Homeschooling in Japan



Keiko's Corner

Reflections on Education by a homeschooling Japanese Mom

Welcome to Keiko's Corner.

Keiko Ichihara of Tokyo is a busy homeschooling mom of two. She has been writing articles in Japanese for other homeschooling web sites for some time now, and we are pleased to be able to present some of her writings in English here. The first in the series is concerning the Japanese exam system. We are looking forward to others as they follow!

Keiko now has her own blog, Peace-seeker. Check it out!

Table of contents:

Thoughts on the Japanese High School Entrance Examination Procedure

The time for the annual high school entrance examinations has rolled around once again. This year I found myself watching a TV program attempting to explain this practice, and it got me started thinking about the content of these exams.

For a long time, the form these exams take has demonstrated a peculiar tendency. The focus is not on the material learned but rather the grading technique; exams are designed to be easy for the teacher to grade, and consequently students are expected to be skilled at this sort of test-taking. Even if this test-taking skill isn’t the point of children’s education, acquiring the skill takes over and becomes more important than the actual knowledge. Entire classes are set up to teach kids how to take these kinds of tests! What is worse, all classes focus at least partially on acquiring this skill. In addition, being able to pass a test of this sort requires a vast amount of rote memorization, which leads to neglect of the details. Of course there is no time for a student to deliberate on a particular subject if he or she wants to get a good score on the exam. I think this practice has been distorting Japanese school education. Schools are doing the opposite of educating children to be thinking individuals; rather schools are training children to produce in them a conditioned response.

It was when I was teaching at a college entrance preparatory school that I first became aware of this distortion in our education system. Although most of my students were around 20 years old, they couldn’t write a composition properly. It was as though they were still writing at the elementary school level. Soon I began to realize that this was a direct result of the way Japanese is taught at school. Many of them have little experience reading famous literary works, having so little time to appreciate great works because they are so caught up with the business of rote memorization to survive their highly competitive school life. (They know some literary works only by the titles of books and the names of authors needed to pass the exam.) In addition, the content of Japanese classes often consist of questions like this: "What does this pronoun show?" or "What part of the sentence does this adverb modify?" and so on. Teachers never take the time to teach students how to write an effective composition or paragraph that would attract an audience.

I also question the method of teaching math and algebra. Although the method of teaching math and algebra in Japan has been admired by parents and educators all over the world, it is also built on memory and conditioned reflex, rather than developing children’s thinking power. Students are simply required to memorize formulas given in the textbook. For exercises, all they have to do is insert the numbers given into the formula and produce an answer. Teachers rarely show how a formula was derived. I wonder if we can call this real understanding.

I have the strongest antipathy against history education however. The current curriculum just requires a student to memorize volumes of dates, names, and facts concerning historical landmarks. There is never time for a teacher to go into the details behind these facts. They never let students consider what they have learned from history, or what they can do for their society when they grow up as the support and driving force of the future world. (Fewer and fewer children learn what historical incidents meant and how they have effected us through history and into the present day.) Worst of all is that the Educational Ministry tries to force students to learn from textbooks in which the truth was distorted by government for their convenience: the truth of the World War II was twisted in the textbook by the government in order to justify the involvement of Japanese government in World War II. Although the Ministry of Education defends this curriculum by saying, "all of our curriculums are designed in order to bring up proper Japanese citizens ( for our nation)", this reminds me of the brain- washing education that the Japanese government conducted at the time of World War II.

I’ve been considering seriously what would make good education for our children and our future world. I feel it must be crucial to educate children to have enough thinking power. As thinking individuals, they can find out or to create the best way for their future, and make best use of the knowledge acquired through their learning.

Homeschooling and the Law in Japan

Recently those of us in the homeschooling community have been continuing an ongoing discussion regarding the legality of homeschooling in Japan. This argument has been going on since Tomiko Kugai contributed her opinions on this issue in an article which appears on this website. Soon after this article appeared, others came out with the opposite opinion which insisted that Tomiko Kugai’s view on Japanese law concerning homeschooling was incorrect and that homeschooling was completely illegal in Japan.

Personally I don't really disagree with either of these opinions. I think the opinion expressed in Tomiko Kugai's article is the ideal that we are striving for, and the opposite opinion is, so far, the reality of the current state of homeschooling in Japan.

At this time there is the Gakkou Kyouiku Hou ( School Education Law) in Japan, and this law provides that parents and guardians have an obligation to make their children attend school. In the event that parents or guardian neglect their duties, a schoolmaster or principal can send warnings to make their children attend school. If parents or guardians continue to refuse, there may be the possibility that they will be punished---Gakkou Kyouiku Hou; article 21,22,39. (In cases in which one of the parents has a foreign nationality (citizenship), however, Education Board may admit them as an exception, according to Article 22 marginal notes. The final decision, however, is entrusted to a schoolmaster or principal in charge.)

We should note, however, that the constitution of Japan says only that "all children have the right to receive a standard education, and parents or guardians have an obligation to protect children’s right to receive this standard education." No description which equates school attendance with this "standard education that children are due to receive" can be found in the constitution. In short, we can say that the Gakkou Kyouiku Hou is not perfectly faithful to the constitution.

There is additional proof that the constitution of Japan doesn’t really intend the word "Gimukyouiku" to mean compulsory schooling. The present constitution of Japan was established after World War II, under the censorship of the allied forces, especially the U.S. They took it into consideration when preparing the draft that they would want to prevent future aggression or inhumane treatment of citizens by the Japanese government. They may have been aware at that time that if the constitution gave the government the authority to force citizens to attend schools in which students are taught according to a curriculum designed under government censorship, there would be the possibility that the brain-washing education conducted by the Japanese military government during the World War II could be revived once more. The J.H.Q. would never have allowed the Japanese government to make such a dangerous constitution.

Then why are some Japanese homeschooling families daring to challenge the Gakkou Kyouiku Hou? We should remind ourselves that laws are made by people, not by God. They can never be completely perfect. In addition, we should not forget that the law exists fundamentally to protect citizen’s rights and is for their benefit. If a law creates a situation in which people’s undoubted rights are threatened, the law will have to be revised. At the same time, we have to remember that those who can change public opinion and trigger the movement to change laws are us citizens.


Video Games and Mental Development in Children

Nowadays video games seem to have become the most popular form of entertainment shared by all generations. Such games have another important role in that they give the generations that did not grow up using computers an opportunity to become more familiar with them. However, I have heard recently about reports showing a downside to heavy use of video games among children, and I would like to discuss that side of video games in this essay.

For a variety of reasons, I have not given video games to my children so far. To begin with, I'm afraid that watching the flickering pictures of such games may arrest the development of their eyesight, which is an ongoing process until children reach the age of about eight. Another concern is that, if I give my children video games before they had formed the habit of reading for entertainment, they might prefer playing video games to reading books. I would hate for them to spend their young days without knowing the real pleasure of reading books, which enrich our lives in so many ways. What I feel the greatest misgivings about, however, is the relationship between long hours of video game play and the development of children's mental processes. For example, when we read books, we have to imagine the spectacles, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that are described in words, and synthesize them in our brain in order to feel as if we are watching a movie. At that time a good area of the brain may be working hard. This is similar to the way in which children's brains are stimulated by such high-level play activites as pretending to run a restaurant with sand, pebbles, and leaves. Because they may imagine the sight of the great dining room and delicious food and a ripple of talk in the room, and fabricate their own story to play while moving their bodies, their bodies and minds are totally engaged and working together. Such play is essential for children's development. However when they play video games, many of these mental activities are not needed. Visual images and sound are created externally, and objects are moved with just the push of a button. My guess is that just a small area of the brain would be engaged at that time. So I'm afraid my children's mental abilities would not develop properly, if they were to play such games a great deal, being attracted by the charm of the game.

Regarding this subject, Ruta Kawashima, a professor at Tohoku University, read a paper of great interest. In this research, Professor Kawashima showed what parts of the brain are being used when we play video games, using a new computer imaging system. A control group, which consisted of children doing an exercise called the Kreaplin test, that consists of adding single-digit numbers continuously for 30 minutes, was also set up so that the results gathered from this group could be compared with the group playing video games. According to Professor Kawashima’s research, the children playing video games were found to be using only the part of their brain associated with vision and movement, while the children doing the simple arithmetic exercise showed activity throughout the left and right frontal lobes - those areas which are associated with learning, memory, emotion and self-control. In addition, he discovered that the fibers connecting neurons in the brain are thickened by brain’s activities, which means that the more the brain is stimulated by activity, the more the brain develops. We can guess if children play video games habitually, they will use only a small area of their brain, and the other parts of the brain, especially the frontal lobe, will be under-stimulated and left undeveloped.

This report is especially interesting in light of another that I read recently, in which it was reported that in recent times youngsters' frontal lobes tend to be left undeveloped. This situation appears to be closely linked biologically to the aggressive tendencies of the younger generation.

However, we should not say that all video games are harmful. Other research proves that there are also nice games which promote children’s gentleness, or stimulate children’s frontal lobes properly. It is the parent’s responsibility to help children find suitable games and use them appropriately. And certainly they should occupy only a limited part of a day, in which they would use a good deal more of their time reading books with mom or dad, or having outdoor playtime. By finding suitable ways for children to spend their time, we will grope for better way to deal with this problem.

Put Real Life back into Playtime

Recently people in Japan have been shocked by crimes of extreme brutality committed by preteenagers. A 13-year-old school boy was killed by a classmate, and his body was found in a river near his school. A four-year-old boy was killed by being thrown off a building by a 12-year-old boy. Not only children but also adults have been victims in some of these crimes. In recent years there have been several stories in the media of men coming home from work or homeless men being attacked and killed by boys. What is worse, the number of brutal crimes committed by preteens has been on the rise, while the age of these criminals has been growing lower over the past ten years.

Last month, an agonized mother was interviewed on a T.V. show. Her only son was murdered in a similar kind of attack two years earlier. This boy suffered from disabilities caused by an automobile accident. In spite of his handicaps, he worked hard enough to be admitted to a regular high school, not a special school for the physically handicapped. In tears, the mother told of his dream, which was to one day take over his father's senbei shop. One day, a classmate invited him to join a group of kids going to sing Karaoke together. Because of his handicap, it was rare for him to be invited to join in with the others, so he excitedly agreed to follow them. In reality, the invitation was a cruel trick. They planned to beat him up for their own amusement. The classmates smashed, kicked and drubbed the boy, who was unable to fight back, shouting, "How dare you! Who do you think you are?" He could not escape from the attack because of his disability, and he finally died in great pain. After being arrested, the classmates who had killed the boy showed no regret. They wrote letters to their friends and families, saying such things as "It's going to be easy being in the reformatory for awhile. I'm going to enjoy staying there." They weren't worried because they had known all along that they would never receive a harsh sentence. Those boys seemed to be totally lacking in humanity or compassion. It makes me wonder what sort of environment they grew up in. Sadly, there seem to be far too many children who think it's cool to behave in this manner; bullying and violence against other children seems to be spreading throughout the country.

When I was a schoolgirl, I could never have imagined that these sorts of crimes could be committed by children of my own age, even though there were bullies back then too. Once we thought that poverty and a lack of education were the causes of social evil, and it's true that we have seen examples of crimes occuring for these reasons in so-called developing countries. However this reasoning seems out of place in Japan. Most of the young criminals here have been from rather well-to-do, or, at least, middle-class families and have had the benefit of good education. Some of the criminals have been A students. If we can't apply the usual reasoning in these cases, how can we explain the causes of these brutal crimes? Thinking about it, I can see some remarkable differences between today's children and the Japanese children of some decades ago.

First, studies have shown that the amount of time children spend talking with their parents has been sharply reduced compared with decades ago. The more luxurious our lives become, the more money we need to support a family - and the less parents stay at home waiting for their children to come back from school. Many more mothers are working outside the home in order to bring in more income. Also, children themselves these days are much more likely to stay away from home until late in the evening. Many children are enrolled in juku - private after-school study centers established to tutor children for exams. Moreover, when children do get home from juku, they are more likely to stay in their own rooms by themselves, playing video games. According to a recent study, more than 30 percent of children in urban areas have their dinner alone in their own rooms. The lack of time available to spend with family members translates, I think, into a real lack of understanding of the basic feeling of "love for others" that we used to learn by spending happy times with our parents and other members of our extended families.

It is also noteworthy that contact among children is also on the ebb. Modern children rarely have the opportunity to play freely with their friends running around in parks or in backyards. In addition to their busy schedules, going to juku and other practice sessions, which leaves them little enough playtime, there simply isn't enough space to play. Parks are usually very small and are enclosed by houses, so they are prohibited from playing ball, riding bicycles and playing with pets in them. Lacking other stimulation, many children bring their own portable game machines and play with them sitting on benches in the park. It is a really strange scene to see many children gathered in a park, playing on their game machines individually without any group interaction - without even exchanging a word between themselves. Without any exchange of feeling between the children playing in this way, how can we expect to foster children's thoughtfulness towards others?

Finally, many adults have noticed that children have lost interest in living things. Decades ago, children used to play with dogs and cats, to run through woods looking for insects, and to splash in creeks seeking fish and other aquatic creatures. Those delicate creatures would easily die if we treated them thoughtlessly. It was easy for the children of our generation to learn about life and death through our relations with those familiar creatures. These days, however, the interests of children have been drawn away from living things to video games and other technical toys. Unlike real living things, the characters that inhabit videogames will revive every time we reset the game, regardless of how many times they have been beaten, kicked or killed. If the experiences of the virtual world take over a major part of our children's childhood, it is natural that some children will lose respect for the fragility and value of life.

We parents owe it to our children to give them the opportunities to have abundant experiences and contact with all variety of living things - including parents, friends, and real world animals. These experiences are an indispensible part of a healthy childhood. It may not be easy to go against the grain these days, but without great effort on the part of all parents it will be otherwise impossible to solve the growing problem of childhood violence and bullying.

Edited by Angela Bartlett

Educating Children about the Importance of Peace

August is the month for my children to remember the past World War and reconnect with our goals for peace and harmony. In particular, August 15th, which is the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, is an opportunity not only for my children, but also for me to rethink how to educate my children concerning the importance of peace. Each year, we review records of the war as written by American, European, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese historians to study what happened from various points of view. It takes such a long time that the calendar has already reached September before we are finished.

This summer was different from usual for us; since June 13th, when the Israel-Lebanon conflict started, my children have been stunned by the pictures appearing on the TV news and have become much more eager to know about the details of the current situation and related modern history; they hung on my words as I tried to explain what was happening. My son is 11 years old, and my daughter will be 10 in December. Their age - pre-teen - is, I think, the best age to start to understand in depth current affairs and how modern history led up to this point. Tackling these issues now lets them seek ways to solve world problems and to establish the twin goals of peace and philanthropy; because they already possess the ability to think logically while still being innocent and untainted by prejudice and conventional ideas. So I made up my mind to start introducing them to detailed modern history and current affairs as pre-adults starting this summer.

These days history education in Japan consists mostly of the study of the time before World War II. As the class gets closer to the part that includes the Second World War, teachers rush their students through those parts superficially, as if they were making their students dodge explosives. I suppose teachers feel a sort of threat to their careers when dealing with the darker parts of Japan's past in their classrooms, in case they might clash with government policy. Also any reference to the facts as well as images from the time were systematically removed from textbooks and other reference books used by students according to the governmentís policy of concealing information about actions committed by the military government during the period from 1930 to 1940. So in recent years, students have less opportunity to learn about the past; to my surprise, many elementary students in Hiroshima donít know about the atomic blast in their city. In my opinion, young people who will carry the future on their shoulder should know their history and have a grasp on current affairs in order to understand relationships among nations; they will learn lessons from these studies that will allow them to develop a strong willingness to avoid the mistakes of the past and to construct a better and more peaceful future. And, as long as the school system will not take responsibility for educating children in modern history and current affairs, parents have to act in place of school teachers.

Though teaching facts about the past to our children is important, I think I should mention here a point we need to stress while we are doing it. Here is an excerpt from Iris Changís book about the Nanking Massacre :

But they ( her parents ) never forgot the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War, nor did they want me to forget the Rape of Nanking. Neither of my parents witnessed it, but as young children, they had heard the stories, and these were passed down to me.

Of course, I also think we need to pass down the facts about the past to the next generation in order to warn them never to repeat those failures. While we are doing it, however, we need to be very careful not to ďpass down ď hatred from the past to the next generation. What we have to hand over to our posterity is not negative feelings which arouse enmity toward another person or nationality, but more positive feeling which leads us to feel harmony with other parts of the world. Please remember that passing down the feeling of hatred will only lead to more conflicts and that would be much worse than simply forgetting the Holocaust.

At the same time, in my opinion, we also should teach our children who are at the pre-teen and adolescence stage that human laws are not always fair and perfect, and we need to look at them carefully whenever we have a question about them. Take, for example, Osker Schindler or Chiune Sugihara. Though they saved uncounted numbers of lives during the Holocaust, they were working against laws of their nations. Here are Sugiharaís words:

If I follow my nationís policy, that means I betray God. If I faithfully follow Godís teaching, that means I am against the policy of my own nation.

In considering these choices, he decided to follow God. I often tell my children to remember that humans are imperfect whereas God is perfect. Though human laws are temporal, Godís teaching is eternal.

An education in peace is not finished with just the things mentioned here. The most important part of peace education is teaching children love, which constitutes the backbone of our drive for peace, and which sustains us and keeps us strong when we are threatened by evil. Teaching children love requires endurance and long practice: we need to give them love from the time they are born, and to love others together with them as much as we can. And we have to let our child be aware that he or she is loved by parents and other people surrounding him or her. We also need tell our children that every one else loves some one, is loved by someone, and has an existence that is just as precious to him as our childís life is to him or herself. Through those experiences, our children gradually learn the importance of life. Imagine, how the world could be if all its citizens really appreciated the value of life and the true meaning of love for everyone else. War would disappear. And it is each of us, parents, who can accomplish this.











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