Comparing My First English Classes in China and Japan

Page No.: 
Aaron Matthew Ozment, The International University of Kagoshima Graduate School

This issue’s Teaching Assistance column highlights the work of Aaron Ozment, who majored in music at Oakland University and recently began studying poetry as a graduate student in the field of English Education. In between those academic milestones he gained teaching experience in English classrooms in China and Japan. His essay describes, compares, and analyzes his experiences in the two locations.

The first English class that I ever taught was in November, 2009. I had gotten off a plane the night before and was greeted at Kunming Airport in China. I was given a textbook and was told that the next day that classes were to start. This startled me, but, I took the textbook, sat down to study it, and decided to do my best on my first day. Two students appeared in the classroom the next morning, both of moderate English level, neither of whom seemed interested in what I had to say. The TOEFL textbook was of little use. Over the course of the day, I learned what the students and everybody else expected of me. It dawned on me that I had become an English test invigilator (Figure 1).

I endured three and a half years in the Chinese educational system, and that first class introduced me to so many of the obstacles that I would meet over and over again in the future. This resistance to learning was what I was up against in China from the very beginning. I struggled for months to empathize with my students who actively wanted to resist learning. It did not make sense to me on any possible level. Abstract general learning, which I believed would gradually improve test scores of its own accord, was verboten, and I was ordered by my supervisor to stick to the subject at hand. Any attempts to deviate from the textbook were met with resistance and attempts to build creativity were met with the same opposition from the students.

Over the course of the next nine months, I would spend three mornings a week with these two students and sometimes a third. It was in this class that I realized, for the first time, that some people do not like school, and some people do not like learning. I had always loved school, and while I had complained about it constantly, I had always assumed that the other people who criticized it also did so from a place of actual love. I had thought that our constant griping was simply something that we all did as a form of bonding and from the playful exaggeration of minor quibbles. Over time, I was able, through constant persistence and over many objections, to get the students to use their English constructively. My experience in China, positive though it had finally come to be, convinced me that language students needed to be brought to heel before they could be shown kindness.

My First English Classes in Japan

I carried the teaching beliefs that I had learned in China with me to Japan: Children need their boundaries and limits first. When I began teaching at Eishin Elementary school in Iruma, Saitama. I began by being serious, by being strict, and by the constant use of drilling and repetition (Figure 2).

I began my first class by being incredibly strict, by being serious, by getting every student in every class in every session to repeat every word from their assignments perfectly; and I did not stop until everyone had done it. The class was stressful, dull, and all too reminiscent of my time in China. Students who were called were made to speak, and students who were not called were forced to be silent (to the extent that they could be). The class procedure involved demonstration, repetition, and troubleshooting—over and over and over. Very quickly, the students developed a dislike for me, and for English, and while I maintained order very well, I was not accomplishing very much in the way of raising anybody’s English level.

At the same time, I was also teaching at a number of smaller schools in the area, and with the small class sizes (six kids versus forty) I began to notice what I had seemingly forgotten: Children love to learn. I decided to utilize the childhood energy I had been trying to clamp down on, and in the late autumn of that year, I decided to do things completely different.

I began teaching classes in the character of Handsome President Oz and made such a fool of myself that the students felt no shame doing anything that they were asked to do. I began to demonstrate target language for them in exaggerated ways and in ways that would make them want to copy me for the sheer joy of laughing at something so ridiculous.

Previous classes would consist of demonstrations, corrections, and repetition. These were done in an interrogatory way, utilizing peer pressure and public performance to force children into paying attention. After the creation of Handsome President Oz, the same basic method of demonstration, correction, and repetition remained, but it was handled differently. Rather than demonstrating a sound, I created a sound with an associated action that could be enjoyably mimicked by a student. In that way, even if the sound failed, they could move and still gain approval. Students tend to love mocking their teachers through the mimicry of particular gestures and ticks, so, I asked the students to volunteer to see who could mimic me. Then, students were encouraged to one up each other in a competition of who could copy, or even exaggerate, to the greatest degree. Thus, the embarrassment was largely deflected. Fixing the problems then became entertaining as I began to mimic and exaggerate their mistakes, allowing them to hear or see them easily, to understand the problem, and to fix their mistakes without embarrassment.

Comparing My Debut English Classes

Zhao et al. (2015, p. 8) claim, ‘Currently, there is no good educational program tailored to the psychological, social, and cultural needs of Chinese students—[sic]one that attends to the fundamental human needs for a sense of safety, self-efficacy, and social connection to both peers and adults.’ Countering this, MEXT (Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 2018, June 15), included in Chapter 3 of its measures to be implemented comprehensively and systematically for the next five years, it was stated that ‘with the aim of recognizing excellent performance by teachers and raising motivation of other teachers so as to widely acquire people’s trust and respect for teachers in society, the government is promoting measures for award systems for excellent teachers.’ I think that these fully summarize the differences of the school systems between the two countries and my class experiences. In Japan, students and teachers are encouraged to build trust-based relationships and encouragement. I failed to understand the differences in teaching systems when I first entered them. Japanese schools encourage a sense of camaraderie, and the popular or successful teachers are those who can get everyone on the same team, so to speak. Moreover, there is an expectation that this is the goal of an ideal classroom. In Japan, I came to appreciate that it was all fine and good, even laudable, to lighten up the classroom. Trust and collaboration are the basic expectation in Japan, and teachers must live up to that.

In China, the mutual distrust between students and educators is taken for granted. The Chinese students I taught generally had an adversarial relationship with the teachers. My experience led me to concur with Lin’s (1993) findings that little progress has been made towards mutual trust. Based on a historical perspective of classrooms in the People’s Republic of China, from 1949 to 1978, teachers were generally distrusted and disliked by the government. Teachers suffered labelling, such as Class Enemies, being sent to re-education camps, and the many trials and horrors of The Red Terror, where students were encouraged to turn on their teachers.

The greatest difference between Japanese and Chinese educational systems appears to be the relationships between students and teachers. The expectation of trust allows for Japanese students to progress further and encourages teachers to attempt to find newer and more effective ways to engage with students. The value of trust and mutual understanding between teachers and students goes back to the Confucian ideals that underpin early Japanese education and were even part of the original Imperial Rescript on Education (Ikemoto, 1996).

On the other hand, the Chinese system, as it stands, needs to encourage trust and understanding between teachers and students. Much of this can be done by further working to improve the status of teachers in China. Many Chinese parents grew up under the old system of disliking and distrusting teachers, and many of my experiences, and my colleagues’ experiences, were shaped by this experience. Furthermore, the pay of teachers in Chinese schools is quite low relative to its workload. Anecdotally, most Chinese I have met have stories of teachers selling answers, selling seat positions in class, selling tutoring sessions for their own tests, and other things of this sort. I have witnessed this personally.

Japanese teachers are well paid, well trusted, highly motivated, and have a high status in a society that encourages people to like, trust, and look up to them. China does not offer any of these benefits to teachers in nearly the same way. I look forward to a future where Chinese educators can have their students’ trust and teach more effectively. To that end, I recommend the following:

  • Raise Chinese teachers’ salaries and monitor attempts at supplemental income.
  • Encourage administration to support teachers in confrontation with parents.
  • Create a system for conflict resolution between teachers, students, and parents.
  • Measure teacher success on students’ social progress, not merely on Gaokao results.
  • Discourage teachers from artificially inflating or deflating academic results.

With these suggestions, I learned from my experiences of teaching in Japan and with other reforms, the Chinese educational system can be improved greatly.

Analyzing the Early Development of My Teaching Beliefs

My opinion regarding language acquisition has developed into the belief that learning a new language guarantees that a learner will make mistakes. These mistakes are, for most students, embarrassing. Wishing to avoid embarrassment, many (Japanese?) people tend not to speak. This causes weaker skills, causing less speaking. It is a downward spiral. However, the more a person speaks, the more confident they will feel, causing more speaking, improvement, and a positive feedback loop. The fewer mistakes a student makes, the more likely they are to speak more often. Which mistakes can be corrected the most quickly? Based on my teaching experiences in China and Japan, I believe the answer is pronunciation. Students who can master a dozen sounds found in English but not in Japanese are able to pronounce any English word and sound impressive when they do it. In my experience, once pronunciation is fixed, the language comes of its own accord, as students like to sound cool in a foreign language. Improved pronunciation is also something that they can be complimented on by people who do not even speak their target language, allowing for constant positive feedback.


Ikemoto, T. (1996). Thesis research: Moral education in Japan; Implications for American schools. Moral Issues, 2(1). Retrieved from

Lin, J. (1993). Chinese teachers’ social status and authority in the classroom: A historical perspective. McGill Journal of Education, 28(2). Retrieved from

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2018, June 15). The third basic plan for the promotion of education. Retrieved from

Zhao, X., Selman, R. L., & Haste, H. (2015). Academic stress in Chinese schools and a proposed preventive intervention program. Cogent Education, 2(1), 1-14.