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O Fim duma Viagem

Revenge of the Projects

JAPAN | Tuesday, 24 May 2016 | Views [271]

I haven't mentioned it in a while, so I bet you forgot about the projects that we had to do for class, didn't you? Yeah, me too…

A few weeks ago, there had been a takoyaki party at CET, with a lot of roommates and CET+ plus Japanese people had been there and willing to fill out surveys and do interviews. So I'd asked about 10 people. Combined with the volunteers who had come to be interviewed and my half-hearted attempts to approach strangers with a clipboard, this gave me nearly enough participants to pass the project. I was calling it close enough, at any rate.

One trend I noticed with people answering the survey was that they tended to stumble over the question “name five famous books and authors” and would pull out their phones or start talking to friends, or else ask if three was enough. Curious, I decided to ask the same question of the Americans both in the program and who I knew from college. And what I found out is that the issue comes with the “and author” part. Because people remember a lot more titles than they remember titles and associated authors, and they can get tripped up over things like the accent in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s name. My success rate would have been a lot higher if I hadn't listened to Yamaguchi-sensei when she told me to ask for authors as well.

Anyway, that was that for data collection. Next we moved on to analysis. This is what the two hours of project work following the exam had been about, and beyond those two hours we were supposed to work on it on our own. Our task was to notice trends, and describe them. Then we should compile our data into one or two nice graphs and write and memorize a speech for the other students and teachers.

My two graphs were on which Japanese authors were read in high school (although I had a number of people misunderstand the question and seem to answer which authors they'd read overall, which would have made for another interesting question…) and, of about ten canonical books Americans read in high school, which ones they've read.

I think I've mentioned the main result of the latter graph already, but it bears repeating. Tom Sawyer. That was the only high school canon book Japanese people read. Over half the people I asked had read it. By contrast, only one or two people had read To Kill a Mockingbird or 1984. No one that I asked had read The Odyssey. But they've read Tom Sawyer.

The other thing that stood out was that most of the Japanese people had read Natsume Soseki in high school. There's an involved explanation for why I find this so surprising, and it was generally too much work to explain it in any language to people who weren't exactly interested. So you had better be interested, because I'm going through the work of explaining it.

When I was in high school, I was involved in “quiz bowl,” an activity where you learn a lot about different subjects so you can answer questions about them. My specialty was literature. As such I had to learn key details of works and authors, such as “ending with him burning down the title structure” was probably referring to Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and “went out of his way to run over a turtle” describes a scene in Grapes of Wrath.

In this capacity, I was also responsible for writing questions. So not only did I need to know way more than the average high schooler about literature, I still needed to keep in touch with what you could expect high schoolers to know. Both the works you could expect a reasonably inspired high schooler who had never really studied for quiz bowl to have at least heard of, and the works you could expect someone who did study to learn. When it comes to Japanese literature, these are both kind of small categories. Tale of Genji and haiku are both more or less free game. Anything else you can expect to go unanswered in a lot of rooms, but certain other authors, like Yukio Mishima or Yasunari Kawabata can be asked about without earning you too much grief, as long as you acknowledge they're on the harder side.

When I was a junior, the literature question writer a year above me got a lot of grief for asking about Natsume Soseki. Because you could not expect high schoolers to know him. By the time I graduated he was moving his way into the hard part of the cannon, but he was not, as the previous writer claimed so frequently it became a running joke, “so easy.”

Here's the thing: in Japan, Soseki is. Out of my short list of famous Japanese authors, the most read were Lady Murasaki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Natsume Soseki. The least read were Yukio Mishima and Kenaburo Oe. And not by a small margin. Upwards of 10 people had read Natsume Soseki. Around three had read Yukio Mishima.

It gets better. An interview question was “what was your favorite book that you read in high school? Why?” I got a lot of answers, but two clear responses emerged. Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji, because it was famous and a love story (the latter being more commonly given by females, but I had a guy or two say it as well) and, because it was easy to read, Natsume Soseki’s I am a Cat. The book that so many Americans had said was not easy, and that you couldn't expect high schoolers to know turned out to be famous and easy to read and remember in Japan.

It was an interesting cultural difference, and the exact sort of thing I'd been unwittingly hoping to find with the project. Because of course Americans and Japanese are going to read different books in high school. Of course Japanese education is going to teach primarily books written in Japanese by famous Japanese people, and American schools will teach books written in English, with a decent focus on books written by Americans. What's less obvious is that, even in the context of authors famous in Japan/authors famous in America, there is a difference. And it's not ground-breaking, or probably even that interesting to people who aren't me. But I found it fascinating.

Summarizing everything I just wrote into a grammatically accurate Japanese speech which I then had to memorize and recite in front of twenty people was less fun. But when I saw several members of the audience widen their eyes when I said “Tom Sawyer is popular in Japan,” or “In the US, Yukio Mishima is considered to be more famous than Natsume Soseki,” it was almost worth all of the pain and frustration of the project just to be able to share some of that interest with other people. Almost worth it.

Tags: authors, japanese, literature, projects, survey

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