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Friday, September 26, 2008


Japanese Education

Japan is known for its well-maintained competitive education system and brilliant achievement. Japanese students rank at or near the top consistently in successive international tests of mathematics. The current Japanese adult literacy rate is 99%.

Formal education in Japan started in the 6th century with the adoption of Chinese culture. The subjects then were Buddhist and Confucian teachings, sciences, calligraphy, divination, and literature. During Edo Period (1603-1867), powerful samurai warriors were educated not only in military strategy and martial arts, but also in agriculture and accounting. Wealthy merchants needed education for their daily business, arts, and science. Poor peasants were educated in temple schools called terakoya. It is estimated that 50% of the male and 20% of the female population possessed some degree of literacy by the end of the Edo Period. When Japan re-opened the country to the world in 1868, one of the government’s immediate goals was to catch up with Western standards in science and education. Compulsory education was introduced, and the Japanese education system was reformed mainly after the Prussian (the former German Empire) model. After the defeat in World War II, the education system was rebuilt after the American model. From 1970 to present, a number of reforms have been carried out, main aims being to ease the burden of entrance examinations, to promote internationalization and information technologies, to diversify education, and to support lifelong learning.

Preschool (Yoochien/Hoikuen)
The Ministry of Education supervises kindergartens (yoochien) that are not part of the official education system. On the other hand, the Ministry of Labor oversees government-supervised day-care centers (hoikuen), which is an important provider of preschool education. These two institutions together enroll over 90% of all preschool-age children before the formal education system at first grade. The 1990 curriculum for preschools by the Ministry of Education covers human relationships, environment, language, and expression.

When you see Japanese preschoolers on TV nowadays, they often wear uniforms, bright yellow hats, raincoats, and boots. They look so cute and well behaved. They commute between the school and their homes in a straight line accompanied by the teachers in the front and back of the line. It is a definite trend that adults all over the world are more careful than ever with young children’s safety. Unlike my parents’ time when it was common to have five or six children, young couples today are having only one or two children; therefore, these children are of paramount importance to them. The whole world is nervous about their kids being hit by a car or kidnapped by a stranger on the way to and from school.

When I went to my preschool, St Maria Kindergarten, a long ago, there was no uniform, nor matching yellow hats, raincoats, or boots. No one took me to school or home. I walked all by myself for half an hour each way through traffic. I do not know how I even survived daily walks without an accident. Actually, I remember hating to go to school because it was a long and dangerous walk for a five-year-old little girl. Since my school was a Catholic kindergarten (I have no clue why my parents sent me there because we were not Catholic, not even Christian. I believe they sent me there because it was a private and prestigious school.), we had a couple of American nuns dressed exactly like the ones in the movie, Sound of Music. They were scary to me. One day, the Head Nun pointed a finger and yelled at me during an assembly. We were all sitting and listening to the Head Nun. Then, this girl kicked my leg so I scratched her face. That is when the nun saw me. It was not fair but I could not defend myself. I had to sit there as punishment when all the boys and girls went back to the classrooms. I sat and cried. I also remember being chased and pushed around frequently by several naughty boys. How could they let that happen? It would be a lawsuit for harassment today. Where were the teachers? Where was the mean Head Nun who unfairly punished me? There were, of course, some good memories also. We had a big birthday party each month with mothers as guests. I remember this only because I have a group photo of the occasion. We also had field trips. I see my mother, baby brother, and grandmother in the picture. I did not know that they allowed that many people per family to participate in the field trip. I was big on dancing when I was young; thus, I have a few photos of dancing when I was at St Maria. I was proud of my cute outfit and lots of make-up. I do not remember reading and writing of Hiragana/Katakana or doing any type of math work, though we often colored pictures with crayons.

In mid 1990s, a little cartoon character, Crayon Shin-chan, swept through the whole country of Japan. He frequently appeared on TV, movies, and comic books. This 5-year-old, precocious, and perverted kindergartener became a role model for many boys and girls. He is disrespectful to his parents and teachers. He calls his principal yakuza, a gangster. He likes to take his pants off and show his private area. He makes everyone blush for his outrageously naughty behavior. Some critics said that he was a menace to the society. However, my American high school students loved him, and we even used him as our Japanese Club mascot and put his face on our T-shirt. After my family moved to Michigan in 1998 and while I was a liaison at an elementary school where there were many Japanese students, I witnessed Shin-chan syndrome in the young Japanese children.

In this elementary school, I mainly worked with kindergarteners and first graders since they were the most problematic due to their language and culture deficit. Our school was extremely diverse with students represented from 20 countries and 17 languages. Japanese (20%) and Chaldean (18%) were the biggest population beside the American students, and the rest of the minority students consisted of Arabic, Russian, Mexican, Portuguese, Eastern European, Spanish, French, German, British, Irish, Chinese, Korean, etc. During 1999-2003, approximately half of the five kindergarten rooms each year were often made up with Japanese students, and most of them knew zero English. The majority of them came off the plane from Japan and enrolled in our school practically the next day. In addition to the issues concerning the language and over-population of one ethnic group in one classroom, these Japanese children, especially boys, were wild and undisciplined, just like Shin-chan and the rambunctious boys who chased and beat me at St. Maria. Imagine you were the teacher of this kindergarten room. Out of twenty 5-year-olds, ten were Japanese, four Chaldean, one Russian, one German, and four American who were the only students understood English. These ten Japanese boys and girls did not listen to anything the teacher said because they did not understand English and they became bored after a while. Therefore, they kept talking and bickering among themselves. Their teachers used to ask me, out of desperation, why they acted the way they did and how they thought that Japanese children were obedient and better behaved in the classroom. My answer was that Japanese little kids were left wild and undisciplined since they had to endure harder school life soon enough once they entered junior high schools. The teachers could not believe it, but that is the way it is for Japanese kindergarteners.

Elementary School (Shoogakkoo)
Japanese children enter first grade at age six. Compulsory education includes elementary school (1st-6th) and junior high school (1st-3rd, they do not call them 7th-9th). All Japanese schools start in April and end in March. A school year is divided into three terms, separated by short holidays in spring and winter, and a six-week long summer break. School days for most public school students are Monday through Saturday with Saturday being half day, but most private schools are open Monday through Friday. The majority of elementary education takes place in public schools, and less than 1% of the schools are private. Some private schools in big cities are prestigious but expensive, and they serve as a first step to higher level, sometimes all the way to a university.

All Japanese students (1st-12th grade) clean the whole school such as classrooms, hallways, restrooms, gym, teachers’ room, courtyard, etc every day after school. At my schools when I was growing up, each class was divided into several groups. One group cleaned the classroom and the hallway, and another group was assigned to one other area in the school. As soon as the teacher said good-bye for the day, every student bowed and simultaneously dragged the desks to the back of the room. Then the cleaning started. A couple of kids swept the floor with brooms, a couple of them wiped the floor with wet rags, a couple of them moved the desks back, a couple of them wiped the desks and blackboard, and a couple of them took trash out. Once they completed all the chores, the teacher inspected their job and released them. In this manner, we rotated the job weekly. Of course, a few boys always goofed-off, but the girls often covered for them, and the school was clean enough.

Nutritious lunch was provided by school for a small cost, and no one brought their own lunch. The typical menu when I was there was stew or some kind of soup, a large roll, and powdered milk. (I am sure they serve more appetizing lunch than these today.) Several students from each classroom were assigned for lunch duty each day. Older grades helped the younger grades. They went to the school kitchen and brought a couple of buckets of soup and milk along with bread and utensils. They served lunch and cleaned up. Teachers ate with the students in the classroom. Once the lunch was over, kids ran outside and played like crazy until the bell rang without playground monitors.

Japanese elementary children in public schools usually do not wear uniforms. They walk to and from school as a large flock walking in pairs. Younger children may wear bright yellow hats, raincoats, and umbrellas for better visibility for drivers. There are 35-40 students (50-52 in my time) in each classroom, and they change teachers every year or every other year. In my case, I had only two teachers during six years of elementary school. I thought it was a crime. I had a young female teacher during 1st and 2nd grades, and a male teacher 3rd through 6th grades. I was disappointed to tears when I found out I had the same teacher again at the beginning of 5th grade. He was an art teacher and taught art lessons after school at his home. My younger brother and I took oil painting from him for a couple of years. Nevertheless, it was boring to see the same face all day, every day, for four years. I feel strongly that elementary children need a new teacher every year.

I have seen Japanese elementary students in classroom on a TV documentary program. It was a science class, and they were carefree and energetic. The teacher and students were interacting. The children were raising hands and expressing themselves. The teacher was explaining things. It was as if I were in an American classroom. During my six years in my elementary school, I do not remember doing much studying or homework at home except during summer breaks, though my grades were good. I was having too much fun playing with my friends after school and going to ballet, piano, oil painting, and English lessons. I was a busy girl but it was a stress-free time.

During the 6-week summer break, Japanese children receive plenty of homework to keep them busy, so that they retain what they have learned during the school year. Elementary children must complete a big science project such as butterfly or insect collection and a couple of watercolor paintings in a park as well as review workbooks on major subjects. In our family, my older brother who is 9 years older than I am took charge of our household since my mother worked at my father’s company, and both were gone all day. My brother became our self-appointed teacher and our camp counselor. We had to do chores under his supervision. We cleaned the house and cooked meals together. He taught me English alphabet 3-4 years before any of my friends even thought about it. He checked our summer workbooks and taught my younger brother how to read. After dinner, all the kids in the neighborhood congregated in our yard and played outdoor ping-pong, hide-and-seek, and other crazy games. After dark, my brother would gather all the kids and seat them on the rocks in my father’s Japanese garden. He would tell us scary stories and disappear suddenly into blackness. We would all scream and scatter without knowing where to go or what to do. At night, all of my brothers and sisters sat in my brother’s self-built room and played card games and mah-jongg until late. It was so much fun!

Another mandatory summer assignment was to attend the “Radio Exercises” (rajio taisoo) at six o’clock every morning for six weeks. Radio Exercises became popular after the devastating defeat in World War II. They were used to boost the morale during a period of reconstruction of the country. Even today, school children and company workers join in the exercises daily before school or during work. The purpose of these exercises is not to raise athletes but to promote unity among them as well as to provide light exercise to remove stress from studying and working. We were to report to our near-by railway station and participate in the exercise along with the radio. They took daily attendance, and we received a stamp if present. At the end of summer, small prizes such as pencils and erasers were awarded to several kids for good attendance.

One hot summer day when I was in the 6th grade, I dragged myself to the Radio Exercises. I felt feverish and achy. I felt like I was coming down with the flu. Later in the morning, my oldest sister took me to the doctor by BICYCLE. (Where was my mother? I bet she was working, and this was what happened when she had six children. She must have told my sister to take me to the doctor.) I wonder now why the doctor did not make a house call on that day because he used to come to our house frequently. In his office, our good old doctor checked me all over. He pushed on my stomach and told us that he suspected appendicitis. Wow, it was a magic! Everyone panicked. Mother came home immediately. She gathered necessary items such as futon, sheets, pillow, pajama, etc for a weeklong hospital stay and called a taxi to take me to the hospital. (In Japan, people used to take their own beddings to a hospital. In addition, my parents never learned to drive and they used my father’s deliverymen as their chauffer if they needed to go any place. Mother called a taxi because it was an emergency.) The hospital was full but they placed me in a tatami room of the hospital head’s private living quarter. The doctor successfully performed the surgery that afternoon, and I stayed there for a week. I took it easy for the rest of the summer, and it was rather a quiet one.

My younger brother by three years was a typical Japanese young boy during his elementary age. He was curious, uninhibited, and athletic, to put it nicely, but honestly, he was wild and rambunctious. He was so crazy that he was habitually accident-prone. The hospital surgeon who removed my appendix knew him very well. My brother was a repeated patient there. He was sitting next to us one minute, but the next moment he was coming down the tree with two cicadas in both hands. My oldest sister teased him one day when he was about five. He became angry and started chasing her all over the house. She ran through room after room with paper or glass door sliding shut behind her. He was so determined to catch her that he went right through one of the glass doors and came out to the other side of the door with an ugly gash above the eyelid and blood gushing down his face. Thank goodness, our mother happened to be home that day. She called a taxi and took him to the hospital with a white towel completely soaked with blood. He came home with several stitches on his face and a toy from the hospital staff. As soon as his stitches came off his face, he had to go back to the hospital for more stitches in his head this time. He and his buddies were throwing rocks at each other, and guess who was hit on the head. Sometime later he was riding a bike and looked back to check the traffic. A man appeared on the road with a couple of pieces of long lumber in front of him. My brother rode the bike right into the lumber head on and injured him again. I can go on and on about his accidents. My parents begged him to be more careful because they worried his face and head would be a mess before he reached junior high school.

Years later after all of my five siblings were married and had children, we were all home for a visit one summer. Our house used to sit in the middle of cornfields when we were growing up, but our backyard turned into a busy road with shops, condominiums, and homes. My older sister’s three boys (ages 6, 8, and 10) were messing around right next to the road. They were trying to jump on the back of a bicycle, and I was getting nervous for their safety. As I was ready to tell them to be careful, my husband stopped me, saying that their mother who was right next to the boys did not seem to even notice their activity; therefore, I should not worry about them. Many Japanese mothers who have boys are used to such horseplay since they have the ‘boys are boys’ mentality, while I, who have three daughters, was freaking out.

Elementary school in Japan is a paradise before a storm. Some parents may have already started applying pressure to excel by sending them to cram schools called juku after school. At juku, children review what they have learned and prepare for the future lessons. However, the majority of the children are carefree and energetic at this stage. Parents are patient by allowing them to be “kids” and take a long-range view of their success in life. Most of the wild boys (sometimes girls) settle down once they move up to junior and senior high schools. They have the same relaxed outlook as our pediatrician who used to say to me, “Don’t worry about potty training. I have never seen a high school kid wearing a diaper.”

When I was a Japanese liaison at an elementary school in Michigan, I dealt with many wild Japanese children. Teachers reported concerns and brought them to S3 (Support Group among Teacher-Staff-Parents) meeting. Their concerns were predominantly behavior issues, not academic ones. Counselors, psychologists, pediatricians, and other specialists tested them and they often diagnosed them as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). They also recommended medicating the children so that the class could learn without their disruption. All the Japanese parents of these children, without fail, rejected the idea of medication. They all pleaded as if they were rehearsed that they wanted the school staff to be patient and take a long-range view of their growth. Only two of them (a first-grade girl and a second-grade boy) surrendered to the medication due to frequent complaint and pressure from the school staff and their doctors. Poor kids! After a short period of taking medicine, their personalities changed drastically. They were quieter and more cooperative but they turned into near zombies. According to the American standard, my younger brother definitely should have been on medication along with numerous other Japanese children. My brother completely settled down on his own without medication when he entered junior high school. The Japanese society simply lets them loose until nature takes care of them. Americans prefer instant fixes while Japanese do not mind waiting it out even if it may disturb other surrounding people.

Junior High School (Chuugakkoo)
From 12 to 15 years old (1st, 2nd, 3rd year in JH), this is an extremely important phase in the upbringing of the Japanese children with increased focus on academic studies. Results at this stage can determine entry to a reputable senior high school and hence to a prestigious college and consequently to a successful career. At junior high school, students usually stay late at school, busy with various club activities as well as studies at a cram school (juku). Although it is legally possible to leave the formal education system after the completion of the three-year junior high school and find employment, only a handful of students (fewer than 4% by the late 1980s) actually pursued the path. Most of these students were forced to choose employment at factories or shops due to family financial situations.

Most junior high schools are public. Only 5% (1980s) are private and they are costly. Classes are large with 38 students per class on average (51-52 in my baby boom time). Each class is assigned a homeroom teacher who doubles as counselor. Unlike elementary schools, junior high students have different teachers for different subjects. In Japanese schools, teachers rather than students travel from room to room for each fifty-minute period. Instruction in secondary schools tends to be the lecture method. The curriculum covers Japanese language, mathematics, social studies, science, English (starts at this stage), music, fine arts, health, physical education, industrial arts/homemaking, and moral education. Many students participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and cultural clubs.

The majority of elementary schools do not require a uniform while most of secondary schools do: a sailor outfit for girls and a military style uniform called gakuran or tsume-eri for boys. These uniforms derive from Meiji Period formal military dress, modeled after European-style naval uniforms. Although this style of uniform is still in use today, many schools have adopted more parochial school uniform styles. The colors of the uniforms are mainly dark blue, gray, or black. All schools have a summer version of the lighter uniform since students attend school until around July 20, and Japanese summer is often hot and humid with no air conditioning in many of the school buildings.

I was very excited to attend junior high school. I felt grown up wearing dark-blue sailor uniform and I was granted the privilege to ride a bicycle because my family lived far enough from school. There were 10-11 classrooms in each three grades with 51-52 students in each class (total population: 1500-1600 students). There were four junior high schools in my hometown, Yonago City (population (2005): approx. 150,000). Unlike my elementary school, especially after having the same teacher for four years due to my unlucky luck of the draw, it was refreshing to have different teachers come to our room or have us travel to special locations for music, art, and PE. I especially liked to have tests and exams scheduled in the form of midterm and final exam. In the elementary school, I never knew when we were tested. It seemed like there were surprise quizzes and tests all the time. I hate surprises, any kind of surprises such as a pop quiz, surprise birthday party, surprise wedding/baby shower, etc. In the junior high, we had three midterms and three final exams each year, and the majority of grades were determined by these six BIG tests. A week prior to these exams, just about everything stopped and the whole school went into exam preparation mode. There were no more sporting events scheduled before the exam date. No high school kids worked in Japanese schools. At home, I studied hard side by side with my older sister whose hobby used to be studying. I felt brilliant after reviewing everything I had learned.

English Speech Contest
English was my favorite subject because I started my lesson two years ahead of everybody else. Mr. Kikawa, the English teacher who also taught my sisters after school at his own home (juku), was offering a new class for 5-6th graders. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. For the next seven years, I went to his house for an English lesson twice a week from 7-9 pm along with a dozen other boys and girls. By the time I reached 7th grade, I had already mastered the material for 8th graders. It was an easy and smooth sailing for me from here on all the way to college as far as the subject English was concerned.

My siblings and I were lucky to have Mr. Kikawa as a teacher. He possessed near native-like pronunciation, unlike most of the Japanese English teachers. Each year, he enjoyed training one student for the Takamatsunomiya (present Takamadonomiya, royal family) Junior High School English Speech Contest, which is the largest and most prestigious English contest in Japan. During my 8th and 9th grades, he decided to enter me into the contest. Both times, I won the first place in our region that gave me the title to compete in the national level, the Takamatsunomiya Cup in Tokyo. Each year in late spring, Mr. Kikawa and I started our practice routine of my 5-minute memorized speech after school, which lasted for three months. We practiced in his classroom, sometimes in the corner of the gym, and he even came to our house at night and weekends once the contest drew near. It was such a huge commitment for a teenager, and I have to admit that I sometimes was tired of training and wanted to hang out with my friends. On the national level, neither year did I proceed to the final round, though I was very close in the second year. All the top ten contestants were accompanied by native British or American priest or nun teachers. Mr. Kikawa’s pronunciation was excellent but we, the small city people, simply could not compete against the big city privileged students. However, these experiences helped not only ignite my interest in English language study but also bestow self-confidence that I could grow on for the rest of my life. I am truly grateful to Mr. Kikawa for all his selfless devotion. I do not know where I would be today without his belief in me.

Soon after we started our junior high school life, there was an assembly about various clubs. The captains from all sport and culture clubs gave a short recruiting speech in front of the entire student body. I joined Basketball Club since my oldest sister was a star in high school and then in college. I thought I would try to be one as well. We practiced after school every day for the next three years. Unlike American sports in secondary schools, Japanese students play one sport all year round. In America, you can play three sports in one year if you wish, for example, football in fall, basketball in winter, and baseball in spring for boys. Girls such as my daughters played tennis in fall, cheerleading in winter, and track & field in spring. In Japan, there is no such flexible luxury. You commit yourself to one sport. The youngest students (7th graders in junior high and freshmen in senior high school) often become slaves to upperclassmen (senpai). The younger ones (koohai) always carry all the equipment in and out for daily practice and polish balls and such after practice. In our club, senpai walked around as if they were queens. Koohai had to show utmost respect to them, no matter what. I did not like it but that was the way, and I am sure that is still the way today. Although the basketball team practiced together, it was a different story for the baseball team. The first-year baseball players did not even touch a ball and a bat, but all lined up in the outfield and yelled out cheers for the older players, in addition to all the dirty work such as taking care of equipment and carrying water. I recently heard that the basic skills of Japanese baseball players in the U.S. such as Ichiro were superior. I bet they all went through the same training regimen.

Japanese people trust in long-term dedication on one thing and frown upon short-term flirtation. When I showed my American students a Bunraku puppeteer’s videotape, they could not believe that it took 15 years to master to move one leg or hand of a puppet. “No way!” they all said. It is the same with tea ceremony, flower arrangement, sword making, pottery creation, you name it. It all takes 20-30 years to master true skills. Now it makes sense for the first-year baseball players to stand still and yell for hours before they even touch a bat. If you remember the movie, Karate Kid, Daniel-san had to wash and wax the cars, and stain the fences with the concealed training movements before Mr. Miyagi taught karate forms. It is the same idea. The longer and harder the pre-training is, the better the result will be.

High School Entrance Examination
The Japanese third-year students in public junior high school become busy with preparation for the entrance examination for a prospective high school. Many of them attend a cram or preparatory school (juku) but some study at home on their own. Unlike college entrance examination, students can apply for only one school since all the public high schools offer the exam on the same day with the exception of private schools. If there are reputable private schools near them, they can take more than one exam. In my hometown of Yonago City, Tottori Prefecture, there were five high schools: East HS for boys, West HS for girls, South HS for business/commerce program, and Technical HS. North HS was added about the time I went through, first as a private school, later changed to a public school; however, North HS was known as a third-rate school for those who failed the exam for public schools. It was vital for all the kids to study hard and pass the exam to a school of their first choice so that they would not be typecast for the rest of their lives. If they failed the exam and did not wish to settle with the school such as North HS, they attended a preparatory school (yobikoo) for a year and attempted again the following year. As for my family, all of my three brothers attended East HS, and three girls attended West HS. Luckily, we all made it to a high school we were expected to attend.

Speaking of the uncreative names of school, the junior high schools in my hometown were named First Junior High School, Second JHS, Third JHS, and Fourth JHS. The high schools were East HS, West HS, South HS, and North HS. It is quite common to name schools this way in Japan; however, how boring!

Joshi Gakuin Junior and Senior High School
Upon returning from the study abroad in the U. S., I taught English at a private Christian school for girls, Joshi Gakuin, in Yotsuya, Tokyo for two years. These girls (750 students each for JHS and SHS) were an elite group of students who all passed the competitive exam before entering this reputable school. I heard that these girls were the top students from each elementary school all around the Tokyo area. Yes, all the kids were smart and possessed such good study habits that I did not have to remind them of doing homework or studying for tests. It was a dream school for teachers. I especially enjoyed my first year when I taught four classes (50 girls per classroom) of 7th grade English. They were cute and obedient. They were intelligent and diligent, no pun intended. I sometimes regretted that I might have had assigned too much homework but they surprised me each time. It was SO cute to witness all 100 happy eyes focusing on me and all 50 sets of lips merrily reciting the lesson together. My two hundred 7th graders were my joy! However, it was puzzling to find these angels turn into a defiant group of girls the following year. What had they eaten or drunk over the spring break to change so drastically? Although they applied themselves well to the daily study routine, they slouched in their seats and gave bored and rebellious look once they became 8th graders. There was one week I lost my voice completely due to laryngitis. In my whisper voice, I pleaded to fifty girls to be quiet and patient, but they started talking within five minutes. I gathered my books and poster boards, and left the room. Fifteen minutes later, two class representatives shyly came to the teachers’ room to retrieve me. They apologized but they did not realize that I had left the room because they were talking too much. I often wondered what happened to these youngsters who had to prepare so hard to be accepted by a privileged school so that they were safe from another battery of entrance examination for the next six years until they faced college entrance exams. Is there such a thing as “terrible 14s,” like “terrible twos”? There is tremendous amount of pressure on Japanese students to pass entrance examinations from parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, and society. Their defiant attitude could have been the delayed reaction that manifested in their second year in junior high school. The cute thing about them is that I have kept contact with several of the students for years. Just recently, I heard from another student. They are wonderful people after all.

Senior High School (Kookoo)
Although senior high school (16-18 years old: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year in SHS) is not compulsory in Japan, 94% of all junior high school graduates entered senior high schools in 2000. 24% of senior high schools are private and they are expensive just as in the U.S. However, Japanese public high schools are not free, and it is students’ responsibility to pay for tuition and textbooks. All the textbooks for 1st through 12th graders are paperbacks paid and owned by individual students, and they can write in them and throw them out if they do not want to keep them at the end of the year. Unlike in America, teachers do not need to collect the books back at the end of the school year after inspecting them and fining the students if ruined.

The most common type of high school has a fulltime, general program (70% of students enrolled in late 1980s) that offers academic courses for students preparing for colleges and universities. The teaching style is generally lecture style. There are also technical and vocational schools for those who pursue employment after graduation. A small number of schools offer part-time evening courses or correspondence education for working students as well.

The high school curriculum generally covers Japanese (modern Japanese, old Japanese, and Chinese classis), mathematics (algebra, geometry, and calculus), social studies (Japanese history, world history, politics, and economics), science (biology, chemistry, and physics), English, music, fine arts, health, physical education, industrial arts/homemaking, and moral education. Students take 10-12 different subjects per year, unlike American students 6-8. Japanese students’ class schedule looks busy and chaotic because they have different subjects every day whereas American class schedule simple and neat because they have the same subjects every day. Many students participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and cultural clubs as American students do.

Most of the Japanese high schools require uniforms just like junior high schools. Boys wear a military style uniform, and girls a sailor outfit. The dress code is generally strict for high school students in order to keep them focused on studying, not on fashion, and there may be occasional unannounced uniform inspection. Girls are not normally allowed to wear distractions such as make-up, perms, colored hair, nail polish, pierced ears, etc. (I wore curlers to bed to make my hair fluffy but no one, especially no teachers, seemed to have noticed it. I believe curled hair was against our rule then.) Some students rebel by wearing their uniforms incorrectly or by adding prohibited elements such as large loose socks or badges. Girls may shorten or lengthen their skirts, remove the scarves, or change the shade of the uniform color slightly. Boys may lower the pants to the hips, omit ties or keep their shirts unbuttoned. Some of the students enjoy modifying their uniforms as a means of exhibiting individualism.

College Entrance Examination and Cram School (Juku)
The pressure of the Japanese education system is notorious, and the peak of pressure for the students is between 15 and 18. A child’s future truly depends on getting into the RIGHT school. Entry to a good high school is vital because it is like a passport to a prestigious university, then a promising key to a successful future career for the rest of their lives. It is common to witness Japanese children running from regular school to various lessons and extracurricular club activities and then rush to cram school (juku) until dark. At cram school, bright students can learn extra lessons to advance, and slower students can review lessons to catch up. Popular subjects at juku are Japanese, math, science, social studies, and English.

Although the Japanese education system has created one of the most remarkable levels of literacy and highest standards of education in the world, there are rising concerns and criticism that question the impact of such pressure on children from such a young age. Some children and young adults suffer from stress related illnesses, withdraw from society, or commit suicide in an extreme case.

My older sister was one of the brightest students in her class and she used to sit at the desk and study for hours at home. However, just before the college entrance exams, she became ill due to too much stress to her system. She experienced a dizzy head, pounding heart, and nausea. My parents rushed her to the doctor one night, worrying she was having a heart attack, but the doctor could not find anything wrong with her and told her that she was imagining things. Sadly, she could not perform as well as she normally would have at the exams, failed all the exams, and had to attend the preparatory school (yobikoo) for a year to try again the following year. Luckily, she passed all of them the following year and attended her dream university. Although her story sounds like a happy conclusion, it actually took her years to recover from her unknown stress syndrome on her spinal nerve system that no doctors knew how to treat.

I was in my third year junior high and I myself was facing the high school entrance exam, as this drama surrounding my sister was unfolding at home. My sister was handling her heartbreaking predicament relatively calmly; nevertheless, my father was a different story. He openly showed his frustration and frequently complained loudly that my sister was the first child of all his ten-sibling-relatives who failed in college entrance exams and how ashamed he was of her. It was a long and difficult year to be around our house. I was extra happy for her when she passed all four exams to elite universities the next year.

My sister was fortunate to pass the exams at the second attempt, but it is not unusual to see students called roonin (masterless samurai) who keep trying to enter a college for two, three or four years. I used to show a cultural documentary video titled “Japanese Entrance Exam Hell” to my American students. It was about a group of roonin boys from distant prefectures who all came to Tokyo to attend one of the best preparatory schools (yobikoo). Since yobikoo is expensive, these boys all delivered newspaper from 3 to 6 in the morning to help their parents with expenses. In the video, they focused on one boy from Okayama Prefecture. He was not particularly bright but was a diligent student, and this year was his third attempt. His well-to-do father back in Okayama declared that this was his final attempt. He would have to go back home and attend a community college or get a job if he was unsuccessful this year. His father asked him to make him proud. The boy told his friends that he was used to the pressure but he was feeling extra pressure this year since this was going to be his final challenge. After taking three or four exams which were given around February, he failed them all again. He made a reluctant phone call to home and begged his father to allow him to try one more time because he thought he did much better this year. At the end, his father told him to come home anyway and they would discuss his future then . . . This was such a sad story but it happens every year in early spring in all over Japan. My American students had a hard time understanding this type of pressure-driven educational system.

College and University (Daigaku)
There are two types of public four-year colleges in Japan. As of 1991, there were 96 national universities and 39 local prefectural universities. The 372 remaining four-year colleges were private and were concentrated in big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka vicinities. Public universities are less expensive than private ones; therefore, they naturally attract financially less fortunate students. In 1991, more than 2.1 million students were enrolled in 507 universities. All public and some private universities require students to take five-subject entrance exam in Japanese, English, social studies (student’s choice from history, politics or economics), mathematics, and science (student’s choice from biology, chemistry or physics), whereas most of the private universities require three-subject exam in Japanese, English, and social studies (student’s choice from history, politics or economics). The majority of high school students decide which type of school (public or private; 5- or 3-subject exam) they wish to attend and which subject in social studies and/or science they would take the test in by the beginning of the second year of high school and enroll in the accelerated classes depending on their choices.

As for me, I chose to take three-subject entrance exams in Japanese, English, and Japanese history in private schools. Three years earlier, my older sister who became ill and had to try twice to be accepted, took on five-subject exams in Japanese, English, math, Japanese history, and biology in private schools, though both of us ironically ended up in the same university, Tokyo Women’s (Christian) University (Tokyo Joshi Daigaku), one of the most prominent women’s colleges. I took four entrance exams for three co-ed universities and one women’s junior college as a safety net (suberidome). I passed three and failed in one. I was ready to attend a co-ed university in Tokyo, but my family fiercely opposed to my decision and talked me into deciding on a junior college of Tokyo Joshi Daigaku where my older sister had been already attending. My family’s logic was I could take the transfer test after two years and join my sister in the four-year program in another campus. They simply did not want me to attend a co-ed school. Their persuasion made sense then that both of my older sisters attended women’s colleges and so should I.

In America, college students become extra serious about learning since college courses are extremely demanding. It is often said that it is easier to get into college but much more difficult to graduate from American colleges while the reverse is the truth in the Japanese counterpart. In Japan, college students usually relax once they are admitted into school since the pressure for the last 6-10 years are finally lifted. For many students, now is the time to party! Some students skip lectures and enjoy their long-waited freedom. It is not a big deal because they can borrow notes from classmates just before the midterm and final exams. Some take naps during lectures. I guess I should not accuse them for napping; everyone is guilty of falling asleep now and then. When I was a junior, I was attending a lecture on History of English and American Literature by a famous professor who was about 80 years old. There were at least two hundred students sitting in a big lecture hall and busily taking notes. One girl had a newspaper wide open in front of her and immersed herself in whatever she was reading in the middle of the room. Suddenly, the professor, Dr. Saito, roared at the student and ordered her to leave the room. Hooray to Dr. Saito! She deserved it because she was plainly rude and disrespectful.

There were always many opportunities for drinking gatherings, dance parties, mahjong gambling, etc. Since my college was a school for women, someone arranged several conpas (convivial party) with boys from another university such as Tokyo University and Waseda University. The conpa usually started with an uncomfortable picnic and proceeded to a coffee shop (kissaten) or a restaurant with a smaller group of students. I cannot tell you what happened after the picnic because I always had to leave in a hurry. My older brother with whom my sister and I lived together in a small rented house in Tokyo during our four years of college did not want us to go out with guys. This was the same brother who is nine years older than I am and had appointed himself as our “camp counselor” when we were younger. I do not know what role my parents had given him this time, but he became our overprotective guardian, and we had to live under his watchful eyes. I attended one picnic and one dance party. I rushed home each time as if I had been Cinderella. I kept checking my watch and made sure I was not late. Both times, he gave me his notorious silence treatment. He would not talk to me for 2-3 weeks; therefore, I decided not to bother with conpa and other fun parties anymore. It was not worth the hassle.

When I entered my junior college, I thought I could relax and enjoy my life a little. I guess I was wrong, thanks to my family’s insistence on this women’s college. It was generally believed that Tokyo Women’s (Christian) University was a female version of Tokyo University, and its junior college was no exception. The expectation from the faculty members was high, and the English majoring students were drilled daily. In my freshman year, I had Mrs. Kobayashi for Reading, English Pronunciation, and English Grammar. I sometimes saw her twice a day. She was demanding, knowledgeable, well prepared, energetic, and fast-paced. She went through fifty girls back and forth like a machine gun. If anyone hesitates to answer even for a second, she was on to the next student, leaving her sputtering. My palms used to drip with sweat because I was so nervous. We frequently had quizzes and tests. We were BUSY. Who said we could relax once we entered a college? Although she was tough and I was nervous in front of her, I have to admit that she was the best teacher I had ever had. She truly inspired me, and I decided I wanted to be a teacher JUST LIKE HER.

Unlike American colleges, Japanese students take twice as many courses at each semester. Average course load in America is 4-5 classes whereas 8-10 classes in Japan. The liberal arts classes that freshman and sophomore students are required to take do not meet as often in Japan (classes last for a year) as in the U.S.; therefore, students can fit more courses in their schedule.

My sophomore year was completely dedicated to studying for the transfer test. My ignorant family had convinced me earlier that these tests were easy and for a formality purpose only. However, they were wrong again, and I had to go through another year of entrance examination hell. I had to take tests in English, biology, psychology, and English & American literature. It was fortunate that I had no knowledge on how many students had applied and how many would be accepted prior to the test. In the English Department, thirty-three girls took the test and only three succeeded. When I found that out, I nearly fainted. Just easy and formality test, huh?

Due to the different nature and system between the junior and four-year universities, some credit of the transferred students did not count; thus, those students including me had to take the classes all over, especially liberal arts classes. They surely did not make our lives easier. The next two years I had an extra load of classes such as the regular departmental requirement, repeated liberal arts classes, educational classes plus student teaching, and my graduation thesis in my senior year, so that I could graduate in four years with English and American Literature as a major and Education as a minor.

The 1960s was a turbulent time for Japanese higher education. Many universities were shaken by violent student riots that disrupted many campuses. Radical students demonstrated against the Vietnam War and demanded the return of Okinawa. Various fanatic student groups fought over ideological differences. Their disputes escalated to campus issues such as discipline, student strikes, and general dissatisfaction with the university system itself. On the other hand, the government responded with the University Control Law in 1969 and with further education reforms in the early 70s. New laws governed the founding of new universities and teachers’ compensation, and public school curricula were revised. Private education institutions began to receive public aid, and a nationwide standardized university entrance examination was added for the national universities.

Outraged radical students in many universities barricaded themselves by piling the ripped up desks and chairs and creating a fort. They furiously demanded the abolition of the University Control Law. My college was a women’s Christian institution yet we were no exception to this angry and emotional trend. A handful of radical girls with outside help took over our campus for several months and daily screamed out their propaganda through megaphones. They lived inside the barricade for months and destroyed our beautiful buildings with graffiti and garbage.

This long-term strike happened when I was a senior and was trying hard to manage my super overload of study in order to graduate in four years. I had a study abroad with scholarship in the U.S. already scheduled in the fall after graduation and I could not afford to postpone my graduation. I was stressed. Although the students were deprived of their education and the buildings were destroyed, I have to admit that this fiasco for a whole semester was truly a blessing in disguise for me personally. Without this miraculous disruption of daily classes, I do not know how I could have managed my heavy load. Because we could not enter the campus and all the classes were canceled for half a year, I could peacefully write my graduation thesis at home and do my student teaching away from the chaotic and dangerous campus. Other Japanese college students may have had easier time; however, I could never describe my college life as undemanding or relaxed. I had my share of challenge and stress but I made it in four years, thanks to the radical students.

American Education

American education system is unique and unlike that in many other countries. Education in the U. S. is offered primarily by government, with control and funding deriving from three levels: federal, state, and local. However, education is predominantly the responsibility of state and local governments; therefore, there is little standardization in curriculum, funding, teaching methods, educational standard, testing, teachers’ certification, and other policies. (When a teacher moves from one state to another, she/he needs to take tests to be certified in each state.) School attendance is mandatory and universal in elementary and secondary levels (K-12). The ages for compulsory education vary state by state, generally 5 to 18 years old. Students have the option of being educated in a public, private, or home school. Public and home schools are free of charge but private schools (religious and non-sectarian) are expensive to attend. The education system is commonly divided into three levels: elementary, secondary (junior and senior high school), and postsecondary (college or university). Children usually start in kindergarten or first grade at the age of five or six until reaching 12th grade at the age of 17. The 12 years following the kindergarten year are normally organized under the ‘6-3-3 plan’ (6 years of elementary school-3 years of junior high or middle school-3 years of high school). Variations on the 6-3-3 plan include 5-3-4 and 6-2-4 schemes as well as the older 8-4 and 6-6 plans. For the majority of schools, transportation to and from school is provided by bus for all the students except for those who live within a few miles. The school year usually runs from early September to mid June (180 days) and is divided into quarters or semesters. Public schools are open Monday through Friday, and are closed on Saturday and Sunday.

According to Wikipedia in 2000, there were 76.6 million students enrolled in schools from kindergarten through graduate schools. Of those enrolled in compulsory education, 5.2 million (10.4%) were attending private schools. Among the country’s adult population, 85% have completed high school and 27% have received a bachelor’s degree or higher. The literacy rate in America is 98% of the population over age 15.

There is no mandatory public prekindergarten in America. Although the federal government funds the Head Start preschool program for low-income children, it is the responsibility of individual families to find and pay for a preschool or childcare. The main goals of preschools are for youngsters to learn social skills and gross/fine motor skills. They spend much of their time interacting with other children, listening to stories, learning to wait for turns, cleaning up after activities, coloring pictures, making arts and crafts, jumping, throwing balls, dancing, etc.

When my oldest daughter turned two, we placed her in Parent Co-Op Preschool once a week for a couple of hours because we had just moved into a neighborhood of Elgin, Illinois, where there were no toddlers of her age. In this school, parents were required to help the teaching staff by volunteering once every three weeks. This arrangement worked out perfect for us since I could keep an eye on my daughter every so often and she could play with the children of her age to acquire social skills.

Later when we moved back to Toledo, Ohio, all of our three daughters attended three- and four-year-old programs of a nursery school until they reached kindergarten. The schedule for 3-year-olds was twice a week from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and that of 4-year-olds was three times a week. Parents were discouraged to enter the school building; thus, teachers received the children at the cars in the morning and brought them out to the cars at the end of the day. It was like a bank drive-through. Parents could have taken the kids to school in pajamas. They did not want the confusion of mothers strolling in and out of the building. A few parents always liked to stick around or come early to peek at the classroom. They often became a big distraction to the children. I thought their drop-off and pick-up method was a well-organized procedure.

Now in 2008, our twin granddaughters are almost 4 years old and they attended a nursery school for 3-year-olds last year in Chicago, Illinois. Their schedule was five days a week from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., though I thought school started too early in the morning and daily attendance was too demanding for 3-year-olds. They will repeat the same schedule starting this fall as 4-year-olds. I hope it will be easier for both the girls and their parents this year.

Elementary School
Elementary school begins with kindergarten (5 years old) and runs through the 5th or 6th grade, depending on the school district, where basic subjects are taught. Students remain in one classroom throughout the day except for physical education, music, and art classes. A classroom of 20-30 students of diverse learning needs is assigned to a new teacher in each grade. The curriculum in the public schools is established by individual school districts. Learning Standards are the goals that school districts must meet as mandated by No Child Left Behind, which focuses on reading and math as primary targets for improvement.

Kindergarteners generally attend school for 2 ½ days a week: AM or PM only; Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays AM or Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays PM, depending on a school district or building capacity. Of course, some districts offer all day, five days kindergarten program. Our three daughters attended AM or PM kindergarten, which I thought just the right amount to be away from mommies for 5-year-olds. When I worked as a Japanese community liaison in an elementary school in Michigan, I witnessed many tired children being at school for two whole days and one half day. They were falling asleep into a long nap during the rest period of twenty minutes after lunch and could not be awakened. A couple of kids in each classroom experienced severe separation anxiety and cried their eyes out, especially in the beginning of the school year. Although my daughters went to school only half a day, I found out at the first conference that my youngest balled her eyes out every morning as she entered the classroom but went home smiling. Kindergarten is such a traumatic time for young children, even if they had attended preschools. It is so intimidating for little kindergarteners to ride a yellow bus with big kids as well.

When my husband attended kindergarten a long ago, it was almost all play and daily naps on a small carpet but no academic activities; at least that is what he remembers. My kindergarteners in Michigan (1999-2003) were expected a whole lot more. At the Kindergarten Round-Up Meeting in May, prospective parents were encouraged to prepare their children over the summer by teaching them the entire alphabet of upper and lower cases, numbers 1-20, shapes, colors, writing their first and last names with correct capitalization, verbalizing their addresses and phone numbers, tying their shoe laces, etc. I often wondered as I listened to this spiel what else the teachers were going to teach them because they were asking the parents to do most of their work over the summer. Once the school started, children were constantly pulled aside and tested individually. It seemed the real education was forgotten because of the fear of the negative consequences from No Child Left Behind Law.

American elementary schools are stricter than generally considered. There are many rules for the students, and American elementary classrooms are typically orderly. They must raise their hand before speaking. They must use an indoor voice in the room. They must ask for permission to use the restroom. They must walk, not run in the hallways. They must line up before leaving the room for other classrooms, lunch, recess, or dismissal. Children are always supervised by teachers, staff, or adults inside and outside of the school building, unlike the Japanese counterparts. Japanese students eat lunch and play outside during recess without adult supervision, but American school administrators are afraid of being sued by parents if accidents happen to their children without adult supervision.

Teachers in American public schools are interested in appearance rather than instillation of basic skills through repetitious and patient practice. One kindergarten teacher was keen on publishing children’s books. It sounded great, and the finished products impressed parents. We spent much time on writing make-believe stories with pictures and sentences with inventive spelling and on creating a colorful cover. It was actually very cute to see such books published by kindergarteners. However, the task was far beyond their ability, and the creation of a book was only possible with much help of classroom paraprofessionals and parent volunteers.

When my middle daughter was in the fourth grade, I realized her teacher was relying too much on “contract work” instead of teaching social studies herself. She gave the students one contract after another which required student and parent’s signatures. The students were assigned to do research (This is before Internet time.) on the topic and fill all the answers in the worksheets and turn them in by certain date. Since 4th graders had not yet been taught to do such book reports on their own, the contracts became parents’ responsibility. As soon as a student finished one contract, another one was sent home the same day. This continued the whole year. The final project was for students to build an Indian village. My daughter and I worked hard with clay and other items for days. When we carefully delivered the finished project, she arranged a party for all the parents to see the villages that were mostly built by parents. One father, who was a mason, built a beautiful professional-looking Indian village. Of course, everybody admired his work, and the teacher kept repeating how great this whole contract thing had been. I scratched my head and wondered what the students had really learned from these projects. I know the teacher had an easy year but we, the parents, learned a lot.

When I look back on our lives during K-12th grades for each of my three daughters, they could not have achieved as well as they had without our assistance, especially projects such as creations of Indian villages, medieval castles, various English, science, and social studies projects, Invention Convention items, English papers, etc. All of my girls are bright and diligent students; however, their teachers kept on assigning the type of projects the students could not have possibly handled successfully on their own. The conscientious parents ended up with helping the kids because they wanted their children to create decent projects. On the other hand, teachers knowingly misunderstood the students’ hidden talents and took advantage of the parents’ reluctant assistance. After all, this was a win-win situation for the teachers. They did not have to lift a finger but type up the assignment sheets because the students brought in beautiful projects. It did not matter who did the work, as long as they turned in the assignment. It looks good to the eyes of the principal too.

American elementary children are carefree and uninhibited in the classrooms. There is no uniform in public elementary schools. In private/parochial schools, students must wear a uniform, and their discipline code is stricter. It is interesting to find out that the students who are kicked out of private schools due to bad behavior or whatever else all end up in public schools that cannot refuse their admittance. Anyhow, many kids are generally busy with extracurricular activities such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts after school. Children of the working mothers head for various type of babysitting facilities to spend the rest of the afternoon until parents pick them up. Children of stay-at-home mothers go home, eat snacks, finish homework, and engage in various lessons/practices of soccer, piano, swimming, ballet, tennis, gymnastics, martial arts, and so on. There are often birthday and sleepover parties to attend on weekends. Kids and parents are busy, busy, busy.

Junior High School/Middle School
Junior high school is any school intermediate between elementary and senior high schools. It typically includes grades seven and eight, or sometimes six, seven and eight, or any other combinations, depending on a school district. (It was strange when my daughters entered junior high school at the 7th grade in Perrysburg, Ohio, our nephews and niece at the 6th grade only fifteen minutes away in Maumee, Ohio. This would never happen in Japan.) Junior high students are given more freedom than elementary students as choosing their own classes. Nevertheless, they are still grouped as a homeroom and move along together all day, except for some of the major subjects such as English, math, and history may be divided into regular and honors classes as well as music may be chosen from general music, choir, or band. Extracurricular club activities can be sports such as football, soccer, cross-country, basketball, cheerleading, wrestling, baseball, volleyball, track and field, or cultural clubs such as science, math, debate, foreign languages and so on.

American junior high school is an odd place in a sense that students are too big to stay in an elementary school but too young for a high school. It seems junior high school is a holding place until they can officially claim their places in a high school. Teenagers are physically growing at various speeds so that some of the boys are tall and lanky with light mustache, voice change, and a few spots of acne but some of them are still young and quite small. Most of the girls begin to develop and mature physically but some still look like sticks. One thing for sure for these kids is their hormone level. They start showing interest in the opposite sex, and young love begins to blossom. They are desperately trying to grow up faster than they should and act like high school students. Schools themselves provide the opportunities for them to practice their social skills to be grown-ups, such as Friday night dances, Sock-Up parties, Valentine’s Day Dance, etc. Boys and girls all dress up with corsage and boutonniere and take each other to the dance as a rehearsal for the high school Homecoming and Prom. Since there is no entrance examination before admittance to a high school unlike Japanese students, American junior high kids are generally free and uninhibited. All they have to worry about is to excel at school and extracurricular activities, to be accepted by peers, and to have as much fun as possible.

When we moved back to Toledo, Ohio from Elgin, Illinois, our oldest daughter was only three and a half, and we did not think ahead as far as her junior high school. We thought we would move again in a few years, considering the way my husband had been promoted within his corporation. Nine years later, after two more daughters, and another promotion within the same city, we were still in the same house in the south end of Toledo. It was time for us to make serious decisions concerning our children’s future secondary schools. Older neighborhood kids were telling our oldest daughter stories from their junior high school where she would have attended in a few years if we had stayed. It made us worry when we heard that a kid in an English class tripped the teacher and said, “Sorry, Teach!” and laughed. The neighborhood elementary school was a good school, and we had no complaints about it. However, junior and senior high schools were different stories. They brought students in from much broader areas and they bussed in inner city kids as well. My husband and I agreed the lives of our daughters would be well protected if all of them were always placed in honors classes and hung around with “good” kids all the time, but it was clear that there was no guarantee for such wishes. Therefore, we moved away from the city of Toledo, and ventured across the Maumee River into Perrysburg, where new houses were going up like mushrooms, and school system was excellent. Our oldest was going into 7th grade, the middle into 3rd, and the youngest into kindergarten. The adjustment for my oldest was especially difficult, though she kept it well hidden from us. The affluent suburban community was beautiful to move into, but the ambition and competitiveness of the kids and their parents made us uneasy at first. Whenever we showed up at school functions such as Open Houses, conferences, and choir concerts, the school building was packed with parents and family members. There were often no places to sit, and people stood at the back. There was overwhelming support from the families and community. Although my daughter was one of the smartest students in her elementary school, there were many like her in the new junior high school, and she had to study hard to keep her place. She also had to try harder to fit into the new circle of friends in the new school where no one knew her. It is common knowledge that middle school kids are particularly cliquish. Unless you live in a certain type of home, wear certain clothing, talk and walk in a certain way, and participate in a certain activity, they will not associate with you. It is a cruel world for a new kid on the block. It seemed to us then that she was adjusting well, but she avoids discussing the time of her transition even today. Her new “friends” must have done little nasty things to her, and she would rather not have her mind travel back there.

Senior High School
Many high schools include 9th through 12th grades (14-17 years old). Students in their first year are called freshman, in their second year sophomore, in their third year junior and in their fourth year senior. Students must take a broad variety of classes in order to receive a high school diploma. Typically, their requirement for graduation is four years of English (literature and humanities), three years of math (algebra, geometry, algebra II, and/or precalculus/trigonometry), various social studies (American history, world history, government, and economics), three years of science (biology, chemistry, and physics), and one year of physical education. Many schools offer a variety of elective courses such as foreign languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Sign Language), visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, and photography), performing arts (drama, band, choir, orchestra, and dance), business (word processing, programming, and graphic design), industrial arts (shop, woodworking, metalworking, automobile repair, and robotics), and publishing (journalism, student newspaper, and yearbook). Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses that are usually taken by juniors and seniors. They are special forms of honors classes where the curriculum is more demanding and lessons more aggressively paced than regular courses.

Many high school students engage in extracurricular activities of athletics such as football, cross-country, tennis, golf, cheerleading, basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball, volleyball, track & field, soccer, gymnastics, swimming, skiing, lacrosse as well as various cultural clubs. The sports become extremely important to some students because they can lead them to scholarships for colleges and universities, and eventually to professional sports world. High school sports are given such priority in America, football and basketball, especially, are profit-making sports.

Another characteristic of American high schools is that students start driving at the age of 16 in many states and many of them hold a job after school and on weekends in order to help parents pay for the car and their expensive insurance cost. The privilege of driving a car often becomes a means of bribery for the parents to use for their lazy or unmotivated teenagers. My jaw used to drop to the floor when I heard my students were too sick to go to school but managed to work that night because they could not miss it, or they could not do my homework because they had to work late the night before. Students sometimes showed up at the third period even if they were very sick, so that they could participate in the sport’s practice or game on that afternoon. They knew what was more important. Yes, you guessed it. Work and sports were their priority but it was obvious that school was not.

Unlike the Japanese schedule, each student has a different schedule, and students travel to different classrooms each hour. There are only 4-5 minutes between classes, and the hallways are often jammed with students. They will not make to a class on time if they leisurely stop at the locker to get the books or make a stop at the restroom. Students often have to hurry to the next class since they will face consequences if they are tardy so many times. Most of the students carry a heavy backpack in order to avoid stopping at the locker.

A school day is generally divided into six periods unless they have block scheduling that became popular in the late 1990s. Most of the students have six classes every day and they repeat the same schedule for the whole semester. The second semester may be slightly modified for some students though most of the classes run for a whole school year. It is actually boring to have the same subject at the same time every day for a whole year. Since school starts at 7:30 a.m. for many high schools around the country, students are often sleepy and inattentive during the first period. The second and third periods are the best time for learning for both students and teachers. Right after lunch, students are often hyperactive or gassy depending on what they ate and drank for lunch. A couple of the students used to pass stinky gas; then, the half of the class would run for their lives to the other side of the room for better air. They sure disrupted my class. They are often crazy at the last period because they are excited about participating in extracurricular activities or simply going home. Throughout the school year, there are many disruptions during class time: a variety of assemblies, field trips, Homecoming, Winter Coronation, Prom, etc. I often wondered if the school is for learning or for entertainment. The school was constantly creating ways to disrupt the classes. I used to complain to my principal at Bowsher HS, Toledo, Ohio that we could not study because of too many daily disruptions of some sort. One year, he asked me to write down a list of all the disruptions. I took this new assignment seriously and filled two pages of a large notepad. Although nothing was done about it and life went on as usual, I hoped the principal realized someone did not appreciate disruptions during school time.

Good high school students are generally busy with daily schoolwork. Teachers keep on challenging them by assigning daily homework and scheduling frequent quizzes and tests. Motivated students spend hours studying every evening. When I was teaching at Bowsher HS, other teachers often envied me. They claimed that the kids who would tackle a difficult language such as Japanese had to be good students. Yes, their assumption was half-correct. I have to admit that the Japanese language attracted ambitious students just as Latin did with potential medical and law students. One third of my students were top students, the second third were average, and the last third were special education or problem students. Counselors did not know what to do with the third group and recommended Japanese just to give it a try because they might like it. On one hand, I had valedictorians and salutatorians, band and art students, martial arts students, but on the other hand, I had learning-disabled students. In 1994, one extremely motivated student came into my classroom as a freshman and the first thing he did was to visit his counselor and asked what it took him to be a valedictorian. From that day on, he worked diligently for hours every night to achieve his goal. He told me he put at least two hours for Japanese every day when most of his classmates spent little time on it at home since we drilled and drilled in the classroom, and no further studying was necessary for most of them. When the majority of his classmates worked on their twice-a year culture/history reports the weekend or the night before their turn, he spent forty hours in total here and there on each of them. His presentation was extraordinary, of course. When the class voted to watch a Japanese movie on a culture day just before the final exam, he asked to review the material again. He was screamed at by twenty other students. Although he worked extra hard for all four years, he ended up with settling as a salutatorian when he graduated with another student of mine as a valedictorian.

Every year I tried to aid students in receiving scholarships for a six-week stay in Japan. Seven students over twelve years had the privilege of spending summer in Japan. They made me proud when I witnessed maturity upon their return. Their lives were never the same after the valuable cultural experiences with their host families and many exciting outings. I was honored to be part of their adventures in an exotic country like Japan.

I had many bright and talented students as well as learning-disabled and naughty students. The latter group often made a grand entrance by noisily announcing, “I am going to be rich and successful because I am taking Japanese!” This was in early 90s when Japanese was popular. Counselors must have told them that Japanese was the language of the century so they should take it. However, these students did not last long, maybe half a year or one year at most. In 1995, I had three sections of Japanese 1. The last class of the day, which was the crazy hour for learning, had fourteen Japanese 1 students, seven bright and seven poor students. One afternoon, I was explaining what the substitution drills were. The half of the class whined, “I don’t get it!” I explained again, and then the same response came back. After three times of explaining, I had to try something different by suggesting, “Okay, let me pair you guys up so two people can work together.” This was the way for this class for the rest of the year. LD (Learning Disabled) students have their unique and sad problems, but ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) students were worse. I had two or three of these students in each class and they could not sit still to study for a long length of time even with medication. They jumped around and talked a lot. Because of the nature of my teaching style with daily games and races, my students became extremely noisy at times. Some students tried to cheat unsuccessfully and sometimes successfully. I tried my hardest to catch them all but I am sure I did not get them all. I used to be appalled by the creativity of their cheating methods. I do not believe I was blessed with only good students. I had my share of good and bad students. Welcome to a public school!

At the beginning of 2008, Oprah Winfrey Show was talking about problems in American education. Bill and Melinda Gates declare that American schools are “failing and obsolete.” They are deeply concerned because kids are dropping out, falling through cracks, and facing a dead end. American schools are in crisis. America, the richest nation on earth and once No. 1, now ranks 24th place in math in the world, and kids are not prepared to work. The condition of the inner-city schools is horrendous whereas that of suburban schools are often state of art. Police are in inner-city schools. The difference between the two is staggering, and a gap is widening every year. America is losing its status unless someone fixes it as Bill and Melinda are trying through the Gates Foundation. It is a national emergency. 55% of the people are dissatisfied with public schools. Time Magazine calls America “drop-out nation.” One out of three students drops out in Shelbyville, Indiana. The reasons for dropping out are drugs, boredom, and laziness. It is a norm in this town. No one is pushing them to stay in school, so why should they? Jobs at the factories are giving them okay money, and friends are skipping school, so why should they stay in? They can receive a GED (General Equivalency Diploma) later if they really want it. Thank goodness, Indiana passed the law recently that unless a student graduates, he/she will lose the driver’s license and work permit.

Rundown schools come from “no expectation” not only from the public but also from themselves, explains Oprah. Blacks and Latinos are reading and performing math at the 8th grade level vs. the 12th grade level for the white counterparts. Two thirds of the American students are not academically ready for college. They simply do not possess the skills to tackle the college level of study. There is a big difference between blessed students and underprivileged students in their ability to move onto college. Public school education is operated through most racial segregation and inequality. Oprah concludes that every child deserves the best school and world/school should expect more of the underprivileged students, then they will rise to their expectation.

I believe that the successful education is the product of cooperation among teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Each element must work together to make this happen. More responsibility should be placed on the parents as well as on the students. Asian children out-perform American counterparts because parents are more serious and are heavily involved in their children’s education while American parents emphasize their children’s and their own happiness. Parenting is not a popularity contest. Parents need to put their foot down and should not be afraid of their own children. American parents expect that kids do not have to do anything if they do not want to. They often allow them to do whatever makes them happy. Their lenient attitude contributes to the underperformance of American children.

When I was teaching in Athens HS in Michigan, we had a workshop titled “Millennium Kids” presented by the four assistant principals. The gist of the workshop was that our students, millennium kids, were born to the older parents who loved them so much that they would do anything for their precious kids and teachers had better keep both parents and children happy. These children were born with technology such as TV, computer, cell phone, iPod, and TV games as a pacifier. While teachers can handle only a single task at a time, these millennium kids are experts at multi-tasking. They can complete homework while watching TV, listening to iPod, and talking to a friend simultaneously. Teachers were urged to change our teaching method/style to make the students happy. Even at our home, while our children were growing up as high schoolers, my American husband and I had a different view on seriousness and urgency of final exams. Japanese students stay home and study for final exams one week prior to them, and the school stops all the extracurricular activities to promote the importance of the exams, but America does not seem to take them serious enough. There are often games and matches scheduled before and during the exam week, students continue to work all hours, and many students may skim through the exam material the night before. When the final exam was to start on Monday, my oldest daughter asked if she could go out with friends on the previous Friday night. I immediately said, “No, you need to stay home and study.” She then shot back, “I get all A’s and I don’t need to study for the entire weekend.” As soon as my husband heard us arguing, he decided to join in by taking her side, “She is 16 and she has every right to have fun. This is not Japan. She can go out.” I could not believe what I heard. I declared a war against my husband that night!

This is the basic difference between the Japanese and the American people. The Americans know how to have fun on Friday night but how to switch back to studying on Saturday and Sunday. The Japanese people do not even think of going out on Friday night, or Saturday and Sunday for that matter. It is not even an option. The final exam is around the corner, and they are going to study for it. Japanese students are used to midterms, finals, and entrance exams and they know their job is to study, not to play. Fun does not start until college for them. On the other hand, life is all about well-roundedness, happiness, and fun for American students. Although they must go to high school for four years and sit in classrooms all day, but at the end of the day, they can play sports, drive cars, hold jobs, dress up and attend Homecoming and Prom parties. That is America!

College and University
Post-secondary education in America is college or university just as in Japan. Some students choose to attend a community college first for two years prior to further study at another college or university. Students can earn Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate of Science (AS) after two years. Many students select four years of study at college or university leading to a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B. S.). Four undergraduate grades are commonly called freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years just like high school. Students traditionally apply to receive admission into college with varying difficulties of entrance. Institutions differ in their reputation and competitiveness. The most prestigious universities are generally private rather than public. The criteria of admissions involve student’s high school transcripts, Grade Point Average (GPA), class ranking, resume, essay, and standardized test scores such as ACT or SAT. Some people may argue that ACT and SAT are like entrance exams in Japan; however, students can take these tests as many times as they wish whereas Japanese students have only one shot for each school. Most of the American students take these tests at least twice or three times during their junior and senior years in high school but a few may take as many as five or six times. These tests are lengthy, difficult, and costly, and most of the students do not wish to take it too many times because the score, honestly, do not change drastically. The maximum score for ACT is 36 and for SAT is 2400, and each school establishes its standard for admission.

In America, true academic challenges begin at colleges. There is no more fun at school or leniency from instructors, professors, and administrators. Students are frequently shocked at high standards many institutions hold for the incoming freshmen. Most students carry 4-5 classes each semester, and they need to keep up with fast and demanding pace of the course syllabi. A large amount of reading assignments, frequent quizzes and tests, presentations and projects, midterms and finals often overwhelm the students. Many of them are not simply prepared for the challenging American college reality. Some of the bright but lazy students who have managed to float through high schools with relatively good grades may face the serious consequences unless they wake up to attend classes and take college life seriously. We sometimes heard from our daughters that once smart and popular students at high school dropped out of a good university and disappeared into California or forced to attend a community college at their hometown because they skipped too many classes. Who knows what they were doing or thinking? Maybe, they were drinking and playing too much. They may have been on drugs. They could be rebelling against parents’ expectation or celebrating their freedom away from home.

People say that it is easier to get into an American college but much harder to graduate; therefore, it is a major accomplishment to receive a degree. According to a research, the total number of college graduates in the U.S. rose to 40,621,000 in 2003, an increase of 40% in the decade between 1993 and 2003; however, it is sad to witness that there are still students who simply cannot put their acts together to follow through with their dreams. My husband and I watched our three daughters experience the rigorous programs of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. The oldest started with pre-med program yet changed to business after a year and a half. She needed to attend summer classes near her home in order to recover the lost time and earn a business degree in four years. She now works in the Treasury Department of a large corporation. The middle daughter stuck with education from the beginning to the end and she is now a special education teacher in a high school. The youngest started in psychology program but changed her mind to business later. She also received a business degree but she kept on to graduate school in Michigan and earned a Master of Science. She now works at a large accounting firm. We are proud of each daughter with each accomplishment, though there were ups and downs, twists and turns, laughter and tears during the twelve years of their college lives.

In Japan, it is normally parents’ responsibility to pay for college. Scholarships are hard to obtain and student loan is uncommon, at least when I was there. Students often work part time in order to help pay for extra spending money. The popular job among Japanese college students is tutoring, especially during the school year. On the other hand, it is common for American students to seek financial aid such as scholarships and student loans. Receiving a college degree is one of the most important investments in life but with the increasing costs of tuition, it is becoming more and more difficult for average household to figure out how to finance college education. Students often work while they are attending college classes, which is not easy to handle simultaneously with the demanding load of the study schedule. As for us, my parents financed college education for all six children with no second thoughts. My husband and I reciprocated the same philosophy for our three daughters, except for the graduate school. We told the youngest that graduate school was her responsibility; therefore, she must seek a student loan. We sensed she was unhappy with her new financial burden that she had to make payments for the next ten years. However, we needed to draw a line somewhere; otherwise, we will be paying for their schooling until we are 70 years old. I heard a financial adviser say that parents should save college fund for their retirement and make kids take student loans because there is no such a thing as a retirement loan. It makes sense but we did not follow that advice. One thing my husband and I did correctly and successfully was that we expected nothing but high standard of their lives and kept on sending a positive message about higher education ever since they were young. It was funny when our daughters told us that NOT attending or NOT completing college was NOT an option in our family.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day is a holiday celebrated on February 14 around the world. On this day, lovers express their feelings to each other by sending cards or presenting flowers or confectionery. It is believed that this day originated from Saint Valentine, who was a Roman and was martyred on February 14, 269 A. D. for refusing to give up Christianity. He left his friend, the jailer’s daughter, a farewell note, which was signed “From Your Valentine.” Gradually, February 14 became the day of exchanging love messages such as poems and small gifts such as flowers and chocolate.

Japanese Valentine’s Day
Japanese people are experts at importing foreign cultures and adapting them into something unique to their own. Valentine’s Day is no exception. In Japan, Valentine’s Day means that women give men chocolate. This is a day of great opportunity for shy Japanese women to express their feelings. However, do not get overly excited just because you received chocolate from Japanese girls. Yours may be giri-choco (obligation chocolate) purchased for male friends, classmates, bosses, and colleagues with no romantic feeling of attachment. Girls pass on giri-choco to all men close to them for friendship or gratitude. The concept of obligation is infiltrated into every aspect of their daily etiquette in Japan. They do not like to owe favors to anyone; therefore, they feel obligated to return something back if someone does them a favor. In the Japanese society, cards do not do enough justice so that sending Valentine’s cards is not common, just as sending a sympathy card without condolence money is not sincere enough. It is not the thought that counts, but it is the money or item that counts more in Japan.

Some years ago, I was showing my class a videotaped Japanese show called “Japan Prime Time.” There was an advertisement for Valentine’s Day in it. A cute girl about 7 or 8 years old is buying chocolate for her male friends by announcing loud, “This is for Satoshi.” “This is for Akira.” “This is for Nobutaka. . .” Then, a chubby dull-looking boy comes up behind her and reminds her of his existence. Every time she calls someone else’s name, he says, “My name is Yoshihiko.” This goes on for a while but his name does not seem to be on her list. The poor boy finally looks down and walks away, feeling rejected. My students and I all laughed about this ad, but this custom is actually cruel. The truth is that the men/boys who do not receive any chocolate on Valentine’s Day are certainly embarrassed. I hear some mothers buy chocolate for their own boys in order to spare them from rejection and embarrassment. This advertisement reminds me of the sad side of Homecoming and Prom fiasco in American high schools. If you are popular and are nominated to be a king/queen, or if you are asked to go to these parties, the life is heavenly for them. However, have you ever thought of the kids who do not get to participate in these festivities because they are unpopular and not chosen? The scar derived from unpopularity or rejection may stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The second kind of chocolate is honmei-choco (truelove chocolate). It can be store bought or home made. Before the Valentine’s Day, department stores dedicate a whole floor for a wide variety of chocolate from all over the world. People can purchase any chocolate they want. It is a sublime time for chocolate lovers. On the other hand, some women insist that it is not true love unless they make their own chocolate; therefore, they slave themselves in the kitchen to make special chocolate for their special someone. Some women may prefer to knit a sweater or a scarf. Their creativity for their loved-ones is unlimited.

For this special day, a typical woman may buy 20-30 boxes of inexpensive giri-choco to pass around the office and one expensive box of honmei-choco and another gift such as a necktie or a hand-knitted muffler or sweater for her special person. I hear some celebrities receive a truckload of chocolate delivered to their homes on this day. I wonder what they do with all the chocolate.

The story of the Japanese Valentine’s Day is not over yet. Men should not relax and feel giddy just because they received giri-choco or honmei-choco. Japanese confectionery companies took advantage of their feelings of obligation and created “White Day” for these dreaming men. In 1960s, a marshmallow manufacturing company initiated White Day celebration as a marketing tool. You can guess that the white marshmallows gave the day its name. The obligatory deal of White Day is that the men who received chocolate or gifts from women are supposed to return gifts of chocolate on March 14, exactly one month after February 14. The color of the chocolate is generally white as the name suggests. On this day, men give flowers, accessories, sexy underwear along with white chocolate. It is said that men spend more money on March 14 than women did on February 14. I am sure some men “accidentally” forget about the White Day obligation by blaming their convenient slip on their memory, but the candy and flower industries make sure to keep up with their rigorous advertising campaign until March 14 is successfully over.

I have another twist to this day. My memory may be fading but I remember Valentine’s Day slightly differently from what I have told so far. I agree that the Japanese Valentine’s Day is definitely the day for girls to express their feelings. In my high school days, we did not have names such as giri-choco or honmei-choco. A girl gave a boy white chocolate for friendship and brown chocolate for love. Then, on one Valentine’s Day, a boy handed me brown chocolate, but he did not say anything. I looked back at him and walked away with the brown chocolate in my hand. What was he thinking about? This was not a day for boys’ confession . . .

Just before I started writing about this topic, I called my sister in Japan and confirmed some of the current information on Valentine’s Day. When I asked about the colors of chocolate, she said that the color did not matter much, and most people purchased brown chocolate since it was readily available but it was harder to find white ones. Although she is six years older than I am, she did not remember the white/brown controversy when I thought it was vital during my teen-age years. Now, I am really confused. Did that boy give me the brown chocolate because he could not find the white one? Was it for friendship after all, not for puppy love?

American Valentine’s Day
American Valentine’s Day is not as complicated as the Japanese counterpart is, though it is just as commercialized. This is the day when people express their love for each other by sending or presenting Valentine’s cards, flowers, chocolate, jewelry, pink or red stuffed animals, neckties/boxer shorts with hearts all over, sexy sleepwear, etc. Many couples become engaged or married on this day because it is SO romantic. There are red hearts and winged Cupids everywhere! Restaurants are filled with couples in love, and a reservation is absolutely necessary if you want to have a romantic dinner without a 2-hour wait. The U.S. Greeting Card Association estimates that one billion valentine cards are sent worldwide each year, and this day is the second largest card-sending day behind Christmas.

American Valentine’s Day is gentler than the Japanese one is. Ever since children are in preschool or kindergarten, teachers make sure that every student is included in this festivity. Teachers send home the list of the names of classmates a couple of weeks before the Valentine’s Day. Parents purchase a box of Valentine’s cards that is inexpensive and contains 20-30 small cards from their neighborhood card shop or drug store. Depending on the children’s age, they must write each name (and a message if they are older) of all of their classmates on the cards and take them back to school. Some children may tape a small piece of chocolate or candy on each card. Teachers keep reminding the students of the Valentine’s cards because they do not want someone to forget about this important day. Surprisingly, every student seems to remember to bring back the cards for Valentine’s Day, though they often forget about permission slips and money for field trips. Another preparatory activity for this day is to make a container to hold 20-30 cards from all the classmates. Some teachers may request students to bring a shoebox or a brown lunch bag, and others may create their own out of construction paper and crayons. At the end of the day of Valentine’s Day, there is usually a big party with games, cookies, cupcakes, chocolate, and drinks with Room Moms in the classroom. The best part of the whole day is everybody lines up in an orderly manner and gives each other Valentine’s cards. It does not matter whether the child is popular or unpopular, cute or ugly, thin or chubby, rich or poor. Every kid receives Valentine’s cards from the whole class and he/she takes a bagful of cards home as if it is his/her treasure. I believe that this custom is universal all over the U.S. This is the way the Valentine’s Day is celebrated preschool through the end of elementary school.

At our house, Valentine’s Day has been my husband’s service day for the girls. He has been the only male in our household for a long time. Poor guy! He brought home flowers for me and flowers for our three daughters as long as I can remember. Now all of our daughters have grown up and left our home for Chicago. Thank goodness, our favorite son-in-law seems to have taken my husband’s role. Our oldest daughter is married and has almost 4-year-old identical twin girls. Our two younger daughters visit her family frequently. On Valentine’s Day of 2008, my husband took me out to a restaurant for a romantic dinner. I gave a music card to my husband and two younger daughters. We gave our twin granddaughters stuffed animals and cards. My son-in-law gave his wife an orchid and a gift certificate for a facial at her salon. He bought his twin daughters a bunch of tulips each. He also gave our two younger daughters a make-up set each. When I found out about the gifts, I thanked him. He nodded and gave a knowing smile back to me. He seems to understand that girls rule in our family. He is a nice guy and he is fitting in wonderfully.
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