Educational Rigors Begin Early in East Asia

by Steve McCarty

Professor in Japan


Originally published by Bismarck State College, North Dakota, in an electronic literary magazine: Webgeist, 3 (2), 27 May 1997. "Notes from the Pacific Rim" column, third installment.


For those who have not been to Japan, this article goes down to the neighborhood level to describe some of the variegated specifics that are often missing amid the plethora of generalities about Japan. A day in the life of eight-year-old schoolboy Kiley Ishikawa demonstrates how educational rigors begin early in East Asia. Citing commonalities as well as differences between Japan and countries such as Singapore, South Korea and China may also shed light on actual diverse practices within the educational ethos of East Asia.

To set the scene, even the rural town of Kokubunji on Shikoku, the least modern among the four largest islands of Japan, can be seen on the Web. This area is the bonsai capital of Japan, and English-speaking grower Hiroyoshi Yamaji now takes orders via the Net. The town orginated with 8th Century Nara Period Buddhism, namely Kokubunji Temple. Nowadays, however, Kokubunji is becoming more of a suburban bed town because of its location next to Takamatsu, a capital of the Inland Sea region (pop.: 320,000). [Since this writing Kokubunji has actually become part of Takamatsu City]. Tiny Kagawa Prefecture (pop.: 1 million) is sometimes called "Japan in miniature," and tends to the middle statistically, so it is representative in many ways of the "real Japan" outside of Tokyo.

Kagawa retains some compelling historical sites, although its natural beauty noticeably diminishes every year. One of the finest of all Japanese strolling gardens is "Ritsurin Park" in Takamatsu. The pine-forested mountain behind the park is typical of the many small but steep and conical mountains throughout Kagawa, with Kokubunji Town surrounded by them.

Kindergarten in Japan runs from age three or four to six, and the large but well-organized classes with school uniforms are the training grounds for "becoming Japanese." Kindergarten and elementary school seem to be fun for the children, with pressure building in junior and senior high school toward "exam hell," the sense that one's career or status is determined for life by college entrance exam results. This reflects a credentialistic society, dominated by big companies, with little scope for entrepreneurship. A bureaucratic social organization and its effects on education can be seen throughout East Asia, harking back to the Confucianistic meritocracy of ancient China. The severe competition among students with similar backgrounds in a standard national curriculum results in the world's best test-takers, with Singapore tops in the world because it is a city-state with no educationally disadvantaged countryside.

In the Japanese countryside people look up to the biggest cities and many younger people want to move away to Tokyo or Osaka. But this is placing the priority on availability of information and social amenities. Contrary to the image of "rabbit hutches" and subway staff pushing crowds into the trains, most people in the fairly urbanized "countryside" of Japan live in spacious houses they own and can usually find a seat on the train or bus. A roadside parking space in any city is probably a rumor, but more people outside the cities drive cars because there is room for them. Still, the air is fairly clean in the countryside amid the uncrowded highways and occasional twenty to thirty-story condos or office buildings. Compared to the even more crowded squalor of other parts of Asia, Japan is urbanized nationwide, but pleasantly so with nearly the whole population of 125 million enjoying middle-class affluence.

Kiley Ishikawa lives in a four-bedroom house, not unusual in being mostly Western style but with one traditional-style room with a tatami mat floor and so forth. He meets the other elementary school kids in the neighborhood and they theoretically walk to school together for safety. In practice there are many stragglers, for one reason to avoid being bullied by older kids. The school year has many more days than that of Western countries, and each day is longer. Moreover, there is much homework, including not only weekends but also vacations. Mothers supplement this, because other mothers do, with correspondence courses and lessons at after-school schools. At the secondary school level, cram school life begins in earnest for university aspirants, but so far Kiley has just taken lessons he wanted: swimming, karate and abacus.

As for what is studied, there is a nearly 100% literacy rate in the 2,000 Chinese characters, two phonetic syllabaries and the English alphabet. That alone demands much study, but a country with few natural resources feels hard-pressed to overcome this with math and science. Early in the third grade Kiley multiplies three digit numbers by two-digit ones and has started division. He can multiply and divide larger numbers on the abacus, which goes back to about 500 B.C. in China.

Not all study is drudgery, either. One homework assignment that starts in first grade is the picture diary, reporting what the child has enjoyed over the weekend. Drawing the picture tends to add a cognitive dimension to strengthen the writing. One second grade assignment was to research festivals, go to a certain one, and then report it all in the picture diary. Kiley's mother said that they would have had to go to the library, except that there was an entry on festivals in Kiley's children's encyclopedia. In such ways supplementary educational materials also tend to become a necessity. Kiley's father, yours truly, took this opportunity to explain about citing sources that were not his own writing, but Kiley sniffed that he already knew that.

To the dismay of his parents, Kiley has never shown any aptitude except for playing, but the educational system is forcing him to learn an enormous amount. It is taking a day-dreamer who would otherwise play outside all day--like his father in his youth--and enculturating him into a society where people have to pay attention and study hard.

Educators outside of Japan could not import the whole ethos that drives students, but they could at least investigate what is going on and select elements that might be enriching to import. This is, after all, what East Asians have been doing with things Western.

Now while there are many traditions common to East Asia with roots in the Chinese cradle of civilization, each country has its own particular practices. This is shown when East Asian countries come into conflict with one another or prove to be a mystery to each other. Generally speaking, South Koreans are far more open than Japanese nationals. Taiwanese students in Japan once said that Chinese are more like Americans than they are like Japanese.

A delegation from the Singapore National Institute of Education, not to be complacent, recently came to Tokyo looking for tips on how Japanese schools instill a sense of commitment to community and society. Since I was invited to meet them, I checked if their assumptions were true or not. Voluntarism is indeed part of the secondary school curriculum in some parts of East Asia such as Hong Kong, but it is still at the proposal stage in Japan. My Japanese informants stated that local schools do not instill a sense of community at all, so people tend to pursue selfish aims within the group-oriented system. Singapore should rather look to a multicultural society like that of the U.S. for inspiration, they said. It turned out that even a Singaporean with degrees from Japanese and Western universities had been projecting Singapore's desiderata onto the unknown screen of Japan. So if East Asians can be so mysterious to each other, then how much more easily can Westerners be deceived by appearances and project mistaken assumptions onto the folding screen of a country as enigmatic as Japan.


Updated on 27 October 2016

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