I have worked in the Japanese public-school system for thirteen years. I am not an expert but I have some observations I feel confident enough to make. Before I spew my opinions into the internets, I would like to state clearly that I do not think that the Japanese educational system is perfect; there are several areas I think could use improvement. But seriously, what do I know? I come from a country with a school system in a country with a struggling culture. American students regularly score lower than other industrialized counties, lower than Japanese students for sure. Japan has lower youth crime, higher graduation rates, lower substance abuse rates, and many other things that show that, in general, Japanese kids are better educated than their American peers. Over the last thirteen years, I can’t tell you how many fellow Americans I have met who come over here with their noses in the air pointing out everything wrong with Japanese schools with their lists of unsubstantiated opinions. But really. Look at our own schools. What right do we Americans have to voice our opinions on how school ought to be run? Maybe we should start listening.
I would like to look at three things I think Japanese school do very well.
First, the children clean their own schools every day they are at school. The children spend 15 to 20 minutes every weekday. They scrub the floors (on their hands and knees with a towel!), take out the trash, clean the toilets, separate the recycling, and even come to the teacher’s office and clean that, too. This forces the children to take responsibility for the condition of the school and see directly the effort needed for a clean environment. These are skills they take into adult life. They know that they will be cleaning it up later if they make a mess. They also learn to work together, for if one student doesn’t pull their weight, other students have to pick up the slack, and those other students will definitely let them know what’s up.
Second, the school’s lunches are excellent. The food here in Kuma County is locally grown and produced. The vegetables are plenty and fresh. Every lunch is balanced and healthy. Junk food like snacks or sugary food is a rarity but when it comes (like a fruit jello pack) the portion is reasonably sized. I have to admit, it took a while for my American tongue to become used to what I thought was its “bland” taste. But I’ve come to realize that my rich American diet filled with sugar, mayo, and artificial flavoring put my taste buds on overcharge, all the time. But now that I’ve deprogrammed my taste buds to taste actual food, the quality of the school lunch is excellent. The portion size also took some time to get used to. For a long time, I always felt hungry after eating but that changed with time too. Obesity is rare in children here and their skin in clear and healthy.
Last, in the mission statement from the department of elementary and junior high school education, it states that purpose of education is to educate better citizens and foster social morality. The stated purpose of elementary and junior high school is not to prepare them for higher education but to make them better people. Whenever we Americans hear something like this, especially Baby Boomers and Gen X to some extent, we get all bent out of shape. “Moral education should be done at home” or “leave that to church” is a common sentiment. But the fact is, it seems to me that American children get moral education from exactly nowhere. Moral education in America is either “because I said so -smack- ” or “do what you feel is right, mmkay?” And neither of those approaches are real moral education. Japanese children are taught empathy and social harmony and they are taught that in school. I have been teaching in the public-school system in Kuma County long enough to watch children grow from kindergarten to graduating junior high school and I have seen tremendous changes in many children, for the better, because of this stress on morality and social harmony.
Japanese has work to do on bullying and equal rights issues. But I can tell you honestly that they are making tremendous progress in these areas as compared to America and Britain which seem to be taking a step back these days. I can say with confidence that the future of Japan, if the public schools are an indication, looks more humanistic, more inclusive, than ever before. Amazing how much a country can progress once it decides progress can and must be achieved.