SIETAR Japan Conference: A review

Stephen Shrader, Notre Dame Seishin University


JALT members interested in culture should also consider SIETAR Japan, the Society for Intercultural Education, Training, and Research, which convened in Himeji for its annual conference in October 2011. The conference is much smaller than JALT’s, and is very personal yet professional. Each year the conference has a theme—in 2010 it was humor, last year it was intercultural communication in the health field—reflecting the group’s cultural focus.

The SIETAR Japan conference has presentations both directly and indirectly related to language education, as few participants are solely language teachers. It is exciting to meet attendees from many walks of life, who can often describe cultural misunderstandings they have experienced. Their stories are easily adaptable into topics and activities. Some participants are also involved in academic research, and their presentations provide useful intercultural theory, as well as insights into how to research cultural or identity-related issues. Of course, some presentations feature activities already designed for language classrooms.

It is worth noting the number of presentations in English varies. In 2010, about half the sessions were in English, while last year more were in Japanese. Last year there were English options at almost every time slot, but Japanese proficiency would increase a person’s ability to fully participate. (SEITAR Japan President Eriko Machi, comparing the schedule to previous years, notes the smaller number of English in 2011 was atypical, and that Kanto conferences in particular tend to have more English sessions.)

Last year, the first round of six concurrent sessions was the only one where no English option was listed. Strong personal interest led me to Manami Tanaka's presentation on long-term overseas stay and the identity of Japanese residents in the USA, revealed in questionnaire responses. She presented in 2010 on life histories of her interviewees, allowing participants to understand how she approached two different kinds of data.

I heard Yumiko Yabuta next, describing a short term exchange program's effect on Japanese junior college students, and Korean students at their sister school. Her presentation, like Tanaka’s, would interest teachers who want to know (or research for themselves) the effect of intercultural interaction on a person’s understanding of self and other.

I next attended a workshop by Obirin University’s Shoko Araki. She demonstrated the simulation Albatross, allowing participants to visit a fictional culture. We experienced the culture's rituals without any background knowledge to understand what we were encountering. Participants were asked “What kind of culture is this?” and “How long would you like to stay here?” The culture seemed male-dominated, but was actually controlled by females. Araki used our misinterpretation to remind us to consider alternative understandings before jumping to conclusions regarding unfamiliar actions. Even experienced interculturalists can be fooled by their own cultural backgrounds, and I felt I could use the activity with my own students someday.

On the second day, I attended a panel discussion on qualitative research methods. The presenters discussed narrative approach, grounded theory approach, and action research. I went wondering how to tackle a certain research question that didn't seem to lend itself to any method I knew. Panelist Akiko Asai was able to help me, as she explained the inductive approach to action research. It seemed to fit my research question well, and I left the session feeling I would be able to make progress on a problem I have wanted to research for several years.

After the morning sessions, everyone gathered for a panel discussion on disasters and disaster areas as subcultures. One panelist, Tomonobu Haga, told us of his experiences working in over 60 countries, including his efforts in the recent Tohoku earthquake region. Hearing him talk about cross-cultural troubleshooting was energizing, and that alone made the conference worthwhile for me.

For my last session I became a member of the Living with Diversity SIG. Four presenters shared materials for raising diversity awareness. Margaret Kim, for example, has students imagine they are helping refugees coming to Japan by making skits and posters. Lisa Rogers uses video clips in a language class highlighting cultural values and practices that can cause conflict. Michiko Tomioka highlights diversity with an icebreaker that has students describe themselves through names or nicknames. Soo im Lee closed by sharing materials on hate crimes in Japan that she uses in training Osaka's public servants. Their ideas, readily adaptable or designed for a language classroom, are especially important for Japan's changing society today and, more broadly, our world.

This year’s conference will be held November 10-11 at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Chiba.

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