(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Sun, 15 Mar 1998)

I have been receiving requests for this essay from several parties, two of whom are interested because their ("double" Japanese, and non-Japanese) children are of similar ages to mine, and are debating whether to get involved in the Japanese education system at all. April, the start of the new academic year, is nigh, so time is the element.

Allow me to give a first-hand impression of how I see one Japanese kindergarten--ours--starting from Day One. I will continue this as an occasional series when I have news.

This URL is organized thus:


I) CAST OF CHARACTERS: (this description matters because it will eventually affect how we are perceived by our school peers)

(this is her official name in America; name on Japanese Koseki: "Sugawara Ami"--meaning she has a fully-Japanized name), age four, first daughter of the Japan Aldwinckle clan. Speaks fully natural Japanese as her native tongue, speaks some decent English when she's in the mood, has black hair and brown eyes, and is mostly indistinguishable from her peers--except for her above-average height, her exceptional, shall we say, "emotional expressiveness" (can't imagine whom she takes after). And that she calls a green-eyed giant "daddy" in public.

(name on Japanese Koseki: "Sugawara Anna"), age two and a half, second daughter of two. Speaks only Japanese, really. She stands out with her flaxen hair and bluish-green eyes as a real Westerner, despite her more retiring demeanor and very pale skin. (Have a look here if you want to see photos).

wife of the giant and mother of the daughters, aged twenty for the past dozen-or-so years, with a highly-typical Japanese face and 153 cms stature

the 183-cms feature on the horizon, an unabashed 33 years old. Trying not to get paranoid about Japanese schools, but quick to address problems of differences. Maybe a little too quick. We'll see in future installments.

A private kindergarten in our small Hokkaido village (population 10,000 plus one non-Japanese), bucking the "greying Japan" trend with a growing youth population. Why? Our village is a bed-town for Sapporo proper, and its major source of income was rice farming. However, in the past twenty years, probably half the population has become yuppie, with professionals in their early-to-mid thirties buying up large (by Japanese standards) plots of land and building houses. Thus, despite the rural setting, the values of the community are surprisingly urban, and fortunately have not felt at all "Kyoto-esque" (meaning "you weren't born here so shut up") in the four months we've been living here.


A white-out blizzard hit us on setsumeikai day, but regardless nearly a hundred people, not including offspring, showed up to get clued in on how they should be taking an interest in their children's education. The person in charge, a smiling middle-aged matron with the no-nonsense feeling of a head nurse (or my grade-school principal Miss Luckern), was already on the PA system going over some rules. We took off our shoes in the genkan, of course, and slipped on "indoor" shoes that the school had advised us to bring beforehand. Walking into the main foyer, which had skylights, a stage, and doors leading off to kindergarten rooms of regular Western size, we mingled with the seated parents (mostly women, but a few daddies--it was a Saturday morning) sitting on their legs upon reed mats specially spread across the gymnasium-style wood floor. Amy and Anna went off to play on the jungle-gyms and with the paint-sets and scissors provided in the kindergarten rooms. Aya and I took off our indoor shoes, scuttled across and sat upon the reed mats, and opened up some information pamphlets, which the school had provided and was reading from.

The first line read (my translation): "Thank you for applying for admission to our youchien. Seeing the bright, fresh (sunao) children, our educational staff is ready to carefully nurture the shoots (me) though our school's activities. Here are the plans for the next few months. Your cooperation is appreciated:"

A pre-school schedule followed. The school had already put on a "kindergarten play day" a few weeks back, which we had unleashed our kids on. It's worth mentioning in passing: Kids had about an hour to get interested in school, meaning they could go from room to room, with a staff member on call to supervise, playing with clay (nendo), blocks, and scissors (they took printed construction paper--that boon of the lower grades--colored in preprinted "Doraemon" and "Cutie Honey" with crayons, then folded it in half, cut off a strip to make a handle, glued the sides, and presto! A handbag!). They also met their future classmates--around fifty or more new entering students, three years of kindergarten levels, plus daycare services until around six pm for the working mother.

The principal, seated on the stage, continued reading from the pamphlet. Good thing we had it. The madding crowd of kids had long since become yard apes and were hollering to high hell. Unsurprisingly, no parent was telling them to be quiet (probably because they, like Aya and I, were hoping they'd get tuckered out, go to sleep at home, and provide some precious peace). So it was difficult to hear much of anything. So just the facts:



Varies per month due to differences in activities, but the average cost was around 12,800 yen, times a semester of seven months (April to October?--that's all that's indicated). This included school bus and swimming pool. (Yes, a pool, plus a rather Potemkin-looking computer room--but this was probably one of the reasons why this spanking-new (built only a few years back) youchien was causing the decrepit, town-supported one to fold this year.) Deduct 800 yen per month if you don't want the school bus.

School runs, but the way, from 8:30 am to between 11:30 to 1:30, excluding day-care services. Monday through Saturday with the second and fourth Saturday off.


UNIFORM (dark-blue smock): 4,200 yen
WINTER HAT (yellow french-onion-seller-style chapeau): 1,050 yen
SUMMER HAT (yellow reed boulder with black ribbon): 1,500 yen
BRIEFCASE (kaban--meaning some kind of a shoulder-strap backpack. Not one of those horrible "randoseru" which makes kids look like they're carrying an American mailbox on their back, but same function): 1,570
PLAY CLOTHES (meaning Japanese-baachan back-to-front kitchenwork shirt--for keeping the paint or lunch debris off your uniforms. Yes, these are worn during lunchtime.): 1,400 yen
GIRL'S BATHING SUIT: 1,680 yen (boys 1,150 yen)
UNISEX HAT (not sure what this is yet): 620 yen
"BAKKU" (ditto): 900 yen.
CREATIVITY KIT (crayons, markers, scissors, clay, claycase, sketchbook, notebook, name patches): 3,350. For older kids, "brain teaser" kits (chinou asobi kyouzai) and "melody-on" woodwind instrument were 150 yen and 400 yen up respectively.

These items would be sold at the end of the day by the school. There was a checklist for mother to pick and choose items, tally, and hand over to the sales clerks for speedier purchase.

Now come the surprises:


1) Sew provided name patches on all items of clothing that the school has sold, by the school's Opening Ceremonies on April 9--five weeks away. Write names on the shoes, both indoor and outdoor. Fix stronger coat-hanger loops on the collar of the uniform. Bring towel for the pool (sewn name unnecessary). Bring plastic bag for stowing shoes and small items when entering and exiting school. Also bring rain gear--but not umbrellas as they are dangerous.

2) Purchase "bento" box lunch container--one that the children can open and close themselves. The school provides meals only two days a week, Tuesday and Thursday, whereas M, W, F, and Saturday would be bento lunch days, prepared by mother, of course. Older kids, provide big handkerchiefs please. Don't forget a drinking cup.

3) If you have your child bring a drink, only cow milk is allowed. Sodas or fancy sweets (including lavish desserts--such as pudding) are not allowed, because the kids will only fight over them.

4) Sew a bag out of cloth (nuno) for your kids for school transit. The measurements are: diagram provided showing length 37 cms, height 27 cms, depth 14.5 cms, handle, top-loading snap, and name in top left corner written vertically.

5) For those who have them, make Melody-on musical instrument "carrying-tube", again out of cloth, as per diagram showing 30 cms length, 6.5 cms height, and zipper. No restrictions on the designs for items #6 and #7, but "Hello Kitty" designs were proposed and provided for the stumped to copy.

6) Provide raiment suitable for athletic activities (meaning barefoot indoor exercises, "marathon" outdoor running events, things like that to condition (kitaeru) the legs).

7) Fill out forms that will help us know the child better. A Japanese folded-style resume asked for details and ages on cohabitant family members, types of playing activities taught the children at home, birthplace, birthweights, and delivery difficulties, time of first words spoken, speech problems (good enunciation, normal, slow (okureteiru)), ability to drink milk, favorite foods, disliked foods, typical speed and duration of eating, childhood diseases contracted, ability to sleep by oneself, self-toiletry abilities for both Number One and Number Two, and more.

REMINDERS included:

a) Cut fingernails (that's a good call--I still have scars from some of the "cat fights" I got into in first grade).

b) Do NOT bring money or toys to school. It only causes disagreements.

c) Teach the kids how to put on their own clothes (particularly gloves), if possible.

d) Make the kids, particularly boys, do their poo-poo BEFORE COMING TO SCHOOL (peeing is okay in school). This is because the bathroom stalls are all squat-type. Most of the kids are used to the sitting-type and by refraining get all constipated. Also, a cultural conceit of Japanese toiletry is the need for girls (and many boys) to run water continuously to cover up the sound of their discharge. Boys in particular, if they have to squat and poopie, often have to use the girls' side (the boys' and girls' bathrooms have no partition between them--just doors and pinks and blues on the toilet stalls), causing further debasement. Take care of as much of it as you can at home and save some bowels.

Plenty of the above is commonsensical, but surprising was the need for seamstress abilities. I'm glad I'm not a single parent.

Now for the last item of interest:


This is extremely important to the Big Brother of all governmental ministries, the Ministry of Education etc (Monbushou). Walk around any government publications store and you'll find a good quarter of ALL publications devoted to issues of how to educate youth. So likewise, in its information pamphlets, this school was equally chatty about its designs on the children:

OBJECTIVES were depicted in manga-comic-book style, and they included:

On another six pages were manga depictions on why children should play with each other. Play is important because:

1) Children learn "associating and making-friends" skills (this is the most oft-cited reason for Japanese parents to send their kids to school at an early age; second being to get some peace in the house)

2) Children will learn personal behavioral management (mi no konashi) and become more sensitive.

3) Children will develop their creative powers freely at a regular pace.

4) The next one bears literal translation: "Children will be able to learn the rules set by their peers (asobi nakama no tsukutta kimari) and to keep promises." Subtext: "Children who do not keep to promises or to the rules will be "set aside" (I could translate this as "ostracised") by their friends (tomodachi kara nakama hazure ni saremasu).

I could see plenty of abuse with this item.

5) Children will take into account the feelings of their peers and decide what they should be carrying out (aite no kimochi o kunde, jibun no okonai o kimeru koto ga dekimasu). They stress in the subtext is that they will learn to behave in a way "so they will not be disliked" (kirawarenai).

At this point, the cultural conceit got me antsy enough to write up this very post.

6) Children will develop through stimulating each other (don't smirk--this is a literal translation), through cooperation, helping and jealousy, even fights, but learning about each others' existence.


1) BE A GOOD MODEL (manga shows sloppy mother doing nothing all day but watch TV and missing the wastepaper basket with used kleenexes)

2) DON'T SCOLD. Smile while admonishing and directing.



5) BEING "OVERLY EXPECTATIOUS" (ozendate--arranging things so that your child doesn't have to try so hard) AND MEDDLING (kuchidashi) WILL STUNT EMOTIONAL GROWTH




And Mothers, don't say these things to your kids:

"Your teacher will scold you if you do that."

"You're so much slower than the other children." (I agree with this one wholeheartedly! I hated being compared with others.)

"You've become older, so you should be able to do this by now."

"I'm busy. So shut up and do it yourself."

"You're not a baby, so you can do it yourself."

"Ken-chan next door can do that so much better than you."

"Don't play with that bad kid!"

"Don't lose to Ken-chan next door!"

"I'm going to tell your teacher you did that."

"That's so sloppy. Can't you draw that any better?"

NB: How many of you parents have never been guilty of saying at least one of the above? :-)


By the time we got through all of these rules, plus the schedule of daily activities, nearly 90 minutes had elapsed. The kids were winding down and purchases needed to be made. Aya took care of Amy while I went tracking down Anna (our more Western-featured daughter), who will be next in line for schooling here.

I found her in an adjunct gym trying to play with some older kids, pulling books off the shelf and asking them to read some to her. They were too busy looking at her to comply. I watched from around a corner to see if there was anything scarring about to happen.

When one of the 5-year-old boys shouted, "This kid is strange!" (kono ko, nanka, hen da!), I said, from around the corner with a smile, slowly and not too "boomingly":

"No, she isn't. She's a little kid, just like you. Anna's her name." (ie, hen ja nai yo. anata to onajiku, kodomo da yo. Anna to iu n da.)

The boy looked at me, as did the crowd of kids, and there was a pregnant pause as they formulated a response.

Boy: "Still, she's different." (iya, chigao na)

Me: "No, she's just the same as you. A little girl. Two years old. (iya, chigawanai yo. anata to mattaku onaji. nisai no onna no ko). Yoroshiku ne."

Nobody ran away. Some of the older girls then began calling her by name, and things went smoothly from there. The boy was still incredulous, so I ruffled his hair and said softly, "She's a human being, a Japanese, just like you." (kanojo wa anata to onajiku, ningen da shi, nihonjin da shi. Wakatta?)

It seemed to work. I'm really working hard on my interpersonal skils with kids, for my kids' sake. Wish me luck.

Parents had made their purchases and were milling out, with their children not far behind, into the blizzard. I took unscarred Anna back to her mother and found her dressing Amy. She was all decked out in her Japanese school uniform for the first time. Looking no different from any other Japanese schoolchild I've ever seen, and, quite honestly, I've actively avoided (because of their inevitable overly-frank expositions on my differences). Now my firstborn child was to be joining their ranks, and both Aya and I were having mixed feelings. Where do things go from here?

Final thought:

Our old bombastic pundit-cum-proselytizer on things Japanese, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, wrote an article (NYT Magazine Aug 17, 1997, pp 40-44) in which he gushes from the title onwards:


"Why are Japan's primary schools better than ours? Students lead classes. They even clean the bathrooms. Everything they learn they teach themselves."

For us, that remains to be seen. And it will be starting for us from April 1998.

More to come. I'll keep you posted in real time.

Dave Aldwinckle

(The above article by Kristof eventually became a launching pad for a round of criticism I led re foreign journalists on Japan. Click here to go to it.)

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Copyright 1998, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan