Japanese teacher discovers China through the classroom

Yuya Yamada from Nagoya once had a vague notion of becoming a volunteer teacher. Starting with his boot-camp training, he never suspected what that would involve

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 12:03pm

Yuya Yamada hales from Nagoya, Japan. After graduating from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, he decided to volunteer teaching Japanese in China. The 28-year-old passed the difficult selection and training of a Japanese government-backed volunteer training programme before arriving in Wuhan two years ago. He now teaches in Shenzhen.

What did you do in Japan, and why did you come to China?

I wasn’t a teacher in Japan. I came to China, for several reasons, after I graduated. The main reason was that my research topic for my master’s degree was Japanese-language teaching for Chinese-speaking students. China was naturally the place to make use of my specialties.

I had also met many Chinese students at university and we became friends. I didn’t speak Chinese, although I had an interest in Chinese culture. Going to China would mean a chance to learn the language and culture.

How did you become involved in volunteering?

I applied to the government-backed Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) programme, which is widely known in Japan.

They had many requirements. Probably the toughest were the strict health checks, which is also part of what the programme is famous for. I took the medical check up a couple of times – the medics just wanted to be sure we were 100 per cent well.

Then I had to pass a paper exam on basic knowledge about teaching Japanese before I could move on to several rounds of interviews. After all this, I could finally join the volunteer programme.

As ready as you were, was everything the same as you were taught before arriving in China?

Actually, there were still big differences between the training and the real situation – language was probably the biggest problem. At the time my Mandarin was not good enough. And people in Wuhan speak mandarin in a very Wuhanese style.

At the beginning I had really had problems understanding them. It took me a month or two just to start getting used to their accent.
Yuya Yamada

At the beginning I had really had problems understanding them. It took me a month or two just to start getting used to their accent. Eventually, after two years, I finally mastered Wuhanese. Now that I have moved to Shenzhen, I can probably still understand maybe 70 or 80 per cent of what Wuhan people say go back to visit the city.

How did you teach?

I wanted to teach Japanese using only the Japanese language, but their Japanese proficiency was not good enough, so I needed to use Chinese to teach Japanese, even though my Chinese was not very good, either.

The first year was quite tough. I had to study Chinese while doing so much other work. In the second year things became much easier. After a year of learning and using Chinese every day, I started to be able to explain Japanese grammar in Chinese. At the same time, some of my students had really improved to the point that we could communicate in Japanese. When I didn’t understand a Chinese word or had a problem with a Chinese expression, I would ask my students, and they tried to explain that to me. That was really good. While I picked up Chinese, they also picked up Japanese. That’s a good two-way learning.

Why do your students want to study Japanese?

Most of my students are from middle class families. It was a vocational school with a training programme to send some students to Japan to work in hotels and other places. To qualify, students had to take the class and pass a Japanese language exam. That was the main reason they studied Japanese.

But some also really wanted to learn Japanese well. They studied harder, and it improves their Japanese dramatically.

Can you tell us about your best student?

Every student is best for me. But one in particular, named Li, has made a great difference.

His Japanese was quite poor in the beginning. But over the next year, he participated in the Central and Southern China Japanese speech contest, and then went on to win third place in the All China competition. Now he is preparing for higher study in Japan. His change was impressive.

Have you encountered any anti-Japanese sentiment in China?

Yes, I have, a couple of times. I think every Japanese living in China more or less has this kind of experience.

Once some Chinese find out that I’m Japanese they want to let me know their opinions about issues between Japan and China.
Yuya Yamada

Once some Chinese find out that I’m Japanese they want to let me know their opinions about issues between Japan and China. They usually explain their opinions about politics, about the Japanese government, which are in the newspaper or online.

But it is not that big a problem. Everyone has different opinions. I understand what they want to say and I understand why these things are that way. It’s not personal so I don’t feel offended or scared.

What do young Japanese your age think of China?

It’s really hard to tell. Honestly, some of my friends from school don’t know much about China. For them it’s just a country out there, nothing special and they don’t care. They don’t have Chinese friends. They aren’t interested.

But some people from other schools may think differently. Probably if they have Chinese friends or if they know Chinese people personally they would probably view China differently.

It’s really difficult to generalise about young Japanese people’s ideas. But I think those who are more informed would think going to China was cool.