An Insider’s Educational Experience

Among the major benefits of being a teacher in a foreign country are the opportunities it provides for meeting and speaking with the “natives”. Over my “career” in Japan, I’ve interacted with a broad spectrum of students: from 2 year-old children (and younger) to people in their 80’s, from office ladies and blue collar workers to professionals and company presidents. Students’ motivations for studying have ranged from being forced to study by their parents (or company) to viewing the acquisition of a second language as a vehicle to a better life. During these 15 plus years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of Japanese about a vast array of topics, including education. As a former teacher in my native country, education has always been a topic of profound personal interest. Recently, I spoke at length with a young student, whom I have been teaching for 5 years, about his educational experiences, first in elementary school, which he attended in North America, and his subsequent experiences upon returning to Japan. The conversation was very enlightening, for several reasons.


The first example of the difference in education “styles” occurred shortly after he started school back in Japan. About 1 month after school started, his parents received a letter from the school instructing them to instruct their son to stop asking “why” questions during class. Basically, the letter said that their son was asking too many questions and was a disruptive influence in the classroom.


“WE”, NOT “ME”
My student’s first major “social” adjustment was the necessity of being aware of, and thinking about, the “feelings” of others. He spoke of becoming physically ill due to the stress caused by having to “learn” to restrain himself from speaking or acting “impulsively”, how he had to constantly reign in his “normal”, natural “impulses, and instead, reflect on how his actions might potentially “hurt” someone. Essentially, he said, his initial response was to become almost paranoid about speaking or “participating” in class.


As he had spent 5 of his first 8 years living abroad, he hadn’t been exposed to a “typical” Japanese childhood, and therefore hadn’t learned Japanese fairy tales or been exposed to Japanese “children’s” TV shows. He was “marginalized” in class by teachers for his “ignorance”. “All Japanese know this story. All Japanese know about this character. What’s wrong with you?” It is assumed by Japanese teachers that everyone in the class comes from a similar, identical background, and those who don’t are “different”, are “outsiders”.


On field trips, students are given opportunities to “decide” something, like which hiking trail to take. His experience has been that, should they not choose the “right” trail, they are encouraged to re-think their choice. Basically, the teacher has already decided the itinerary, which they should ideally “choose”. The unspoken message is that the students aren’t able to make wise choices, and leaving those decisions to elders or superiors makes perfect sense. Being sensitive to their superiors thinking ensures that things move smoothly, and “choosing” to “make” (i.e. follow) the “best choice” shows your (social) intelligence.
Recently, all the students at his school were given a “survey”. They were encouraged to offer their suggestions on how to make their school experience better. My student took the request seriously and wrote, at length, how he thought things could be made better. The next day he was summoned to the principal’s office and “encouraged” to re-think some of his opinions and suggestions.
My student’s experience in elementary school in America was that, mostly, school was “fun”. The class size was limited to 24 students, his classmates were of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and the classroom experiences were enjoyable. The end-of-year party was particularly memorable as there were “organized” but not “structured” activities for the students. There was an element of “controlled freedom”.
Similar “events” in Japan haven’t been fun. He pointed out his schools website, with lots of pictures, taken at the various events, of happy, smiling faces. His comments were that the events are organized and structured to look like fun, but there is little joy in participating. Participation is a duty, accompanied by strong social pressure, and the primary motivations are competing against other classes and “winning”, doing “better” than the year before, and not letting your “class/team” down.

Last year, they had to rehearse a “surprise” farewell party for the senior class at his school. In Japan, there are no surprises!


Japan if famous for a concept called “do” (the way of). The seminal book “Bushido” speaks of the legendary “way of the warrior”. Sado (the way of tea), kado (the way of flowers), kendo (the way of swords) are examples of Japanese “do”. My student, and his classmates, are intelligent, creative, curious kids. They are often frustrated by the “do” system.  A math class experience demonstrated interesting aspects of “the way” of math.
On a recent math exam, several students arrived at the same, correct, answer, but their answers weren’t acceptable, as they failed to use/demonstrate the proscribed method.
Essentially, it wasn’t whether you could figure out the math problem, it was whether you could figure it out “the right way” that mattered. Furthermore, my student observed that any students “arguing” their point with the math teacher would only result in their grades being further lowered. In other words, do things the “right way”, and don’t debate “the way”.
Furthermore, in math class, some problems are ignored. The teacher simply explains that the process to solve that particular problem will be taught in juku. My student’s response was that it was obviously unfair, and further reinforced the role jukus play in the Japanese education “system”.
Alex Kerr’s book “Dogs and Demons” quotes a former Education minister’s response to the question “why are there two education systems in Japan, the “public” system and jukus?” His response was “the education system is to make Japanese people Japanese.”

One of the oldest questions in the sporting world is to decide what “philosophy” the team will have. Essentially, there are two, opposing approaches: one is to have a “system” and recruit talent to fit the system; the other is to recruit the best talent available and develop a system to optimize the expression of that talent.
One of the annual, decided events at elementary schools in Japan is the autumn undokai, and the formula for the undokai is decided. One of the activities at my student’s undokai is a large, human pyramid, usually 4 rows high. My student participated in such a pyramid, with 109 boys arranged in 4 rows. Each row obviously has certain requirements. During one of the practice sessions for the event, one of the boys broke his leg. From my student’s perspective, the teacher went out of his way to place the entire blame for the “accident” on the boy. The boy had failed to follow the proper process and therefore, his leg was broken. There was no sympathy for the boy, nor were there any questions asked about his suitability for the task assigned to him.


My student was involved in a fight with another student. My student’s parents were notified. The teacher asked my student’s parents for “permission” to say that they were angry at the other student. His parents declined to give the teacher permission.  Without the student’s parents’ permission, the teacher nevertheless told the other participant in the fight that my student’s parents were very angry and disappointed in the combatant’s behavior. Basically, the teacher didn’t want to take the responsibility for berating the other student.  The teacher was only the messenger, and you don’t shoot the messenger.


SHIPPAI WA SEIKO NO MOTO (Failure teaches success)
One of the enduring images in western culture is the mean, heartless, merciless drill sergeant, who’s responsibility is to “whip boys into men” in a short period of time. Militaries worldwide, elite sports programs, gangs and other cultures have codified different forms of “acceptable” verbal and physical abuse as being “necessary” and “effective” in bringing out the best in people, creating loyalty, obedience and dedication to a common “good”.

The December 23rd suicide of a Osaka high school senior, an elite team captain in an elite sports school, was attributed to the physical and verbal abuse he received at the hands of his coach.  It is alleged that this type of abuse had been going on for a considerable time but was ignored due to the success the team achieved-the ends justifying the means.

Japan is an enigma. Much has been written about the complexity of Japanese society. The contrasts that exist between the routes to achieving academic success (juku, test based culture), sporting success (physical and emotional abuse, the “do” system) and cultural success (a “molding”, obedience and conformity driven school system) combine to produce the Japan we live in, but don’t quite understand.  Japan is, to me, a homogeneous mosaic, with the educational system “making people Japanese”, while also allowing for and conditioning people to “accept” their various, sundry and different societal roles and duties.

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Jeffrey Johnston is a Japan based event photographer and publisher/writer and has been fortunate enough to travel and see the world. Been exposed to the limitless possibilities of photography over 12 years ago, he was able to see things differently. He currently shoots in the areas of people, fashion, event & news photography in Japan. He maintains a Facebook page with samples of his work. He can also be found at about contract work or with questions or comments on his photography.