Education: What is it for?

classroomI was going to write a series of posts comparing education in Japan with education in Australia, but then I realised I didn’t actually study education, haven’t been in the Australian school system for over 10 years, and even then, I was a student and too caught up in the system to think about what school was and what it did… so this is a flawed comparison.

Australian education is not perfect, and nor is Japanese. I don’t know if any country has a perfect education system, but if one exists, maybe it’s somewhere in Scandinavia. What would such a system comprise? No idea – or rather, many – but based on what I remember from Australia and what I’ve seen of Japan’s educational system, different cultures want different things out of their education, so what’s seen as important to that system depends on the society it’s part of.

Let’s go with the assumption that school education in the world starts out with the basic aims of teaching literacy and numeracy. All the average primary/elementary schools I know also teach physical education, some sort of science, social studies, foreign language(s), art and to varying degrees, music. Primary/elementary schools in Japan also have home economics, which I didn’t in my Australian primary school. Some secondary schools in Australia (let’s not get into middle school vs. high school here) have drama and outdoor education, which I haven’t seen in the schools I’ve worked at in Japan but are undoubtedly taught somewhere in Japan – well, drama at least.

Why do schools teach these things? My idea is that it’s to educate kids about the world, how it works, where they are in it, and to prepare them to deal with life outside once they leave. This seems true for both Australia in Japan. However, what is presumed to be useful to students for that life is pretty different, as is the role of school and teachers – and parents – in both places.

Teaching, or raising?

When I first started out as an ALT in northern Japan, a friendly English teacher invited me to her house for dinner. She had 3 kids under 7 – I think the twins were maybe 3 or 4 years old – and they were nice kids. I was surprised, though, when they climbed up and ran along the back of the expensive-looking black leather(?fake?) sofa, and their parents didn’t bat an eyelid. They climbed all over their parents while we were having a conversation at the table – I think they were also talking/screaming/making noise – and the mum and dad simply allowed themselves to be clambered over, not seeming to mind at all.

The other day, my friend and I were on a bus and we watched the young kid in front of us pick her nose and eat whatever she found for a few minutes, without her mum, who was holding her, saying anything. She may not have noticed, to be sure.

Maybe this is more common in Australia than I remember – I know people get annoyed at other people’s noisy/destructive kids in cafes and on planes – but I was surprised that the parents didn’t either try to quiet the kids down or tell them to be careful of hurting themselves. Kids are pretty free in Japan. In shopping centres, parents often don’t try to stop their kids wandering off. Sometimes they reign them in if they’re in someone’s way, but not always. It annoyed some of my British and American friends that Japanese people didn’t seem to care, or feel a need to teach their children how to behave.

So if kids are so wild and kiddy, how do they become those polite, serious Japanese adults whose image we know so well? Who or what produces such beings?

School does, or at least is a huge factor. School in Japan is where you learn to be part of a group, agree with others, and fit in. It’s where ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,’ as that delightful Japanese proverb goes.  And it’s where they get the rest of what Westerners might consider parenting.

At one of the elementary/primary schools where I teach, there is a kind of teachers’ pledge on the wall. I can’t read all the points, but the first one is,

“We protect children and raise them/bring them up.”

Is this something you would see in a school in your country?

This kind of extra parent role is something that I imagine exists in special cases in Western countries, e.g. if a kid with problems at home forms a special bond with a trusted and respected mentor, like Matilda and Miss Honey. But I don’t think it’s the norm.


Trust issues

School and the public in general are trusted in Japan in a way that is probably either hard to imagine or long gone in Australia. Some 5- and 6-year-old kids walk or catch public transport to school by themselves. If a kid isn’t at school by a given time (8:15 at most of my schools), their home is called. Teachers go on home visits, where they visit the kids’ houses for what I guess you might call a parent-teacher interview. I don’t know if that’s for 100% of the kids, because they do it in one or two afternoons so it’d have to be pretty fast, but I can’t imagine it happening in Australia. People would worry about paedophilia, stalking, invasion of privacy, all sorts of legal issues… wouldn’t they?

In Australia, in the area where I grew up there is a ‘walking school bus’ where some local parents walk a group of kids to school, and any kid who is in the route area can join. It would be unusual for a primary school kid to walk to school alone. A lot of parents drive their kids to school, and from about the age of 12 or 13 it’s common for school kids to catch public transport to school. If a kid doesn’t turn up to school, I don’t know if schools generally call the parents or not. Maybe it depends on the school? Maybe at some schools, if you’re away for 2 days, they’ll call? But maybe for some schools it’s the same day by 10am or something. If you know, please comment!

(Don’t) Rage Against the Machine

I was talking about the Japanese school system once with a fellow ALT, and how kids go in as these crazy little things and by the time they come out they seem to have lost their individuality and enthusiasm – and in a lot of cases, their will to try new things. He reckons the Japanese school system is like a people factory, and also a part of the bigger machine that is Japan. This image made sense to me. Kids in Japan often seem to be there in order to pass tests. They have to pass the tests so they can go to university. They go to university so they can get a job in a company. They join a company to… support their family and save for their kids to go to university, so their kids can join a company… and when they’re 60 (! yep – but apparently Honda’s raised it to 65) they can retire and finally do whatever they want.

In Australia, there are some similarities. However, a university degree isn’t always necessary to work for a big company in Australia, and possibly more importantly, a lot of people don’t want to work for a company – in fact, being a ‘company employee’ is not a concept I really got until I spent a lot of time in Japan.

It’s quite, and increasingly, common in Australia (and similar, e.g. USA, Canada, etc.) to change employers and jobs. According to the Internet, people who are in their early twenties now will have had 12+ jobs ‘by the time they hit their thirties.’ I’m Gen Y and working for my 3rd employer in 5 years due to location changes, though it’s all been English teaching of some form or another, so maybe that’s one career path? My point here is that the work worlds – and education that leads towards them, or doesn’t – in Australia and Japan are different, with really different expectations and values. That being said, job-hopping is apparently increasing in Japan as well: Google has found articles about it dating back to 1989 and apparently it was becoming relatively common in 1990. But despite what you might expect by now, 26 years later, at least compared to where I come from, the lifetime company mentality is still alive and kicking.

I have made a lot of generalisations in this post: I realise that not all of this is true for everyone in either Japan or Australia. If and where I have made huge, offensive mistakes, though, I want to know, so do tell. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

Further to come on the theme of education will be: English language education, job-hunting, how university relates to it or doesn’t, as the case may be, and a bit more on careers. As always, thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Education: What is it for?

  1. hi cath,
    interesting reading, as usual. especially the bit about the kids clambering all over the parents, and the apparent lack of parenting by the parents. but i do wonder if it’s a global phenomenon that parenting in general is much less about discipline, and more about helping kids to blossom into their true selves, giving them as much respect as we expect them to give us, and as far as possible letting kids be as kiddy as they can, while still being safe and not hurting anyone. coz that certainly seems to be the case in aus and ös (it’s not actually called that by anyone, it just slipped out :)) and also denmark (which i know mostly because the guru of child-raising among my circles is a dane called jesper juul).
    lookin forward to the english teaching post.


  2. Your views are interesting and right as a whole: We like well mannered children, too. I was struggling how and what I should do for raising children. The way of education might be changed somehow accordingly depending on what the society demands. That means; As you say, the school seems to be a factory-which makes the students a good labor until certain years ago in Japan. Like this the subject of education has been swaying all over. Many Japanese professionals visit to Scandinavia, not in vain. Just one thing I’d say that the attitude to the baby is opposite. But the discipline would be different. Generally speaking, mothers in Japan sleep together with babies and children up to 10-11 around until the child wants to sleep independently. On the contrary we seldom kiss or hug junior high school children. It is my own opinion that I learn the way to raise children from the animals do. As far as children need parents, I give them it. Naturally or intentionally both children and parents keep away each other when it should. Still there are a lot of books on child education and discipline at the book shop. Anyway let us talk about it overnight.


  3. Dear Cath,
    I enjoyed reading your post about how school is different in both countries but both are designed to make you conform.
    Do you think one country vs the other has any difference in encouraging students to express themselves and their individuality such as in drama, music or art?
    Recently I’ve had to learn a little bit about schools for those with extra needs including children suffering from severe disabilities (in Australia). It seems there are options depending on the age and level of ability including 1) having an aide help in a mainstream classroom, 2) being in a separate classroom in the same school and 3) being in a school for specific purposes.
    The separate class and separate school teaching is much more focused on functional ability like how to catch a bus or buy things at the shops rather than the more abstract knowledge we get in mainstream classes.
    Do you know much about non-mainstream schooling in Japan? It would be really interesting to contrast the two.


  4. I work in a primary school and my son is in VCE… so, in answer to your question, if they don’t turn up to class, you get a text message (computer generated)…..
    And, yes, so many differences. I teach prep to Year 6 cooking…… which always surprises Japanese friends 😳


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