Academic journal article Journal of International Students

Ways to Promote the Classroom Participation of International Students by Understanding the Silence of Japanese University Students

Academic journal article Journal of International Students

Ways to Promote the Classroom Participation of International Students by Understanding the Silence of Japanese University Students

Article excerpt

I've begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.

- Chaim Potok, The Chosen

Silence has long been used as a means of communication across cultures. We can find evidence of this through idioms around the world. For example, "Silence is golden," although not verified, is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt, and is a popular American idiom to indicate circumstances where saying nothing is preferable to speaking. The exact expression exists in other languages, for example, chinmoku wa kane nari (Japanese). The sentiment of allowing quiet and stillness the freedom to intervene in dialogue and conversation permeates cultural divides.

While the value of silence may be recognized in certain contexts, it may not always be welcomed in United States (U.S.) classrooms. The difficulty for teachers may be that silence is rather difficult to interpret in the classroom (Harumi, 2011). Teachers might erroneously conclude that silence equals disengagement, though quite the opposite may be true. Silence may be more easily associated with loss of interest than its counterpart of active voice, but it is equally true that disengagement can also be manifested through talking that seems like rambling (Kim, 2008). Put differently, "neither talk nor silence is a proxy for participation or disengagement" (Schultz, 2012, p. 80). This is especially true when students from other countries and cultures enter into U.S. classrooms.

This study examines silence as viewed by Japanese students by surveying university students in their home countries to understand the silence of Japanese university students in U.S. classrooms. Through survey data of Japanese students, we explore the role of silence, decipher its meaning and usefulness as a teaching and learning strategy, and provide evidence that silence can be used as another form of engaged learning and active participation in addition to verbal participation.


Japan is the seventh largest country of origin for international students in the U.S., with almost 20,000 Japanese students studying at postsecondary institutions in 2011/2012, making up 3% of the total number of international university students (Institute of International Education, 2012). Japanese students, in particular, are often described as attaching "especially strong values to silence" (Nakane, 2005, p. 77), and as standing out in their silence "not only in comparison with Southern Europeans or New Yorkers but with East Asian neighbors like Koreans and Chinese as well" (Lebra, 1987, p. 344). In exploring the topic of silence in Japan and the misinterpretation of silence by outsiders, Jones (2011) found it to be a complex phenomenon "which lies primarily in the linguistic and cultural differences between cultures" (p. 17).

Lebra (1987, 2007) addressed the cultural importance of Japanese silence and identified it within four dimensions: truthfulness, social discretion, embarrassment, and defiance. According to Lebra, silence has been associated with truthfulness in Japan, a belief originating from Zen Buddhism that encouraged silence as a pathway to enlightenment and stressed the inability to reach enlightenment by talking about it. Silence referring to social discretion is used as a technique to demonstrate politeness, in that silence can help preserve one's public self-image, or face, while still engaging in dialogue. Silence relating to embarrassment and defiance is marked by high levels of ambiguity, but Lebra explains the former as a way to avoid embarrassment surrounding the spoken affections between husband and wife (they are supposed to know each other so well that they are of one body and thus can communicate without words), and the latter as a possible non-verbal expression of aggression, among other possible gestures, leading to confusion for both non-natives and natives. Because the reasons behind silence can be many, those who are unfamiliar with the highly contextualized situations in which it occurs will often misunderstand its complex nature. …

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