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[Japan] Diversity and Change in Japanese Preschools: Directors' Views on the Topic of Individualization

Acknowledgments: This work was supported by funding from the Fulbright Scholar Program. I am deeply grateful to the many friends and colleagues who assisted in this project. Bruce Fuller, Masahiko Minami, Hitomi Minami, Kazuko Narui, Noboru Takahashi, and Miyako Ueda deserve particular credit, and I deeply appreciate their support. I also wish to acknowledge the preschool teachers and directors who were so generous with their time and ideas during my visits to their schools.

Diversity and Change in Japanese Preschools: Directors' Views on the Topic of Individualization

As a graduate student in the late 1970's, I read about the sweetness and indulgence with which Japanese adults are said to treat young children. But when I visited Japan in 1981, my naive stereotypes were deeply challenged. I remember sitting in a park in Tokyo, watching in surprise as a father repeatedly hit his young son on the head with an umbrella, while a woman I assumed to be the boy's mother watched and did nothing. Was the angry father in the park simply an exception to the rule, or were the images I had absorbed from the American literature on Japan far too oversimplified to convey the depth and nuances of child rearing in this complex society?

During that time, I was working with my graduate advisor, Robert Hess, and his colleagues, Professors Hiroshi Azuma and Keiko Kashiwagi, on a study of parenting beliefs and behavior in Japan and the United States. Our study focused on global differences between the two countries, but I was fascinated by the variation we found within our Japanese sample. One striking finding was that there were stronger social class differences in Japan than in the United States (Azuma, 1996). I also remember the research team's decision to drop from the sample a group of mothers living in rural Hokkaido because they were so different from the mothers residing in Tokyo. These regional and social class differences certainly posed quite a challenge to my image of homogenous Japan!

Over the subsequent decade, I continued to read and write about Japanese education and family socialization. On a visit to the Kanto area in the early 1990's, I spoke with several preschool directors about the concept of individualization (koseika). In 1989, the Ministry of Education had issued new guidelines for preschool education that focused on developing the child's individual, expressive abilities. For example, while the earlier guidelines emphasize such objectives as having "the right attitude towards the surrounding social life and happenings", (Ishigaki, 1992, p. 127), the new guidelines focused on developing and expressing personal thoughts and feelings. The Ministry stipulated that the way to attain these objectives was through play and warm social interactions with teachers, who should offer "appropriate guidance for a child's individual needs and...development[al] tasks" (p. 131). I became increasingly interested in the directors' philosophies about the fundamental nature of the child, their ideals about relations among people, and their views about the balance between the individual and the community. I wanted to see how these basic beliefs were connected to the specific ways in which they shaped their programs. The Japanese Fulbright Association was also interested in the implementation of the new guidelines, and I was awarded funding for a six-month stay in Japan.

A starting point for thinking about the issue of koseika was the distinction between "individualistic" and "collectivistic" conceptions of the self. In the current edition of the Handbook of Child Psychology, Shweder and colleagues argue that "the individualistic model of the an obvious and natural model for European American researchers.....Another model of the self stands in significant contrast to individualism, but is generally characteristic of Japan, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and much of South America and Africa. According to this perspective, the self is not and cannot be separate from others and the surrounding social context. The self is experienced as interdependent with the surrounding social context" (Shweder et al 1998, p. 899). If Shweder and his colleagues are right, Japanese individuals would tend to resist the notion of koseika. But given my experience with the varied views of Japanese mothers on issues of socialization, I had reason to question whether all Japanese are similar in their view of the individual and the group. Granted, there may be a greater emphasis on group life in Japan, compared to the United States, but what are the skills teachers view as necessary to adjust well to group life, and how can these be conveyed in preschool? I suspected that there may be many ways to conceptualize the self and the group in "collectivistic" Japan.

Capturing Images of Preschools: A Note on Methods

During the summer and fall of 1994, I conducted observations and interviews at 27 preschools, primarily in the Kansai area. I identified equal numbers of urban and suburban schools, and oversampled on private schools, which are attended by the majority of Japanese children. Each visit typically began with a tour of the school, followed by observation in a classroom serving four-year-olds. During the observations, I took detailed notes on the teachers' behavior and interactions with children. I also interviewed the director and at least one teacher. During these conversations, I encouraged the staff to describe what were they trying to accomplish in their schools -- and the strategies they used to attain those goals. To gain a deeper understanding of these issues, I spent an additional week in each of three preschools, where I continued observing in a four-year-old classroom, and conducted additional interviews with teachers and administrators.

While I had expected to find some variation in the directors' ideas about koseika, I was totally unprepared for the wide array of views on this topic, and the passion with which the directors defended their own visions. In the remainder of this essay, I will characterize the three main patterns that I found in these 27 sites: a role-oriented pattern, a relationship-oriented pattern, and a child-oriented pattern.

Role-oriented Schools: Rejection of Individualization

The directors of the six role-oriented schools I visited were primarily concerned with helping children learn to recognize and fulfill the requirements of the role of student. To achieve this goal, they provided a highly structured curriculum that included reading and writing, mathematics, English, music and gymnastics. Academic learning itself was considered less important than strengthening the children's sense of role obligation and self discipline through exposure to demanding mental and physical challenges.

The role-oriented directors rejected the notion of individualization. Rather than encouraging children to develop their own interests, they were concerned with strengthening their weak points. As one director put it:
Many people criticize me because I lack a focus on individuality. If a child likes drawing pictures then it is his or her choice to do that. But drawing pictures and doing nothing else is utterly wrong. Children should establish solid basics, then each individual's particular characteristics will grow...Our motto is that they should come to like everything. I certainly believe that strengthening the areas children [already] like is education. But I believe that helping children overcome dislikes is education in the real sense...A group helps individuals overcome their dislikes.

The view of social relations espoused by directors in role-oriented preschools represents one type of "collectivism," one that Kim (1994) calls the "coexistence mode" of social relations. Advocates of the co-existence mode emphasize the fundamentally social nature of human beings but view social relations as sometimes antagonistic to the desires of the individual: "In public situations, social norms and roles dictate the behavior of individuals. Collective actions need to be orchestrated cooperatively and harmoniously. If an individual's aspirations are not compatible with social demand, he or she is likely to be asked to sacrifice his or her personal interests for group harmony...Individuals have particular statuses and roles, and they must fulfill them in socially prescribed manners" (Kim, 1994, p. 37).

For the role-oriented directors, the task was to strengthen children's ability to fulfill the demands upon the public self. The existence of a private self was acknowledged, but not deemed to warrant cultivation during the preschool years. The hope was to foster a sense of responsibility for maintaining the welfare of the group, rather than a preoccupation with the desires of the private self. If the private self was not overly indulged in the early years, the hard work of fulfilling one's role was expected to become a source of reward rather than an unpleasant obligation.

Relationship-oriented Schools: Learning to Enjoy the Rhythm of Group Life

Relationship-oriented preschools represented a different type of collectivist thinking. They aimed to prepare children for enthusiastic participation in group life by providing three elements: fun, daily routines, and friendships with other children. Regarding individualization, the teachers at relationship-oriented schools -- the most common type I saw -- sought to teach children the routines of group living while recognizing the unique characteristics of each child. As one director explained:
Appreciating each individual's characteristics is important but teaching the importance of maintaining good relationships among individuals in a group is also important. Some teachers may neglect the importance of individual characteristics and force all children to do the same activity. Other teachers tend to leave outsiders as they are. Balancing these two factors is the most difficult task.

The teachers in these schools emphasized that a successful group experience hinged on the acquisition of social skills, including cooperation, empathy, and the ability to play together. One teacher told me that the purpose of free play was primarily to provide children with an opportunity to improve their relationships with peers:
I try to encourage the children to play with others. But in sand play for example the children tend to play alone. I would like to avoid solitary play and encourage children to play together. After all, three year olds learn the existence of certain rules even in play...They learn what they should not do. They also learn that they can hurt other children's feelings by taking certain actions.

In addition to encouraging free play, the teachers in these schools provided a daily art lesson designed to give children the opportunity to practice certain skills, but not at the expense of self-expression and fun. For example, the objectives of an art project at Kitamachi, as stated in the daily lesson plan, were "1) encourage neat work; 2) use a variety of types of paper to make what they want; 3) allow each individual to go at their own pace, but pay attention to what the whole group is doing without anyone being too slow or too fast."

The relationship-oriented preschools operated in what Kim (1994) has called the "relational mode" of collectivism, which "focuses on the relationship shared by the in-group members" (p. 34). To operate in the relational mode, the individual must be able to feel and think what others are feeling and thinking, and help others satisfy their wishes and realize their goals. In contrast to role-oriented schools, the relational model emphasizes "oneness" rather than "sameness". This is a type of collectivism that highlights the psychological closeness resulting from empathy and inter-individual attunement. It depends on sincere commitment to the welfare of others, but is seen as personally rewarding as well.

Child-oriented Preschools: Strong Individuals, Good Groups

At child-oriented schools, most of the day was devoted to free play, with optional art activities introduced by the teacher to individual children or small groups. Unlike the role-oriented schools, there was no explicit instruction in academic subjects. Compared to the relationship-oriented schools, there were more opportunities to select materials to be used alone. Also, teachers more often engaged in extended conversations with individual children. The child-oriented directors disagreed sharply with the role-oriented directors on the topic of individualization, arguing that the development of the individual should be an important focus:
A group consists of individuals. If each individual grows the entire group becomes better. We do some group activities. One way to do them is to form the group first, and then tell them what to do. The other way is for each individual to propose different ideas and then integrate those ideas. The end results may be the same but the processes are different.

In the child-oriented schools, cultivating children's interests, deepening their communication skills, and helping them identify their emotions, were identified by the teachers as major elements of the curriculum. The teachers were expected to provide activities and materials of interest to these particular children, and appropriate to their level of development. As a child-oriented staff member remarked:
We should arrange environments considering each individual child's interest and desire as well as developmental stage. We would like to arrange environments in which as soon as the child comes to school in the morning he or she can play with interesting materials. We consider free activity (jiyu katsudo) to be very important. Children are interested in different activities and materials depending on their age, interest and desire.

The staff in these schools had ready access to cultural models developed within societies that traditionally emphasize individualism. Some were affiliated with Catholic or Protestant churches. Others drew extensively upon the Ministry guidelines regarding koseika. Furthermore, these schools -- by virtue of funding available from the church and government -- had the financial capability to operate with fewer numbers of students in each class than did the private, for-profit schools. The small class size enabled the teachers to engage in the personal conversations that exemplified this individualized approach.

But the child-oriented preschools were not totally individualistic in their orientation. Like their counterparts in relationship-oriented schools, the child-oriented staff placed a great deal of emphasis on social relations. The twist that they added was a focus on bolstering the child's interests, helping him or her identify his own desires and feelings, and nurturing the ability to express those interests, desires and feelings to others.


Comparisons of Japan and the United States frequently rely on dichotomous categories like "collectivistic" vs. "individualistic," or, more recently "symbiotic harmony" vs. "generative tension" (Rothbaum et al., 2000). In this article, I have tried to argue that when we lump an entire society into a single category, we paper over essential differences in the way human relationships are conceptualized within that society. The comparative/dichotomous approach also fails to capture historical change -- illustrated here by the varied ways in which preschool directors are thinking about and implementing the notion of koseika.

Additionally, those who assume that cultural models are universally endorsed in a society ignore the power of institutions to promote or suppress particular beliefs and behaviors. Yet, religious institutions, the national government, and class-related structures all work together to shape the policies and practices of Japanese preschools (Holloway, 2000). When we pay attention to the varied -- and sometimes dissonant -- voices of educators, we obtain a better understanding of the actual conditions experienced by children in Japanese schools.


Azuma, H. (1996). Cross-national research on child development: The Hess-Azuma collaboration in retrospect. In D. Shwalb and B. Shwalb (eds), Japanese childrearing: Two generations of scholarship. (Pp. 220-224). New York: Guilford Press.

Holloway, S. D. (2000). Contested childhood: Diversity and change in Japanese preschools. New York: Routredge.

Ishigaki, E. H. (1992). The preparation of Early Childhood Teachers in Japan (part 1): What is the goal of early childhood care and education in Japan? Early Child Development and Care, 78, 111-138.

Kim, U. (1994). Individualism and collectivism: Conceptual clarification and elaboration. In U. Kim, H. Triandis, C. Kagitcibasi, S. Choi & G. Yoon (eds), Individualism and Collectivism: Theory, method, and applications (pp. 19-40). Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

Rothbaum, F., Pott, M., Azuma, H., Miyake, K., & Weisz, J. (2000). The development of close relationships in Japan and the United States: Paths of symbiotic harmony and generative tension. Child Development, 71, 1121-1142.

Shweder, R. A., Goodnow, J.J., Hatano, G., LeVine, R. A., Markus, H., & Miller, P. (1998). The cultural psychology of development: One mind, many mentalities. In W. Damon (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology (Fifth edition), Vol. 1. (Pp. 865-937). New York: Wiley & Sons.
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