My 7th grade math teacher loved U-turn tangents about aliens. Every wednesday and thursday my classmates who also flunked out of calculus would poison the well with questions steering the conversation into one about roswell or cattle mutilation, hoping he would take the bait. Every time his eyes would beap upwards as if looking for UAP's, goatee reciprocating furiously. I don't remember much from my nightmarish traditional japanese poetry class but the teacher with a smooth, lumpy face like a war criminal rambling about cockroaches is still vivid in my mind. Teachers were always unknowable, more distant than strangers. You could never imagine them doing normal human things, might as well believe they were generated by the school district. These moments, even if for a bit, always dissolved the irrevocable heirarchy of the classroom, the 40-something years between us, the mutual curiosity that never found a place within state-mandated curriculums or corrective pressures that tied class scores with salaries.

From June 2020 to April 2022 i worked at a stuffy off-yellow office that definitely did not start off that color serving the local school district in Yokohama. In a move of administrative desperation I was drafted into the classroom to tutor refugees on Japanese, suddenly catapulted into the most direct demonstration of how an ingroup defines and recreates themselves. Between contemplating the fastest way to get fired (pencil self-mutilation would do the trick) to stave off boredom I got a chance to get a real good look. As always the pay wasn't great and there was zero job security as one of the growing percentage of contract workers but it gave me a chance to experience a second childhood, to imagine what could've been done differently. It was also a free trial to parenthood, learning to praise and scold in a productive manner.

When I was in my study abroad program the other students were in a skeptical awe over the ideology behind Japanese schooling. To the Dutch, French, and Chinese students it was all too idealistic, too naive, the inherent iconoclastic cruelty of children was incompatible with the degree of autonomy placed on them and expected from them. Like national crime or homeless estimates there existed a tremendous and unbelievable disparity between expectations and reality.

teachers do everything

Teachers are overworked, the largest vacuum of their time being club activities. Some prefectures are implementing hour-cutting measures like having parent-volunteers mow the fields, something teachers used to do. I remember my boarding school teachers complaining about how they only got 5 hours of sleep, it makes sense now. 8 hours of weekly overtime in the 60's have ballooned into DO IT FOR THE KIDS DON'T YOU LIKE THE KIDS WON'T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR THE KIDS

  • One interesting expectation I sensed from the parents was that teachers are to embrace a sort of surrogate parenthood, their job expanding beyond just teaching their bundle of cells how to read and write.


    There was a constant revolving door. With the $30k annual incomes of normal teachers and lack of overtime pay that's enshrined in law there were half a dozen contracted TA's helping around the school, some not even issued ID cards. Their focus was especially directed towards students with special needs, all of which participated in normal homeroom with the other children. Behavioral issues seemed to mainly be a parental issue and I saw many able to escape the dysfunctional communication methods learned at home. I suspect dealing with uncooperative parents was a bigger burden than their children.

    hinking about the teacher I worked with, looked like an overgrown teenager except for a thick ainu 5 o'clock shadow. every time he'd pull aside a troubled student he'd hang his head contemplatively and listen to their disjointed recollections, earnestly soaking up classmate arguments and frustrations about sharing, both eyes crinkled deep in thought. His kids will turn out fine.

    afterschool tutors are liked by students

    Unlike Korea the spirit of machiavellian competition isn't that prominent. A school surplus and falling university rankings mean that the ultra-rich send their spawn overseas. Supplementary tutoring is actually liked by the kids which previously seemed impossible to me.

    classrooms aren't top-down

    Despite some interesting history Japanese education doesn't have their foundations in blind deference. Teachers purposefully retract their proboscis from the classroom and at a very young age children are taught conflict management. Unruly kids are reined in by other kids, clean their own classes, distribute lunch and clean up after, an effort is made to cultivate a truly self-regulating population. At my school there were mini student concil meetings in every class, agendas and schedules organized by the students themselves. A taste of direct democracy. In one example a 7th grade class in Zushi was provided chromebooks, which then devolved into the kind of things 7th graders use the internet for. The response was to issue chromebooks at 6th grade instead, confronting and correcting the inevitable troubles later on. The change stuck.

    Everyone I've met teachers included were flabbergasted at American schools dividing classes by grade or academic ability. Standardized test scores determining funding or salaries is an abstract nightmare to people here despite all the other adversities.


    One unfortunate byproduct of this largely hand-off approach are administrative blind spots in bullying. Every teacher has to carefully delineate self-corrective behavior between students with something more malicious, careful not to overstep their coundaries. School policies have moved vigorously to fill that void, most banning nicknames between students outright. In many schools there's no longer winning/losing teams during Undokai. Lunch during school events are now eaten in the classroom instead of outside with families, mindful of single-parent or busy households that couldn't be there.

    environmentalism fits

    Consciousness about the environment is very prominent in Japan. I can babble on about abstract causes that are as distant to the largely irreligious Japanese as they are to you like Confucisanism or Shintoism but ultimately they're budding sentiments introduced in schools. The phrase "itadakimasu" translates more to "I will receive" more than "thanks for the meal." Kids internalize a sense of gratitude in whatever had to die for their plate. Food waste is similarly discouraged. Field trips to farms are common and regular on-campus events like growing vegetables, caring for chickens, and planting flowers ensure that nature isn't some distant object even in the concrete hellscape of Yokohama or Tokyo. This sort of awareness isn't shrouded in the grim messaging of climate refugees and the Anthropocene and Japan isn't the sort of nation facing immediate existential threats from climate change either.

    One staggering children's book I saw was titled しんでくれた "(they) died for me" with a plate of food on the cover.


    I don't think I can beat kids

    I volunteered a lot as a teenager but I never really "got" children. As someone emulating a paper-thin conception of adulting I had nothing in common with them, to me their interests, experiences, worries were all foreign to me. Sure they're irritating and objectively inferior but you can't help but see your own reflection in children. The insecurities and naive wonder at the world digs into old memories shaken out of your geriatric corpse. You start to understand the unwavering parental desire to pander to kids' interests in history and music with the understanding that this is where it all begins. I bought countless Eyewitness books for the kids because I loved them myself. I focused on essays about amphibians and dinosaurs because I loved them myself. I slipped countless flash drives full of Arthur and Between the Lions to parents. Is there a better luxury than occupying someone's formative memories? To share a common experience? While looking into a mirror can you imagine honestly saying to yourself "I don't like kids"?

    In childhood our relations with others are limited, our wants are few, in a word, there is little stimulus for the will; and so our chief concern is the extension of our knowledge. The intellect-like the developed early, though it takes time to mature; and it explores the whole world of its surroundings in its constant search for nutriment: it is then that existence is in itself an ever fresh delight, and all things sparkle with the charm of novelty. This is why the years of childhood are like a long poem. For the function of poetry, as of all art, is to grasp the Idea in the Platonic sense; in other words, to apprehend a particular object in such a way as to perceive its essential nature, the characteristics it has in common with all other objects of the same kind; so that a single object appears as the representative of a class, and the results of one experience hold good for a thousand.

    moral classes are unproblematic

    Dodgy sounding morals class struck a nice balance between sensible parental finger-wagging and unyielding gray. What starts off as lessons on limiting screen time or sleeping well is gradually replaced with deliberately unanswerable messaging to kick off self-directed classroom debate. One example I saw being the conservation of animal habitats versus arable land. Students watched interviews on veternarians treating displaced primates in indonesia balanced by rural farmers who had previously experienced famine. Apparently they used to be much less ambiguous, probably in the 80s where students regularly lynched teachers on a whim.

    Lunches are made local

    A central kitchen a few blocks away cooked for all the local schools. A nutritionist committee chooses recipes, often with local ingredients. I suspect they'll all be replaced with Sysco equivalents as the government continues to push austerity.

    foreign-born students are tricky

    There were plenty of foreign-born and mixed-race students and they all largely do fine. It's the parents that are the true collections of agony. One teacher confided he previously had a Bangladeshi father storm into his office after an ombudsman pamphlet on children's rights was distributed in class. His argument was that it was in his right to beat his wife and kids. Sandwiched between irreconcilable cultural differences and a school administration that will avoid conflict at any cost, what can you do.

    it's easy to not be an unpleasant teacher

    When I was little I took it for granted that the job molded down certain types of people like water currents smoothing river stones. If there was a particularly nasty teacher (no shortage in Irvine) I readily attributed it to the rigors of work or self-restraint slowly eroding through progeny who have newly learned to say "no." What do I know? I'm not an adult, I don't know how they think or how they live.

    Well it's all bullshit. No one is forced to interact with tinnitus machines for a paycheck. It's easy not to be a teacher if you don't have the patience or respect for children.

    everyone is jet black

    From the students to the instructors, all of them were some shade of laugenbrezel.

    cosmic wars between departments

    there was constant animosity between the department of education/school board/schoolteachers, something that has been very visible when it comes to policy changes. One side is rigid and uncooperative, the other distant and unrealistic. Post-war teachers, especially outside of Tokyo have always taken on an adversarial stance towards the central government. Apparently local schoolboards are regularly harassed by bored housewives over needlessly keeping the lights on or noise pollution.

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  • Japanese schooling