MEMORIES OF JAPANESE EDUCATION! Ganbare! – Keep going! You have to!
It was sometime in late May 1986. I took my son Rio to a local elementary school on the outskirts of Tokyo, and though I do not like to hide what I feel, I had to. If I was the kid taken to that school, I would refuse. But my son was six and he wouldn’t understand my reasons. In fact, I didn’t want to put my son in a Japanese school at all. I had bought a ticket to the Czech Republic and Rio was to start at a Czech school in the Czech Republic. Since September, as it is in Czech. That’s why I didn’t enroll my son in the Japanese school, where the school year begins on April 1. But it happened that on April 26, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, and I was waiting in uncertainty, whether it was safe to live in the Czech Republic. Then a notice came by mail from the town hall saying that it was a criminal offense not to send a child six years old to school. They recommended us to fix it quickly. And so I and my child went to school. I was determined that it was important for my boy to like the school as it was. With a rabbit and a hen at the entrance to the school building, which itself was much less cute. Within the curriculum, the pupils took care not only of a few school animals, but also of the cleaning of their classes. Maybe educational, but I didn’t like it. The school did not look pastel cheerful similarly as the one in Vodičková Street in Prague, where my second son later went. There at that school in Japan, rags for floor cleaning were dried side by side on a long pole along the large windows forming one side of the room. It occurred to me that everything was the same color. Gray. Like those rags. There were almost forty pupils in the class, and the teacher was in sweatpants over which had an apron. I remember those children looking at Rio curiously and hostilely, because he was brought to class by me a foreign mother, and besides a month later than the others started. Exceptions are not welcome in the Japanese society. I wondered if my little one would be strong enough to handle all this. Would he be able to manages to defend his otherness? In Japan it is often beyond the power of the individual. I was having a hard time encouraging him. Nevertheless I drew his attention to everything he might like and wished he hadn’t been discouraged by the ugly toilets and ubiquitous gray of the concrete walls.
To my surprise Rio didn’t protest and he even liked going to that school. He was not premium because he did not have the right preparation. At home, we did not have pictures of Japanese hiragana letters and basic kanji (kanji) characters pasted on all the walls, even in the toilet, as is common in other households. I didn’t drill him using variety of handy children’s toys and games to recognize the vowels “a i u e o” and the syllables “ka ki ku ke ko sa shi su se so”, and so on. I did not send Rio to tutoring classes, as most children have been going since kindergarten. Education is a strong commitment of the population and the first prerequisite is to master the language. Kids have much harder task ahead them than learning our 26 letters of the basic alphabet and just add that there are our hooks and commas. In Japan, they start with the round syllable alphabet hiragana (except for five vowels), then a similar edge alphabet katakana, and in addition they have to gradually acquire hundreds and thousands of characters kanji, which are moreover used in combinations and have several readings. One wonders that with this language, the Japanese were able to achieve high literacy of the nation so early in history. I knew how difficult it was because, as a 22-year-old student at the ICU International Christian University in Tokyo’s Mitaka district, I had to learn Japanese in one year to be able to listen to lectures and write papers. At least twelve hours of language a day. It was crazy. I could imagine what task stands in front of my child and I tried to help him. But I wasn’t good enough as the Japanese mothers were. Maybe I did not want to be.
Rio’s father, a Japanese engineer in the state administration, was very angry that Rio was not among the first in his class. After all, he was healthy and had intelligent parents, his mother was at home and so where was the mistake, my husband asked. He came home after midnight and was gone at eight in the morning. Even on most Saturdays. He had no time and energy to participate in the upbringing of his son. He concluded that the mistake was on my side. Others saw me the same way. I was the insufficient mother for my son because I had different priorities than the others had. I sent Rio to a Christian kindergarten at the ICU and paid more attention to his character readiness than to drill and discipline. Rio lived in the Czech Republic for a while and in Japan for a while. He was both! Czech and Japanese. He changed his language twice before he reached six. He learned Japanese and then forgot, he learned Czech and then forgot. Finally he learned Japanese again and kept his Czech too. We regularly returned home to the Czech Republic because I thought that spending time with the extended family was important for the child. We didn’t have relatives in Japan, certainly not those who would have time to meet us. Instead, I surrounded myself with Japanese friends and organized interesting meetings at our home. In addition, I wanted my son not to be afraid of self independence. For example, to be able to spread butter on his bread and eat when he was hungry. I wanted him to withstand harsh conditions sleeping in tent. Every summer I took him on trips to different parts of Japan and often we didn’t even have a set route. We just went north, for example. We didn’t even know when we would be back home, in a week or a month. Rio did not go to duty compulsory summer swimming at his school and did not go for summer tutoring. He learned to be an exception. Yes, I was a mother adventurer, a bohemian, and my son my victim. That’s how others saw it, even my husband.
I wanted my son to figure things out on his own always having room for his own creativity. I discussed with him things and confronted him with various situations. With different approaches to life. But his father said that it was enough for us to fulfill our school duties. He wanted me to tell our son that his father loves him, but has to work for the company and therefore he is not at home. And that when Rio will become big boy, they will definitely have chances to talk to each other. I honestly admit that I didn’t think that was the way things should function. I tried to be all in one – mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather and friend also. And I wanted to be always close and available. I knew that my Rio would in his future live at the interface of at least two cultures, and that he would need to be adaptable, flexible, and tolerant of what was not common. He would have to be able to improvise and have the confidence to defend his otherness. I knew that Japanese education would not offer him all this. So I continued my way, but at the same time I was sorry when my child sometimes told me that he Rio was a little slow and dull and that it is so and I had to come to terms with it as his mom. He compared himself to others and in his age he did not understand where the problem was. I don’t know how much it bothered him.
It was admirable on Rio that he had an innate samurai strenght and determination. He could bear the pain. Not every child would probably be resilient enough for his fate. Maybe his classmates tried bullying him because it’s common in Japanese schools, but nothing ever happened to remind me that I had to fix something for him. But Rio didn’t handle everything. For example, the daily compulsory gathering of all classes at the large sports space of the school was a burden for him. Several times he fainted. I had him examined by a doctor, and the only thing that was found out was that, like me, he had a mild metabolic disorder and, like me, it was recommended to him to have a biscuit in his pocket and, if he felt sick, to take it. Simple. The doctor advised so. But to have the piece of bread and eat in times which were not set for eating, that was unthinkable. No one allowed my son in the Japanese school systém to do so. Even in a small school abroad. He fainted even there several times and it was always before noon. School claimed that If they allegedly allowed an exception for one student, what would happen with other students. They explained to me that students had to adopt uniformity because they would truly need it in Japanese life. And also the ability to endure hardship. Withstand.
When my child brought home the first school report including an evaluation of whether he could suffer properly and constructively, I wasn’t surprised too much. Rio got a good grade from “Ganbaru”. A (highest good). Ganbaru is a verb for encouragement to overcome oneself. It also expresses whether an individual can cope with hardship. It is one of Japan’s important virtues. When we left later for Bohemia and my son parted with his schoolmates, the children wrote this Word of words on a stylish memory paper board. “Ganbare”, “ganbere”, “ganbare” – “Go ahead! Hold on! Keep going! Endure! You have to!” It’s a habit to part that way. The words „ganbare“ were written as the rays of the sun from one point. I see it as it is today. As many “ganbare” as there were children in that class. His classmates didn’t have any other message for him but „ganbare“. Which of the Czech children would like to say “hold on” to the other child. Yes, the collective wish of “let’s hold on and work ” is ubiquitous in Japan! The practice of “ganbaru” is both the core of effectiveness and danger of the Japanese education as well.
To endure without self harm injustice, discomfort, hardship or self laziness requires a very strong spirit. The Japanese are staunch builders, and the idea of ”Ganbaru” serves them well. But through uncompromising “ganbaru”, huge burdens and unachievable expectations are placed on children. Some of them cannot bear it and take their own lives. There are also rare cases that they decide to do something particularly monstrous. At the same school where I led my six-year-old Rio to his first grade class, there, I heard, later happened something very tragic. One boy … – it’s so awful that I’d rather not write it. I have never heard of anything like this happen in a Czech school. And I also did not hear that there was talk in the Czech Republic about the social phenomenon that children refuse to go to school and communicate with anyone at all, even with parents or siblings. There are also cases when a child unlocks the door of his room only when he/she wants to take food, but only when the person who puts the food behind the door leaves. In Japanese, this phenomenon of self confinement is called hikikomori. Hikikomori children then become adults, and only Japanese society knows how problematic individuals these people are. How sad individuals are they. What a sad social reality it is.
Hikikomori as a phenomenon is discussed at the national level and is becoming more and more widespread in Japan. My Rio probably experienced issues connected with this during his childhood, because when he was in university, he chose this topic for his bachelor’s thesis. He wanted to help others who could not handle the stress and onslaught of the environment. While studying at university, Rio also set up a small community of five or six classmates in our house with aim to support in them life motivation so that they become interested in anything they could experience tru and meaningful joy. They explained Rio that by entering college, they had fulfilled their goal, and now they were wondering what it was for? They went through the Japanese education, obeyed the guidance and wishes of their parents and grandparents, teachers and society, worked hard and eventually managed to enter a prestigious university only to find out that it was not their will what brought them to the ICU. ICU, the same place where also I graduated and where I knew it so well. I was surprised that even at ICU there are students who do not have their own confidence and motivation. Who come to college and want to finally enjoy recklessness without ever lasting drill and tests. Without the ever lasting demands of the Must. Without “ganbaru”. It is well known that many university students when they come to university, for the first time experience their self awareness. And they feel lost. They don’t know what life is about. The ICU with its strong spirit of creativity, passion and otherness was a unique place, and I hope this is still truth. The Japanese society needs similar schools very much.
One of the truly important insights by which the ICU has enriched me is that it is not enough when an individual posseses skills and geniality, because it is similarly important how he or she can work with others and how he or she can apply loyalty to appointed groups. The inability to honestly pass on my strengths to the group was my weakness that I carried with me from our Western world. I wanted to excel, that was my first aim. In Japan, I had to learn to suppress my assertiveness. Be silent when appropriate. Treat ego properly. I knew that I must not lose judgment on the values I believe in, but at the same time I wanted to perceive the needs of the collective, almost programmatically. I forced myself to be a person with “ganbaru”. I told myself, not always successfully, that I must not be angry if I did not have what I wanted. I reminded myself that the individual does not stand only as self, but that man is a relationship between one and the other. Yes, man is a social creature. A creature in relationships. I probably knew it from my upbringing in my western world, but I fully understood and imagined the bond with each other only through the Japanese character “ningen” 人間. The first kanji in the word is human.人. A person with a head, arms, legs. Or two people. Or several people. A number is not considered clearly defined in Japanese grammar. Just “hito” in Japanese reading. The second part of the word consists of a character in the Chinese reading “gen” and in the Japanese reading “aida” which means the space between. In the sign, character or letter if you want, you see the gate and in that gate is the sun, day. That word was an enlightment to me. It stood firmly on the Japanese experience and culture.
Rio, my eldest, had been raised in the name of “ningen” and “ganbaru” in many forms since his early childhood. He attended a Japanese kindergarten, a Japanese primary and second grade elementary school, in Japan as well as in the Czech Republic and Turkey at schools managed by the Japanese embassies. When he was fifteen, he didn’t want to move to Japan and go to Japanese high school, and he didn’t want to go to a Czech school as well. Finally, he entered the British College high school in Prague, which was founded in 1992 by Václav Havel and the British Prince Charles. Surprisingly, Japanese education gave him sufficient English language training. All was in English. He liked it there. After graduating, he joined the Faculty of Social Sciences as a foreign student at the Charles University and studied in Czech. He didn’t finish. He then studied at the Literary Academy in Prague. In Czech language. I remember his fejetons, they were excelent. He didn’t finish. Three languages and life sometimes in Japan and sometimes in the Czech Republic complicated his adolescence. He did not know where he belogns to. I always wanted Rio to be both Czech and Japanese, not “half” but “double”. It was essential for him to speak both languages and on top of it also English. To love both cultures. To experience diversity. To be cosmopolitan. And because I realized that Rio was similar in nature to myself, I thought he would stay in the Czech Republic. In the end, however, he decided to go to Japan and try to test his temper there. He was searching self. Hikikomori did not atract him, but the truth is that he lived for a long time with an idea that it would be interesting to be homeless. I did not understand. He also tried dangerous sports such as freediving. He was even at the world championships. In Japan, he first graduated from the two-year Naval Academy in Shikoku and obtained a license to operate large ships, but he never practiced this profession. Rather, he lived in a small room without even bathroom near Tokyo Station and associated with young people looking for alternatives to the Japanese reality. For a while, he also wanted to be an actor and become famous. I don’t think he ever tried a real homeless, but he was close. Eventually, he became tired of living without health insurance and goals and enrolled at the ICU. Although he was significantly older than the other candidates and had a different background, they accepted him. Some professors still remembered him because I had my Rio under my heart as a sophomore. When he was born, he became the youngest student of the ICU ever. Everybody knew him. I tied him to my back on so called ombu and attended lectures. Unique in the history of the ICU. At another Japanese university, that would be unthinkable. Impossible. I had the courage to do so. Rio was two and a half years old when I graduated. The professors, students and guests of the ceremony also congratulated my little boy. We were an exception, but at the ICU it was possible. It was the year 1982.
Rio, during his studies at the ICU, decided that his experience was important to Japanese education and set himself the goal of becoming a teacher. It was his mission. He succesfully passed quite difficult state exams and asked that he wanted to be placed in a school where no one wanted to go. It was somewhere on the western far outskirts of Tokyo. Pupils were often from broken families and had little motivation to learn. Their parents didn’t even force them to go to all the preparatory private tutoring courses, and they didn’t even have the money for that. Many students were unable to master the school curriculum and their behavior often did not demonstrate good morales. Rio believed he could help them. For the pupils there, he was an exotic teacher, a hero and an example of what everything can be experienced in life. It was important that they discover their dreams for the future. The assignment Rio set for himself was difficult. Nevertheless, over time, he felt that his teaching brought students what they needed. After a few years, the State School Administration transferred Rio to a school in Suginami. It is one of Tokyo’s richer neighborhoods, so even a public school has a higher standard and better students. Rio set to work again with everything he could give. He was a second grade teacher specializing in English. He devoted six days a week to the school, from morning till night, and on the seventh day he thoughtfully regenerated. A day of rest as in the Bible. Simply to survive. Part of the teacher’s job was that he had to be a supervisor at school activities outside of teaching. Club activities are in schools even on Saturdays, although there is no Saturday lessons. Rio also caught up with the preparation of supplementary aids on Saturdays and, like other days, did not leave school until after nine o’clock in the evening. As every day, he stopped at a nearby restaurant to eat and then went home to sleep. He refused to communicate with his family, in fact it was not even possible. He did not have time. At school, they had permanently blocked internet for the world outside the schoo and were not allowed to make phone calls. Space in space. He said that teachers are constantly overworked and that he could not take proper holiday even in the summer, when there is no teaching duty. Even when he was sick he went to school. Thinking that other teachers would have take over his lessons, he did not allow himsel. Rio said that everyone went to the edge. Years of total commitment. It is well known that the number of teachers hired is notoriously insuficient. And although the government has long promised to make reform of the school system, nothing has happened. Rio said that a large percentage of teachers damage their health, both physical and mental. Rio was in his forties, and in the end he painfully decided to finish his mission to the Japanese new generation and change his profession so that he could think of a decent partnership and family life.
It has only been a few weeks since Rio got married. He had his wedding in the same church where my graduation was, his graduation of little and grown up Rio was, and where was the graduation of his dear wife Makiko, a Japanese woman who welcomes the rich life experience of Rio. She was also raised up at the ICU. International Christian University. I hope that there are more such universities in Japan that are avant-garde and yet passes on virtues preserved from the past. Virtues that lead to self-discipline, determination, modesty and a sense of team, while leaving room for the joy of cognition and freedom of self-development and expression. When I studied my subject called the International Interpersonal Communication at the ICU, the professor told us before graduation that we know academically how to behave, but only life will teach us how to be good people with courage and vitality to do good. It was at the ICU where I met the art of the Japanese tea ceremony that accompanies me on a daily basis and that I consider a blessing. The university has a chashitsu (tea house), which is Japan’s national treasure. At the time I studied, there were many groups that were active in the Japanese traditional arts. Probably the most popular were martial arts. At ICU, I also formed my ability to arrange flowers of Sógetsu school up to the level of a teacher. Besides I took calligraphy courses. With my baby tied on my back. When you want, everything goes! The university had two museums with interesting archaeological and ethnographic collections. From the building called D-kan one could always hear music played on various musical instruments. Everything lived there, everything was committed to joy and creativity. That’s how I experienced it. Japanese students and students from different countries of the globe sat together on the grass in good harmony. It was a place where I wanted to be and where I think my son Rio finally landed. He found his home. I have to say, “ICU, thank you.”
I believe that wonderful graduates will continue to emerge from the ICU influencing the Japanese society in the future so that it can absorb and develop values that were unthinkable at the time when my little six-year-old Rio entered the Japanese primary school. In forty years, Japanese society has become much more diverse than before. There are more and more exceptions like Rio. And it’s not just children from international families, they’re also native Japanese who just aren’t the same as the majority. Even those outside the mainstream need to be able to express themselves meaningfully in Japanese education without fear and revolt, so that they do not have to flee to the extremes of hikikomori loneliness or in a convulsive protest find themselves in extreme social bubbles. I know that my son will be one of those people who will lead by example that being an exception is very creative and useful when at the same time giving self to the service of the collective. Exceptions can be a necessary spice that will add to the flavors of the whole. Rio lives in Japan and sees his uniqueness as an advantage. I think this alone is the amazing success of the little six-year-old boy whom I led to an ugly Japanese school that felt like a concrete bunker.
“Rio, yoku ganbarimashita ne!” “Rio, you did and you do great!”