Japanese expatriate children studying abroad
The number of Japanese living abroad has been increasing yearly and the number of Japanese children of school age who live abroad now exceeds 50,000. In the past, parents of these children worked for trading companies, banks, and companies involved in trade or finance. However, recently many manufacturers have transferred their production facilities overseas and Japanese workers at factories are now also being posted overseas, and the parents of Japanese children living overseas are engaged in a variety of jobs.
This means that Japanese families who live overseas are no longer considered "international" or "special" and their cultural and educational backgrounds are varied. More families who are considered "typically Japanese and ordinary" live overseas. This has resulted in generalizations when problems of returnees are discussed. Educators overseas are now experiencing some of the educational and disciplinary problems common to ordinary Japanese families.
Going to local schools in foreign countries
When parents are transferred overseas, they face the question of how to educate their children. What school should they send their children to? A local school or a full-time Japanese school? Should the children continue to study Japanese on Saturdays? What about cram schools or tutors? There is no end to their worries.
According to Dr. Ishizuki, in North American and English-speaking countries, more than three-fourths of Japanese parents choose to send their children to local schools on weekdays and Japanese school on Saturdays. On the other hand, in non-English speaking countries in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, an overwhelming majority send their children to Japanese schools. In Europe, parents tend to choose among three different options: Japanese school only, local school or international school and Japanese school on Saturdays, and local school only.
Children who attend local school have the most opportunity to experience a different culture. They are taught by local teachers according to the educational curriculum of the country and are become a part of class. This is a valuable, but stressful experience for them. Both parents and children worry about how the teacher will be able to teach a child who speaks a different language, how much the teacher will be able to understand Japanese behavior which may seem different to local people, and how the teacher will make an effort to help the Japanese student to make friends in class. These are the particular concerns regarding education that Japanese parents and their children have when they live abroad.
Local teachers who have taught Japanese students in their countries
I talked to local teachers who had taught Japanese children and asked them their impressions of Japanese students and how they taught them in class.
This summer, a group of Japanese corporations invited several foreign teachers from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Holland, etc., to visit schools in Japan. These teachers had taught Japanese students in elementary to high schools at their countries. In July, they observed schools in Yamagata prefecture and stayed with local families. They then visited public schools in Tokyo, and participated in events to exchange opinions among teachers, including Japanese teachers.
JBA invites educators to Japan
This invitation was realized through the financial support of a group of Japanese companies. Eighteen teachers from Southern California were chosen to participate in a program called "U.S. Educators to Japan" by the Japan Business Associations of Southern California (JBA). They were invited to a training program for two weeks in Japan.
This program was inaugurated in 1975 as a way of expressing appreciation to local schools and educators for accepting Japanese students and to help them to deepen their understanding of Japan. Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) and International Grassroots Exchange Center of the John Manjiro Whitneyfield Foundation received these teachers. Teachers invited by JBA, together with educators from different countries, took part in the overall program called "The International Educators to Japan." The JBA program commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation.
JBA is an economic organization of about 500 Japanese companies in Southern California, mainly in Los Angeles. It promotes many educational programs to maintain good relations with the local community, improve understanding of Japan, and to express appreciation to local schools that accept Japanese children of member companies who are at a disadvantage due to the lack of English ability and cultural differences. Of their programs, "U.S. Educators to Japan" has the largest budget ($80,000) and is one of the most important programs of JBA.
So far JBA has sent approximately 350 educators to Japan for training. After these teachers return from the trip to Japan, they pay more attention to the problems of Japanese students in school and help avoid "educational friction" which occurs when there is a concentration of Japanese students in a particular school.
JBA launched this program 25 years ago. It enjoys a good reputation and has produced a number of results. For this reason, Japanese corporations in the United States and Europe have started similar programs as well. In 1999, 16 organizations including JBA will invite educators to Japan.
The front-line of cross-cultural exchange is not only in politics or the economy, but also in each classroom where foreign students study. It must seem like a cultural gift to these students when teachers are able to communicate their understanding of Japanese culture and education.
How the Japanese students at local schools in the U.S. study
So how do the Japanese students at local schools in the U.S. spend their time? I interviewed Ms. June Yoshinari, one of the participants in this program, who is in charge of the ESL education (English as a Second Language) at Irvine, California.
ESL classes are important
Q. How are Japanese students welcomed and accepted by local schools when they transfer in?
A. At the initial stage, they are given an examination in their native language to find out their general scholastic ability. Speaking from my personal experience, most of the children who have trouble in their own native language seem to have difficulty learning English. At first children without English ability learn English for survival in an ESL class. This enables them to understand the teacher's instructions and to ask questions when they don't understand. It gives them minimal language skills for the classroom. Then, background and visual knowledge which is necessary for learning is given in both English and Japanese. ESL classes are a very important step in acquiring a broad education.
Scholastic ability is crucial
Q. Is there a great difference between the scholastic ability in Japan and in the United States?
A. Actually, children with a good scholastic foundation in Japanese, even though they have no English ability in the beginning, will learn English and make good grades within three years. Once I had a Japanese child with hearing difficulties whose results on written examinations were excellent. This child was able to master English so well in three years and went on to use English sign language. However, those with a poor scholastic foundation have difficulty learning English and often cannot understand what is going on in class. Scholastic ability appears to transcend cultures and is universal. This can be summarized as three key factors: (1) they know how to study; (2) they have the ability to be critical; (3) they have the ability to gather and summarize information.
Children adapt differently according to age
Q. Do children adapt differently to a local school depending on their age?
A. They adapt differently depending on the age they come to the United States. In the lower grades of elementary school up to third grade, they soon get used to their new classes, which are mainly practical activities involving the use of their hands in gestures. However, from the fifth to the sixth grades or up to first and second year of junior high school, in addition to the difficulty of learning English and understanding the classes, they facing problems inherent to adolescence. This makes it hard for them to adapt and do well in school.
What Ms. Yoshinari says coincides with Dr. Minoura's statement "the time from ages of nine to fourteen or fifteen is a period when the 'cultural grammatical rules' at the basis of the psychological human relationships with their peers begin to become structured." It also confirms that one's native language is completely mastered between the age of ten to twelve, as is said in developmental psychology. Children over eleven might be torn between the grammatical rules that they have already mastered from the Japanese culture and those new ones from American culture. They are young enough to overcome such conflict, but on the other hand, they might get caught in the conflict.
Studies by Japanese students outside school
Q. What do Japanese children study outside the local schools they attend?
A. Many children go to Japanese cram schools on Saturdays. Cram schools are always found in areas where many Japanese live in California. The same educational environment in Japan has been transported to the U.S. Many families hire tutors for their children. For Japanese families, their main concern in education seems to be the problem of adapting to Japanese schools and coping with the entrance examinations upon their return to Japan.
Q. What do you think of the attitudes of Japanese parents?
A. Generally Japanese parents tend to rely on educational systems outside the home like cram schools and private teachers. Very few parents actually help with their children's homework or check how much they understand. Even though Japanese parents are often said to be very education-minded, they tend not to look after or help their children at home.
Besides this observation by Ms. Yoshinari, a female teacher at a California public school made a similar comment that Japanese parents do not check up on what their children are studying very much.
Q. What impression do you have of the way Japanese parents discipline their children at home?
A. In particular, when the children are infants, parents do not appear to teach manners or exercise much control. My colleague, who is Caucasian, wonders why Japanese children are ill-mannered and restless when they are very young, but as adults they are quiet and well-mannered. However, I am afraid recently that Japanese children do not even seem to become well-mannered as they get older. Well-behaved Japanese are now Japanese of the old type from the past.
Do Japanese students talk about their future dreams?
Q. Are there any characteristics that you notice among Japanese children nowadays?
A. I have taught and observed Japanese children for a long time, and as a whole, they seem to have lost the ability to write good compositions. Once I had Japanese high school students write in Japanese, but the content of the composition and the vocabulary were very poor. I had the impression that they had nothing to tell people. I am concerned about the decline in their Japanese language ability and scholastic ability.
I also worry about their lack of motivation. Not many talk about what they want to do in the future. In America, students take an aptitude test when they are juniors in high school. Based on the results, they understand their strengths and weaknesses and can discuss their aptitude with counselors. Many American students then talk about the future in concrete terms based on what type of profession they want to go into and their objectives, and they select a major at the university.
However, most Japanese children only talk about their future plans in terms of wanting to go to university. I am concerned that most of them only react by saying that they have not decided on what they wish to do in the future. This may be because Japanese corporations hire new graduates without considering their majors. In addition, most university graduates at the time of graduation have no thorough knowledge in certain specialties. These circumstances in Japan may be responsible for the attitude that there is no point in having a specialty or becoming a specialist.
Some Japanese students in California also refuse to go to school
Q. Do some Japanese students at local schools have psychological problems?
A. Students with psychological problems have recently increased. I sometimes advise the parents of students who refuse to go to school. In the U.S. there are not as many school rules as in Japan, but they are very strict about the students adhering to the rules. If the student is absent for more than a certain number of days, the student is punished and fails to receive credits for a course. In this case, another course is offered to make up the lost credits, and the student is given a chance to re-do the failed course. However, there is no system as in Japan in which the students can remain in the same grade even after a long absence. We explain to students who refuse to go to school and their parents that the system is different from in Japan. They are encouraged to make efforts not to fail and a Japanese counselor is recommended. Unfortunately, there are families who are negative and avoid discussing and solving this problem with a counselor.
Impression of Japanese students in your class
I asked several teachers their impressions of Japanese students in class.
Q. How would you characterize the class behavior of Japanese students?
A. Japanese students do not seem to want to express themselves in an active way.
Foreign teachers observed Japanese schools in "The International Educators to Japan" program. I asked their impressions. Questions were: What was your impression of the Japanese school that you visited? What problems did you see with classes in Japanese school? What was your impression of how Japanese students behaved in class? Has your image of Japanese education changed after coming to Japan?
Classrooms: the front-line of cross-cultural exchange
I would like to introduce the Japanese teacher's impressions of the meeting with teachers from abroad.
I was inspired after meeting so many teachers in "The International Educators to Japan" program. The educators were marked by their endurance, intellectual inquisitiveness, and optimism, which are common to educators in Japan also.
These seem to be common and universal characteristics of teachers that transcend national boundaries as maternal and paternal values do in any culture. When I think about the characteristics of teachers, I am reminded of my own childhood and teachers and feel a certain nostalgia. Teachers are eager to understand one another, and their bright curiosity and intellect made discussions most enjoyable. I felt like a young child as I enjoyed the sincere communication among teachers.
When the world becomes internationalized, and people of different ethnic groups visit each other's nations, classrooms are also internationalized. Classrooms are the front-line of cross-cultural exchange. Children will learn to trust people and develop intellectually as long as there are teachers who are patient, understanding of children of different cultures, optimistic about their learning ability, and who continue talking to them.
As more Japanese children study in local schools overseas, teachers abroad are increasingly faced with the problems of Japanese children. It is possible to gain a portrait of Japanese education by seriously listening to their worries and expectations.
Many teachers welcome Japanese students in their classes. I would be most happy if they could tell us their opinions of the Japanese children they have taught and their experiences in class.
Ishizuki, Minoru. 1996. Hikaku kokusai kyoikugaku (in Japanese). Tokyo: Toshindo.
Minoura, Yasuko. 1984. Kodomo no ibunka taiken: jinkaku keisei katei no shinrijinruigaku teki kenkyu (in Japanese). Tokyo: Shisakusha.