An issue unrelated to politics or social movements for a change:


Sunday, April 30, 2000. 11:30 am

As I am a pretty lousy cook, I was picking the eggshells out of our Sunday omelette when I asked my wife, Aya, if she would be free today to help in the garden. It was the first sunny and warm day we had had for about two weeks, and warm as it was we could get started planting some bulbs and scattering seeds. She told me her schedule:

"I have to clean the house today. We are having a visitor tomorrow and she might want to see Amy's bedroom."

I stopped in mid-eggshell pick. "Huh? Who could possibly want to see Amy's bedroom?"

"Amy's teacher." The former had just started Grade One of Grade School a few weeks back. "Sensei is coming by to ask us a few questions."

"And why, may I ask?"

"Katei Houmon."


(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, Friends, Issho, and other lists May 3, 2000)

Katei Houmon literally means "home visit", and it is exactly as it sounds. In Japan, from kindergarten (youchien) up through sixth grade (in American nomenclature), and sometimes even beyond (through junior high for my wife), your child's homeroom teacher will actually come by your house for an interview of sorts--asking all sorts of questions about the child's preferences and lifestyle. What time does Hanako usually go to bed? How many hours of study does Taro do per day? Does Junko have any allergies? Is Hiroshi scared of certain things? Is there any food that Noriko can't stomach? Is Shuuji making many friends? These were questions asked of my students (I asked them later) when they were little, and nobody seemed at all bent out of shape by the inquisitive nature of the situation.

But I was. "Aya, call the school tomorrow. I want this visit cancelled until I know more about it."

"But why?"

"Because it is an invasion of our privacy." (puraibashii no shingai)


We were having trouble eating the omelette and it wasn't due to my cooking this time. Aya annoyedly picked at her plate and wondered why I was acting so:

Aya: "You never had a problem during kindergarten. We've had two katei houmons in the past and you never said anything then."

Me: "I wasn't aware of what was going on. They actually came to our HOUSE and grilled you on our lifestyle?"

Aya: "No. They just asked some questions to get to know our child better in the comfort of our own home."

Me: "Comfort? So they put you through a lot of extra work to get the house straightened up just so the authorities could come and snoop."

Aya: "You're exaggerating. There are certain questions which are best answered one-on-one, not at a PTA Soukai (General Meeting) or a Sankanbi (parent-teacher conference)."

Dave: "Like what? You name me one question that must be answered one-on-one inside the home."

Aya: "Well, uh... Anyway, I think the teacher wants to see how well-off the child is. Rich or poor, messy or tidy upbringing, whatever. If a kid comes to school smelly all the time it would be useful for the teacher to understand why; maybe the parents don't bathe him or her enough. Or if the parents were abusing the child, it would be safer and easier to discover that if the teacher were to witness the surroundings."

Dave: "So on the basis of 'safety' we allow The State to come into our house and snoop? That's ludicrous. In the name of safety, we should require all cars to be painted white so we could see them better at night. Likewise we should allow The State to intrude so that they can prevent child abuse. The point is that they want to check up on our lifestyle in case of deviances--because the common person cannot be trusted to raise their own children properly."

Aya: "Oh come now. 'The State'? How does this come into it?"

Dave: "Aya, get real. This is no longer a private-school kindergarten. We are now in Grade School. That's Compulsory Education (gimu kyouiku), administered by the Ministry of Education (Monbushou) with every staff member and teacher employed by The State as a Civil Servant. These are bureaucrats and they are getting a pipeline into our private lives."

Aya: "Pshaw."

Dave: "Now tell me--what the school going to use this information for? Don't tell me they look around the house and ask these things without making some sort of record."

Aya: "I don't know. I'm sure the information is not going to be used towards a bad end."

Dave: "So you think. But what if we were an ethnic minority--which technically, we are--doing things that were not SOP in a Japanese Home? Like cooking smelly kimchee or practicing some religion that might seem freaky? Our teacher would now be privy to that, and therefore so could the rest of the school. We already have enough evidence of Japan's tendencies of snooping as a means of social control. The whole Chounaikai (Family Neighborhood) system is one way to make sure that neighbors keep an eye on each other. And witness the posters up at the Police Boxes telling people to "know" their neighbors--because some of them might be radicals practicing politics of doom. At least when the police drop by to register us they only take down our demographics--we don't actually invite them into our living rooms. Look what we are doing with Amy's teacher!"

Aya: "Pshaw."

Dave: "Gesundheit. Are you telling me that information could not be spread around neighborhoods for future use? Didn't you once say that your employers once probed your neighbors?"

Aya: "Well, when I started work as a bank teller, investigators came around to our neighbors and asked them if I was a trustworthy sort. But that was necessary--for I would be handling lots of money and they have to have security checks."

Dave: "That's no security check! That's a means for ijime (bullying). If you are not liked by your neighbors they can fabricate (detchiageru) anything they want about you--and that will hurt your job prospects! This is completely unrelated to a person's qualifications. The potential for information dissemination like that hurts people--if you are unmasked as a closet ethnic Korean you could be passed over for government employment; if you are sussed as a Burakumin you could lose your fiancee. No, this is all part and parcel of the Japanese systematic means for digging out social deviance and I will not have it happen in my house."

Aya: "Calm down, Debito. You're exaggerating. Everybody goes through it. It's no big deal."

Dave: "You are not an ethnic minority. But my children and I are. So let me call the school on Monday, postpone the appointment, and let's see first what they say about the role of this institution and the way the information will be used."

Monday, May 2, 2000. Our Grade School, 4pm.

I was meeting with the second-in-command (Kyoutou), Mr Nakajima, who appeared unsurprised by my request (the whole goddamn school seems to know about my Otaru activism). Sitting in on the meeting was the Principal (Kouchou) Mr Nozawa, and Amy's teacher Ms Nagai. Mr Nakajima was very straightforward in his explanation:

Nakajima: "The Katei Houmon is not meant to be an intrusion on your privacy. It is meant to be a more intimate meeting between teacher and parent because the PTA and other conferences have too many people around to discuss private matters specific to the child. This enables better and closer communication, and therefore education more specific to the child's needs. It is all in good faith, I assure you. Don't you think education would be more effective if the teacher gets to know the child better?"

Dave: "No, I agree with you. This visit has a good purpose. The problem is: why does it have to be at our house?"

Nakajima: "That bothers you?"

Dave: "Yes it does. My wife has to spruce up the house for fear of making a bad impression. She was even worried that sensei would want to see my daughter's bedroom."

Nagai-sensei: (laughs) "I have never asked to see the bedroom. I may have asked where does the child study and asked where the desk was. But there's no need for your wife to go through all that trouble."

Dave: "But she will, you know. All of the housewifes will, because you are sensei. Why do you think house parties are so uncommon in Japan? Because it's too much of a bother to clean up the house specially and much easier to meet in a restaurant or a coffee shop. But they have to make an exception for you."

Nakajima: "We don't exactly have the budget to meet every family at a coffee shop."

Dave: "No of course not, I understand. My point is that I don't think that our economic conditions or lifestyle should concern you, and that will become quite obvious once you sit on our sofa and look around. Maybe it's just my Americanness which prefers to draw stricter lines between government and the individual, but we could accomplish all of the stated goals without being in our living room, right? My wife and I could come to school and talk one-on-one, right?"

Nakajima: "Some parents are too nervous when talking on school grounds, and can relax and talk more freely at home. Sometimes it's more convenient for the family for the teacher to parlay in the parlor--in some families both guardians work, and as the school is closed in the evening."

Dave: "Look I respect what you are trying to do. But I think the choice of venue should be left up to the parents. Is this katei houmon even optional (nin'i)?"

Nakajima: "Yes. We could move the meeting place elsewhere if you prefer." (Nagai concurred.)

Dave: "I would prefer."

Principal Nozawa (who was looking at me askance the whole conference): "Why don't you try a houmon just once? Sounds like tabezu girai (disliking without even tasting) to me. We Japanese have been doing Katei Houmon for quite a long time. Every Japanese has them as a child. This is a good opportunity for you to study some Japanese culture."

Dave: "Respectfully, Mr Nozawa, I am not here to study Japanese culture like this. I have lived here already for twelve years and have had two Katei Houmon. Quite honestly, I do not like the sound of them, and if there are options I would prefer to exercise them. Besides, with the future of Japanese society becoming more diversified (tayou shakai ni nari tsutsu ari) I daresay that there will be others who may feel the same way, and if they get their naturalization papers like I have they will also be forming what will become 'Japanese Culture'. I am part of that 'we Japanese'. It is my duty as an immigrant and an ethnic to tell people how I feel about things, and I hope that people will respond in kind so we can reach a compromise."

Nozawa: "Fine. I just don't see why this is bothering you so."

Dave: "Because this Katei Houmon sounds too much like a sokou chousa."

Nozawa: "Come again?"

Dave: "A 'sokou chousa' ("behavior survey"--which measures how nicely or badly one is behaving in society). Have you ever undergone one in Japan? I am now for my naturalization procedures. It is not pleasant. The Ministry of Justice does a thorough background check on your finances, your criminal activities, your neighborhood reputation, and even your lifestyle in a home visit. (see more at They want a map to the house, photos of your workplace, and your addresses since birth. What really got me was when last month they forced my American parents to sign a Shinjutsusho (a kind of affidavit) which swore that I had no siblings and that my mother was telling the truth about her marriage status. My mother was so offended that she refused to sign, and my father, who emigrated from England and took out US citizenship, signed only to avoid hypocrisy. That is why I am so sensitive towards this issue, sir. I am fed up of the government unnecessarily intruding into my private life for unclear reasons."

Nakajima: "You needn't worry. This is no sokou chousa. And we take the information into the strictest confidence (shuhi gimu) as civil servants."

Nagai: "Okay, let's meet at school next week. What time is convenient for you?"

And that was where we reached our compromise. Aya and I will be meeting and discussing things with sensei on a one-to-one basis after Golden Week, accomplishing the same stated objectives without my wife having to Better-Homes-And-Gardens the house for show. Aya is still confused about why I went through all this trouble, but so long as we help our teacher get to know our daughter better as a person without breaking any of my gut-feeling eggs, fine. End of issue. For me at least.


Dave Aldwinckle

It was a very pleasant experience, and it lasted for about 90 minutes (instead of the projected fifteen to thirty minutes). She was very receptive, knew a lot about our daughter in class and offered good insights, and seemed genuinely unperturbed about having the meeting on school grounds. Well and good. Let's hope we remain as blessed with such open-minded teachers throughout our daughters' schooling.

(Anyway, to see the comments I got, click here)

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Copyright 2000, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan