Where Children Rule


A bell rings, and the students at Takihara Elementary School gallop off the grass playing field from their lunch break and head for class — armed with brooms and mops and rags. The hallways resound with squeals and shouts as the boys and girls empty the trash cans. In the bathrooms they scrub the white toilets and chase one another with wet rags and generally rearrange the dirt.

Since Japanese schools have no janitors, it is up to the students to wash the windows and scrub the floors themselves. So every day for 20 minutes, the kids get out the washrags. Even the first graders join in.

Then another bell clangs, and it is time for the ”confession session.” A string bean of a sixth-grade boy, in command of one squad of cleaners, gathers his troops to lead a discussion of the afternoon’s work.

”Did we work together well?” he asks, looking up from his checklist.

”Yes,” the others call out.

”Did we use all our time well?”


”Did we put all the tools away?”


But then the conscience of a shy 11-year-old girl named Seira intrudes on the self-congratulatory atmosphere. ”We didn’t really put the brooms away neatly,” she pipes up. The other children nod guiltily, and then all reflect somberly for a moment on this shortcoming.

This is the side of primary education in East Asia that is often missed. Elementary schools in Japan, Singapore and South Korea are renowned as the best in the world because of their brilliant academic performance. Yet, particularly in Japan, the important thing is not so much to produce smart children as to produce good children, responsible children, disciplined children. The entire program aims to teach children to work together and to cooperate in solving problems. And by and large it works. As a Tokyo resident for the last two and a half years, I don’t always find it a very attractive or interesting place to live. It’s too crowded and too boring. But I’m convinced that Japanese people today are, by and large, the nicest and most responsible people in the world. Not the friendliest, not the happiest, certainly not the funniest, but the nicest. And at least in part, that is because of the school system.

”If we had custodians, I suppose this school would gleam,” mused Mizue Hanzawa, a nurse at a school in Yokohama, looking around a teacher’s room whose patina could not be described as a gleam. ”But it’s very important to build responsibility and teach children to clean up the space they use. That’s a purpose of education. And I think that this way the kids learn to take care of things.”

The socialization process that begins in the schools profoundly shapes Japanese society, firmly embedding each person in a community and therefore creating an industrial society that lacks industrial crime rates, fostering a youth culture that tolerates a sexual revolution without an explosion in drugs or in teen-age pregnancy.

Indeed, most people who look at the Japanese education system are very enthusiastic about it — except the Japanese, and that is an important caveat. Just at a time when the United States seems to be moving toward more disciplined, back-to-basics education, symbolized by the school uniforms that President Clinton has endorsed, Japan is moving away from that model. Japanese complain that their school system is too regimented, too harmful to creativity. The Japanese press is full of stories of bullying and of students who refuse to go to school, and a Japanese critic has dismissed the excellent test scores of Japanese students as resulting from endless drills by ”trained seals.”

It is indeed pretty clear that Japan’s education system falters beginning in junior high and on through the university years. The secondary schools are often unhappy pressure cookers where kids memorize plenty of facts but never really learn how to think. (On the other hand, my mother teaches art history at an American university and says she faces many students who have learned neither basic facts nor how to think.)

Japanese elementary schools build an enormous sense of community, in part by usually keeping the same class together for two years, with the same students and often with the same teacher as well. And they do it by putting students in charge. Teachers are not the bosses in Japanese classrooms, at least not in the way they are in the United States. When students make mistakes, the teachers do not correct the error; they leave that to other students. The teachers do not punish students who misbehave; rather they manipulate other students to scold the culprit into feeling guilty. It is this manipulation that is a key to primary and preschool education in Japan, and the teachers are the most masterful manipulators imaginable.

Beginning in the earliest grades, children also take on responsibilities. Starting in the first grade, the students bring lunch from the school kitchen to the classroom, serving it to everyone and then cleaning up afterward. The children also rotate among themselves the job of class monitor, responsible for calling the class to order, calling the roll and discussing any class matters. The idea is that this teaches leadership — and perhaps just as important, followship, for it inevitably creates some empathy for the plight of a person trying to calm an excited class.

In the sixth-grade class at Aso Elementary School in the town of Omiya, for example, a boy and a girl are struggling to control the class. Isato Takeuchi, the teacher, has his desk at the back of the classroom, and he watches as the two students call the roll and run through a list of daily questions: ”Was anybody late to school today? Does anybody have a runny nose? Did everybody bring a handkerchief?” Only when all the preliminaries are over does Takeuchi come forward, and at the direction of the monitors, he and the students bow to each other and say, ”Good morning!”

The emphasis on teaching responsibility sometimes shocks Americans. Nursery schools and kindergartens often have sharp scissors and even razor-blade knives lying around. And the students are given a range of tasks, like setting goals that are plastered around the school. ”We let the kids set the goals themselves, although the teachers may help with suggestions,” said Tamotsu Wakimoto, principal of Aso Elementary. ”Every two weeks we have a school meeting and discuss goals and pick one and then have a confession session about things that haven’t gone well. For example, recently the water taps had been left dripping a lot, and so the kids decided to set a goal of closing the

taps tightly whenever they used the faucets.”

Within each class, students are assigned other small jobs. The students in the Play Group, for example, decide what games to play and who will be on each team, and the Study Group leads the class when the teacher is absent. Yes, there are no substitute teachers in Japan; the students look after themselves.

”If a teacher is away, then the children work on handouts and homework,” said Wakimoto. ”With the first and second graders, we would be a bit concerned, so we’d have a teacher look in on them. But with the older kids, they study quietly.”

Of course, he added, ”if a teacher is gone for a month or more, we would want to get a substitute.”

The students are given responsibility not just in extracurricular areas but in lessons as well. When a teacher asks a question, hands shoot up, and the teacher calls on a student. If the student makes a mistake, another pupil will bellow out, ”Chigau!” (”Wrong!”), and then the teacher will invite the students to debate the issue. When the students overlook a mistake or seem headed in the wrong direction, the teacher will use questions to redirect them.

The other day Shinji Nishi posted a problem on the blackboard for his fifth-grade class at Aso Elementary: ”Each one-meter segment of a tree weighs 1.2 kilograms. So how heavy is 3.3 meters of the tree? Round the second decimal place and give your answer to one decimal place, and show how you reached the result.”

Nishi then roamed the room as small groups of about four students each worked out the answer and then copied the results on the blackboard. These small groups, called han, are the essential unit of instruction in almost every classroom in Japan. Most of the groups in Nishi’s classroom worked well, but one had a conflict. A pretty beanstalk of a little girl named Chinami-chan, the brightest and bossiest student in her han, quickly solved the problem and tried to show the others.

”I worked it out,” she said. ”Let’s go to the front.”

”Hmmm,” growled a boy across the table, clearly irritated by her bossiness. ”I’m thinking about solving it in another way. So not yet.” He had been only a step behind Chinami-chan, but now he erased all his work and tried to figure out another way of solving the problem so that he would not lose face by being slower than her.

He struggled mightily to write equations that looked as different as possible from Chinami-chan’s, and in the process he developed an excellent grasp of the problem.

Each han wrote the correct intermediate answer on the blackboard — 3.96 kilograms — but some then had trouble rounding it properly to reach the correct final answer of 4 kilograms. Moreover, each han used different equations to reach the result. Then each han explained its result, with each member of the han doing part of the explanation, and asked for questions from the class — which obliged by peppering the speakers with questions.

”Where did that 4 come from?” quizzed one boy. When another boy criticized the methods of one han, Nishi invited the boy up to the front and suggested he write down the equations that he thought were proper. The boy marched up confidently, began to write frantically and quickly got lost. ”It’s very difficult,” he said thoughtfully, slinking back to his seat.

Japanese schools have another eccentricity, which is the pious, Sunday-school-like enthusiasm of students and teachers alike for education about values. Teachers sometimes sound so saccharine that they would make Mr. Rogers look like a cynic. Classrooms are full of slogans — ”Doing Our Best in Everything” or ”Active and Cheerful, Friendly and Helpful” — and each student normally posts goals for the year.

The emphasis on slogans and goals reflects a basic difference between America and Asia in perspectives about education: in opinion polls, Asians say that academic distinction comes primarily from hard work, while Americans tend to credit innate intelligence. As a result, Japanese parents push their children (and Japanese children push themselves) because they think it will make a fundamental difference. A growing body of research suggests that children in Asia do well in school in large part because their parents set high benchmarks, which the children then absorb, while American parents are reluctant to be seen as pushing their kids too much. So Japanese parents set high standards and American parents set lower standards; in both cases, the children oblige by doing what is demanded of them.

One of the essential tools in raising children’s standards in Japan, at home and school, is hansei, which can variously mean ”reflection,” ”apology” or ”contrition.” When children do something wrong, they are supposed to express hansei, and in some schools there are regular hansei meetings. The idea is that only when students acknowledge their shortcomings can they overcome them. At Takihara Elementary, each day ends with a class meeting and a dose of hansei.

In a third-grade classroom, the two girls who are the monitors for the day announce that the farewell meeting has begun, but it is quite noisy and the teacher sits back and refuses to rescue them. ”Please be quiet,” one of the girls appeals to her classmates. The noise subsides a bit and the other monitor continues: ”Let’s check whether we met our goals today. Did we come in promptly when the bell rang?”

All the children raise their hands.

”Did we do the cleanup seriously?”

All the children raise their hands and the monitors go on through their list. The only one who seems to have missed his goals was Kazu-kun, who left a book at home. So Kazu-kun stands up and expresses hansei to the class.

”I will be very careful not to leave things at home from now on,” he says, with a hint of sheepishness.

Some of this Sunday-school earnestness is a charade, forgotten as soon as class ends, and in any case it fades into cynicism in junior high. But then this earnestness re-emerges in adulthood, and to some extent it pervades Japanese society. That is why sarcasm often does not work in Japan, evoking not laughs but puzzlement. The other day I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my younger son, Geoffrey, age 3, and I was reading him a Japanese storybook about the good guys and the monsters — except that I was joking with him and telling it from the monsters’ point of view. I had just recounted how the poor monster had been attacked on the street by two superheroes when I felt people’s eyes on me. I looked up and saw all the parents looking at me in undisguised horror.

Another way in which Japanese schools build a sense of community as well as extraordinary academic skills is simply by keeping students in class longer. Elementary-school students throughout East Asia go to school for longer hours than Americans and have much shorter vacations, so that by the end of the sixth grade the average Japanese or Chinese child has had more than an extra year of instruction compared with an American. Takihara’s summer vacation, for example, lasts only six weeks, from mid-July to the end of August, and students are given homework to complete during it.

Another strong point of Japanese schools is the caliber of teaching, which is regularly praised in international studies. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which since 1990 has been comparing student achievement among 45 countries and is one of the most comprehensive such research projects ever conducted, asked math experts to study transcripts of fourth-grade arithmetic classes in several countries and rate them. The experts said that 30 percent of Japan’s lessons were of high quality, 57 percent medium and 13 percent low quality. In the United States, none of the lessons were judged of high quality, 13 percent were medium and 87 percent were of low quality.

Of course, there are some elementary schools in the United States with the same kind of excellent teachers and commitment to moral education as in Japan, but they are often private and exclusive institutions. In contrast, Japanese elementary schools provide a remarkably uniform level of opportunity, for 99 percent of children attend public elementary schools in Japan and there is far less difference than in America between schools in rich areas and those in poor areas.

One reason for the good teaching in Japan is that the profession attracts excellent people. The respect for teachers in Japan emerges in opinion polls, where teachers are awarded higher prestige than engineers or officials in city hall. Teachers are also paid very well, earning salaries that are generally higher than those of pharmacists or engineers, and so in a typical year there are five applicants for every teaching job.

As I read about these aspects of Japanese education and visited the classrooms, I was almost universally impressed. But as I talked to friends about whether to send Gregory to a Japanese school, one thing bothered me: Americans tended to think it was a great idea; Japanese friends mostly thought I was crazy. I told them that Western scholars thought that Japan’s elementary schools were perhaps the best in the world, and they looked at me as if I were a lunatic.

Japanese parents complained that the schools were too rigid, that they discouraged creativity and independent thinking. I retorted that some scholars who have studied creativity think Japanese elementary schools do a great job in nurturing it and that in any case, Japanese schools teach far more music — one useful mode of self-expression — than American schools.

Some of the Japanese parents I talked to also said, probably correctly, that all the slogans and hansei in elementary schools become a formality, so they have little impact on the behavior of the kids themselves. The parents complain that the students may clean the classrooms but they never clean their bedrooms. They also warned that Gregory might be a likely target for bullying because he would be different from other pupils. And when Gregory was accepted to Nishimachi, an international school that stresses Japanese language and culture alongside English, they said we would be fools to say no.

In the end, the deciding factors were personal ones, very much linked to our own status as temporary American residents in Japan. After two and a half years of Japanese preschool, Gregory has become pretty much a Japanese boy, mumbling Japanese songs under his breath, shouting in Japanese as he wrestles with his brother and even speaking in Japanese during his sleep. The last straw came when we were watching a baseball game in Tokyo and he asked me, ”Daddy, do they play baseball in America?”

So we’re sending him to the international school. Yet by and large it would be difficult to find more impressive institutions than Japanese primary schools — even if their promise is not sustained in secondary and college-level education, even if Japanese parents have their own reasons to grumble, even if the outspoken bundles of energy in a third-grade classroom have often become diffident wimps by the time they graduate from high school.

What impresses me the most about the Japanese schools is not their academic merits; rather it is the same thing I find unnerving about them: their earnestness. Some other schools around the world perhaps can match Japanese elementary schools academically, and some may have the same sense of community among the students. But it would be difficult to find a school with as much soul as the one in Yokohama where someone spray-painted some graffiti on a wall near the school. This was a big embarrassment, because graffiti is rare in Japan, and it was presumed that a student was responsible. I suppose an American school would have either ignored the graffiti or sent a custodian to deal with it, but in Yokohama the teachers tried a different approach that speaks volumes about the goals of Japanese primary education.

”First, we tried to find who had done it, but we never found out,” said Kenichi Nakamura, who was the principal of the school. ”So rather than continuing the investigation indefinitely, we thought we would have the teachers clean the wall, and maybe the students would learn something as well. So we teachers chose a time when the kids would be going home and would pass by the wall and see us, and we all went out and scrubbed the paint off. It was hard work, but together with a bunch of students who joined us, we eventually got the paint off. And I think that whoever painted the graffiti felt hansei, because there was no more graffiti after that.”

Published: August 17, 1997

Nicholas D. Kristof is chief of the Tokyo bureau of The New York Times. New York Times Magazine

Chap. 4 of Gail R. Benjamin’s “Japanese lessons: A year in the life of an American anthropologist and her children” focuses on how the han group works and affects Japanese thinking regarding competitiveness and cooperation.