Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Moving Beyond "Do you Like?"

Moving Beyond “Do you like?” (by Randy Poehlman)
May 31st, 2011 by Barbara.

Flickr: Eastnhuh
Getting students to express preference and to make choices is as easy as holding out a red pencil and a blue pencil and letting them choose, then providing practice and drills based on the language that facilitates that choice.

This is taken one step further with open ended questions like Which sport do you like? This essentially boils down to a vocabulary lesson with a few rotating structures and is a good way to teach sports related language or another common language from food to animals to school subjects.

Getting students to move beyond this to express meaningful opinions in the classroom is often a difficult proposition for both ESL teachers and students. Students need to have achieved a certain level of proficiency before they are comfortable moving past the “do you like?” stage. However, leading students through this transition can open them to critical thinking in a second language and can route them into a new way of expressing themselves and to interacting with the world around them.

Opening students to debate and exchanging unique, critical and more complex opinions can be done relatively easily over a few months, and when you spend the time building this skill, the reward in student language retention, self confidence and a whole host of positive factors will converge as you move forward.

Step 1: agree or disagree

Starting simple and going slow will improve the overall quality of the class and will allow students to naturally progress as they move forward. A good way to introduce this element into your class is to give students the initial push, I agree with Yuka and I disagree with Kentaro. Allow students to correct homework as a group and allow them to practice this initial language. Depending on cultural elements, the age of students, their social status and other factors this could go quickly, or could take some time to develop.

Step 2: justify disagreement

The next push is having them justify their disagreement. This will often happen naturally as students say, I disagree with Kentaro. The answer is C. At this point, the word “because” becomes very important. Teaching students the importance of the word “because” can be challenging at times, but once it is solidly embedded, it quickly becomes a cornerstone of their language and enables students to make all kinds of creative expressions. When students are comfortable using “because” on a regular basis, they will naturally start asking “Why?” and when students ask “Why?” independently, that is a major victory and a huge breakthrough. Supporting another student’s opinion with a secondary argument also goes hand-in-hand with this concept: I agree with Kentaro because the answer is A. It says so in the first sentence.

Step 3: build arguments

In the next stage, students are ready to explore elementary debating propositions. As always, start easy and progress slowly. This can be done by having them explore familiar concepts, presented as statements: Soccer is a boring sport. Video games are bad. Once students grasp this concept of trading ideas and supporting and disagreeing, they are ready for a subtly more complex proposition such as Should student’s have to wear uniforms?

At this point students are ready for the columns of, “Yes” and “No.” Allow them to build arguments and provide reasons for their positions. This is a good time to introduce note-taking into the mix. Have students write their opinions in answer the question in their notebooks.

Step 4: offer counter opinions

Following this, the project gets a little more difficult and may feel like pulling teeth at times. The students are first required to answer with their opinion on the statement: I think that students should wear uniforms so it is easy to see who is a student at that school. Then the same student has to offer a counter opinion as a follow up, which at times can be quite challenging: If students don’t have to wear uniforms, they can show their own style. This can be managed with engaging questions. This forces the student to examine the issue from two sides, in support of and in opposition to. After the student’s have all offered one opinion and then a counter opinion, have them select the best answer in it’s entirety and present it.

Step 5: agree and disagree (sit on the fence)

After students have become comfortable with presenting their desired position at the conclusion of the “debate” they can move into “fence-sitting,” where students simultaneously hold two opinions and say things like, Yes, children should have to go to bed before mid-night, because they need rest for the next day, but if I stayed up until 1 a.m. I could finish my Math homework.

Step 6: use the skills in a variety of contexts

At this point, you have students who are ready, willing and able to freely express themselves in a confident manner, and although the grammar and the vocabulary are lacking at times, they have the skills needed to contribute to and shape the debate. There are several directions you can explore at this point, including elementary experiments in democracy, business, debates on art, culture, or resource selection for their own learning. The potential to expand is endless.

My pilot class for this project is currently at this stage and I want to take the debate framework one step further before I open them up to more exciting projects: setting up a hypothetical debate. I call this the “what if” stage. Taking a proposed statement, making a decision and then dealing with the repercussions from that decision. In the coming weeks, I want to give them a question such as one most famously asked by Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me: What would happen if I ate Mc Donald’s for one whole month?

When students have the ability and confidence to freely trade ideas and to expand on each other’s ideas and even challenge these ideas, they can set about building bridges. They can confidently move beyond “Do you like?” They can express why they like something, aspects they don’t like, advice to change the elements they don’t like and advice to improve on aspects they do like. They can even deal with the outcomes of the proposed changes and can fully explore the issues that will challenge them, as they deal with a new language.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Students Picking Pics

Students Picking Pics (by Randy Poehlman)

When students are able to choose which images best represent the content of the lessons, they are instantly more engaged and they become far more active. Students can tailor the themes to their particular interests, or the general interests of their classmates, far better than a teacher can select relevant photography and illustrations. This bottom up learning style is particularly useful in encouraging visual students and passive students. It has the further benefit of allowing them ownership of opinions and sparks creativity.

This approach also benefits the teacher in several ways from my experience. The teacher is able to quickly learn about the concepts presented from the students’ perspective as they are the ones doing the selecting. The teacher is also able to bypass the learning materials they believe to be inadequate or out-dated. The number of relevant discussions and questions that come from this activity are numerous. Students learn concepts in less time and study more. Think about this logically from a student’s perspective. Are you more likely to study flashcards and workbooks that were created for you, by professional educators that you have never interacted with? Or, are you more likely to study lesson materials that you created with your classmates and with your teacher based on the framework of those same professional materials?

Practical advice

Open image search results with the computer facing away from the students so you can scan image results for inappropriate pictures before the students see the search results.
Be conscious of time and allow the students to make reasonable selections in a timely fashion. If their search goes on too long, they will ruin the team dynamic and disengage other students.

Students have a stronger attachment to the materials and the concepts that they have assisted in creating. When their parents ask them, “What did you  in English class today?” they can smile and tell them that they found a picture of a dog in a cup, and perhaps even show them the picture/slide/ worksheet or flashcard they designed and made for the class. Review is also less time consuming and more productive if students can instantly identify with aspects of the lesson that they helped design. Of course, as a teacher you will be required to set achievable goals for the lesson and guide the students through this creative process, so that you can properly harness their creative insight and energy.

Additional ideas for this type of image selection and content creation teaching style:

If you have access to a digital camera, you can use students to pose for pictures and even allow other students to try their hand at photography. Then you can incorporate the photos of the posed students to illustrate concepts.
You can use a stronger class to design materials for a weaker class. This will allow the stronger class to gain confidence in their skills while assisting the weaker class in their development with age and interest appropriate materials.
Note: I am currently using a tablet computer with a built in camera for this type of lesson. I am using common presentation software. I am teaching small groups between the ages of 6-13. A standard laptop or a desktop would suffice and the concepts could be adapted for larger groups with a projector.


I have been teaching ESL for three years in Japan. I am currently working in Osaka, both developing and teaching extensive children’s programs. I am most interested in Bilingual studies, Immersion programs and Literacy development in young learners.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Japan’s eikaiwa industry in serious trouble after the bankruptcy of GEOS


appearing on The Comment Factory at:

There once was a time when recent university graduates could escape to Japan to stave-off adulthood and responsibility for a few more years while making a decent living and paying off their student loans. The days of this glorious loophole in adult life are now all but over with the bankruptcy of Japan’s largest remaining language school, Geos, less than three years after the spectacular collapse of Japan’s biggest language school chain, Nova Corporation. This latest bankruptcy from an industry giant surely signals the final nail in the coffin of the large scale eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry.

It was deja vu all over again April 21st when Geos suddenly filed for bankruptcy, leaving staff and students in the lurch, with instructor’s salaries unpaid and students contracts unfulfilled in scenes reminiscent of Nova’s October, 2007 collapse (dubbed by the Japanese media at the time as “the largest consumer wipe-out since the end of the Pacific War”). In a surprise move, G.communication, the same company that stepped-in to pick over Nova’s carcass, announced that it would take over 70%, or 230, of Geos’s schools, and close the remaining 99, offering students and staff the chance to potentially continue at their respective branches, with a few catches.

While Geos’s bankruptcy hasn’t become quite the media spectacle in Japan that Nova’s was, the same hard luck stories of unpaid salaries and thousands of dollars lost abound, with the lessons of Nova apparently unlearned.

Despite widespread reports of Geos’s shakey financial situation, and the company closing its Australian operations in February, many seemed to have believed Geos’s lies that everything was still fine.

The Yomiuri shimbun reported on a “23-year-old American teacher” who complained angrily, “At yesterday’s meeting, the school manager told us that Geos’s financial condition was fine, but this morning we got an e-mail about the bankruptcy. We were lied to. If I don’t get paid, I can’t afford a flight back home.”

“Tommy,” writing on Japan’s social networking site, Mixi, said he “didn’t know [the bankruptcy] would happen. It was a complete surprise” and has found himself in a similar situation: “I will not get paid for the work I did in April. GEOS has no money, so they have no money to give me. I worked for free for one month. So, I have no money right now. Also, I was supposed to get a bonus when I finish with GEOS. I will now not get that money either… if I [recontract with G.communication] I will not get paid until May 15th. Also, that payment will be small. I have no money now, so I can’t wait for a small paycheck in the future. I need to make money quickly or starve.” (Which he apparently, in all seriousness, hopes to do by becomming a singer; his Mixi page also saying: “TO MUSICIANS: I have no job now. I can play any concert you want me to play. I [have] the free time to play any day – any time!”)

Students too, of course, lost out big in many cases from not paying attention to what happened at Nova and falling victim to Geos’s aggressive sales pitch. The Yomiuri shimbun also reported various tales of student-woe, ranging from a houswife in Chofu who “paid a year’s worth of lesson fees up front to send her son to GEOS” after losing money at Nova three years prior, to a man at the Jiyugaoka school who paid over 300,000 yen in February well aware of what happened at Nova but figuring the same thing wouldn’t happen with Geos. Other students reported losing comparable sums and regretting “having given in to GEOS’s pressure sales”.

The Mainichi Daily News reported on a “22-year-old female student at a closing Geos school in Sangenjaya in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo,” who had “just paid her entire yearly tuition” at Geos the month preceding bankruptcy. “She had previously paid her tuition on a monthly basis. However, around autumn of last year, the school started repeatedly recommending she pay her yearly tuition in a lump sum,” the paper reported. The student added “sadly,” “If they recommended the lump payment while knowing they would be going bankrupt, it’s depressing”. One could also argue criminal.

And like Nova with company president Saruhashi, it seems Geos’s financial problems were compounded by having a criminal dunce at the helm; founder and president Tsuneo Kusunoki in Geos’s case, who, much like Nova’s currently incarcerated “Monkey-Bridge” (as the former-president’s last name translates to in English), refuses to accept reality — even going as far as petitioning against the bankruptcy proceedings in the Tokyo District Court, potentially complicating and prolonging matters for all involved.

As reported in the Japan Times, Kusunoki has publicly stated: “The company’s board of directors did not reach a consensus on filing for bankruptcy, and the action was taken by one director and some employees… Although it has given the impression that the company filed for bankruptcy, it is actually not the company’s will.”

It seems everyone but Kusonoki (as his name is often intentionally misspelled, thus translating to “shit tree”) has dismissed this idea as ridiculous however. One poster on Let’s Japan explaining Kusonoki’s delusional attitude as a result of “30+ years of running a large company, surrounded by yes-men and never ever being questioned by anyone ever” having “unhinged the stupid bastard who is now completely detached from reality.”

“He’s been ousted…” continues the post, “but being the mad old git that he is, he’s unable to accept that his life’s work is not only worthless but has been leaking money like a Saudi on a gap year for a decade or more.”

Like any country in the world, lying pricks in positions of power are a yen a dozen in Japan, G.communications president, Hideo Sugimoto, claiming his company’s interest in Geos is purely altruisitc, stating in numerous interviews they bought-out Geos only to “protect the students”. He has said G.comm hopes to have Geos returned to profitablity within a year, which they did reasonably successfully operating a drastically reduced number of Nova branches, however, as Shawn Thir of Let’s Japan notes, “[u]nfortunately, that profitability will come in the form of cost-cutting measures which will likely be borne by instructors when they sign on to new working conditions once their three-month contracts are up.”

The future for Geos staff is obviously very uncertain — their contracts with G.comm expiring this July 31st — and like Thir says, probably not particularly bright, especially if this grim warning from an ex-Nova G.Comm employee is anything to go by: “You will NEVER feel comfortable working under G. Com…I gaurantee it. You will feel… you could be screwed over at a moments notice. G. Com has no problem breaking its contracts with its teachers and students…this company will lie its ass off to make a dollar.”

This is a pretty reasonable appraisal of G.Comm in my personal experience, thinking back to when Nova went bankrupt and G.Comm categorically promised to hire back EVERY former Nova employee in November 2007, but started backing-out on this too-good-to-be-true offer on December 24th and Christmas Day, 2007, with eventually about 50% of the instructors who hoped to recontract having their offers of employment rescinded as they were “no longer needed”. To be fair, many people I knew were stroking G.Comm in a similar fashion; using them to whip-in students, or making off with their 150,000yen “stand-by” offer, but one can’t help but feel the ex-Nova G.Comm emplyee above is right when they say that G.Comm is presently “making all these promises to GEOS teachers so they dont run off and G. Com has to hire and train new GEOS teachers…a system they dont know anything about yet… once the picture is more clear…expect alot of GEOS teachers to get axed…”

They also note that recontracting Geos instructors will most likely have to sign technically illegal contracts to keep their jobs: “Be prepared to sign the same contracts as NOVA teachers and you will find that you will receive a “regularity bonus” of 25,000yen if you dont miss any days during a pay period…its actually part of your monthly salary, its not a bonus at all…if you miss a day of work…you will be penalized and your regularity bonus is forfeited and a day of wages deducted from your salary…you could easily lose 40,000 yen for one day….so NEVER miss a day of work!! If you are late…you forfeit your regularity pay and a prorated deduction for the time you were late. ITS ILLEGAL and the labor ministry and labor union have both said this activity is illegal, but G. Com has brushed it off.”

Despite — or more likey because of — this, G.communications has now established itself as one of the major players in the eikaiwa market. But one can’t help but echo Shawn Thir’s question regarding the company’s latest purchase: “how much blood do they think they can realistically extract from the eikaiwa stone?” Indeed, with Geos’s bankruptcy coming so quickly after Nova’s collapse dominated headlines, and many unverified reports floating around that another major chain school, Aeon, is on the verge of bankruptcy, many are questioning the future of the eikaiwa industry at all.

A simple look at the numbers shows that large-scale eikaiwa operations are no longer viable, and Japan is no longer the attractive destination it was for recent university graduates and the lazy. The figures from METI show that as recently as February 2007, the overall number of students taking foreign language lessons was around 750,000. The number plummeted to approximately 360,000 by 2008, and according to Nikkei, the number of new students enrolling in 2009 “plunged 35.7%” further from even the post-Nova bankruptcy levels.

The global economic recession is generally cited as the major reason in the decline of students, but another major factor was the reduction of the government’s kyuufukukin allowance to help people find work. As noted on Let’s Japan, “It paid 40% of tuition fees up to 200 thousand yen”, but “In October 2007, the allowance was cut to 20% or a maximum of 100 thousand yen. Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers which forced many households to cut education expenses from their budgets.”

Relating this to the larger schools business models, renowned entrepreneur and respected commentator on Japanese affairs, Randy Poehlman, offers the following similar summation:

“The business model for large chain schools is clearly broken… The demand for language lessons is constant, and the recent recession cited by many as a main factor in the failure of GEOS, is somewhat of a partial convenient truth. The reason these chains are failing is because they are based on signing up new students and renewing existing contracts in an environment where more and more consumers are unsure about the stability of the chain approach to learning English.”

Poehlman’s expert opinions are echoed by the blogosphere, “Adamu,” (who offers an excellent statistical analysis of the eikaiwa market at his site) adding:

“The problem is that these major players set up large-scale businesses that profited by essentially gouging customers – promising stellar results and pressuring them into long-term contracts only to give sub-standard lessons to people who may not have really been able to benefit from them in the first place. Now, a combination of factors… has come crashing down on Geos… the major operators seem to be offering more or less the same product as before – if anything, they are diluting the product with less value and more part-time teachers – and customers just aren’t as interested anymore.”

Shawn Thir’s analogy of the old eikaiwa giants to the “dinosaurs” is particularly apt:

“the collapse of Nova and Lehman Brothers can be seen as extinction events that changed everything. There are new rules in play and the model of large schools charging everything up front is going the way of the dinosaur, making space for the small, furry schools to thrive.”

And indeed, the general consensus regarding the future of smaller-scale eikaiwa operations is vastly more optimistic, Poehlman stating, “You are going to see a growth in smaller independent companies that are rooted in individual communities.” He predicts that: “As Japan continues to become more globalized the need for both children and adults to learn English is going to grow. Students should be looking towards smaller independent schools that are rooted in the community and do not expect students to pay for lessons a year in advance.”

The attractiveness of Japan to foreigners as a destination for working holidays or longer-term stays looks set to keep declining however, and even in my three years in the country it has changed dramatically. Stories like that of an employee for Tokyo-based Japan Advanced Labour Staff Services, who hasn’t recieved his final month’s salary from the company because they know he is scheduled to return to the U.S. soon and are betting he won’t have the time to go to the Labour Standards Office or hire a lawyer to try and actually get his pay, are becomming increasingly common. Overall, salaries, benefits and working conditions for eikaiwa and ALT (Assistant Language Teacher in schools) jobs have steadily gotten worse, with Japan’s somewhat indifferent attitude to all things non-Japanese showing through more and more.

For all the comic book geeks, anime fans, and anyone else with their heart set on coming to Japan, for whatever abberant reason they may have, there is only one half-decent option remaining in these dark days: come with the government’s JET programme, or don’t come at all.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

China Executes Japanese Senior Citizen

Today, Chinese authorities executed a Japanese man for drug smuggling. This marks the first execution of a Japanese national in China since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. Officials in Beijing also made Japanese politicians aware that they are scheduling three more executions of Japanese prisoners this week.

Mitsunobu Akano, a 65 year old was executed in the northeast Liaoning Province following his trial and subsequent appeal stemming from a 2006 arrest. The deceased was allegedly caught with 2.5kg of “stimulant drugs” at an airport in Dalian. He was attempting to bring the drugs from China to Japan. The attempted smuggling of the stimulants in question would have no impact on the Chinese population, as the drugs were destined for Japan. The drugs were of Chinese origin and Akano was heading back to Japan, thus the resulting “victims,” of this offense would have been citizens of Japan. The unfortunate part for Akano was that he was detected in China and prevented from taking his flight into the realm of a civilized, fist world nation.

“Beijing told Japan last week that it plans to execute three more Japanese drug smugglers this week - Teruo Takeda, 67, from Nagoya city; Hironori Ukai, 48, from Gifu prefecture; and Katsuo Mori, 67, of Fukushima prefecture.” (1)

The timing of these executions comes at a crucial point. Japan and the Democratic Party has begun to open up diplomatic avenues to the Chinese government, that were unrealistic a year ago under Liberal Democratic leadership. Wen Jiabao and his officials in China are demonstrating arrogance and subtle power sifts in this latest attempt to gain a little more power over Tokyo.

The lack-luster comments offered by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Justice Minister Kiko Chiba were factual, but lacked a necessary ounce of leadership. The three said in large part that it is unfortunate, but there is little they can do, because the issue is a matter of Chinese domestic legal process. The Japanese government should have been putting more pressure on the Chinese to curb today's execution and to suspend the other upcoming executions. If Japan wants to drive Asian politics they have to get a touch more courageous, especially with Chinese officials. Hatoyama should have come out in front of this story saying something to the effect of, “Yes, China will execute a 65 year old Japanese man for drug smuggling. His execution is to be followed by three more elderly Japanese citizens in the coming week. The Chinese judicial system is free to act with independence, but the world would really like to know how many executions are carried out in China annually?”

Amnesty International is handling the situation in a bit more of a confrontational manner, and last week urged China to account for all of the executions in the country. Chinese officials claim that they are executing less prisoners than they did before, but reducing your numbers from tens of thousands to thousands still leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japan is Hypocritical on Abduction Issue

Japanese persistence on holding North Korea accountable for the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970's and 1980's shows a remarkably hypocritical stance on the part of Japanese negotiators, and politicians. There are allegedly eight cases, involving 11 Japanese citizens who were abducted and believed to be in North Korea. There are currently thousands of children who have been abducted by Japanese citizens and remain in Japan despite the mounting pressure from countries including, Canada, France, the United States to name a few. These children, are for the most part, children born to unsuccessful international marriages.

The complacency of the average Japanese citizen has led to a public that is widely familiar with the plight of those handful of citizens who were snatched by North Korean spies. The population is generally extremely afraid of the threat from North Korea. However, the issue of children who are illegally brought to Japan and who are prevented from seeing their foreign parents remains largely hidden and under-reported in Japan.

The six party talks between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States are an on-again, off-again affair aimed at the eventual denuclearization of North Korea. Japanese negotiators continue to insist that Pyongyang admits to sanctioning the abductions, while North Korea continues to insist that Japan not be a part of the talks.

The Japanese representatives need to drop this issue until they sign on to the Hague Convention, which deals with parental rights and child custody cases. Japan has not signed the 1980 convention despite promising rhetoric from the Democratic Party of Japan earlier this year. Japan remains the only first world country that endorses these abductions.

It is remarkable that Tokyo has the audacity to complain that North Korea abducted 11 of its citizens decades ago, while Japanese citizens are continuing to deny foreign parents the right to be part of their child's lives, after the relationship sours.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New Chinese Ambassador to Tokyo Will Improve Relations

Cheng Yonghua kicked-off a new diplomatic mission to Tokyo this morning. The new Ambassador arrived on Sunday and will be busy from the beginning. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is planning on making an official state visit to Japan in the spring. The announcement of Cheng as Beijing's representative to Japan is expected, in some ways to bridge the divide between the two major economies of Asia.

Cheng is replacing previous Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cui Tiankai. Cheng is well versed in Japanese affairs, speaks the language fluently and has well-established business connections. He has spent nearly 15 years working for the diplomatic mission in Tokyo in the past. He was the deputy director-general of the department of Asian affairs at the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry and a Minister at the Embassy. His most recent posting was overseeing the Embassy in South Korea and prior to that was head of the Malaysian mission.

The appointment is being viewed as a step forward in relations with China and Japan, because Cheng is expected to build suitable relations with Hatoyama's government. The post-election statements made by the Japanese Prime Minister in the fall of 2009, signaled to Jiabao's Beijing, that the time was ripe to develop a closer relationship with Japan. As the two governments work towards common goals and move further from tense relationships of the past, they have to move with caution. The growing relationship with China will cause continued problems with Japanese- American relations.

As America continues to maintain a great interest in Japanese relations and views Japan as the cornerstone to American influence in the East Asia Pacific region, Japan is finding itself a popular piece of real estate. China is seeking to boost relations with Tokyo and America is seeking to maintain a historically close relationship. The move that Jiabao is sending to Hatoyama with the appointment of Cheng is that China got the message about increasing relations with Korea and China and that they are slowly implementing a program that will meet both countries stated objectives.

Is the current Japanese government ready to be an international player? Is a move towards increased relations with China the correct step for Japan at this point? Are Japan and China capable of working together in a meaningful and functional way, for the benefit of both?

Of course, these questions are yet to be answered. In regards to Hatoyama, and the current government's readiness to become a true international source of power, I think that the Japanese government is making the right initial steps, to make the nation a touch more dynamic and global. Japan cannot continue to ignore the realities of Asia and the accumulated power of Japan, Korea and China. The three, when working together on issues and counter-balancing each others independent power in favour of a consensus can accomplish great things in the region. As a condition to this, China is certainly going to have to put pressure on North Korea to give up ambitious weapons programs and to make steps in the direction of normalcy. Japan will have to open domestic markets and allow Korean and Chinese companies more inroads in Japan.

In regards to the question about the move towards a closer relationship with Tokyo and Beijing. The move is definitely coming at the right time. With the financial meltdown caused in large part by the sluggish American economy, the Japanese, and the rest of the world are second guessing American capitalism and the free flow of credit backed by international investors. The appointment of a Japanese- friendly Ambassador by China is a seemingly small step towards improving relations, but these seemingly small steps are starting to add up, and there is little doubt that relations between China and Japan are growing closer.

Yes, China and Japan are capable of working together. The Democratic Party of Japan has been welcoming the growing ties and the Chinese have a lot to gain by winning Japanese hearts and minds. As China grows closer to Japan over time, they will be increasingly seen as a legitimate power in global affairs and Asian affairs specifically. Japan has much to gain from balancing relationships with China and America, because being well placed in the middle of two giants has its advantages.

The appointment of Cheng as the representative of Beijing in Tokyo will be another positive step in the direction of Japanese-Chinese relations and the ultimate out-come of such moves will bring about a net benefit for both Japan and China.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Japanese Police Getting Slightly More Proactive

Police in Japan are remarkably reactive and don't spend much time or energy working on crime prevention. Besides stopping the occasional cyclist and verifying ownership of said bicycle, offering directions or taking a spin on their scooters, they remain very low-key, but they are a constant presence. The officers are largely relegated to their small community police boxes that are centrally located close to train stations all over the country. The policing approach has been one that is based on police officers maintaining a visible presence. “Patrols are the most important duty for community police officers in that the visible presence of police officers in their uniforms prevents crimes and gives community residents sense of security.” (1)

This type of policing is often a proactive approach, but the general disregard for blatant warning signs and growing unease has led to citizens in Japan, calling for an increased effort to stamp out the causes of crime.

The National Police Agency announced this week that they are enacting a set of regulations based on prevention of crime. The service is committing itself to the documentation of all tips, inquires and consultations. The move comes on the heals of public complaints over the way police officers handle tips from citizens. According to reports, the police had failed to follow-up on tips offered before crimes were committed.

“At present, some police officers do not leave documented records when people come in to report potential crimes, saying the reported incident didn't yet constitute a crime or that the matter was outside their jurisdiction.” (2)

This documentation initiative is a welcome step in community safety, and can only help one of the world's safest nations. If the strategy is adhered to and implemented effectively then the result will likely slightly lower an already low crime rate. It is a step in the right direction and should be followed with more moves towards an increased focus on crime prevention and a pro-active focus.

In many regards, the institution of policing in Japan is not focused on the study of criminology and addressing the underlying issues of crime. The nation is still under the guise of the evil foreigner committing all the crimes.

This is largely apparent in recent reporting on the hit-and-run case in Nagoya, involving suspects carrying Brazilian citizenship when headlines such as “3rd Brazilian arrested over fatal hit-and-run in Nagoya” and “Brazilian arrested over deadly hit-and-run in Nagoya,” were splashed everywhere in the Japanese media. The fact that the suspects were Brazilian had little to do with the story, but soon became the central issue. Only the latest example, where crime perpetrated by foreign residents in Japan is held out as the norm and throughly reported by the Japanese media.

Until Japanese society can begin to wrap its collective head around the fact that Japanese citizens commit the majority of crimes and that foreign citizens commit, per capita less crime than the domestic population, there is no sense in studying crime prevention techniques. Occasionally a foreign citizen will be apprehended and convicted of a crime, allowing the domestic population to breathe easy; “Oh another foreigner convicted, the crime rate is rising due to their transgressions.”

Under the new system all interactions with officers will be documented, no matter how minor, and they will be passed on to the relevant section so that it can be handled in an appropriate manner. Police chiefs will be in charge of enforcing the new measure, and if Japanese bureaucratic systems are any example, the new regulations will be religiously followed in every regard. The fact that the National Police Agency is at least paying lip-service to the issue and making small steps in the right direction is to be commended.