some Japanese judo halls, it is noticeable that most of the pupils practise the throws in a left-handed way. When one looks carefully, one finds that the assistant instructor is left-handed, and most of the beginners imitate him. They simply copy the form, though they have never been told to do so.

Westerners in Japan are always impressed by the emphasis on form, even in quite small things. One reason for it is that young Japanese have often done things in a particular form, without understanding fully the reasons for doing them in that way. And unconsciously they are afraid of changing any detail, because they do not know which of the details are important and which are unimportant. Even the most “revolutionary” young student sometimes has a great veneration for some detail of Marxist theory which a Western Marxist would think unimportant.

It is amazing to a Westerner to find that the Noh dance-drama has been almost unchanged since it was first formalized in the early fifteenth century. Western opera is highly stylized too, but it has changed enormously from the original set pieces linked by recitative to the continuous “music-drama” first developed by Wagner. We can appreciate both early and late operas but the Noh does not change. It was once proposed to try removing the pillar which is one of the fixtures of the stage, but the actors tended to lose their bearings because the eyeholes of the mask are very small. I said to a connoisseur of Noh, “Why not make the eyehole a little bigger? It could be camouflaged with plastic.” He looked at me as if he were a Cardinal to whom I had proposed altering the Mass.

An interesting fact is that both in Britain and in Japan there is some awareness of the weakness of our predominant ways of thinking. In spite of British emphasis on individual freedom of expression, there is a good deal of formality in our life; the ceremony of opening Parliament, with its ancient ritual where the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod summons the members of the House of Commons (the real rulers of the country), and they follow him and stand humbly in the House of Lords, is as artificial as any Noh play.

In Japanese culture too there are counter-balances. An advanced pupil is told, “Now forget all the rules you have been studying.” In one of the secret scrolls, given to graduates of a fencing school which flourished over 300 years ago, after listing the technical points it says: “Learning is only the gate; don’t mistake it for the house. You have to leave the gate behind to get to the house.” Or in the words of a former president of Sony: “I want men who can think – not men who simply earnestly follow rules which they don’t understand.”

Learning in Britain is concerned with developing the pupil’s power to think freely, and with building up judgement on the basis of actual experience of success and failure. But ultimately he is expected to see that certain conventions are necessary. In Japan it is the other way round. The pupil at the beginning accepts many rules and conventions without much questioning. But at the end he is told, in the Zen phrase, “The highest action is direct and knows no rules.”

© Trevor Pryce Leggett

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