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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 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.

Certainly of interest to American students will be the news that substitute teachers are routinely not hired unless a teacher must be absent for a month or more! When Benjamin inquires anxiously of her first grade daughter about the quality of her substitute teacher, the little girl responds, “Oh, Kuroda sensei wrote on the board what we were supposed to do, and sometimes a teacher looked in the room” (p. 48). Finally, within this chapter Benjamin focuses on the way that teachers can separate their instructional role from the impact of exter­nal cram schools and the examination system for high school and college. “Teachers teach; they do not evaluate, and they do not hold their students’ fates in their hands directly” (p. 52). These facets of the Japanese elementary education system will aid students in compre­hending some essential characteristics of Japanese culture (individual responsibility within the group) as well as contributing to a lively debate concerning the contrasting values of American education.

Chapter nine, “Enlisting Mothers’ Efforts,” focuses on the well-publicized role of the ky¬iku mama, the “education mama.” Ben­jamin describes with emotion her reactions to the many ways that she was expected to support her children: purchasing the minutely prescribed school clothing and academic materials as well as closely supervising homework. Particularly demanding was her role with regard to the renrakucho, the first grade communication booklet. This notebook includes “not only daily homework assignments and reports on classroom activities but also special announcements or reminders. . . parents are to stamp the booklet daily, and the teacher also stamps it. . . .” Benjamin recounts her attempts to keep up with all these supervisory details, sharing with the reader her irritation when the teacher’s message suggested that “too many things were being for­gotten; we should work hard to improve the situation” (p. 194). If American students read chapters 3 and 9, they will gain valuable insights into the ways that Japan’s elementary schools stress group cooperation and emphasize family involvement in the educational process. These understandings are essential for assessing Japan’s economic advances and her chances for global integration in the twenty-first century.

For adults, both parents and teachers, there is much to ponder in this study. Several significant sections describe the functioning of the han, a term which means a platoon or working group, usually composed of five to eight children. Teachers will form and re-form these groups several times a year, and the duties of the han include academic work as well as social activities such as serving lunch or cleaning. These groups are always heterogeneous “in terms of personalities, abilities, previous friendship patterns, and previous groupings” (p. 53).

While I have read many sources which emphasize group orientation within Japanese culture and show how this characteristic is essential to understanding Japan’s history, Benjamin’s book provides concrete data on how this tendency is created.

From their earliest education, Japanese children are socialized to accept and value the support of the group. Indeed, teachers very consciously allow the han to make mistakes in the performance of its tasks. The teachers seldom intrude, encouraging students to correct each other. These school observations lead Benjamin to suggest that, instead of hierarchical principles being the key to the functioning of Japanese society, the smooth functioning of “amorphous, leaderless” groups is more important.

She observes within adult society the ability of Japanese to pitch in and organize things without any apparent allotment of tasks. Within the elementary arena she observes cooking classes where teachers only loosely supervise the cooking tasks. It is up to each group of stu­dents to organize the work; they appear to complete the tasks without discussion, argument, rules, or instruction. For instance, “when it came time to stir the batter. . . the first girl counted a number of stirs and passed the bowl on to the next child, who counted the same num­ber of stirs before passing it on. . . ” (p. 73). Surely, these observations concerning group functioning are essential to comprehending both Japan’s past and present: transition to the Meiji, the reconstruction of Japanese society after World War II, and adaptation to the current economic slowdown.

What does this analysis of Japan’s elementary education system mean, if anything, for the United States? Based on the convincingly superior achievement of Japanese children documented yet again within this book, Benjamin suggests that American education should seriously consider the following reforms:

  • Move firmly toward a national curriculum where an external examination system discriminates between strong and weak students
  • Teach elementary students with equal standard expectations; eliminate homogeneous grouping
  • Increase class size and institute an emphasis on heterogeneous grouping where students must accept greater responsibility for their learning and social behavior.

You are probably saying, “What about American diversity. . . the sanctity of our Federal system which protects our fifty state education systems. . . our emphasis on the importance of individual differences. . . the value of teacher-student interaction? Surely, none of these reforms is appropriate for the United States?” The beauty of Benjamin’s book lies not only with its insights concerning the functioning of Japanese culture. This study also compels the reader to seriously consider basic reforms of the American elementary educational system.