You can learn a lot about Japanese culture from kindergarten classes

When I walked into the Japanese kindergarten on my first day as an English teacher, I had to fight the urge to duck and run for cover. It was like stepping foot into a giant birdcage at the zoo. Everywhere I looked, children were loudly screeching and clawing at one another, leaping off the plastic slide and hanging upside down from the basketball hoop. It was terrifying.
And braving the front lines was my ballerina-frail Japanese co-teacher, a 24-year-old in pigtails and a Big Bird apron.

“Sit down, please” she repeated to each child, in the same soft, barely audible tone of voice. It had about as much of an effect as trying to catch a flock of wild geese with a butterfly net. What she really needed was a tranquilizer gun.

This wasn’t how I’d imagined it. Before coming to Japan, I’d pictured my co-teacher as a middle-aged, no-nonsense Mary Poppins-type, with a bun and a soft spot for Disney songs. My students would, in turn, be well-mannered, docile children who respected and revered their English sensei.

But as I discovered in the months to follow the reality was different. Kindergarten teachers in Japan are more “human piñatas” than “highly-respected figures of authority.” In my first week alone, I had erasers hurled at my head, chalk dust thrown in my eyes, and my handbag tossed out of a second story window.

“Japanese children are monsters,” I raged to my English teacher friends. “Haven’t their parents heard of ‘Time outs’? Or better yet, clear, consistent rules?”

As an American, I’d grown up with the idea that a “good mother” or a “good teacher” was someone who set strict boundaries and consequences. And I’d assumed that these standards were the same the world over.

But in Japan, rules aren’t considered nearly as important as fostering the development of a mutual child/teacher friendship. The theory is that if children have close bonds with their teachers they won’t misbehave because they’ll be afraid of disappointing them. As Roger J Davies and Osamu Ikeno put it in their book “The Japanese Mind,” a “good parent” does whatever possible to “avoid creating any mental distance from their children,” even if it means giving in to their children’s demands. Or in the case of my Japanese co-teacher, not reacting when 5-year-old Kenshiro slaps her across the face.

“Ouch, you really hurt me,” was all she said. She didn’t scold or punish or arrange a parent-teacher conference. She simply rubbed her cheek, made an exaggerated show of wincing in pain and then continued on with the lesson as if nothing had happened.

But apparently, this non-reaction is all part of a bigger plan. By drawing attention to the pain he’d caused her, my co-teacher hoped to shape little Kenshiro into a good team player, a sensitive soul acutely tuned in to the feelings of those around him. And according to The Japanese Mind, this isn’t limited to the feelings of family, friends or pet goldfish — it’s even applied to the likes of the lowly houseplant or piece of old furniture, as I would learn when I caught little Kenshiro trying to knock over the classroom bookshelf.

“Kenshiro!” I hollered, for the third time that morning. “Don’t do that!’” He stared at the floor, his face as blank as a chalkboard.

“You’ve hurt the bookshelf,” my Japanese co-teacher translated softly, as she crouched down to his eye level. She gently touched the spot which moments before, Kenshiro had been bashing with a hula hoop. “He’s crying.”

I stared at her incredulously. Did she really think that hippie mumbo jumbo was going to work? If the kid didn’t care that he was about to cause his teacher to suffer a nervous breakdown, he certainly wasn’t going care about the hypothetical feelings of an inanimate object.

But then, something truly amazing happened. Kenshiro gazed at the bookshelf reproachfully and mumbled: “Sorry.”

I recounted the story to my English teacher friends over beers later that night. They dragged on their cigarettes and regarded me thoughtfully.

“Japanese kindergarteners are like a group of untrained synchronized swimmers,” one friend commented philosophically. “Right now they’re flailing around, half-drowning. But give them a few years and they’ll be swimming in sync like robotic pod-people.”

I was dubious. I could imagine the children making an entertaining half hour of “Super-Nanny: Japanese Kindergarten Edition,” but well-mannered and disciplined? No way.

My teacher friends looked at each other smugly. “Just wait until you start working at a Japanese middle school. You’ll see.”

R. D. Muth is an English teacher from Hawaii.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.

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  • 0

    Osakadaz

    well I teach Kindies and have never seen ANYTHING of that ilk.My kiddies are the highlight of my week.

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    This article is as absurd. Experienced teachers know better. Japan just keeps hiring them right off the boat...no training or experience necessary.

  • 0

    almondjoy

    Being a well trained english teacher that a kid sees maybe twice a week has nothing to do with their lack of discipline at home, if you fail to see that you have been in japan tooo long. And I came on an airplane not a boat.

  • 0

    30061015

    avoid creating any mental distance from their children,” even if it means giving in to their children’s demands

    Nothing universally relevant about discipline that J culture just cant fix in time. Wow, and to think I was worried there for a minute.(See "Kodomon": from Kodomo + monster)

  • 0

    onewrldoneppl

    Experienced teachers know better. Japan just keeps hiring them right off the boat...no training or experience necessary

    actually, i think it's more to the point to say that the kindergartens are at fault. always hunting for "bargain basement" prices. contracting the lowest bidders. while they hire the cheapest teachers, they're still charging the childrens' parents "arms & legs". it's all about profit. the boards of education who contract ALTs are no better. the government lavishes ridiculous salaries on (undeserving) politician & bureaucrats, then cuts, slashes and burns education funding while increasing the requirements for foreign language education in public elementary, juniour & seniour high schools. don't even get me started on cuts to funding for school lunches. fuming with righteous rage

  • 0

    Sammi33

    If the "no scolding no punishing" approach works so well, why are so many middle and high school students such royal a**holes? You condition kindergartners to believe that they will get anything they want, and they expect it from then on. And then if you suddenly up one day and tell your 15 year old daugher she can't have that LV bag, she'll just go and enjo kosai until she gets it, what baby wants, baby gets. Where I work, we are much more strict. You think 3 year olds can't sit still? My 6 2-3 year olds can sit in a chair for 40 minutes while we do the lesson.

  • 0

    Himajin

    I wonder if it's this yochien, or have they changed? None of this bunk was tolerated at my son's yochien. Have things gotten this bad?

  • 0

    spudman

    This article is about an atypical kidergarten. I have visited over 40 kindergartens in the last 10 years and no things aren't really changing. The author needs to assert themself a little more in the class. An article about a typical kidergarten would be pretty boring so no doubt the worst is chosen to make a point

  • 0

    biglittleman

    I think the title is spot-on. For those who have worked in the public school system can tell you. School is where Japanese are taught how to interact in Japanese society. The same good and bad things that take place on the trains, streets, homes and companies are nurtured in school. That's why Japanese guys in their 60's still use Janken in the office to make group decisions. Its outcome set in stone and unquestioned.

    Juku is where the academics are nurtured.

  • 0

    Yelnats

    The little loud brats are bad on the train too. Trying to cut in line, refusing to offer seats to the elderly. I have often scolded them myself.

  • 0

    memyselfI

    Kids are getting more stupid by the minute. Not just Japan but around the world.

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    almondjoy-dude/chick- whoever you are...a kindergarton teacher works with the same students in the same school as THE teacher; Not as an "English teacher". Young learners dont "learn" English. You teach them as you would teach children in any country. You just teach them using English. Find a real school. As I said, any teacher with experience knows the difference. onewrld- you are correct. this is the circumstance and the type of jobs available for teachers with no credible experience. In any profession, there is alays the bottom of the barrel. I can go to a doctor who graduated Guatemala medical school if I want to save a buck. If you have credentials and work in a real kindergarton, you know what you are doing. This isnt a "semester overseas" for many of us. Alot of foreigners are here with proper training in education.

  • 0

    zoechan

    some interesting points from both the author and the comments - i find the comment that she should "find a real school"... what is a real school? sounds to me like the author is at a real, Japanese kindergarten (just her expectations were rather unrealistic!)

    i would like to read 'The Japanese Mind', but for now, i'm happy to be working at an international preschool here!

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    zoechan- a "real" school is one that requires its teachers to have teaching liscenses. Just like anywhere in first world countries. Not a private school or someones basement that is looking to make a buck and rolls foreigners out for fashion or for show. I dont mean to disrespect the foreigners that work at these establishments. Everyone needs to earn a paycheck. Just knock off the editorials about "teaching English" in Japan while working for these Japanese money making schemes and calling it the educational status quo in Japan. There are plenty of liscened foreign teachers in Japan that dont wander into a job describing the experience as this "journalist" does..."flailing around, half drowning."

  • 0

    sydenham

    I find that making generalizations about an entire culture from one limited experience leads to true enlightenment.

  • 0

    klhchicago

    Obviously written by a novice of both Japanese culture and kids. Not worthy of a posting since it is one of generalizations as another poster noted.

  • 0

    fatboysosa

    Culture Shock...

  • 0

    GenkiDesuKa

    You should read this book -- or see the video.

    http://tinyurl.com/cxqbqq

  • 0

    tasha77

    Just like a horse heading home....maybe the kindy kids got a smell of the inexperience and let loose.

  • 0

    mojibake

    applauds for syndenham

  • 0

    scoobydoo

    Hmmm I never had trouble with the kids doing the wrong thing after they realized they would get in trouble and following the rules was more fun. Obviously the story is not from a long termer. Mind you, I was asked not to let the parents see my methods but the end result was the parent were happy because the kids were happy in the end. I wonder about one comment of teaching English to Japanese requiring a license after having seen many teachers with more degrees than a thermometer who were just pathetic. I think many kids get stupidity from their parents and I don't mean geneticaly.

  • 0

    gogogo

    No wondering the EDU system in japan is so messed up.

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    scoobydoo- and I wonder what "methods" you were hiding from these kids parents. A quick self check test- if you need to hide it, you probably shouldnt be doing it. Teachers with more degrees than a thermometer does not mean they have degrees in education. Does an economics degree(or 10) qualify a teacher at your childs kindergarton in your home country?. Of course not. Degrees in education with proper teaching certifications are what I am referring to. And of course, anyone can be a schlub regardless of their education, experience or background. Its just not usually the case.

  • 0

    Sarge

    "not reacting when 5-year-old Kenshiro slaps her across the face"

    5-year-old Kenshiro needed to be put into the corner for a little while.

  • 0

    usaexpat

    Maybe the writer is just a little too tightly wound, I taught kindergarten and elementary English back in the day and never found the kids to be any worse than in the states or for that matter my own children. The approach that the writer sites with his co-teacher and Kenshiro is a perfectly fine way of getting a child to change their actions as stated it worked and Kenshiro appologized. Not really sure what the point of the article was accept that I'm guessing the writer hadn't really worked with young children before this episode.

  • 0

    usaexpat

    KaptainKichigai: I would guess that better than half the foreign teachers here are as you say schlubs teaching degree or no. A piece of paper and a bunch of college classes that were slept through does not make a good teacher if the temperment isn't there.

  • 0

    Bungleer

    So the country my children go to kindergarten is most likely not Japan.

    Funny enough at our kindergarten the children are pretty well-behaved (as much as you could expect at that age) and our kindergarten even has a reputation of being far less strict than the others in the vicinity.

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    usaexpat- a teaching certification is given after a teacher has spent said number of hours (usually a year) in the classroom. If the temperment isnt there, the certification usually isnt given. Its not just a piece of paper. People that choose education as a career are very serious about it. (Of course not in all circumstances.)

  • 0

    sofika

    It is nonsense. Skilled teacher can order the kids, through the day with many activities. I had no much self confidense but I listened and learnt. I was amazed that kids can concentrate for 60 minutes lessons, though in my country it takes only 20 30 minutes. That is true I was exhausted every day, but I loved it.

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