KAGOSHIMA — Chubby Haruku Takarabe was the last of his 14 classmates to master walking on his hands across the gym. But now he can stand on his head, turn cartwheels on one hand and vault over the 110-cm-high box just like the rest of his fellow 5-year-olds.
“All children are gifted,” said Toriyama nursery operator Yoshifumi Yokomine, 58. “If you let them do handstands everyday against the wall, all children can start walking on their hands in a year. Some of them may take time, but no one is incapable,” he said.
Yokomine runs three nurseries in the port city of Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, which has a population of less than 35,000. Total enrollment at his three nurseries is nearly 300.
The fact that every child gets this degree of exercise before school age has pushed Yokomine, an uncle of pro golfer Sakura Yokomine, into the spotlight.
A TV show featuring “super kids” from Yokomine’s nurseries became a hit after airing in May. Parts 2 and 3 were broadcast in July and October, with part 4 scheduled to show in the near future.
Dubbed the “Yokomine Method,” the preschool training techniques he has developed since setting up Toriyama nursery in 1980 are now used in more than 150 preschools across Japan, which has nearly 23,000 nurseries and over 13,500 kindergartens.
A project to promote the method, begun in 2005, is aiming to spread the techniques not only to more preschools but also to preschools for Japanese kids abroad, said Tetsuo Hatta, 43-year-old director of the Japan Education Management Institute. The Tokyo-based institute runs the project under parent company Youji Corp., which provides services to around 2,000 preschools nationwide.
“I was suspicious at first and thought teaching small kids to do handstands was unnecessary,” said Hideyuki Kaneko, who heads Nijigaoka Kindergarten in Kanagawa Prefecture, which adopted the method in April 2006.
Kaneko said he was impressed by Yokomine’s strong desire to avoid dropouts in defiance of what he described as the stereotypical view that underachievers are as inevitable as overachievers.
“The best part of this method is that the results are visible to both staff and parents. That is not usually the case in education,” Kaneko said.
The TV footage of the kids was so sensational it prompted academic expert Katsumi Tokuda to warn parents in his new book to avoid putting more pressure on children with the method’s “everyone can do it” mentality.
Yokomine’s method “is acceptable overall because he appears to be speaking about empirical rules, but it raises rhetorical concerns,” said Tokuda, a professor of childhood education at Tsukuba University’s Graduate School of Comprehensive Human Sciences, in a telephone interview.
The Yokomine Method, however, is not only about the eye-catching physical ability of the kids but their ability to learn by themselves, Yokomine said.
“Nurturing ‘super kids’ is not my goal. It is just the beginning,” he said.
“We as professionals should feel responsible for their future. . . . If they firmly acquire basic academic abilities by 10, they will be capable of learning anything they want at 11 or 12 and of carving out their own path during adolescence,” he said.
The nurseries start teaching children reading, writing, arithmetic and mouth organ at age 3, using original workbooks compiled by Yokomine.
By the time they enter elementary school, the kids will have read 2,000 or more picture books, written daily messages to their parents, mastered multiplication, and become capable of playing the mouth organ by ear, said Yoshie Ono, vice principal at Toriyama nursery.
For the physical side, kids are made to participate in running every day from age 3 and to begin gymnastics at 4, before starting training for handstands — one of the most challenging skills — around the time they turn 5, Ono, 47, said.
Both physical and scholastic exercises are necessary because “you need to have good motor skills to write neatly,” said Hatta, a licensed gym teacher. “If you are good at running, you can sit upright and concentrate.”
The method did not materialize overnight, however, and only took form in the last eight years or so of his nearly 30-year career, Yokomine said, admitting he had no expertise when he established his first nursery.
After graduating from an agricultural high school and serving in the Ground Self-Defense Force for 2 1/2 years, Yokomine was forced at age 28 to close a shop he was running as supermarkets encroached on his turf.
He spent nearly two decades trying other early education methods to no avail, he said.
Kids frequently suffered bruises, broken bones and other injuries back then, and the nursery was viewed as a neighborhood oddity, said Ono, the longest-serving member of Yokomine’s staff.
But that view has since changed, and he has developed a step-by-step method for training kids safely, she added.
In a group interview, the parents of seven kids who attended Yokomine’s nurseries voiced confidence in his method.
Nobuko Shimazu, a 38-year-old mother of three whose daughter attends Toriyama and whose second son left another nursery last March, even asked Yokomine to set up an elementary school so kids can continue using his method, citing dissatisfaction among kids who have left his nurseries.
What could have been just a local success story jumped to the national stage in 2005 when Hatta’s boss, Koichi Yamashita, president of Tokyo-based Youji, which provides physical activities for preschoolers and is listed on Osaka’s Hercules stock market, discovered Yokomine and tied up with him in just a month, Hatta said.
“Drilling children is seen as the antithesis of an age when children live comfortable lives,” said Tokuda, the Tsukuba graduate school professor.
“The method may have been accepted because the time of relaxed education is ending . . . but whether it will take root remains to be seen,” he said.
Hatta said the response from nursery operators and parents, who are often critical of prodding children to study at a young age, has turned positive since the TV coverage.
“Though it might take 15 years or so for the kids to mature and prove by themselves that the method is on the right track, I’m convinced that we are moving closer to changing education in Japan, starting from preschools,” Hatta said.