Keeping in touch with the homeland

`LEAVING is good, but it's frightening to return.'' So goes a children's play chant in Japan; and as Japanese businesspeople span the globe, increasing numbers of their children are getting caught in that bind.

On this Saturday morning, while their friends are out skating or lolling in front of television, about 300 Japanese children are gathered at Medford High School in the Boston suburbs. It is a ``Japanese Language School,'' one of 40 or so in the United States for expatriate Japanese. While their fathers put in tours at Honda America or complete graduate work at Cal Tech, upward of 12,000 children study Japanese and math every Saturday to keep up with their cohorts back home.

From recent press reports, one might surmise that Japanese schools such as the one in Medford are a little like the bottled water Americans carry into some countries to the south: protection against an inferior local product. That a gap does exist, few would dispute. ``Up until the end of high school, Japan is higher,'' says Takako Minami, a teacher at the school who is doing graduate work at the Harvard School of Education.

But the primary purpose of such schools is not to bridge a quality gap between the countries. It is to keep Japanese children in touch with an education system and culture that can be very unforgiving to those who have departed, even for a relatively short time.

``What they really worry about is the reentry problem,'' says Noriko Ogani, a graduate student at Boston University who works at the Japan Society of Boston.

The ``reentry problem'' has become a hot topic of public discussion in Japan, as increasing numbers work or study abroad. (Enrollment at the Greater Boston JLS in Medford has grown 50 percent in the last three years.) Japan is not a country that welcomes divergence. ``If you are a bit different, you are not acceptable,'' says Mrs. Minami. And children who come back with funny accents and backpacks, and with American-style assertiveness, become gaijin (``foreigners'') in their own land.

The Japanese school at Medford High is designed in part to prevent such reentry problems. Japanese frugality is apparent here: There is no high-tech paraphernalia, and an assistant principal rings a bell in the corridors at the end of class periods. The atmosphere is gently cooperative, almost sweet. Third-graders giggle with their neighbors, but they seem well prepared, and the teacher jokes with the class.

The school is much like the ones we've been reading about of late, in press reports suggesting that American schools, by contrast, have gone to the dogs. But conversations with Minami and others suggest that the gap in quality is more ambiguous than some reports have implied. Japan's schools are not without problems, they say. And when Japanese children find themselves in a bind after attending school in the US, it has more to do with Japanese culture than with the quality of schools here.

Osamu Toyoda, principal of the JLS, says that the main difference between Japanese and American schools is that the latter are unpredictable. Japanese schools conform, more or less, to national standards, but American schools vary drastically.

``Here, the average level is a bit lower,'' Minami adds. ``But you have a much larger number of creative and imaginative students.'' Her son, who has attended school in both countries, thinks the Japanese schools produce ``very smart robots,'' she says.

After the elementary years, Japanese schooling is geared largely to the infamous entrance exams that loom in the path of every university candidate. ``Thats what's really important,'' says Ezra Vogel of Harvard University, author of ``Japan as Number One'' and other books on that country. ``Generalized quality [of schooling] is not the issue.'' This preoccupation is evident at the JLS, where most of the youngsters are of elementary school age. The general feeling is that these years are not crucial. But by junior high school, many Japanese youngsters have gone back with their mothers, or to live with grandparents, to start to prepare for the exams.

Looming even larger is the fate that awaits children who come back from the US and other countries a little out of step with their peers. ``If the nail sticks up, pound it down,'' the Japanese saying goes, and that is what happened to Minami's son, Kotaro. When he first returned as a third grader, with an American suntan, the children in the class pointed at him and chanted ``gaijin kokujin'' - ``foreigner black person.'' When he came back a second time two years later, he was subject to even more severe harassment.

Teachers sometimes added to his problems. One took Kotaro to task for omitting a kigo, or season word, in a haiku exercise. (He had used ``Easter,'' which in America, of course, denotes spring.) ``The teacher sometimes doesn't like this kind of kid,'' Minami says. ``His [English] pronunciation is better.'' While Kotaro's experience may seem extreme, others have told of being stoned and locked in toilets. At a speech contest for returnees on the difficulties they faced, not one child spoke of academic problems arising from inferior foreign schooling, Minami says. All the problems were cultural.

Making life miserable for schoolchildren who have lived in America would seem shortsighted for a country so economically entwined with this one. ``Japanese society has been notoriously bad at recycling these kids,'' says John Wheeler, director of the Japan Society in New York. ``They've been incredibly dumb.'' Slowly, Japan is taking up the problem. There are now special reentry schools for children who have studied abroad, and some universities waive the exacting entrance exams for returnees, allowing general competence tests instead. Attending high school in the US is starting to become, in some eyes, a way to avoid the exams. (Japanese parents are divided on the value of the exams.)

And at least some parents at the JLS are happy with the American schools, warts and all. ``My son likes school here,'' says a researcher at a major Boston hospital who is thinking of staying. ``My son enjoys American school so much,'' adds Minami. But that isn't to say that no cultural tensions remain. ``He doesn't work as hard as in Japan,'' Minami says. ``He has high honors always. But I want him to do more.''

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