Japan’s Diverse Debating Styles

Edmund-picture (1)By Edmund Zagorin

Japan has a long tradition of Western-style policy debates stretching back to postwar debate exchanges with the US, organized by the National Communication Association. Since 1969, there have been 33 US-Japan Debate exchanges organized through the Committee on International Discussion and Debate. With the advent of “spreading” in the 1970s, US policy debate became increasingly alienated from both spectators and international competitors who preferred more audience-friendly formats such as parliamentary or value-style debating. Partly as a consequence, English language debating between international competitors has gravitated more towards audience-friendly formats that use less rigorous standards of evidence, such as British Parliamentary or Worlds formats. However, in part through these debate exchange tours with the US, Japan has become an exception to that trend with notable college debating programs developing along parallel lines to NDT-style academic debating in the US.

Essentially, these debate exchanges have helped to sustain a “Galapagos effect” where policy debate in Japan mirrors many US argument styles while significantly diverging from them to evolve uniquely Japanese argument traditions. In recent years, these Japanese policy debate classes and clubs have faced increasing competition over student participants from more audience-friendly formats (such as parliamentary debate) that place greater emphasis on public speaking and presentation rather than strategic argumentation and logical gaming. This development offers a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of different English language debating formats within a what Carly Woods and Takuzo Konishi call “international argument cultures”, and to evaluate the viability of English language debate curriculum for non-American educators.

Close Encounters

I visited Japan as part of the CIDD US-Japan Debate Tour in 2012, where I was both pleased and astonished by the diversity of debating styles present at high schools and universities around the country. Over a period of three weeks the American delegation were exposed as participants or judges to five distinct formats of English language debating (IDEA, standard two-person policy, British parliamentary, HENDA, and Worlds’) over the course of twenty debates in most major cities on Japan’s three major islands. These formats each strike a balance between maximizing student participation and audience engagement. Partly this is because the function of many non-policy debate formats is to highlight the talents of unique students in front of a large public audience. While the Japanese National Debate Tournament (JNDT) had many more participants than, for example, a single two, six or eight-person parliamentary debate (four participants on a side), the latter was accessible to a much wider audience and could be enjoyed more easily by members of the public.

One significant difference is the use of technical language. Parliamentary debates will use commonplace idioms such as “points” to refer to opponents arguments while addressing them, while JNDT debaters refer to “offs”, a slang from US-style policy debate meaning “off-case arguments”, or arguments against the affirmative team’s case which do not directly respond to a contention advanced in the first affirmative constructive speech. This parallels the growth of technical language with an informal vernacular to refer to different parts of an argument or thought experiments within a debate in the US. For example, the word “permutation” in US policy debate has special significance; it means that if both the affirmative’s plan and a negative’s counterplan can be done without any disadvantage, then the negative’s counterplan has failed a necessary test of competition. The classic example would be a counterplan to have all the nations of the world declare world peace; this might be a good idea but it does not directly compete or trade off with an affirmative policy to raise the federal sales tax ten percent.

In Japanese debating, this same hypothetical device is referred to as a “both adoption” (which I initially misheard as “both an option”) and serves the same tactical function of proposing a method of testing the negative’s counterplan. However, lay readers of this post will note that even words such as “plan” and “counterplan” represent precisely the technical language which allows policy debaters to treat arguments as instruments in conceptual strategy games. Through these “testing games “debaters learn to use hypothetical scenarios to weigh the costs and benefits of policies, but those skills are not always co-extensive with effective communication (though often, they are). In policy debate, the technical nature of the activity selects for Japanese judges who have previously participated in the activity in high school or college and are familiar with rules and terms of analytical gaming. This means that listening to a Japanese policy debater may often sound like deciphering a sort of code which weds Japanese pronunciation of English words to Japanese-English grammatical peccadillos to culturally distinct policy debating terminology. Instructors who wish to prepare students to learn a technical academic, scientific or legal dialect within Standard English may look to policy debate as a way to introduce students to formal/informal language distinction and the significance of “terms of art” within American academic disciplines.

Debate as a Second Language

Within Japan, the function of debate instruction serves primarily to teach effective English language skills. Therefore, within Japanese policy debate much of the preparation, practice and contest is designed to highlight skills of formal translation and English-language presentation. Evidence is translated into English from Japanese sources and discussions of correct translation play a prominent role in cross-examination. In other formats the emphasis is more greatly placed on presentation, rather than purely on logical content. Japanese parliamentary debaters are expected to practice the rhetorical delivery as a significant component of their preparation, with an eye for ethos rather than only logos.

This tension suggests that there are (at least) two educational goals vying for supremacy within debate education; English language speaking proficiency and learning the technical language of policy for the purpose of analytical thinking. While both are laudable goals and can be accomplished by a strong debating curriculum, I would argue that the latter is in fact unique to debate in many curricula, and should thus be prioritized. During the final rebuttals of the JNDT Semifinals debate, I was able to see that the students had an advanced grasp of weighing outcomes between the plan and the counterplan, using historical examples and evidence gathered from econometric studies to determine the effect of raising Japan’s consumption tax on domestic economic growth. It is possible to learn how to speak English without participating in policy debate, but an advanced ability to weigh pros and cons and to optimize individual and collective decision-making are not intrinsic features of any most lecture-driven academic curricula.

Of course, policy debate often ends up accomplishing both educational outcomes; teaching English by teaching cost-benefit analysis and vice-versa. The challenge lies in the superficial appearance that policy debate represents a language that is somehow distinct from comprehensible English; a challenge that any US policy debater is already familiar with. How many members of the US policy debate community have ever had to answer a parents’ question: “What are you even arguing about? I can’t understand you at all and I don’t understand why this is useful if it isn’t comprehensible.” The objection is both sympathetic and intuitive, yet we should be wary of repulsing technical language entirely, for there are intrinsic benefits to learning the function of specialized terminology. Some academics have argued that the implied hierarchy within technical speech codes functions as a sort of “symbolic capital” used to identify members of a discourse community. However, this demonstrates the inherent value of fluency in technical language and is precisely why allowing the development of neologisms within policy debate is educationally positive. Debate is not the only discourse community where specialized language is required for acceptance; indeed most professional trades and certainly any advanced academic discipline has its own technical language and “technical slang”. To some extent within policy debate the proliferation of terminology is naturally limited by diversity of experience within the judging pool; less experienced judges will demand more accessible explanations, and turn-over within judging creates a limiting factor on the use of words that refer to highly abstract concepts within, for example, decision theory.

The Power of Informal Norms

One must remain attentive to cultural differences within debating repertoire without essentializing Japanese culture as monolithic or undifferentiated. Japanese youth culture is also rapidly changing in response to the vernaculars of global digital culture, and so statements about Japanese cultural practices must be viewed in this context. Nevertheless, there are some interesting ways that Japanese cultural norms affect debate competition. For example, there is no counterplan theory in Japanese policy debating. In US debates, it is common for affirmative teams to object to the negative’s status or fiat of the counterplan. Japanese negative strategies often include multiple conditional counterplans using the same agent as the affirmative plan. However, there has not been a move towards “abusive” counterplanning in Japan that parallels US policy debate, and therefore the effect of this theoretical armistice seems to be that more of the debate is devoted to issues of policy substance. While the “fairness” component of a topicality argument is simply understood as “part of the rules”, contesting a counterplan’s fairness would seem to be unsporting in Japanese debates.

Another difference is that, with a few exceptions, students do not debate their senior year of college. On the one hand this is because they are so focused on entering the job market and passing their classes that there is little time for anything else. On the other hand, success within debate counts for less among Japanese businesses, whereas in the US highly successful debaters are often able to more easily obtain entry to policy think tanks, corporate communications’ posts or law firms. However, a central competitive reason has to do with the respect for seniority within the Japanese educational system; it would be difficult for a judge to award victory to a freshman team debating against seniors, and the shame of defeat for those seniors might be substantial. However, during the US-Japan tour we met a rising senior who planned on debating, claiming that he loved the activity and wanted to make the most of his final year in it. However, as the debate community grows the issue of balancing competition with deference to seniority may become an issue that educators choose to explicitly negotiate.

Japanese debating encourages gracious etiquette throughout the debate. Whereas US policy debates often become playfully heated, involving jaunty ad hominems, profanity, accusations of unethical behavior and attacks on language choice, Japanese debate is cordial in the extreme. Significantly, US debating often requires a handshake between participants following the conclusion of a debate, while in Japan participants thank one another and their judges prior to every speech as well as before and after the debate. However, as in the US, Japanese debate moderators are not above having a little good-natured fun at the participants’ expense, and the atmosphere remains light (if formal) even when the stakes are high.

The last and most striking difference from my perspective is the absence of critical arguments in Japanese debates. While the rise of “kritik” debating in the US has shaped both the way participants prepare for debates as well as the judging pool’s heuristics about argumentative competition, these arguments are simply not part of the debating repertoire at either the high school or college level. The closest thing Japanese debaters have to critical arguments were ethical or “deontological” positions, but even those were relatively rare compared to arguments about the effects of implementing or not implementing the affirmative’s plan. As a result, discussions of political ideology remained in the background. For us as Americans, ideology was an interesting elephant in the room of a tax policy debate, since in the US the discussion over taxes is often much more about ideology (“personal freedom versus collective good”) than it is about economics.


Lessons for Debate Communities Outside the US

It is important to identify educational priorities for debate curricula, and not to overlook the benefits of practices that may seem superficially strange or difficult to understand. Any style of debate can open a lot of doors for students’ experience of self-discovery, but each format does so in different ways. Through debate students can acquire a powerful English language skill set which can help them succeed in a diverse range of contexts. Though there are many ways to learn to speak English, policy debating offers students a greater exposure to advanced abstract language concepts that accelerate their academic development.

Audience-friendly formats may seem to provide additional benefits to non-participants, but educators should not make the mistake of assuming that the elimination of technical language in debate serves a useful end in and of itself. I would submit that, in fact, the opposite is true. Policy debate’s teaching of a unique technical vocabulary trains students to quickly grasp the abstract concepts implied by specialized terminology, an essential skill for cognitively advanced social literacy. By learning how to quickly unpack and re-assemble pluralistic meanings from an argument’s architecture, debaters learn more than just words; they learn methods and heuristics for understanding complex problems and evaluating diverse solutions.

Consider words like “uniqueness“, “interpretation”, and “alternative” and how they often enter debate participants’ everyday cognitive decision-making processes through participation in policy debate. There is certainly a balance to be struck between public accessibility (especially with regard to selecting debate judges) and the creative evolution of a global debating lingua franca among students and educators. However, educators should not make the mistake of assuming that simply because policy debate is more difficult to learn, that it is therefore not worth learning. Though more challenging, forcing students to engage in rigorous evidence-based deliberation over policy questions offers more opportunities for deepening understanding and engagement. Even in the US, native English speaker students will often compete as a novice and then as a junior varsity before entering the highest level tournament division. If students can learn to relish the challenges of their own growth within the activity, then the complex and technical nature of policy debate may come to be viewed as an asset, rather than a hindrance.