Although July’s stickiness unglues most minds from study, it is at this time of year that mothers in Japan turn their thoughts toward school. Enrolling children in summer cram programs, visiting potential private schools, researching every possible option — all are occupations to fill the barefoot days of vacation with meticulous preparation for the eventual start of formal education: Japanese elementary school, or shogakko.
Speaking of bare feet, slippers are a necessary accessory for all shogakko moms. I was forced to borrow the school’s standard slippers recently during a PTA meeting, an incontrovertible mark of someone lacking common sense. I scanned the room desperately, sure to discover at least one other harried housewife who had forgotten the all-important bag at her front door. No chance. I instead took in the astonishing array of slipperhood, from the all-purpose, snatched-from-home pair to the homemade, hand-crocheted pair with matching carrying case, to the nouveau, hard-sock variety. Whoever thinks the Japanese lack creativity has never eaten a bento lunchbox, ordered from a home supplies catalog, or viewed the slipper parade at shogakko.
Being a foreign mother in Japan, regardless of your partner’s ethnicity, requires a certain amount of slippery finesse. I have yet to master the popular art of cell-phone texting, another obstacle in my uphill, slipperless climb to understanding Japanese conventions, but I have learned a few things about shogakko.
To choose or not to choose shogakko is a debate for any expat or bicultural family living here, but once the decision has been made, here are a few hints to help you maneuver the slope, barefoot or appropriately shod.
1. Learn the way of shogakko
There are many resources for helping you understand the way of shogakko. A good start is the book “Educating Andy,” by the appropriately named Andy and Ann Conduit. Another excellent resource, and the one I used extensively while writing this article, is the Yahoo group edn-in-jpn, Homeschooling and Educating Kids in Japan, started 10 years ago by Aileen Kawagoe. Since many of the parents use home schooling to maintain their children’s English while in the Japanese system, shogakko is a frequent topic. These wise and imaginative parents discuss everything from bullying and bilingualism to yearend parties and kindergarten entrance.
Although all public shogakko follow the national curriculum, detailed policy depends on the school, and as this group includes members from all over Japan, you may find someone in your local area. Spend several summer days checking out their archives and links, and connecting with like-minded parents.
2. Culture, not just language
Most families spend a lot of time discussing bilingualism, but a bigger issue should be cultural concerns. Bilingualism depends on many variable factors, but biculturalism, if you send your child to Japanese elementary school, is attainable for all families, and parental policies are usually in place long before your child hits first grade. Some spend long vacations in their native lands, or provide ample reinforcement in books, songs or DVDs from home; others organize playgroups or outings with other “alike” kids, Saturday schools or Fun Days; some merely insist on a little bit of another world in the home, with conversational styles or native food, household organization or belief systems.
Remember, shogakko builds good Japanese citizens, and some traits may not be compatible with easy living in another culture. You must allow your child to breathe the air of other civilizations, or your child will be more Japanese than dual or international.
3. Deploy your differences
Even if a bicultural family includes a mom who is Japanese, at some point you or your child will be treated differently. Edn-in-jpn overflows with postings from parents who used this difference to their advantage, whether it be by receiving allergy-free kyushoku (school lunch) for their children or deciding to send their children part-time to shogakko and home-school on other days. I am sure such services could be available to all students, yet most fully Japanese families would not ask for it, and perhaps would not need it, since shogakko is a mostly excellent system for raising Japanese nationals. Although it is a system, most of the small details are decided by individual schools, so make sure you know your school and its (in)flexibilities inside out as you attempt to raise an international citizen.
4. Learn to be organized
It is not a genetic miracle that most Japanese can fit 42 disparate items in a small box, whereas most Westerners would pile everything together in twice as much space. Part of shogakko is following the details — learning to put things away in their proper place, and following the rules, precisely. Help yourself by taking advantage of the many ways Japanese mothers have found to be organized. Order name stickers for your child to easily mark their school supplies, or make your own with the many computer programs available. Get your child in the habit of packing and unpacking his/her own school bag. Discover the necessity of carrying pocket tissues and a handkerchief, and encourage your child to do this too.
If at all possible, take a Japanese parent with you to buy school supplies, at least the first time. I happened to run into a neighbor while shopping, and she promptly returned everything I had selected. Among other mistakes, there is a right and wrong pencil case for first graders in my area, a piece of common sense so obvious it was not written down anywhere. For Japanese, the importance of small details cannot be overemphasized, so if you only understand the general idea, ask for specifics.
5. Be linguistically realistic
Regardless of your child’s current level of Japanese or bilingualism, be assured he or she will sooner or later take on Japanese as a native speaker. How will you support your child? A little Japanese and a recurring presence at the school can go a long way. Some schools will provide a translator if you or your child’s Japanese is not sufficient, so find out your intended school’s policy long before opening day.
Many parents on the edn-in-jpn site recommend teaching at least hiragana before the start of first grade, as most of the Japanese kids will already read and write it. Above all, with any uncertainty, ask — do not expect to be told.
6. Prepare for independence
First grade is a rite of passage in Japan. My friends and I call it “Survival,” because so many things force your child to learn independence, and quickly. Walking alone to and from school is an obvious one, but there will be many instances throughout the day when your child will have to take care of himself, from reading the board and preparing for PE without any teacher’s directions, to serving and cleaning up lunch once a month. Help your child by practicing at home, whether it be by walking the route together, or changing and folding his/her own clothes neatly, or packing his/her own school bag the night before. Give your child the chance to make small choices constantly, as there will be many times during their day at shogakko when they must make up their own minds, without being told.
7. Arm him/her against teasing
Japanese children do not tease any more than other kids, but they are given more opportunity to tease without adults present. Students are frequently left unsupervised, and of course there are no adults present during the walk to and from school. Japanese teachers are also more likely to let children settle their own problems, rather than intervene like most North American teachers, so be assured your child will have to defend him- or herself from teasing at some point or another.
How you prepare your child is up to the family. Be warned: Some parents advise kids to fight back with aggressive words or behavior, something unusual to many North American parents. For this reason, it is one of the most important channels of conversation to keep open with your child, especially because, of course, your child is different from the start. We practice (non-violent!) options at the dinner table and encourage empathy. Others asked upfront about antibullying policies before entering the school, or enrolled their children in aikido, a martial art that emphasizes nonaggressive self-defense, good for building confidence and tactics for bullying. It may not be enough. Many of the parents on edn-in-jpn have experienced bullying, and most had to take it to the school themselves, rather than trusting the teachers or other parents to intervene.
8. Final thoughts
Most of this advice has focused on drawing your attention to the details so important with any path in Japanese culture. There are many wonderful things about elementary school in Japan: the music and arts programs, the sense of community and responsibility, the care in the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) system. Shogakko does take patience and flexibility, as any new system does, yet there is no better way to expose your children to authentic Japanese culture, with all its grievances and glory.
If this summer marks the start of your own preparation toward shogakko, good luck. Keep climbing, and don’t forget to buy yourself a pair of slippers. With your support, your child’s view from the top of the slope will be from a truly bicultural perspective.