UNTIL THE start of school last year, our American family was living in a suburb of Yokohama. Our sons attended Utsukushigaoka Shogakko -- "Beautiful Hills Elementary School" -- with 700 Japanese children. The most important thing our boys learned was not the academic content of their courses, nor even the Japanese language. Instead, they learned something far more valuable: a deep sense of how Japanese children think, act and view the world. Learning the culture's values -- developing the sense of being Japanese -- is a deliberate goal of the Japanese school system.

Japanese children learn a lifelong lesson that is the cornerstone of the efficiency and success of modern Japan: Each person has a role to fulfill as best he or she can. Just as it is their father's role to be at work from early morning to midnight and their mother's role to take care of them, the house and all the family matters, it is their role to be students.

Being a student, like earning a salary later in life, is a full-time job. Students go to school six days a week. The only long vacation lasts six weeks during the summer, and even then there is assigned summer homework.

The days can be long. On regular school days, classes were followed by "club" meetings or sports. After a quick supper with mom, many students joined their schoolmates again for evening juku, or cram school, to do remedial work, review regular class lessons or prepare for exams. After all this came the night's homework.

Even before academics become very rigorous (in about sixth or seventh grade), organizing yourself and your possessions presents students with a challenge of coordination and attention. Our sons were constantly trying to keep track of their regulation school bags, regulation indoor shoes, regulation sports clothes and all the other paraphernalia required for school -- from lunch mats to calligraphy kits to earthquake helmets -- not to mention ordinary books, uniforms and school supplies.

Our sons were impressed by how well their Japanese friends followed schedules, rules and instructions -- producing model replicas of teachers' art work or playing the identical, flawless renditions of piano tunes. By contrast, they began to notice how lost their Japanese friends were at simply "hanging around." When groups of kids came to our house, they liked games with rules: cards, board games, ping-pong. But begin improvising with bins of Legos or building blocks, and they drifted away.

Just as Japanese men pay more attention to their companies than to their families, Japanese children pay more attention to their school than to their homes. Japanese kids don't do many chores around the house (mothers tend to free them up to study), but they soji, or clean their classrooms every day after lunch. My younger son became very adept at mopping the floor with the zokien -- the special heavy-duty washcloth every child brings from home and hangs under his desk. Daisoji, or "big cleaning," when students scrub down all the halls and major rooms of the building, was done every few weeks, often on Saturday. The all-consuming nature of school seems less onerous when you appreciate that school and home blend together in Japan in a way they don't in America. A sensei, or teacher, is charged with a child's moral upbringing as much as his parents are. Teachers make regular visits to each child's house to meet with parents, talk about what a child should be doing differently at home and check up on the general living situation. Each of our children's teachers stopped by our house a few times during the year, often unannounced. The homogeneity of Japanese society means that parents are comfortable having teachers pitch in to teach the right way to do things. Such cultural messages from the schools are delivered clearly and unambiguously, as I found out during our very first encounters.

It was a warm day in July when I met with Tomita-Kocho, the principal of Utsukushigaoka Shogakko, to ask his permission to enroll my children for the following September. I braced myself, having received a stunned rejection from the principal at the school across town earlier that day. Japan's schools are not well prepared to deal with foreign children; there are still only a relative handful of them. But undaunted, Tomita-Kocho warmly welcomed me. His school was officially designated an "international" school because of 30 or so "returnee" children. (Returnees are Japanese families who have been posted abroad for several years). He seemed eager to accept this real challenge.

On my way out the door that day, Tomita-Kocho bowed and said "Gambatte, Kudasai" -- a phrase we were to hear many thousands of times during the next months. Gambare, of which Gambatte is the imperative verb form, means "Do your best," or "Try your hardest," or "Persevere!" But it is also one of those words, like "voila" or "okay," which don't really translate in their full glory. What he really said to me that day was, "This is going to be difficult, but it's important to do your best, and don't give up!"

Gaman, the noun form of gambare, is invoked as the driving force in Japanese children's lives. Its intention is to produce another generation of Japanese that can maintain the selfless, uncomplaining stamina, will-power and persistence for which Japan is famous. To build gaman, or strength to endure, is the reason behind cold classrooms, wearing shorts during the winter, practicing piano an hour and a half every day, two-and-a-half hour soccer practices, studying till well past midnight and getting up at 6 and much, much more.

Enduring cold seems to be a favorite form of building gaman. The children's school day usually began with a session on the dirt-packed playground next to the school. After walking to school, they would all run up to their classrooms, change into gym shorts and T-shirts, run back outside to exercise and stand at attention while the principal encouraged them to do their best. It set the mood for school, and on cold, bleak days it was always a good opportunity to build endurance. Another lesson my children learned along with their Japanese classmates was a keen sense of how to act as part of a group -- to make group decisions, to sublimate one's self to the identity of the group, to judge success or failure on the performance of the group.

On the first day of school, each of our sons was assigned to a kumi, or class. Forever after, our children were identified as Tommy of Roku-nen-ni-kumi (sixth grade, second kumi), or Tad of ni-nen-ich'-kumi (second grade, first kumi). The 40-some students of a kumi and their teacher were a unit that stayed together for at least two years, often more, The mothers of the students met regularly with the teacher in marathon after-school discussions of dynamics of the classroom, social problems, developmental problems, class outings and parties. The first two meetings I attended for the sixth grade focused for nearly an hour on the effect of having Tommy join the kumi. Several mothers reported favorable comments about how Tommy seemed like a pretty normal kid, a few more about how it was interesting to have him there. One said her son started dreaming about Tommy and woke up calling out his name.

I was embarrassed at first about all the attention focused on my son, and wondered after 30 or 40 long minutes if some of the other mothers hadn't had enough of talking about someone else's child. But I realize now that they each had a personal stake in this. Like it or not, Tommy had become part of their group. How the group dealt with him was part of their children's lessons in group behavior and part of their success or failure as a group.

When Tommy's class was preparing for a spring outing to the Yokohama '89 Exposition, he came home several nights in a row describing the kumi's progress in dividing itself into buddy-groups for the day's trip. There were 41 kids in his class, and they had to arrange themselves into equal units of six.

The first step was easy; the kids simply split off voluntarily into clusters. But one group ended up with four kids and another with seven. Just move one student over, right? No. The students and their teacher all felt that it would be unkind to single out one child to move by himself; they felt it would be smoother to move two together. Then they agreed that not only would the movers have to agree, but each child in the four-member group would have to approve each of the pair being moved to join them. For three days, during hour-long meetings, the kumi, under the watchful but unintrusive eye of the teacher, bartered back and forth.

These cultural messages -- to learn your place, to blend with the group, to follow the rules, to try your hardest -- comprised the non-academic core of education taught to every Japanese child by mothers and teachers alike. As foreigners, we were especially sensitive to the processes that were at work in the school. It could serve us all well to consider the messages we and our schools are imparting to our own American children.

Deborah Fallows lived with her family in Japan and Southeast Asia for four years.