"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, May 21, 2012



After Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, the Japanese public education system is rated fourth in the world. As fingers get pointed in the United States as to why public education is failing, excuses range from a lack of sufficient funds (on the Left) and teachers slacking (on the Right). But having worked in both American and Japanese schools, it strikes me that the American public is dodging the real issue, the one that it simply doesn’t wish to face. Namely, the health of a nation’s public schools is a reflection of the health of its society.

Let’s get right into the finger-pointing. American liberals would have us believe that our schools fail because they don’t get enough money. And yet, Japanese schools run on shoe-string budgets compared to their American counterparts. The Japanese cut corners everywhere. School lunches are provided in elementary schools only; parents are responsible for feeding their kids after that. Hall lights are seldom used, leaving them usually dark and spooky, and most schools are constructed to make use of natural light so as to avoid electric bills. Textbooks are not provided by schools; the parents must pay for them. And very little money is poured into sports programs, which are generally viewed as a waste of funds. The kids do have P.E., and after school sports clubs, but again, for those they are expected to pay for their own equipment.

And then there is the question of staff. There are no school secretaries. The teachers and principals share a single office room with desks lined up much like the students, and if the phone rings, one of them jumps up and answers it. They manage to do this without whining about their degrees, or how they didn’t go to school for X number of years to answer phones. Likewise, there is a custodian to make repairs, but the students are responsible for actually cleaning the school. Three or four times a year, in addition, the kids and teachers all go out into the neighborhood to rake leaves, sweep sidewalks, and collect trash, and this all magically occurs without parents screaming “my child is not paid to do this!” Instead of spending money on more support positions, the teachers and students shoulder the load.

And this brings me around to the Conservative “blame the teachers” mantra. Asaf recently asked me about tenure in Japan and how they handled the “bad teacher” problem. The answer is, they don’t, largely because the “bad teacher” is a convenient scapegoat for the real problem, and they are aware of this. From the Japanese point of view, the teacher is really only 33% of the equation. His job is to direct the course of the students’ studies and to evaluate them. It is the students’ duty to study and the parents’ duty to ensure that studying gets done. Invariably, when the Japanese hear about the American public blaming it all on bad teachers, they question “what about bad students and bad parents?” And they are, of course, absolutely right. A teacher is not—one Japanese colleague said to me recently—a maker of automobiles. He is not manufacturing a product. Rather, he is like your doctor, who tells you what to eat and how to exercise. If you fail to follow his instructions, it is not his fault if your health fails. We can and should push for accountability, but not only for the teachers. The students and parents ultimately are responsible for the lion’s share of a child’s education.

This is the secret of Japanese public education; shared responsibility, “group” effort rather than individual achievement. Let me now get into some specifics:

  1. THE TEACHER’S NAME IS NOT ON THE DOOR: In the States, I had my own classroom, my own office, and my own computer. In Japan, teachers share a communal office and computers. The students do not come to their class; the teachers go to the student’s class. Students are assigned to homerooms and remain in that room, with that same group of students, for every class for all three years (Japan divides middle and high school into 3 and 3, rather than 2 and 4). Naturally, they go to a music room for music and outside for P.E., but for the majority of the day they remain in the homeroom. They even eat lunch there (saving the need for extra money on cafeteria space). Every year there are talent shows, and sports competitions pitting homeroom against homeroom, building that group into a working unit or team. Naturally, the students are also responsible for cleaning and decorating the room. The message drilled into them is this is YOUR classroom and YOUR school and you are responsible for it. In addition, they are responsible to each other. Students good at science are expected to help those who are not. Those who excell in history tutor those who don’t. And while there are Special Needs classes, most students—depending on their disability—are mainstreamed right into the homeroom and the other students share the responsibility of helping them out.

  1. NO ONE GETS RETAINED: In the States, if you fail enough subjects, you get held back. This never happens in Japan. No matter how badly a student performs, he stays within his peer group. Thou shalt not break up the team. This works only because in Japan, only junior high school is compulsory. At the end of their third year, the students must take entrance exams to enter the high school of their choice. If you fail those exams, and no school will take you, welcome to the workforce. There is a recognition that by fifteen years of age you need to start taking responsibility for yourself, and if you have goofed off for the last few years, only you and your family is to blame.

  1. NOT ALL PEER PRESSURE IS BAD: Teachers in America are forced into wasting far too much time on “classroom management.” There are seminars and workshops “ad nauseum” teaching teachers how to hold the students attention and keep them “entertained.” In Japan, the teacher is responsible for teaching—a radical concept, I know. If a student acts out, his peers are responsible for putting him back in line. Failing this, the parents are. And if all else fails, there is the “senpai/kohai” relationship. In other words, older students are responsible for making sure younger ones behave. When I had trouble with a pair of particularly difficult boys last year, I went to some of the boys in the grade ahead of them. They shaped up very quickly. And yes, I know this horrifies some liberals. After all, the student is probably acting out because of difficulty at home. But this is not tutoring…this is PUBLIC education and I am ultimately responsible to the group, as is the student. Disruptive students harm the entire team. Or that is, at least, the mentality.

  1. SHAME: This is, ultimately, the reason why three of the top four education systems in the world are in Asia. It is the cultural focus on “face” or “shame.” Students are pressured to do well because failure is shameful. They are pressured to behave because disrupting the class is shameful. They do not have instilled into them—as American children do—that they are all bright and shining stars, that they have all sorts of rights and no responsibilities, or that the world exists for them. Instead, the focus is on community, duty, and responsibility, and shame is a big part of that.

As I said before, the health of a public school system reflects the health of a society. I can’t speak for Finland, but like Japan, the other nations with top schools—Singapore and South Korea—also have phenomenally lower crime rates than the United States. This is not a coincidence. America has, unfortunately, embraced a culture where passing the buck and putting yourself first are widespread pastimes. We reduce the sentences of people who commit heinous crimes because they had bad childhoods, we sue McDonald’s because we were idiotic enough to drive with hot coffee and spilt it on ourself, we blame teachers despite the fact that I am a single mother working two jobs with three children and no father in the picture. Public education cannot work when it is all about “me” and “my child.” As much as teachers and schools have responsibilities to students and parents, parents and students are likewise responsible to the schools and to the other students and families. Until we get that, no amount of spending or blaming is going to solve the problem.


But all is not perfect in the Land of the Rising Sun, and while the Japanese katana may not be double-edged, the education system is.

For an education system rated fourth in the world, it is astounding that the Japanese spend at least six years studying English, pass all sorts of exams, and cannot use it to communicate at all. Or is it? Because the glaring flaw in a system focused entirely on the group is that it does little to encourage independent thought and self-expression. Thus the Japanese readily master mathematics and the detached, analytical scientific method; they can memorize all the required facts and dates of history. But mastering a foreign language, which requires a cycle of repeated failure and learning from mistakes is horrifying to a culture where failure is shameful, and using it to express your own individual thought is problematic in a place where (as the old Japanese proverb has it) “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

The Japanese are not automatons. Over the last ten years I’ve laughed with enough of them, drank with enough of them, and slept with enough of them to know they are thinking, feeling beings like any other humans in the world. But Japanese culture as a whole is perfectly designed to operate with as little self-expression as humanly possible. It starts with the language. The Japanese usually omit themselves from sentences, or speak of themselves in the third person. Amerikajin desu translates nicely as “I am American,” but could just as easily be “He is American,” “She is American,” or “They are Americans” (a literal translation is “American person exists”). Most of the time, if a subject is dropped from a sentence, it is dropped because it is “I” or “myself.” The Japanese propensity for “removing yourself from the equation” is thus deep in the language.

As is awareness of your place and relationship to others. Delightfully egotistical, English speakers use “I” when speaking to their bosses, their leaders, their family, their friends, and their underlings. I, I, I. When the Japanese are forced to refer to themselves, however, they rely on a wide range of words—watakushi, watashi, atashi, ore, boku, etc—all of which mean “I” but depend on my relationship to the listener. To say watakushi to my drinking buddies sounds ridiculous. To say ore to my boss is insulting. They all translate as “I”. This means, of course, that the entire focus of language is shifted from myself to the group I am speaking to. Which is very Japanese.

The way English is taught then, is as something to be memorized and mastered with the same commitment to perfection that the Japanese extend to food preparation and flower arranging. It is not about you, it is about producing perfect grammatical structures and never ever making spelling errors. Combine this with a nation that isolated itself from the outside world for several centuries, and remains 99% ethnically Japanese, and the odds of using English to chat with foreigners are astromonically slim.

The Catch-22 inherent in this is that the Japanese desire to be perfect is the essence of their failure. Worse, now that the Koreans and the Chinese are getting into English, they are doing far better than the Japanese, which induces more feelings of shame. And this, ladies and gentlmen, is where I come in.

When I came to work for Yokohama’s city schools six years ago, I was assigned to a pilot school, a test case for introducing a “communication class” into the junior high school curriculum. The students would take regular English classes, but with this added communication class to boost their depressing speaking skills. I think what the school district was expecting was something along the lines of an eikaiwa, or “converstaion school,” a kind of Berlitz for Japanese speakers to practice English. But as the mysterious entity known as Mr. Don Cake will tell you (yes Don, I know you are reading this), what passes for English communication in these institutions is more often than not a joke in poor taste. With lessons like “How to Order in a Restaurant,” “What to Say at a Baseball Game,” or “Asking for Directions,” students are again provided with stock phrases to memorize and repeat like a freakin’ parrot. This is what the district expected.

I didn’t quite give it to them.

Instead, what I tried to do was take what I had learned from Mr. Cake (we worked together for several years prior to this, and even ran a small school together) and combine it with what I had learned teaching public school in America. This meant starting with a philosophy or definition (as Mr. Cake would have it) of “English education.” For me, this was that communication is the exchange of information, and that, like sex, it was something that required two to tango.

Thus, the first years students started by learning how to describe and explain things. While the regular English class demanded perfect grammar, I threw that out the window and replaced it with the students standing up in front of the class and speaking every time. One-word sentences were fine. Gestures were fine. Eye contact was demanded. And for the listeners, the rule was this; there is not always a correct answer.

Thus, a boy might stand in front of the room and say, “It is a fruit. Red. Sweet. Yummy.” Other students might guess “apple,” or “strawberry,” or “cherry,” but each answer was correct. You would be amazed how delighted students are with this…the idea that an ideacan have value even if it is not the right one.

As the first year moves on, the students are taught to discriminate on the quality of information, and to edge closer towards understanding. “It’s an amusement park” is fine, but “It has Space Mountain” is better. They also learn to think about the listener. “He helps Nobita” will instantly tell any Japanese listener under 80 that the subject is the robot catDoraemon, but an American listener might need “It is a popular Japanese cartoon character” instead.

As the year plays out, we describe people, places, things, and actions. The next year, we turn the tables and focus on asking questions and checking your idea. By the time they are third year students, we jump into action, spending the year with discussions on culture—what is Japanese, what is “foreign,” etc. They learn that cultural barriers are often a problem even if we understand each other perfectly. If I ask, “Do you like Conan?” an American listener will think of a barbarian and a Japanese listener will think of an elementary school kid detective. They need to learn skills to get around the problem.

In short, I am teaching self-expression in a school system that otherwise excludes it. Such a simple idea, really, but last week 45 teachers from across the nation came to watch. The consultant sent by the government said it was the best English class he had ever seen.

I never would have gotten anywhere with it if my immediate superior on the Board of Education hadn’t liked what I was doing and gave me carte blanche for five years. I had no standards, no textbook, nothing. By the end of that time, I handed them a three year curriculum that was a proven success, with our kids way ahead of anyone else in the district in listening and speaking skills. And from the evaluations the third years give me before they graduate, for many of them the experience is life-changing.

“I always feel shame about English,” wrote one. “It is so great language in the world and we must learn. Japanese is so small. But I learned in communication class not to feel shame. English is a just a skill like math and communication is useful in every language.” “I never thought before my idea could be good even if it was wrong,” wrote another. Or my personal favorite this year, “The most important thing I learned in Communication class was don’t be afraid to make mistakes. No other teacher ever told me that. I will never forget it.”

So in the end, what I struggle with here in Japan is to find that happy medium. How do we make students feel empowered without catering to them and making them lose a sense of community and responsibility? How do we all live together in the world without sacrificing our cultural identities? America fails because it is too ego-centric. Japan falters because it is not ego-centric enough. The greatest challenge and joy in my work is to find the thin line which holds the balance.

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