Bilingual Education
Multiculturalism, Cross-cultural Matters & Manners
Public Schools, Education System, Government Policy
Bullying, Socialization, etc.
Educating Kids Our Way (under construction)
Brushes with Boards of Education


Welcome to the Discussion Room.

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Here we table the topics that are deemed most important or that have been most heavily discussed on our online forum since 1999.

Click on the topics below to see the gist of the discussion:

Bilingual Education

Why Raise Bilingual Kids?
For the Love of a Language
Raising Tots to be Bilingual
Teaching Japanese-English Bilingual Children to Read English at Home (external link)
Homegrown Advice and Opinions
International Schools With Bilingual Programmes (A Directory Listing) (under construction)
Language Software

Articles / Essays

Why Raise Bilingual Kids?

The cost of achieving bilingualism and biliteracy is high. So why do parents pursue after the goal of bilingualism for their kids?

There is a current craze among Japanese families to raise bilingual kids in Japan. All kinds of reasons may be cited, it is hip and cool, it helps them get into private and good schools, it will give them a headstart with the recent policy emphasis on English at an earlier age in elementary schools, better job prospects, etc, etc, etc. But bicultural families in Japan often have strong reasons to raise their kids to be bilingual communication and bonds between parent and child are strengthened when kids understand the native tongue of their parent. Achieving cultural balance is important for bicultural families — children have to fit in with their peers, be able to make friends and play at the playground and avoid being bullied at school.

Expatriate families often wish to take advantage of their cross-cultural environment. A language skill under the belt can be potentially useful for boosting college entry or for enhancing future career prospects.

For the Love of a Language

One issue over which parents in Japan agonize a lot, is whether their kids will ever be able to learn a second language. In many multicultural communities (e.g. Switzerland and Singapore), it’s usually taken for granted that you should learn to speak the language of your neighbours or at least try to understand it. It may be harder to find a reason to speak Japanese when we live in a Tokyo or Kyoto expat communities, or to speak English when we live in a homogenous Japanese rural community or a suburban jutaku-shataku neighbourhood. Where there is a will however, there is a way. The challenge then is to find networks and resources that work for us.

I haven’t read copious amounts of books on bilingualism but have adopted a somewhat a practical or pragmatic approach to language learning. If our kids need to learn something, they will. So our role has been to create the necessity for learning and then to facilitate that learning process. That street approach to learning probably stems from the fact that I grew up in a multicultural community. I had learnt to speak and write English, Mandarin, Chinese and French in school. But as I played with Malay kids I also spoke street-Malay, and I learnt how to ask for change in Chinese and to buy stuff at the grocer’s and for directions on public buses. I picked up Cantonese while living and working in Hong Kong. Japanese was garnered on the go, of course, with two kids in tow and after having lived in all-Japanese neighborhoods.

I am also more confident now about raising bilingual children, probably with a little hindsight, since my own two children are now bilingual and the oldest biliterate. When they were younger, there were periods of time when they would lean more towards a preferred language, or there may have been times when vocabulary was mixed up between the languages during the learning process. Over the years I have learnt not to fixate on their temporary linguistic imperfections. I have learnt it is more important to focus on their enjoyment of and exposure to the target languages.

Having said the above, though learning the basics of a language may turn up no sweat, the mastery of any language requires more. Mastery of any skill is going to take hard work, motivation and concentration on the part of the student. It is going to take work on the parent’s part searching for materials, books, resources, tutors or clubs.

With my two kids, I have used different resources to expose them to languages at different times. Between the two, they have been to yochiens, Japanese public schools, international schools, local schools elsewhere. They have been homeschooled and are being after schooled right now. We use videos and CD-Roms for days when mom is too ill to be hands-on or on hand. Mostly however, my kids are encouraged to read books in Japanese and English. We borrow from the local library or buy our books on the internet. I work on their English grammar and language once a week after school. I make it a point to read daily to my kids and/or have them read on their own books of all sorts. Their father does an hour of kanji lessons and reading in Japanese with the older child in the evenings. I also “farm” out my kids to a friend to be tutored in Japanese once a week, while I tutor her kids in exchange. On another day, another mother takes my kids for an hour of Chinese conversation lessons. The library has been a great resource and we have always had more books than room to sit in our home.

To encourage love for a language, we need to hunt for good language resources or tutors, avenues for language exposure and practice, but as with learning anything, motivation is the key. I remember picking up most of the languages pretty effortlessly (though I don’t speak all of the languages with equal fluency) because I had friends speak the language or was exposed to the language through travel or because I really liked the subject at school so I worked hard at it. Even where there never was a French person in sight to practice speaking with throughout my years of studying it (except for the teacher), I mastered it well enough to do translation work for my embassy. I had motivated myself through French movies, books and travel. On the other hand, I wasn’t motivated enough to study certain things (Mandarin and Math), so I really didn’t excel at those.

Learning a language is like practicing archery with a live moving target, sometimes we slip and sometimes our aim improves. But language-learning will certainly be easier when the child has a reason to love it. – ATAL in Yokohama

Raising tots to be multilingual

by Marshall R. Childs / Special to The Daily Yomiuri The Practical Linguist

“One day when I was playing in the park with my son, I noticed a very strange sight,” said Simon Downes, president of Simon BEAR school in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. “A lady in front of me who appeared to be Japanese was speaking English to her son. ‘Can you kick the ball to me?’ ‘Is that fun?’
‘Wow, what’s that?’ etc. This woman seemed to be alone, but I thought she must be married to a Westerner or something. Then I saw her husband. He was Japanese, too. So I asked her what she was doing. “The mother was Kaori Ihara and what she was doing was deliberately speaking English to her son, Kai. She has been doing that since Kai was born. Her purposes are to broaden his horizons and make English easy and natural for him, rather than let him suffer “the mental stress which kids get from studying second languages” in schools. Ihara has never lived abroad and says her English is far from perfect (“when Kai was born, I didn’t even know how to say ‘diaper’,” she said). But she and her husband decided that speaking English in their daily lives would be one of the best ways for Kai to become bilingual and, in the process, for them to improve their own English. Kai speaks English at home about two-thirds of the time, and Japanese the rest of the time and with his Japanese friends. Now Kai is almost 2 years and 9 months old. Like most toddlers learning English, he produces complicated English sentences with some mistakes. Examples are: “Mommy, I scared him because he was on the trampoline.” “The first driver was waving to us and the two driver was waving to us, but the third driver wasn’t waving to us.” “The ball is under the couch. Can you get it? I can’t reach.” Many Japanese high school graduates would be proud to speak English that well.

Grassroots movement

The Ihara family is not alone. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Japanese families are deliberately raising their children to be bilingual in English and Japanese. This is a grassroots movement (meaning that it did not emerge from any government or other formal group). Perhaps it is even a reaction against the poor results of official efforts. It is a strong movement and it is growing. Ihara is a communicator. She operates a Web site (the English for Moms & Dads website). She has an email mailing list of 300 members who exchange views and information, and she writes a monthly magazine that she sends to 800 members. She also teaches two twice-a-month classes, limited to 10 mothers per class. Ihara’s friendship with Downes led to his offering Eigo de Kosodate (Raising Children with English) classes at Simon BEAR School. In nine months, participation has grown to three weekly classes with four families per class. Whole families attend — not only mothers and young children, but also siblings, fathers, grandparents and other relatives.In general, Downes said, parents want their children to add a new language without losing the first language or any part of their cultural identity. They want to “teach the enjoyment and naturalness of English by themselves, using videos, reading picture books, and some speaking in their daily lives.” The emphasis in Simon BEAR classes is not so much on teaching English during class as it is on showing parents how they may use English with their children in a fun way during daily life. The grassroots growth of raising children with English requires a lot of communication among parents. This is taking place through the creation of “circles,” loosely organized groups for mutual information and support. Ihara’s Web site is the center of one circle. Downes estimates that there are more than 80 children’s English circles in Japan.

Multilingual children

Many Japanese parents worry that learning English too well and too early may limit their children’s mastery and understanding of Japanese language and culture. That worry is typical of members of monolingual societies contemplating bilingualism. Multilingual parents do not seem to have such qualms. Earlier this year, after writing “What parents need to know” (The Daily Yomiuri, June 6) and “Learning languages before age 6” (July 4), I heard from some parents who are raising their babies to speak several languages. I will describe two such cases. Ryusei, now 14 months old, lives in Belgium with his Japanese mother and Belgian father. At home, Ryusei’s parents speak Japanese, English and French. Ryusei’s father also speaks Italian, Dutch, and some Arabic. Ryusei hears Italian and Japanese songs, enjoys a CD of Peruvian legends in French, and watches TV programs in Japanese (Okasan to Isho on NHK-E), English and Dutch (he loves “Nijntje”–Miffy–in Dutch). He also hears a lot of classical music and jazz. At first, Ryusei’s parents intended to adopt the rule of “one parent, one language” (a popular notion although it is unsupported by research). But, according to Ryusei’s father, they then realized that “since we naturally talked to each other in either Japanese, English or French, we ought not to try to stick to ‘one parent, one language.’ Not being natural would be totally inappropriate!” Ryusei’s mother uses a lot of gestures when talking with him, and that helps him understand. She also reads a lot of books to him. Ryusei began to talk when he was 10 months old. He used some single words, such as “Maman” (French for Mama) and “iya” (Japanese for no). He used to say “nemu” (sleepy) but now, at 14 months, he has switched to “nenne” (go to sleep). Also, his father reports, Ryusei speaks “incredibly long sentences in his own language, explaining what he has seen or done and making a lot of gestures. “Linguists have commented on this style of learning. In addition to piecemeal learning of individual words, many children practice the sound and melody of whole long utterances, even before they are able to populate the utterances with comprehensible words and expressions. Presumably, Ryusei is practicing several kinds of what we might call melodic lines for each of the languages he is hearing. It is this melodic sensitivity that will help him frame an utterance consistently within the spirit and syntax of a language. Another multilingual child is Alexis, whose father is Japanese and mother is “Kiwi Chinese,” a New Zealander of Chinese parentage. Alexis was born in New Zealand and moved to Japan when he was 11 months old. His father speaks Japanese and English to him, and his mother speaks English, Chinese and Japanese. Now almost 3 years old, Alexis speaks English, Chinese and Japanese. He knows the English and hiragana alphabets, 30 kanji, and numbers in the three languages. But that is not all. Around age 1, Alexis spent three months in Malaysia with his grandmother, who spoke the Foochow dialect of Chinese. He quickly learned to understand everything she said and was picking up Malay as well by the time his family moved to Japan. Alexis attends a Japanese toddler’s playgroup once a week and attended an English playgroup for nine months. His mother spends a lot of time with him, not following any theory but just doing what he wants to do, which includes “a computer that he can control, using English games from a BBC Web site, other kids’ sites, songs, storybooks (he loves Maisy), toys, homemade toys including my kitchen tools, VCDs, videos, flash cards, outdoor recreation, etc. “I conclude from these success stories that, whether children are raised to be bilinguals or multilinguals, one common element is that they are having fun. For them, language learning is not drudgery. There is no pressure, no atmosphere of stress. The children are doing what they want to do: communicating with important people around them, and finding fun new ways to communicate.

***This series of columns is an attempt to reconcile views of language teachers, theorists and bureaucrats. Readers are invited to send email to Mr Childs or letters to The Daily Yomiuri. The column will return on Dec. 26. Childs, Ed. D., is a lecturer and program coordinator for continuing education at Temple University Japan, Tokyo.

Nov 2003, Daily Yomiuri

A dissenting reply sent to the Daily Yomiuri:

I understand parents’ desires to “raise tots to be multilingual” (The Practical Linguist, Nov. 29), but there is no need for Japanese-speaking parents to talk their children in English. The advantages are slight and can be had elsewhere, and there are dangers.

By far the easiest way to make sure children master other languages are good programs in school, programs that fill the classroom hour with interesting projects, games, and discussions, and that provide children with lots of interesting reading, including comics, magazines and good novels. The research strongly supports this approach, but most foreign language programs hold on to painful and inefficient methods that overemphasize grammar and memorization of vocabulary. Those who do a great deal of pleasure reading in a second language automatically develop a large vocabulary and as well as high levels of grammatical accuracy. Research also tells us that there is no need to begin super-early; in fact, those who begin second languages later progress faster. It is more efficient to start at age ten than at age five.

Parents’ use of a foreign language with their children can backfire when parents do not speak the language well and communication is imperfect. Imperfect parent-child communication can cripple emotional and intellectual development. It isn’t worth taking the chance.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

Homegrown Advice on Bilingualism

The following are bits of advice excerpted from past discussions among the members of our own e-community:

Q: If I was to homeschool full time, how would I keep up their Japanese? My husband thinks school is the only way to do that and I tend to agree since we only speak English at home.

A: My wife is Japanese; I’m American. Our daughter (age 14) homeschools bilingually here in Japan. Our daughter has had no problem, whatsoever, as far as language goes. She is bilingual / bilterate in English & Japanese.

If you decide to homeschool …. in my opinion (based on what has worked well for us), I think you would be best continuing to do as much as you can in English with your children (since this is Japan; since English is your native language; and since English is the minority language here).

I think it would also be good for you to make as many regular outside arrangements (playgroups, study groups, volunteer oportunities, or whatever you can find) as possible that give your children a chance to use Japanese with other people. That way you don’t have to speak Japanese with your children.

If you use Japanese with your children or if you mix languages, especially when the children are young, chances are good it will backfire on you later: their English will eventually get so weak compared with their Japanese that they will not talk to you in English. (I know of many families who have had this experience).

If you homeschool using English, and you try to maximize the Japanese use outside the house in positive highly-social settings, your children can grow and learn using both languages every day.

One other thing that has worked well for us is the use of tutors/mentors — through church, my wife found two very nice Japanese college students who have been great at helping our daughter with her Japanese (and with other subjects that she wants to study in Japanese.) – DC

Online Resources on Bilingual Education

Recommended readings on the web:

What is Immersion By Mike Bostwick A good place to start to understand what constitutes a language immersion programme.

The World of the Bilingual

Resources for Bilingualism(Kansai Time Out)

Recommended Reading for Parents Raising Children Bilingually (sources in English and Japanese, annotated in English) by Mary Goebel Noguchi and Stephen M. Ryan

Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

Japan Journal of Multilingualism and Multiculturalism

Bilingualism Resources on the Net

Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection by Steve McCarty. Extensive collection of links to articles and research papers

Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) website: and their recommended publications by the Bilingualism Special Interest Group of JALT (the Japan Association of Language Teachers). JALT publishes a newsletter “Bilingual Japan” 6 times a year. They also have published monographs on bilingualism that you can order from them. A list of publications in English of possible interest:

#3 Bilingual Family Case Studies V. 1 450 yen + postage
#4 Adding Biliteracy to Bilingualism: Teaching your Child to read English in Japan 600yen + postage
#5 Bilingual Family Case Studies V. 2 600 yen + postage
#6 Growing up Bilingually: The Pleasures and Pains 450 yen + postage
#7 Bullying in Japanese Schools: International Perspectives 600 yen + postage
#8 The best of Bilingual Japan 600 yen + postage
in Japanese
# 2 Nihonjin katei de no eigo ko sodate 300 yen + postage
(postage 250 yen for up to 3 monographs, 320 for more than 3)

Online networks

Email discussion group on bilingualism. Contact Stephen Ryan via email
Bulletin board on bilingualism. Contact Sheila Cliffe via email
Bilingualism NSIG homepage

Language software programmes
Reviewed by Tamara, Adachi-ku, Tokyo

World Talk language software
Can be purchased very cheaply at (about $30 on Amazon, about $5 at dealdealdeal!)

Japanese is offered in three levels. (We have not used the Japanese series per se but we have used the Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, etc. series.) The Korean one is terrible — poorly recorded. The Chinese and Spanish ones are great. We are MAJOR fans of the “Talk Now!” series of CD-ROMs, which I have written about before. The software has just been redone and you will either think that the way the “actors” now move their mouths to match the sounds is either totally cool or totally ghastly. The software is now sold in Japan via the Infinisys website.

You can also buy the software in the major bookstores but I have ordered via their toll-free number and they are extremely prompt — had my order out the “same day” and I think it is only 500 yen for shipping no matter how many titles you order (I ordered over a dozen). They sent me a bill which I paid for at the ATM via bank transfer.

The introductory software (“Vocab Builder”) is by far the worst one– it is based on a software program designed for kindergarteners who want to learn English. That is, the original software has nouns in an A-B-C-D-E… order, so it progresses apple –> banana –> cat –> dog –> egg –> fish –> goat –> horse. But the Japanese version says instead “ringo –> banana –> neko –> inu –> sakana” etc for these pictures. Not a problem per se, and the kids sure never noticed, but you end up with words like “mokkin” (xylophone) which are quite obviously being added because they needed a word that begins with “x” for the English version. Also, the games are rather boring. We own them anyway, figuring that for 3,500 yen with two kids, if they each spend even 6 hours on it, it is worth the price.

The main pillar of the series is the “Talk Now!” series, which my kids loooooooove and can use for ages without getting bored. The only one I have used so far and not liked is the Korean version, which was edited poorly — the final consonants are often clipped. Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, etc. are all double thumbs-up.

The Intermediate software (“World Talk“) takes a major jump in level from the Talk Now series. Suddenly they are speaking in full sentences (e.g., “This is a bird, but it can’t fly. It swims very fast.” “Go to the third intersection and turn left. Then go straight until the second light.”). Hard for me but the kids take it in stride.

None of these CD-ROMs give any background in the culture of the target language — not a problem for us, but just know what you are getting into when you buy them. If you are looking for photo clips of Red Square (or even picture of people who look Russian), you will be disappointed. Great buy for the money, though, I guarantee.

The other nice thing about this series is that it offers unusual languages. I am hoping to send some of my students to Cambodia this summer, and I was able to order Khmer software, for example.

The Learnables
Other language program which I REALLY like is The Learnables. Nifty, nifty, nifty series. They are still using cassette tapes with many of their textbooks– ugh– and shipping abroad is an absolute fortune, but a great series. They build you up from “A pen. A chair. A pen on a chair. A pen. A book. A pen on a book.” and you become able to listen to the target language without translating into your native language. Really well-done and highly recommended.

For adults, you can’t beat Pimsleur. Expensive, but you really learn your stuff. The series will not give you much vocabulary but you become able to say things without consciously “constructing” the sentences in your mind. The grammar which you know you really KNOW. Polar opposite of having studied lots of grammar/vocabulary and not being able to produce it, you study a limited amount but are really able to come up with it when you need it. If you go shopping for Pimsleur, do NOT buy it off Amazon as I did– type it into google and then follow the paid-ad links on the right– you will save up to 40%.


A fully accredited foreign language and ESL company, with Young Children’s courses for Pre-K through 6th grade and Standard Courses for 7th grade through adult. The unique, adventure-based courses develop quick speech and comprehension, and lifetime retention. Used in homeschooling, Christian schools, charter schools. Phone: (800) 596-0910 or got to the

Multiculturalism, Cross-cultural Matters & Manners

Building A Multicultural World – Our Way

Below is an interview with Kathryn Grant (together with Reverend Worth Grant), missionary with the Japan Baptist Mission for 20 years. She has 4 girls, 2 of whom were born in Kyoto and Tokyo. The eldest attended military school, the second was homeschooled for two years using the Calvert School curriculum, for the most part children number two, three and four went to the American School in Tokyo.

Question:What was your own experience?
Kathryn: My experience was that beyond first grade, it’s difficult to put them in Japanese schools because of the knowledge of kanji. After first grade, it’s difficult for the child to catch up on kanji. What our girls did was they went to American school in Japan. In American school, they had classes on Japanese culture, customs and language, taught by Japanese, and they visited many places in Japan. They went over to the Japanese college for basketball, tennis and other sports. They had art and music lessons by Japanese teachers. Our home had many Japanese Christians over for tea, for meals and to spend a night in our home. So our children played with Japanese children and picked up the language very naturally. They knew them as their friends.

I think it’s very IMPORTANT that the family, the parents in particular, talk about positively and praise the Japanese people so that the children will have a high opinion of the Japanese people. During conversations, the parent must teach the child that the Japanese people are no different and to appreciate Japanese culture. However, most of the Japanese people that my children knew were Christians so they needed to know there was a difference between Christianity and the worship of Buddhist and Shinto religions. We worked hard for them to learn everything about Japan and her people so they never felt different. The choice of the school is not so important as the attitude of the parents, that they be open and appreciate and love the Japanese people.

Question: What was the hardest thing and the best thing about having schooled your children in Japan?
Kathryn: The hardest thing was going from one culture to another culture…the American culture is so different. My children went back to the States in the 60s when there was so much “free-thinking” [sic] going on, whereas in Japan, it used to be that they let children be children a little longer. But there’s nothing negative about being in two cultures, in fact there’s everything positive…they will grow up with world-views. And when they learn a new language and culture, they will want to learn others. I remember when we were in Italy, one of my daughters wanted to know “how do you say XXX in Italian?” The other wonderful thing was that my children learnt that the Japanese children were disciplined learners and worked hard as students. That influenced my children.

Names – A sticky situation

Some years ago, my son and I got into a situation while in yochien which made me think to post the Daily Yomiuri Cultural Conundrums article excerpted below. One day in a group scuffle in a garden where the neighborhood kids and my son had been playing, my son had ended up a little bloody, and I naturally investigated to see what had happened. Apparently, my (then-yochien-attending) son had offended an elementary school girl (3rd grader) because he had called her by name instead of “onechan” which had caused negative vibes towards him, explained the mother of the third grader who had supposedly roughed my son up. That event taught me a lot about how early the idea of “sempai/kohai” begins in
Japan. Maybe, some of you here might find the article below interesting if not enlightening too…

The sempai/kohai relationships can be seen in many circles including the mom’s or PTA circles, and at school bus stops. The fixation with the social status that comes with grade levels is often a negative factor, which is one reason why I like the idea of homeschooling or schools that offer multi-level classrooms. – AK


With little kids, it doesn’t really matter exactly how old they are or what class they’re in. They just play with whoever is engaged in an activity that interests them or whichever fellow tot their mother plunks them down next to. Things become a bit more rigid in primary school, but in the United States, there’s still a lot of back and forth between the various grades. In Japan, different grades occasionally team up on school outings and other events, usually with the older kids supervising the younger ones. Nonetheless, the distinction between years at school seems more emphasized and definite here.

When my daughters attended the local school I’d sometimes ask them about some child or other I happened to see in the neighborhood, inquiring whether my daughters knew them. More often than not, my daughters would admit acquaintance, then add dismissively, “But they’re in a different grade” as if to say, “But they’re from another planet.” I began to understand the significance of Takayuki’s mother’s observation more clearly.

The line of demarcation between grades becomes even more distinct in Japanese middle school. This is when the senior/junior, or sempai/kohai thing, really gets going. This relationship between older and younger students is a vital part of the rest of the educational system, especially in teams, clubs and “circles,” but it was a bit mystifying to me at first. I got the basic point: Pretty strict attention is paid to the amount of experience a person has, and the more years or months they have under their belt regarding some kind of pursuit, the more respect they command.

So far, so good. It was a little more surprising to find out that “commanding” respect was not just a figure of speech but could in fact at times be an actual directive. The eighth graders (second grade of middle school) at more than one school specifically instruct (in a nice but unambiguous way) the seventh graders (first grade) belonging to the same club to speak to them using polite forms of Japanese. When I learned this, I tried to imagine the same training occurring between American students.

I came up blank. What could they say? “Don’t forget to say please when you ask for help and make sure you’re not too nonchalant when you greet us.”

Language differences make directions like these close to absurd. Even putting the linguistic issue aside, such guidance would seem pompously self-important in the United States. Certainly younger members of a team may look up to older members, but only if they’ve earned the respect, not as part of a defined deference protocol.

When my university students create skits, “the fear-inspiring high school sempai” is a recurring motif. Among women, skirt length is often the central point of dramatic discord. The kohai’s skirt is usually too short and she is severely reprimanded by the older student, who is also showing quite a bit more thigh than regulations allow. I’ve seen dozens of such mini-plays and initially I thought that the aim was to represent the hypocrisy of the leg-baring upperclassman. However, I came to realize that I was the only one who found the double standard problematic and potential parody material. The skits are not satires. Although the fear and intimidation are comically exaggerated, the plays are more like reality TV, with the basic premise of the hierarchy and its manifestations unquestioned.

I understood the mechanism of the relationship. What I didn’t get was the spirit of the thing. Apprehension was there. Haughtiness was there. But these elements were not the beginning and end of the story but rather its obvious accoutrements.

The plots seemed to some degree to match those related to “the fear-inspiring older bully,” a stock character of many American TV shows about high school. Yet bullies and sempai are not the same. Somehow, despite the seeming improbability of such a thing to many Americans at first, affection and responsibility appeared to be key components as well.

As an outsider, my best glimpse into the positive side of the sempai/kohai relationship came through the hilarious Fuji TV series “Nurse no Oshigoto,” about a clumsy but captivating health-care worker called Asakura and her long-suffering, frequently exasperated sempai Ozaki. In English I suppose we would say that Ozaki is her supervisor and mentor, but the relationship is more like that between an older sister and a younger sister.

After the first season, Asakura herself is put in charge of showing new nurses the ropes, and much of the humor derives from her eagerness to be a sempai even as she manages to screw up every assignment, often reducing the area around her to a shambles. Then it’s super sempai Ozaki on the spot, to scold, then rescue, her inept, kind-hearted kohai.

I’ve been a quintessential kohai for much of my life, starting college at age 17, marrying at 21 and becoming a mother two years later. In the United States, I had many older, wiser friends to steer me. And after coming to Japan at age 20, I had plenty of wonderful sempai to lead the way. Now, unbelievably, I have sometimes realized that without even noticing I’ve been sempai-ified and it’s my turn to show the way, taking a bite of that sweet sempai life.

Elwood is associate professor of English and intercultural communication at Waseda University’s School of Commerce. She is the author of “Getting Along with the Japanese” (Ask, 2001).

(Sep. 13, 2005) Read the whole article Daily Yomiuri

The Concept of Amae and when East Meets West parenting methods clash

LM: Regarding behavior of children. No matter where we have been we’ve seen kids whose behavior was deplorable. I’ve seen children as old as my son (10), who burst into tears, whine and throw themselves on the ground to get their mothers to buy them something or allow them something they want. I obviously don’t understand why the mother allows this. If they didn’t, the children wouldn’t behave that way.

Personally I can’t stand screaming or demanding children. To me that means selfishness and a desire for others to cater to their needs, in my eyes, manipulation. Of course the amount of this depends on the age of the child. Our kids learned to communicate to us without screaming (reserved for a REAL emergency) and demanding from a young age of maybe 1 1/2 years old. Not that our children are perfect but as a general rule they don’t act like this.

We as parents are the ones in our house that make the rules and help the children to learn them and obey them. My husband and I come up with those rules based on our beliefs. We believe that children need an adult to govern and watch over them and teach them.

AK: The indulgence of Japanese parents that appears to be incomprehensible to so many of us foreigners who can be overly judgmental in this respect ・stems from the fact that we don’t fully appreciate the importance of amae concept to the Japanese. Many a behavioral problem is often excused by Japanese parents saying “amae da yo”. They often say that kids are suffering from stresses at school and vs. the outside world. To some extent, I see this often reasoning repeated by my own husband and my in-laws as well, and I am often considered according to Japanese standards too unbending on matters when discipline issues are at stake (the western approach to parenting tends to value consistency in child-training). So in short, kids are supposed to “let their hair down” outside of school and peer circles when at home, so that many behaviors that would inconceivable in western parenting – such as verbal abuse of parents, violence even, are tolerated as necessary outlets. And I think as most long-term residents must know, “bonding” and “skin-ship” are the “in” thinking, this further enhances the laxness in disciplining children. So you shouldn’t be surprised when you see how yochien kids treat their teachers, climbing on them, pulling their hair, rough-housing play. Any adult who displays stricter behavior would be considered “old-fashioned” and a dying remnant of feudal Japan. I have seen increasingly fewer and fewer Japanese who would openly rebuke younger kids.

In the past few months, I have seen one yochien boy who daily hounds and harrasses my daughter nearly every day at the bus-gathering, and shouts at her to stop whatever she’s doing, tales her around and bosses her around. Her mother who looks on each time NEVER says anything to stop this. I have to put my foot down each time at this behavior to protect my daughter, at which he talks back sulkily each time. This is an extreme example but it is quite usual for Japanese parents to apologise to the victim or victim7s parents on behalf of their kids, rarely do they require their children to apologise. It is believed that since young kids have not developed moral maturity, they should not be coerced into saying things they do not mean from the heart.

Amae is a notoriously difficult word to define – most experts say there is no equivalent of the word in English. (Cultural dependency or other such definitions don’t even come close). It’s also a concept that pervades the whole of society, but is supposed to be sort a Freudian idea of mother-child dependency. It extends to even supervisor-subordinate relationships at the office (e.g. my husband is expected to leave the office early, a display of trust and dependence in his subordinates to take care of affairs in return (they will never leave before him). It can go upwards or downwards in society’s defined cultural roles and relations.

The Japanese go by the authority of Tsuchika who wrote the books “The
Structure of Amae” which tells you the complex multifaceted aspects of amae.
Knowing how amae works may be fundamental to navigating and surviving Japan for biculturals. A good start would be to read several articles about amae at the links posted below:

Amae; Is Amae the Key to Understanding Japanese?; The Japanese concept of amae goes global (by Bruce Bower); Amae and Belonging—An Encounter of the Japanese Psyche and the Waning of Belonging in America (by Akira Morita); Why Japanese Education Succeeds: Amae, Stress, And Perseverence


I will post Lafcadio Hearn’s more enlightening words on official education which I think encapsulates everything I have seen on the cultural side and goals to Japanese education… though as many are aware Japanese society is in a great state of flux where moral values and tradition are concerned and many are throwing the baby out of bath regarding basic manners or consideration for others (for which the Japanese are so famous), or are borrowing from western parenting approaches in a haphazard fashion.

“The aim of Western education has always been conducted, and in spite of superficial appearances, is still being educated, mostly upon the reverse plan. Its object never has been to train the individual for independent action, but to train him for cooperative action, — to fit him to occupy an exact place in the mechanism of a rigid society. Constraint among ourselves begins with childhood, and gradually relaxes, constraint in Far-Eastern training begins later, and thereafter gradually tightens; and it is not a constraint imposed directly by parents or teachers — which fact, as we shall presently see, makes an enormous difference in results. Not merely up to the age of school-life,–supposed to begin at six years, — but considerably beyond it, a Japanese child enjoys a degree of liberty far greater than is allowed to Occidental children. Exceptional cases are common of course; but the general rule is that the child be permitted to do as he pleases providing that his conduct can cause no injury to himself or to others. He is guarded, but not constrained; admonished, but rarely compelled. In short, he is allowed to be so mischievous that, as Japanese proverb says, “even the holes by the wayside hate a boy of seven or eight years old” (Nanatsu, yatsu–michibata no ana desaimon nikumu). Punishment is administered only when absolutely necessary; and on occasions, by ancient custom, the entire household– servants and all—intercede for the offender; the little brothers and sisters, if any there be, begging in turn to bear the penalty indeed. Whipping is not a common punishment except among the roughest classes; the moxa is preferred as a deterrent; and it is a severe one. TO FRIGHTEN A CHILD BY LOUD HARSH WORDS, OR ANGRY LOOKS, IS CONDEMNED BY GENERAL OPINION: ALL PUNISHMENT OUGHT TO BE INFLICTED AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE, THE PUNISHER CALMLY ADMONISHING THE WHILE. TO SLAP A CHILD ABOUT THE HEARD, FOR ANY REASON, IS PROOF OF VULGARITY AND IGNORANCE. TO BE PERFECTLY PATIENT WITH CHILDREN IS THE ETHICAL LAW. At school, the discipline begins; but it is at first so very light that it can hardly be called discipline: the teacher does not act as a master, but as an elder brother, and there is no punishment beyond a public admonition. Whether restraint exists is chiefly exerted on the child by the common opinion of his class; and a skilful teacher is able to direct that opinion. Also each class is nominally governed by one or two little captains, selected for character and intelligence; and when a disagreeable order has to be given, it is the child-captain, the kyucho, who is commissioned with the duty of giving it. (These little details are worthy of note: I cite them only to show how early in school-life beings the discipline of opinion, the pressure of the common will, and how perfectly this policy accords with the ethical traditions of the race.) In higher classes, the pressure increases: and in higher schools it is very much stronger; the ruling power always being class-sentiment, not the individual will of the teacher. In the middle schools the pupils become serious: class-opinion there attains a force to which the teacher himself must bend, as it is quite capable of expelling him for any attempt to override it. Each middle-school class has its elected officers, who represent and enforce the moral code of the majority, — the traditional standard of conduct. (This moral standard is deteriorating; but it survives everywhere to some degree.)” — Japan An Attempt at Interpretation

The entire chapter is fascinating and there is more on tradition and class-discipline and bullying, but you get the general idea. I cite Hearn (1850-1904) because it is useful to know what were unadulterated cultural traditions and local customs before they became influenced by post-war US interventions. One thing that many traditional Japanese have felt was important about amae and other traditionally defined roles was the certainty and predictability in relating to one another was very important, and with many young Japanese going against the flow (not always in a good way but in a selfish way) has generated the lament in the older generation that society is self-destructing and the Heart and Soul of Japan is being eroded. Foreign wives often rebel against values that do not jive with our own sensibilities and we sometimes try to escape from social obligations, endless social meetings.

Public Schools

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! – AK

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



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