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Notes on Japan from an American Schoolteacher

Publication Date: 2012-06-28

As our government pursues its relentless path to standardize education, to decree the books and methods we use, the issues discussed in this 1987 essay from Phi Delta Kappan are more current than ever.

Education experts--the people who observe classrooms from afar, tote up standardized test scores, and then declare us a nation at risk--have discovered Japan. And Japan has a peculiar effect on foreigners. Some people take one look at fried fish heads or one bite of sea urchin and forever after make sure they know the way to maku-donarudo (McDonald's). Others don silk kimonos and lyrically maintain that chopsticks make food taste better. I don't think a visitor should go so far as George Bernard Shaw, who steadfastly refused to take off his shoes when entering Japanese homes and schools, but surely there is some cultural baggage we cannot abandon just because our Japanese hosts are so gracious and their children so appealing.

Too many education experts return from their whirlwind tours of Japanese schools and issue educational imperatives. Neither our schools nor those of the Japanese are well-served by quick and shallow veneration of their students sweeping the school corridors, making clever origami figures, or winning international mathematics competitions. One needs to dig a little deeper, to think about the cultural values that produce our schools--and theirs.

I, too, have been to Japan. I, too, have admired the sight of polite, orderly students, efficient teachers, and immaculate buildings. One image that sticks with me is all those shoes neatly lined up in open cubbies just inside the doorway of a junior high school in Tokyo. Anyone who has taught seventh or eighth grade in a large metropolitan school in the U. S. can appreciate what a stunning sight that is. My students padlocked their lockers and I my desk--and still our possessions were stolen.

When I entered that Tokyo school, carrying a (borrowed) dripping umbrella, I was told to leave it in an open receptacle near the shoe cubbies. My immediate reaction was panic. I clutched the umbrella tightly and thought, "I can't do that." The elegant umbrella had been lent to me by the executive of a large Japanese corporation just ten minutes after we met. I was responsible for it. What would it do to East/West relations if I lost it? School officials assured me that at the end of the day, the umbrella would be where I left it. And it was.

Nonetheless, if we are to take education seriously--both Japanese and American--we must look beyond the surface features of a clean, well-ordered, and honest place. I watched Japanese students at work and at play; I met with teachers, principals, the head of the parent-teacher organization, and members of the Tokyo Board of Education. I spend a weekend in the home of the principal of a technical high school. I talked with a teacher at a night school for dropouts. And from all this I gleaned neither theory nor agenda for changing American education. What I gleaned are a few anecdotes.

Sixteen years as a teacher in public school classrooms convinced me that one good anecdote is worth a thousand lesson plans and ten thousand standardized test scores. A good anecdote is worth a million words spewed forth from the ed-biz-whizzes who ride the policy-making circuit with an ever-changing bag of patent nostrums. One year, they're selling vouchers; another year, career ladders. Right now, they're demanding of American teachers, "Why can't you be more like the Japanese?" To answer that question, I offer a few anecdotes.

For part of my stay in Japan, I traveled with a group of seventh- and eighth-grade American students and their art teachers. On the day we were invited to visit a junior high in Tokyo to participate in their classes, we traveled to the school in separate taxis. I happened to arrive before the rest of my group, at about the same time as a cheerful, chattering, well-behaved, and uniformed bunch of Japanese students. It was raining fairly hard as these students and I walked up to the school, and I was impressed by how orderly they were--no pushing, no shoving. If there was teasing, it was of a very gentle sort. No teachers were standing guard to prevent mischief or mayhem, and none were needed.

As soon as they got inside the front door, the students put their umbrellas in the open receptacles and their shoes in the cubbies, changing into sneakers or slippers. (Think of how much easier it would be to keep our schools clean if we didn't allow children or teachers to walk through the school in muddy shoes.)

The principal and the vice principal rushed up to me, smiling, "Early," said one.

I smiled back, "That's okay. I'll just wait here."

"No," said one of the gentlemen, looking at his watch and shaking his head. The two men conferred, obviously upset. Just then a Japanese business executive who was also visiting the school appeared. He spoke with the school officials and then explained their problem to me. "They have planned an opening ceremony. The brass band will play your national anthem."

"That's nice," I smiled.

"But the ceremony will be spoiled if you stay here. They want to greet you officially as you walk up to the school. So you need to leave until it is the right time."

It was raining. But I saw I was going to mess up a carefully planned ceremony if I didn't leave. So I walked out into the rain and down the street, taking shelter under an overhang half a block away--out of sight of the school entrance. Fifteen minutes later, the rest of my group arrived. We walked up to the school and were accorded our official welcome: smiles, handshakes, exchange of business cards, and a spirited rendering of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The Japanese like timetables. They like things to run on schedule--be it the bullet train, an official visitor's welcome, or their children's education. From the time they enter school, Japanese children know they are part of a group. And that group must learn on schedule. The teacher does not permit anyone to move ahead nor acknowledge that anybody might have fallen behind. Moreover, the Japanese child learns from the beginning that he or she is a member of a right-handed group. One of our American left-handers, a spirited twelve-year-old, was not permitted to use her left hand in a calligraphy class. "That's your dirty hand," admonished the teacher. The American did as she was told and then later related the incident with a laugh, as though it were just another Japanese custom to try--like sleeping on the floor or making sure you were clean before getting into the bathtub.

But it bothered me, and I asked various people about it--parents, teachers, members of the Tokyo Board of Education. "Can a Japanese be left-handed?" It remains a mystery, one of those unanswered questions. Some people assured me that the rigidity of the past is yielding to a recognition of human differences. Others told me that the impossibility of writing Japanese characters with the left hand is the pragmatic reason for the restriction.

The left-hand question relates to a more serious issue: What happens if a child fails? Over and over I was assured that no child fails in Japanese schools. Every child moves ahead with the group. The forty children who start school together remain together until the end of sixth grade. "But what if a student doesn't seem to be learning as much as the others?" I persisted. The official answer is that the teacher gives that child extra help and the child's parents pay for the services of a private tutor. "But what if the parents complain that the books are too hard of not interesting enough or too controversial?" I asked. I told members of the board of education in Tokyo about Phyllis Schlafly. This met with stunned silence. Finally, a man explained, "Such a situation could not arise in Japan. The schoolbooks are issued by the Ministry of Education. No parent or other private citizen would be qualified to disapprove." Everyone with whom I spoke assured me that children help each other and that no child falls behind.

When I asked why teachers didn't agitate for smaller classes, I was told that forty is the "ideal" number for instruction. "A small class size cannot promote the good relationships that will be expected of students in society," a principal asserted. His tone convinced me that Confucius must have left a tablet of ideal numbers for school administrators. But later I learned that the ever-pragmatic Japanese go to a variety of sources to obtain their sacred numbers. I asked about faculty meetings and was told each school has fifteen faculty representatives who meet to discuss curriculum and other matters (Andrew Carnegie having established that fifteen is the ideal number for productive meetings).

Nonetheless, not everybody is so sanguine about forty youngsters progressing through the grades in a pack. A decade ago Japan's National Assessment of Education Research Institutes asked elementary and junior high teachers how many of their students were not keeping up with the curriculum. They acknowledged that 50 percent of their students were not keeping up with the curriculum issued by the Ministry of Education.

I did not pick up that figure in a conversation with a Japanese teacher. I read it in a book. Visitors to Japan must always be alert to the fact that many Japanese censor what they say to foreigners. Even among themselves, they often describe things as they would like them to be, not as they really are. For example, the Japanese are proud that they have never been invaded. They term the American occupation as "visiting" or "staying." Also, it is common practice to avoid answering a question, particularly if the information might wound the feelings of the foreign visitor who asked it.

When I was visiting a Buddhist shrine with a Japanese schoolteacher and an American exchange student, I noticed some little white papers tied to the shrine and asked, "What are those?"

The schoolteacher was obviously discomfited. He didn't say a word but stood there chewing on his lip. Finally, he turned to the American student and said, "I'm not sure of the translation. Why don't you explain?" She told me that the folded papers were cranes.

"Oh," I exclaimed, "prayers for peace!"

"You know about them? You know the story?" The Japanese teacher was astounded. I assured him that many American teachers had read the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes to their students and that we, too, wanted no more Hiroshimas or Nagasakis.

Almost anyone who visits Japanese schools will come back applauding the quality of the artwork produced by the children. Certainly they do produce lovely objects. But again, things aren't quite as they seem. Just because the children's art on display in the schools is lovely does not necessarily mean that the Japanese children are, in the words of a prominent commentator on U. S. education and recent enthusiast for things Japanese, "encouraged to express their ideas and feelings."

Free expression of feeling and creative blockbusting are very American notions and are quite antithetical to what the Japanese are trying to achieve in their schools. Japanese children are taught the very precise rules of a given structure--be it haiku or fan making or flower arranging or mathematics. The relationship between formula and feeling may be something for philosophers to argue over, but anyone who observes Japanese art classes in action will have no doubt that form is what counts and feelings must take care of themselves. There isn't much time for feelings--even after school. Students are too busy with cram classes, memorizing set answers for that high school exam that looms large in the lives of young Japanese children.

All of us American teachers in the room were impressed by how well the students shared the tools--no fuss, no noise, and no mess. One glue brush was sufficient for each group, and the glue ended up only where it was supposed to go. (This may not seem remarkable to all readers, but remember, we are talking about twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.) As individual students needed special supplies--a special kind of paper, a knife--they helped themselves from an array on the teacher's desk. "X-Acto knives!" gasped an American teacher. "I wouldn't dare hand them out in a group this size."

A Japanese boy drew "coolness" in Japanese characters on his fan. Then he drew a hanging bell, the symbol of beautiful noise. "Traditional decorations for Japanese fans," explained a translator in approving tones. So the boy had decorated his fan correctly, according to accepted tradition. (I could hear an American teacher saying to her class, "Think of all the sounds you think are beautiful." And there wouldn't be a right or wrong answer because beauty is in the eye--and the ear--of the beholder and everybody has a right to his or her own opinion and so on.) When an American sitting at that table carefully copied "coolness" from the Japanese, everybody smiled and clapped. The television crew filming our visit rushed over to record this event. Everybody was delighted that the American had gotten it right. When one student copies another's work in an American school, there is accusation and acrimony, not applause.

This is not to suggest that all the Japanese students produced the same thing. Each group was assigned a traditional form within which to work. Some results, then, were wonderful. But it is crucial that the casual American observer understand and appreciate the limitations.

And some students, both American and Japanese, did not so readily fit into this routine. A Japanese boy sat fanning himself, not putting any decoration at all on his fan. The teacher was very busy helping the large number of students with the many different techniques going on simultaneously. I couldn't tell whether she didn't notice this boy doing nothing or whether she was carefully seeming not to notice. Every so often the recalcitrant boy got up and took a took a tool from her desk. By the end of the period he had four tools but no work on his fan.

I asked a young translator (himself a product of similar schools), "If this were a regular class--one without visitors--would a boy like that be allowed to do nothing? Would he be punished, made to do the work after school, or what?"

The translator was unnerved that I focused on the atypical student. (I could imagine his thoughts: "Just like an American. Here's this large class tidily working at the assigned task, and this troublesome visitor insists on noticing the exception.") The translator told me, "Just a minute," and walked to the other side of the room--to watch the boy more closely and, no doubt, to gather his own thoughts. Finally, he came back and replied with what I came to recognize, at least by American expectations, as a Japanese non-answer: "He is a good boy. He just likes to pretend that he is a juvenile delinquent." The translator had never set eyes on that boy before, and I wasn't asking about that particular boy anyway. I wanted to know how the schools work, what happens to kids who don't cooperate, kids who don't learn on schedule, kids who fall between the cracks.

This was a question I asked over and over in as many ways as I could muster during my two weeks of visiting Japanese schools. I never got an answer. What I got were piles of timetables--slickly produced schedules of what the Japanese student learns and when he or she learns it. Japan is so inundated with visiting members of educational commissions and committees that these schedules are printed in English. A visitor can know what every eight-year-old in Japan is doing at 10:03 on Tuesday. But it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to find out how an eight-year-old might grow up to be that man I saw on his hands and knees scrubbing the steps at the railroad station.

One of our American students did not follow directions in the fanmaking class either. He was quickly intimidated by the way his fellow group members were able to form bits of bright paper into intriguing collages, so he decided to draw a picture on his fan instead. The vice principal of the school was in the room, walking around, genially commenting on the students' progress. Seeing the American drawing a scene of kimono-clad women and temples on his fan, the vice principal shook his head. He pointed to the Japanese students at the same table, all busily working on collages, as directed by the teacher. A few minutes later he returned, "Time passing," he cautioned the American, who grinned and cheerfully continued his picture. The administrator was visibly distressed but refrained from more direct intervention.

I have read that the Japanese find our penchant for asking questions to be embarrassing and rude. In fact, once I was being interviewed by a Tokyo reporter, and, after he asked me a tough question about American kids who don't succeed in school, I tried to turn the tables, asking him the same thing about Japanese schools. He replied, "I'm the one who is supposed to be asking the questions." At first I thought he was kidding, and I laughed. But then I realized that he was very serious. I had violated the proper interview structure. Needless to say, he didn't answer my question but continued with more of his own. I was interviewed three times and the same question was always prominent: "What about all the race riots in your schools?" Like Americans, the Japanese are prey to their own stereotypes.

I was frustrated by the Japanese eagerness to provide stock answers to my questions. They were prepared to discuss broad social issues, such as the one they call "bullying in the schools," but they were unwilling to focus on one bad boy. I talked to an American who had taught at a Japanese vocational high school, not a school that produces students for first-rate colleges or white-collar jobs. It is, in fact, a school where students admit that they hate school, that they are only interested in fashions, rock music, and fast cars. "Ask about the 'hitting teacher,'" she advised me. She explained that in each school one teacher is selected as the "hitting teacher," and it is the job of this teacher to make a public example of unruly or disrespectful students. A common ploy is to pull one student to the side during the first school assembly, slam him against the wall, and actually beat him hard enough to leave marks. This serves as a warning to all the others of what will happen if they don't toe the line.

And so, when I met with the principals, with members of the boards of education, and with other teachers, I asked about this hitting teacher. Their answers were resounding and unanimous. "Impossible!" they said. When I tried to press a junior high school teacher on this point, she said it is her job to talk to a recalcitrant student, to reason with him until he "is persuaded" to behave. A principal listed appropriate punishments: standing in the corner, missing lunch, extra assignments, a longer cleaning period. They assured me that nobody would dream of hitting a student.

"What do you think of our children cleaning the schools?" beamed Mr. B. Watanabe, head of the influential parent-teacher organization and himself a principal for thirteen years. The Japanese enjoy the astonishment American visitors exhibit when they learn that there are no janitors in Japanese schools, that students clean the schools. Watanabe explained that Christian countries hire specialists to clean their schools but Japan follows the Chinese tradition that makes it the duty of the schools to impart the importance of cleanliness to children. The parent-teacher organization is preparing a booklet urging parents to give their children more cleaning and other chores at home, though Watanabe acknowledges that crowded apartment conditions and the fact that students are too busy studying for high school exams may prevent this from happening. Watanabe wanted to be sure that I understood that the importance of student cleaning is not for them to help but to share. Such sharing, he emphasized, teaches children to become valuable members of the group--be it family, school, community, or nation.

Americans who might be quick to jump on this cleaning idea as a device for building student responsibility while saving tax dollars should realize the deep roots and significance of the practice in Japan. I have heard of a Zen community in which members rise at 3:00 A.M. to wipe their floors until they shine--at the same time, so the theory goes, making their spirits very bright. Principals also inject something of a mystical note into their explanations of students' "sweeping clean their minds" as they clean the school corridors.

American enthusiasts should recognize, however, that such cleaning is not limited to schoolchildren and practitioners of Zen. Teachers take turns cleaning the swimming pool--even during vacations. In some businesses employees are expected to take turns coming in early and cleaning the place--including the toilets. As one principal remarked, "There is satisfaction in knowing you can depend on a group and they on you."

The Japanese passion for doing things in the prescribed way can take Americans by surprise. A small group of us signed up to take a watercolor lesson. A translator relayed the directions of the master teacher to us. Before each student was a small fruit arrangement to be painted in accordance with the technique demonstrated by the master. Some of the combinations were provocative: peach, pepper, and kiwi cut in half; small bunch of grapes, peach, and two plums; and so on. My eyes riveted on a bunch of huge, dark purple grapes grouped with a lemon. I'd priced a similar assortment of fruit in the basement of a large department store and then hurried back to the hotel to check with translators whether I was mixed up about money conversion. Could one bunch of grapes cost twelve dollars and one melon thirty dollars? Yes, indeed, the translator assured me, explaining the Japanese custom of presenting perfectly formed fruits as special gifts. Now I was learning that they also used the perfectly formed fruits for still-life models.

Since the group I was traveling with was made up of art teachers and their students, there was no hesitation in picking up the paintbrushes. After watching the master quickly paint his fruit, the Americans started on their own productions. Though they were proud of their work, they were in for a shock. The master teacher sat with each student and quickly painted over his or her work, deftly shading each piece of fruit in the "acceptable" manner. The American art teachers were outraged. "What kind of instruction is this?" they wondered. The teachers were hurt. One girl looked at her redone painting. "It's nice," she acknowledged, "but it isn't mine."

The Americans did not appreciate the fact that the master saw his job not as encouraging the expression of individual style but as teaching a revered pattern or form. Ian Burma points out that, unlike French, Italian, and American cooks, a Japanese cook does not usually invent recipes. Rather, an apprentice spends years imitating the movements of a master, learning the kata, the form, of the trade. "A Japanese master never explains anything," says Burma. "The question of why one does something is irrelevant. It is the form that counts."

I can think of all sort of justification for the master's technique of showing the Americans where their creations did not measure up to the standards of the traditional style he was demonstrating. But before we try to transplant Japanese educational methods into American schools, it is crucial that we examine the reactions of these Americans to some of those methods. And we must take these reactions seriously. We don't need to claim that our teaching strategies and goals are better than those of the Japanese, but we do need to understand how very different they are. The American teachers and students who were enjoying other aspects of Japanese tradition--chopsticks, communal bathing, and kimonos--were suddenly up against a tradition they found repugnant. The teacher who had ecstatically declared that "chopsticks make food taste better" was the most outraged of all when the master painter tinkered with her painting. Of course the American strategy of instruction often leads to superficiality and occasionally breeds chaos. Today's critics like to point out that we offer a smattering of many things but guarantee expertise in none. Yet I saw some evidence that indicates that Japanese training does not produce the uniform level of expertise some American enthusiasts would claim for it.

For example, we read that all Japanese youngsters learn to play musical instruments. Since band was my own great love from fourth grade on (I learned to play a number of instruments and pursued music theory), I watched a sixth-grade music class with great interest. The forty-member recorder group played "You Are My Sunshine" and some traditional Japanese folk songs. Since the melody produced was recognizable, I have to assume that some students in that class had indeed become minimally proficient on the recorder, but it was hardly a performance one would label as sparkling. At least half a dozen students didn't play a note during our hour-long visit. They held the recorders to their lips--and giggled--but they did not blow a note. And those who did blow produced a plodding sort of sound.

I observed a similar lack of enthusiastic participation in a high school math class. The students had worksheets filled with agonizingly long columns of addition. They were using abacuses. I sat at a table with four students and watched their flying fingers. Everyone at that table had the same problems. Two girls noticed they had come up with different answers but neither cared enough to recheck the addition. They just shrugged and went on.

A lesson in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, exposed the East/West differences once again. A master teacher demonstrated a basic ikebana technique. The Americans watched closely, some even taking notes. Then they took their own flowers and branches and tried to copy what the teacher had done. Since she was accustomed to giving demonstration lessons to large groups of foreigners, this teacher was gentler in suggesting where individual Americans had gone wrong. And since few Americans knew a thing about Japanese flower arranging, they were more receptive to her suggestions.

At the same time, an assistant teacher moved around the room, helping people get their flowers moving in the right directions. When a cameraman from a Tokyo TV station started to film an American's arrangement, the assistant teacher rushed in to give it one final poke. After all, many Japanese viewing the show would know the way things were supposed to be. Throughout all our lessons, our Japanese hosts made every effort to help us do things the right way. They wanted us to look good.

When I told an American thirteen-year-old that the assistant teacher had been studying ikebana for fifteen years and was still taking lessons regularly, she was astonished. "Why would anybody need to study it for so long?"

"Then you think you will be able to do ikebana when you get home?" I prodded.

"Sure," she said. "It might be hard to find some of the branches--I don't think our florists sell branches the way the Japanese do--but I can arrange them the way I want. You just do it the way it looks good to you."

Out of the mouths of babes. She might have asked why an apprentice cook spends three years learning "the perfect way" to slop a bunch of rice from his right had to his left, forming the perfect ball, or why a karate apprentice spends so much time sweeping the gym. The thirteen-year-old's question is not just an expression of juvenile arrogance or insensitivity; it also springs from exuberance and self-confidence. Her question is something that proponents of transplanting Japanese methods into American soil must reckon with. We do, after all, encourage our youngsters to believe that they can do anything, to believe that their opinions and feelings count. We do set them many problems for which we provide no model, no explanation, no answer. We expect our students to figure things out for themselves.

One of our educational buzzphrases of the sixties is now resurfacing: divergent thinking. Japanese educators concede that they might not be training or even encouraging their students to think. I heard this concern expressed at every level of Japanese education--boards of education, principals, teachers, and parents. But for us American teachers plain old thinking isn't even enough. For us, thinking must be divergent, off-the-wall--the more original, the better. We hold competitions for gifted children in which we ask them to solve problems that require creativity, to figure out different uses for such common objects as a paper clip, a newspaper, a brick. In these competitions, the children whose answers are the most unlike everybody else's score the most points. Those who do things the "accepted" way, the same way as everybody else, need not apply. So much for teamwork.

I mentioned to the Japanese educational leaders that American elementary students are encouraged to think about controversial topics. They learn about acid rain, nuclear weapons, and so on; they discuss politics and hold mock presidential elections. The officials acknowledged that such opportunities are rare in Japanese schools. "We give knowledge, based on taught information," explained a principal. "We can't encourage creativity until we have taught information. There will be opportunity in college for students to develop their own thoughts and form opinions," he continued. I could not help but wonder how this reliance on college fit in with Prime Minister Nakasone's description of the academic atmosphere of Japanese colleges as "Disneyland."

A member of the board of education said that students need what the Japanese call judging capability and coordinating capability. I asked the educational leaders sitting at the table with me how one teaches judging capability. There was a long silence--followed by giggling. Finally one of them said, "Ah, that is difficult." Mishima said that in the Japanese language exactness of expression is purposely avoided. I wasn't sure whether my companions were avoiding precision or avoiding controversy, but in either case I have no notion of how they produce judging capability. I do have a notion of how they produce letter writers. Students learn a textbook format: inquire about the well-being of the recipient and then remark about the weather. There are set phrases for each season, even for each month.

Most critics of Japan's educational system (including the Japanese themselves) point to the fact that it is driven by the examination system and that the exams measure students' willingness to memorize rather than their ability to solve problems. Japanese teachers are ever cognizant of the proverb, "A nail that sticks out must be hammered in." They are duty-bound to produce a standardized product.

In contrast, the folklore of American education reveres those school misfits who grew up to be Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein. We are ever worried (we say) about making a potential genius sit in the corner, crushing the instinct to follow a different drummer. Japan's Confucian roots argue against catering to the individual, against encouraging the exceptional. In Japan, one must always consider the good of the group. When Japanese parents were asked what they expected the schools to teach their children, 98.3 percent replied: the discipline of group life.

Even exceptions to the rule are orchestrated. I remarked to a principal how impressed I was when our American students played against a Japanese team in a version of dodgeball. The gym was packed with bystanders, and every time the foreign students scored a hit, they received resounding cheers. "Sportsmanship is emphasized," the principal smiled. "Except when a school has a reputation for excelling in a certain sport. Then victory may be the goal." Presumably, such a school's opponents would not be cheered.

We must be ever wary of stereotypes, of course. Even when talking of a school system with such a centralized, regimented curriculum it is dangerous to refer to the Japanese schools as though they all fit into one mold. Cliches are especially troublesome in Japan because the Japanese seem to enjoy the same ones we do. "The Japanese are very good at copying," three different translators assured me. "Americans are very democratic people," smiled a business executive when I commented that the Japanese are much better about buckling up in their cars than are Americans. And American students are very quick to pick up some overworked Japanese abstractions. As we sat looking at the fifteen rocks in the famed Roan-hi Garden, one bewildered eighth grader asked, "What is this?" His friend quickly supplied the answer in very solemn tones, "We are observing the basic elements of life." They both laughed.

When I ordered rice and my Japanese companion rolls, the waiter, knowing the way things are supposed to be, brought the rolls to me. In another restaurant, when our entire group of Americans ordered rice, the waiter was stunned. He brought someone out from the kitchen to explain that they could provide us with bread instead. After all, everybody knows that Americans insist on bread with their meals. We stood firm for rice, however, and the waiters and the cook stood around to watch us eat it. Perhaps they thought we might get sick.

Over and over, the Japanese asked me the same question: "Can you eat sushi?"--as though consuming raw fish were an inherent trait or a special talent. When I told my very amiable questioners that I can and do eat sushi, I don't think they believed me. They preferred to believe that a foreigner wouldn't even try such an odd thing and that, if she did, she'd find it indigestible. They prefer to believe that sushi is uniquely Japanese.

But we shouldn't make too much of the popularity of sushi bars in the U. S. or of McDonald?s in Japan. Such superficial familiarity in no way indicates that the nations are coming closer to understanding each other. We must be especially wary of a cultural arrogance (and naivete) that presumes that since Disneyland has come to Tokyo, Japan is ready to sign on as the fifty-first state.

In addition to being extremely proud of their cultural traditions, many Japanese are convinced (and this conviction is centuries old) that they are a fundamentally different people, different not just from Americans but from all other peoples. Bookstores carry scores of best-selling volumes attesting to the fact that Japanese is the most difficult language in the world, that Japanese blood is a different temperature from the blood of other races, that the Japanese have a different type of brain. When I was sitting with a group of Japanese educators, one of them observed, "We all studied English for twelve years, but we still need a translator." He smiled deprecatingly and then explained, "The Japanese find it almost impossible to learn English." Basil Chamberlain, among others, has pointed out that English is taught in Japan "as an academic exercise with so much attention to memorizing finer points of grammar. . .that it ceases to be a means of communication." But educational leaders find it more convenient to blame their genes than their teaching methods.

I was puzzled when members of the parent-teacher organization and the Tokyo Board of Education kept insisting, "You are a brave and courageous woman." They thought it phenomenal that I would journey to their shores all by myself--without husband, relatives, neighbors, or colleagues from work. I misunderstood the source of their awe and replied, "But Japan isn't dangerous." They were, of course, referring not to physical danger but to a kind of psychic trauma. They found it incredible that a woman would venture forth all by herself to a land a foreign as theirs, a land, after all, in which the people eat raw fish and speak an impossible language.

I mentioned that I had decided to change professions after having been a teacher for more than sixteen years. The change meant moving across the country and taking on an entirely new set of responsibilities. (I left out the part about leaving my husband back at home.) I pointed out that though my vocational change was dramatic, it was by no means unique. Americans are constantly on the move--physically and professionally. So our educators have to help students become self-reliant, able to stand alone--anywhere. I asked if they thought that their educational system prepared its students to make such changes when they were forty years old. They replied as one with an emphatic, "Impossible!"

Japanese teachers prepare their students to function as members of a group, as people who can be relied on to fill their assigned role. This group identity seems to prepare the well-educated, hardworking citizens of Japan for the paucity of creature comforts they face. The beauty of the traditional Japanese home is little more than elusive abstraction for people who face the overwhelming population density of the urban areas. I found it incongruous that, in a nation so fond of technical gadgetry, only one-third of the people in Tokyo have access to a flush toilet. Roughly one-third of Japanese communities have modern sewer systems (compared with 85 percent in the U.S.), and the pollution in Osaka is monumental. In a nation with an overabundance of color televisions and video games, there are few dishwashers or clothes dryers. Perhaps the electronic gadgets are only for men. Because of the terrible housing crunch, one-third of the people who work in Tokyo must commute more than three hours to work. But point to these facts and the man on the street will respond with statistics about the nation's affluence, the balance of trade, the bullet train, even Disneyland. The Japanese seem to assume that what is good for the nation--the group--must be good for them individually.

Members of blue-ribbon education commissions rush out of our universities exclaiming that in Japanese schools nothing is left to chance. They point to a curriculum that is sequential: every first grader in the land learns the same thing, so that the second-grade teacher can carry on from where the first-grade teacher left off.

And, on the surface at least, this is how the Japanese system of education works. The government assigns the required texts, the teachers teach the prescribed material, and the students pass from rung to run on the carefully constructed pedagogical ladder--right on up to lifetime employment at a large corporation. Male, white-collar workers do anyway. Nobody talks much about how the Japanese educational system works for women or for blue-collar workers and laborers. Women make up 40 percent of the work force in Japan, but they are seldom promoted to higher positions than answering the phone and brewing the ubiquitous green tea. "Honor the man, despise the woman," teaches an ancient proverb, and one gets the feeling that education is vital for Japanese boys but still only ornamental for girls.

I kept asking, Where does that woman weeding the median strip along the highway fit into the educational and social system? Or the man removing the scuff marks from the stairs at the train station (using something that looked like a toothbrush)? Such people certainly do not fit our image of Japan as a combination of Madame Butterfly and industrial whiz kid. I asked everyone I met--from junior high school students and teachers to translators to a priest in a Zen temple--how the clerk at McDonald's fits into the educational plan that leaves nothing to chance. Are menial laborers considered failures? Do teachers worry that they have failed them? Does the Ministry of Education worry that the books have failed them?

I never got an answer. Indeed, people seemed puzzled by the question. Of course, nobody fails in Japanese schools--at least not for six years or so. The class of forty youngsters that starts out together in first grade will still be together in sixth grade. A group identity is carefully nurtured through these years. And it is quite wonderful to see those cheerful youngsters helping one another. But something quite unsettling is rumbling beneath this carefully controlled surface in which students wear uniforms even to school picnics and girls are not permitted to perm their hair. Somewhere beneath this calm and comforting surface there are the cram schools, the pushy education-mamas, a brutal sorting-out for a wide array of high schools, punk rockers in Yoyogi Park, teen suicide, and so on. But that's another story. Those fifth graders do score extremely well on math tests, and the Japanese do sell a lot of cars and cameras. And this is what the expert American commentators seem to care about.

An educational bandwagon seems to be gathering momentum for bringing the methods and materials of Japanese education to the United States. But I wonder if the experts riding this bandwagon aren't distorting the Japanese system by zeroing in on the test results and the carefully arranged sequences of skills. Would it not be equally valid to concentrate instead on the Japanese penchant for collaborative learning or group copying from a master model?

Numerous American observers have claimed that the Japanese do so well because they leave nothing to chance. But nobody explains how a chance-free system could be transplanted to America. Nobody asks teachers why they might prefer philosopher/educator David Hawkins' image of good teaching. Hawkins tells us that the good teacher must be ready for the unexpected appearance of the bird in the window. I will concede that the American willingness to "go with" the serendipitous and the novel is our weakness. We often wander off track, follow frivolous fads, and forget to keep in touch with a central core. But our flexibility, our willingness to try new things, to let children explore on their own, is also our very real strength. And it cannot be handed out by a ministry of education.

World traveler and social commentator Paul Theroux cautions that things can be too orderly. He is troubled by the sight of a mob of people waiting on a sidewalk in Osaka for the light to change. "A society without jaywalkers might indicate a society without artists." American educators should stop and ponder what an elementary school classroom without divergent thinkers, without nails sticking out in all directions, might indicate. Japan is a wonderful place to visit, but would we really want to go to school there?

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