The intangible curriculum of a Japanese education

This blog here follows a discussion on our Yahoo Groups forum focusing on the mediocrity and lacklustre aspects of Japanese education.

Through the discussion, observations were made by the group that Japanese students seem lacking in initiative in thinking and finding answers to questions, and their inability to proffer opinions or express themselves was puzzling. Through it all, despite admitting these general observations tend to be true,  I wished to make a case that it is not the same thing as saying that Japanese education is completely without positive aspects or that Japanese education fosters students lacking in creativity.

As such I wish to examine the positive aspects about Japanese education which are not often seen nor understood particularly by foreign observers.  I am about to make some generalized statements and at the same time, state that it may well be that the positive aspects of Japanese education I am about to note – have been diluted by excessive competitiveness and overemphasis on the afterschool academic paperchase.

I don’t think I can do the topic justice here as I have been meaning to give this topic more thought , but riding the current here I will just try to give the highlights of what I think really works in what I dubb the “intangible educational curriculum” of a Japanese education. This ghost curriculum notwithstanding its lack of a scope or sequence –  has a number of quite tangible outcomes – despite having to do with the learning of a host of Japanese mindsets and attitudes. Since we do not see these laid down on paper in the national curriculum (though hinted at sometimes particularly in moral education), foreigners with kids in the Japanese system will not be aware of the positive aspects at work in our kids at all.

The first three attitudes that are conveyed in the Japanese school system as being the keys to success are :

1) having the right mental attitude towards anything, and 2) secondly, that of diligence and hardwork and 3) perseverence.

I have heard teachers both in public school and at cramschools (juku) constantly talk to kids about the importance of “having the right mental attitude” towards any endeavour – especially during the kojinmendan talks (one-on-one teacher-meet-parent talk) or hansei (self-reflection) sessions. From the Juku and homeroom teacher’s quarters especially.

Diligence or hardwork is what most Japanese still believe is the overriding ingredient for success in life. This is imparted in schools and kids are taught to treat any task big or small with the same diligent attitude … and you will see it in the year end reports sometimes when teachers will lavish praise on how diligent the child is, even with tasks such as cleaning floors and menial tasks. The Japanese legendary penchant on diligence and dedication to perfecting even tiny details is still alive and at work in the J. educational system…and getting the job done despite hardships or obstacles involved. The hansei session will usually be a relentless examination of how anything may be improved or corrected. I have seen hansei sessions at work after a mere school outing, after a bullying incident, after each sporting meeting and each PTA major event such as the organization of a bazaar.  

The transmission of these qualities or values will be heightened if kids join an afterschool club activity – particularly in the case of martial arts and sports – from around fifth grade schooling onwards…if not earlier through private clubs.

You will hear the teachers imparting the kokorogamae “mental attitude, readiness, preparation”  – it may sound a bit old fashioned – it is the stuff of the samurai-swordmaster-student or kabuki-master-apprentice or the craftsman potter-apprentice. I have noticed it is the same whether you are dealing with the calligraphy master, the ikebana teacher or your kid’s violin/piano teacher. And yet it carries more meaning and weight than a mere pep talk.  This is because it is carried out by the teacher who always wears that mantle of authority ready to impart all to the student who has the right kokorogamae.

Years ago, I found amusing the emphasis on manners and form when I first enrolled my son at 3 years in violin class, compared to my own recollections of music lessons – but over the years, I have come to see the same emphasis on manners, form and attitude with every kind of Japanese teacher … even if this has become a little “looser” and “more informal” with the twenty-something-teachers, some of whom seem keen to dispense with the old ways and forms… I deduce there is a present unraveling of the Japanese way and mindset in youths and young adults…which the older generation have been lamenting loudly about. Older teachers in Japan often are able to command dedication on the part of the student because they act by modeling – by example – by imparting that spirit of dedication I find because they show it themselves … they will go out of their way in many ways taking on the mantle of the true master to the apprentice student.

That teacher-student relationship based on amae in Japan is almost still sacred and is said govern actions even of politicians, for example, it has been noted that Japanese prime ministers will visit their mentor-university professors first instead of their wives, to give the news upon being elected to office.   

To illustrate, some months ago, I mentioned that ds and dd had joined a badminton sports club that trained very hard and required remarkable dedication on the part of both parent and student.  The badminton head coach went out of her way – organized many more practices than the actual twice a week one she had been engaged to coach – and even after she had to move to another city due to her husband’s job transfer – every chance she had she returned to coach my children’s group.  She made the kids write in calligraphy style their goals and targets for improvement every month, would paste them up on the wall and ordered parents included to memorize them. Hansei was conducted after every meeting and every kid’s strengths and weaknesses motivated and personal action urged and efforts to improve encouraged. It was Japanese bootcamp meets motivational camp. There was constant emphasis on the need to get into the habit of doing everything right and speedily …from initial greetings, to training steps to cooling off exercises to cleanup/mopup time … there is a real drive to have students perform everything to a beat and rhythm till it is all second nature. This last thing is again what I emphasize all J. teachers seem to impart – the attitude to adopt till it becomes habit or second nature.

This is another trait of Japanese education, the display of task-orientedness – that students are always urged to practise whatever is practicable, steps or measures or techniques are required – till it is until they have “karada de Oboeru” which means “with the body one has remembered”, i.e. till it is second nature, like a bodily habit or function – it also implies that repeated practice is expected until like the master musician or acrobat, they can perform flawlessly, effortlessly. Thus dedication and this spirit rank higher talent. Music professors will often choose their protegees in arts schools based not necessarily on the most talented individual but certainly the one with the most superior attitude and dedication. According to the writer Boye Lafayette de Mente the “karada de oboeru is still visible today in the management philosophies and practices of larger Japanese companies. … Years of laboring away in on-the-job experience isstill seen as the best way for developing the human relations-oreitned managerial skills prized in Japanese companies. //The Japanese naturally believe that their particular karada de oboeru method of training is superior to all methods, and they tend to look down on people who do not have the awareness, ambition, or stamina, to accept and follow their approach.”

It is not just Japanese education that has emphasizes a strength of fortitude of mind of course, I find it present mostly in Christian educational philosophies, puritan or quaker sort or mission schools education – you know “do it with all your heart and soul and might”. All motivational factors for perfecting oneself.

Only… the Japanese way allows perhaps, the least room for deviation or personal idiosyncracy. Teachers are concerned with kids learning to put aside temporary gripes, complaints, minor discomforts and dissatisfactions and to focus on the form and way of learning or doing things – that is asked of at hand.

And that is why most foreign parents have the most cause for gripe when it rubs against self-individualism. It is the master-teacher’s tenet afterall that the student has to empty his/her mind of all the egotism and rubbish, before he/she can learn new things and insights … very Karate Kid I know … nevertheless the teacher’s expectation for the parent’s trust and respect for authority holds true and if foreign parents cannot accept the teacher’s authority to empty the kid of that “self-knowing egotism”, as well as their own in constantly questioning the teacher or the system, you have a recipe here for future conflict with the educational system and with your dealings with teachers in general. 

The idea of right attitude is also wrapped up with “shikitari” which means how things are done.

The appropriate response that is expected of every student (and parent as well) in approaching a given task is therefore cooperation and the statement “isshokenmei yarimasu” which translates to “I will do my best” but the deeper meaning is that “I will stake my life” on accomplishing whatever task is at hand. When one’s life is at stake, one can perform above what is normal for people. That samurai=sarariman mindset starts being drilled into students from grade 1 of elementary school gradually.

Shikitari is an important mindset that is rooted in the culture of Japan – that is transmitted as an important facet of J. education because it translate into the adult workplace. Boye Lafayette de Mente said of shikitari:

“Within a company in which everyone knows and abides by shikitari, it is taken for granted that everyone understands and appreciates what everyone else is doing, and that there will be little or no disagreement because compromise and cooperation are built into the system.
In a purely Japanese context, shikitari binds the company into a highly directed, highly drilled team that is formidable when it plays against other teams, including foreign companies whch are not so tightly structured or focused in their behavior.”

The non-Japanese who has not been in the Japanese education system simply has no way of fitting in you see. They are awkward at every turn, either constantly requiring clear and direct instructions or clarifications – whereas the Japanese employee would have imbibed the way of doing things by watching and observation during the training honeymoon period in the company – plus their long years of having been in the J. education system which taught them not to question but to learn by watching, observing, participating and cooperating and doing what they were told!

De Mente also says:
“Because so many of the shikitari of a company are subtle and often invisible to the outsider, foreigners who work for Japanese companies typically find themselves working blindly. They do not know what they are supposed to do, or how they are supposed to act. The result is that they tend to be in a constant state of uncertainty and frustration.”

Through a Japanese education, the Japanese individual learns very quickly to imbibe the precepts and ways of doing anything of any group / institution – in that sense, you can actually say that the Japanese are far more independent employees than the foreigners because they are fast learners – can be trained to work without constant oversight – have a strong sense of responsibility and creativity in their approach to all their assigned tasks – and that they have deep sense of social responsibility to the group/institution. The corollary of that is that the Japanese appear to be unable to think on their feet and devise quick solutions – that is without first appealing to or considering the opinions of every member of the group. Individualism-Leadership qualities admired in a western education are less likely to exist with the Japanese individual, since he or she is already thinking what would X and Y think or say in the typically layered-steps of relational thinking process that a Japanese person always has to go through.   

In this sense, I want to say that Japanese education doesn’t necessarily engender the lack of creativity in every situation. Many foreigners make the mistake of equating vocalness and having an opinion with creativity. I don’t subscribe to this view. I think that there are many kinds of creativity – the ability to problem-solve in many fields doesn’t necessarily require opinionatedness or vocalness or individualism particularly when that self-individualism smacks of self-egotism.

The inability of the Japanese education system to produce good and logical debaters and people who can speak off the cuff, I concede is a large flaw in Japanese education and it is most felt in political arena, where Japanese politicians constantly make political gaffes probably for the lack of practice of public speaking and logical debate, and when Japanese enter the global field of negotiations as well as in the world of diplomacy. On the business playing ground when the rules are Japanese and everyone understands the mental code alike, the Japanese are on safe ground however, and all their qualities and ways of doing things and acting in concert constitute a forte producing high quality outcomes, skills and performance.

I have told this anecdote before … my cousin who worked in a Canadian international school said everyone was always impressed whenever the PTA had a bazaar and called parents/mums in to work. With all other nationalities, she was so frustrated running around finding scissors, tape and stationary for people, but only the Japanese mums arrived with their “kit” with every kind of preparedness for the task – they were organized to the T – with all the right equipment!

This incident reminds me of when I bumped into my daughter’s classmate’s mum at the supermarket yesterday. We brought up the upcoming PTA meeting this Thursday, and immediately our conversation went into confirming what we needed to bring – gloves, etc. It illustrates the unique trait of the Japanese to instinctively look for THEkata” way of doing something – and to look for precedent – it probably stems historically from pre-industrial times in the close knit societies of craftsmen guilds-agricultural communities, different communities to which each individual belonged  … as de Mente notes “Japanese had a specific kata for virtually everything they did, from the mundane actions of life to the most esoteric. There were kata for the matial arts, for drinking, eating, walking, speaking and so on. These forms were precise and absolute, because they were performed daily for generations  they became an integral part of the mindset and physical behavior of the Japanese”. It is hard for the non-Japanese. individual to appreciate or conceive the Japanese cultural commitment to precise do, or way of doing things and to kata which refers to patterns of forms of behaviour…especially when we think of the Japanese as living in such modern cities and times and having adopted so many western mannerisms and ways. Being a long-term resident in my adoptive country, I have come to think of myself living in a Victorian society only it isn’t Victorian, it is Japanese. The forms essentially haven’t changed since samurai times.

It is in thus ingrained in the Japanese nature to have foresight, to be prepared for any event. In Japanese education, you see the drills everywhere, from overt earthquake and fire disaster drills to excursions and PTA meetings, there is a form to and way of doing things. Not every school does things the same way of course, but everyone is expected when joining an institution to immediately acquaint themselves with “how things are done”. Japanese efficiency and ability is equated with shikitari.

So how does creativity fit in. In a sense of course, this shikitari is very rigid, it is not creative pers se, it exacts a heavy stressful price on one’s emotional energy, effort and time to be always learning the process of doing something – but it helps the individual to streamline the task process so that the end goals are focused upon. Creativity is sought in group energy -and facilitated through streamlined efficiency of having everything work like clockwork and in place – and with each member knowing how to be a perfectly well-oiled cog in the machinery – with all the organizational matters out of the way – creativity can be unleashed in the group’s efforts. I find participating in the school bazaars very enlightening. Just as kids do in elementary school learning to work in “han” groups of five or so with assigned tasks. The PTA mothers are organized in precisely the same way. Each group (many say five is the magic number but in my experience it can be four or five or six or seven) brainstorms ideas, members argue for or against and then the voted group leader puts forward the idea to the committee member, and the committee members give their suggestions, support or veto the idea or suggest that the group put their ideas back to the drawing board. Each member then carries out everything already laid out according to plan. Any deviation or should anything come up, again in a typically Japanese fashion, the fact is communicated to members through a highly sophisticated and laid out communication channels – this is also a very important aspect that is learned with Japanese schooling. Whether this is due to the historical nature of living in a rice-growing agricultural community or whether it is due to the disaster-readiness mentality of people living in a quake-prone land, I am not sure. But since you don’t see this sophistication of regulated behaviour in other disaster-prone societies like Indonesia or China – I would put it down to the historically rank-consciousness of Japanese society as well as the highly regulated mode of  agricultural living, relating and communicating with one another in the insular regional pockets of communities that were hemmed in by mountains of Japan…whatever.  

I don’t know but from what I have seen the ability of the Japanese to work very quickly on a task and to come up with outcomes quickly and efficiently smacks of not just efficiency, but also a kind of creativity that can be seen equal to that undertaken by think-tanks or crisis-solving agencies at corporate and governmental level. And I don’t say this lightly, because I have worked in those kinds of agencies before and the way crises are solved the Japanese way is legendary – the ability to form a group at short notice – to put all else on a backburner to focus on the task at hand. When Japanese disaster aid teams go overseas to offer aid and technical help in earthquakes in China, Turkey or India or on similar missions, their efficiency and performance is nothing short of legend.

Onto a next point that is imparted in Japanese education is the concept of amae … a concept of relational dependency which Takeo Doi formulated (who was reported on July 6 news to have passed away).

As I said, teachers have their philosophy of imparting a certain “way of how things are done”. I have heard over and over again how members on this forum, myself included upon occasion, gripe about the some apparent ridiculous fashion in which something was asked to be done. But most Japanese would simply accept that it is the teacher’s right-authority-perogative to demand that things were done in a certain way – complaining can be construed as bad form and a mark of disrespect for the teacher’s authority…but you also undermine the sacred relationship between teacher-student that is built upon amae which is a combination of the teacher’s indulgence and dedication and the nurturing of the student’s needs ‘that are beyond academic needs – emotional and well-being needs) – to the student combined with the student’s dependence=respect for and obedience to the teacher. It has been said that Japanese teachers feel they have a job to do, or perhaps rather to undo. To undo all the selfish bad attitudes that students have come to school with due to the amae-indulgence of parents extended towards their children. So these days “monster parents” and selfish individualistic parents are seen as interfering with the traditional roles and jobs of teachers. Teachers feel the parent who questions the teacher relentlessly is undermining the teacher’s authority, more importantly setting a bad example for the student, in terms of attitude towards the teacher and therefore interfering with the teacher’s effectiveness in teaching the student. Overall, experts and commentators have acknowledged the high level of pastoral care in J. public elementary schools – compared to western equivalents – that education goes far beyond academics – to hygiene – manners – work ethics – emotional growth -discovering and bringing out the real and potential talents of each individual in the arts, music and other areas.

There are many other aspects of the intangible curriculum that are being transmitted but I don’t have time to deal with them here – we have talked about the tool of the “hansei” it is important part and parcel of Japanese group/organizational dealings – the group’s feelings and aggrieved individuals are often felt to have been appeased and satisfaction obtained if the individual sincerely says “hansei shimasu” I will reflect upon my behaviour (not necessarily wrongdoing). This is understood by J. but not by foreigners who demand more concrete forms of action like compensation, apology or investigation and proof. This is one of the problem areas of bullying – vs – adequate action or zero bullying tolerance policies – because teachers believe that bullies like everyone else have the possibility of “self-rehabilitation” through hansei… and hence no further action or concrete words on the part of the wrongdoer is required after a hansei session to correct their thinking and behaviour.

There are other values that are transmitted through Japanese education like giri-gisei-gaman-gambaru – though these again have been somewhat diluted in modern society -nevertheless, a Japanese who does not understand what is required of him/her in terms of the four G’s  – obligation, duty and justice  (considered the foundation of Japanese culture and samurai ethics) cannot function but on the peripheries of Japanese society and dealings. We as foreigners probably can see only superficial aspects of it at work – like during undokai Sports meets and such. But unless you are a bicultural family with inlaws to deal with and many obligations that bind you to differing extents, then all these probably pass you by. These values too are transmitted to the student in the Japanese educational system to the extent that the student participates in school activities and school life.

In conclusion, you can see the complex value system that a Japanese education is supposed to impart to your children if you have them in local system. The effects are perhaps unseen to you – but certainly felt by you, perhaps misunderstood by and often an anathema to you – but every foreign parent particularly those from bicultural families have to decide where the future of the child lies, because if you want your kid to eventually work in Japanese society in a Japanese organization, then not imbibing those values through the Japanese system may not be an option…unless you are prepared to risk your kid growing up on the peripheries of society.

I think that educational authorities might tweak more of the good aspects and improve Japanese public education, by bringing these practices to the fore more and apply them in a more overt and structured way. For example, brainstorming in the Japanese “han” way is a particularly good method that could be applied more often or modified to include the Socratic method of teaching of academic subjects on a daily basis than the just odd project task and group assignments at the moment.

On the other hand, a Japanese education can ill-prepare  your child for a more global career, given the absence of Western style individualistic leadership qualities or the ability to talk off-the-cuff and think out-of-the-box that is so expected of able personnel by Western societies. Expressing a more personal opinion here, I think it is possible to address that deficit – by supplementing a Japanese public education with a liberal education through afterschooling or homeschooling that involves a lot of one-on-one debates and discussion. There are certain top private schools in Japan as well that have introduced the International Baccalaureate system into their curriculum combining it with the National Curriculum. Since the IB method involves the enquiry method and an interdisciplinary investigative and exploratory approach to learning  – it is an interesting move that might see a new generation of Japanese students with an evolved samurai-cum-Socratic mindset altogether?


Note: I have referred to some ideas by Boye Lafayette de Mente from his book “The Japanese Samurai Code: Classic Strategies for Success” and tried to see them at their fount source in Japanese education. De Mente is a Japanologist with over 50 years of experience in Japan as a journalist, editor and consultant. I refer also to the pyschoanalyst Takeo Doi s concept of amae from his seminal work “The Anatomy of Dependence” and somewhat obliquely to the rank-hierarchy aspects described in “Japanese Society” by Nakano Chie.

– Aileen Kawagoe

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