On a recent observation day at the Japanese public elementary school that my children attend, I wandered into unfamiliar territory. I saw a mother entering a classroom I had never noticed. I followed her in and got quite a surprise.

I had stepped into a lesson in katei-ka (home economics). A group of fifth-graders had just completed a sewing project and were giving oral presentations on what they had learned. What surprised me was that half the kids in the classroom were boys.

In the United States, where I grew up, home economics is not taught in elementary school. When I started junior high school in the early ’70s, only girls took home economics. Boys took industrial arts, or “shop,” where they learned woodworking and simple repairs.

During my next school year, because of the women’s movement, home economics and industrial arts became electives. Boys and girls were free to take either class, but neither was required. I dropped home economics like a hot potato and signed up for an industrial arts class on printing. I never took home economics again.

So I was surprised to learn that in Japan, students are required to take home economics, starting in the fifth grade of elementary school. Girls and boys.

Since Japanese men aren’t known for their housekeeping prowess, I assumed that it was only in the last few years that boys started taking home economics. But when chatting recently with a 46-year-old male acquaintance, I was amazed to hear that he had studied cooking and sewing in elementary school in the ’60s.

This called for research. I soon discovered that home economics became a required subject in 1947, as part of a sweeping reform of the Japanese education system after World War II.

At that time, some policymakers believed that dansonjohi (the subjugation of women) was a factor contributing to Japan’s march into a disastrous war. Things might have been different, they theorized, if mothers had been able to voice their objections about sending sons off to battle. Home economics became compulsory for all children, with the high-minded goal of bringing democracy into the Japanese home.

So why do so few Japanese husbands help with household chores? What went wrong?

Two things, according to Fumiko Satoh, professor of education at Chiba University and vice president of the Japan Association of Home Economics Education.

First, educational policy took another turn during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth. Convinced that Japan could compete in world markets only with superior technology, policymakers wanted boys to learn technology skills. In 1958, the course of study for middle and high schools changed. Girls continued to take home economics, but boys went to classes in gijutsu (industrial arts).

Second, although boys did get two years of home economics in elementary school, there was no reinforcement at home. More parents became intent on getting their children, especially boys, into good universities.

“Parents didn’t want their children in the kitchen. They wanted them at their desks, studying for the entrance exams,” Satoh told me.

At the school my children attend, fifth- and sixth-graders study home economics once a week in a two-period block. There is a textbook for home economics, as there is for every other subject. Colorful illustrations and photographs show both boys and girls sewing, cooking and washing up.

The fifth-graders I observed had just completed a unit on sewing that required 16 hours of class time. They first learned how to sew by hand, making a felt masukotto (from the English word “mascot”), a decorative charm in the shape of an animal. Then they learned to operate a sewing machine. Finally, they made a nappuzakku, a drawstring bag with shoulder cords that can be worn as a knapsack.

The point isn’t to create a nation of avid sewers. It is to help children understand how clothing is made so they can learn how to select and care for clothing.

At our school, almost all the students order a kit for the nappuzakku project. For 570 yen, the kit includes quilted material (in a choice of 20 designs) and all the necessary supplies, except thread.

Even with everything pre-cut, making the bag is a big project for 11-year-olds. The students are expected to do a proper job, first marking the seams with chalk pencil, then pinning and basting by hand.

This year, for the first time, our home economics teacher recruited parents to help on the nappuzakku project. A friend was one of these “guest teachers.” She told me she spent the entire two hours flying around the room preventing disasters. Like the girl who didn’t turn her cloth inside out. And the boy who made all his chalk marks wrong.

I had an opportunity to inspect the finished bags, proudly displayed a few weeks later in a sakuhinten (exhibition of things made by students). They were well-made and looked as if they’d last a long time. In fact, one of my tennis partners still uses the bag she made in home economics more than 30 years ago!

So whatever happened to home economics as a means to promote “democracy in the home”?

In 1989, education policy changed again. Since then, boys and girls in middle and high school have taken a combined course in home economics-industrial arts. Japan is famous among home economists around the world because it is probably the only country that requires all students to study home economics — and for eight years.

It is important to understand that home economics in Japanese schools is not simply a practical course of study. The curriculum is carefully designed to get children to value cooperation in the home and examine their own roles as contributing members of a family. It encourages them to think about what kind of life, and what kind of household, they should have as adults.

Japanese couples in their 20s and early 30s are far more likely than their elders to share household chores. This is partially a result of social changes, including increased career opportunities for women. But I do think a big part of it is that Japanese schools teach home economics. To girls and boys.