Home, Family, and Pre-Elementary Education
Formal pre-elementary education
Reference to table 7
Teachers and school environment
Nonformal early education
Preschool and family
Pressures on pre-elementary education
Home, Family, and Pre-Elementary
Japanese families are stable. Divorce rates
have increased since the 1960's, but remain relatively low. In 1980 the
number of divorces was 1.2 per thousand people, while the comparable
figure for the United States was 5.2 per thousand.
Just 6 percent of all Japanese families are headed by a single parent.
Roughly half of all households in Japan are made up of a two-parent
family and children. This typical family unit is smaller and more urban
than that of a generation or two ago. More than half the population now
lives in large urban areas, and only one family in six includes three
Most homes, apartments, and condominiums are smaller than their
American counterparts because of the high cost of urban land. For the
most part, residences are comparably modern and are filled with common
consumer products. Most Japanese children grow up taking television and
the latest toys and gadgets for granted.
There is a strong consensus regarding roles and the appropriate
division of labor within the family. A man's primary focus is the
workplace, which often includes extensive work related socializing with
male colleagues during the evening hours. In contrast, a woman's primary
focus is her home and family, with particular attention to the rearing
of children. The family-centered role of women is reinforced by their
relative lack of long-term career opportunities outside the home.
While most Japanese subscribe to the view that a woman's place is in
the home and that work should not interfere with her primary
responsibilities to children and husband, women nevertheless make up
almost 40 percent of the labor force. More than half of these women are
Many mothers with small children work only part-time so they can be at
home when their children are not in school. The extra income generated
by mothers working outside of the home is often used to help meet the
cost of their children's education.
Spouses generally agree about their respective parental roles and
share a belief that the children are at the center of their marriage.
Thus, the education of children becomes one of the most important family
In earlier times, Japanese fathers were regarded as severe and as
having great authority. Indeed, there is an old Japanese saying that
there are four things to be feared in life--earthquakes, thunder, fire,
and fathers. Mothers may indicate to children that father will
discipline them if they do not behave, but it appears that the father's
authority in childrearing has decreased over the past generation.
In many white collar families, the father is a proverbial
"guest" in his own house, returning home most evenings after
the children have gone to bed. Although fathers provide children with
certain role models and many take an active interest in education
matters, the task of attending to the child's upbringing and education
is usually left to the mother. Mothers take that responsibility
seriously. Research indicates that Japanese mothers place the subject of
childrearing at the top of their worry list.
Mothers and their children are especially close. Japanese mothers
seldom confront their preschool children. Rather, they attempt to
appease the child and foster an intimate, dependent relationship. The
purpose of this approach is to get the child to comply willingly with
the mother's wishes and to shape behavior gradually over the long term.
Another goal of early training is to instill in the child a deep sense
of responsibility to the mother and family. This becomes an important
factor in developing motivation for school achievement in Japan.
The Japanese believe that the home should be a relaxed place where
children are free of constricting requirements for emotional control and
good behavior expected in formal social situations. Early childhood
training includes attention to manners and proper social behavior
required outside of the home, but there is little actual exposure to
group situations beyond the family until the preschool experience.
Much of a mother's sense of personal accomplishment is tied to the
educational achievements of her children, and she expends great effort
helping them. In addition, there is considerable peer pressure on the
mother. The community's perception of a woman's success as a mother
depends in large part on how well her children do in school.
Some Japanese mothers have gained a reputation for extraordinary
concern and involvement with their children's education. Stories about
overzealous mothers abound. In part, this phenomenon may stem from the
sharply defined role distinction between spouses. Indeed, some Japanese
note that fathers should shoulder a fair share of the blame for these
maternal excesses, since the father's typical preoccupation with matters
outside the home forces the mother to bear near total responsibility for
managing the education of the children.
Formal pre-elementary education
The initial transition from indulgence at home to the institutional
demands of formal education constitutes a radical change in environment
for the Japanese child. The difficulties are resolved for most children
through some form of preschool experience, wherein the child is
socialized in the ways of a group. The transition from the more or less
self-centered focus of home life to the shared needs and group
responsibilities of school life occurs through the socially oriented
Japanese parents are strongly committed to early education, though
pre-elementary education in Japan is not a part of compulsory education
nor is it linked, like American kindergartens, to the formal school
structure. Virtually all Japanese pre-elementary education takes place
in one of two types of institutions: preschools and daycare centers.
Preschools (yochien, often translated as
"kindergartens"), which operate under Monbusho supervision,
enroll children primarily between ages 3 and 5. They are in session
approximately 5 hours per day. Daycare centers (hoikuen,
sometimes translated as "nursery schools"), established by the
Ministry of Welfare, are primarily for the children of working mothers.
They accept children from infancy through age 5 and are in session 8
hours per day. In most other respects the two types of institutions are
similar in physical facilities, curricula, teaching styles, and
A very high percentage of Japanese children are enrolled in
pre-elementary education. Forty percent of all 3-year-olds and 92
percent of all 4- and 5-year-olds attend either preschools or daycare
7. Japanese parents rarely withdraw their children once they are
Both types of pre-elementary institutions require tuition. In the
case of daycare centers, parents are assessed charges in accordance with
their income. In addition to income from tuition, pre-elementary
institutions receive subsidies from all three levels of government in
Teachers and school environment
Japanese preschools are staffed by licensed professional
teachers. Virtually all are women under the age of 25 who have graduated
from a junior college. Their preparation includes training in teaching
as well as in relevant subject areas. The former includes such topics as
principles of education, child psychology, and practice teaching, and
the latter such things as music, physical education, and the arts.
Although serious and enthusiastic about their work, many women leave
preschool teaching after marriage in order to raise children of their
During most of the day, Japanese preschools and daycare centers are
relaxed, boisterous places. Parents and teachers prize high spirits in
their preschool children, and the yard and building usually resound with
enthusiastic voices and great activity.
Preschool classes are large by American standards, averaging 30
students (and just one teacher) per class.
This large class size is preferred by many Japanese teachers who believe
that it gives children an opportunity to learn to interact in a group
and generates more enthusiasm for the activities. Teachers refrain from
overt direction of group activities, preferring to encourage the class
to learn to function as a group.
Teacher strategies for gaining compliance from the child and for
inducing proper behavior have considerable similarity to maternal
strategies and techniques. That is, they emphasize persuading the child
to understand and comply willingly with demands for particular behavior
rather than forcing the child to obey.
Teachers do not rush to intervene or correct occasional misbehavior.
They encourage other students to become involved in solving problems.
Working through the group to resolve individual behavioral difficulties
is believed to be an important part of the social curriculum, even at
this early stage.
The curriculum of preschool is largely
nonacademic. Interaction with other children is stressed over
interaction with materials. Cooperative activities, games, freeplay, and
chores form a substantial part of each day. Children are encouraged to
accommodate themselves to the activities others around them. Great
emphasis is placed on social development and training in proper habits
Instruction in letters and numbers and other prereading skills is
absent from the formal curriculum guidelines set forth by the Ministry
of Education and the Ministry of Welfare. These guidelines contain six
content areas to be emphasized in classroom activities: health, social
life, nature, language, music and crafts.
Most preschools and daycare centers follow these guidelines.
While explicit teaching of reading and writing skills is uncommon ,
children are encouraged to speak and comprehend language by becoming
familiar with illustrated stories and picture books. Self-expression and
the correct use of spoken language are emphasized.
In music, the children sing and become acquainted with simple musical
instruments. In most preschools, each class spends several weeks
preparing to stage a yearly show for parents and neighbors. Miniature
operettas, complete with costume scenery, and piano accompaniment, are
among the most popular presentations.
Traditional paper folding, or origami, is an important element
of craft instruction. Even 3-year-olds are considered old enough to
learn to make airplanes, boats, and cups. Older children learn more
sophisticated folding techniques, producing penguins, cranes, and a wide
variety of objects.
Throughout Japanese pre-elementary education, children learn to
function as members of a group. Major goals are to interest children in
school and their classmates and to provide an order orientation to
school life. This focus on the group is carried throughout the school
years and ultimately into adult life.
Although unrestrained voices and physical activity are encouraged
during play periods, the day is interspersed with brief periods of
solemn ritual when the entire class learns to stand quietly with
attention focused on the teacher. Children learn to distinguish among
the various levels of order and discipline appropriate at different
times during the school day.
Japanese pre-schools thus provide important preparation in the habits
and routines of elementary school life. Children learn to be orderly and
neat, to manage their personal school supplies, to take care of their
personal needs, and to wear school badges, hats, or uniforms according
to school custom.
Nonformal early education
Preschool and daycare institutions are not the only sources of
pre-elementary education in Japan. Children often attend enrichment
lessons in addition to preschool. Swimming, gymnastics, and piano
lessons are popular. Mothers believe that these lessons provide
enjoyable opportunities for their sons and daughters to be with other
children and to participate in physical exercise.
In comparison with typical preschool activities which emphasize
social skills, the enrichment lessons provide a more structured and
focused learning experience. The Suzuki method of music teaching is one
example of these types of lessons. Such lessons are the forerunners of
similar out-of-school enrichment classes and related remedial and cram
courses which become more widespread during the later elementary and
secondary school years.
Preschool and family
The close nature of the mother-child relationship and the strong
cultural and parental commitment to education enable the mother to
provide a strong foundation for the child's entry into elementary
During the preschool years, mothers provide informal learning
opportunities such as drawing, making simple toys with paper, paste, and
scissors, and various activities related to basic reading and counting
skills. Most mothers encourage their child's natural interest in letters
and numbers, although few undertake a concerted program of instruction
in reading and writing. By answering questions, purchasing readily
available children's magazines and activity books, and playing
traditional letter recognition and phonetic children's games, mothers
stimulate their children's interest in basic reading skills. This
preschool home environment is largely responsible for the fact that many
Japanese children enter the 1st grade already able to read and write the
48 basic Japanese phonetic symbols.
An important outgrowth of preschool and daycare experience is that
Japanese mothers develop the habit of providing considerable assistance
for their children in the schooling process. Japanese preschools require
a large investment of maternal energy. Numerous articles such as book
bags, lunch box wrappers, and the like must be handmade according to
certain specifications. Each day the child must be personally taken to
and from the school gate or bus stop, often on the back of mother's bike
or motor scooter.
Mothers are also directly involved with the school in various ways.
Each day the child carries a notebook back and forth between mother and
teacher which is alternately inscribed with notes regarding the child's
health, mood, and activities at home and during the preschool day.
Usually twice a month there are PTA meetings or mothers' club meetings.
There are also frequent meetings of committees of mothers working on
various special projects for the school such as gardening and hot lunch
preparation. With all of these additional school related
responsibilities, enrolling a child in preschool has only a small
time-saving effect for Japanese mothers.
Although daycare centers, which are designed for working mothers,
require somewhat less intensive involvement, they also require
considerable matemal participation.
In contrast to many preschools in the United States, Japanese parents
never function as assistant teachers or aides in the classroom. Their
role is to provide auxiliary support for the child's activities and
visibly to demonstrate their support and interest. These
parental--largely maternal--habits and attitudes will be maintained
throughout the child's school career.
Pressures on pre-elementary education
Pre-elementary education in Japan is beginning to reflect the
pressures of parental concern with academic achievement in the school
years ahead. A growing minority of parents are concerned that the
traditional nonacademic focus of the official preschool and daycare
curriculum is insufficient. They worry that their children may not be
able to keep up once they enter school. They see the pre-elementary
years as crucial in giving their children an academic head start as well
as helping them develop social skills. Thus, some preschools and daycare
centers are beginning to provide instruction in basic reading and
Another factor contributing to the gradual introduction of explicit
instruction in pre-elementary education is increased competition among
preschool and daycare centers to maintain enrollments. One successful
way of developing a competitive edge is through providing some
instruction in recognizing letters and numbers. Other preschools create
distinctive programs through weekly instruction in art, judo,
calligraphy, or other special subjects.
This trend toward introduction of academic instruction in preschools
is not regarded in an entirely favorable light by elementary school
officials and social commentators. Emphasis on academic training at this
stage is seen as interfering with proper development of children's
social skills and daily habits. Further, it is believed that having some
children enter 1st grade with academic skills while most have not had a
comparable opportunity to acquire them causes teachers difficulties that
could be avoided if the entire group entered 1st grade with no previous
Paradoxically, the children who have had the advantage of preschool
instruction sometimes endure difficulties of their own. Since Japanese
elementary schools do not separate students according to ability, the
better prepared students often suffer some months of boredom waiting for
the rest of the class to catch up.
The combination of more instruction in basic reading and writing
skills at home, virtually universal participation in preschool
education, and growing enrollments in enrichment lessons, have created
an increasing discrepancy between the official guidelines for
pre-elementary education and the actual experience and capability
Japanese children bring to the 1st grade.
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U.S. Dept. of Education Study