February 21, 2003
Japanese equality – etcetera

This email arrived yesterday. I'm trying to encourage such emails to here, so I reproduce it in full.


www.hunkabutta.com is running something about equality in Japanese education. The archives also have stuff about the strictness of Japanese language schools.

Thought you might be interested.


Hunkabutta.com seems to be mostly concerned with photographs of Japanese life, but one of the people running it apparently teaches, and has some intriguing observations about egalitarianism in Japanese education.

The reportage quoted below has two qualities that I want especially to focus on here. First, it is not from the USA. No offence to the USA, but the blogosphere has enough educational Americana as it is. Second, it describes the individual experience of an individual human being, in an educational setting. In Britain, and especially in news stories, education is far too much discussed in terms of statistically abstracted aggregates, and not enough in terms of the specific and truly accurate experiences of individual persons. By all means, as here, recount individual experiences of abstract principles (in this case "equality") but, this being the blogosphere rather than a pile of company reports or government hand-outs, keep it real.

So far my only insight into Japanese education has been via the Kumon maths teaching system, which is uncompromisingly individualistic and non-egalitarian. The work each Kumon student does is entirely tailored to the progress he or she is making, and is totally unaffected by any considerations of group solidarity. And the contrast with what the hunkbutta person describes couldn't be more total.

I quote at perhaps wearisome length because hunkabutta.com is one of many sites where, try as I might, I simply cannot work out how the hell to link to an individual item. They do not use regular blogging software, perhaps because they started before blogging did. Anyway, this bit is from the Wed Feb 19 2003:

When I first came to Japan I worked as an assistant English teacher in several junior high schools in Tokyo. Every semester I would rotate between three or four different schools and help out in every English class.

One of the things that struck me as odd was the fact that the schools didn't stream students according to ability (I have heard that this is recently changing). In every subject, all the kids, whether they were brilliant or borderline mentally retarded (and this mix did actually occur) were taught the exact same thing in the exact same classroom.

In one English class that I taught there was a boy whose mother was British. He was basically fluent in English, but most of the other kids were still trying to master 'Hello my name is ...', and a few of the introverts who couldn't even manage that sat at the back in silence and picked at their moles.

I tried to convince this boy's teacher that he should be taught separately, or that we should prepare special materials for him, but the teacher would have nothing of it. Day after day this English speaking boy had to stand up with everyone else and say things like 'This is a pen', and 'I like baseball'.

Whenever I pressed one of the teachers to explain why we couldn't treat any of the students differently, whether it be giving them extra homework or kicking them out of class for fighting, their final argument would invariably be the same: "It's because of human rights. In Japan, children have human rights too".

I never could get my head around the Japanese take on 'human rights' but I think that it had something to do with a concept of equality, and as I said earlier, equality is pretty much the same as being identical. There's a frequently translated Japanese proverb that says, 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.' Fitting in with the group is very important in Japan.

At one point I even found myself in the surprising situation of trying to teach English to kids with Downs Syndrome (in a special class), many of whom couldn't even speak Japanese, for the sole reason that 'everyone else in the school studies English.'

I used to get angry and frustrated by the unwillingness of the teachers to treat any of the students differently. However, in retrospect I see that I was just being the classic know-it-all foreigner. Put basically, people from here know how things work here.

I wanted to teach the half British boy advanced English, but his teacher was sensitive enough to realize that it was already amazingly difficult for this boy to fit in with his classmates, and if we singled him out for special treatment we would only make things worse. I wanted to teach the mentally handicapped kids how to do housework and use basic social skills, like we do in Canada, but their Japanese teachers probably realized that the self esteem that they would gain by studying English 'Just like everyone else' would greatly outweigh the utilitarian benefits of more life skills training.

I suppose it pays to keep an open mind, even if it is only open in retrospect.

Well, if Sean Gabb's lady students from Japan are obliged by him to express their own (perhaps contrary to his) opinions in open classroom debate, even if they don't think they have any opinions, and in defiance of their own tradition of deference to their teachers, it makes sense for hunkabutta persons to fit in when they go to Japan. On the other hand, if this is how maths was being taught when Professor Kumon first started to worry about his son's poor maths progress, it would explain a lot about why he invented Kumon maths.

I feel a General Theory of the Educational Private Sector coming on. Basically, the private sector in different places is excellent in exactly the ways in which the official local system is especially bad. Japan fetishises educational egalitarianism, and from Japan emerges one of the most radically individualistic teaching systems on the planet. Indian state computer education is parodically absurd (with students learning computer languages no longer known to anyone in the world except Indian state teachers of computer skills) and the Indian private sector is now the leading supplier of computer-capable students to Silicon Valley.

I don't know quite how this applies to Britain. Probably I'm too close to see it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 AM
Category: This and that