Kyoto Time Slip: Reliving Japanese History in 3rd Grade

Rio and Puck Brecher

My son Rio has been raised as a bilingual Japanese-English speaker in a college town in the western United States, where I teach Japanese History. My wife and I had taken him to spend summers with relatives in Japan, but last year, after I received a grant to do research at Kyoto University, was his first opportunity to attend a Japanese school for an extended period.  I had lived in Japan on and off for about twelve years, mostly in the 1990s, and I knew well about Japanese bureaucracy and had done research on the education system in Meiji-Taisho Japan. We thought this would be a unique experience that we wanted Rio to reflect on and remember. However, I had no idea just how many “learning moments” the two of us would experience in the next six months.


On Rio’s first day of 3rd grade a school communique directed him to congregate, along with the other students, on the playground at 8:30am with their indoor shoes (uwagutsu) and handkerchiefs but provided no further details of the day’s events except that students would be released at noon. I returned home from my university office by 11:00 am, just in case, and found Rio sitting outside the door. Sitting for an hour, he told me. He was feeling “somewhere between scared and okay,” and after we went inside he seemed to forget the matter. I did not. I knew that unlike in the US where parents and schools are highly protective of young children, unaccompanied school children in Japan routinely walked and rode public transportation around the city. I was not expecting my son to be one of them on his first day, however.

On his second day, Rio returned at noon, as expected. He had been assigned a classroom and spent the morning cleaning it with his 28 classmates. His teacher had formed work groups and allocated cleaning responsibilities for the room’s floors, walls, desks, and other furniture, and then the school’s library, gym, lavatories, and hallways. Though I knew that having students clean the school was a practice instituted during the Meiji years (1868-1912), I marveled at the extent to which those practices had deliberately been preserved, though for pedagogical rather than financial reasons. Rio found the task dull but not particularly objectionable. As a group activity, it helped mitigate his self-consciousness as the new kid.

These initial experiences affirmed what I had noticed when we first visited the school several weeks earlier to register for the new academic year. This reputable elementary school located in a “good” neighborhood clung firmly to an educational culture formulated over a century ago. In fact, in some ways it seemed to defy the passage of time. Its entrance was dark and felt many degrees colder inside than the blustery mid-March weather outside. Furnishings in the conference room were basic and old, stark proof of the fact that the amount of money that the Japanese government spends on education, as expressed as a percentage of GDP, is well below the OECD average. The principal dragged a kerosene stove to the center of the room and lit it. His ensuing discussion of school policies made it clear that parents would be responsible for playing only a supporting role in their child’s education. It dawned on Rio and me that we, familiar with life in Japan and well-acquainted with its language and culture, were nonetheless unprepared for Japanese education’s deliberate “forward-looking retrospection.” For parent and child alike, 3rd grade would call for both tolerance and an openness to lessons we had not expected to learn.




There was also no denying the effectiveness of Japanese primary education, for the great majority of those students are healthy, happy, and highly knowledgeable. Moreover, neither its methods nor outcomes are accidental. In East Asian education, the old is used to inform the new, or as Confucius put it: “One who revitalizes the old in order to know the new is fit to be a teacher.”[1] How, then, were we to benefit from educational methods submerged in the past?

Despite our enthusiasm, answers often eluded us. We failed to understand why students continue to carry randoseeru (leather backpack, from the Dutch word ransel), an accessory introduced in the 1880s. The shape of this impractical and expensive bag is nearly unchanged since that time. And although Japan enjoys near-universal rates of internet access and its corporations are world leaders in robotics, cell phone technology, and green technology, my son’s classroom contained no computers, only a TV monitor. We soon discovered there were no heaters in the classroom either, and my son reported that although temperatures inside were no different than outside, students were not permitted to wear their jackets. (This policy aimed at training students’ stoicism and toughness seems to have worked, I noticed. The only child shivering was my own). The moralistic principles that taught children civic-mindedness and self-sacrifice over a century ago remain in the public school curriculum. Sometimes we struggled to see the value in such vestiges. Rio’s dôtoku (morals) textbook, for example, was actually more of an etiquette manual. It consisted of short allegories in which child protagonists learn to treat others kindly, apologize for or forgive a wrongdoing, achieve through perseverance, and cooperate with others. The text’s assumed level of knowledge was bafflingly rudimentary, for eight-year-olds had certainly already learned these basic behaviors years earlier at home and at school. One episode titled “Babies eat too” instructed simply that unborn babies grow in their mothers’ stomachs (not wombs). This type of study suggested that schooling valued learning and growth less than affirmation and ritual.

We also struggled to grasp the breadth of our school’s perception of education, which seemed indistinguishable from child-rearing itself. During his first six weeks in third grade, for example, Rio received hearing, vision, and dental exams; a full body inspection; and physical fitness testing. The data collection process climaxed with a take-home urine test complete with a barcoded specimen bottle, ziplock bag, and several pages of instructions. I appreciated all the concern for my son’s wellbeing, which saved me the trouble of scheduling checkups for him myself. I waited in vain for his test results, however. On the final day of the semester we received a simple report testifying to his good health, but never the test results themselves.

To me, many of the physical assessment tests—e.g., squatting on one’s haunches with one’s heels on the floor—appeared irrelevant to the physical demands confronted in modern life. Indeed, they vaguely evoked early Meiji schools’ intense health consciousness and propensity for collecting data about their students’ bodies. In the wake of devastating contagions in the 1850s and 60s, the early Meiji government had made public health a national priority. Schools took the lead in extending health care to children and bringing knowledge of modern hygiene and medical treatments to their families. In the 1930s, the government became alarmed when it learned of citizens’ falling physical fitness levels and that growing numbers of boys were unfit for mandatory military service. It responded by instituting compulsory screenings and fitness testing.

When the weather turned warm, Rio’s physical education class started swimming in the pool on the school’s roof. Each swimming morning we completed a twelve-question health status survey. The requested information included his temperature and the time of his last bowel movement. The legacy of rajio taisō (radio calisthenics) routines used in schools and companies since the 1930s also remains. Every afternoon the class performed a modernized version of the exercise program in synch with the music video “Paprika” shown on the classroom monitor.

Home visitations (katei hōmon), initiated in the 1870s, also continue. Modern education was a new concept at that time, and schools were unable to count on cynical parents to understand and support it. They needed to bring this knowledge into the home, to educate students and families alike. Teachers visited homes to acquire demographic information—family size, economic condition, occupation, educational background, and attitude toward education—but also to learn about any potential challenges raised by each child’s distinctive home environment. They also sent regular reports home but, as with the physical testing results, did not necessarily disclose to parents the full extent of their assessments.

Knowing this did not prepare me for the day my son brought home a form titled “home environment survey.” It was accompanied by a notice informing me that our home would soon be visited, and apparently inspected, by his teacher to ascertain the nature of Rio’s living environment. When his teacher arrived, she simply sat and discussed his progress, strengths, and weaknesses. Mercifully, visitations are now more of a school service, but her tone, like the principal’s earlier, disabused us of any notion of education as a collaborative endeavor between school and home. Schools are firmly in charge; parents are adjuncts. The collection and non-disclosure of students’ information left no doubt of this.

The lunch (kyūshoku, lit., rations) system is another legacy of the prewar era. Charity lunches were first provided to impoverished school children in the late 19th century and became normative amidst the hardships and shortages of the war years. The system was institutionalized under the School Lunch Law of 1954. The lunches students eat today are balanced and intended to reflect the content of the nutrition education taught at school. Students set up, serve, and clean up. Everyone eats the same thing, precluding resentments over inequities. Though Rio described the lunches as “too healthy, without much meat,” and complained that “they gave you rice four times a week,” I found the program convenient and affordable. I was also comforted to know he was not being served corn dogs and pancakes, staples of his American school’s cafeteria.

The day before their month-long summer vacation, students gathered for a school assembly and the principal delivered a speech cautioning them to be safe, study hard, and use their time wisely during the break. The way Rio described it, the setting and the principal’s words seemed remarkably similar to “Kōchō no enzetsu” (The principal’s speech) in Iwaya Sazanami’s volume of essays Shochū kyūka (Summer break) published in 1892. Vacations had never been viewed as a license for self-indulgent frolicking. In the 1870s, schools had been skeptical of extended summer breaks, fearing that students would become lazy and forget their lessons. When summer vacations were widely instituted, teachers periodically summoned students back to school during the breaks to check their homework and their health. For students themselves, summer breaks quickly lost their novelty. According to their summer diaries, most Meiji-Taisho era students spent their vacation days doing domestic chores and homework, and soon reported missing their school friends and teachers. Vacations, many confessed, were more monotonous than school. At my son’s school, as well, on the first day of summer “vacation,” students were back at school for “voluntary” homework assistance sessions. As with salarymen who willingly decline to take time off, students had mixed feelings about the prospect of extended time away from school. It shattered their social lives and daily routines.

Each of these aspects of my son’s class—the health screenings, home visitations, lunches, and approach to vacationing—reinforced a formidable seriousness and rigidity that I found both refreshing and exhausting. I was pleased to have him held to far higher standards of discipline and productivity than he had at his American school. As he put it, his Japanese teacher “makes you learn a lot more” but his American teacher “just wants her students to have fun.” This seriousness, I suspected, grounded Japanese education’s admirable successes. But I was also conflicted about the form and scope of the school’s enforcement methods. Much of contemporary classroom etiquette evokes military training. Daily routines consist of synchronized greetings and rituals. Students begin each lesson by reciting “shisei wo tadashiku shimashō” (let’s sit up straight) and for the remainder of the class sit with straight backs and both feet on the floor. When called upon, they stand and push in their chairs before speaking.

Part of Rio’s daily homework was to stand and practice reading aloud (ondoku). My job was to grade the volume of his voice, his fluency, and his accuracy, and then sign off on the grade report to attest that parent and child alike had indeed completed the task. Diaries were equally prescriptive. Instructions called for students to comply with a prescribed set of rules: entries must have a title, fill one full page, use at least three colors to highlight important words, etc. Again, this task is nearly unchanged from the late 19th century, when schools started assigning summer diaries along with explicit instructional manuals containing sample entries for students to emulate.

Japanese schools train students to be self-sacrificing and highly accountable; rules, discipline, and schoolwork are interchangeable. They expect parents to exhibit an equal level of accountability. When Rio cut his finger and needed a bandage one day, the teacher supplied one but informed him that the next day he would need to bring one from home to replace the one he used. But it was the quantity and exacting nature of the paperwork arriving daily from school that proved particularly overwhelming. Reading and responding to the daily influx of applications, requests, notices, and forms of various sorts became a fulltime job in itself. Here I offer a single example of the communiques received:


“Rules regarding student water bottles:

  1. Bottles should be filled only with water or tea that had been boiled that day. Do not fill them with anything else.
  2. Ensure that bottles and caps have been sanitized.
  3. Students must not share their water bottles with friends.
  4. Students must drink from their bottles only in their classrooms during breaks.
  5. Students must not drink from their bottles while walking home from school.
  6. Do not bring a bottle that is unnecessarily large.
  7. Bring home your bottles and wash them every day.
  8. No PET (polyethylene terephthalate) ”


Attending school 210-250 days per year, Japanese students are being raised by their schools to a far greater degree than American students, who attend school only 180 days a year. They also have fewer breaks and recesses, and far more nightly homework. In Japanese schools, short breaks between classes allow students to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water (only water). Recess aside, there was no “free” unstructured class or activity time where students could be self-directed. Education consists of seating kids in rows and having them work through step-by-step lesson plans. Everyone does the same thing at the same time.

By most accounts, such methods are highly effective. Rio “learned a lot” because he was left little choice. And those methods would be unrealistic if not for teachers’ professionalism. Meticulously organized and businesslike, teachers exemplify the same work ethic they demand of their students. They teach every class subject, including physical education, and they grade and return homework and classwork promptly, sometimes the same day. The outcomes of this “tough love” approach to education again left us wondering whether it would prove equally beneficial in American schools.

It did not crush students’ spirits or personalities, we noticed. Indeed, we were relieved to find Rio’s classmates exceptionally outgoing and good-natured. He had left behind a handful of playmates in the US, but after a few months in Japan he considered a quarter of his entire class “close friends.” Some thought nothing of inviting themselves over to our house after school. Clearly, this school’s culture of control was not stifling children’s exuberance or self-confidence.

I had little doubt that Japanese classrooms teach discipline, accountability, and group cooperation better than their American counterparts. Rio considered his school’s focus on discipline “a little too strict” and complained that “it gave too much homework,” but also added that this “was probably why I learned a lot.” His observed correlation between discipline and learning invited me to reconsider what an optimal educational mission should look like.


Third grade was more of a lifestyle than merely a place of academic learning. Schools, we discovered, dictate the rhythms of a child’s life and expect parents to serve as compliant collaborators. The experience left me with the strong impression that whereas in the US children are raised by parents, in Japan children are raised by their schools. Home is the place children go when they are not in school. Acknowledging this, parents provide little structure and ask little of their children while at home. Once again, this pattern is grounded in the past. Since the mid-1880s, it was often schools that determined students’ academic track, their educational endpoint, and the sort of profession they would enter.

It is simple enough to either condemn or praise Japanese schools, and many have done so. I am not interested in taking a position on that issue here. The country’s historic successes stand as clear evidence that its education’s continued reliance on historical models has long produced admirable test scores and socioeconomic results. Its toll on the individual can be debated. In the West, most schools have long since jettisoned many of the principles and pedagogies they employed a century ago, and those outcomes can also be debated.

The salient question is how continued use of historical models in Japanese schools is meeting the country’s changing educational needs. In most societies, education’s moral mandate is to prepare students for success by preparing them for the future. Japanese elementary schools seem determined to prepare students for success by attaching them to a moral edifice and set of rituals introduced in the distant past. The results seem paradoxical: a highly informed, disciplined population whose life expectancy leads the world; schools and teachers demonstrating admirable standards of professionalism and organization; and students that in addition to exhibiting a commendable work ethic have learned to work together, help each other, and take responsibility together. Japan feels that the past is the right place to look for elusive answers to today’s educational challenges. One wonders whether other societies could also benefit from this lesson, and whether they would be up to the rigors of implementing it.

[1] The Analects, 2.11.


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Rio Brecher and Puck Brecher

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