Adventures in Entering a Japanese Elementary School
As the international mother of a brand new (pika-pika) first-grader (ichinensei) this year, I had many concerns. Would she settle in quickly? Would she be able to make friends? Would she understand the teacher and be able to communicate effectively in Japanese? Having just returned from a year living in the UK, my daughter's, and indeed my own limited Japanese, was a major worry. But I needn't have worried for my daughter. Two weeks in and she is undergoing a language explosion! Eight hours a day of playing and listening to Japanese is certainly working its magic. My own Japanese is being tested to its limits however, with school meetings, PTA meetings and a ton of printed matter coming home in her renrakucho (communication notebook) on a daily basis. Thank goodness for me, Daddy is in charge of checking all literature that comes home from school each night, or I might just have sunk by now!
Before my daughter started at school, I talked with lots of friends with children already in Japanese elementary schools and read many posts on the subject on web forums. Horror stories prevailed! Stories of petty issues over how puffy to make your pom-poms for Sport’s Day (one friend had a hers rejected twice and sent back home to be made more poofy) or sending in—gasp!—a cardboard box with slightly the wrong dimensions, were the norm. Friends talked of mountains of summer homework which the teacher never marked, not to mention the incredible amount of letters and printouts that come home. Then there are the many bags of various different shapes and sizes required to take all of your child’s stuff to school. Oh, and who can forget the crazy labelling of every teeny tiny piece of equipment in your child’s math set? Many expat mothers complain of the secret cult of Japanese mothers who just inherently know what is required and what is the right thing to do, while for us foreign mums it makes absolutely no sense, is as clear as mud and often defies all common sense and logical thinking! All this seemed miles away from what I was used to in England and my experience of having my girls attend primary school there. There were hardly any rules, one simple book bag to take every day, and few letters or papers home. In fact, most communication was done directly, face-to-face with their teachers at drop-off or pick-up time.
Having put the fear of god into me with all their stories, friends also provided me with invaluable advice for getting started. This ranged from what type of randoseru (backpack) to buy—for example it is best to avoid anything too cutsey or pastel-colored, which a 12-year-old, sixth-grade student would be too embarrassed to carry to school every day—to what to wear for the entrance ceremony (a lighter colored smart skirt and jacket, with a flower corsage and skin-tone tights seems to be the “right” way to dress). As a British mum with a rebellious streak, I wrestled with my own inner voice telling me, “I don’t care what people think of me!” as well as my desire that my daughter feel like she didn’t stand out too much. So I conformed…something I’m getting used to doing for the sake of an easy life here in Japan.
After the entrance ceremony, I nervously awaited the first dreaded meeting of the PTA, where the class representatives, or yakuin, would be asked to “volunteer” (or as it has been unaffectionately renamed by many mums here, are “volunTOLD”). The job of yakuin requires an incredible amount of work and can be almost a full-time job in itself depending on the school your child attends. As all the mothers in my daughter’s class sat in the classroom staring at their feet, the teacher asked for two volunteers for the job. This was met with silence, followed by uncomfortable feet shuffling, followed by silence, followed by the teacher stating “muzakashii desu ne” (it’s difficult, isn’t it). We were at a stalemate. Finally, as the teacher suggested we all play rock paper scissors for the role, two hands went up and everyone else breathed a sigh if relief. But it is not over yet; another meeting is on the cards to chose from a multitude of jobs that parents are expected to do.
Now all this talk may sound as if I am rather negative about the whole Japanese elementary school experience but, so far, that couldn’t be further from the truth! All in all, it has been a very smooth and positive experience for both my daughter and myself. I have been deeply impressed by the way in which this rite of passage has been celebrated here in Japan. Her entrance ceremony was warm and light-hearted, with none of the stuffy pomp and ceremony I had been warned about. All the older children in her school support and help the newbies. Her teachers are open, warm and friendly. And best of all, our neighbors have all congratulated her and me personally. They take time to ask her about her class and say itterasshai to send her off as they see her leave for school in the morning. Even neighbors I have never spoken to before smile warmly when they see her in her yellow school hat, marking her out as a first-grader, and assure me they will keep an eye out for her on her walk to school. One elderly neighborhood man brought her a bunch of flowers to congratulate her, and the representative for our local community came to our home to congratulate her and gave her a book token. Yes, it is a steep learning curve for us both, and we, or most likely I, will make many mistakes along the way, but it is a journey we will take together. So for all my personal worries and apprehension about the system, my daughter’s transition to Japanese school life has been bright, and she is indeed a happy pika-pika ichinensei!
By Helen Kaiho
Classroom photo by Scarletgreen; all others by Ajari.