The Interface Between Interlanguage, Pragmatics and Assessment: Proceedings of the 3rd Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 22-23, 2004. Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Keizai University.

Effective writing instruction:
From Japanese danraku to English paragraphs

by Kazumi Kimura and Masako Kondo (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)


This article examines the differences between Japanese danraku and English paragraphs and the effects of these differences on English and Japanese essays by students. The major finding is that Japanese students tend to write English essays with many danraku-like structures. As a result, their essays are often considered to lack focus and be poorly organized by native speakers of English. Implications for ESL or EFL writing instruction are discussed.

Keywords: contrastive rhetoric, L2 writing, paragraph writing, discourse analysis

". . . many Japanese students consider English paragraphs to be identical with Japanese danraku."
Previous studies of contrastive rhetoric have claimed that native rhetorical organization patterns are negatively transferred in English writing (Kaplan, 1966, 1988; Hinds, 1990). This has been observed among Japanese writing in English. Among the researchers of contrastive rhetoric, Hinds (1990) claims that because Japanese writers tend to place their thesis statements in the final position, it is often difficult for native English speakers to predict the development of their writing. Though English teachers of Japanese students have tried to encourage them to write more deductively, the students' products still tend to lack focus and logical organization. Speculating on the reasons why Japanese students fail to write well-organized paragraphs, we propose that many Japanese students consider English paragraphs to be identical with Japanese danraku. In order to investigate this supposition, this study examines Japanese students' writing — comparing danraku and English paragraph structures. It also investigates differences between English rhetoric and its Japanese counterpart, shuujigaku, the study of shuuji. Finally this study analyzes the paragraphs and danraku students use in essays written in English and Japanese. It also shows one Japanese student's writing as an example of an English essay in which the conventions of Japanese danraku are transferred to his English paragraphs.

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Japanese and English essays compared

English rhetoric and Japanese shuujigaku

Rhetoric is translated as shuujigaku in most English-Japanese dictionaries (e.g., Konishi et al., 1993; Takabayashi et al., 2002; Hamamoto et al., 2003; Matsuda, 1999). However, it is doubtful that English and Japanese share the same rhetorical concepts. According to Hodges (1990), rhetoric is "the art of using language effectively. Rhetoric involves the writer's purpose, the consideration of audience, the discovery and exploration of a subject, its arrangement and organization, the style and tone in which it expressed, and the form in which it is delivered"(p. 572). Thus, rhetoric in written communication refers to the means of effectively conveying a writer's message to readers.
". . . it is doubtful that English and Japanese share the same rhetorical concepts."

On the other hand, shuujigaku which is supposed correspond to rhetoric, is translated as a study of shuuji. shuujigaku is defined, in most Japanese dictionaries, as a methodology which studies how to effectively express an idea in order to impress readers. Shinmura (1998), in Koojien , the most reliable and well-known Japanese dictionary, adds that shuujigaku originated from Aristotle's rhetoric. Thus, the definition of shuujigaku is considered as a mere translation of English rhetoric. However, different from shuujigaku, shuuji is defined, as (a) "to use words effectively and appropriately, or express them by using modifiers skillfully" or (b) "to decorate words, or keep superficial aspects of these words" (Shinmura, 1998). The shift of definition from shuuji described above to shuuji in shuujigaku might have been made by the original person who translated rhetoric into Japanese. Hence, shuuji might still be understood by Japanese people as "to decorate words". In short, a Japanese writer's interest is in decorating with an emphasis on surface effects to move readers rather than that in presenting a message or information clearly. This difference further indicates that the purpose of writing is often differs between the two languages. Japanese essay writers generally aim to move their readers and they are not concerned about how to clearly convey information as English writers are. Such fundamental differences in purposes of writing might affect the way in which a paragraph is organized. The difference of the purpose of each term may result in differences in paragraphs and danraku, which are the units of an essay or passage in both languages.

Paragraphs and danraku

A paragraph usually consists of a series of sentences, but a good paragraph requires more than just a series of sentences. Oshima and Hogue (1991) define a paragraph as follows:
"A paragraph is a group of related sentences that develops one main idea, which is the topic of the paragraph" (p.16).
Hodges et al. (1990) also illustrate how good paragraphs are organized:
"Good paragraphs are unified, coherent, and well developed. In paragraphs 1 and 2, observe how the sentences of each paragraph relate to a single main idea" (p. 322).

As shown above, one main idea for one paragraph is a principle in English writing.
As for the components, a paragraph is made up of three kinds of sentences: a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a concluding sentence. Oshima and Hogue (1991) write that a topic sentence is the most general statement in a paragraph. It contains a topic and an idea about the topic that is explained in the rest of the paragraph. Supporting sentences develop the topic sentence by giving details about the topic. A concluding sentence "summarizes the main points of the paragraph; and it gives a final comment on the topic" (p. 26). Strunk and White (1979) also encourage writers to "begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps transition" (p. 16).

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On the other hand, the definition and functions of danraku are vague and the requirements for danraku are not clearly stated in most composition textbooks. According to Shinmura (2001), danraku is defined, as "a major division in a long passage". Matsumura (1999) also defines danraku as "a part of a long passage and a division group of the same content". In other dictionaries, no clearer definitions for danraku are found, either. Moreover, no book suggests the rules or requirements for danraku. Hence, when most Japanese write, the concepts of a topic sentence and supporting sentences do not exist. Although Matsumura (1999) describes danaraku as a group of the same content, it means that any sentence can be included in a paragraph as far as it is related to the topic. Hence, Japanese writers do not have to follow specific rules and can flexibly make danraku while English writers are supposed to adhere to specific principles for a paragraph.
A more surprising remark on danraku is found in Usami's comment (1998) on Japanese composition instructions. "danraku is not an indispensable element for writing" (p. 96). Thus, danraku is made light of by some Japanese writers in contrast to the paragraph, which is taken seriously by English writers. This is supported by Kinoshita's (1981) observation that "most Japanese writers may end a paragraph because they think they have written a lot in a paragraph" (p. 61). Judging from comments such as these, the reason each sentence exists in the specific paragraph is vague and most Japanese writers conclude danraku arbitrarily. A writer can put more than two main ideas in one danraku because the strict organization of a topic sentence and a supporting sentence is not required.
It is clear that paragraphs and danraku share different functions, although in English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries, these words appear as equivalents. The critical differences between the paragraph and danraku may make Japanese students produce unclear and out-of focus paragraphs when writing in English. They organize paragraphs as they would for danraku, without any logical combination of a topic sentence and supporting sentences. They also often place more than two main ideas in one paragraph because in danraku that is possible. Japanese writers tend not to pay attention to stating a clear topic sentence which is followed by appropriate supporting sentences. Therefore, Japanese students should realize that danraku and paragraphs are not identical and they should not write English in a danraku style.



The participants were 72 first year students enrolled in our English classes at two universities in Tokyo. The classes were required English listening courses and one class was advanced whereas the other was intermediate. These students received no formal instruction on how to write English essays from either of the researchers.

Writing task

Each student wrote one essay in English and another in Japanese. In order to avoid translating from one language to another, participants were not informed at the beginning that they would be writing on the same topic in both languages. The students were asked to write their opinion on whether Japan should make English its second official language in Japanese, within approximately 200 words in 2003. Sample essays appear in Appendix 1. One month after they wrote on the sample topic in Japanese, within approximately 600 characters. Sample essays by the same authors appear in Appendix 2 Students were told they do not have to write completely the same thing as they wrote previously in English to avoid translation. For this study, how they organize their writing was considered more important than the actual content. Therefore, it was acceptable for students to express different points of view in their second essay.

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Text analysis

In order to investigate whether Japanese students use the same organization pattern in Japanese and English writing, the present study analyzed three things: (a) the number of paragraphs and danraku in each essay (b) the presence or absence of a clear and single topic sentence in each paragraph of the English essays and (c) the presence or absence of appropriate supporting sentences in each paragraph of the English essays. First, the number of paragraphs and danraku were counted to examine if the students logically divided their essays according to a main idea. Next, each essay written in English was closely examined by the unit of a paragraph. One focus was on the presence of a topic sentence stating the main idea of each unit. Another focus was on the presence of supporting sentences effectively supporting each topic sentence. Besides, the other types of occurrences such as multiple topic sentences in one paragraph or the wrong location of a supporting sentence were checked. The coding and analysis of organization were done by the researchers.

Results and discussion

Through the analysis of the paragraphs written by the Japanese students, three common problems are found. One of the common problems is that more than a few students wrote their English essays only in one paragraph, and such paragraphs contained many different ideas. Among the 72 students, 27 wrote a Japanese style essay in only one danraku from beginning to end. The English essays written by 21 students from those 27 students were written in single paragraphs as well, although they contained more than two main ideas. This indicates that these students may have transferred their danraku writing conventions to English paragraphs. As stated earlier, Japanese danraku may have more than one main idea. English Essay A in Appendix 1 depicts this problem clearly.
The second problem was that two topic sentences sometimes appeared in one paragraph and different ideas were discussed. These ideas did not pertain to the same specific point, just the same general topic itself. This tendency is probably due to the influence of Japanese danraku style composition, which allows multiple topic sentences. The second paragraph in English Essay B from Appendix 1 illustrates this problem. This appears below, in unedited form.
(1) In such a situation, making English as the second official language is very unrealistic. (2) There is few people who can use English without difficult. (3) It is very strange to make a language an official language in order to make people acquired with the language. (4) A language can be an official language generally because the language is used by many people. (5) If Japan make English as the second official language, English won't be it truly. (6) What is important is the will of the Japanese to master English, not the force on them to master it.
The first sentence (1) of this paragraph states its main idea. Sentences (2), (3), (4), and (5) seem to support the main idea. If the author had ended this paragraph with sentence (5), this paragraph would have made sense. However, another main idea is introduced in sentence (6). This last sentence may confuse readers because it is a new idea which is not related to the controlling idea of this paragraph.
The third problem was that a topic sentence was often absent from many paragraphs, with only supporting sentences composing the paragraph. 51 out of 72 students divided their essays into more than two paragraphs. However, the divisions seemed arbitrary, and several paragraphs lacked clear topic sentences. English Essay C in Appendix 1illustrates this problem. This essay also depicts other problems which previous researchers identified.

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This three paragraph essay has four major flaws which result in a loss of clarity and focus. First, the student writes inductively, stating the main opinion in the last sentence of the essay (17). Therefore, the supporting sentences precede the primary idea, so readers do not see an explicit statement of the paragraph's main point until the last sentence. Next, it is not easy for readers to comprehend the writer's main point in the second paragraph. Although the first paragraph has a clear topic sentence, the next paragraph does not. This may cause misunderstanding about what the writer intends to focus on in this paragraph. Although, later, in sentence (6), a possible topic sentence appears, this sentence is a little vague. Another thing which makes this paragraph unclear is that the supporting sentences for the first paragraph are included in the second paragraph. Sentences (10), (11) and (12) should be in the first paragraph rather than the second paragraph. In addition, with sentence (13), the writer presents a new main idea. This appearance of two main ideas in one paragraph violates the essential principle of the paragraph. It is also detrimental for clearly conveying the writer's key idea to readers.
Thus this essay is unclear because the writer fails to follow several fundamental paragraph writing rules. These problems may be caused from the common misconception that danraku is an equivalent word for paragraph. In English paragraphs, what should be and should not be included is strictly decided. On the other hand, Japanese danraku is flexible and the sentences related to the topic are allowed in any sequence. As the Japanese essay written by the same student (Appendix 2) shows, several ideas are discussed in one danraku, and there too it is not easy to understand the writer's main point. All the sentences state something about learning English but each danraku does not focus on a specific aspect. In danraku, unity is not as important as it is in paragraphs. Japanese writers can keep on writing as ideas come to mind because danraku does not require a logical organization.

Conclusion and pedagogical implications

". . . the objectives for academic writing differ between English and Japanese."

Our study contrasting danraku and paragraphs has focused on one writing genre: academic writing and demonstrated that they are not identical since Japanese learners tend to write English essays from the perspective of Japanese danraku. This is caused from the common misunderstanding that danraku and paragraphs are essentially the same. Moreover, the objectives for academic writing differ between English and Japanese. English writers of academic essays mainly write in order to clearly convey information or an opinion; and rhetoric focuses on effective writing communication. Japanese writers mainly write in order to emotionally move readers, and rhetoric is a way to impress readers.
Our study emphasizes the following points for more effective instruction in English writing to Japanese students.

Guidelines for Effective Writing Instruction

  1. Remember that a paragraph is a completely different unit of organization from danraku.
  2. Confirm that the topic sentence makes an assertion and supporting sentences explain or prove that assertion in detail.
  3. Assure that all of the sentences in a paragraph discuss the same idea. If students start to discuss a new idea, start a new paragraph.
  4. Make an outline with a topic sentence and main supporting sentences before starting to write a draft. This will help writers to keep coherence and unity.
  5. Emphasize the aim of English essay writing is to effectively convey information to readers rather than to move readers' feelings.
If these guidelines are presented clearly, it is our hope that Japanese students will avoid mixing danraku and paragraph writing conventions. Further longitudinal studies should be conducted to corroborate this hypothesis.

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Kaplan, R. (1988). Contrastive Rhetoric and second language learning: Notes towards a theory of contrastive rhetoric. In A.C. Purves (Ed.), Writing across languages and cultures. Newbury Park, Ca: Saga Publications.

Usami, H. (1998). Sakubun no ronri: Wakaru bunsho no shikumi [The logic of the essay: The structure of clear essays]. Tokyo: Toshindo.

( Appendix 1 Appendix 2 )

2004 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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