Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I'm going to write about a touchy subject.  Education.

My children were born and raised in Japan.  They went to a private kindergarten (the norm in Japan) and public elementary and middle schools.  My son went to a private high school (he wasn't accepted into a public high school which would have been the preferred route).  My daughter went to a public high school in Ohio.  My daughter is in college now... my son in graduate school.  Both have done their college education in America.

My children and I LOVED Japanese kindergarten!  We all have so many fantastic memories of those three years.  Yes, three years!  Japanese children start kindergarten from age 3 or 4 and spend all day there.  To my American mind it seemed a long time to be away from Mom at such a young age, but after the first week of separation anxiety, kindergarten became an exciting world of exploring nature and discovering new possibilities.  ("I can ride a unicycle and climb a pole.  I can catch dragonflies and make pink dye out of berries."  Kindergarten was the place moms' made new friends too and everyone was teary eyed when those three years were over.

Then my children went to elementary school.  A bigger world, with desks (there hadn't been desks at the kindergarten) and books and homework.  A world where the teacher strove to keep everyone on the same level and everyone learned to work together as a team.  MY first hint that elementary school wasn't going to be all that thrilling was the rote memory work given to the first graders.  Memorize Chinese characters (a certain number a week), memorize the proper inflection and intonation of the stories.  Aye-yai-yai!  And the homework for reading!

Read the same dang story aloud every day for a week to your mother so that she can stamp your homework page.

I got so tired of hearing those same stories over and over again!  I don't know how many times I was ready to just stamp the whole page ("Yes, my child read the story") and tell Takumi or Leiya to go read it by themselves somewhere QUIETLY.  Bad mother.

And somewhere along the line the word Bullying became part my parental vocabulary.  No.  My children were never bullied (I think).  But as my children moved into the upper grades, I would hear stories of this child or that child getting bullied. Sometimes it wasn't even outright bullying.  It was a subtle shifting of friendships so that a child was no longer part of a group...  Or maybe the child himself didn't WANT to be part of the group and retreated into solitariness.  Who was to blame when a child no longer felt themselves part of a class and would start spending his days in the nurse's office?  Who was to blame when a child refused to come to school any longer?

This is a MAJOR problem in Japan.  I cannot even COUNT the number of children I know who have quit school.  They usually give up around 5th or 6th grade...  making the gradual move from just spending the day in the nurse's office, to not attending at all.  Parents are upset, teachers and principals make home visits and try reasoning.  Counselors are called in and generally suggest understanding and TIME.

More often, students give up in their middle school days.  The older children are crueler, going for out and out ostracism.  The students themselves are in their rebellious stage and aren't about to trust anyone, especially adults!  And then there is the entrance exam pressure that sends parents into a panic and teenagers into their self-locked rooms.

And lurking above it all is the fear of suicide.  Who knows what a child will do if someone says a harsh word or forces him to do something he doesn't want to.  Suicide is rampant in Japan.

And I also know students who felt that middle school and high school was such a farce that they stopped going and enjoyed their self imposed free time in what they felt were more profitable activities; reading, writing, computer friendships.

In truth, I felt that middle school for my children, with the exception of Leiya's club activities, was a waste of time.  Takumi was a rebellious teen taking his frustrations out on his parents rather than turning inwards or outwards.  Neither child was interested in studying or applying themselves for upcoming entrance exams.  And the teachers were too harassed trying to keep uncooperative students from doing something drastic, to worry about the middle road kids (mine).  The academic go-getters were either able to educate themselves without teacher assistance, or they were going to cram schools after school anyway, where the teachers were being paid well to produce results!

Takumi went to Japanese high school but basically those three years were a waste of time for him also.  He plodded back and forth spending hours on the train, he had next to nothing to say about classmates or teachers; he fled the high school grounds as quickly as possible everyday and found a part time job.  I honestly don't think his high school years prepared him for ANYTHING nor did anyone EXPECT him to do anything with his life.

So... Who is to blame when a student stops going to school?  There are no truancy laws to enforce attendance, and for some of those kids, it almost seemed the smarter route to refuse to go and spend their time pleasurably.  I have a feeling if my own children had refused to go to school I would have said,

"So?  It isn't that great a school anyway.  You're not going to miss anything!"

I can remember being almost moved to tears when Takumi went to California to the community college in the town...because the teacher spoke of help, and expectation, of individuality and success.

"Someone wants my child to succeed...  They aren't planning to use trick questions and more and more difficult tests to weed out the so called losers...  They are going to help him find himself."

For both my children, American college education has been a s-l-o-w but extremely positive experience. 

Japanese education obviously works for the majority of Japanese students...  but a lot of kids fall by the wayside too.

I'm sorry I've rambled so much...  that there are so many loose ends to this post.  I hope my Japanese friends will forgive me if I've offended them.

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