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.