The first day of elementary school, a milestone in a child’s life, brings a mix of emotions for parents. The pride and joy of seeing their child taking his first steps into the world are tempered with feelings of anxiety in moms and dads everywhere.
Misgivings can be more intense for a parent living in a foreign country who knows little of the school system in their adopted land. The fact that their offspring will be acquiring a different set of values hits home. Sensational reports in the media of bullying, incompetent teachers and out-of-control classrooms add to their concerns.
Graham and Ayako Briggs, a British/Japanese couple raising two children in Japan, have a daughter in kindergarten. Like many international couples, they worry about the impending step up to elementary school.
“Due to the emphasis on rote memorization in Japanese education, I’m concerned about whether my daughter will learn enough of the basics in elementary school and have the logical skills to transfer to a school in the U.K. if I go back in the future,” explained Graham.
Many foreign parents in Japan who want the best possible education for their child consider international schools. However, while many such institutions in Japan have long histories, good reputations and provide a quality education, they cater primarily to a transient student body. On the “Welcome” section of its home page, for example, the American School in Japan states: “Hailing from approximately 40 countries, the vast majority of our students and their families find themselves in Tokyo on temporary assignment.”
Additionally, international schools are cost-prohibitive for many and too far away for those not centrally located. Some send their families back to their home countries so their children can attend school there while they continue working in Japan — not a viable option for those who believe education begins at home.
The reality for most foreign residents with mixed-race children is that they will be enrolling in the local elementary school along with the vast majority of regular Japanese families — something that may be difficult to accept even for those who have spent a considerable amount of time in Japan.
But it’s important for worried parents to bear in mind that regardless of race and schooling, any child growing up in Japan — playing with Japanese kids, eating Japanese food, watching Japanese TV — will become thoroughly Japanese by default, and attending the local school with the other children in the neighborhood is the best way for him to fit in. And if you are a foreigner married to a Japanese, there’s a 99 percent chance that the person you love and have decided to spend the rest of your life with is a product of the state education system, so it can’t be all bad, right?
The current Japanese school system has its roots in the Meiji-Era rush to achieve economic and military parity with the West. A centralized education was seen as crucial to modernizing the country, and Japan achieved its postwar economic miracle with the current 6-3-3-4 system: six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, and four years of university (with the first nine years being mandatory).
Although the Japanese school system has come under fire for a focus on rote learning over independent thinking, it also deserves much of the credit for making Japan into the country it is today. Japan has high literacy rates, the proportion of young adults with tertiary education is one of the highest among OECD countries, and 15-year-olds taking the PISA tests, which measure academic ability, continue to score high compared to many of their international counterparts.
Japan’s low crime rate can be partly attributed to the system whereby homeroom teachers are tasked with both the cognitive and personal development of students. Teachers are held accountable for their charges’ actions, and are likely to be called to the police station if a student is detained for shoplifting, for example.
While valid complaints could be made about excessive conformity among Japanese, the high level of civility in society is arguably the tradeoff. Teachers play their part by maintaining close personal relationships with their students, organizing small group activities and delegating various adult responsibilities to students that prepare them for the future.
This aspect of Japanese schooling particularly impressed Alice Gordenker, who wrote a column in The Japan Times from April 2001 to December 2004 about sending her two American children to Japanese elementary school.
“My kids made friends in the neighborhood and had an easy commute. There was much more latitude for kids to be kids than in the American school in the USA from which they transferred,” she explained. “They were encouraged and allowed to develop independence because Japanese schools teach children to become independent in an organized, careful way, including explicit instruction on how to walk to school on their own safely, how to pack for themselves for field trips, and how to care for their things.”
The number of mixed-race children in Japan is increasing as international marriages become more common, but naturally parents of mixed-race children still have concerns that their children might be bullied because they look different.
“I’m worried about bullying and my daughter standing out,” confided Ayako Briggs. “I realize the need to socialize is great, but I’m nervous everyone will remember my daughter because her face is different.”
Bullying is of course a pervasive problem, but it’s also a universal one. It is equally possible a child could be bullied if he went to a regular school in his foreign parent’s home country, or an international school, and for myriad reasons other than ethnicity.
Foreign parents who are concerned about their children’s schooling in Japan are able to attend “open house” events held several times a year, during which they can observe classes. Parents are also frequently invited into the school to attend lectures, observe club activities and participate in various other activities.
All Japanese elementary schools, and some junior high and high schools, also serve reasonably priced, delicious, healthy lunches to students. Many schools strive to provide fresh, locally produced food in season and offer explanations of the contents of lunches.
Students in Japanese schools are active and the P.E. program is robust, featuring a yearly sports festival open to families and the community. Clubs that include a variety of sports are common for 5th and 6th graders and extracurricular sports are available.
Elementary school is an excellent opportunity for both parent and child to integrate into the community and form bonds with neighbors. A home study program in the foreign parent’s native tongue can help keep a child’s second language sharp. Short trips back home and a longer homestay later are good ways for children to stay in touch with their foreign parent’s culture.
Foreigners who keep an open mind, stay curious and remember that learning is a lifelong experience can deepen their understanding and appreciation of Japan as their children begin their journey through life at the local elementary school.
Charles Lewis is a freelance writer and has two children in Japanese elementary school. Send comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org