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Kanayama Korner

School Is A Serious Matter
by Daniel Patton


December 02, 2004

Ohayoo Gozaimasu Citizens of Ketchikan!

This is Dan Patton, the 2004-2005 Kanayama exchange English teacher, checking in from our beautiful sister city, Kanayama, Japan. Lately, the weather here has been absolutely gorgeous: crisp, cold nights give rise to a thick blanket of fog that by 9:00-10:00am has been burnt off by a bright sun, which in turn warms the air into the mid to upper 50's by noon. The fall colors peaked a few weeks ago in this part of Japan (the Japanese Maples and Gingko trees were absolutely radiant), but there in the lower lying areas there is still quite a bit of beautiful foliage to be seen. Like most good things, however, this weather won't last long and I'm constantly being reminded by the locals that winter is very cold in these parts. I try to explain that I spent my college years in interior Alaska and am accustomed to subzero temperatures, but they will have none of it. Fairbanks winters did have one distinct advantage over Japanese ones the tendency towards central heating in buildings. In Japan, central heating is the exception rather than the rule. There's a logical reason for this (it has to do with earthquake safe architecture), but regardless, Kanayama's cement-block schools have been feeling more like giant walk-in refrigerators lately!

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Kanayama from Boyama: This photo was taken from a mountain overlooking Kanayama...

As the exchange English teacher, I divide my time between nine different schools: a middle school, four elementary schools, and four preschools. At this point, I believe I've spent enough time in the schools here to make some observations on the Japanese school culture. Of course, all cultures are extremely complex (especially Japanese culture), and I by no means claim to be an expert, but I thought I'd use this forum to share what I have seen so far and make some comparisons with American schools.

I was downright shocked when, at a Jr. High assembly on my first day back in early September, the students marched into the gym, sat down on the floor in perfectly straight rows, and proceeded to sit quietly and listen to a number of rather long and, seemingly, rather boring speeches (I, for one, understood nothing) given by the principal and other school officials. I tried to locate a student who was fidgeting, talking to his neighbor, or sleeping. It couldn't be done! The same occurred later at an Elementary school assembly. I wondered what path had led these kids to such outright compliance. I realize now it was a number of factors, many of which are certainly positive, other perhaps a bit negative, but all characteristically Japanese.

First of all, from a very young age children are taught that school is a serious matter. Before each and every class, even in the very youngest of grades, the children all stand up and listen to a short speech, given by a different student each day. They usually sound something like:

"Today we are going to study (...) . Let's work hard and do the best we can at learning (...)."

Then they all give a quick bow and sit down. At the end of the class they do this again.

"Today we studied (...) . Let's try the best we can to remember (...) ."

And another quick bow. This is interesting because it offers the students a constant reminder of why they are there and also regular encouragement to try hard. Of course, it becomes a little superficial after being repeated so many times, but overall it seems to increase focus. Related to this is the tendency for the Japanese people to use the word "ganbate", which means 'do your best' or 'persevere'. It is an encouragement used in all kinds of situations from sports to work to cooking, but especially in the classroom. I often hear not only teachers, but students, telling other students to "ganbate". They seem genuinely concerned that their classmates do well.

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Participants in a late October marathon held annually in Kanayama...

The students are also taught respect for school property at an early age. The main way this is done is by having the kids take a part in the janitorial duties. Each day there is a 20-30 minute period in which the students clean the school. At first, I was surprised to see little first and seconds graders on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors, and groups of Jr. High students roaming the school grounds raking leaves and picking up trash. Now I realize it makes perfect sense. How better to teach them to be neat. There is also positive peer pressure involved here. If one student is being messy it will be all the students who have to clean up after the culprit. Over the last few years there has been a rash of school vandalism in Ketchikan. It makes me wonder if that would have been the case if those students knew it would be them (and their peers) scrubbing the walls, picking up the trash, or sweeping up the glass the next day. By the way, outside shoes are never worn in Japanese schools (or in most Japanese buildings for that matter). Imagine how much less dirt and grime get tracked in!

In Japan, as in much of the East, the importance of group harmony, as opposed to Western individualism, is deep rooted. This attitude is readily visible in the Japanese school system. The class is the basic unit, and anything that would bring shame to the class as a whole is looked down upon. This brings us back to that original school assembly. The students were seated together with their classmates. If a disturbance had been made, everyone would have immediately known from what class it came. The next group unit is the school itself. In order to foster a harmonious atmosphere, the students wear uniforms (Jr. High and above). This puts everyone on level ground. Even the sporting events are group oriented. At the annual 'Undokai' (Sports Festival) in September, I was surprised to see that there wasn't a single individual event, even the running races were relays. Many of the events depended a great deal on group cooperation. At a recent Elementary school exhibition, the third grade class did a skit in which they all rode unicycles. Teaching them all to ride the unicycles must have required a small act of God, but in Japan it would be no other way. I have noticed a lot of school pride among the students of Kanayama, and this emphasis on the group does a lot to explain where it comes from.

jpg Undokai

Undokai (Sports Festival):
One event at the Kanayama Jr. High Undokai in late September...

On the flip side, there are very few opportunities for exceptional kids to excel. There is a saying in Japan that goes: if a nail sticks up, then pound it down. A lot of the teaching I've seen relays on repetition and memorization. Sometimes, when the students are reciting their 'ciphers', I feel like I'm in a 19th century American class room. Rarely have I seen the kids get a chance to explore a topic on their own through an individual project and in English classes (except the ones I teach) the students never get into small groups and try to actually communicate, they are always repeating after the teacher, reciting sentences from a book, or translating. When I ask a question of an individual student, they almost invariably consult with their neighbors before answering, even when they know the answer. Also, the curriculum (at least Jr. High and above) is very rigid. The main emphasis is to prepare the students for a serious of standardized tests that they take upon completion of Jr. High. These tests usually dictate which high school they will be accepted (school is only compulsory through Jr. High in Japan). Since the high school a student attends often dictates the college they will get into, an extreme amount of pressure is put on the students to do well. The third grade students (ninth grade equivalent) aren't even allowed to participate in after school clubs because they are expected to be studying every spare moment!

Of course there's a lot more to say, but I'll save that for another column. In the mean time if you have any questions about Kanayama, Japan, or the exchange program please email me. Mata ne!


gif e-mail
Dan Patton


Dan Patton ©2004
2004-2005 Exchange Teacher in Kanayama, Japan


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