BY KATE KAWASE
In my wildest dreams I could never have imagined that I would marry and move to Japan, let alone have 3 sons to raise and educate in the countryside here. Although we are Christian, I thought it important that they learn the religion and culture of the country they were being brought up in. Therefore, I had no reservations about their entering the local pre-school although it is affiliated with a Buddhist temple. The philosophy of experiencing everything has pretty much stayed with me throughout the years, including the educational system here.
My first son began elementary school in April, 1986. As I couldn’t read or write hiragana, katagana or kanji, I had to trust that he could do it alone. He read to me every night from his reader, although I really couldn’t catch his mistakes! There was no way for me to help him. I had 2 younger children and a sick father-in-law so I focused my study of Japanese on speaking, rather than reading and writing. My husband (like many men here) worked late at night and on Sundays. On his day off he listened to his reading but often found mistakes. I felt helpless and frustrated. I wanted so much to be more involved in my child’s education. I fantasized that if we had stayed in the US, I could have helped him more. But the truth was that we lived in Japan. The thought of an international school crossed my mind, but it was too far away and too expensive. So it was the local public school or nothing.
In the meantime my son had made a lot of friends and was happy at the school. I reasoned that having friends was a very important part of his education. He never complained about going to school. Once I was warned by my priest to keep my eyes open for any unusual behavior that my kids might show. “There might be a problem with bullying since your kids are considered ‘half’. Always be on the lookout for it,” he said. Luckily, we really haven’t suffered with that problem.
As the years went by, I heard others talking about “Juku” or after-school study programs. My oldest son didn’t like mathematics, and I worried about it, but I didn’t want to force him to go to cram school. He liked sports and wanted to join the soccer team. I went along with it. Before we knew it, elementary school graduation was around the corner, and it was time to try our next step, “junior high”.
At this time almost all kids were attending cram schools, but I still left it up to my son to decide. In the middle of the second year HE realized that he needed help with mathematics. So for 6 months he went to a nearby cram school. We didn’t see any immediate results. The third year of “examination hell” or “juken” was beginning. My son had heard of a new cram school which was “supposed to be good”!! He enrolled. At this time my own parents had both become very ill and I was needed at home. At the conference in December, only a few months before he would take his entrance exams, I told the teacher that I would be leaving the next day. She was taken aback and expressed concern as “this time is so vital.” I answered that my parents were too! She agreed that “having to help a lot while mom is away, even at a time like this, might be an invaluable experience.” In March we learned that he had passed the public high school exam.
Three years later I got a double dose of examination hell. My oldest was studying for university exams while my second studied for high school. My second son is unlike his brother in that he loves math and science! He was getting very high marks on all his tests but bringing home lousy report cards. Now we were concerned about the “naishin” or teacher’s evaluation. We were told that he might have to be satisfied with a lower public high school. We rejected that idea and prayed he would make it into a better school because of his consistently high test results. My oldest son had his heart set on going to Nanzan, an excellent private university in the Nagoya area. Although he had definitely decided the university, he was undecided about the course. He wavered between economics and law. He did not attend cram school but, instead, stayed in his room, constantly hitting the books. Nanzan required three tests: English, History and Japanese. He was excellent at the first two, but weaker at Japanese so he focused all his attention on it. As I mentioned before, he is very fond of sports, but during this period, he almost never left his room. As I work at home, I was able to bring him coffee several times a day. He often thanked me without taking his eyes off his books. During this time it was all I could do to hide my anxieties from both my children, but most especially from my oldest, as this was MY first experience, as well as his, in the process of entering a Japanese university. Eventually, we were to find out that he had passed by checking his number though Internet. Our hearts were racing. All 5 members gathered around the computer. Then he shouted, “It’s there! My number! I passed! Mom, I passed!” We hugged such a long time, both of us crying. Two weeks later my second son passed his high school exam.
Three more years passed and again we were facing “double” examination hell. My second son was aiming for a national university. He used “Z-kai”, a correspondence course, at home, and attended “Kawai” cram school during summer and winter vacations of his third year. As he told us, his main purpose of attending cram school was to be around others who also were aiming for high level universities. Unlike his older brother who had been undecided in his course of studies, my second son was definite in his choice: physics. The period from early December til March 8 was so long. I kept a journal of my fears and hopes. One night about a week before the final results would be posted, I woke up and started crying. I thought it would never be over. Then the day arrived. It was so cold, but we took the train about 10:00. On the way he kept repeating over and over the points he had gotten on the Center Exam and how many he thought he had gotten on the university exam. When we were almost near the station, the tears welled up in my eyes, as I thought, “What can I say to him if he failed?” I thanked God I had worn my dark sunglasses that day. He asked me to wait near the station, and he would check his number on the board alone. It took forever.
Finally I saw him walking down the long hill smiling and giving me the OK sign. I wrote my diary that night with a big smile on my face. My third son wanted to go to the same high school as my second. He attended cram school on Sundays. Of my three sons, he has the most relaxed attitude toward studying, but he even he was extremely nervous the day of the entrance exam. He passed, but I feared he might have to live in his brother’s shadow. Sometimes I think if we could go back, I might recommend that he go to a different school. On the other hand, I’ve always let my kids make their own choices.
When my oldest son was in the third year of jr.high, sports clubs came to a halt at the start of summer vacation. The thought is that they MUST concentrate on their studies. But I KNEW MY SON. There was no way he could concentrate for hours upon hours without letting off steam. He had joined a once a week soccer team and every Thursday evening he played for 2 hours. I never opposed this. Then again when he was in the second year of high school he wanted to work for 4 weeks before winter vacation in order to buy a guitar. The school forbids part-time jobs. It would be a secret. I told him it would be alright, but mid-term exams were coming up soon. He promised to do well, and said he would quit if his scores were bad. Although I never pushed my kids to go to cram schools, I have always insisted that they work hard. His results were the best they had ever been! I guessed he really had wanted that guitar!! When my second son was in the first year of high
school, he asked permission to work for one week at the local post office distributing New Year’s cards. The teacher refused saying the school was college preparatory and it was forbidden. He was disappointed, but accepted it. He spent the vacation sleeping, studying and watching TV. Both my husband and I thought that working for that week would have taught him many things other than math and science, but he had accepted the teacher’s decision so we said nothing.
We’re still not finished with our children’s education here. We have a few more years to go, and one more time to challenge “examination hell”. I have often thought of what it would have been like had we stayed in the US. They certainly would have been able to apply to various universities rather than putting all their eggs in one basket and praying they passed. We have not experienced “ronin” or the extra year it takes a student to study and pass the university entrance exams. However, we know several people who had to go through this, and it’s quite nerve-racking, not to mention, expensive.
Throughout this article I have yet to mention about the teachers I have met in all my years of experience. I can honestly say that I have met some wonderful, dedicated people here. They honestly care about the kids’ education. They have given up their Sundays to be at “the school undokai”, sometimes missing their own children’s field days. I’ve had teachers who have called to say ‘thank you’ to one of my sons for helping clear away the snow on the school ground. In all the years I think it really hasn’t mattered which country’s schools my kids have gone to as long as they tried to make their own decisions and that we have continued to support them.
By Kate Kawase