Kumiko Makihara’s recently published memoir “Dear Diary Boy” might well come with a trigger warning for parents of school-aged children in Japan. Many will be able to relate to the references to heaps of homework, judgmental parents and teachers, long lists of things that children must bring to school each day and the frustrations of getting kids to comply with parents’ demands.

Dear Diary Boy, by Kumiko Makihara.
224 pages

Makihara, the daughter of a well-known Japanese business executive and descendant of prominent early industrialist Baron Yataro Iwasaki (her son’s namesake), spent 2½ years at a primary school in the United Kingdom before her family relocated to Tokyo, where she attended public school. She later graduated with a B.A. in languages from International Christian University and earned an M.A. in American studies from the University of Hawaii.

She also lived and worked abroad as foreign correspondent in Russia and China, writing in English for The Associated Press, Time magazine and other publications. She married a fellow American journalist and, after failing to conceive a child naturally, they decided to adopt a baby boy of mixed race from an orphanage in Kazakhstan, which her parents initially found baffling — “something Christians do,” according to her mother.

After her marriage ended, Makihara returned to Tokyo with her son, Taro. Thanks to her savings and financial help from her parents, she was able to give up her part-time job as an assistant to the president of a large hotel complex. She launched herself into “doing motherhood,” while continuing to write on the side. Determined to provide her son with every possible advantage, she sought for him to gain admission to a prestigious private elementary school, which she refers to in her book only as “The School.”

In addition to the rigorous curriculum, Makihara says that she was attracted by “the beautiful campus, and the fact that the children spent a lot of time outdoors, playing and growing vegetables.” Although her father was an alumnus, she realized that her status as a single mother put her and her son at a disadvantage. In Japan, she writes, single moms are seen as “too harried to bring up a child properly and too poor to afford private school tuition.”

Hoping to give her son an edge, she enrolled him in a cram school to prepare for The School’s entrance exam. According to the cram school’s rules, if a mother is determined to be unstable, she will be asked to withdraw her child. Makihara was given a list of 60 things that her 6-year-old son should master in preparation for the exam, including, as she writes, “how to fold pajamas while ironing out creases by hand.” Meanwhile, the former professional found herself “obsessed with making sure (she) had the right tissue pack cover” and attending lectures about recommended good luck charms.

Getting in, however, seems to have been the easy part. Over the next six years, Makihara struggled to get her son to behave as she thought he should. “Being a single parent made me more short tempered,” she admits. This reader developed a grudging admiration for the creativity and lengths to which Makihara went to get her son to complete his homework, including tiered reward systems and locking him in the toilet and turning off the lights until he finished a science problem. During one summer vacation, as she writes, she asked her architect cousin for help with Taro’s school project, “inventing a useful appliance.” Throughout the process, Makihara became enraged by Taro’s unrealistic, but delightful, ideas such as “a pair of sunglasses that fill in scenery as you imagine it.”

Although Taro’s Japanese grandmother sometimes comes across in the book as unsympathetic, such as when she tells her frustrated daughter “you were the one who wanted to adopt,” she plays an active role in his upbringing. She is the one who comes up with the concept of writing to the character “Diary Boy,” a ploy to get Taro to write in his daily school journal. Excerpts from that diary are sprinkled throughout the book, giving the reader glimpses of a boy who is sweet, creative and thoughtful — traits that Makihara comes to appreciate in hindsight.

After moving to New York for Taro’s junior high school education, “Dear Diary Boy” eventually evolved from newspaper columns that Makihara wrote about education, childrearing and Japan. “There was interest from readers,” she says, so — with Taro finishing his school career — she decided to write a book.

Makihara worked on the manuscript for two years, during which she spent every weekday at The New York Public Library. Though she says she found the process exhausting, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of another book. She continues to live in New York City where she is employed as an adjunct associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

Though she has some regrets about how she dealt with her son during his primary school years, she says that Taro, who is now about to begin university, “feels that he had a very happy childhood.”

“Dear Diary Boy” can be read on several levels. Not only is it a vivid insider’s look at contemporary education and mothering in Japan, it’s also, as Makihara points out, a book about one person’s struggles and how she responded and learned from her experiences.

“It’s important, when you’re struggling, to take a step back and look at the big picture,” she says.

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