Last year our family moved to Japan. Within just a few days it was obvious that everything was different. And after ten months of Japanese living, I wrote a blog, “Nine lessons I’ve learned from my Japanese Friends.”
We’ve now lived in Okinawa for over a year, and our learning continues as our kids attend public Japanese schools. A few weeks ago my 9-year-old daughter shared, “I’m so glad I go to Japanese school. Otherwise, I would never have learned tumbling on the bars! Or how to paint!”
But artwork and gymnastics are only part of the picture. Here are eight additional lessons our family has learned from our Japanese school experience.
Lesson #1 – Start your day OUTSIDE
Japanese children walk to school each morning…early! When the sun is just up over the horizon, our streets are full of cute kids laden with backpacks and trotting down the road. They get to school on their own, navigating crosswalks, busy narrow streets, and all types of weather. And, they do it without a fuss!
Their return route is the same: over a mile of walking and weaving through fields and neighborhoods on their own, enjoying nature and fresh air.
My own children were tentative at first about the long walk to and from school, but now it’s a regular part of their day. They set out early in rain or shine and get themselves to class. Their independence has made my life so easy! But that’s only one benefit.
We’ve also discovered that starting the morning outside makes kids cheerful! By the time students—including my children—arrive at school, they are breathless and their cheeks are rosy. Their hearts are beating and they are prepared to sit and learn.
The same is true on the return route. My kids come home from school with sweat beads on their foreheads, cheerful chatter on their lips, and a healthy appetite. I love it!
Lesson #2 – Manage your own life
There’s another benefit to starting the school day with a walk: responsibility.
Because Japanese children walk to school, they also manage their own school supplies, and that includes lots of items! Besides the usual pencils and notebooks; elementary students also carry jump ropes, calligraphy sets, swim caps, water bottles, sewing kits, PE clothes, musical instruments, hats, umbrellas, school shoes… The list goes on!
Since the kids all walk, there’s little chance to go back for a forgotten book unless you can run quickly or are willing to be tardy.
When children do forget a school item, they return home and retrieve it by themselves or survive the day without it.
Those without PE clothes wait on the sidelines. A forgotten sewing kit means foregoing home economics class. And missing homework equals a reprimand from the teacher. These consequences are not mean, just natural outcomes.
At first, I worried about my kids and their occasional forgotten items. But soon I came to appreciate the natural consequences. When my daughter forgot her paint set, she sat through art class watching everyone else have the fun. And the next day she triple-checked her supplies so she wouldn’t miss out again! It wasn’t my fault she was unprepared, and as a result, she didn’t whine at me or expect someone else to solve her problem. I’ve seen a conscious change in my kids’ ability to manage their own lives, and I love it!
One morning I found a dropped school handkerchief on the side of the rode. The nearby crossing guard told me to leave it right there, as the owner would surely return eventually. In other words, the general idea is to let children make simple mistakes and be responsible themselves. What a refreshing idea!
Lesson #3 – Change your shoes
“In America, everyone wears one pair of shoes and they walk inside and outside,” expressed my daughter one day. “That’s just so irresponsible!”
I laughed at her comment and her new perspective on filth. But I do agree. Walking inside with outside dirt on your soles isn’t very polite. Japanese people step in and out of shoes as they come in and out of the house, in and out of the bathroom, in and out of a school or business.
But the lesson goes deeper than mud. It’s about caring for something that’s not your own, thinking respectfully about someone else’s space, and doing your part to minimize filth.
Moses was taught by God, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)
While schools, homes, and businesses may or may not be holy, the principle is sound: show respect.
Changing shoes is a physical act with internal benefits. It invites visitors to act respectfully toward the place and people. Students revere their teachers and classrooms as places and people of learning. Wearing “school shoes” all day reminds children where they are, and helps them to remember that they are guests.
In my opinion, homes are certainly holy, and taking a moment to “put off thy shoes” is a wonderful custom. Removing shoes is one tradition we will definitely maintain when our time in Japan ends and we return home.
Lesson #4 – Yard work is healthy
Wait…yard work at school? Yes. J
Japanese school children start their day—or spend part of their school day—doing outside physical labor! They use rakes and brooms and gloves and clean the schoolyard.
I love walking past the grounds and seeing students sweeping sidewalks, pulling weeds, raking the ball field, and watering plants.
Working outside is hard work, especially after a mile-long walk to school—but it’s so fulfilling. Gardening is good, so why not add it to the school curriculum? And putting students in charge of their landscape also adds to the responsibility factor.
Watching the Japanese students do outside chores reminds me that a daily dose of yard work is a healthful choice for anyone!
Lesson #5 – Cleaning is required
Let’s face it: cleaning is a necessity for life! And that’s why I’m grateful and amazed that it is part of the Japanese school day. Every one of my kids—from kindergartener to 8th grader—is required to clean every single day at school. After lunch, students slide all the desks to one side of the room and sweep and mop the floor. Then they slide the desks to the other side and do the same. While some kids are mopping, others are washing windows, wiping desks, and even sweeping and mopping the hallways and stairs.
What about the janitors? There are none. Seriously. Japanese students are the janitors at their school. Every day they learn there, and every day they clean there. In fact, special white “cleaning towels” are required school items that parents send each semester. It’s truly amazing!
But the best part is, cleaning time is recess! When I picked my son up early from kindergarten one day, he was upset because it was right in the middle of cleaning time! He was busy pushing his white mopping towel across the floor with his friends, and I interrupted the fun to take him home. As students clean they talk and laugh and enjoy a break from the rigors of study. Teachers stand by and direct, but kids do the labor.
The students also learn other cleanliness skills. My kids were also formally trained in class in washing their school shoes and PE clothes…by hand. I love it!
And the side benefits? My children are cleaner at home. Their cleaning skills have been being fine-tuned, and they understand the necessity of daily cleaning. That’s a win!
Lesson #6 – Plan your day
Each morning Japanese students write their school schedule in their planners. Actually, they write the schedule for the following day: Tuesday is written on Monday, Wednesday is written on Tuesday, etc.
This written schedule includes classes like science, math, social studies, swimming, home economics, English, cooking, calligraphy, ethics, etc. Writing ahead of time gives kids a full 24 hours notice about what items should be brought to school the following day. Plus, they can glance at today’s schedule (written yesterday) and remember what the day will hold.
What a great tip for life!
Can you imagine a nation of people who plan their lives 24 hours ahead? This simple habit is an advantage for all ages. And, one trait I hope my children carry with them when we leave Japan.
Lesson #7 – Use your hands
The Japanese school curriculum includes more than bookwork. Carving, sewing, painting and other handicrafts are also included. I’ve been amazed at some of the tools my kids are required to bring: knife carving sets, calligraphy brushes and paints, sewing kits… Teaching kids fine motor skills is important in the Japanese culture. When my children bring home artwork from their Japanese class it’s framable! It’s obvious that they have been taught precise skills, useful for the rest of their lives.
When my 4th grader told me her teacher was asking for students to bring an “extra hand saw” to school the next day, I laughed out loud. I’m fairly certain that managing a classroom of 4th graders each carving out their own wooden decorations with pocket knives and small saws is not approved in the American school system. But I do think we’ve lost something valuable through our over-cautious legal rhetoric.
Kids are talented enough to learn real skills at their age, and the Japanese schools build line-upon-line, grade by grade.
This added emphasis on actual homemaking, painting, wood working, origami, and shop skills are a cultural benefit I absolutely love.
Lesson #8 – Eat your lunch
“My favorite food is squid,” shared my son. “What???” I choked. But he was serious! “We ate it for lunch and I really like it.”
School lunch in Japan is cooked from scratch and served at noon. Large pots of soup, rice, and side dishes are taken to each classroom where students in turn serve bowls for each classmate. After everyone has their food, the teacher invites all to say, “Itadakemasu,” (I humbly partake) before eating.
By noon, kids have a very healthy appetite, so they all dig right in and enjoy!
Once in a while seconds are divvied out from the leftovers in the pot. But even better, students are required to at least try everything, and—in some classrooms—completely finish what they are served.
I love the many lessons learned here: prepare real food, eat what you’re served, take time to give thanks, finish your meal, don’t waste food, and eat together.
At first my kids rushed home from Japanese school “starving” for a bag of chips or a sugary granola bar. But after a few weeks their taste buds changed. Now they genuinely enjoy the healthy meals and are eating like pros: miso soup, tempura, rice, fish, potato balls, all sorts of veggies, rice, mountain roots, rice….
“I ate all my lunch today!” my kindergartener started announcing. He not only eats lunch, but he also enjoys the afternoon snack: a piece of apple, a square of tofu, a sweet potato.
And I’ll always treasure the day my 5th grader shared, “I ate the sweetest orange for dessert today!”
I love the lessons our kids are learning in Japanese school: health, fitness, personal responsibility, respect, organization, cleanliness, true satisfaction, and real eating. We’ll miss these experiences when the time comes to return to the American school system. But I hope we can maintain the habits we’ve gleaned. Thanks, Japanese friends, for more life-changing lessons.