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Smile and the World Smiles With You...Maybe

2019-06-11 by Helen Price


Some of the most interesting articles about culture and psychology that I have found are written by a company called Humintell not least because the company’s director, David Matsumoto, has a particular interest in the differences between Japanese and American culture.

A recent blog was titled “The Cultural Significance of Smiling”.

In it the author says, “Initially, it is important to note that Americans and Japanese, when alone, tend to display very similar expressions of disgust, anger, fear, and sadness. These have been shown to be universal expressions, after all. However, when others are present in the room many Japanese [...] smile despite being exposed to disgusting or sad imagery.”

The article goes on to explain that for Japanese people stoicism and seriousness are signs of maturity and smiles are often used to hide underlying feelings.
So, the meanings of some smiles differ from culture to culture. When you interpret someone’s smile it is very likely you will do so according to your own cultural norms. If the person smiling is from a different culture you might be getting the wrong message!

Here is another great Humintell blog about smiles:
Not All Smiles Are The Same


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    Japanese Students + Math + Ballet = ?

    2019-05-15 by Helen Price

    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.

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    On Compliments & Corrections, and Being a Strict Ballet Teacher in Japan

    2019-01-02 by Helen Price

    Teachers the world over want to help students reach their full potential so they give them corrections, advice and criticism. In the west it is common for teachers to acknowledge something a student has achieved before challenging them with a correction. “Beautifully stretched feet, Sarah, now try to coordinate the lift of your arms with your jump.” 


    Does this approach work equally well in Japan? There was a time when I would have emphatically answered “Yes! All children respond to compliments and criticism in the same way!” …but I am not so sure any more.

    I had only been in Japan a couple of years when a friend invited me to observe a ballet class taught by a guest teacher from France. The students worked hard, attentively doing their very best to follow the teacher’s instructions. After the final reverence and the guest teacher had left the studio, the Japanese teacher delivered an angry lecture to the class, berating them for their poor performance. I was shocked, not the least by the fact that everyone seemed to be accepting the lecture as a normal thing.
    At my own school (in Yokohama, Japan) I tried to inspire students to motivate themselves and understand why they needed to work hard. In those early years, on more than one occasion, I was asked by a students’ mother to be more strict with the class. It was explained to me that students grew up to be grateful to strict teachers for pushing them to work hard and achieve more. 

    To my mind I was being strict because I pushed the children to think for themselves and question what they were doing. I expected them to motivate themselves. I believed that what those mothers saw as a strict teacher was simply one that made students work hard through fear. It was a struggle for me as a young teacher. While I couldn’t transform myself into a strict Japanese ballet teacher I did come to see the value in giving my students insight into another culture by studying with a foreign teacher. My style didn’t work for all students but enough were happy with my foreign ways to see my school thrive for 30 years.  
    Helen teaching
    photo: Helen Price coaching a student

    A few years ago I was once again reminded of this difference in East/West teaching styles when a Japanese student who had trained with a strict Japanese ballet teacher and then went on to spend several years studying in Canada told me that one of the things she had trouble adjusting to in Canada was teachers complimenting her when she did something well. She found it disconcerting and, frankly, just didn’t believe the teacher. 
    Around the same time I read a book by Richard Nisbett, “The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why” (published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003). In one chapter Mr Nisbett talks about a study of the effects of critical and complimentary feedback on Canadian students and Japanese students:
    “The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese weren’t being masochistic. They simply saw an opportunity for self-improvement and took it.”

    So, the Canadians were inspired to work hard when they were complimented and the Japanese when they were criticized.

    Back to the teacher whose angry lecture shocked me: If I had been in her position I would have told my students how proud I was of them for working so hard…but I am Canadian and would have expected the compliment to encourage them to continue the good work…if the students were also Canadian. 
    I don’t think western teachers should treat visiting Japanese students any differently than other students in the class. Most will adjust to the western style of teaching and learn to appreciate a mix of compliments and corrections. Being aware of this cultural difference, though, is helpful.   
    photo: Cindy Fisher, guest teacher at the Yokohama Ballet Intensive
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    Ballet Competitions: changing dance education in Japan

    2018-11-15 by Helen Price

    Christopher Powney, artistic director of The Royal Ballet School, has posted an article on his school’s website, “Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?” Mr Powney gives a clear outline of the benefits and risks for dance students entering ballet competitions, pointing out that while competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne have age restrictions that aim to mitigate risk for the younger dancers it is the training in the years leading up to such competitions that can, potentially, damage growing children. He ends his article with a call to the dance industry as a whole to keep the wellbeing of students at the forefront of our policy-making and to engage in serious conversation about ballet competitions.

    I’d like to add my voice to the conversation. 
    Nowhere is the ballet competition culture felt more keenly than in Japan, where I have been living and teaching for the past 30 years. The belief that a student MUST compete to realize a career in dance has become disturbingly pervasive. The Prix de Lausanne 2019 list of applicants and selected entrants by country illustrates the popularity of competition in Japan.

    Are the schools that award scholarships to Japanese winners of ballet competitions aware of the effect it has had on the way ballet is taught in Japan?

    Every time a Japanese dancer wins at a competition such as Prix de Lausanne, and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious professional training program, aspiring Japanese ballet dancers, and their teachers and parents, are watching. One would hope that seeing the winners’ success would inspire these ballet teachers and parents to give their children the foundation, technical and emotional, that will prepare them by the age of 15 to be able to compete effectively if they so choose.

    The reality is, sadly, very different. Due in part to a uniquely Japanese approach to education, the general thinking is that the best way to succeed at competition is to practice doing competition. Consequently, there are competitions for all stages of the journey. Young students can begin with pre-competitions (for applicants as young as 6), move on to the more higher ranked ones, and hope eventually to become one of the entrants at a major competition offered a scholarship to a world class school. Ballet competition is big business here in Japan.

    Needless to say, there are many young dancers who don’t achieve success. What they get from their 10 plus years practising to be a successful competitor we can only imagine. I suspect that it is not all positive.

    I think it is also worth noting that the effects of the “competition culture” have seeped down to the recreational ballet level. Rather than enjoying the life benefits of studying dance these students often feel that they are not doing “real ballet” if it doesn’t involve competition. Not to miss out on a business opportunity, competitions for recreational students, including adult students, now exist.

    While there is so much talk these days about the health benefits of dance, both physically and mentally, it makes it even more frustrating to think that, under our watch, some children may actually be damaged by the ballet lessons they attend. 

    Surely there is a better way than competition for professional training programs to discover and nurture talent.

    I applaud the schools that are also coming to Japan to hold auditions for their training programs, thus giving Japanese students a pathway to a dance career that doesn’t involve competition.

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