David Chart's Japan Diary

October 30th 2004

I've spent today judging an 'English Oratorical Speech Contest', held at a Catholic Girls' High School (Hikarigaoka Girls' High School). It was a very interesting experience, not least because a Catholic Girls' High School, complete with nuns and large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, felt a little out of place in Japan.

The contest was not, as I had initially been led to believe, the speech contest for this school. No, this was The Eighteenth Aichi Prefectural Junior High School Students' English Oratorical Speech Contest, with support from the New Zealand embassy and similar large organisations. Still, by the time I was told that, it was two days before the contest, and a bit late to pull out on them. Fortunately, there were seven other judges, three more from Yamasa, and three who teach at the hosting school.

There were 72 competitors. Fortunately, the speeches had a maximum length of three minutes. Even more fortunately, the competitors were split into three groups of 24 in the morning, and only seven members of each group went on to the afternoon's final. Still, I had to listen to 45 speeches, concentrating and trying to mark them fairly, and I'm now absolutely exhausted.

Each contestant was representing her school. (There were some male contestants, but they've only been allowed to enter this competition for a couple of years, since one exclusively for boys closed. Thus, the overwhelming majority of contestants were female.) This meant that everyone who was there had already won a speech contest at her school, so there were no bad speeches, even in the morning.

In the afternoon, things got really tough. Everyone had passed through the morning round, so everyone was really good. There were a number of students who had spent time in English-speaking countries, including one with a posher English accent than I have. There were other students who still had more of an accent, but had put a lot of effort into their presentation. I won't say that it was impossible to judge, because there were a few students who clearly weren't up to the general standard. However, easily 15 out of the 21 gave excellent speeches.

All the judges marked the contestants individually, and our marks were totalled before we discussed them and made slight modifications to the final order based on our impressions of the talks. We had to pick a first, second, and third place, and three honourable mentions. Everyone else who made the final got a certificate for that, which was fair enough; by that stage of the contest, everyone deserved prizes.

It was interesting to see the differences between our judgements. The girl who I though gave easily the best speech got an honourable mention, while I was much less impressed than some of the other judges with the girl who ultimately came second. Still, I don't think anyone won a prize without deserving it, and the whole point of having multiple judges is to avoid one person's opinion being too dominant.

It certainly gave me real insight into the problems of judging such contests. We didn't have much time, because the contestants were only there for the day, and we had a very limited number of prizes to give to a group who were all very good indeed. There were a couple of contestants whom I was sorry to see didn't get at least an honourable mention, but there was no-one who did win something whom I would have been comfortable pushing off the list to make room.

The first gave a talk which was about, basically, environmental damage. However, it was brilliantly framed in terms of a trip to see fireflies at the local river. Her pronunciation and delivery might not have been as good as some of the others, but I thought the fundamental design of her speech was excellent. I would also guess that she hasn't lived abroad; her Japanese accent was quite strong.

The second gave a speech that elicited interesting opinions. A summary of the speech could be 'Yes, my English is very good, and yes, I lived in America for years, but I still had to work on it, dammit.' One of the judges said that she found the speech positively offensive, and I have to admit that it isn't the sort of thing you normally hear. On the other hand, I thought it was well put together, and I think that false modesty is not to be encouraged. She undoubtedly does have better English than most Japanese people, and clearly did have to work on it, even in America. Why is it so unacceptable to say that? She wasn't saying 'I'm better than you'; it was more 'I've achieved something, stop belittling it as something easy.' She was also so nervous as to be on the point of tears all through her speech; you could hear it in her voice.

Essentially, hers was the only speech that broke out of the standard speech contest mould. There were a lot of excellent speeches, but they all conveyed very standard sentiments. Hers didn't. I have to wonder whether part of the reason she sounded so scared was that she was constantly hearing what she'd decided to say, and wondering whether she'd made the right decision. She might decide that she didn't, but maybe on reflection she will realise that it wasn't such a mistake. She made it to the final. It was a good speech. But pushing the boundaries will always offend some people.

Given how scared she sounded (and she nearly forgot her speech at one point -- everyone spoke from memory), I don't think she's naturally arrogant. I also don't think she could possibly be unaware of just now un-Japanese the content of her speech was. It's not even something that you can easily say in America. I think it had to be a deliberate choice, a feeling that it was something she really wanted to say. And she said it well. I think it's a shame that that level of moral courage couldn't get more recognition than it did. (And, as I said, considered purely as a speech, I thought it was in the best six, although not the best.)

Anyway, as mentioned above, I'm now shattered. Concentrating that hard on that many speeches was much harder work than I expected. But it was a great experience; I'm really glad I did it. The winners were really happy, and I felt really sorry for the ones who had to go home without a prize.

Other than that, it's been a pretty ordinary week. My cold has now almost completely cleared up, which is great, and school is just tootling along as normal. The major earthquakes that hit Japan last weekend were a very long way from here, so they're only a news item for me, just as they are for most people reading this. We didn't even feel them.