With the start of the school year in April, children and their parents both may be anxious. Our guest Louise George Kittaka knows the feeling. She sent three kids through elementary school in Japan. Louise is from New Zealand. She tells us how she was amused and confused by Japanese school culture, especially the demands (and rewards) of involvement in the PTA.
In the latter part of the program, our host -Stuart- talks about how to enjoy Japanese literature. He shares his experience of reading Japanese short stories, translated into English, on the NHK WORLD-JAPAN program, "Reading Japan." (https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/3004791/)
Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in to our show. I'm Ruth. Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan, whether now or in the future.
Yes, indeed. And today we welcome a new partner to the program, StuartO.
Hello, everybody. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu. My name is StuartO. I do lots of work on NHK TV and radio, and others. We won't go there. I look forward to being an entertaining and informative source of information on Living in Japan.
So glad to have you with us. OK, let's get started and share some tips for finding the best of life in Japan.
OK, now everything in Japan gets started in April. The fiscal year begins, new employees enter companies, and the school year gets going. Everyone's excited and a little bit nervous. And you get to meet new people in April like me!
That's right. Exactly. You're actually like what they call a Shinnyusei, like a new kid who's starting school. It reminds me of when my first child, my son, entered primary school.
It’s really good to have that feeling of being kind of fresh and new as well. Now, some people from overseas enroll their kids in international schools, but you choose your local public school. Tell us about that.
Yes, I did. That's exactly what I did, actually. My son went through there until the third grade, and I must admit it was challenging for both of us in many different ways because of a lot of new customs that I, as the newcoming parent, didn't know. But learning about all of that and trying to become comfortable in that very Japanese environment, it was really worth the effort.
I’m sure it was. And that's what today's theme is: Surviving Japanese elementary school. Yes. So stay tuned to listen to our guest, who's been there and done that. Wow, how exciting.
HINTS FROM SENPAI
Now, it's time for the main course, "Hints from Senpai." Oh.
Yes. Senpai is a Japanese word for someone who has more knowledge or experience than you or I do. On every show, we invite a different senpai in for tips on how to do things well in Japan.
Oh, it's so great. And today's senpai is Louise George Kittaka. She's from New Zealand and has been in Japan for almost 25 years. Wow. Quite a long time. It is a long time,
And you may have seen Louise's articles in The Japan Times and on various media. She also teaches at a university. And what's most important for today's discussion, her three children made it through public primary school in Japan. Wow! And you survived as well.
You can find her articles about Japanese school online, but she's actually right here with us today, and we're happy to have her. Welcome, Louise.
Thank you for having me. Welcome. Well, my son started primary school first, followed by my two daughters, and also as a longtime member of AFWJ, which is a group for international women in Japan with Japanese partners, I've had plenty of other parents talk about this too in Japan.
Oh, so interesting. So, Louise, why did you choose public Japanese elementary school for your kids?
Well, one very good reason was that it's free, it's close, and they can have the shared experience with their Japanese peers in the neighborhood. And what we call Kyushoku, the school lunches were amazing. Wow.
And also on top of that, the Japanese primary school curriculum is really balanced. They have Art, they have a lot of time for PE, Music, Home Economics, all that good stuff.
Louise, we titled this segment Surviving Japanese Elementary School. What do you think about that title? Is surviving the right word?
Yes, certainly in the beginning. It really feels like a little bit of a challenge, and surviving would be the right word. Maybe surviving and thriving.
Louise, I'm sure you saw such a big change between kindergarten or daycare to elementary school.
Yes, it was certainly a big change when my oldest started primary school. My first impression was the school building. It was like something from the city office. And also there wasn't a lot of playground equipment in the schoolyard for the children.
Another thing that really kind of took me by surprise when my oldest started was they start calling the kids by their last name “Kittaka-kun”. I was like, Well, he's only six years old. Where did that come from?
So why do you think these changes happen?
One thing I think is elementary school is the first step on the Japanese compulsory education ladder. So up until then, preschool is pretty free and easy. You know, the kids really are just allowed to sort of just be little kids. But when you get to school, suddenly you're kind of being trained to be a member of Japanese society,
I think they get to learn rules for how to act in public and also how to treat public spaces because the kids do their own cleaning. They don't have professional cleaners to come in and clean the school after classes.
And I think that spills out into society because generally Japan is pretty clean, and people take care of public spaces really, really well. So, I think that's a really important part of their education, and it's great that they have that in the schools. Now, the daily lives of parents change too when the kids enter elementary school, don't they Louise?
Definitely. It's very likely that when your oldest starts school, your schedule will be different. You may well be getting up early. The kids often leave the house before 8:00 o’clock. They have so many things to take every morning. There’s so much you have to help them get ready because first graders, obviously, they can't do it all by themselves. There's like a school bag and attached to the main school bag is like the mother ship with all these little extra bags for all the various soft shoes, PE gear, all kinds of things.
And one more thing: PTA. Ah. Oh.
Within a couple of weeks of your child starting school, there will be a meeting for your class for the PTA.
PTA. Tell us about your experiences with the PTA.
OK, well, the PTA, Parent-Teacher Association, its main function is to kind of facilitate a great experience for the kids at school and to bring the parents into that. I was a class representative three times, once for each child. And in my particular school, it was three parents per class. And you took a lead role in organizing things like road safety patrols for the children in the morning and the evening, helping at school events like the Sports Day, for example. There was even an annual volleyball competition between the parents and the teachers.
That's great. And I am hopeless at sports. That was not a fun one for me. Actually twisted my ankle. Oh no.
I never really took on any positions of responsibility just because it was hard for me to find the time for everything. And sometimes I feel a little bit guilty about that, but that was just sort of my experience.
I experienced it myself firsthand as well. So how did things go for you in the end, Louise?
I was a working mom. My son was six. And I had a new baby, a two-month-old, and a three-year-old: his two little sisters at the daycare.
And the teacher said, “OK, we need three moms to be class representatives.” There were no fathers. It's a great way to find out about the school, especially if this is your first child. All the mothers started contemplating their belly buttons. Nobody put their hand up. The teacher kept saying, “Anybody? Anybody?”
It was almost 5:00 o’clock. I had to go pick up my girls. I’m like, OK, maybe if I just volunteer, then I'll get to know some other people. I can go and pick up my children. It'll be great. I put my hand up, they were just like “Great, thank you Kittaka-san.”
Then I heard that the meetings are in the morning on a weekday. I thought they were in the evening. I was quite horrified, and I was like, oh no. But at the time they said, “You know, we can work it out. It'll be fine.” Well, unfortunately it wasn't fine. I really couldn't make the meetings. I was overwhelmed with three kids and my job. So in the end, around June, I had to kind of apologize very, very, you know, kind of wholeheartedly to the whole class and say I had failed in my duties, and I'd have to have someone else take over. Yeah, it was not a great start.
I think that was really brave of you, though. Good job. Well, I tried. I meant well. But my advice to first-time international parents with their oldest child starting school is don't volunteer to be a class representative the first year. Right.
Sit back, read the air a little bit. Just see how things go. You know you've got five more years to volunteer. Don't worry. I mean, three kids. That means 15 times to do it. So yeah.
And the other thing is, you know, you can't do everything. Right. If you really can't do it, it's OK to say No, but you know, give it a try. You never know. You know, you might meet some great friends. I did meet some people that I really got on with and made friends who are still friends.
If you don't understand, it's actually a good way to make friends, to ask the other parents what, what, what was just said? You know, I didn't catch that. Can you tell me?
Another thing that I would say is try not to read between the lines because it's very hard to read the air in Japan and figure out what's going on. So, if you do have that friend who's Japanese, after the meeting, you can say, and so what was the main point again? Because sometimes it's very hard. It's easy to miss those important points.
So how can a parent from overseas join the PTA without feeling too much pressure?
OK, that's a very good question. One thing I've actually just thought of now that would be a great way for international parents to contribute. Our school anyway, had a what we call the book reading sessions in the morning. Parents would volunteer once a week to go and read to the kids. I used to go in and read to them in English.
That's so nice! They loved it. So it doesn't have to be in English. It can be your native language. Right. So there's one thing that we can do that as a plus.
My daughter went to an elementary school in a rural area, and being the only parent that is not Japanese in that environment, it was quite a challenge. But also I was able to open a few doors because a lot of the Japanese parents were kind of a bit reluctant to change the status quo. But being a non-Japanese, I was able to suggest a few things. So, I think you can change old customs as well. And of course, you can do several activities that the Japanese can't do, i.e. reading books in English, as Louise just said and other things like that. It's brilliant.
So Louise, do you have any other tips for managing PTA activities? OK, I have a little secret tip actually. What? Hmm.
Don't get involved when your first child is in first grade, but at the same time, I would try and avoid sixth grade being a class representative then because it's all about the graduation. And there's often a lot of extra stuff.
And in many schools, this class stays together for two years with the same teacher. So, if you volunteer in second or fourth grade, you're very likely to have the same teacher and the same mothers and the same kids. So, you'll be going in with a little bit of awareness of, you know, who you're dealing with. So, you know, at my school at second and fourth grade, we're kind of the ones, everyone like me! me! me!
The only two years when everybody was really keen to participate, right? If you're not confident in speaking Japanese, how do you get involved? How do you participate?
Well, like I said, if you're not a class representative, you still have to do something. So, you would go through the list of activities, and you can normally select something from that list that you can do, just one small thing.
I just remembered that I did do something. My favorite part was doing the flag when they're crossing the street. That was like my favorite job, my whole three years with my son because I was a cheerleader. So, I feel like you're a cheerleader with that flag. I loved it.It's the feeling of power. It is.
And you know, I actually now that I think about it, you can see how Japanese people communicate with each other, so it's a good learning experience for Japanese itself. And then the other one is whenever we would go to like a Bon dance, you know that they have in the summer, like Omatsuri or something, you would know other people who are there because you’re involved with the school. So, you felt like you're part of the community.
Now, My Japanese wife didn't like doing these PTA duties or any duties actually in the neighborhood, but I took care of them. And in doing so, all the kids knew who I was or the parents knew who I was. So, it was a really great way to get involved with the community
Today we've been talking about how to survive Japanese elementary school. Louise, have you any parting advice for parents?
And also I think it's very important to remember that the school, the teachers, the other parents, the other kids, they are all partners in this journey. They all want the same thing: to get these kids through the school, have the best possible experience. So, you know, you're all in the same boat, you're all pulling for the same team. Just keep that in mind.
And I think that as Japan changes, more of us internationals are going to be participating in these things. Yes. So, you won't be as much alone as maybe we were. So, I hope that everyone will feel encouraged to get involved.
OK, today's senpai was Louise George Kittaka. Thank you so much for joining us today, Louise.
Thank you very much for having me. I had a great time. Thank you.