"Positive Experience at Local Public School: A Group Effort"
By Lynda Watson [10 February 2000]

For me, sending our children to a Japanese Elementary School was a bit like giving birth for the first time. There was the blissful anticipation of something new, the reality that you have to cope with something you know nothing about, and the realization that this is a time consuming occupation!

The comparison doesn't end there of course. When I changed from being a career woman to changing nappies,Waiting for the bus I rather expected to find myself feeling a little out of my depth at times. When I changed from being a confident parent assisting at my children's school in New Zealand to being a Japanese okaasan, the old brains suddenly seemed to desert me. Of course, the children had even more to cope with, but their adult representatives became a painful burden on them as they struggled to conform. Being the only foreign children in a school of over 650 pupils was hard enough. Being the only ones with a mother who parks the car in the wrong place, doesn't understand when to take her shoes off and can't make head nor tail of katakana, hiragana or kanji was even more of a trial. A little difficult to deny that she is with you when she stands there with her pale skin and light curly hair!

Anyway, these considerations aside, what have we learned from our first year at a Japanese School? Well, for a start the teachers are great! At least they are at our school. They don't shout and yell and seem to go around with smiles fixed on their faces. How do they do this? I'm not exactly sure. The discipline seems to be firm. Even the first graders are able to successfully organize their own classes should the teachers have to disappear for a while. The children are friendly and helpful. They have gone out of their way to help our two. At first they were almost too friendly for comfort, but this wore off as time went on. Once they realized that our children were just normal like them they accepted them as colleagues rather than objects of interest.

What else? Well, you need to be very organized. Once you get the hang of it, this isn't too hard. If I can manage it, then anyone can. For a start there is the uniform. This has to be perfect, complete, conforming and properly labeled with the correct colored labels and names and grades entered correctly. I have progressed from the evening when a couple of friends suggested they come and help me attach these labels to the numerous items of clothing. My idea of getting ready for this event was to crack open a bottle of wine and plug in the iron (at last, a use for my dinky little ironing board). It hadn't occurred to me that there would be needle and thread involved in the exercise. What a pleasant evening we had though! It was amazingly relaxing sitting there sewing and chatting.

Then, there is the schedule. This daunting piece of paperwork tells you what your children are to study the following day. The Japanese system of making the children bring home all text books and then the next day just taking in the ones that they require involves a bit of forethought and an ability to decipher teachers' instructions. The results are quite amusing at times. I well remember the night when I decided that one child needed a daikon (long white radish) for the following day. Cursing and muttering I popped out to the only open shop, which happened to be a Circle K convenience store. It is hard to locate a daikon at Circle K of course. Turned out that they were READING a book about a daikon and needed to take that book in to school. Thank goodness that my search was unsuccessful. My daughter would have been mortified.

There was also the time that they were instructed to take in green tea in a flask. Well, they don't drink green tea, nor any tea in any form. However, it was cold and I thought that the idea of something warm in a flask was brilliant, so I sent in some delicious hot chocolate milk. A little difficult to gargle chocolate milk! We received a note back: "no chocolate drink thanks" (well it was worth a try)! The teachers told us afterwards that they had a good laugh over that one.

The Japanese are so well organized with everything that things such as pen sets, paint sets and music equipment, etc., are purchased in beautifully bagged or boxed packages. I love them! It makes carrying several items at once to school quite easy, but I can't understand why those very expensive school bags cost so much when you can get so little in them. Maybe it's the way I pack?

We have found the local people very helpful and have been lucky enough to get school uniforms for free as they gave us their children's old ones. It makes sense when your children are shooting up. We know they are growing fast because they are regularly weighed and measured at school, and the marks on the graphs are rising in proportion to the hems of their trousers.

School lunches are lovely. I have been lucky enough to be invited to a couple. The sense of occasion is wonderful as each child prepares their tablecloth, chopsticks, etc. They eat delicious and healthy food, and an extensive explanatory chart is sent home every month to tell us exactly what they are receiving every day. I wish those cooks would come work at my house! The children weren't so impressed at first. They missed the sandwiches and snacks that I used to throw together. However, their tastes have changed over the year and they now quite happily devour things that they wouldn't have looked twice at before. If they had been at home all the time, I doubt I would have been able to get them to try anything different. Peer pressure counts for a lot!

One thing that we have realized: children don't change their basic characters just because they are at school in a different country -- at least ours haven't. We were quite happy to receive reports half way through the year that confirmed this. They perfectly matched the reports back in New Zealand. One child that works, one that will do anything to avoid working -- but is great at sport. I was very impressed with some of the things that the teachers had picked up on. I also realized that the children must be settling in. The honeymoon period when they were being ultra good, quiet and unsure had passed, and they were starting to integrate into the system. They were beginning to make and break friendships and to settle down to their new and sometimes strange, way of life.

So, the time has come when, once again, the babies have become more independent and the parents are merely there as a backstop and occasional embarrassment rather than a prop. Oh, just one more thing, my brain has started to come back -- I think.

Before I finish this, I want to add a special thanks to our elementary school principal, teachers and students. They have been exceptionally helpful and welcoming to us. We realize that we are luckier than many people in our choice of school. They have smoothed our pathways with patience, humor and, at times, fortitude! We have also been greatly helped by our Japanese friend, Mieko. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a person like her to help translate and sort out problems.

In front of the school

Lynda Watson, writer and teacher (British), her husband, Gary (New Zealander), son (9) and daughter (8), had been living in a semi rural area surrounded by small tea plantations and orange orchards, but quite close to the city of Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka prefecture, for just over 1 year when this article was written. The children attended the local public elementary school, which does require uniforms except on Saturday mornings. Mail for Lynda received at info@tokyowithkids.com will be forwarded to her. The family has since returned to New Zealand in December of 2000.

Related Discussions and Links:
Foreign Students in Japanese Public Schools
Japanese Elementary School
Enrichment Programs/Montessori
Moving to Japan
Kids Web Japan Chapter on Schools

Q & A

Question: Date: Mon, 24 Apr 2000
I liked reading Lynda's article. It made me feel a little bit more comfortable about considering public school for my child. However, I'm not clear on the language situation at her children's school. Does the school teach in English, or do her children speak Japanese? Please let me know.
Answer: Date: Wed, 26 Apr 2000
Great to hear from you. The answer to the question is that the school is totally Japanese. ie. everyone speaks Japanese. Scot and Tina's teachers have generally been able to speak a few words of English, and they have really tried hard to accomodate their needs. However, they couldn't assist with a lot of things. The school allowed them to have a private Japanese lesson every day and even provided a teacher to do this. During the year we were asked to also attend these lessons as it was felt that they were not getting as much benefit as they could from them - in other words they were seeing them as a time to play games and relax! My husband and I took it in turns to attend when we could and, using some excellent resources from Australia, we were able to progress quite rapidly.

The new school year has now started and Scot and Tina's current teachers are very pleased with the way that they can both speak and understand the language. They are not fluent by any means, but they are able to follow what to do in class. Everyone is happy that they no longer need extra tutoring. A further bonus, Scot has been elected 'class leader'. This came as an enormous surprise to everybody as he has to stand up about five times a day and give orders in Japanese. He also has to attend meetings etc. He now wants to stay in the Japanese system until he goes to University (!). This from someone who has always found school difficult in the past. Tina too is quite settled at the moment and seems to be enjoying her new classmates.
Lynda Watson

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