Monday, November 8, 2010

Japanese Kindergarten by guest blogger Beverly

When we found out that we'd be living in Japan for the next three years, our first thought was that our 2 kids (then 3 yrs and 8 months) could be going to school in a Japanese school. We live on a military installation and had the option to choose the American style school system or the Japanese style school system.

In my mind I thought Japanese kindergarten would be rigorous and focused on academia. Because everyone knows that in Japan math is top priority and discipline is expected. Right? Aren't the teachers all certified ninjas or samurai?

I took a tour of a Japanese kindergarten and was amazed to see 3-5 yr olds sitting in their little chairs listening to the teacher, singing songs, painting pictures, and playing nicely. How on earth do you get kids this age to sit still with their hands in their laps, wide eyed, with full attention to their teacher? I thought this must be a strict school.

Then we sat down with the principle and after a chat about what they do at school, I asked what their belief in discipline was. He said, in his simple English, "No discipline, we teach them what they need to do". Really? That's it.

My memories of my younger years in school were in Singapore where a slap on the hand from a ruler was acceptable punishment then. This was what I thought all Asian schools were like. I was very wrong. I've come to see that this kindergarten is a fun and loving place. Teachers hug their students. Lots of encouragement and praise is given. (*note: not all Japanese kindergartens are alike in their beliefs, this is just my understanding of the majority after talking to a few Japanese mom's about this subject matter)

But where are the books and pencils and math drills and academics? I thought Japan was top notch for it's math and they had to start teaching this from the womb right? Not so. Japanese believe children are children and should be allowed to be children. They should be exposed to culture and art and music at this age. They should be allowed to play in the mud once in a while. And collect bugs and acorns. It isn't until elementary school where the academics begins. Then it's common to see school age children going to school on Saturdays.

But childhood for the kindergarten age children seems to be scared in Japan. There are holidays and festivals dedicated to the wonders of childhood. At ages 3, 5, and 7 children are dressed in elaborate kimonos and taken to shrines to pray for their continual growth and blessings, and for expensive photo shoots. Everywhere you go, children under elementary school age are almost always admitted free to museums, amusement parks, and hotels and at restaurants they are catered to very well with special dishes and silverware and toys and candy. And why do you think cute, kawaii, things abound in Japan? The Japanese love the cuteness of childhood! (OK that's just my personal theory, but I think it explains it quite well. :) I watch Japanese mothers and they rarely scold their children, and if they do, it's in a quiet voice. And children are quick to correct when their mothers say something. How is this possible?

Here is where I learned something big about Japanese parenting culture. From a very young age children are taught to do things as a group. If the class is reading books, then everyone reads books, if the class is singing, then everyone sings, if it's rice ball day for lunch, then moms will pack only rice balls and nothing else, nothing extra. Why? Because you don't want to make someone feel bad or offend someone. If you got something extra in your lunch box, then the other kids around you would feel bad. And that would be bad. You don't want to stand out. Misbehaving makes you stand out.

I soon noticed that the children would tell other children when they were out of line and help to get then back in line. For instance, the children noticed that my son, didn't always understand what was going on. He would want to go play with clay, but it wasn't time for clay and the children would tell him that and take what he had and put it away. As if to help him save face from the teacher telling him it wasn't time for clay. But of course in my son's mind, they were keeping him from what he wanted to do; they were keeping him from being an individual. He's grown up with an American mindset.

This is the biggest difference in the two schools of thought, Japan vs the US. I don't believe one is better than the other because they both have their pluses and minuses. One teaches individualism, thinking out of the box, and being ahead. While the other teaches team work, mindfulness of others, respect, and self discipline.

I'm not worried about my kids missing out on an American style education. They will eventually go to an American school when we move back to the US. But I do want them to take with them the good parts of a Japanese education, and have the best of both worlds.

4 comments:

  1. I think that this is a great oppurtunity and experience for your kids. Hopefully, they will get the 'best of both worlds' and be able to work well in groups as well as individually.

    Your insights reminded me of a book I read "Our babies, ourselves : how biology and culture shape the way we parent". The book talked about how our cultural norms dictate how we parent and what we emphasize as 'important'.

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  2. I would love my kids to have a Japanese education! Individuality is over rated! We need more teamwork, self discipline, mindfulness of others, and respect. That is what I'm trying to teach at home.

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  3. Mary, way to go! You're already doing great because your kids are all those things!

    Chauwell, thanks for the book recommend, it sounds very interesting! I'll have to look that up.

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  4. I love that the Japanese value the childlike innocence in kids and try hard to retain that. It's definitely something I would not have expected as well. I feel as important as it is to push our kids to a higher level of education, we also need to maintain a delicate balance that allows them to be kids as well. I also LOVE that your kids will get the opportunity to learn from different education systems in the future. Being a "cross-breed" myself, I think I was able to retain the best of both worlds and because of that, I was more well-rounded than some of my peers. Thanks for your post!

    ps: I still believe that Asian teachers are "certified ninjas or samurai"....:)

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