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June 22, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

No special congratulations necessary

Mario with elementary schoolmate

(April 11, 1991)                

It’s customary to congratulate parents, usually the mother, when children graduate or enter school in Japan – and when my son Mario entered elementary school just around this time some years ago, I was congratulated any number of times by friends and acquaintances.

When people I didn’t know started stopping me in the street offering their best wishes on my “first born son’s ascension to primary school,” I remembered a local newspaper had reported the event. No doubt all of the well-wishers had seen Mario’s photo in the newspaper accompanying an article titled “Pika Pika no ichinen-sei (shiny new first-graders.)”

The article stated that Mario, like another foreign child, a boy from Colombia also entering first grade, could speak Japanese well enough, but would need help with reading and writing. This was a mistake. Mario didn’t need any special help with Japanese.

My first thought: Too bad. The article had made a generalization at a time when it would have been useful to point out an exception:  Mario, an American boy born and raised in Japan, whose parents are American, was no different than any of his first-grade schoolmates. Of course he could speak Japanese like every other boy his age. Of course he could read and write Japanese as well as any other child who had just finished kindergarten.

The article had meant to highlight the fact that that particular elementary school had been designated by the local board of education as the school for “returnees” – children returning from educational experiences abroad. The school had a fine academic program and was prepared to give individual assistance and remedial instruction to those Japanese children who needed help re-entering the Japanese educational system, and for foreign pupils too.

Though catching up with schoolwork was a major concern of returnees, for some parents, of even greater concern was that their children “catch up” with being Japanese, as one mother told me. She feared her family’s two years in Jakarta might have cost her child his national identity. In any case, the school had many activities to help the children with their social adaptation as well.

I knew all this because I had written an article about the school‘s program myself, and I knew the reason the reporter made the mistake about Mario was because he was simplifying his task and amplifying his story.

I suppose he knew, as I did, that the Colombian boy was only at the school temporarily, until his father finished a course at the local medical university. If the reporter wanted to write about foreign “children” attending the school, the only other child he could have written about was Mario’s sister, a few grades ahead of him.

Disappointingly, the article was also a disservice to the general Japanese public. Rather than give people the opportunity to develop a more international and inclusive outlook, it had gone out of its way to reinforce a stereotype. Japanese need to know about those people who, though they may look very different from them, may be in fact, not very different at all.

While I was sure there was no ill will intended, the article was disturbing because it helped to perpetuate the Great Myth and Misconception – the still widely held idea that Japan and its language are unintelligible to “outsiders”.

In Mario’s case it would have been better to let him begin school with no more fanfare than that accorded the other pika pika no ichinen-sei.



I can’t say that awareness of the diversity in Japan has increased or improved much in the intervening years. 

At any rate, there are now, in the schools in our area, any number of foreign children. They are mostly the children of Brazilians and Peruvians, who have Japanese ancestry. Their integration into public schools has been fraught with difficulty, and quite a few enroll their children in privately supported schools where they are taught in their own languages. Mario, who now also speaks Spanish, taught in one of them.

Still, the number of foreigners in general in Japan has increased so greatly, I would no longer be surprised to find children of various ethnicities and nationalities in the public school system.

Just recently, my husband was disturbed because he encountered a woman who appeared incredulous that Japan is indeed his home. This woman (she’s 83 years old) asked him when he would be returning to his country. Since we encounter her regularly (at the swimming pool where we go daily) and she knows that he has retired from his position as a full-time professor at a local university, that we own a house, and the land it sits on – he felt she could not accept that he is basically just like every other retiree – hardly prepared to pick up stakes and move … somewhere.

There is still a bit of the Dark Ages when it comes to diversity in Japan. Although great swathes of the world have accepted globalization and have tried to integrate immigrant populations, Japan is a hold out. And the government plays no small role in keeping it that way. While I do not embrace unlimited immigration (first of all – where will all these people go in this very very crowded country? Secondly, it’s an often overlooked fact that the societies they leave are devastated by their departure) I see the need (soon to be dire, some say, because of the ever declining birthrate) to have a more vital populace.

But there continues to exist in Japan, quite a large contingent that have never, in any substantial way, known or interacted with people of different ethnicity. Some are open to it. Some are not.


© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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