Having been in the Japanese education system, as a student and teacher, for four years in total now, it seems fit to discuss some of the differences in the educational system in Japan compared to many Western nations.
Simply put, the way of teaching things at my university–especially languages–eventually made me hate attending classes. Whether or not this is something that is hugely widespread in Japan, I do not really know, but I know that there are at least some aspects of this that can apply to other places there, even if all of it can’t. I have heard from my Japanese friends that the teaching methods are similar to how it was in their primary & secondary schools, so I guess it is pretty universal after all. It was the same as my experience in high school back in Tokyo as well.
At my Japanese university, I noticed a huge emphasis on memorisation as a means of ‘learning’, but what many professors and teachers do not seem to realize is the fact that memorizing things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to use them in conversation–or that while memorisation alone may be a viable learning method for some students, it does not work for everyone, but that is a problem not limited solely to Japan.
At Ritsumeikan, it was very common for my professors, teaching us conversational Japanese skills, to just teach by having us memorise phrases or even entire conversations, without explaining the grammatical structures or why the phrases are the way they are. The end result was that I knew that single, set phrase, but I never quite learned how to piece it together myself if I forgot the full phrase and I did not know how to modify it for use in other circumstances, nor would I necessarily be able to recognise it if someone is using a similar phrase or grammatical structure while talking to me. I think this is the main reason as to why my Japanese has not improved as much as I would have liked it to by now, not being taught outside the box, so to speak.
This is also very common in classes of other subjects as well. Regardless if it was a politics, history, or even media classes, if they were taught by a Japanese native, there was a 90% chance of them focusing solely on memorisation. We would not even have to attend classes, due to the fact that the professors themselves would just read word-for-word off the power point slides and then have the final exam or paper require us to regurgitate the exact phrases/information in order to get points.
Do not get me wrong, a few of my other teachers were fantastic and I learned a lot from them! Unfortunately, this sort of trend in teaching seemed to be pretty common beyond the select few.
Friends who have worked as English teaching assistants in schools, as well as the Japanese who experienced it themselves, said that they noticed the same methods in classes in JHS and high schools; students at these schools were not taught to communicate, but to memorise and rattle off set phrases, and while they sounded fluent standing at the front of the class doing their speeches entirely from memory, they literally could not engage in basic conversation.
I suspect that this is down to the need for good grades and getting into good schools and universities; the emphasis is less on actual communication skills in a foreign language or information retention, but more so much as passing the exams and getting the necessary grades regardless of whether or not you can actually speak the language. Their priorities are simply different, and do not really work very well for international students learning Japanese.
I am now teaching English in a few different schools, and most of my students tell me that the reason they have such a hard time with English, even after studying it everyday for at least 6 years, is all due to them simply having to memorise and regurgitate the exact information.This and the combination of the monotonous way that we are taught did not take long to make me struggle to get up for classes in the morning.
We did the exact same things almost every day: we read the new grammar point, we read through every single example sentence, we did the exercises, we gave all of our answers for the individual questions, we moved on and repeated the process. Pretty much every single day.
There was little to no variation in anything, and it made for a very dull learning environment which, in turn, made me less able to concentrate and less willing to put the work in. Plus, in Japan where attendance in classes was more important than whether or not you are actually paying attention in class; as long as you showed up, they didn’t seem to really care too much about how well you were doing. On the other hand, if you missed too many classes, even if you were still excelling in the tests, you could automatically fail.
Disclaimer: This information is based on my personal experiences as a high school student for 1 year and university student for 3 years in Japan, along with teaching for 3 years a a certified language teacher in the private & public school system here. Testimonials and research was taken from other expats and native Japanese to gain further insight into the topic.