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Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School Through the Eyes of An American Anthropologist and Her Children

Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Japanese Lessons
    Book Description:

    Gail R. Benjamin reaches beyond predictable images of authoritarian Japanese educators and automaton schoolchildren to show the advantages and disadvantages of a system remarkably different from the American one... --The New York Times Book Review Americans regard the Japanese educational system and the lives of Japanese children with a mixture of awe and indignance. We respect a system that produces higher literacy rates and superior math skills, but we reject the excesses of a system that leaves children with little free time and few outlets for creativity and self-expression. In Japanese Lessons, Gail R. Benjamin recounts her experiences as a American parent with two children in a Japanese elementary school. An anthropologist, Benjamin successfully weds the roles of observer and parent, illuminating the strengths of the Japanese system and suggesting ways in which Americans might learn from it. With an anthropologist's keen eye, Benjamin takes us through a full year in a Japanese public elementary school, bringing us into the classroom with its comforting structure, lively participation, varied teaching styles, and non-authoritarian teachers. We follow the children on class trips and Sports Days and through the rigors of summer vacation homework. We share the experiences of her young son and daughter as they react to Japanese schools, friends, and teachers. Through Benjamin we learn what it means to be a mother in Japan--how minute details, such as the way mothers prepare lunches for children, reflect cultural understandings of family and education. Table of Contents Acknowledgments 1. Getting Started 2. Why Study Japanese Education? 3. Day-to-Day Routines 4. Together at School, Together in Life 5. A Working Vacation and Special Events 6. The Three R's, Japanese Style 7. The Rest of the Day 8. Nagging, Preaching, and Discussions 9. Enlisting Mothers' Efforts 10. Education in Japanese Society 11. Themes and Suggestions 12. Sayonara Appendix. Reading and Writing in Japanese References Index

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8612-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Getting Started
    (pp. 1-17)

    Every morning, six days a week, the streets of Japanese towns and cities are full of lively groups of children converging on neighborhood schools. Elementary school children wearing leather backpacks for books and junior high school students in dark uniforms carrying briefcases, all meeting friends and calling gaily to each other, give the residential neighborhoods a sense of bustle and excitement, which emphasizes the quiet that follows during the school day.

    What would it be like to be one of those children? Are the backpacks heavy? What can be in them? All of us were excited and scared at the...

  5. 2 Why Study Japanese Education?
    (pp. 18-30)

    I have several purposes as I write this book. It is an attempt to put together in one package my concerns with Japanese education as a parent and an American citizen observing and participating in American education in the 1980s and 1990s, and as an anthropologist interested in modern Japanese culture and society.

    The research on which the book is based is a combination of two approaches. A growing body of observational research on Japanese education has recently been developed in English and in Japanese. This has enriched our potential for understanding the implications of Japanese education beyond the spectacular...

  6. 3 Day-to-Day Routines
    (pp. 31-52)

    Now that Sam and Ellen were fully equipped for school, belonged to a walking group and a classroom, and were prepared to begin the life of a Japanese schoolchild, we all wondered what that life would be like, how the hours of school would be spent, just how different a classroom in Japan could be from one in America.

    Our first hint of the answers to these questions came from the class schedules. Though there are of course variations in the routine, the basic format of the school week is laid out in a schedule established by the teacher at...

  7. 4 Together at School, Together in Life
    (pp. 53-86)

    To most foreign observers a striking aspect of classroom organization and class time activities in Japan is the division of the class intohangroups.Hanmeans a platoon, a squad, a working group. It has implications of being the smallest operational group in a joint endeavor and of being a group that operates with little or no hierarchy. In Japanese classrooms eachhanincludes five to eight children, depending on the size of the class, and in order to be an efficient teaching and social environment, each class should have six to eight of these groups. Both social and...

  8. 5 A Working Vacation and Special Events
    (pp. 87-114)

    We had arrived in Japan near the end of June and had Sam and Ellen enrolled in school by the first week of July, so they had been in school only for a few weeks when summer vacation began. In Japan, since the school year runs from April 1 until the following March, summer vacation comes at the end of the first third of the school year. It was preceded by a flurry of newsletters from school, several notices from each classroom teacher, and a long letter from the principal himself. There was information about homework assignments, proper leisure time...

  9. 6 The Three R’s, Japanese Style
    (pp. 115-138)

    In Japan as in most countries, reading, writing, and arithmetic form the academic core of elementary school, along with science and social studies. It would be hard to tell that from the textbooks, however. On the first day, when Sam and Ellen received their books, we were surprised by the number of textbooks given to them and also by their appearance.

    We were used to having no texts for subjects like art and physical education and having textbooks for the basic subjects that in their size and weight seem to embody physically the importance of their subject matter. American textbooks...

  10. 7 The Rest of the Day
    (pp. 139-175)

    It’s not a hard and fast rule, but Japanese elementary school teachers seem to prefer to schedule the “heavy” academic subjects for before lunch time, since lunch and the activities that go with it break up the concentration that the long morning provides; it also makes children and teachers a little more lethargic. In this book, too, lunch will provide a break in the academic discussions. Lunch takes a major chunk of the school day in Japan, however, and it’s a mistake to think of it only as a distraction and not part of the curriculum.

    A question we encountered...

  11. 8 Nagging, Preaching, and Discussions
    (pp. 176-189)

    Postmodern, deconstructionist anthropology is centrally concerned with the role of symbolic actions in social settings to establish a shared consensus among participants about what is “real” and what is “really” going on. Language is one of the primary forms of symbolic action, and the power of talk to “construct” reality for participants is a point emphasized by such analysts. The European theorists, especially (Bourdieu, Habermas, Foucault, Fairclough, for instance), generally feel that in the situations they are concerned with, including schools, the use of language to construct understandings is nefarious, justifying unjust power inequities. Japanese teachers and schools, clearly not...

  12. 9 Enlisting Mothers’ Efforts
    (pp. 190-199)

    I can read Japanese but usually with difficulty, so I noticed the volume of communications that came home from school more than I would have had they been in English—it seemed like a lot. There were scheduled publications, such as the monthly newsletter for the whole school, the monthly letter for each grade, and the monthly menus for school lunch. There were also occasional items like advice about summer vacation and glossy printed collections of writings by the children.

    From my point of view perhaps the most useful of the school communications was the monthly school newsletter. After struggling...

  13. 10 Education in Japanese Society
    (pp. 200-220)

    We have seen how Japanese elementary schools are meant to be, and seem to be, powerful socialization tools—institutions to turn children into Japanese children and later Japanese adults. Japanese elementary schools are a part of the larger society, and it is worthwhile to look at how they fit into the rest of the education system and how that fits into society as a whole.

    Since the beginning of the modernization period, Japan has looked at itself as a nation poor in natural resources, with only its people as a major asset. The education system has always been seen as...

  14. 11 Themes and Suggestions
    (pp. 221-239)

    The end of an ethnography such as this one calls for a summary of themes and motifs, of general coherence in the cultural phenomena described. If we understand the goals and the constraining environment of Japanese elementary school education, we will be able to understand why certain practices are widespread and effective.

    In addition, in an ethnography like this one, undertaken in part to compare the education systems of Japan and the United States, it is appropriate to pull together some comparisons of practices in the two countries with an eye to evaluating possible changes in American practice. Both institutional...

  15. 12 Sayonara
    (pp. 240-242)

    We timed our departure from Japan for just after the end of the school year in March. Sam and Ellen both received going-away presents from their classes, very nice photo albums with individual pictures of their classmates and a farewell note from each one. The inevitable hassles and confusions of ending the research we had come to do, of cleaning the apartment, selling household gear, closing bank accounts, and moving a family to the other side of the globe somewhat obscured the meaning and significance of the year for us in terms of our individual and family experiences at the...

  16. Appendix: Reading and Writing in Japanese
    (pp. 243-254)
  17. References
    (pp. 255-258)
  18. Index
    (pp. 259-262)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 263-263)