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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008
To conform at times is neither a Japanese diktat nor a sellout of self
Let's talk education.
How can the best possible goals of early education be achieved?
Schools in democracies aspire to teach young people to be compassionate and intelligent members of society, while allowing them to develop and exercise their individual gifts.
The question is this: Is there a universal path leading to this goal; or do societies differ in the ways they draw, define and follow that path?
An article by Kumiko Makihara in the International Herald Tribune on Dec. 2 made me think about the differences between Japanese education and that in the United States, where Makihara lived for many years before coming to Tokyo with her son.
"I witnessed a bizarre scene at my son's primary school earlier this year," she writes, before going on to describe a group of mothers, all dressed in similar "tasteful if bland outfits," bowing in apology to a teacher for having chatted too noisily during a field-day performance.
She explains in the article how her son had to radically adjust to his new environment, to the extent of putting on a Japanese accent when speaking English.
It is certainly true that the social norms surrounding the Japanese primary school lean heavily on group orientation, and most parents — not only mothers — are keen to fit in with the school culture and appear to be model guardians.
It is also true that children who are conspicuously different are often given a hard time. They either quickly learn to tow the lines of guarded communication and hierarchical respect, or they may be shunned or, worse, bullied.
Having sent four children, who are not Japanese, through both public and private Japanese schools in Tokyo and Kyoto, I found Makihara's descriptions familiar. But I differ from her judgment that the Japanese experience is "bizarre," or "smothering of our identities."
There is an unspoken dress code for parents who attend functions at their child's school, though they are free to ignore it and are not looked down upon if they do. This is a way that Japanese parents show respect for teachers and the institution of school.
When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, my mother always dressed to the nines when visiting my school, and my father wouldn't have been caught dead on its precincts not wearing a suit. Such customs are long obsolete, but they did represent the admiration parents had for teachers.
Similarly, I would assume that an American meeting their spouse's boss at a work function now would dress appropriately, in other words in conformity. Is this to compromise their individuality?
The Japanese have many ways of expressing their personality and individuality, but not normally through how they dress for set occasions. Americans, on the other hand, think they are dressing individually, yet the result is that they look pretty much alike.
Makihara points out that the school manual urges pupils to have a bowel movement, if possible, before coming to school, and she implies that this is overprotection. To me it isn't; it is part and parcel of the notion that the school shares the guardianship of the children with the parents, which I entirely support.
My family benefited immensely from the free health checkups at the schools in Kyoto and Tokyo, as well as the well-balanced meals given to our children there and many other customs of care.
There are countless instances of acceptable deviation from the norm as well. If your child has special dietary needs, these can, by and large, be met. We asked the schools, too, if our children could wear rash shirts while swimming outside, due to the fact that their skin is more susceptible to damage from the sun than that of Japanese. Permission was readily granted.
My children, like Makihara's son, also had a language problem, but not with English. When we moved from Tokyo to Kyoto, they spoke standard Japanese. Then, they learned Kyoto dialect in a hurry! Kids are notorious the world over for making it tough on those who don't speak their lingo.
The actor Mel Gibson was in two of my plays (long before he became famous). He told me about his experience as an early teen American in Australia: "At first I couldn't speak Aussie English," he said. "They beat the shit out of me until I talked like them."
My Australian friends who have taken their children to America recount similar stories. Japan, clearly, is not unique in this particular area.
Makihara writes that Japanese children are forced by circumstance to conceal their achievements, which she terms "another skill in the art of sameness."
Here, I'm afraid, she misses the point. For sure, Japanese society in general does not put a premium on the flaunting of achievement. For better or worse, propriety is respected and modesty is still a valued virtue. Achievers are deeply admired, as elsewhere — but they are not expected to advertise their achievements themselves.
The norms of school culture differ from country to country. However, everyone everywhere knows that to adhere to norms is to display solidarity — no matter how individualistic you want to be with your friends and family.
My parents would have approved of such a display of reticence — now old-fashioned in the context of American society.
Makihara, though, ends her article considering "how crucial it is to attend the upcoming fourth-grade potato-roasting event." It's very important for her son, I would answer. Potato-roastings, turnip-pickings, rice-poundings — I did it all, and I'm none the worse for wear.
And I dare say that my individuality, obnoxious as it can be, is safely intact as well.