Differences between Japanese and Korean students

“According to [Kristina Beckam-Bristo’s study of cross-cultural classroom behaviors(2003)], Korean students believe that offering personal viewpoints in class is highly acceptable (given a rating of 5 out of 5), while Japanese students believe this behavior to be highly unacceptable (given a rating of 1 out of 5)”

“…the data collected [in the same paper] showed that Japanese students found it extremely unacceptable to arrive 7 minutes late to class (given a rating of 1 out of 5), while Korean students found this behavior to be extremely acceptable (given a rating of 5 out of 5).”

From http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ass/article/viewFile/1697/1596

That’s doubled the number of academic references that I’ve used this year, so back to my usual generalising/ brainstorming:

– If Japanese are unhappy with the level of their class, it is almost always because they want to go down a level. Koreans demanding to be put in a particular class, e.g. one higher than their placement test would suggest, is fairly common, although less so than some European countries.

– Japanese are quite often of the (wrong) opinion that they already studied enough grammar and vocabulary at school and want their teacher to magically transform that into an ability to express themselves in English. Koreans are much more likely to demand something new, e.g. a list of unknown vocabulary, in every class

– Koreans are more likely to complain, and much more likely to complain directly to the teacher.

– Koreans are likely to have higher TOEIC and TOEFL scores. For example, there will often be several candidates for a job who all have perfect TOEFL scores, which I have never heard of in Japan. Exam classes in Korea will have less tolerance for warmers and other distractions than classes in Japan.

– Korean classes are more likely to have one or two students who are happy to speak out. Unfortunately, for me that’s makes them more difficult to deal with as those students are also only too happy to dominate the class. You may sometimes get a class where almost everyone is happy to speak out, though, which is a refreshing change from Japan

– Japanese have more tolerance for boring activities like shopping roleplays, especially if the task is manageable and they can therefore boost their confidence, whereas Koreans are more likely to expect roleplays with a twist, controversial topics etc.

– Discussion questions work better in Korea than in Japan.

– Koreans are more motivated by tests than Japanese. In fact, many Japanese will be permanently turned off a school by having a written placement test, let alone regular progress tests.

– The housewife English hobbyist market in huge in Japan (although rapidly shrinking) but very small in Korea.

– Koreans are likely to be motivated by future plans of studying, moving or even emigrating abroad, whereas the Japanese are more likely to be interested in using English on holiday, for short language courses abroad, or just to bring a bit of international colour into their lives.

– Koreans are much more likely to read authentic texts outside class than Japanese.

– Study groups are more common in Korea than Japan.

– Koreans are much more likely to choose “English names” to use in the classroom than Japanese students are. The Japanese are also more likely to stick to their other cultural norms in the classroom, e.g. addressing each other as “Nakamura-san” or “Shimoda-sensei” during English conversations and greeting each other in Japanese with a bow. In my experience, Korean adults are far more likely to stick strictly to English during the class or even ignore each other until the teacher arrives (perhaps to avoid the pretentiousness of speaking English outside class while also avoiding breaking the English-only illusion of the classroom space).

Caveats- Although the ages I taught in Korea and Japan were similar, other things such as motivation and income were probably very different due to the very different schools I worked for. I’ve also only spent two years in Korea, but some of these are things I started noticing with Korean students in Japan, including a mixed and an all-Korean class in the Korean company NHN in Tokyo.

This entry was posted in Cultural differences/ cultural training, Teaching English in Japan, Teaching English in Korea, TEFL. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Differences between Japanese and Korean students

  1. I always admire attempts at generalisations when they are generally meant to be helpful and descriptive without being too prescriptive, and these days it takes a brave blogger to do so.

    There are always exceptions, of course, and while I can’t verify much about what you’ve noted concerning the Japanese students, generally speaking my decade of teaching experience in Korea backs up most of the observations you’ve made here about Korean students.

    – Jason

  2. Steve says:

    Have you read the book “Geography of Thought”? I think it is interesting to see experimentally how these things break down. Of course you have to be cautious about generalizations, but it is better to be prepared than to be caught by surprise by a student(s) actions.

  3. Alex Case says:

    Sounds familiar. I think I never finished it, but it’s back in Japan so I’ll have another look. If anyone gives me funding, I’ll be happy to scientifically test it myself. Until then, on with the random musings…

  4. Alex Case says:

    Other things

    – Nose blowing is more taboo in Korea than Japan
    – Koreans are superstitious about writing names in red, which doesn’t seem to exist in Japan
    – University-aged Koreans are much more comfortable around the opposite sex than Japanese
    – Korean kids are more (over) competitive
    – Japanese are more obsessed about small class sizes
    – Japanese are more likely to only be willing to come to school once a week

  5. Doesn’t that writing in red taboo come from a funeral rite whereby the deceased’s name is written in red ink? Hence, writing a student’s name (and I think it is names in particular that the taboo refers to – no problems, for example, doing corrections for an essay in red pen) in red is like cursing them. Similarly, the funeral/ancestor ceremony practice of sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice so that they stick straight up is something that you don’t want to do around the Korean dinner table…

  6. Alex Case says:

    The chopsticks thing is taboo in Japan too, for the same reason. Had heard that the red ink was related death, but none of my students seemed to know exactly why or how. Problems with names and the perils of lessons on traditions are two things I’ve been writing about in a “proper” article for TEFL.net on cultural dos and taboos when teaching Korean students. Any further ideas here gratefully accepted

  7. Alex Case says:


    The most interesting story related to Japanese funerals was about an American baseball player who thought he’d fit in fine in Japan because he was a Buddhist, but his chanting in the locker room before games gave his team mates the creeps because they only usually hear it at funerals. From one of Robert Whiting’s interesting books on Japanese baseball, and that’s from me, who absoutely detests the game

  8. Only other one I can think of now (and this is relative to teaching and understanding students) is to not get offended or lose the plot when Ss won’t look at you or respond to direct questions when you’re giving them a bit of a dressing down about something. Culturally, they’re expected to avert their eyes and say absolutely nothing (except perhaps “yes, teacher”) when they’re in trouble. The Western teacher, looking to discuss and interact their way through a problem (often with open questions designed to have the student explain him/herself), often takes this silence and body language as nonchalance or deliberately ignoring the teacher (and his/her authority) – so sometimes pretty simple or routine problems blow out into something much more in the open air gulf between the cultural modes. Simple rule there is to interpret silence or non-response as agreement and/or acknowledgment (even if it is non-genuine: appearances count for far more than substance/reality).

    Oh, and the other one is “smirking”. Korean students do this a lot, and often to sort of ruefully denigrate themselves or the situation in which they’ve found themselves. Met a lot of teachers (including myself in the earlier days!) who flipped out when they assumed the student was smirking at their (the teachers’) expense!

  9. Marcia Nakajima says:

    Actually, Japanese do de ‘smirking’ as well.
    I am a translator at a Japanese company in Brazil, and they do that a lot, specially during meetings, and we often have problems with Brazilian staff and clients getting offended by it.

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