I read an article recently (can’t find it now, unfortunately,) ranking the education levels of countries. Japan was #3 and the US far below. My husband is Japanese, and I have taught kindergarten in both countries. People in America carry on about how we should be more like Japan–after all, look at their test scores!–but I chose to educate my girls here.
First, the good points about Japanese education. When I taught there, I was amazed by respect for teachers. Parents and students both show great respect for teachers, and teachers must be highly educated and are well paid. (I made double in Japan what I made in America, and I was a specials teacher!) The parents and principal prepare tea for the teachers and bring it around all day. Students are expected to be respectful, and a phone call home is the worst thing that can happen. (Okay, not the worst. Some schools still use extreme corporal punishment, but I did not.) I once had a pair of students talking in my class. My aide took them outside and left them in the hall. When I came out later, the principal was standing over them, and they were kneeling in seiza (a traditional and uncomfortable way of sitting) until I told them they were welcome back. They apologized, and their parents wrote me apologies as well. They never talked in class again.
Much of the teaching at the early level in school is inquiry based. Hands on experience is a must. The children grow gardens, harvest and cook the food, take care of pets, and clean their own classrooms, including the toilets. Snack and lunch times are long, and focus heavily on table manners, health, polite conversations, and cleanliness. Lunches are fish, rice, vegetables, fruit and tea, and the children stay energized all day. Recess, exercise, music, foreign language and art are plentiful and valued. Most schools take a month in summer to hold an exercise and music festival,which is mandated by the government, because health and being outside are important. Students also open every school day by exercising in the courtyard. Teachers are required to hug and play with the children, including carrying them around and snuggling during storytime, so that children feel safe at school. We could learn a thing or two in America about that.
However, it’s important to look at the statistics critically. One of the unique things about America is we attempt to educate everybody. Every child has a chance. We may not always be successful, but we try. Children in Japan take a series of exams, starting at five, that determine their school and life paths. At five, they take an elementary school entrance exam. This determines which school they attend, and parents will commute four hours a day or move to reach the school. They take the exam again for middle school, high school, and college. In addition, at twelve, they must pick a career path, which tracks them into a certain school chain. This cannot be changed. This does produce very highly trained professionals who produce excellent products and services, but many are unhappy. One of my friends, Saya, decided to be a dentist at twelve, because that’s what her father did. A young college student when I met her, she confessed to me that she HATED dentistry, but she was stuck forever. In Japan, your job is your job. Forever.
Those world education exams are typically given in high school. In Japan, in eighth grade when the high school exams are taken, the bottom 25% are kicked out. They will go to trade schools or into menial labor, and are therefore dropped from the statistics. Of course America doesn’t look as good, because we are using 100% of the data, rather than 75%. I met some of the people who failed those exams. One of them was a Screw Counter. His job was to count screws, 200 to a box, six days a week, 7 am-7 pm. He had been doing this for twenty seven years. Another scrubbed the subway steps with a toothbrush to get the grime out of the tracks. There is no second chance.
This is also true of college exams. If a person fails the college exam, they must repeat their senior year of high school to take it again. This can be repeated for years. But failure to pass the exam means that a person can never attend college. There are no second chances. I know one of these people very well: my husband, an amazingly brilliant man who taught himself English as an adult. As a teenager, he was disinterested in school. It was boring. He drank, smoked, skipped school, and failed the college entrance exams, several times. He admits now that he was immature and simply unready for that kind of pressure. When I met him, he was a waiter, and would always be. I suggested he move to the States and go to school there. He applied, was accepted, and after completing the ESL program and an associates in business, went on to graduate with special honors (summa cum laude) in mechanical and aeronautical engineering. He is now a very successful engineer. And Japan just threw him away because he wasn’t ready.
Now, one might ask, why, if you knew what was coming, would you not go to school? Let’s consider a typical Japanese school day. Most children start school at eight, though if they have a four hour commute they’ll be up earlier. The general school day goes until about two or three, followed by an hour of “club”–can be sports, academic, what have you, but clubs are mandatory. Immediately following is juku, meaning cram school, but also translated as “hell.” Juku is an intense, several hour course that drills facts. The way they teach English is by reading and reciting long lists of words; no conversation. Many Japanese people can write the definition of “photosynthesis” for you but can’t answer “How are you?” My method of teaching through immersion was a very new concept. Facts are drilled into them until about 9 pm. I taught English high school lessons at 9 and 10 pm. Then they go home and do homework. Some of my students told me that they only slept from about 2 am to 6 because their workload was so heavy. Can you imagine the stress and exhaustion?
The fallout of this is worse than exhaustion. The night the college entrance exam scores were released, I was going to dinner and sitting on a train in Tokyo. It wasn’t moving. Shortly after, there was an announcement that the trains were delayed. All of them. The English writing on the sign said “accident,” but the real meaning of that is “suicide.” Every train line was stopped because teenagers had thrown themselves in front of them. Suicide is an epidemic in Japan, and it often happens during exam time. One of my four year olds once came to school sobbing because her older brother had failed his middle school entrance exam, and didn’t get into the school his parents wanted. He hung himself in the bathroom. She found him.
The event that affected me the most, however, was kindergarten graduation. They are beautiful, lavish affairs. The principal stood in front of all the children and parents, and announced the results of the entrance exams. “Student number one, Kiyoka! Heading to…school. Student number two, Tomoki! Going to school…” He announced the top ten, and then said, “And then to the rest of you, good job.” The children hung their heads, and in the background, their parents muttered things like, “Well, he’s hopeless!” “Better focus on her sister, she’s a lost cause…” “My child is so stupid! I’ve failed!” I was stunned. They were five year olds! Most five year olds I know are still pretending to be Batman and sampling paste. Already, the weight of their failure rested on them.
The other thing that frightened me was the number of people I saw experiencing psychotic episodes in the street. Work schedules are often more grueling than school schedules. I once saw a businessman standing in front of a closed shop, flinging his briefcase and himself at the metal shutter, screaming. Everyone walked past silently. When i asked my friend if we should do something, he replied, “No. It happens all the time, especially with those types of people, those businessmen. They work so much they just go crazy. Someone will come get him.” I saw people run up and down trains screaming, a man throw his belongings into a street and block the intersection, sobbing; I saw one man kill himself and felt the train run over two others, watching the station’s clean up crew come running with their hose, buckets and stretcher.
One of my conversation students was an elderly man who was the town’s autopsy doctor. Every day he would say, “I saw twelve hangings today!” There hadn’t been a violent crime in Komaki in twenty years, but he said this tiny town averaged twenty suicides a day. “These people are lost,” he said. “They have no passion. Their jobs don’t pay enough and they can’t advance, they have no time for hobbies, they don’t see their children. They feel they are failures. And in Japan, failure is dishonorable. And…so they die.”
I decided that my daughters’ lives aren’t worth the best test scores. They may not ever be the best at filling in little bubbles, at regurgitating facts, or reciting their lessons perfectly. That’s okay with me. I want them to be healthy, creative and understand that they are more than a score. Their best can be anything. And if they’re the best at being kind, loving, and happy with their lives, that’s what I want for them.
And for everyone who laments America’s test scores, and claims that we need to test more, like the Japanese do–consider the cost. Personally, I don’t see that it’s worth dying for.