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April is approaching and with it comes the start of the new school year. Ordinarily, this would be a time for ceremonies replete with tears and smartphone-captured sentimentality. In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, however, even such small-scale public gatherings are less visible.

One of my Japanese students, the mother of a toddler who will be graduating from kindergarten this March, admitted to finding a silver lining to the otherwise terrifying contagion. She no longer has to organize the “mama’s dance” at her son’s kindergarten. She had been spending numerous Saturdays practicing the sōranbushi, a traditional folk dance from Hokkaido, because she “won” a lottery draw to lead a dance troupe of mothers corralled into putting on a show.

Like me, you may have grown up not knowing the sōranbushi, nor the peer pressure that could make an already frazzled working mother of a pre-schooler agree to learn a traditional Japanese folk dance on the weekends. Like me, you may be destined to go to your grave still bemused by the Japanese pre-school experience. I say this despite having a 3-year-old son in a Tokyo nursery, who is looking forward to going up a grade and meeting his new teachers this spring.

Akin to a 3-year-old who can barely hold a pencil, I’d like to make three fuzzy sketches. They are impressions of odd situations my toddler has run into at his Japanese nursery, or things that have struck me, as an outsider, as odd about the overall system.

The escalator of life

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were like an escalator? You’d just get on at the bottom and it would carry you effortlessly upward, ever closer to your goal at the top.

That seems to be the dream many Japanese parents have for their children. To get a good job you need to go to a good university. To go to a good university you need to go to a good high school. To go to a good high school … you need to go to a good nursery. So you put all your effort into winning a place for your child at a good nursery, and they will have their future secured.

Because many parents have the same idea, the elite nurseries have to devise ways to pick out the best kids to give a place to. Some require a letter of recommendation. Some hold interviews, at which the staff judge the suitability of the parents. There may even be tests for the children themselves.

An acquaintance recently told me about an elite cram school for children of nursery age. The school is supposed to help prepare the kids to become actors. There is an interview and selection process in which the most promising children are selected for the school. The selection process can take place before the children are even 2 years old.

Can you really be a failure in life — losing your chance to get on the escalator that goes to the top — because you did something wrong when you were only a year old? What did you do wrong? Did you wet your nappy, perhaps? Did you try to put the square block into the round hole? Or was your smile just not cute enough?

Fundoshi , baby!

I used to love watching Asashoryu, a Mongolian sumo wrestler. He made the sport seem elegant as he slipped under the grasp of bigger opponents and lifted them off their feet, or when he spun around on his heel as part of a victory celebration. He was considered small for a yokozuna at 184 centimeters tall and 145 kilograms in weight. There’s currently a wrestler, Enho, who’s just 169 cm tall and 99 kg in weight.

Recently, I found some even smaller wrestlers. My son’s nursery decided to put on a sumo tournament, and teach the toddlers to push one another out of a ring. Thus 3-year-old Yumenishiki — my son by his shikona, or sumo name — took to the ring.

I was unable to witness an actual bout between the toddlers. I wonder if they were really pushing and tripping each other? Did they have any idea of what was going on? The nursery certainly seemed proud of its tournament, though, and started displaying stars in front of the shikona of the winners of the toddler-bouts for the public to see.

When my wife went to pick up our son a short while after the end of the sumo event, she noticed pictures of the tournament on the nursery walls. Boys and girls aged 3 to 6 were displayed in fighting poses wearing nothing but a pair of pants. Sumo wrestlers do, of course, battle wearing nothing but a little fundoshi (loin cloth) around their waist.

My first reaction was that I couldn’t imagine an American nursery going five minutes with this policy without getting sued. Then I started to think that it may perhaps indicate an admirable refusal to go down the path of paranoid over-protectiveness. Let kids be kids, and parents be aware that the range of philosophies on offer varies widely — from mollycoddling to Spartan. And given the shortage of nursery places, you may just have to go with the flow.

Yumenishiki was one of the only toddlers to get no stars by his name over the course of the two-week tournament. I tried to teach him to trip and push an opponent, and was sorely tempted to overfeed him in order to bulk him up. When we practiced, he just came bounding over, grasped my hands, and started dancing around in a circle, singing, “Ring a Ring o’ Roses.” Perhaps it’s for the best. Having a 3-year-old with a killer instinct could be problematic.

As free as a nursery?

In October, the Japanese government enacted a law that makes child care available for 3- to 5-year-old children free of charge, if both the child’s parents are working or if they meet certain other limited conditions.

This is no doubt a big help to many families, but free tuition doesn’t necessarily mean things won’t become costly. Parents may have to pay the costs of food, special activities, crayons and other materials, care that begins or ends beyond designated times, and so on. We had to buy a uniform for our toddler costing ¥18,000 for the new April term. He will probably grow out of it by August.

And you can make the nurseries as cheap as you like, but it is of no help if parents can’t win a suitable place. Many areas are still sorely short of day care facilities, and so can’t offer places within a reasonable commute from the parents’ home.

There are myriad other options: semi-certificated nurseries, private nurseries, kindergartens and Hoiku Mama — private individuals offering full-time child care. At least there are options as long as you yourself never fell off the escalator of life, and have the money to be choosy.

Good luck to all little people experiencing a new regime from April (hopefully). Plant your heel behind their leg, and push them hard in the chest.

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