Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Public schooling is a two-way street

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Earlier this year, a reader wrote to The Japan Times in response to an education feature on schooling options for the children of non-Japanese parents. The reader wanted to know more, but the earlier feature was unfortunately curtailed by space.

The questions he had regarding his daughters’ education were ones like which school should he choose? What issues might his mixed-race children face? How would they fare with learning more than one language?

I’d like to offer a response that skews in favor of public schools. However, I admit I also have a horse (more like foal) in this race: My son is in his second year of kindergarten and my wife and I intend to send him to public school because “free” education, funded by we the people, is surely one of the better aspects of recent civilization — even if it regularly gets failing grades.

According to the health ministry, nearly 20,000 children are born every year to a mixed-race couple, which makes up 2 percent of the country’s total births. In Japan, the majority of children are educated at public schools and that includes mixed-race kids, despite the common misconception that they’re bound for international school thanks to genetics — more on that misconception later.

Japan’s teenagers consistently score higher on scholastic aptitude tests than their European, North American and Australian counterparts. What those tests don’t show, however, are how the average student fares day-to-day in the school environment — a main concern for parents. Worries are concentrated in three main categories: issues of identity and difference, language development, and parental anxiety when dealing with teachers, school staff, the PTA, paperwork and homework. Language learning is a vast topic and one I hope to revisit at a later date, specifically when raising a bilingual child in a mostly monolingual environment.

First, it may be worth recalling what a public school education is (and isn’t).

“Public schools are designed to prepare children to become functioning adult citizens in the society … they teach a particular version of national history and culture and instill a national identity,” says sociologist Robert Moorehead, an associate professor at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University. Moorehead is conducting a long-term study of Japanese-Peruvian immigrants living here that includes their experiences at public schools.

“In Japan that means schools are making the kids into adult Japanese citizens,” he adds.

In this regard, outwardly the role of public education in Japan is no different than it is elsewhere. What can be difficult for non-Japanese parents, though, is balancing expectations as well as instilling the other side of a child’s identity while existing in this system. International schools focus on a version of cosmopolitanism, while public schools focus on unity.

When it comes to choosing a school, at least in the case of elementary schools, the decision is often made for you: Your children will be assigned a school depending on your address, which means it will likely be the nearest one. Generally, there isn’t much wriggle room here, but the main benefit of your children attending a local school is that both they and you should have the opportunity to make friends in the community. Many parents I spoke to tout this as a good reason to opt for public school.

“It’s important to integrate with locals, make friends, be part of a community,” says Joel Robert, a father of three Japanese-Australian kids. “Besides, the cost of private schooling isn’t worth it.”

David Clayton, an English father with a son in second grade, says his child’s school experience has been excellent.

“It has really integrated him into the community,” he says. “All his friends who live in the area go to the same school. He enjoys it immensely.”

If there are other mixed-race and non-Japanese students at your child’s school, it can be a real benefit. This means teachers will likely have had some experience with diversity in their classrooms, and the other kids may be ready cohorts or provide a peer group.

Julia Matsunaga, a Canadian mother of three mixed-race kids, recalls that the first two years of elementary school for her eldest son were particularly difficult. He was teased for being “half” and he refused to speak English with his mother, requesting that his Japanese grandmother come to the school on Open Days so as not to attract attention. The situation changed in third grade.

“My son had three classmates who had Thai, Filipina and Brazilian moms,” Matsunaga says. “Also, his homeroom teacher loved all things foreign. Her energy and love of all things foreign showed my son and his other ‘half’ classmates that it was cool and special to have foreign roots. After that, my son actually started enjoying my school visits.”

Whether there are other mixed-race or non-Japanese children at the school or not, teachers are instructed to conduct themselves as if they are colorblind.

“Teachers are encouraged to not see difference as part of their training, in order to treat all children the same,” Moorehead says.

This policy creates a bit of a paradox in that schools believe they are doing what’s right when it comes to treating all students equally, but by emphasizing sameness they could be instilling conformity and intolerance of difference. The parents of mixed-race and non-Japanese children want them to understand that being different and being treated equally should go hand in hand.

Emi Doyle, a Japanese mother with a mixed-race child in first grade, says her daughter has recently started feeling uncomfortable due to her difference from her classmates. English is her first language and she grew up in Thailand, Bhutan and India.

“Our concerns were that her basic Japanese communication skills would cause her to fall behind, and that the Japanese school system might disturb her global personality,” Doyle says.

In consultations with the school and during home visits, Doyle and her husband asked teachers to support their daughter’s multicultural background.

“Teachers kindly allowed my daughter to ask questions in the classroom and helped her a lot,” Doyle says. “It is still our concern not to kill her uniqueness and open-minded personality due to the passive classroom style in Japan.”

Bullying is perhaps the biggest concern on every parent’s list of fears, but it’s worth remembering that bullying is universal and indiscriminating.

“I think that’s an issue people have to keep clear in their minds, there’s always the side of kids where they’ll just experience the same kids’ problems as any other kid,” says Frank Daulton, an American father of three. “That could be bullying or it could be something completely else.”

Daulton’s children were born, raised and educated in rural Shiga Prefecture and he says they have all had a positive experience with the public schools there.

Speaking to parents, tales of bullying ran the gamut from broken bones to name-calling to nothing at all.

“I was and will maybe always worry a little about bullying, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem,” says Esther Greene, an American mother who has a mixed-race daughter in fourth grade.

“My daughter has told me that no one bullies her at school. However, recently she has expressed things like, ‘I wish my hair was straight,’ or ‘I hate that my middle name is on some school documents, or when someone calls me by my middle name.’ “

It is the role of teachers and school staff to manage bullying, and sometimes inventive educators can turn conflict into a lesson.

Australian father Robert recalls that bullying was a “massive issue” for his son’s first two months of second grade. Robert met with his son’s teacher and she later gathered all the second-year students together for a talk.

“She told them about using words like gaijin (foreigner) and excluding kids on the way they look,” Robert says. “Since then our kids has been much happier. I think it turned into a positive.”

Moorehead points out, however, that lessons about inclusion (of difference) don’t tend to extend much further than something like this. Most schools aim to treat all kids the same, even when they are clearly not all the same.

“The question is within that system (of public education),” he says. “How do you acknowledge that not everybody is Japanese and yet they can be a full citizen in this society while remaining different?”

Matsunaga, the Canadian mother, has struggled with the idea of difference in dealing with her children’s education in Japan. One of her children has been diagnosed with dyslexia, which has resulted in a few problems at school — the biggest of which has been the effort to get the school to recognize and understand the situation.

“I believe that one of the problems for children with learning differences and public schools is the lack of knowledge, understanding and the mentality that everyone must be the same,” Matsunaga says. “Different equals bad. Also, schools can be too conscious about image and what the PTA will say.”

Schools, especially cumbersome institutions like public schools, face countless hurdles and problems. It is the way they handle these problems, however, that can offer a blueprint for progress and result in better experiences for everyone.

Tom Doorley believes matriculating at a public elementary school has been a very rich experience for his two children, with a lot of individual attention and support generally available. His real concern is that after graduation his children will enter high schools that put a disproportionate amount of focus on university entrance exams.

“This is when society starts ‘funneling’ citizens toward relatively restricted ways of thinking and living,” he says. “Education is a major factor in this, but I feel the need (in having) a defined path in life … is the major ‘funneling’ effect, one I don’t see so prevalent in Ireland and elsewhere.”

Expressing concerns such as this requires a non-Japanese parent to show a little confidence and courage, as well as some sensitivity — the last thing you want is to come across like you are berating the culture and, by extension, the Japanese themselves. Having a degree of competence in Japanese should go a long way in consulting with your child’s teachers.

One mother’s advice when it comes to approaching your child’s school about a problem is to do so as part of a group of parents.

“We have learned that it is often best to go to the school staff with other parents depending on the topic or concern,” says Bethany Weir. “The school seems to take things more seriously if we go in to the office with three or four other concerned moms than going in just by ourselves.”

Many parents also recommend joining the PTA, even if you are anxious about doing so. It helps to widen your network and shows teachers and your fellow parents a level of commitment.

Many Japanese assume international schools are the automatic choice for many families with mixed-race and non-Japanese children when it comes to education. Perhaps part of this assumption lies in the obvious — it would be easier to deal with everything from paperwork to homework and teacher meetings at an international school. But at what cost?

While I have never been able to answer that question properly, I think I can now. I intend to send my son to the local public school because I believe education is a right and not a privilege. I hope to make friends in the community as he does, and in turn be a part of our community. I want our community to be one that fosters and embraces the changing face of Japan. After all, isn’t education a two-way street?

Some of the names in this story have been changed in order to protect children’s privacy. Please send your comments and story ideas to: community@japantimes.co.jp