Kumon: Not Just For Children, Daily Yomiuri
Ikuko Kitagawa Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
At a study center of Kumon Educational Japan Co. in Ichigaya, Tokyo, student Brent Rogers writes down kanji and reads out a passage from a worksheet in a low voice. In the same room, about 30 other students from various backgrounds work away at their own language studies, which include German and French as well as Japanese.
The scene is a typical one at the Kumon center, where classes feature a mix of students studying different subjects at different levels and at their own pace. Among the students are non-Japanese including businessmen, housewives and children, as well as Japanese people including seniors and primary, middle and high school students. They work on their own worksheets in this “melting pot” environment.
Rogers is from the United States. Whenever he feels ready to be tested on a particular task, he moves to sit in front of an instructor and reads the passage he has practiced aloud.
“OK, well done. You read smoothly. So, why don’t you read the other passage that you practiced last time?” the instructor said.
After he read that well too, the instructor gave Rogers permission to move on to study the next page.
Rogers came to Japan seven years ago and is now self-studying using worksheets prepared by the company. The studying style is known as the Kumon method–giving students small assignments tailored to their ability, and letting them acquire basic academic skills at their own pace.
“I studied at a conversation class five years ago, but it wasn’t really convenient,” Rogers says. “It was fun, but I didn’t learn anything.”
The Kumon method was established almost 50 years ago by Toru Kumon (1914-95), a high school mathematics teacher. He originally came up with the method to help his son with math. The idea–doing small drills over and over until perfect before moving on to the next level–has since been widely accepted across the nation.
“Instructors hand out worksheets and check students’ learning contexts, but what students really have to learn is all on the sheet,” Kumon Japanese Language Team leader Akira Yamashita said.
Although the Kumon method is best known as a way for children to develop mathematic and reading skills, it actually targets not only Japanese children, but also children overseas as well as adults who learn foreign languages including Japanese.
Rogers says the method is good for learning Japanese at his own pace and in depth.
“I study on the train every day. Five-minutes free time, 10-minutes free time, anytime I can study,” Rogers said, adding that he mainly wants to improve his reading and writing skills as his Japanese wife can help him with conversation.
According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, the number of non-Japanese who study Japanese in the country is steadily increasing. As of Nov. 1, 2005, 135,514 non-Japanese were studying Japanese according to agency statistics based on a survey of 2,047 schools, colleges, language academies and other teaching bodies. The figure shows a 50,000 increase from 10 years earlier.
As of April, about 2,400 people were studying Japanese using the Kumon method at 920 schools. That’s a huge increase from 20 years ago, when the number of people using Kumon to study Japanese was counted in the dozens.
The company says 90 percent of these students are working adults, with 60 percent of them being native speakers of Portuguese, mainly Brazilians. These are followed by English speakers (30 percent) and Chinese speakers (10 percent).
“After the revision of the immigration control law, many Brazilians came to Japan between 1990 and 1992,” said Tatsuo Yamauchi, of Kumon Japanese Language Team.
Many of these immigrants wanted to improve their language skills in order to increase their employability in Japanese companies. To meet this demand, Kumon reformed its marketing methods in 1996, making it easier for its schools to offer Japanese classes.
Kumon first opened a Japanese language center in December 1984, and worksheets translated into English and Chinese were soon released. A Portuguese version came later.
The worksheets focus on reading and writing, the company said.
“If you learn Japanese, you should learn high-level, high-quality Japanese,” said veteran Kumon instructor Yoshiko Saito, who checks Japanese, French and German drills at the Ichigaya center. “Learning grammar and studying every day is very important.”
Saito says strong reading and writing skills allow students to have worthwhile conversations about any subject. Kumon students are required to read over and over until their pronunciation is good and the words and phrases have become theirs.
“Using the mouth [to read aloud] and hands [to write characters] helps students to speak foreign languages without structuring sentences in their head before saying it. That’s the way to communicate naturally,” she said.
To reach that level, students are encouraged to study the worksheets every day. “I want students to discover their own abilities through self-study,” Saito said.
Kumon drills used worldwide
As Kumon study materials are the same nationwide, or even worldwide, students can keep using the worksheets even if they move to a new area or country.
“Kumon allows student to study wherever they are using the same study methods and material,” Yamauchi said.
According to the company, 4.13 million people from 45 countries and territories are learning through the Kumon method.
The method was applied overseas for the first time in 1974 when a mathematics school opened in New York for children of Japanese businessmen overseas. And the method gradually caught on with young native New Yorkers, too.
The method has also proved popular in developing countries as it does not require a classroom, just a pencil and a piece of paper, according to the company.
Kumon aims to provide equal learning opportunities for as many people as possible, but the key remains students’ willingness to study. With Kumon nobody will goad you to do the work–it’s all down to you.