Angle down icon An icon in the shape of an angle pointing down. The author lives in Tokyo. Courtesy of the author I’ve been living in Japan for 20 years and have two kids, who are 3 and 7.My oldest walks to and from school by himself.Kids learn discipline by cleaning their classrooms and bathrooms.
I’ve lived in Japan for about 20 years, but I’ve only recently begun to understand the early education system that helps shape Japanese people and society.
My kids are 7 and 3 and are going through elementary school and kindergarten in suburban Tokyo. I’ve noticed some aspects of early education here that often surprise me.
I’m usually the only non-Japanese dad at school pickup
Before I had kids, my experience with Japan’s schools was limited to living by a high school. The team sports, athletics drills, and Sports Days were carried out with military-like precision and ear-splitting noise. When I moved in with my wife, I insisted we couldn’t live near a school.
Now, with kids of our own, we’re glad to be close to their schools. Unlike in North American suburbs, here many parents bring their children to kindergarten by bicycle. The courtyard is full of battery-powered “mommy bicycles” with kid seats — most people in Tokyo, which has an excellent transit system, don’t have a car.
I’ve noticed I’m often the only father and the only non-Japanese person at my son’s school pickup.
Kids respect authority
Kids are taught to respect authority and social cohesion. One way is through bowing. My daughter, 3, is learning to bow to her teacher in pre-kindergarten when she says goodbye. Before each period and lunch in my son’s Grade 1 class, students must snap to attention on command and bow to a teacher or fellow student at the front of the class.
These relationships are reinforced at Sports Day, a major teamwork-building event that starts in kindergarten. Children perform elaborate synchronized dances to upbeat music and take part in races and team games. At my son’s elementary school Sports Day, a teacher stood on a raised platform conducting the students, almost like a drill sergeant.
Another way to impart teamwork and discipline is by cleaning. In my son’s elementary school, kids must help clean the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, toilets, and sometimes the library. Some observers have linked this practice at schools to Japanese sports fans’ habit of tidying up stadium stands. Kids also distribute school lunches to other students. My son has started insisting he serve food when we eat with relatives.
Many children wear uniforms and walk home by themselves
Rote learning begins early, as elementary students start memorizing the two alphabets and over 2,000 Chinese kanji characters used in written Japanese. To carry their kanji books, new elementary students will usually receive a hard-shell leather backpack called a randoseru. Often gifted by grandparents, these backpacks can cost hundreds of dollars but are expected to last through sixth grade.
Many boys’ middle- and high-school uniforms are inspired by 19th-century Prussian military jackets, while girls often wear “sailor” uniforms modeled on British Royal Navy uniforms.
My son walks to his elementary school by himself. While Tokyo is a very safe city, elementary students usually carry a security buzzer to notify passersby in case of dangerous strangers. Security at his school is relatively light, with a fence and one elderly security guard, and safety drills are for earthquakes, not active shooters — with its strict gun laws, Japan has very few firearm homicides.
While Japanese schools aren’t perfect, my hope is that in an increasingly fractured world, my kids will learn how to be considerate of others and be part of a harmonious society.