Fast Times at Asakita High
An American arrives at a Japanese high school eager to learn the secrets of a vaunted education system and gets a very different lesson instead
By David Nakamura
Sunday, April 6, 2003; Page W28
Shintaro, the soccer star, is wearing an Afro wig. Nozomi, the coolest girl in the 11th grade, is applying white eye shadow. Yuuki, the quiet kid with the frizzy rock star hair, is
listening to music on a mini-disc player concealed in his school-issue navy blue blazer. Tomoya, an energetic boy with sky-blue contact lenses, is yelling out the window to his friends.
And me? I'm in a panic. Standing in front of 40 students at Asakita High School outside Hiroshima, Japan, I'm tanking like a B-grade comedian in a lethargic nightclub. There are 50 minutes until the next bell rings, but so far my attempt at small talk has drawn only blank stares. The lesson plan I've prepared is getting an even less enthusiastic reception. The only pencil I see moving is the one Nozomi is now using on her eyebrows.
I never imagined this English-teaching gig would be so difficult when I left Washington. Wasn't this Japan, the land of Zen discipline, samurai honor and geisha hospitality? Wasn't this the country whose test scores were off the international charts, whose disciplined schools and industrious students were the envy of the Western world? Why was I suddenly feeling like Edward James Olmos facing unmotivated Los Angeles street toughs in "Stand and Deliver"? At least he led his students to academic excellence. At this point, I'd settle for convincing Shintaro to take off the Afro wig.
I'm startled by a burst of laughter and finger-pointing. Lo and behold, Shintaro has removed the wig. Unfortunately, he is now waving it above his head, while standing on his chair. A novice teacher at 31, I turn for help to my veteran co-teacher, Yokoyama-sensei, a short, compact 52-year-old Japanese. He stands quietly with a half-grin, used to the students' behavior, maybe resigned to it.
I approach Shintaro, motion for him to sit down, and to my relief he does. He puts the wig back on his head, but I feel like I've restored some order -- until I look up and realize that half a dozen students appear to be, quite literally, asleep.
"Excuse me, please wake up," I say to a boy whose head is buried in his arms. He brushes me off with a dismissive wave of his left hand. "No, we're not going to continue until you wake up." I cross my arms and stand motionless next to him. Yokoyama appears paralyzed with confusion. The other students are silent, watching me.
Then, in a flash, the dozing student, a point guard on the basketball team, springs to his feet. He grabs his chair -- a squat metal stool -- with the deftness of a player taking an outlet pass, swings it above his waist and throws it like a hard chest pass toward me. The chair whizzes by and crashes into my lectern with a bang. The basketball player sprints into the hall; I can hear him punching and kicking lockers. Yokoyama runs after him.
I turn to the remaining 39 students. "Well, at least he woke up," I say. No one laughs at the joke. Most likely, no one has even understood it. I realize a lesson has been successfully delivered. But, to my surprise, I'm the one doing the learning.
The day I arrived at Asakita High School in September 2001, I brought with me a canvas briefcase, a miniature American football and no formal teacher training whatsoever.
My parents had been high school teachers in Northern Virginia. But the closest I had come was the four years I spent as an education reporter for The Washington Post. I signed up for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program -- run by the Japanese government, which sponsors 6,000 foreign English teachers each year -- primarily because I wanted to live in the homeland of my paternal grandfather. Still, I was excited to get an intimate look at the famed Japanese education system.
While covering Washington area schools, I had often listened to professional educators gripe about the myriad problems facing American schools: undisciplined students prone to rudeness or violence, waning parental support, poorly trained teachers, crowded classrooms. American schools were on the decline, they warned, and the students were falling behind their peers in other parts of the world, especially Japan.
As with many of these educators, my preconceived ideas about Japanese schools were based solely on the periodic news reports we heard about Japanese students scoring higher than most of the world on math and science exams. It was easy to assume that Japan faced few of America's classroom problems, that all Japanese students were ambitious, hard-working, courteous and respectful.
In fact, during my year at Asakita High, my students would dispel many of my stereotypes about Japanese young people and Japan's vaunted schools. What I discovered is that, yes, Japan does have a rigorous education system, but it's far from perfect. Just as in America, a large number of students are being left behind.
Asakita High is a school of roughly 750 students in 10th through 12th grades, in a working-class suburb about 20 miles north of Hiroshima. Perched in the foothills of a mountain range, the building is a nondescript four-story concrete rectangle, with a detached gym on one side and an auditorium on the other.
Some of Asakita's daily rhythms were familiar: the energy of the students that filled the building at 8 each morning, the shouts from the athletic fields and music from the brass band each afternoon. But it did not take long to realize I was not in America anymore. Each morning, I was asked to put on a pair of plastic slippers. Students bowed before class and recited the traditional greeting, "Onegai shimasu," which roughly translates to, "Please let's begin." In the afternoon, students grabbed brooms and mops and cleaned the school.
Each week, I was told, I would be responsible for teaching seven 11th-grade English classes, which had about 40 students apiece. Japanese students are assigned a homeroom, usually based on their academic ability, and they rarely leave that classroom. So I, like the other teachers, would move from room to room. In every classroom, I would be teamed with a Japanese co-teacher, which was imperative because I did not speak Japanese.
Before I began planning my lessons, however, I wanted to get to know my students. I roamed the halls, tossing my football and engaging them in simple chitchat, which gave me a sense of how well they understood English. Before long they were calling me "Dabitto-sensei," their way of pronouncing a foreign name that had more hard-consonant sounds than they were used to.
One of the first students I met was a thin, pretty girl named Tomomi. Although her English was minimal, I complimented her effort. She bounded into the teachers' room to announce with a big smile, "I'm good at English!"
But the following week, when I called on Tomomi in class, she ignored me. When I persisted, she acted like she had no idea what I was saying. "Wakaran!" she snapped, an impolite way to say, "I don't understand." She flashed me an angry look and turned around to continue talking with Satoshi, the class bad boy who boasted high cheekbones, long bangs and a large faux-diamond cross necklace. From that point on, Tomomi often strolled in late and refused to talk to me.
This was not unusual. Students who spoke with me in the hall were often shy or completely uninterested when the lesson began. It took me three months to realize that Rhea Joy, a girl in one of my classes, spoke almost perfect English.
Her mother, it turned out, is an English-speaking Filipino.
"So you understand everything I say in class?" I asked when I ran into her while shopping downtown.
"Yes, pretty much," she said.
"So why don't you speak up or answer my questions?"
"Because I am the only student who can speak English, and the others laugh at my accent. I just want to be normal."
Such peer pressure wasn't all that surprising. American high schoolers observe similar codes of behavior. To me, the bigger problem was the students' disturbing lack of motivation and ambition.
Japanese students begin studying English in seventh grade, and by high school most can sound out words enough to read and write, at least a bit. Many of them like English, considering it a sign of
cosmopolitan sophistication. The students often wear T-shirts with English phrases and cover their notebooks with simple English words, mostly in the vein of "cute girl" or "happy friend."
But if my students liked English, I couldn't tell by their performance in class. When I passed out work sheets, at least half would come back blank, some without names or, equally bad, names written in kanji characters. The students rarely did homework, and some routinely came to class without paper or dictionaries. In almost every class, several would promptly put their heads down on the desk and go to sleep. Others meticulously spread out hair and makeup supplies on their desks and went to work grooming themselves. Each day, a boy named Wei Cho, who had Chinese parents but grew up in Japan, took out a small hand mirror and a can of Gatsby hair wax and set about teasing his thick mop of black hair. I considered this a great irony. The product was named after one of America's greatest literary characters, but Wei could barely string five English words together.
Although the students wore uniforms, the look at Asakita was more reform school than prep school. The boys pinned the clip-on ties to their shirt pockets and left their shirttails out. The girls hiked their skirts up so high that it would have been obscene had they not worn their gym shorts underneath.
Yet their tastes could also be surprisingly immature. The most popular icon among Japanese young people at the dawn of the 21st century: Pooh-san, known in the West as Winnie the Pooh. Girls in Japan have an overwhelming fascination for anything kawaii, or cute, and Pooh-san edged out Hello Kitty (known in Japan as Kitty-chan) as the most cuddly cartoon character. The most popular girls in school, and even some of the boys, toted around Pooh-san dolls and covered their cell phones with Pooh-san stickers.
The students also traded small, sticky pictures of themselves called prikura, which are taken at photo booths around town and covered with computerized drawings of hearts and flowers. Again and again, I walked around to check the students' work sheets, only to discover the girls pasting the postage stamp-size pictures into their notebooks. The boys would be secretly reading manga -- the distinctively drawn Japanese comic books, many of which feature uniform-wearing high school students fighting monsters and otherwise saving the world.
"This is ridiculous!" I fumed to one of my Japanese co-teachers after an especially disastrous lesson on American Thanksgiving. I was so angry at my students' refusal to work or pay attention that I was actually pacing the teachers' room. "If they're not going to learn, I'm not going to teach. I didn't come all the way across the world for this. I'm not a teacher at this school. I'm a babysitter."
What made the situation worse was the particular customs of Japanese schools. Teachers are not encouraged to send misbehaving students to the principal's office. Japan's emphasis on group harmony dictates that the classroom is a family and the teacher a surrogate parent. Twice a year, teachers are responsible for giving students physical exams alongside visiting physicians. Teachers also drop by students' homes and oversee club activities on weekends. Thus, we were expected to deal with problem students as well.
Three months into my stay, I had resorted to using cookies, candy and stickers to motivate the students. But they quickly grew bored with the prizes. What was wrong with this school? I wondered. Where were the ambitious class leaders that I was used to seeing even at lower-level American schools?
Aware of my frustration, one of my co-teachers, Sasaki-sensei, a lean 33-year-old who had been at Asakita for 10 years, sat me down. "David-sensei, you must not give up on these students," he told me. "You are their teacher, and it is our job to find a way to make them interested in learning. They want to learn, but they are shy."
I did stay and eventually I did discover the kind of students I was looking for. I also came to learn that it was no coincidence that my school was full of apathetic students without much ability. It was that way on purpose.
There are eight public high schools in the Hiroshima system I was teaching in, ranked informally according to their academic reputation. Asakita, it turned out, was among the worst.
Unlike most American schools, which are filled with students of varying aca-demic ability drawn from surrounding neighborhoods, Japan's public high schools are highly stratified because students are admitted almost solely based on the results of high-stakes entrance exams.
Each public school has its own exam, and Japanese junior high students may apply to only one high school. If they fail to gain admission, they must attend a lower-level private school. Thus, there is enormous pressure on students as young as 14.
Through a teacher friend, I met 15-year-old Junichi Ishida, who had lived in Hawaii for four years and spoke excellent English. In addition to his junior high classes, Junichi spent three hours a night studying for his high school entrance exam at a preparatory school, known in Japan as a juku.
"I don't mind it," he said. "All my friends are there, too."
He was more disturbed by the way Japanese students are taught. With such a heavy emphasis on exams, students are accustomed to sitting silently and listening to a teacher's lecture, then regurgitating the information on a test. Japanese students are not assigned as many research papers or comparative essays as their American peers, nor are they encouraged to challenge teachers, the way many students do in America, where high value is placed on independent, critical thinking.
"There's no time to think things through," Junichi said. "They put as much information as they can into your head. In America, teachers give you a subject and make you research it. In Japan, it's memorizing as much as you can."
The highest achievers take the entrance exam for Funairi, the best public high school in Hiroshima. But there's a risk in aiming for the top, explained Miho Saiki, a Funairi senior.
"One of my friends didn't make Funairi," Miho said. "She went to a private school even though she is very, very smart. It's unfair because she studied so much [for the entrance exam]. More than me. But she can't come to Funairi. It's just a pity."
At Asakita, I had grown close with half a dozen girls who belonged to the Asakita English Club, although only one, Chika Ito, could understand most of what I was saying. One day, I asked Chika why she had chosen Asakita. It turned out she'd actually dreamed of attending Motomachi High, the city's second-ranked public school, which offered a prestigious art program.
"I was scared to try" for Motomachi, she said of that school's rigorous entrance exam. "In junior high school, I was not a good student. I'm not interested about high school. I don't go to juku. I don't like studying."
So she took the entrance exam for Asakita instead. Although Chika had developed a new interest in learning English -- thanks largely to some Australian exchange students who'd visited Asakita -- she was paying a price for her junior high school performance. At Asakita, she found herself surrounded by teens with few ambitions and even more self-doubts.
The school year in Japan begins in April, not the fall, so I grew excited as spring neared. Preparing for a new group of 11th-graders, I vowed to be a more patient, empathetic teacher than I had been before. I developed simpler lessons that would try to engage students with more contemporary issues, such as soccer's World Cup, which was taking place in Japan and South Korea. But all the empathy and lesson plans in the world weren't going to help me reach some students.
During a school festival one weekend, a petite girl with blond highlights in her hair and a strangely protruding belly came strolling toward the school. It was Tomomi, whom I had not seen in several months. "What happened to Tomomi?" I asked Kano-sensei, an angular 27-year-old who had been her homeroom teacher. "Did she move to another school or something?"
"No," he said. "She quit school."
"Well, um, she's pregnant."
In fact, Tomomi not only was pregnant, but she was married to the baby's father, who had dropped out of another high school. She was the fourth pregnant student to have quit Kano's homeroom class in the past year.
I was stunned. I couldn't believe the girl who had tossed the football with me just a few months before, the one who carried a bag full of Pooh-san dolls, was preparing to become a mother. But many girls at Asakita had similar aims.
When I asked them to predict where they would be in 10 years, many said they hoped to be married homemakers with children. Others wanted to be hairdressers or flight attendants. Many boys were preparing for trade schools. About a third of the seniors were planning to take the college entrance exams, but they were aiming for private universities, whose entrance exams are much less rigorous than those at public universities.
Although I was still disturbed by their lack of ambition, I felt I was starting to better understand my students and my school.
What I had learned was that to the Japanese, school is more than just a place to learn basic academic skills; it is a place to prepare students for finding a harmonious role in society. Students bowed before class and cleaned the school because they were being taught to be good citizens. There was evidence all around -- from the gas station attendants who bowed after giving full service, to the store clerks who walked patrons to the door -- to indicate that Japanese young people took these lessons to heart.
But Japanese schools also delivered a strong message to adolescents about their abilities, and thus their futures. Sometimes those futures seemed sadly limited. Breaking out of that track, although not impossible, was more difficult than it might be in America, where students are given more chances to reinvent themselves and not allow past failures to limit their aspirations.
During my final few months at Asakita, I made a point to try to control my frustration and encourage my students.
My most visible success came with Chika. Working together, we published the school's first student newspaper, a bilingual edition called the Asakita Post. When Chika told me she no longer wanted to be a makeup artist and now aspired to be a flight attendant so she could travel abroad, I urged her to think about becoming a pilot.
"In America, it's okay for girls to be pilots," I told her. "Don't limit yourself. Shoot for the top." But she laughed shyly and shook her head.
On the morning I was to leave Hiroshima, Chika and the other English Club members met me at the train station and gave me handwritten thank-you notes. As the train pulled away, Chika began to sob. On the train, I read her letter.
"Dear David," she wrote in neat blue ink, "I'm very sad. Because you will go back to America . . . You teached me the fun of English . . . I don't forget about the year I spent with you in Japan!! So, don't forget me. I'll study English hard . . . Someday, I hope to see you again in America."
I've thought of Chika and her classmates often since I left Japan, and I got another letter from her not too long ago. Now graduated, she's attending an English-language school in Tokyo. Soon, she hopes to make another move that could truly expand her horizons:
She would like to attend an American college in the fall.
David Nakamura is a reporter for the Metro section.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company