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Reflections on rich learnings we all shared

by Alice Gordenker

When I began writing this column, I thought it would be a one-year gig. My editors thought so too. But things went well, and for nearly four years now I’ve reported in this space about my children’s experiences in Japanese school.

I’ve penned more than 60 columns on topics ranging from grading to gargling. And now December has come around again. The end of the year. The natural time for wrapping things up. And so, with mixed emotions, I wrap up this column today. It’s been wonderful writing for you, but I’d like to do something new.

Over the years, readers have posed various questions: How long will you keep your children in Japanese school? What do you like about the Japanese education system? Has the experience been good for your children? I’d like to answer some of those questions in this final column.

When we were planning our move to Japan, our sons were 8 and 5. Neither had ever lived outside the United States. Neither spoke a word of Japanese. But my husband and I had lived here before and we wanted our kids to be bilingual. Putting them in local schools seemed like the obvious choice, but to tell the truth, we were nervous about doing so.

We had the impression that Japanese schools were strict and old-fashioned, with big classes and an emphasis on rote memorization. I’m not sure where we got those ideas. We had never been inside a Japanese school. But despite reservations, we decided to go ahead when we found a public school with support for children who don’t know Japanese.

I remember well our first visit to the school. We arrived during recess, just in time to witness total pandemonium. My third-grader, who had attended a public school in Virginia where students weren’t allowed to run, even outside during recess, watched in wonder as boys and girls tore up and down the corridor. “I think Japanese schools do a better job at letting kids be kids,” he said — a surprisingly astute observation.

The first few months were about learning that things are done differently in Japan, and adapting to not being able to communicate. That was difficult for my older son, an articulate type who was used to getting his way with words. He remembers it taking about four months before he understood what was happening in the classroom, six months before he could speak easily, and a year before he could perform at the same level as his Japanese classmates.

He had been at the school for a year when The Japan Times asked if I’d write this column. I jumped at the offer, seeing it as a chance to correct common stereotypes about Japanese education, and to encourage foreign parents to consider Japanese schools.

When I learned many of my readers are Japanese, I began to offer more of my own perspective and little-known facts about Japanese education. But no one learned more from this column than I did. I read handouts more carefully, asked more questions and attended more meetings than I would have if I didn’t have a column to write. I spoke to professors and activists I’d never have met otherwise. And I thought more carefully about my children’s education.

From the beginning, we figured our tenure in Japanese school would be short-term. Our kids don’t have a Japanese parent. They don’t hold Japanese passports. It seemed clear that an American university would be best for their futures. Which meant we had to be sure they could return to English-language education.

This proved no problem for my older son. He was a strong reader when we came to Japan, and kept up his English by reading independently. It’s been much more of a challenge for my younger son, who has lived half his life in Japan and received all his schooling here. We speak English at home, but his English tends to be . . . “creative,” shall we say?

He makes things up, often by translating from Japanese. Like the time he pointed to his elbow and said “Here hurts” — a direct translation of “Koko ga itai.” When he leaves me a note, he opts for kanji rather than English. We wanted him to read Japanese well enough to function in daily life, but we didn’t want him to fall too far behind in English. Our compromise is to switch him next fall so he’ll have a year to catch up before he starts middle school.

People often ask whether he feels American or Japanese. After all, he knows more about ninja than cowboys, prefers rice balls to sandwiches, and bows when he apologizes. So I posed the question.

“I feel Japanese because I speak it better,” he said. When I suggested that one’s identity isn’t just about language, he reconsidered. “In that case, I’m not Japanese because I can’t eat natto.” When I pointed out that there are Japanese who don’t like fermented soybeans either, he lost patience. “Mom, I’m an American kid. OK? So drop it.”

I asked my older boy if he was glad he went to Japanese school. I was a bit wary of the answer, given that we pulled him out in fifth grade because he was being bullied.

“Yup. It toughened me up,” he said. “I learned I can handle a lot, and now I feel sure I could live anywhere in the world.”

Would we do it again? Absolutely.

Both our kids learned all the basics that kids should learn in school: to read and write, do math, and communicate their thoughts. To work in groups and get along with others. To take responsibility. They had opportunities to pursue their own interests and express themselves creatively, and both benefited from the excellent school-lunch program, which exposes students to a wide range of foods and teaches them about nutrition.

And as American children, my boys gained something special from their years in Japanese school: a second language and a second culture; the awareness things are done differently in different countries; the knowledge that they are flexible and can adapt.

These are life lessons, the kind parents dream of giving their kids. You bet we’d do it again.

My sincere thanks to the many people who helped me with this column: my children, who were gracious about letting me write about them; teachers and parents who answered my questions; sources who shared their time and expertise; my editors and — most of all — artist Tim Ernst, who did the illustrations. I’d also like to thank my loyal readers; I’m always happy to hear from you at matterofcoursejt@yahoo.com

Please visit this space again because in January I’ll launch a new column with Tokyo photographer Mark Johnston. The articles will run on this page on the third Thursday of every month. See you next year!