Education About Asia: Online Archives

Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children

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Reviewed by Diana Marston-Wood

This wonderful new study of Japan’s elementary school system is valuable for us in three distinct ways: as required student reading, in part or in its entirety, within high school or college classes; as teachers trying to understand how Japanese culture works; and as American adults, teachers, and often parents, concerned about the American educational system. I find Benjamin’s approach a welcome complement to earlier analyses.

In my own high school Japanese history classes I have typically focused on Japanese education for at least a week. Sources from which I have used selections are the following: Rohlen, Japan’s High Schools; White, The Educational System in Japan; Peak, Learning to Go to School in Japan; and the book and accompanying film Preschool in Three Cultures. Benjamin’s anthropological study is unique for her intensely personal tone. She is reporting on her involvement in the education of her first-and fifth-grade children in Urawa City during the years 1989–90. She attempts to adopt the “education mama” role and report honestly on the areas in which she experiences irritation as well as admiration. In the last few chapters of the book, Benjamin moves beyond daily routines and expectations to a controversial analysis of the applicability of the Japanese system to American education.

For high school and introductory level college students, I recommend using chapters 3 and 9. Within chapter 3, “Day-to-Day Routines,” Benjamin explores many aspects of the elementary system which will intrigue our students: large time periods within the daily schedule when students have time for free, potentially creative play; the built-in time for school cleaning; the fact that each class of students has its own homeroom where teachers come for each subject. . . “there is a sense in which the room belongs to the students. . . more than the teacher. . . children’s imprint on the classroom. . . is much stronger than the teacher’s” (p. 41). Extremely interesting are Benjamin’s observations concerning the extent to which peers, not teachers, validate and correct students’ oral work. All of these practices serve to place responsibility for responsible behavior and academic achievement on the students themselves.