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?"
ISSUES OF JAPANESE EDUCATION PART THREE:
(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."
"Because it is an invasion of our privacy." (puraibashii no shingai)
HO BOY, HERE GOES DAVE AGAIN.
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
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
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."
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
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."
THE OFFICIAL VIEW
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
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
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
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."
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
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 http://www.debito.org/essays.html#naturalization)
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
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.
POSTSCRIPT: MEETING THE TEACHER
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)
Copyright 2000, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan