28 June 2011

Debating Culture Shock

I've gotten involved in coaching the Japan World Schoolies, the Japanese team going to the World Schools Debating Competition (WSDC) 2011 in Scotland. It came about very randomly...

A month or so after arriving in Japan, it occurred to me that as I was teaching my students debating anyway, why not enter them in some competitions? Finding the relevant info in English was a struggle. Even the Prefectural Board of Education had to scramble for it when I requested their assistance. Eventually I found a Japanese website and using Google translate (official sponsor of my low motivation to study Japanese), I could sort of read it. It turned out to be too late to enter my kids in the 2010 Prefectural competition...boo...

A few months later it occurred to me to email the Japanese debating powers that be, to see if I couldn't become involved in some other way. I contacted all kinds of random people. I would comb past WUDC tabs, deciphering abbreviations to find the Japanese universities who had sent teams. Then I'd comb their institutional websites for information on the English department. Finally, all the English staff with readily accessible email addresses were bombarded with emails, albeit apologetic and pleading ones. If you're not the person responsible, could you PLEASE direct me to the person who is?...0 response.

The hook that took was a message I sent to a man involved in the All-Japan high schools debating competition. I'd volunteered to help coach the team that had (already) been chosen for WSDC 2011. My orignial message was fairly presumptuous. Suffice to say I exaggerated my university debating success...impling that I was a complete hotshot without actually naming anything I had (not) won. He replied a few months later and in fact apologised for the delay, to which my response was, 'Well it's awfully decent of you to get back to me at all, complete sham face that I am for having cold-written you in the first place'.

From him, I got the email address of the amazing Japan WSDC team coach, and she allowed me to visit them in the (not too inconveniently located) city of Urawa, Saitama Prefecture. Yes, I spend much of that Saturday on the Shinkansen but it literally could not have been more worth it! The team is a really smart group of 1 2-nensei and 3 3-nensei girls. I've visited them twice more since and am consistently blown away by their English ability and general smarts. In truth, I'm also pretty chuffed that they're all girls...I mean how unlikely was that? Not that it matters, and it didn't occur to me until a while after I first me them, but it is statistically not what you'd expect. Yay!

In all in anyways, a few prep sessions later I finally got to meet the coach who'd allowed me access to these lingual prodigies. She told me about the Japan Parliamentary Debating Union's Pre-Australs 2011 tournament, which was held last Sunday, June 26th. (I can only hope my preference for the American date format will fade when I leave Japan!) In an incredible display of good faith, she put in a good word for me with the organisers and I judged at it. The incredulity of the faith was due to my never having seen, let along adjudicated an AustralAsian style debate. Nevertheless, I gathered up my complicated directions to the Yagami Campus of Keio University, Kanagawa Prefecture and was on my way...

...to debating culture shock!

The first divergence from the familiar inter-varsity format of previous competitions I've attended was the schedule, which rather than being a black and white page filled with boring, practical info, was a choice of 3 adorably coloured and illustrated booklets. Totemo kawaii deshita ne! Needless to say I choose the most pink one before proceeding inside to the base lecture hall.

The lounging around with between 50 and 100 people waiting for the competition to commence was pretty much exactly like being at an Irish competition. Of course, I recognised less people and more of them were Japanese. Shock number two was when I looked at the list of teams including names printed in the booklet...how convenient (Note to Irish debate conveners: HOW CONVENIENT). It avoids those unnecessary 'how do you spell that?' questions that chair judges have to ask speakers. Also, 'what is your name?' if they're happy to guesstimate who is who on the team and risk mixing up speaker points (which barely matter anyway).

Anyway, during my perusal of the delightfully formatted participants list, I found the names of two veteran British debaters. Eeeeeeeeeeee? But yes indeed, they were speaking in the competition! Having arrived in Tokyo the previous day and being booked to teach an AustralAsians boot camp for Japanese debaters, they'd been encouraged to speak at Pre-Australs. It was incredibly weird to randomly meet people I recognised from home in Japan. That just doesn't happen in a country this big with so few British and Irish people. Then again, I suppose the international debate circuit's a bit odd. It's a pretty big internationalising force..like I suppose any major international community with a common pastime and an international competition.

It was a twisted kind of culture shock I felt then. Something like...you're not supposed to be here, you're Caucasian and not American/Canadian. You're not speaking slowly all the time as if explaining something to a non-native speaker. You don't pepper your speech with Japanese terms that you don't think of as actual Japanese, but are in fact Japanese and as such can't be understood by English speakers who don't live in Japan ( like genki, enkai, combini, chou-hai, onigiri, kawaii, otsukaresma, so desu ne, hontou ni, atsui and so on)...but wait, wasn't I like that once? Cue defamiliarisation.

Fourthly (I think that was three), the motionS were released. Yeah with an S. In Australs style there's one fairly general theme (like cross border activities, social media, outside vs. inside), and 3 motions which the two teams in each room vote to decide between. These are mad times we live in, mad! I'm used to that whole: get THE motion, mull over THE motion preempting the debate, listen to a debate on THE motion, dissect the debate on THE motion. With 3 I usually wasn't sure what would be debated until the first speaker took the floor. This led to a mixture of emotions such as relief..it's not that god-awful 1st one, and annoyance...it's not that super-interesting 3rd one, as well as a healthy unpreparedness for each debate I heard. Having said that the judging went OK.

Food-wise, there was no food. Strangely, for Japan there was not a combini in striking range. It was exactly like the whole 'college SPAR's closed on Sundays, sorry lads you'll have to starve' Irish IV conundrum. Also, we couldn't eat or drink inside, AND people heeded this advice. I had to hide the large ice-mocha I'd brought from Doutor under the bench when they mentioned that at the adjudication briefing.

Finally...and this was definitely the greatest debating shock, I got to judge the final. Again, I got to judge the final of a national tournament, the style of which I had only first encountered that very day! I could think of nada to be announced about me. Somehow 'She once won an internal Phil competition' or 'She reached the Irish Times Semis twice' didn't seem to cut it. In the end, it was announced that I was coaching the WSDC kids (true) and that I would be competing in WSDC for Japan myself (false and impossible)...people seemed surprised that me, a gaijin teacher was competing on the Japanese national high schools debating team, and so they should have been. I would have been a heavy burden for the girls!

In the final analysis, it was a fun day. With many shocking aspects, but many more that were familiar. It seems that debating cultures, like national cultures, are more alike than unalike after all.

(Wait I forgot, there were no POIs?!?!?...I take it all back. Australs is bizarre.)