Work in Progress – Jordan Randles

I. Introduction

One night, I saw my Japanese tutor sitting alone at one of the dining spaces. I have observed that she is usually alone, but she would possibly in the presence of a fellow Japanese student or one of her tutorial students. As I walked up to join her, she seemed very focused on her laptop. Actually, I was not expecting her to hold extended conversation with me, since she was busy. When I greeted her, though, she cordially greeted me in Japanese (since she knew I would understand). Her demeanor changed from being dedicated to a task, to being open and friendly towards me. I have seen her switch roles like this before. The reason may be because she does not want to offend me by saying that “I am too busy”. At times during the conversation, though, her laughter at my jokes would come at a delayed pace. If she did not understand the humor, she would only start laughing after I was laughing for a while, instead of a natural response to the laughter. This laughing response is probably due to her trying to trying to  seem “normal,” in spite of her difficulty speaking English.

Natsuko Moto, the Japanese tutor mentioned above, has had a difficult experience transitioning from Japan to Bard College. Bard College is the Liberal Arts University in the Northeastern U.S. studied in this ethnography. In the following pages, I will explore the personal experience of four Japanese students mainly through interviews, but with a few thick descriptions. I will also write this ethnography as a historical transition from Japanese seclusion, to the social lives of my informants in Japan, what it took for my informants to decide to come to Bard, and finally their social experience in America. My informants have been living in America from 4 months to over a year at the time of writing.

Japan’s Transition from Seclusion to Modernization.

The Japanese government did not allow people to enter or leave Japan from about 1633 to 1853. When it opened, though, Japan wanted to learn from other countries so that it could modernize. To further this cause, in 1871, a group of elites from Japan, the Iwakura Embassy was sent to a group of Western Countries, including America, to learn from their institutions, including education. A leading philosophy of the time could have been, “In the course of time people would be utterly degraded, and only a small minority of the people have an opportunity of education, and also that of exercising a most galling tyranny over the ignorant mass of people.” (Lanman 122-123). Japan did not want to be among the countries with people who were unable to read, to write, and to think effectively, which is why the Japanese government embraced the opportunity to travel to the U.S., Europe, and other places. Some of the young Japanese people were encouraged to stay in America for an extended period to earn a college degree, and then teach Japan about their experience when they returned, years later. These students in America may have experienced similar challenges as the four informants studied in this ethnography. The only differences between the two cases is that students who were a part of the Iwakura Embassy were interested in helping modernize Japan, whereas current Japanese students are more interested in getting a degree for personal reasons.


Four Japanese students at an elite, co-ed college in the Northeastern U.S. were asked questions regarding their transition from Japanese society to American society. There were three females and one male. The results suggest that students can neither combine nor go astray from social roles in Japan without being being seen negatively by many people in Japanese society. In contrast, American society is more accepting, but is still difficult for Japanese students to integrate. In fact, some of the students interviewed do not spend a lot of time with American students, mostly due to language barrier. Each of the students made an independent decision to study at this university, in spite of research that suggests Asian students are heavily influenced by their families to attend “good colleges” (Kim, Gasman). This study suffers from a lack of evidence, since there are less than ten Japanese students who are at Bard College.

II. Growing up in Japan

The social experiences of my informants are all different. Three of my informants were born in Japan, whereas one of my informants was born in America, but later moved to Japan. They have described their experience growing up through their qualitative experiences in a traditional Japanese school, international school and daily life. There is an emphasis of difference in Japanese society. Since my informants have gone to both kinds of schools, I will attempt to establish a contrast between the experiences of international school and traditional Japanese school.

The Difference of Relationships in a Traditional Japanese School vs. an International School.

“…So then after that, I really tried to be ‘normal’ and really tried to be Japanese and really tried to have something common with other students” – Dai, Akihiko

There is an importance placed on social roles in Japanese society. In traditional Japanese school, teachers are expected to do little else other than their job, which is to teach students. When a Japanese teacher comes to school, his or her job is not to be a parent, nor to be a disciplinarian, nor to be a motivational figure. There is little combination of social roles. Instead, he or she came to school to teach, but whatever other social roles (such as motivator, or disciplinarian) that helps him or her teach their kids better, then he will combine those, and only those, social roles. The primary role of a teacher is to teach. The primary role of a student is to learn. This concept is important to understand the function of people in Japanese society. Peers within any given social role will expect each individual to live up to the social expectations of behavior for that role. There is an ideal “Japanese student” and an ideal “Japanese teacher.” If anyone strays to far from that role, by behaving in a way that is not generally expected, then that person will be isolated in many ways.

According to an interview with Hana Hiase (real name not used),  she said, “In Japanese schools, it’s just purely student and teacher and nothing more. I don’t think a lot of students go to their teachers for advice on life, or anything other than academics…When I went to the international school, it was more of like sitting at a table and having a conversation with the teacher.” International schools located in Japan have strict social roles, but there is a more leniency to combine social roles – in this case, being a facilitator of intellectual conversation. [INSERT RESEARCH ON INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL. Therefore, both traditional and international schools contain a rigid structure of social roles, but international schools combine more of these social roles for both the student and teacher.

Natsuko Motoko said, “For me, manners are what is really important. We need to respect each other… In Japan, there is a casual style of conversation and a formal style of conversation. Growing up, I learned how to speak in the formal way.” Students have to talk to their teachers in the formal form of the Japanese language, while students talk amongst themselves in a more informal form of Japanese. No matter what role someone takes on in Japanese society, one must have respect for one another. Now, people in Japan may perceive the word “respect” in a different way than in the Western context. Having gathered from my informants, respect is facilitated between people mainly by aesthetics. People must dress, sit, walk, speak, and appear properly before certain audiences. One must act one way with superiors, peers, and underlings. If someone does not follow these social expectations, people are seen as different. Respect does not necessarily refer to the soul or the essence of a person, instead, “respect” may be used to keep up a certain appearance before a person, depending on his or her status.

“Respect” happens more on a superficial level. According to Hiase, when she did go to Japanese school for two years before international school, she had a negative experience with the school staff. She told me, “I remember this girl said I messed up her locker, and I didn’t even know where her locker was. I kind of felt like, the school didn’t really help me through that. They’re kind of just like, ‘Yeah, I mean…if you did it. You should just apologize.’” She expressed frustration that the teachers did not consider her side of the story. The way they treated her gave her the impression that school staff pay a lot of attention to the appearance of its students and the respect that people give to one another on a superficial level, however, she did not feel that staff members took time to understand her or care for her wellbeing. From her perspective, teachers did not behave quite like this in international school.

In contrast, Japanese school was a hard place for my informants to “fit in”. Dai told me how he was having a hard time transitioning from international school to traditional Japanese school. After living in America for two years, he came to live in Japan, where he went to an international school for two years. From that time Dai became a “kid who does whatever I [want] to do…” Then, when he transitioned to Japanese school, he made friends, but he did not make many good friends.

“At the beginning I didn’t care about what the others thought about me. But at some point, maybe it was the 6th grade or 7th grade, I realized, ‘Okay. I’m really different and selfish to others and that’s why I didn’t have many friends in school’ So then after that, I really tried to be ‘normal’ and really tried to be Japanese and really tried to have something common with other students”

Dai’s subsequent behavior in high school pushed against his comfort zone, but he had to sacrifice his personal wants and desires to make the friends that he wanted to make. He had to behave in the “way” of the Japanese student instead of the way of “himself”.

[To be added in at another time in section II]

Hiase started her schooling with two years of traditional Japanese school, but was unable to finish. It was her different appearance that set her apart from the other kids. She was born in Japan as half-Japanese and half-American. Her visual identity makes her stand out from amongst the crowd. Since people from all over the world attended the international school, one’s appearance did not really affect someone’s treatment, whereas in Japanese school, where most students are Japanese, looking different affects how peers treats that person. Japanese people, containing many strict social roles and expectations, are probably highly aware of people who behave outside of the social roles.

III. Deciding to come to Bard

IV. Adapting to the U.S.

V. Conclusion

  1 comment for “Work in Progress – Jordan Randles

  1. Maria Sonevytsky
    April 29, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    Jordan, there are many strengths to this work, and I’m looking forward to seeing it mature. I think your [insert research] notes are right on, and hope that you have been working to integrate some research with the ethnographic data. And the key term “respect” is so powerful–I wonder if possibly you could slow that down even more, and really think about the term “respect” etymologically in the case of Japan, just to give the reader a deeper understanding of what the word itself means.

Comments are closed.