Making the grade – An Irishman’s Diary on starting school in Japan

Japanese first-graders in Kyoto. Photograph: Davor Lovinic/iStock

Japanese first-graders in Kyoto. Photograph: Davor Lovinic/iStock


Sending children off to school for the first time usually brings mixed feelings: happiness, pride and a tincture of regret for the first weaning from family. In our case, cultural concerns added to the usual parental angst: Luka, our oldest boy, has started attending Japanese public school.

Luka (6) has grown up speaking English at home and Japanese everywhere else. Like most bilingual kids he unconsciously navigates between the two languages: one for his friends and Japanese granny in Tokyo’s suburbs, another for his dad and Irish uncles, aunts and cousins on Skype.

This process is so smooth that we forget bicultural children can struggle when they enter public education because they miss some of the cultural nuances that help them fit in. Luka doesn’t watch TV or read comics and knows very little about the Japanese video games that obsess some local kids.

In a still strikingly homogenous society (there are just a tiny handful of bicultural children in his school) this can be a cue for bullying, but so far so good. Every morning he bounds happily out the door in the uniform of the freshly minted school kid: a sturdy randoseru rucksack and a bright yellow hat to identify him as a first-grader.

Tokyo is in many ways a fine place to raise children. It is remarkably safe. Millions of children walk to school and ride the trains and buses unaccompanied – almost unheard of now in many developed countries. One of the few concessions to a small number of violent attacks on children is the shrieking alarm attached to Luka’s backpack – which of course he loves setting off at home.

Primary schools are well funded and tightly run. Every day Luka gets a nutritious cooked lunch, which is entirely free. Japan’s school dinners are one key reason why the country bucks a global epidemic in childhood obesity: just 3.5 per cent of the population is classified as fat, according to OECD figures.

Some Irish parents might appreciate the short Japanese summer holiday of about a month. Presumably few would have a problem with the chores imposed on older children, who are required to serve lunch and clean classrooms. It is this system that helps explain those pictures from Russia of fastidious Japanese soccer fans cleaning up the World Cup stadium.

Other elements of school life strike a more uncomfortable note to Luka’s rebellious Irish dad.

One of his first classes was “moral education”, which has just become an official subject in primary schools. Children are supposed to learn honesty, self-control and, more controversially, given Japan’s second World War hysteria, love of family and nation and “pride as a Japanese.”

Possibly mindful of the flak these classes have generated, parents were invited to sit in on one this month. Luka’s teacher urged the children to put themselves second and not cause meiwaku, an all-important concept in Japanese social life that means not causing trouble to others. Each time a child answered a question, they stood up and to the side of their desk to answer, arms by their side.

The standard charge levelled at Japanese schools by many Japanese themselves is that they encourage conformity and fear of authority; that they machine tool kids for a life of corporate drudgery. In this calculus, moral education is just one way of stamping out bothersome individuality. Another is to pepper kids with tests and petty rules, such as the ban on using toilets during class time.

It’s an observation that could, I suppose, be made of education in many other countries. But that thought doesn’t help when you’re a parent trying to figure out how to make best use of a finite resource: early childhood. Or at least it doesn’t help me.

In overwrought moments, I’ll imagine an older Luka trudging out to the door, randoseru weighed down with increasingly pointless homework, nursing the nameless anxieties of the culturally rootless child. My wife, who herself worked in a classroom of unruly children before becoming a mother, says my fears are about having to surrender control to the state. Wherever we lived, she says, we’d have to debrief our child when he comes home.

I was struggling to make light of all this on his first morning of school and ended up playing Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. It’s a daft song in many ways but it does climax with the kids taking control from the hated teachers and storming out of their classrooms. I guess I was telling him he could say no. Luka told me it was too noisy and to shut it off.

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