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Education in Japan

Japan With Kids - Forums: Education in Japan

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By Sharlene on Wednesday, November 22, 2000 - 7:24 pm:

Back when I was still single and considering a Ph.D., I came here and did research for a German professor at an American university. This was back in the early 90's, before the implications of Japan's economic collapse were fully realized and there was still this fear of Japan taking over the world, especially given the sorry state of US secondary education. Basically, everyone starts out the same and Japanese, European and US elementary schools are all good, with variations in geography and economic levels - obviously it's better to live in a nice area, in all places the schools tend to be better.

Japanese schools have an exam system that kicks in at Jr. high - so come grade 5, 6, they start to get a taste of exam hell and that's where the combination of being forced to conform and puberty and pressure tend to make Japanese schools seem less attractive. Schools teach for the tests - the tests determine where the kid can to go Jr./Sr. high which determines which university he can get into, which still largely determines how far he will go in life, at least in Japanese society. There are tons of options in terms of Jr. colleges, etc. but these places are generally money-making operations, unless they are European apprentice type places that secure employment for the student -and these are not staying in business as industry in Japan down sizes and schools do not have enough students because of demographics - even "elite" Jr./Sr. High schools have resorted to advertising recently because there are not enough young people as the birth rate continues to decline.

My feeling is that up to Jr. High I'm very comfortable putting my kid in a Japanese school, but come age 12 or so, I really want to go back to the US, if not sooner, for myself and for my child to be educated in a society that knows how to cultivate individual talent - that is what Japanese schools lack, so despite their high academic achievement, students never really learn to think for themselves, they only learn how to passively cram for a test - and never to question whether the test questions are worth answering.

My business is advising Japanese students who are trying to get into US graduate and business schools and I'm constantly astounded at the number of elite university graduates, highly accomplished people, who cannot articulate a goal for themselves if their life depended on it - they have been told their whole life what they must do, they have never thought for themselves what they should do, what they might like to do or what they might be uniquely good at. Even their "unique" goals come from what others - the media, etc., say are "booming" trends.

While this is not true of everyone in Japan, the system still exists for society, not for the individual - the role of schools in Japan has historically been to produce good citizens for the country - therefore conformity was and still is highly valued. I like the idea of a six-year old learning that they have to do what the teacher says (as opposed to whatever they feel like doing every moment) and so I have no big problem with this with a young child, but not for high school.

When kids get older and puberty sets in, you can imagine the struggle that ensues when schools continue to teach everyone to move in lockstep...hence, juvenile violence, etc.

Of course US schools know a great deal of violence - I used to teach in a high school with metal detectors. But in the US there are so many other factors - a diverse society, poverty, single parents in larger numbers, drugs, gangs, etc. The worst problems can be avoided by just living in a decent neighborhood, and being an attentive parent, most of the time. It's shocking how many of the juvenile problems in Japan (most) come from solid, middle class homes with two parents, etc. I can understand how a poor, drug-addicted girl from a single parent home living in a tough neighborhood might get into trouble - her choices have been limited by difficult circumstances. I cannot understand how a middle-class, educated girl from an educated family becomes a prostitute to buy designer brand bags, etc. There are deeper problems in Japanese society than appear on the surface, that's for sure.