October 2020

Aviva Ueno, Meiji Gakuin University, Yokohama, Japan

It seems that cultural characteristics are often made the scapegoat when learners’ responses do not meet instructors’ expectations in the EFL/ESL classroom. In Japan, learners are often known for being shy and anxious, and they are generally unwilling to take risks in the language classroom. (Doyon, 2000) This behavior is attributed to Japanese culture, which values indirectness as a form of politeness and as an important part of maintaining group harmony. In the classroom, this often translates into students being reluctant to speak out or express any opinions, particularly those that may differ from their peers.

In the academic English courses that I teach at a private university in Japan, most of my learners either stay silent to avoid making mistakes or consult with a classmate before responding to a question to ensure that their answer is “perfect.” Many learners believe that their English is not good enough and worry that if they speak out and make a mistake, they will lose face among their classmates (King, 2013). It is undeniable that being met with the “wall of silence” (Curtis, 1999) in class is unnerving and has caused many of my colleagues, particularly those who are new to Japan, to wail, “That class was a disaster! I asked questions and my students just looked at me and wouldn’t answer. What am I doing wrong?” King (2013) suggests that the lack of response from Japanese learners is due to psychological and cultural factors as well as teaching methods. Therefore, it may not be that instructors are actually doing anything wrong; perhaps it is that they have not figured out how to adjust their teaching methods vis-à-vis their learners’ cultural backgrounds.

I was as unnerved as my colleagues by my learners’ silence when I first started teaching English in Japan, but after 30 years in the classroom, I have discovered certain tricks or techniques to overcome some of the typical problems that I have encountered. When teaching communication classes, for example, to avoid putting learners on the spot, I give them 2 minutes to confer with their classmates (preferably in English, but in their first language if necessary) before answering. Although that allowance has worked wonders in terms of putting students at ease and improving participation, writing classes are a different story. Research has been conducted on second language (L2) anxiety (Horwitz et al., 1986, Horwitz, 2001), and I have observed numerous cases of L2 writing anxiety in my classes. Most of my learners are so worried about errors in their written work that they will erase an entire sentence (or sometimes the entire passage) if I point out a spelling or small grammatical error during an in-class writing task. (Now I only comment on content and structure in response to their questions, which has reduced their anxiety level.) Or, they will cover their papers as I am walking by to prevent me from seeing what they have written, even though they know it will be collected at the end of class. When asked why they are covering their papers, they say that they are embarrassed to have me see their work. These behaviors are not surprising within the Japanese cultural context, but they do make writing classes difficult, because the purpose of writing is to have your work read by others. However, because it is unproductive to bemoan the aspects of the local culture that can make teaching more challenging, why not embrace the unique aspects of the culture that can work to the advantage of both instructors and learners?

Many excellent writing projects to motivate and inspire learners have appeared in previous editions of SLW News (see, e.g., Shvidko, 2020).I would like to suggest that learner motivation in Japan can be enhanced by employing one of the core sociological features of Japanese culture: The hierarchical relationship that governs all interpersonal relationships within Japanese culture called the sempai (mentor/senior)/kohai (protégé/junior) relationship. In the context of education, one’s sempai is any upperclassman from the same institution. This relationship continues even after both sempai and kohai have graduated, and applies to anybody who has ever belonged to the same institution. Kohai rely heavily on their sempai for guidance, and sempai feel a strong sense of responsibility toward their kohai, even if they do not know each other personally. I discovered that this very powerful relationship can be an effective way to help Japanese learners overcome their writing anxiety and increase their motivation to write. It can also help instructors create more interesting and meaningful writing assignments.

The idea came to me as I was remotely teaching 17 Japanese learners who were studying abroad in eight non-English-speaking countries from September 2019 to January 2020. My teaching consisted of setting and responding to writing assignments. Rather than assigning academic essays, learners were assigned to write journal entries about different aspects of their study abroad experience. Though I thought writing journal entries would be more interesting than academic essays for my learners, I had an ulterior motive when I set the assignments. I was also teaching an on-site preparation course for learners who were planning to study abroad in the next academic year, and I wanted to gather practical information from their sempai who were currently studying abroad. I particularly wanted to know about the challenges they were facing academically and culturally and how they were coping with those challenges so that I could incorporate their experiences into my lessons as case studies. In addition to writing about their experiences, the sempai were asked to write about what kind of advice they would give to their kohaiwho were preparing to go abroad.

At first, I did not explicitly tell the sempai that I was planning to (anonymously) share their experiences and advice with their kohai, but when I received their assignments with advice for their kohai, I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed by how much effort and enthusiasm they put into their responses. Inspired by this, I wrote to the sempai and asked for their consent to share their work with their study-abroad bound kohai. I was not even sure that I would get a reply, considering how reluctant learners are to share their written work, but I was amazed to hear back from all 17 of the sempai, giving me their consent. Theywere pleased that I thought their work was worth sharing, and they were excited to be good sempai and help their kohai. Miku (all names are pseudonyms) studying in Spain, wrote “I would be very happy and honored if you use my essay for the students who are going to study abroad in the future….Hope my essay will help them to prepare for studying abroad.” Takashi, studying in Lithuania, wrote, “I’m glad to hear that my experiences would be helpful for somebody who wants to study abroad. I hope the experiences which I felt while studying abroad will be used for next challengers [sic].”

The advice for their kohai ranged from urging them to study English and the local language intensively (for those planning to study in non-English-speaking countries) before studying abroad to advice about coping with differences in climate and cuisine, how to stay safe, the best forms of money to use (e.g., cash in Cambodia, credit cards in Korea), and a reminder that the outlets and voltages are different, depending on the country. Moreover, they urged their kohai to make friends with local people and learners from other countries besides Japan and to research their destination country and university beforehand. A comment that I found particularly interesting was from Nobu, studying in Spain. He wrote:

Regarding communication with other foreign students, you do not need to feel inferiority if you do not have confidence in your English skills. At first, I hesitate to speak English because I did not have confidence in my English. Even though I determined not to hesitate to communicate with other international students before I got here, I got nervous and became shy when I face this situation. However, while I talked with many international friends, I found that no one demand accurate pronunciation and perfect grammar from me, so now I can enjoy talking with many friends. (Nobu, Spain)

Thank you, Nobu! I often say words similar to those written by Nobu, particularly about pronunciation and grammar, but the reaction from my learners is almost always “No! I can’t do it! I am too shy! My English is not good enough!” But when these words came from their sempai,they were much more meaningful and impactful.

Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all study abroad programs in Japan have been suspended, preventing me, for now, from following up on how effective the sempai’s advice was in helping their kohai prepare for studying abroad. However, the enthusiasm that the sempai displayed in these assignments and their willingness to let me share their work with their kohai shows that giving Japanese learners writing assignments with an important purpose and an authentic audience, within the sempai/kohai relationship, can help learners overcome their writing anxiety and make their writing assignments more meaningful.


Curtis, A. (1999). The sound of silence. English Teaching Professional, 10, 12–13.

Doyon, P. (2000). Shyness in the Japanese EFL class: Why it is a problem, what causes it, and what to do about it. The Language Teacher, 24(1). https://jalt-publications.org/articles/24571-shyness-japanese-efl-class-why-it-problem-what-it-iswhat-causes-it-and-what-do-about

Horwitz, E. K. (2001). Language anxiety and achievement. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, (21),112–126.

Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M., & Cope, J. A. (1986). Foreign language classroom anxiety. Modern Language Journal, 70(2), 125–132.

King, J. (2013). Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities. Applied Linguistics, 34(3), 325–343.

Shvidko, E. (2020, March). Course projects to help students write for audiences beyond the classroom. SLW News.http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolslwis/issues/2020 03-16/3.html

Aviva Ueno is an assistant professor in the Faculty of International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan. Her main areas of interest are using technology to facilitate language acquisition, maintaining learner motivation, and promoting reflective practice. She holds a master’s in TESOL from Anaheim University (California).