Maybe you have heard people say that Asian students are good at math. Well, studies do indeed show that students from Asian countries, such as Japan and Korea, consistently outperform their North American counterparts in math. Why is this so?
Malcolm Gladwell lays out his answer to this, and other questions about how people achieve success, in his book “Outliers”(published by Little, Brown and Co. 2008). Gladwell describes a study in which students are given an extremely challenging math question and a set amount of time to try to solve it. After a few minutes, the majority of the students realize the problem is too advanced for them. At this point the North Americans tend to stop working. The Asian students, however, continue working until the time is up.
This, says Gladwell, aligns with the beliefs about math ability generally held by North Americans (that it is something you are born with, or not) and the Asians (that it is something you acquire through persistence). Mr. Gladwell outlines the influence rice farming (one of the most labor intensive and cognitively challenging crops) has had on Asian culture and the value Asians give to persistence in all areas of life.
So, North Americans think success is achieved by discovering the talent you are born with and honing it and Asians, including Japanese, think that success is achieved through persistence.
How does this Japanese persistence play out in the dance world? Nobody will dispute that dancers who succeed do so after many years of hard work and persistence whatever the cultural background. The difference between Japanese and non-Japanese students is streaming: who is encouraged to persist and who is advised to give up.
Due to this persistence, are there Japanese dancers who succeeded despite having less than ideal physiques or talent? ...and others who caused themselves permanent injury, physical or mental? Are there North American students who seemed to have less than ideal physiques or talent in their younger years who, but for discouragement from teachers, could have succeeded had they persisted?
I think it is fair to say that one of the reasons many North American schools welcome Japanese students is because their presence inspires a higher tone of discipline and persistence among the entire student body. I do feel, though, that this dedication to persistence can have the “side effect” of hampering Japanese students’ ability to explore more subtle, but highly important, concepts such as efficiency of movement, releasing of tension, and attention to breath.