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Navigating Controversial Topics During English Lessons in Japan

What do you do when your students say something racist or ask you about politics?

By 8 min read

I had an interesting discussion with one of my Japanese colleagues today. During a lesson, where students were studying the names of foreign countries and cities, the subject of China came up. The question was, “In which Chinese city do they traditionally eat snake soup and sometimes drink hot Coca-Cola with Lemon, in winter?”

The answer was Hong Kong.

However, a student answered “Taiwan” to which I replied. “Sorry, that’s the wrong answer. Taiwan is not a Chinese city. It’s a different country.” My colleague interjected: “Liam Sensei, I’m sure Taiwan is a part of China, isn’t it?”

“No, I can assure you it isn’t,” I replied. “But let’s check it later to confirm.”

I had accidentally come very close to stepping on a political landmine right in the middle of a relatively innocuous lesson on countries and world cities.

…remember that racism is both a system and a learned behavior and in most cases, it is borne out of ignorance, not malice.

It turns out my colleague had previously studied in China where, in line with their own government-approved textbooks, they do indeed claim Taiwan as a renegade province of China, awaiting reunification with the mainland.

She hadn’t considered that her Chinese colleagues’ comments on Taiwan could have been flavored with political bias, nor did she know that I had studied the question of Taiwan’s competing sovereignty claims quite extensively during my time working in Hong Kong.

For the record, Taiwan is in an international grey area. It is a de-facto independent country, having its own government, its own flag, international trade, passports, and sense of national identity.

Sometimes students ask uncomfortable questions, but it’s important to have an open conversation without being overly aggressive.

There are also a handful of countries worldwide that formally recognize Taiwan, under its official name “The Republic of China” as opposed to “The Peoples’ Republic of China,” which is what we know conventionally as China.

Truth be told, I wasn’t wrong, but from a certain point of view neither was my colleague. Whether or not you consider Taiwan a country depends on whether you agree with the Chinese government or not.

So if you’re teaching English in Japan, just what should you do when a politically sensitive topic comes up in your class?

For the sake of transparency, my opinions expressed herein are those of a white male in his 30s, who self-identifies as being on the political left.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about what to do if you run into these scenarios:

1. When a student says something bias and/or racist

“How do you think they would feel if they heard what you said?”

This is perhaps the most common problem you will encounter in your classes. It’s important to remember that racism is both a system and a learned behavior and in most cases, it is borne out of ignorance, not malice.

Sticking with China as an example, during a Q-and-A session with one of my elementary classes, a student asked me “What foreign food do you like?”

I answered that I love Chinese and Indian food.

Another student blurted out, “Don’t go to China. They all have disease[s]!”

My instinct when something like this happens is to shut it down quickly and decisively. I operate a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to intolerance.

“That’s not true! Do not say that again!” I said, calmly but firmly. “Did you know that there are actually lots of Chinese people who live in Nagano?” (This is the prefecture I’m currently teaching in.)

“How do you think they would feel if they heard what you said?”

His eyes lowered in a show of humility. The message got through—this particular student hasn’t reoffended.

When confronting such behavior it is vital that you are firm and clear, but not aggressive. Shouting at the kids only breeds resentment and fear. That’s not how you win hearts and minds.

2. When students or colleagues ask you about protests in other countries

It’s crucial to present balance when discussing these topics with your students.

In light of the recent international emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve noticed, particularly among older students, an increased interest in protests in other countries. Beyond just BLM, my students have asked me for my thoughts on Hong Kong, North Korea, President Donald Trump, and a host of other issues.

If some immediate context is necessary, I’ll happily tell my students why BLM started, and the numerous atrocities against Black people that have fueled its growth in the years since, and I have no qualms about telling my students that I unequivocally support the movement (the same goes for my friends fighting for their freedom from oppression in Hong Kong).

However, I also tell them that to truly understand why these groups are angry, you need to talk to them. Despite following and occasionally assisting the BLM movement and the Hong Kong protests over several years, I am not Black and I am not a Hong Konger. I can never fully understand what they are going through and what they have to contend with on a daily basis.

That said, you should also appreciate that it can be tiresome for our Black friends and colleagues to have to continuously explain why they need to fight for the simple right to live in peace. So, directing your students to resources where they can research the issues at hand on their own is helpful.

A couple of good places to start are Black Lives Matter Tokyo, and also their sister group Black Lives Matter Kansai, who you can find on Instagram or Twitter.

I would also point out the difference in the BLM and Hong Kong movements, which many of my students seem to erroneously tie together.

The Hong Kong protests are political in nature, against a government that the people did not vote for. I also stress the point that it is the government, not the people of China themselves with which the protesters have a valid grievance. Sino-phobia is sadly a side-effect of the HK protests and it is something I would never endorse.

We can understand each other better by simply opening up the conversation.

BLM, on the other hand, is a human rights movement, and in my own view, apolitical. It draws more support from the political left than right, but that’s more to do with the current state of US politics than anything else.

What is crucial when discussing these points with your students is that you present balance. You must explain that, in cases like Hong Kong, there are two sides, and that Hong Kong is, at the end of the day, a part of China.

However, that does not mean you need to give parity to racism or bigotry.

3. When students ask you about Japanese politics

Never hijack a lesson to put across your own political views.

This last point is perhaps the trickiest to get your head around. And it is maybe the one instance where, I personally feel, it’s OK to be a little economical with the truth from time to time.

I’ve been asked numerous times questions like “What do you think of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?” or “Do you think Governor Koike in Tokyo is doing a good job?” and more recently: “Do you think Japan has handled the coronavirus situation properly?”

The most crucial point to remember here: do not assume that your students or colleagues will be happy to hear criticism of Japan.

Yes, you can call out ignorance and bigotry… but do so in a way that they are receptive to hearing.

Let’s take the case of Prime Minister Abe, someone who I often find myself disagreeing with politically, and who I personally would not vote for if I had the right to do so.

When a colleague asked me: “Do you think PM Abe is doing a good job during the pandemic?” I did my best to answer honestly but diplomatically.

“I believe he has good intentions,” I said. “For example, choosing to close schools early back in February was a good example of putting public safety first.

“However, since then, I think he has made a few mistakes. I don’t think giving everyone ¥100,000 was a good idea. He should have focused on helping poorer people and small businesses. Also, the masks he sent out were a waste of time and money, but I know he’s under a lot of pressure, so it can’t be easy.”

Notice how I prefaced and affixed my criticism with comments of praise and compassion. I got my point across, but I did it without upsetting my LDP-voting colleague!

In the end, we are all human.

That is perhaps the most important overall lesson to take away from this. When you do say something controversial, or you have to take an assertive stance on a sensitive issue, don’t be overbearing or aggressive about it.

Also, don’t include any politically sensitive topics in your lessons without getting approval from your Japanese colleagues first. There are very strict rules in Japan in this regard.

And never, ever, include any religious doctrine. To do so in a public school is actually illegal in Japan. Covering festive events like Easter and Christmas, from a purely cultural point of view is fine but keep the biblical references out of the classroom.

Employers can take a very grim view if you develop a reputation as a religious or political agitator. Yes, you can call out ignorance and bigotry; yes you can tell your students and colleagues why certain protest movements matter to you, but do so in a way that they are receptive to hearing. Never hijack a lesson to put across your own political views.

Have you gotten into a sticky situation while asked a political or sensitive question in class? Let us know in the comments below.

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