Takeshi Kajigaya is an English Discussion Instructor at the Center for English Discussion Class at Rikkyo University, Japan. He earned his M.A. in Second Language Studies from University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2014. Takeshi taught English in various contexts from private tutoring to a university in Japan, the U.S., and China. His current research interests include Japan’s English language education policy, language ideology, and language and identity.
Interviewed by: Hami Suzuki
1.Could you tell us about your educational and professional background? What led you to become one of the instructors in your current position
Takeshi: First of all, I would like to say thank you for giving me this valuable opportunity! I am happy to share my experience with other professional teachers all over the world.
I was born and lived in Japan for 22 years until I entered a graduate school in the U.S. Since I was very young, I was interested in communicating in English but felt stressed in typical grammar-translation classrooms without much communication. Then, when I was in college in Japan, I learned about fields such as Second Language Acquisition or Language Planning and Policy (LPP), and became interested in them as I thought I could analyze Japan’s English education more objectively in those fields. I chose to enter the graduate school at University of Hawaii at Manoa to mainly study LPP, but I also became interested in notions, such as World Englishes or language ideology, thanks to all the interesting courses, professors, and classmates.
After I left the U.S., I chose China to kick off my career as a professional teacher mainly for two reasons: One is because I wanted to see English education in China, as East Asian education shares some features including high-stake entrance exams and teacher-student relationship. I have wanted to contribute to Japan’s English education for long, so I thought it would benefit me to look at similar situations in East Asia – how similar and how different they are, or what kind of ideologies/problems (if any) are shared. The other reason I chose China is to challenge native-speakerism as an ideology. I wanted to prove that a non-native could teach English in other non-English speaking countries. In relation to that, I also wanted to present myself as a role-model to Chinese students so that they could hopefully realize they do not have to be restricted by their nationality, native language, or world’s ideology.
I left China after 2 years, as I thought I was ready to experience Japan’s English education as a teacher. I chose Rikkyo because I thought the small class-size with 7-9 students per class seemed desirable/unique to teach language.
2. Prior to moving to Tokyo to teach, you were teaching in China. What were some challenges and memorable moments teaching there?
Takeshi: Just like any other people who have lived abroad, the first and biggest challenges I felt were various cultural differences and language barriers. I hardly knew culturally appropriate ways to behave in class, school, and society.
In addition, the teaching situation itself was challenging as well. I was working for Chongqing University (CQU) in Chongqing, and the institution was obviously the largest institution I had ever taught. I was mainly teaching mandatory English class to freshmen, where I taught 20-30 students per class, and 400-500 students every semester (and the class was only 45-minute long in the first semester!). Apparently organizing a class was the biggest challenge in such an environment, but for someone whose Chinese proficiency is low, even pronouncing students’ Chinese names took some time. Thankfully most students had English names, but then remembering 800-1,000 students’ names every year became a good brain exercise for me.
Even so, 2 years at CQU is still one of the most memorable time for me, and I would be happy to go back teaching in China if I have chance in the future. Every time I was stressed with cultural/language differences, my students and institution were willing to help me, and that was an unexpected, positive culture shock to me. I was surprised how friendly the students were — they always asked me if I needed any help or had any trouble, invited me to dinner, or sent me lots of gifts, cards, and kind words. Some of them even said I had changed their ways to see a teacher in general and a non-native English teacher. I gave a speech at a TEDx conference in 2016, and I was moved that the half of the audience were my students, most of who had exams the very next day (and thus had to leave after my speech, leaving a half-empty venue).
There is too much to talk about my experience in China, but overall, I could enjoy teaching there thanks to my colleagues and students.
3. You are now an English Discussion Instructor at Rikkyo University. Could you share with us more about your experiences teaching there? As a Japanese instructor, what are the benefits and challenges of teaching English to Japanese students in English?
Takeshi: Since the program has a strong English-only policy, I think one of the benefits for students is that they can feel safer to use English only under a Japanese instructor. There are many more benefits for students in terms of class efficacy, but to answer your question, I see more challenges than benefits as a Japanese instructor.
The biggest challenge is that most students do not expect that a Japanese instructor teaches English in English. Due to the strong English-only policy, usually I stop my students using Japanese in class. I also have to respond to my students’ questions (whether they are in English or Japanese) in English. At first this situation gave both my students and me confusion as to how to behave in class, organize the class, and communicate with each other. I even felt bad as I thought I was unnecessarily distantiating myself from my students.
Sometimes students try to communicate in “Japanese English” such as “pasokon” (personal computer) or “eakon” (air conditioner), and the fact I can understand what they mean can be both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, I can understand what they want to say and correct them, but on the other hand, I myself sometimes do not realize those words do not make sense in English as I am so used to them.
I have experienced some other challenges to teach English as a Japanese instructor, but let me get back to this issue later.
4. Your research interest includes language policy, and your Master’s graduate paper focused on the development in English educational policies in Japan. Now that you are teaching students who have gone through the English education system in Japan, what have you observed from the students? What are some positive impacts from the English education on students? Do you see any challenges?
Takeshi: Even though Japan’s public education policy has been revised every 10 years or so, and I see policy makers have put much effort to improve English education, I do not feel students’ English has improved (or worsened) compared to when I was teaching in Japan or I was a student.
Students have a good base in English and I am not saying accumulating grammatical knowledge for entrance exams is wasteful or anything. The biggest challenge that students have is that they simply do not know how to use the base to communicate, or they do not realize that they can totally communicate in English. If English education and teacher education could focus more on these aspects, I am sure students would be more confident in English by the time they graduate from high schools.
5. The process of teacher identity negotiation is usually highly individual (i.e. takes place between the individual and co-workers, students, administrators etc.) and multifaceted. Tsui (2007) suggests that agency is also a big part of shaping teachers’ identities, but points out that agency may be restricted by their socio-professional environments. What experiences and factors have been influential in your own teacher identity development?
Takeshi: It is really multi-faceted. My personality, past schooling experience and teaching experience all contributed to my identity formation.
Since I was very young, I have liked to communicate with others, talk in front of the audience, and help others. Simply, I liked the feeling of controlling the atmosphere and the audience. Although typical Japanese classrooms, which expect students to be quiet rather than to “stand out”, were not the best places to do so, that schooling experience conversely reinforced my identity to want to be unique in terms of gathering attention. In addition, I have also liked to be unrestricted and “do what I want to do”. I had a study-abroad experience in the U.S. and teaching experience China, both of which were what I simply felt were “right” to do, and I was always satisfied with my decisions. These personalities have become my core identity and they were reinforced at my first workplace in China. I had reactive, intelligent, and hardworking students, and I felt complete freedom as a Japanese instructor who was teaching English in China, where I was not restricted by either Japanese or Chinese cultural standards.
Interestingly, teaching at a Japanese university had challenged these identities. After I came back to Japan and started to teach as a Japanese instructor, what I experienced first was reverse-culture shock, such as relatively quiet classrooms or more formal relationship between the teacher and students than China, or as mentioned above, students’ expectation to a Japanese instructor. I felt students were expecting me to merely give knowledge from “somewhere higher” and not deviate from that job duty as a “professional”. I preferred a closer relationship with students, but my race, appearance, Japanese name etc. all prevented me from doing so. Speaking from an identity perspective, I could not express myself enough due to the environment, could not feel I was of help to my students as they did not express their emotions much, and I felt I was finally restricted by my profession.
This view has changed when students started to question my linguistic background. Since I was solely using English inside and outside class, at one point students started to say things like “Takeshi, Do you REALLY speak Japanese?” or “Does Takeshi REALLY understand Japanese?”. With this shift, both students and I started to reconstruct my teacher identity into “a Japanese instructor who pretends not to understand Japanese”. I would say this is a type of “Third Space” (Bhabha, 1994), where each individual brings their own cultural baggage to create a “space” where no monolithic cultural or linguistic value exists. Once students and I realized where we were and who I was, we could finally build a good rapport, and I feel I could express myself enough without feeling restricted.
6. What advice would you give to students who would like to be an English teacher like you?
Takeshi: I would say “study English” – and by “English”, I mean deeper knowledge than four skills. If one wants to merely communicate using English, their primary focus can/should be on communicative ability and they need not care too much about “correct” or “incorrect” English. However, as a teacher, I believe we need more than that. We need to know what “correctness” means in (which version of) English, we need to know the danger to present one English as a “correct” version, and we need to know what is important to communicate in English in today’s globalized world.
Bhabha, H. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Tsui, A. (2007). Complexities of identity formation: A narrative inquiry of an EFL teacher. Tesol Quarterly, 41(4), 657-680.