Last week I sat down in Maebashi, Gunma with Malcolm Harper, traveling teacher and bon vivant, to talk all about his travels, lifetime enthusiasm for Japanese, and the differences he has found between the American and Japanese school systems. His thought on these matters and more are articulate, steadfast, and impactful.
Mr. Harper’s class is now in session, so come sit down and get ready to learn!
Getting to Know Mr. Harper
So Malcolm, give me an elevator pitch for yourself
That’s a good question. Well, my name is Malcolm Harper, and I wake up every morning and ask myself “How can I do better than yesterday?” In my heart I believe that despite mistakes and other things that may have happened in the past, it is necessary to learn from those and improve.
So every day, I wake up and put this philosophy into practice.
So where in the world do you wake up now?
Right now I am waking up every day, or at least I should be waking up every day, in Isesaki, Gunma, right here in the middle of beautiful Japan. I can see a lot of that beauty in the mountains that surround me, such as Akagi, Haruna, and Asama.
However, before I came here, I woke up every single other day of my life in Wichita, Kansas.
Really, you woke up every single other day in Wichita?
Well, maybe not every day, but the majority of them. I’ve made sure to travel around a fair amount.
What places did you see before coming to Japan?
Traveling has always been a passion of mine, and I am fortunate enough to have been able to pursue that passion on several occasions. I have been to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and I lived in Mexico for a semester during college.
And while I have been able to see a fair amount of Europe, I would really like to explore and see more of Latin America. I speak Spanish with near fluency, and I think being able to experience new things outside of simply Mexico would be a wonderful.
Having said that, I would also like to return to Italy. It was such a beautiful country, and seeing it again would be really great. I would probably put it at #2 on my list of favorite countries after Mexico.
With all those European countries, were those in a single trip?
It was all in one go.
My best friend lives in Sweden with his husband, and I wanted to go visit him. I hopped on a plane to Stockholm, and after visiting for a bit, I started to make my way south. My final destination was in Spain, but I made many pit stops along the way. In the end, it was just under a month I spent on the road.
What has your relationship with Japan been like?
Like many people in America, my first introduction to Japan came in the form of the animes that I would watch when I was a kid, but my deep appreciation for this country actually stems from my love of music.
Music has always been another passion, much like travel, and one day I just wondered “What does Japanese music sound like?” To get an answer, I went to Real One Player, which is really showing my age, and looked up Japanese musicians. The first one to come up was a very famous contemporary artist by the name of Amuro Namie.
I listened to some of her work, and I found it so energetic that I was instantly hooked. And while my interests initially stemmed from the more poppy elements of the culture, as time went I I also developed an interest and appreciation for the nuances of the culture as well as the history.
I also studied Japanese during college before I shifted my focus to Spanish, and, in fact, being here on the JET Program was a goal that I had for a few years.
So it’s pretty fair to say that I have been interested in Japan for much of my life and it’s been long-term goal to make my way over here.
How Mr. Harper Learned His Lessons
Are there any other experiences that you feel still influence your time here in Japan?
Well the biggest thing for me is how different I am now in my late 20s than my early 20s. If, back then, I was here in Japan I don’t think I would have had the mental capacity to deal with the culture shock in the same way I did when I came last summer.
I don’t think I had the maturity to really approach this in the best way possible, but over the course of my 20s I did develop that maturity through different circumstances. I had failures and shortcomings, and from each of those I tried to learn and grow. Without those growing pains my experience here would not have been as full as it has been thus far.
Like I said at the beginning, I always strive to do better than I did yesterday, and that means learning from my past errors.
As someone going through my own early 20s now, even though I have not made any major mistakes yet, I am still cognizant that something can happen that will tear my world apart.
Yeah, life can be really tough sometimes. When I first went to college, I did not do too well. I actually failed and dropped out, and I stayed out for a long time.
Eventually I put my affairs in order and went back to school, and I succeeded. And I attribute that success to my initial failure. Without that failure, and the lessons I learned from it, I would never have succeeded as well as I did later on down the line.
People always say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and that adage really rings true in my time at university. I had all these great opportunities in front of my nose, but then I fucked it all up.
I lost those opportunities and not until afterwards did I realized how bad that was, but then when similar opportunities presented themselves I jumped at them and made the most of them.
What opportunities have stuck out to you while you have acclimated to Japan?
Naturally, the hardest part about living in Japan is not knowing the language. I studied it for a year during college, but in no way what that sufficient preparation for living here. Needless to say navigation can be tough.
In America you get used to the fact that everyone speaks English, so everything you do is so easy. Back home, asking questions at the grocery store, making a deposit at the bank, and everyday tasks are so simple, yet in Japan even the simplest tasks are complicated because of this language barrier.
But the easiest thing for me has been going with the flow. I came here with an open mind and a willingness to make mistakes, and I have found that has lessened the culture shock.
I know I won’t do this whole thing perfectly, but who does? I’m just here to make the best of it, and that’s exactly what I intend to do. Once you open yourself up to that mindset, you have so many more possibilities than you did before.
You came over here with prior teaching experience, right?
Yes, before coming to Isesaski I taught Mathematics for a couple years in Wichita.
The Differences in Japanese and American Education
How do the students differ?
There are so many differences, it’s actually rather difficult to pinpoint where to start.
To provide some context, the school I taught at in Wichita was a title school, which meant we received additional funding for programs and classes for students from less-than-fortunate circumstances. Oftentimes English was not their native tongue and/or other behavioral factors, and because of this there were sometimes cultural boundaries to overcome as a teacher.
To compare that to my students here in Japan, the difference is night and day. Japanese students have and exhibit a different level of respect for their teachers, for example in the way that the students come to the teachers’ room.
They have to be in uniform, stop at the doorway, excuse their interruption, state their purpose, and ask permission before they can even enter the room to speak to the teacher. In America however, my students, bless their hearts, would just barge in whenever they wanted to, and there was just not that same level of respect as I have found here.
However, I have also noticed that the students here in Japan are also more innocent and childlike than my students back home, though I’m not quite sure where it comes from. Maybe in America the kids grow up really fast, especially because of how prevalent multimedia is in everyday life.
Japanese students are also much busier than American students are, so I feel they cannot take the time to lose that innocence. They’re at school from the crack of dawn until dusk every day and frequently weekends as well, and then they go to cram school after that to study even more. They’re incredibly studious, and it shows in their results in the classroom.
And what about the teachers?
As far as teachers, it has been a little hard for me to connect with my coworkers and I attribute that both to my lack of Japanese proficiency and this sense of professionalism I have perceived in how they carry themselves at work. Personal lives are not really emphasized, and it can be jarring when they are brought up in a nonchalant fashion.
One of my coworkers recently announced that his wife is pregnant, and up until that moment I had not even known that he was married. I was happy for him, but the news was certainly unexpected.
I’ve also noticed a divide in how the teachers interact with me. The younger ones tend to be more ready to engage with me than the older ones, at least general speaking.
What moments in or outside the classroom have you found to be the most meaningful with them?
One of my favorite things to do is incorporate Japanese into the lessons in some way. It’s usually just a phrase, and it catches the students off guard and they find it hilarious. They know I don’t speak Japanese, and they like to make a joke out of my mispronunciations; however, that is exactly what my goal is.
I want to show my students that it’s okay for them to mess up in English because I can’t pronounce Japanese, so it’s a really fun way to connect with them. It let’s us all laugh at ourselves and each other, and I really feel like it brings us all closer together when we can do that.
How has teaching in Japan affected or changed your teaching style as it was back in America?
I feel as though many things have changed so far, though I can’t quite list all of them at the moment.
If I go back to teaching, which I feel is very probable, I want to incorporate some of the formalities of the Japanese classroom. The way that Japanese classes begin and end, with all students standing up to say hello or goodbye, is a really great way to define the period.
It lets the kids know that class has officially started or ended, and I feel that it goes a long way in putting them in the proper mindset to learn. If nothing else, I want to bring this back with me when I return to teaching in America.
To contrast that, is there anything you want to bring from the American classroom into the Japanese classroom?
I do have one thing that I really want to change in my classroom, namely how competitive it is. The teachers in the classroom always want me to single out the students who did the best each day, and I would like to stop that.
Everyone is learning a second language and they are doing their best, so I don’t like the idea of calling our certain student when all of them are working so hard. But I am a Millennial, so perhaps that’s just a product of my upbringing.
How have your experiences within or without the classroom been subverted, exceeded, and what has been unexpected?
I’m not exactly sure what my expectations were when I came here, but I do know that I felt I knew a lot
- Subversion – I didn’t necessarily have many set expectations when I came here, but I thought I was very familiar with the culture, which been proven wrong many times. So feel like that is a pretty obvious subversion.
- Exceeded – It has blown me away just how amicable people have been. My coworkers have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, and my students are so kind and understanding of me when I make mistakes. And I also love Japanese food now. I can’t quite explain it, but it tastes different but better than I had though it would.
- Unexpected – Where I live in Isesaki is a really beautiful place, and that was thoroughly unexpected. I thought I would live in a large city, but instead I’m in a smaller city in the countryside surrounded by gorgeous mountains.
The Last Word
What does the future hold for Malcolm Harper?
As great as Isesaki has been, I am not re-signing for a second year there, and I will be moving on to greener pastures. There’s definitely some remorse about my decision, but for the way that I want to live in Japan, meeting all sorts of people, it’s just not the right fit.
I recently went to the After JET Conference in Tokyo, and one of the speakers there made a really incredible point that I have been thinking about every since: “Instead of asking yourself about what you will be in 5 or 10 years, ask yourself what you will do next.”
Since then I have been asking myself, and from what I have found I know I will be staying in Tokyo for at least another year before I head back home. I want to learn more Japanese and break the glass ceiling that exists for foreigners who cannot speak the language.
As a boy from Kansas, life in the big city of Tokyo seems like a wholly new experience, so I am looking forward to it. After that, I do not know what the future may hold for me.
Malcolm is one of the most genuine people I have met in Gunma, so I knew I wanted to share his story when I started this series.
I hope you enjoyed hearing his story, and if you did please share it with someone new!
Just a simple email, text, or Facebook post! Every little bit helps!
Song of the Week
“Put ’em Up” by Amuro Namie
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!