Foreign parents with children at public elementary schools in Japan often praise them for offering a broad-based curriculum that includes plenty of time devoted to music, art and physical education. When it comes to the academic subjects, however, the Japanese education system is egalitarian, almost to a fault. Kids falling behind the curve may find their needs are not met, especially when there is no readily discernible reason for their struggles.

Beth's son was a popular, outgoing boy with a wide range of outside interests, but from the outset he struggled with reading and writing the kanji characters, the study of which begins in first grade and continues until high school.

"His teachers just kept saying things like 'He's such a good kid — he just needs to try a bit harder.' I wondered if I was to blame, because I was teaching my children to read and write in English at home rather than encouraging their Japanese," Beth recalls.