I grew up in Japan, with an Egyptian mother, and a Japanese father. We spoke English at home, and me and my brother went to a local school. Out of 1000 students at my elementary school, only my brother, and a boy from 2 door’s down the road whose father was German, and myself were the “foreigners”.
I always felt a little out of place. The Japanese have a word “Gai-jin” (外人)* which means foreigners. I was a Gai-jin, and so was my brother. My whole family was a group of Gai-jins, and my father was a husband of a Gai-jin. It is a strange feeling that you have some sort of an immunity toward the society, like you don’t get completely punished for not following the rules, but yet, you feel very much of an “outsider”. Like you may be excused for not following the rules, however, it makes you feel even more of an “outsider”.
They also have a word for mixed children like myself. They are called “Half”.** It’s short for Half Japanese. The Japanese have a love and hate relationship with this notion or Gai-jins and the Halfs. I like to joke about it with my husband, who is an American with Canadian parents. My husband will be an American, no matter where his roots are, or where he is living now, if one is born in the USA, he/she will be an American. A half Japanese, will always be a half, even if though I was born and raised in Japan, I will never be a full Japanese.
*Gai-jin and **Half are identified as politically incorrect words. Now you are supposed to say “Gai-koku-jin” (not an outsider, but it means a person from another country) – of Double (instead of saying a child is half)
My education in Japan continued till University, but I managed to take a couple of semesters to study in France, and in the UK. My daughter was born in France, and she went to a nursery in Paris. Then we moved to Hong Kong, and to Belgium where she experienced Kindergarten, and now we live in Italy, where she goes to elementary school.
Through my experience and my daughter’s experience, I wanted to write something I noticed about the superiority (good aspects) of the Japanese education system, but also, it’s flaws.
First, let’s start with some good news.
Despite the Japanese language being one of the hardest to read and write, the literacy level in Japan is over 99%. Everyone can read and write.
I will tell you how hard it is to learn the Japanese alphabets. There are 3 types of alphabet in Japanese.
The first one is Hiragana. It is a phonetical alphabet, and there are 48 characters, plus the G,Z,D sounds, and P sounds that are added to certain letters.
The second phonetic alphabet is called Katakana
It is the exact same phonetic alphabet as Hiragana, but will be used for any words imported from another language. Such as someone’s name, (アリス＝ Alice = A+ Ri + Su) or food (パスタ＝ Pasta = Pa (P sound with a round circle over the H) +Su +Ta)
Katakana also has 48 characters (there are 2 more on this list but these are rarely used)
The 3rd alphabet , Kanji, is made up of the old Chinese characters. You need to learn about 1000-1500 by the time you leave high school, which takes you to a level to read newspapers. There are about 3000 in total but if you know about 1500, you can guess the rest.
I will now show you the list of Kanji you learn in the first year of your elementary school. This is for children between the age of 6-7.
THERE ARE 80. EIGHTY!!
This is after you learn 50 Hiragana, and 50 Katakana, they learn another 80 Kanjis.
2nd grade will learn another 160 characters.
Our daughter is now 7, and she knows some Hiragana, Katakana, and a few Kanji. My husband was invited to give a talk in Japan, so I planned for her to attend school for 2 weeks in Japan. Belgium had an autumn holiday for 10 days, so she was only technically missing 4 days of school. I asked the teacher in Belgium, if we can miss 4 days of school because we were going to Japan and she will attend school there for 2 weeks. The teacher wasn’t happy because it was “an important week because they are leaning alphabets.”
…. Yes, 26 of them.
I am trying to teach my daughter 100 characters of Hiragana and Katakana, 80 Kanji this year so I think she can miss 4 days of school. Not to mention, she already learned all the alphabet in Hong Kong when she was 3. In Hong Kong all kindergartens and nursery teach the alphabet from the age of 2.
We wrote to the principal and she approved it, and we were on our way to Japan.
I am not saying that the language system is efficient in any ways. The Koreans managed to develop a much easier system to read and write phonetically. The system is very comprehensive and everyone can read Korean in a matter of a few hours. Prior to that, the Koreans used Kanji, the old Chinese characters like the Japanese. But they have quickly realized the inefficiency of leaning reading and writing so they completely switched to Hangle alphabets.
What I am saying, is that despite these hyper complicated alphabets, it is remarkable that the Japanese literacy is 99%. Can you imagine doing the same in other countries? The discipline the Japanese students have is simply unbelievable.
What else I find good about the Japanese education system?
The other thing I like about the schools in Japan is that they let the children serve lunch, and clean the school. They don’t have a canteen or a jenitor. The lunch arrives from the lunch center where they cook for several schools. Then it gets distributed to each school, and to each class. A group of children (in my time we were 6 in one group) would take turns to be the “Servers”. They get their aprons and hats ready, and will head down to the truck to pick up the food.
All the other children will line up to get their meals served by their peers.
Notice the servers wear masks even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The same for cleaning, each group will be allocated different areas to clean, the classroom, corridors and sinks, toilets, special rooms (like music room, science lab, gym etc). I remember cleaning the sink, or wiping the corridor with cold water in the dead of winter. It is harsh. I’m not sure if they still let them do it, the latest I hear is they’ve reduced the days of cleaning from every day to twice a week. It teaches the children to be careful and keep the school clean, especially the toilets, because it will be them, or their friends that will clean after the mess. There were some nasty episodes that I can still remember. Maybe that’s why toilets in Japan are very clean, even public toilets.
Children from kindergarden wiping the floor with a cloth (Zo-kin)
What I personally think can improve the Japanese education system
I think there is some room of improvement for learning English. As you can see, learning Japanese is all about sitting and writing the different alphabets over and over. They try to apply the same to English and it doesn’t work (of course).
Tokyo Olympic (which got cancelled this year), brought in a lot of attention to the Japanese English abilities . They feared that the swarming tourist will be unhappy to see that no one spoke English.
When the Beijing Olympics was held, the Chinese government forced the taxi drivers to understand basic English. The Japanese government, on the other hand, invested in an Artificial Intelligence- translator. It accumulates data from different languages, (the pronunciation and accents). Every taxi driver, information center, police station, passport control is going to be equipped with a device that can help translate from Japanese to major languages. The Japanese decided that teaching the nation English will be harder than developing a machine that can resolve their issues.
Another area that can be improved is also makes Japan’s strong points. They have mixed feelings about “strong leadership”. They prefer to consent to a bad decision rather than a agreed to a good decision suggested by one person. For example, this was clearly seen during the Fukushima crisis, when decisions were delayed because they couldn’t all agree, so doing nothing was better than doing something.
I think the issue starts with the group activities. The lunches are serviced and eaten in a group, cleaning is done in a group, even presentations are done in groups. Therefore, I think the Japanese people are generally good at finding roles in a group, where they can help and improve the group potential. However, this creates students that are good in a group, but do not necessarily assume leadership.
There is a saying in Japanese “Deru Kui Wa Utareru (出る杭は打たれる)”The wood pole that sticks out will get aligned. Living in Japan is a constant battle to fit in, and to be in the majority. The moment you stick out, they will find a way to put you back in line. It is a big issue that I believe creates robots, rather than encouraging creativity. There is no space to “be yourself and express yourself” because the way the Japanese are brought up, is to suppress your feelings and make sure to fit in.
The last point I would like to raise, is the that lack of mixing with other countries brings stagnation to the nation.
98% of people living in Japan are Japanese. There are only about 2 % of the population who are expats from other countries or married to a Japanese person. There is also a large population of Koreans that can’t get Japanese nationality, although they were born and lived their whole life in Japan. I find that unimaginable.
It has been known that in few years’ time there will be a crisis, as there won’t be enough caretakers in old people’s homes, and not enough nurses. There was once an idea to implement an immigration plan for caretakers from other south east Asian countries. However, the government decided to invest in robots rather than bringing more foreigners, the Gai-jins.
ROBEAR is a caretaker robot – developed by Sumitomo, the bear faced robot can help lift a person from a bed to a wheelchair.
Yes, the Japanese do have issues. But they also have the ability to solve these issues with technology. I once attended a seminar that talked about Japan being the worst country on efficiency. There are many salarymen that are overworked, and that is true. But at the same time the country works so well. The train driver will apologise if the train is late by even 1-2 minutes. Everything runs on time. I’ve been on trains in Europe that will stop for 30 minutes, and without any explanation or apologies. (well, why would they apologize? At least they are not on strike!)
I even started a blog interview series with people who started doing what they love to do as a job, in hope to encourage the Japanese people to stop working so much and try to think of what they really like to do. But the upbringing of being unified, and settle with the majority makes it hard to “just do what you feel like doing”. In January, I had a friend from high school that wanted to open a new care center for old people that can also interact. (little like a play center for old people, people can visit during the day, but not necessarily stay there). I haven’t spoken to him for over 10 years but I donated some money on his kickstart. I want to support people who are assertive to what they want to do. He then called me few days later to thank me. I was very happy to hear from him, and asked him how he was doing. I knew from Facebook that he had a daughter who was close in age to my daughter or maybe a year older. He told me that his wife had left him, because he wanted to pursue his dream of building this new “meet up” care home. She was working full time, and had a stable job, so I have no idea why she would be against this idea.
But it is simple, she grew up in the midst of stability, and challenge- creativity- new ideas are not in the Japanese nature. She told him to choose between his dream, and her. I’m glad he chose his dream.
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