Along with a child’s entrance into the Japanese school system comes another rite of passage for parents (read “mothers” in 99 percent of cases): experiencing the Japanese PTA system.

Here, volunteering for the PTA often conjures up negative images, with the mere mention of those three initials enough to make many a Japanese mother grimace, giving the impression that it’s a peculiar form of parental punishment. How do foreign women manage in such an environment?

Volunteering to be one of the class officers, or yakuin, for my son’s first-grade class certainly hadn’t been on my agenda. I knew that it was expected that a parent would be a yakuin once for each child during the six years of elementary school, but I figured I still had plenty of time to play with.

At the initial parents’ meeting, all the mothers sat there with downcast eyes while the teacher tried to convince us that being a yakuin was a valuable opportunity to get to know the school. Finally, one woman hesitantly raised her hand, and suddenly I found myself following suit. I had two smaller children waiting to be picked up from day-care and I just wanted to be out of there!

I’d wrongly assumed that the yakuin meetings were in the evening, not slap bang in the middle of the working day. To cut a long story short, my first stint was an utter disaster. I was juggling three small children and a job, and was completely out of my depth. Finally, at another humiliating class meeting, I had to admit failure and humbly ask for another person to take over. How ironic that a volunteer role, which was supposed to help me integrate, left me seriously contemplating transferring my kid to another school district!

The PTA movement was introduced to Japan after World War II and is modeled on the American “Parent-Teacher Association” concept, with parents working with the school to enrich life for the students. While many Japanese might not know the English meaning behind it, the term “PTA” has become part of the vernacular.

Twenty foreign mothers with kids in the Japanese school system shared their stories with me, ranging from newbies just starting out to seasoned veterans with multiple yakuin terms under their belts.

Experiences at the preschool level vary widely. Some yōchien (kindergarten) PTAs seem to think that mothers should devote every waking moment to activities, while others take a minimalist approach. Since you generally have a choice of yōchien, with luck you’ll be working with parents who have a similar outlook.

In the case of hoikuen (day-care), efforts are usually made to keep PTA meetings and activities to a minimum, since all the mothers are working. One mother explained how her child’s hoikuen abolished the PTA altogether, after the principal grew weary of trying to persuade parents to volunteer as officers every year.

The majority of the mothers I spoke to had their first taste of yakuin duty once their children moved on to elementary school. The first year of elementary can be bewildering even for Japanese mothers, let alone foreign women who aren’t products of this country’s education system. Stay-at-home and working mothers, laissez-faire types and “helicopter parents” are all thrown together into the PTA melting pot and expected to get along. Egos can be a bit fragile.

As a mother of five, American Claudia has had ample opportunities to volunteer. “I feel that PTA here is like the Borg [an alien race with a “hive mind”] on ‘Star Trek’, ” she explained. “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

No two school PTAs seem to be run quite the same way, with structure and duties varying from one district to the next. There is always a president and a couple of deputies, but beyond that, anything goes. Some schools expect just a handful of officers per class to manage everything between them for the year, while others share the burden among a greater number.

The duties of a PTA officer run the gamut: arranging parental get-togethers, producing school newsletters, organizing rosters for road safely patrols, cutting and sorting “bell marks” (symbols found on certain products that schools can exchange for donations), helping out at community events (ones that don’t necessarily even involve children from the school) and the salubrious task of cleaning toilets during the annual sports day.

“And you can fulfill any secret fetish fantasies you may have to dress up as AKB48 or Minnie Mouse and prance around on stage at the graduation show,” quipped Natalie from the U.K., reflecting on her stint as a yakuin at yōchien.

Without exception, every mother mentioned the endless meetings that come with signing on as a yakuin. “So much time with so little accomplished!” said Rowena from Australia. While serving on the Christmas party planning committee at her son’s yōchien, American mom Nancy was flabbergasted that it took an hour just to decide the number and color of gummy bear sweets to add to the plates.

Finding people to fill the role of yakuin can be problematic. While some schools keep meticulous records of who has done which PTA duty, others just seem to trust to luck they will get enough volunteers.

If not enough volunteer of their own accord, usually at the first parents’ meeting of the school year, various “scientific” methods may be employed: pulling names from a hat, drawing chopsticks, a game called amidakuji (ladder-climbing, or, as one foreign mother calls it, “that maze thing”) and the ever-popular rock, paper, scissors. Some mothers hope to avoid duty by simply skipping the meeting, but this can backfire when they find their name was drawn in their absence.

With increasing numbers of women working outside the home, you might reasonably assume that there is a growing trend to have meetings in the evening or on the weekend, but this often isn’t the case. Many meetings, especially for the core yakuin positions, are held during the day. Once you accept a position, it’s just assumed that you’ll somehow manage.

Some working mothers take it in turns to attend the meetings with counterparts, while I’ve known some who used up a year’s worth of vacation days on PTA stuff. More enlightened schools try to assign working mothers to the same committee so they can meet at mutually convenient times.

Takashi Kumakiri works in the Social Education Division at the ministry of education, and part of his role is supporting PTA activities nationwide. “It is up to each school to run the PTA as they see fit. With more dual income families, it is important to consider the needs of working parents when planning activities,” he explained. “The number of children in Japan is shrinking, but more than ever we need to realize that parents alone can’t raise a child — it takes involvement from various members of the community.”

It may be tempting to play the “gaijin card” to avoid yakuin duty. If your language skills are minimal, being a foreign parent might be enough to exempt you, especially with your oldest child.

However, the mothers in our survey generally agreed it is best to eventually take the plunge. “Don’t worry about understanding everything,” advises Briton Julia. “The other parents will help you out — and be impressed that you are doing something that no one really wants to do!”

American mom Debbie agrees. “The way I see it, we are moms, then we are foreigners. I don’t like to play the ‘foreigner card’ unless I really have to.”

Margaret, also from the U.S., has a different take on things. With a busy full-time job, she made it clear from the outset that she wouldn’t be a yakuin. “Deal with it on your own terms, politely,” she advises. “If you don’t have time to commit, you just need to communicate that.” While it doesn’t come under PTA activities, Margaret volunteers for the yomi-kikase program, reading books in English at the beginning of the day, and has received positive feedback.

Some of our mothers signed on with enthusiasm, eager to effect changes and shake things up, only to run up against a brick wall. PTA is a microcosm of Japanese society, where things are done a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Mother-of-four Melody has lived and learned. “I no longer expect the PTA to be a ground-breaking force. Their goal is not to make changes, but to fulfill their obligations without making waves and [then] pass the position off to the next year’s yakuin.”

Even so, some foreign mothers have successfully challenged the status quo. Tiiu from the U.S. currently serves as a representative for her sixth-grader’s class. Traditionally, one of the tasks is to produce a “message video” for the graduation party, but Tiiu knew it would be an enormous burden for the already busy representatives. “After talking to the teachers, it was decided to have the parents put on a miniconcert instead,” she said. “I’ve realized that if you speak up, others will open up — and change can happen!”

Certain aspects of the yakuin experience flummox foreign mothers. Australian mom Tamsin said she is constantly amazed at how women who stared at the floor, hoping their name wouldn’t be drawn, suddenly metamorphose into gung-ho yakuin. Almost nobody wants the job, but once their number comes up, Japanese mothers usually get down to business.

Many wonder why the role of PTA president is always filled by a man at some schools, while it is invariably the mothers who do the rest of the work. This practice seems prevalent in more traditional areas, where the school has long-standing ties with other community groups. The role typically goes to a father who is a local company president or business owner.

This practice doesn’t sit well with Miriam from Canada, who was told that, as the “face” of the PTA, it’s easier for a man to get along with others in the community. “I really resent the implication that women can’t get along with men, and also that our PTA frees pay for the head to have drinking trips for networking his business!” she said.

If it’s any consolation, the fathers generally don’t appear to want the role any more than mothers do. Several of the foreign women I spoke to have husbands who have served as PTA president, and the duties cut into both family and work time.

While being a yakuin is sometimes frustrating and nearly always time-consuming, many of the foreign mothers reported that it ended up being a positive experience overall.

Marta from Italy said some of the mothers she worked with were gossipy, but she also made new friends and gained useful information about the school and the wider community.

“Being a yakuin helped to break down barriers that I felt existed between me and the Japanese moms,” said Shellie from the Philippines. “They started treating me like of them once I’d served on the PTA.”

For fledging yakuin, Australian mom Heather suggests teaming up with a friend for the same role or committee to make it more enjoyable. American Catherine has volunteered for each of her three children, now teenagers. “I actually got great advice from a fellow foreign mom here with older kids. She told me that volunteering would give me a good excuse to be at school and see how my kids were doing. She was so right!”

The good news for weary PTA parents is that from junior high school onwards, the level of commitment for yakuin tends to tail off unless you’re holding a core position. My daughter’s junior high produces an annual literary magazine and calls on two parents per class to contribute. You don’t even have to show up at any meetings — just email in your submission. Japanese parents tend to shy away from the job, so this is the fourth time I’ve held this role. Who knew that PTA yakuin could be —almost — fun?

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