Why enrol your child in a local Japanese school?

The article below was originally written for and published in the October issue of the Bilingualism Newsletter

By Aileen Kawagoe

Something’s Gotta Give: Juggling Public School, Language Immersion, and a Home Education

Often when bicultural parents mention that their children attend public schools in Japan, I sense there is a feeling of angst, inferiority or even insecurity about their decision. Especially now, when we hear of the many benefits of homeschooling, those of us who send our kids to school might wonder if WE are doing the right thing. Are we missing out on the giving our kids the quality education they deserve? Should we be trying to develop a thriving learning environment? And what about falling standards? Are our kids keeping up in public schools? Also, should we be protecting them from poor peer social values and bullying? The list of worries is so long that we might wonder why we even send our children to school at all!

Just as some of us might want to homeschool our kids for all the right reasons,・we also want to be sending our kids to public school for the right reasons and knowing we have not made an inferior decision. For us as a bicultural family, two particularly important considerations stand out for keeping our kids in Japanese schools:
– cultural assimilation (or “Achieving cultural balance”as I call it) and;
– Japanese language acquisition. (In addition, there is a third shoganai reason — international schools are prohibitively expensive and out of our family’s reach.)

In general, cultural norms are most unconsciously taught by living and functioning daily among the community. In old Japan, the saying “it takes a village” to raise a child was truly fitting of its rice-growing and agricultural society – the Japanese community, school teachers and peers were all part of the cultural teaching machinery in the past. But in today’s urban Japan, contact with that larger community has shrunk leaving the school institution alone with that educational role.

Authors Kaori Okano and Motonori Tsuchiya, authors of Education in Contemporary Japan, have written that “schools have socialized and acculturated children so they can effectively function in the adult society. Schools are said to have instilled appropriate social values, and helped in developing appropriate identities in children through overt lesson content and daily school routines. The daily routines of Japanese schools include small-group activities, delegation of adult responsibilities to students, and informal interaction among students and teachers, all of which encourage a certain set of behaviors and orientations (e.g. cooperation, empathy, deferred gratification, perseverance).

We could debate endlessly whether those inculcated behaviors are desirable or not, but the reality is, in the unique society that is Japan, the cultural and behavioral norms that are uniquely Japanese cannot be acquired by a child who is sent to an international school or who is being homeschooled, particularly by a foreign parent. While homeschooling by Japanese parents may present a viable option, homeschooling by foreign parents in Japan is likely to result in the child missing out on a whole gamut of Japanese social skills.

Achieving cultural balance is one of the key aims of our family as biculturals. Cultural balance is defined as that almost unconscious knowledge of how things are and work in a particular community. I can’t put it any better than David Pollock does in his book Third Culture Kids. Pollock writes:

“When we are in cultural balance, we are like a concert pianist who, after practicing for years to master the basics, now no longer thinks about how to find the right piano keys or when to pedal or how to do scales or trills. Those functions have become almost automatic responses to notations in the score of music, and this freedom allows the pianist to use these basic skills to create or to express richer, fuller music.

Being in cultural balance gives us that same kind of freedom. Once we have stayed in a culture long enough to internalize its behaviors and the assumptions behind them, we have an almost intuitive sense of what is right, humorous, appropriate, or offensive in any particular situation. Instead of spending excessive time worrying if we are dressed appropriately for a business appointment, we can concentrate on coming up with a business plan. Being in the know gives us a sense of stability, deep security, and belonging. We may not understand why cultural rules work as they do, but we know how our culture works.

Conversely, when we are having to learn and relearn the basic rules by which the world around us is operating, our energies are spent in surviving rather than thriving. Being out of cultural balance leaves us struggling to understand what is happening rather than fully participating in the event.

Over the years, I have watched my own two children (now a public school third grader and a yochien-student) do the “cultural balancing” act. Between the two, they have lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, and gone through no less than five yochiens, one international school and kindergarten, and are come home to start life in a local public school and yochien. Besides having learnt to speak different languages, they have had to learn and re-learn the different social rules, committing many faux-pas along the way. They sometimes learnt that what was praised in one culture was unacceptable in another, and vice versa. My older child has also suffered, survived and triumphed over bullying incidents since entering public school here. Language immersion has been a vital key to finding cultural balance. The elder child is biliterate and bilingual (English-Japanese) while the younger, bilingual. They are also making progress with a third language (Chinese). Learning the subtle nuances as well as the right usage and applications of words in the differing languages has provided for a quicker adjustment in any environment. In addition to day school, the kids are taught at home to keep up their English proficiency.

Much as it would be ideal to have my kids learn in an environment that is more conducive to learning (as opposed to rote-learning in local public schools) and open to diversity (such as found in international schools), I think it necessary that they learn to adjust socially and achieve cultural balance sooner than later (though in so doing, they may temporarily suffer some discomfort and setbacks in terms of learning). The end goal is that they should eventually be able to thrive in their home country, rather than become marginalized or alienated from mainstream society in Japan. I like to think that though my kids struggle to adjust initially, that this will pay off in their adult years when they enter the Japanese career world and when they will no longer have to worry about making social faux-pas and snafus.

The search for cultural balance is hence inextricably tied to the second consideration of language acquisition. While most parents cite learning Japanese by immersion as the main reason for staying in the public school and a means to attaining one more academic skill, I see learning the Japanese language as instrumental to acquiring or at least understanding the Japanese mindset, and a necessary survival skill for navigating the Japanese society like a native citizen.

But what if our kids are not thriving in the local public schools here? In our case, I think it’s too soon to tell. Sometimes we might feel like cruel parents for putting our kids through a comparatively rigid educational system or for making our kids jump through hoop after hoop (a reference here to the entrance-exam system). I have told my son (who is an aspiring botanist) that, just like his trees in the real world, we aren’t able to choose where we land and sink our roots. Instead we must adapt and grow stronger despite the obstacles we face.

I can also think of far worse educational systems in other Asian cities — I think the Japanese public school system presents far fewer hours of homework than many other countries (global surveys show this) and there are still sufficient hours in a day to pack in intensive afterschool studies as well as playtime. Of course, something’s gotta give. For us it had been not being able to let our son pick up a second music instrument (piano). For others it may be having to be content with soccer clubs that don’t require as much commitment as the school team.

Of course, our family’s considerations may be different from that of some other bicultural families. My kids do not have the option of living in another country as they do not have dual nationality. They have Japanese passports only. My son wants an academic career (to be a botanist or chemist), which means he must attempt the traditional route to enter one of higher-ranking universities geared towards the sciences. We may explore other educational options for our daughter based on her differing interests.

Personal experiences have also influenced my own conclusions, of course. I have found, for instance, that while many Asian children have been able to study successfully in universities throughout the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, the reverse situation is not true. Children who have spent most of their lives in the liberal education environment of western societies (which includes international schools in Japan) seem to find it much harder entering or re-entering the Japanese higher education system, particularly when wishing to enter academic or professional courses.

Again, it’s not just about acquiring the Japanese language fluency. It would require phenomenal adjustment on the part of the student to the educational philosophies, methods, and particularly to the vastly different cultural norms and values of the student and teaching body. It would be an arduous process even for the most dedicated and brainy student, I think, to be transplanted into the Japanese educational system at a late stage. Someone coming from a more liberal environment would find it much harder to fit into the more-socially-conforming Asian society (hence non-Japanese endless discussing Japanese traits and behaviors), than it is for Asians to live in the west. But exposure in local schools would facilitate a child’s assimilation or acculturation in Japanese society by having the child learning the local cultural norms naturally.

I remember my friend who was the daughter of a former ambassador to the U.K. and France and who had studied mostly at international schools abroad until she was brought home to school around 10 years of age or so. She told me that her father had said that if she did not come home to the local schools before the end of elementary years, she would never fit into the local system or back into her home country (Singapore). She was quadrilingual and went on to graduate from a British university and to qualify as a barrister in London.

In a conformist-consensual society such as Japan’s, the key to assimilation, I believe, is to know how to be more Japanese than the Japanese. Even Asians living in the west have usually assimilated or gained acceptance by being more English than the English (I’m thinking, for instance, of Ishiguro Kazuo, who first won critical acclaim by writing brilliantly about the great English institution of the butler in Remains of the Day.

On the other hand, learning western liberal worldviews (as non-Japanese parents so often desire that their children acquire) can be acquired far more easily by the parents’ transmission of values and by intensive afterschooling studies with an appropriate western liberal educational curriculum which includes reading a wide variety of English literature.

In short, I believe that biculturals are NOT giving our kids second-best. We are helping our kids to achieve cultural balance, to make sense of the society they live in. And we do what we do to give them the best future by sending them to public school, too. That is why my children are now come (home) to public school in Japan, even if something’s gotta give! – Aileen Kawagoe

— originally written for and published in the October issue of the Bilingualism Newsletter

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