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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 01, 2010

One man, his son, and the J school system

Getting away from universities for a moment, I thought that readers might like to hear a few impressions of the Japanese public school system based on my own experiences, or rather, those of my son, who is now 14 and a third year junior high school student. He is a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen although he looks more Western than Japanese. He was born, and has lived his entire life, in Japan- save for a few holidays abroad.

Obviously the experiences of one school, one parent and one child cannot be generalized so take it for what it's worth. Also, as he has not started high school yet I have nothing to say about the educational meme at that level.

Allow me to do this 'interview' style- it's always much easier to organize my writing that way.

Q. Let's cut to the quick. Has your son ever been bullied because he doesn't look Japanese?

Mike: No. Not once. Even in minor schoolyard skirmishes no one has ever played the 'race card'. Discrimination of this sort is strongly, strongly discouraged at this school- and all others that I am aware of. In fact, when I've asked him about any such cases he has reacted as if the concept was foreign and confusing. All the kids have known him for several years and while they might have noticed his slightly different physical features when they first met him (when he was asked about it, he said "My dad's from Canada"- end of inquiry), nobody at school seems to notice or care anymore.

Q. Is he treated differently in any way at all?

Mike: Well, he speaks English well so kids ask him for help in that subject- and the guys want to know English swear words etc. He's quite happy to be regarded as 'good at' or knowledgeable in this regard. He's also seen as a bit of an internationalist as he has travelled abroad more than others.

Q. Has there been a bullying problem at his schools in general?

Mike: Not at all. There have been a few minor schoolyard scraps and a small handful of classroom outbursts but these are rare enough to have been big news on the school grounds, not run-of-the-mill occurrences.Compared to where I went to JHS (Whalley, B.C.- one of least desirable areas for young teens in Canada I'd have to think) my son's school is heaven. In my old JH school, brutal fights were a near-daily occurence (even teachers were attacked) and there were drugs, alcohol, sexual assaults- you know the situation. The idea of any of these infiltrating my son's school is just preposterous.

Q. How about any experiences of odd treatment by the teachers?

Mike: Yes, he's been on the receiving end of a few odd T-initiated experiences (although these are dwarfed by normal treatment).

Once, in elementary school, his teacher was setting up the lunch distribution which, that day, included pineapples. Suddenly she asked, "Does anyone know where pineapples come from?". One kid ventured, "Hawaii". "Right, and which country is Hawaii in?" she continued. "America," came the answer. Then she asked, "And who in our class also comes from America?". The kids were confused. They looked around. My son was confused and looked around. Then the teacher said my son's name. The kids all went "Huh?" because they think of him as Japanese and know that his Dad is Canadian. My son found this all rather amusing- not at all hurtful and thought his teacher to be a bit naive (and rightly so). Not long after it was revealed that this teacher was suffering widespread emotional problems so....who knows?

Another time, in junior high, when the social studies teacher was teaching U.S. geography he suddenly asked my son to sing the U.S. national anthem, which he doesn't know from Schubert's Seventh. The teacher thereafter asked him to name the U.S. states which again, is not something he has any special knowledge of. Later, as the class ended, the teacher asked him personally (and not in a nasty way) if he was going back to the U.S. sometime. This did piss off my son a little bit- as it should have. He clarified who he was to the teacher and, fortuitously, some of his buddies backed him up: "He was born in Japan, sensei! He's never been to America. How can he 'go back' there?".

This teacher was transferred around that time although I don't know why. I also heard though that my son was being a bit of a goof in that class and his behaviour may have triggered (but not justify) the odd requests from the teacher.

Q. Did you bring these situations up to teachers or other school authorities?

Mike: His mother did- in a polite way at sankanbi (visitation days). The teachers clearly understood. The point was made.

Q. Since he is fluent in English has that led to problems in his English classes?

Mike: Not much. He says he has trouble with teacher's accents sometimes but in fact the writing and spelling lessons have been helpful for him, as has some of the more detailed grammar practice. Some of it actually serves as good discipline for his English too- in which his attitude is almost too free and easy.

But here's one example of a recurring problem found on tests and worksheets:
My son will give answers that are discursively correct and represent the natural use of communicative language but do not conform to the official answer. The most salient example of this was a test wherein the students were asked to match characters from a story with certain items, utilizing the scheme "Which X is Y's?". My son duly matched a blue jacket with the character Jack and to the question, "Which jacket is Jack's?" answered, "The blue one". Which is wrong, you realize, because the 'correct' answer was, "The blue one is".
The criteria of treating a verb as necessary in this type of construction is obviously artificial and redundant. He finds this frustrating (as do I) but now plays along.

Q. What about the good old 'history textbook' issue, specifically Japanese WW2 history?

Mike: I've seen and read parts of the JHS history books, at least the 'relevant' parts. They are (IMO) well-balanced, accurate, and thorough enough for a JHS history book. The negative actions of Japan during WW2 and its current legacy vis-a-vis East Asia is made clear. Nanjing and other atrocities are dealt with without mitigation.

(Tangential rant warning: Most people who talk about the so-called 'whitewashing' problems in Japan's history textbooks, quite frankly, have no idea what they are talking about- which includes most of the Western press, who seem happy to regurgitate popular, unfounded prejudices as fact. There are, in fact, several approved JHS history textbooks and all have been required to deal with the WW2 issues in a manner that makes Japan's responsibilities clear. The most controversial of these books, chosen only by a tiny minority of Japanese junior high schools, had to make adjustments in order to pass scrutiny. You can find accurate English translations of these online.

I wish every country's history books were as well-balanced about their wrongdoings as Japan's are. Fringe, in-denial weirdos here are just that, a fringe, the same types that you can find anywhere. It is not at all normative in Japan.

The other thing to remember is that history is an academic subject- with a particular focus on cause and effect and the flow of ideologies and custom. It is not supposed to be a mere compendium of 'what happened' for the purpose of some 'hansei' (guilt reflection) upon one's wrongdoings or a prosecutor's interrogation intended to force one to admit guilt by national association. Rant ends)

Q. What's the hardest part of being an NJ parent with a child at a J school?

Mike: I can't help him with kanji- which is the basis of pretty much every subject, save English. Even in Math (which I'm not good at anyway) the goal or point of the problem is written out in Kanji. I suppose the other thing is the huge amount of notices and requests you get everyday. There's always something needed for some event and the details are (IMO) overly thorough. J parents may expect this but NJ's are likely to think, "OK, enough's enough".

There are some useless school rules and regulations too. These often seem like authorized bullying to me and have the negative effect of causing students to confuse rule-following with morality. As one example- my son's school tie was brought from the official school uniform supplier shop (expensive!) but was apparently cut from the last bit of cloth. This meant that near the bottom of the tie the design ended and the pattern from the next cut began, leading to a sort of linear discontinuity in the design. Upon school inspection he was scolded and told to get a 'proper' tie. We told the teacher responsible in no uncertain terms that this tie had been purchased at the school-designated shop and that we had paid (too much) for it. The teacher backed down immediately and apologized.

Q. What do you think are the strong points of Japanese public schools, at least based on you and your son's experience?

Mike: Every teacher has been hard-working and in 99.5% of all situations- extremely professional. I've seen excellent classroom management and teaching technique/methodology. My expectation that it would be more redolent of a Victorian era boarding school, with rote memorization, in-your-face authority, and with no emphasis upon creativity or autonomy has been undermined. Although schools naturally vary, I see this common belief among some NJs as a prejudice held by people who believe, offhand, that that's just what 'the Japanese are like'.

The teachers seem extremely concerned about the welfare of the students. And communication channels between teachers and parents, what with home visits, the aforementioned sankanbi, and in-depth notices, and PTA ongoings, is also excellent.

Most of the teaching I've seen or heard about has been learning centered, not teacher-centered, nor learner-centered- and the form/content of homework has almost always been helpful and pedagogically relevant, not just busy work or rote memorization. Many of the classroom methods I've seen practiced have been clever and innovative (although that should not imply off-the-wall avant-gardism). Math, in particular, has been noted worldwide for the interactive and innovative ways in which it is usually taught in Japan.

In fact, my biggest teacher worries have been regarding the native-English teachers- ALTs, JETs or otherwise. While some are indeed very good and seem to know about language acquisition, methodology, classroom management etc. either by instinct or by training, some really know very little in terms of how to teach languages, manage a classroom, or develop a curriculum. I feel unsure about entrusting my childrens' education to such people.

Q. What don't you like about the system?

Mike: For one thing there are too many days given over to preparing various special events, ceremonies, sports and culture days etc. The planning is almost too detailed and meticulous. In most of these situations, students spend a lot of time following orders and sitting around- getting 'form' right. It may be a show for the parents but I find it overbearing and a matter of wasting time- the 'show' backfires.

Of course, this may be said to have some cultural relevance but what justification is culture other than saying: "Well, the people here before us did it so we have to as well"? Although the undo-kais (sports days) are incredibly well-planned and run they can also be terribly annoying given the amount of time students (and parents) have to prepare, sit through meaningless speeches, partake in militaristic pomp and ceremony (usually while crouched in the hot sun), and spend very little time doing (or enjoying) the actual sports.

I think the teaching could also move more from the receptive to the productive mode- more task-based, demanding active thinking and creating from the students, a greater focus on cognitive engagement rather than just getting through the prescribed content, although those are far from being Japan-specific problems.

I'm interested in hearing how my experiences and feelings correspond with those of parents and/or JHS/elementary school teachers reading this blog.

« Blowing your top and hitting the ceiling- some thoughts on classroom anger management | Main | Riffing on 1) Extreme J student nerves 2) So-called "thinking outside the box", and 3) Self-introductions- Bah! »


Another good read Mike! My boy still has a few years before he enters J-elem. school but it's encouraging to read your thoughts.

Mike I always enjoy your columns and they always get me to think.

I have two sons in junior high school and I recently wrote about that, and my impressions
of teaching at an elite, private junior high school in Japan.

It almost seems as if we are talking about the education systems of two different countries.

Your impression on junior
high school here is totally
divergent from mine.

I am very positive about
kindergarten and elementary school here, as I outlined
in one of my articles, but
I have to disagree with you
on junior high. I feel there is a lot of rote memorization as there is so
much pressure for the junior high students to do
well on the tests.

It is interesting to read your take on things though,
as always, --and helps give me a broader perspective,being a fellow
Canuck and father.

Keep up the good work!


Thanks for the comments Conrad and Kevin, and sorry again about typos in the initial version. I especially note the irony of talking about some dubious ALTs while writing "have ben" (sic) myself.

My experience of parenting a son now in his last year of Japanese public JHS pretty much reflects yours (no bullying, dedicated if sometimes culturally clueless teachers, fine and fair teaching of history, etc.), however, I must agree with Kevin Burns regarding the rote memorization and testing issue. Although a few teachers try to be creative, the testing demands appear to put severe limits on innovative teaching. My instinct says that this doesn't necessarily have to be true but The System here does seem to present huge hurdles in this respect. Our school also seems to have a bit more militaristic, in-your-face authority than yours does although I haven't met a teacher (in JHS) yet who doesn't truly care about the students. As for the "English" classes, my son now understands that what he is studying in school is Eigo, not English. Although we joke about it now, I actually took him out of that class for the first two years to teach him independently since Eigo was grossly interfering with his English learning. He is now mature enough to be able to distinguish between the two and integrate the positive aspects of Eigo (spelling practice, some insight into grammar) into his more academically appropriate English which he learns at home. As for the ALT hired at our school, she is a non-native English speaker. Although there is a place for this in the globalization of English, the less I say on this subject at the moment, the better.

I thoroughly enjoyed your column on your experiences as a NJ father with the Japanese school system. My two sons have only attended Japanese schools: the older one is a junior in high school and the younger one is a first year private junior high school student. We live in a public danchi which has a high number of Chinese and working poor Japanese, so I think it may be significantly different from your experience. My older son who looks Japanese experienced bullying year in and year out from kindergarten on. He didn't really enjoy school until he enrolled in an English intensive program at a private high school. My younger son who looks more Caucasian and went to the same elementary school didn't experience any bullying at all. Go figure. I think the quality of the education at the primary school level is outstanding and the teacher training is exceptional and their dedication phenomenal.
IMO the great amount of time spent on planning and executing various activities is a culturally-driven approach which values the group approach to life. I see the same type of approach among the 80-year olds who populate the danchi in great numbers and organize themselves for monitoring the parks and litter patrol.
There's no question that there is drug use including tobacco and drinking among the local junior high school students as well as sexual activity given the number of pregnant underage girls who set up housekeeping in their own danchi apartment (whole clans live here spread out through the danchi complex). There is fighting, thieving and wannabe junior gangsters as well. I guess this is what the Japanese underbelly looks like. My kids have a wider horizon from yearly trips to the USA, so, knock on wood, they won't be one of the casualties wandering the danchi.

Thanks Mike,

We have 2 kids in kindergarten.

It was very interesting to read about your experiences,

DAve in Saitama


I like your posts. They are interesting and leave me thinking about my own perceptions of Japan.

I was a JET in Yokohama for 3 years. Your comments about the misgivings of JETs are interesting. I have known some who were more professional than the JTE's who they worked with and others who I would not trust with children. JETs really are a mixed bag.

For those readers who have similar worries about ALT's, remember that teaching experience/ certification is not part of the hiring process. I believe this to be one of the major down-falls of the JET program. It has incredible potential...

Thanks again for the insights into the Japanese education system.

My beautiful boy has just turned 4 so all this is a way off but it is great information & reassuring for me. Your articles are always a good read & I think a lot of people appreciate them.

Thank you

Mike Russell


As others noted this was interesting and encouraging (my sons are 6 and 4 years old). OK, one question about--what else?--politics. I don't have the text in front of me, but I once read a translation of a supposedly biased Japanese text (can't recall if JHS or HS) and it contained many statements that would make me uncomfortable, like, "The ancestors of we Japanese, who have been living on this island for countless generations..." In and of itself nothing so terrible admittedly, but seemed to be part of the pattern of instilling pride in Japanese-ness (and of course completely off the mark for many of our kids). Getting kids to feel national pride doesn't seem to be the point of History classes either. Is your perception of statements like I noted different from mine, or did you not encounter anything like that?


Thanks for comments all.

Hi John.

I haven't come across that type of nationalism directly myself in any form during my son's schooling but I would not be surprised if it had appeared somewhere in his education.

In the past, Monkasho has issued suggestions for teachers to 'encourage' a sense of national pride beleving that the Japanese self-view in most education is 'masochistic' (this last term is used by nationalist factions trying to influence Monkasho- Monkasho didn't use this exact term).

As with most Monkasho guidelines, if and how teachers carry this out is completely up to them, and it is not an explicit part of the textbook requirements, although it could well appear in some nonetheless.

Like you, I feel uncomfortable with nationalism of any sort, and in fact have posted about it on this blog previously.


Your column is always a good read, but I've been out of teaching (and away from running ELT News!) for a few years now so I don't usually comment. With three young kids (8, 5 & 3) of my own, I read this post with particular interest.

One reason we moved from Tokyo to Nagoya was to enroll our eldest in the Nagoya International School (far cheaper than the Tokyo options). There were several motivations behind that decision, one of which was our daughter's reaction to her "half-ness." Though she never experienced bullying, she did experience being treated differently and was - already at the age of 3 - withdrawing into herself. We could see how differently she behaved around other "half" children, and once she was in the international preschool environment, she blossomed.

Another reason for enrolling her in NIS was that my (Japanese) wife is strongly biased against the local education system, based on personal experience. I myself taught for many years at a well regarded private JHS/SHS in Tokyo and saw many inadequacies, many aspects of the curriculum that were simply behind the times, and a general failure to address the increasing internationalization of Japan. While it was, for the most part, a pleasant place to work, I couldn't see it as a place that would bring out the best in my children.

Of course with three children, the financial implications of enrolling them at an international school become very significant and I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed. The recent government decision to provide financial support at the high school level is a start (it applies also to NIS) but I hope it will be expanded to all age levels to provide more, and more affordable, choices to the growing ranks of multi-cultural and multi-lingual families in Japan.

This summer I encountered an example of the school overstepping its bounds (in my view of course). During summer vacation, my son wanted to play outside when his mother told him he couldn't. Why? The school has a rule that all children must stay inside until 10am to do their homework--for the entire summer! I quickly squashed that and sent the lad outside to play. As I said to my wife, I don't go into the school and make rules, where do they get off making our home rules?

John Spiri

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