Cultural differences in the Japanese classroom

By Alex Case

Many teachers find the cultural differences involved in teaching Japanese students quite a challenge and something they are still discovering years after they first teach a class with Japanese people in, something made more difficult by the fact that the politeness of most people and the seeming Westernization and mechanization of the big cities can lull people into not seeing there is a problem. Not only can you improve your ability to understand and teach Japanese students with the few tips below, you can also give them cultural pointers on how to deal with foreign people- something that they are often interested in. With all the tips please be aware that the Japanese do not usually expect foreigners to understand or follow Japanese ways, and that younger or more Westernized people might not follow all of the things below.

1. Body language and gestures
English gestures that Japanese people do not usually understand include rubbing your finger and thumb together to show money, tapping the side of your nose for “nosy/ mind your own business”, kissing the tips of your fingers for “delicious”, pointing to your chest for “I” (the Japanese point at the nose), the hand position for “come here” and “go away”, a cut across the neck for “time up”/ “stop the speech” (in Japanese it usually means “you are fired”), and cross your heart for “I promise” (in Japanese that is linked little fingers). Gestures that could be considered offensive by Japanese people include raising your eyebrows to say hello (it is a come on in Japanese) and thumbs down for bad (it means to “go to hell” in Japanese). People also tend to stand up and sit very straight and to avoid putting their hands in their pockets. Like most nationalities, they are generally not aware that the first two fingers with your palm towards you is offensive in the UK and Australia. Gestures they might want to use that don’t really exist in English include the neck cutting gesture mentioned for “you are sacked”, and the little finger as a non-offensive gesture for “woman”. You might also find male students tipping their heads to one side and/ or sucking air in through their teeth, or rubbing the back of their heads. These are signs of not knowing the answer, doubting what you are saying and/ or stress. Although the Japanese don’t usually use thumbs up, handshakes and hunched shoulders for “I don’t know”, all these are usually no problem.

2. Dress
Despite what pop culture cliches might make you think, the Japanese tend to be quite conservative in dress, and age appropriacy and different clothes for different places have been very important concepts since the age of the kimono. This means that the famous short skirts, floppy socks and garish make up of various teenagers might not be considered appropriate for older people or in professional settings. This is also somewhat true of bright colours. For any age groups and even at the weekend, showing shoulders, bra straps, or even a slither of belly is considered daring and so Japanese girls usually wear another T-shirt under a strappy top or see through blouse. Not wearing make up is also considered slightly risque. If you are working in a Japanese style school or room, you might have to take your shoes off- in which case be careful of holey socks!

3. The teacher’s role
Unlike the cliche that many people have of East Asian classrooms, Japanese students do not usually expect foreign teachers to be an authoritarian font of all wisdom who leads everything. This is partly because they choose foreign teachers, study abroad and conversation schools in order to experience free conversation and a more relaxed atmosphere, and also because certain parts of the Japanese education system such as primary schools and some juku cram schools are quite freewheeling and responsive to student needs. The things that most Japanese students will expect from a foreign teacher therefore are, in approximate order: (1) A friendly personality and friendly atmosphere, (2) A personalised touch in terms of giving personal information and responding to student needs, (3) Giving them a model for the language they can use in bothcontrolled and freer activities, including lots of pronunciation help, (4) Cultural information and realistic real life practice of interacting with a foreigner.

4. Asking questions/ saying you don’t understand
This is the one where Japanese students can fit in with the Asian stereotype. One classic example is that in a Japanese company it is normal for a subordinate to say “Yes, I understand” to any instructions from the boss, and then find out from elsewhere whatever they didn’t understand. Another is that people giving presentations and speeches they have given in other countries who leave the usual 20 minutes at the end for questions often have to improvise something to fill up the time when no questions are forthcoming, but then find themselves deluged with questions at the drinks afterwards. Some people can show the same reaction to grammar explanations and game instructions in the classroom. This is particularly the case in teenage classes where the factors of not wanting to stand out by either being too keen and fluent or making a mistake are strongest. Solutions include making sure you answer what their questions might be without actually waiting for the questions (maybe with “If you are wondering why…”), looking over their shoulders to see what they are getting wrong or missing out in their books, and making yourself available for questions during pairwork and after the class when people don’t stand out so much.

5. Making mistakes and correction
One of the most heard comments about Japanese and other East Asian students is that they won’t speak because they don’t like making mistakes, but in fact silence and long pauses are just as likely to be because of a lack of ideas, vocabulary or functional language as it is to be worries about grammar. One proof of this is that Japanese students are less likely to demand more correction than some European students, and the percentage of students who will get stuck at a low level because they aren’t interested in correction as long as they can communicate is as high in Japan as it is in any place I have taught. Where the number of students who don’t like obvious mistakes to be made is higher than in some countries is in written work. Most Japanese students are not happy for their mistakes to stay on the page, and therefore they will erase a whole line and start again rather than just adding the one extra word that is needed. This can also be a factor in games involving drawing, where some of the students will try and make an error free work of art every time. The only solution seems to be to continue with games where writing and drawing speed are important, but to let them erase such sloppy efforts when the game finishes.

6. Modesty
Modesty is famously a Japanese attribute, and in the classroom it can result in some students not asking if they think they should go up a level, and not mentioning their achievements in English and study abroad during needs analysis. Modesty might also make some students unhappy about topics that could seem to result in them boasting. This is also one of the reasons why Japanese housewives spend so much time slagging off their husbands and most English conversation school teachers have an exaggerated idea of how unhappy Japanese family life is.

7. Strictness
Although you might not expect it from the fact that the streets are clean and the trains run on time, the Japanese expect a very Eastern amount of flexibility from their teachers and practises like bumping up everyone’s marks so they all seem to have passed the exam are usual. Young children are also very much indulged or ignored when they misbehave. Students do, however, expect to be motivated by their teacher, and nagging, cross looks and even the occasional outburst are all considered perfectly acceptable motivational techniques.

8. Groups and individuality
Japanese students might be embarrassed if a classroom activity or a question about their previous studies and travels makes it obvious that they are a higher or lower level than the rest of the class. With Junior High School students, you might also find that they will prefer to come to a consensus and report back to the class or teacher through a spokesman rather than give their views individually.

9. Hygiene and cleanliness
Some Japanese can be very sensitive to, and even openly critical of, both body odour and strong perfume. Some older people have also not got used to the smell of garlic, and for this and other reasons Japanese school teachers will clean their teeth and/ or gargle before lessons and after lunch. Blowing your nose in front of people is also much frowned upon among the older generation, and if you point out to a student how annoying sniffing instead is considered to be in most countries they will more than likely be shocked. Although it is fairly common to see people wearing masks in the street during the colds and hayfever season, in class this is much more unusual and people will almost always take them off if asked to do so to facilitate communication. As with many Latin students, bags are not usually put on the ground if at all possible, and you might want to provide a spare table or chair for students to put them on instead. You might also find your students collecting up the bits that are left behind from their use of the eraser, which is nice, and worrying about whether scraps of paper need to go back to the teacher or not.

10. Names and titles
In Japanese in-company classes students will expect the teacher to call them by their first names but might continue calling each other by their family names- in fact, they probably won’t know each others’ first names. Students might also make mistakes such as using Mr plus first name. Students might also call you “teacher” thinking it is an honorary title like “sensei”, but most people have got used to calling native speaker teachers by their first name since they had ALTs at junior high school, and can even go too much the other way.

11. Showing your real feelings
Although the Japanese have a reputation for hiding their true feelings, in fact hiding your true feelings in a situation when you should show them like in front of your family is as bad as being rude by showing them to someone you shouldn’t. Unlike in Thailand, I have found that my Japanese classes have always had a positive reaction to me showing my real feelings about them not doing their homework for the 15th time etc, and it is not unheard of for Japanese school teachers to have a bit of a shout. As in most countries, even with students who are critical of Japan there might be a negative reaction to you showing too much disapproval. It can depend a lot on the students, but safe things to say you don’t like usually include some types of Japanese food you can’t eat (e.g. raw fish), general disapproval of the political and educational systems, and how crowded the country is. Criticisms more likely to cause confusion or embarrassment include comments about the ugliness of some tourist spots, racism in Japan and the quality of housing.

12. Taboo topics
Taboo topics in conversation between Japanese people include the bukakumin traditional underclass, uyoku rightwingers and their black vans, and the royal family. Other things that might cause discomfort include anything that gives away social class (area you live in, name of university, name of school or juku, your hometown, your parents’ jobs, your or your family speaking a dialect) and which newspaper you read (as it can give away your political position). Questions that Japanese students might need to be told to avoid elsewhere include asking about marital status and kids in the UK, and talking about cleaning your house and sleeping at the weekend.

13. Pacing
In Japanese schools there is very little streaming and classes tend to go at the pace of the slowest, so even the higher level students might be surprised (often pleasantly so) if you aim the class at the average or better students. This is also a factor in the number of mixed level classes that teachers are likely to have in Japanese schools and businesses, and in the tendency to move all students up to the next level together.

14. Yes and no
As well as the well-known tendency of Japanese negotiators to say “I’ll ask my boss” and “That could be difficult” when they mean no, this could also involve the Japanese answers to negative questions, where “Yes” means “Yes, I don’t”. It is also worth teaching them that a tick is a positive thing (in Japanese a similar mark is sometimes used to show something is wrong and a right answer is illustrated with a circle) and that the Japanese gestures of waving your hand in front of your nose or making a cross shape with your fingers or palms to mean “no” look a bit too strong in English.

15. Silence
In some countries, most famously Japan and Finland, silence between conversation turns and when thinking are quite normal. The danger is that the teacher or another student might jump in to fill the silence and so prevent them from speaking, or that they will make others feel uncomfortable with their silence. The best short term solution is to teach phrases to fill the thinking time like “Well, let me see”, with the next stage being teaching sentence stems to at least get them started quickly, e.g. “I think that…” In complete contrast, when listening to someone else in Japanese people make a lot of encouraging noises, so students might misinterpret your silence or feel uncomfortable not knowing how to say “Really?” and “I don’t believe it!” in reaction to others when speaking English.

Part Two: More cultural differences in the Japanese classroom

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net April 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • Medadvicees says:

    One of the biggest shocks I had was discovering that students at the elementary and junior high school levels can’t fail a grade. They will always be advanced to the next grade regardless of test scores or attendance. Or so I was told by many ALTs. I never saw hard evidence of this, like a student’s actual report card. Even the wikipedia article that makes this claim lists no sources. But I did attend the graduation where all the yankis who never came to class got their diplomas. That’s some kind of evidence, I suppose.

  • Alex Case says:

    Part Two of this article is here:


  • Alex Case says:

    Nakamura sensei (something like “teacher smith”) or just sensei (literally “teacher”, but more like calling someone “sir” or “maam”/ “miss”)

  • Grim says:

    This was really helpful but i have a question.

    Do you know what Japanese teachers call their students? I mean, do they just call them by their first name or second name or whether they add a title after the first or second name? I’m sorry if it’s a little confusing but can you help me if you know?

  • cmulla says:

    Just such a fabulous read. I am currently studying a TEFL course and on the module about cultural awareness. I have been asked to discuss a country I would like to teach in and Japan was my choice.

    When researching, I found your piece. Again, fabulous.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge to help new starters like me along.

  • Kilo says:

    Thank you so much for this info, I have been looking to find something like this for a while!
    I have a project which requires me to talk about Japanese school during the 2nd world war. I am concentrating on primary school, so young students. I haven’t had any luck so far on finding info.
    I though perhaps you could help me. Would you say students and teachers attitude at that time were similar to what it is now?
    What would young students be like in class and mostly what would japanese teachers be like? What kind of atmosphere?
    I hope you can help me and thank you for such a great post!

  • Alex Case says:

    Thanks Taro, you are quite right it’s “burakumin”- unfortunately I couldn’t rely on Spellcheck to pick that typing slip up for me…

  • Taro says:

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for the interesting topics! I happened to come across your website during looking for the information about IELTS, and ended up reading your writings instead of studying for the exam. You are an astute observer!

    I just want to mention one thing. The word “bukakumin” appears in the paragraph “12 Taboo”, but as you might already know, it’s “burakumin” in Japanese. Buraku-min refers to people who are originally from certain areas called “buraku”, as you mentioned in your essay.

    Keep on writing about Japan! Yours are fun!!

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