A story about Japanese school children

[Featured image: A farewell gift from the group of high school children under my supervision. This, and a suggestion to try engaging to sock collecting.]

Back on a serious note [ that is cultural differences between Japan and the rest of the world], today’s topic is Japanese school children.  I had the opportunity to participate in two different English programs during the past few months. The first program was appealing to middle school students, that have been learning English at for for only a year or two, and was offered in the form of a 3 day long camp in the mountainous area of Nasu. The second one was a simple ‘walking around Tokyo with Q&A to foreigners’, for high school children who wanted to figure out what they want to be in the future.

Of course the two events had some major differences; one was a lengthy trip away from home, and the other one was a mere 3 hours of superficial talking for a school from Kyuushu just before heading to the airport to return home. Both of the programs rolled smoothly though. Japanese children are innately shy, and when they do not know the vocabulary or make grammatical mistakes they just get twice as shy. Putting the children in a new environment, with no everyday life rules, where no one knows who you are and where the only goal is to communicate as much as you can via English and/or body language, fits perfectly its purpose. The children are still shy, but with careful handling, smooth talking and encouragement, they open up in half an hour.

It was as plain as day that in both cases the English level was terribly low compared to the children’s age. I think I have figured the reason why.  English is taught with a focus on text reading and writing of essays and technical reports, not on doing oral exercise and everyday conversation. I was taught Japanese the same way; my knowledge was adapted to the JLPT questions, instead of effective communication of ideas. The JLPT test doesn’t even contain any speaking or essay writing sections, which would be a criminal deficiency if it were to be the same for the English proficiency exams. Schools and parents start to realize that this way of learning is inefficient, and if you add the japan residing foreigners’ need for easy pocket money, short-time programs like these help to fill the gap. Please bear in mind that a large amount of Japanese people have not ever seen a foreigner in their lives, even more speak to them. Luckily, Japan is trying to open up and is inviting foreign people with a variety of incentives, mainly to easy its own underemployment and low birth rate problem. In that context, English communication skills become all the more essential and exchange programs as such are sought after.

In contrast to their hard-working parents, Japanese children are like all the other children in the world. Silly and loving, teasing each other, full of curiosity and energy. However the first thing they learn is to never forget to ‘protect the rules’. Rules for everything, talking, sitting, eating, walking. All their school life is carefully bound by an insane amount of rules and procedures. For example, the program introduction was just 10 minutes long, containing encouraging phrases like ‘Don’t be shy’, ‘Mistakes are ok’, ‘Try to communicate whichever way you can’. On the other hand, the school rule part was double the duration and full of  repetitions of ‘Please stick to the rules’ (ルールを守ってください). I feel that this approach long term is going to constrain their creative thinking and stance to take initiatives. They need some extra freedom, so that they know how to handle unprecedented situations or cases that no rule applies. Luckily, their are still kids and not salary men, so when given space they try to express themselves freely. One – according to his friends ‘shy’ – guy in my group said that his hobby is collecting socks, and his dream is to become a pirate. His end statement was something like ‘Cultural differences will be advantageous to my quest for a variety of socks’. Of course he was joking, but it still showed that he was able to overcome his conscience, which is not the usual case here. 

Another interesting point was the striking behavior and opinion differences between capital middle-schoolers and countryside high-schoolers. One would expect that children in their late teens would be in their rebel phase, too self preoccupied and bored to participate to silly English conversation after they accomplished their main goal to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Contrarily, they were much more open and engaged compared to the middle schoolers. If I associate it to my own growing up, it makes sense. In the countryside you don’t have neither many options nor many new experiences. Tokyo children have seen a lot – they live in one of the most crowded cities in the world after all. But Oita children? Not so many opportunities down there. They try to suck as much information as they can. Also, the relationship between girls and boys was tighter among countryside children. That might also be due to the age difference, but Tokyo schoolgirls kept their interaction with boys to a minimum and vice versa. They didn’t joke, didn’t discuss and didn’t have any bodily contact like touching or pushing (that’s a big NO NO in Japan in general). Yet again, let’s not forget that countryside goes hand in hand with more conservative thoughts. As a result, a major question throughout the city walk was ‘Why are girl school uniform skirts so short in Tokyo? Ours are under the knee, here all girls wear mini!’.

All things considered, Japanese children are well-mannered, energetic, effective and obedient. They have a big imagination and ideas, and if they resist to the work norm, they will become easily extraordinary individuals. And of course they have the cutest facial expressions in the world, an insanely good asset, comparable only with kitten cuteness.

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