Learning to Bow has been heralded as one of the funniest, liveliest, and most insightful books ever written about the clash of cultures between America and Japan. With warmth and candor, Bruce Feiler recounts the year he spent as a teacher in a small rural town. Beginning with a ritual outdoor bath and culminating in an all-night trek to the top of Mt. Fuji, Feiler teaches his students about American culture, while they teach him everything from how to properly address an envelope to how to date a Japanese girl.
While I was glad for the insight this book gave me into a non-city JHS in the 90s and the glimpse into the student's mindset before they're utterly brainwarped by the time I get them at 8-9 PM, it also made me doubly glad I opted not to do JET either time. I couldn't cope! I did enjoy how it was a mix of "Mr. Bruce"'s views as well as those of his colleagues and students.
Living English may be alive in the hearts of government officials in Tokyo, but it has no life in Sano.
Nor does it have much life even ten years later. While it's true that I don't generally enjoy JHS and HS students, I have gotten some interesting views on English from them. Also make me consider my motives for studying Japanese and its uses in my world.
It, like Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, is one of those books that makes me really stop and think about the Japan I know v. Japan out of the cities. It's also one that's prone to making me stop and think and realise "I'm in Japan" a fact that I must admit escapes me more often than I'd have thought possible.
His chapter on juku, and I like how he layed out the book according to his own experiences--and tied extra stuff in, like the juku around entrance exam time, as appropriate--got me thinking a lot on the business of English. For all the criticism about the Big4, they fill a demand in the Japanese market. Having had some JH and HS English teachers in my classes, it no longer surprises me about the state of English in this country. Still kudos for the effort.
But what I thought as his central tenet came so late...Everybody says that our students have to learn to live in a world that is larger than just Japan. But first, our teachers have to learn that this world exists. 100% agreed, part of the cycle here as elsewhere in the world is that until the circle of 'how it's been done' is broken, it's hard to teach the unknown.
Special kudos to author Bruce Feiler for including a "Further Reading" section. Peter Hessler did the same in his book, River Town, and it is a useful addition to their work.
I would like to visit Japan and little things like being constantly asked, "Can you use chopsticks? Can you eat sushi?" strike me as right on in the innocence of a host country small town understanding of outsiders. Having lived two years in small towns in Puerto Rico taught much about having patience if one wants to truly understand a culture.
Unlike other reviews on Amazon, I found the quotes and haikus that introduce the chapters to be charming and to help set the mood of the material.
The author also examines the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese education system. He explores aspects of the culture such as dating, marriage and work place rituals. Most interesting, to me, was his his discussion on cultural homogeneity vs diversity and what it means to fit in and to belong.
It isn't just the Japanese school system that Feiler lets the reader explore in Learning to Bow. All aspects of Japanese culture are up for grabs, from dating to the proper way to eat lunch to fashion. He often makes comparisons between Japanese and American methods, drawing his own conclusions but still giving us a chance to form our own without his bias. While he may disagree with the benefits of some parts of Japanese culture, he doesn't say, for example, that those aspects are bad. Merely that he disagrees.
I've read this book twice before, and still love it now as much as I did when I first opened the cover to page 1. Though Feiler's experiences recounted in the book take place in the late 80's, the words and story themselves have such a timeless feel that they could have been written yesterday.
Most certainly, I'd recommend this book for anyone who's seriously interested in teaching in Japan (through the JET program, perhaps), or for those who are interested in another look into Japan's fascinating culture.