Sayonara, School…Hello Home Learning

By Brian Covert

Bundled up for the winter cold, my son and I headed out to the train station near our home in Osaka, Japan on a morning early this year. We were soon joined on the walk down the hillside road by an elderly Japanese man, Mr. Kawanishi, a retiree who works part-time as a gardener for the apartment building where we live.

My son Kenya (born in Japan in ’94 and raised in that country) bounded ahead of us down the slope. Conversation turned to children. Mr. Kawanishi had a son of his own, a company “salary man” about my age, and a grandson about Kenya’s age.

The elderly man and I talked in the local dialect about the mess that was Japanese public education: Recent government research in Japan had shocked the nation by revealing that a good portion of college-age Japanese students lacked the skills needed to do the basic mathematical equations taught in elementary school. After 12 years of rigid public education and after-school cram classes, Japanese youth appeared to be growing more ignorant instead of more intelligent.

Mr. Kawanishi felt that his own son and daughter-in-law were likewise pressuring their child — the grandchild he was so proud of — too much with their expectations of academic performance. “At this time in their lives,” he said, “kids need to be outside playing and making friends — not indoors studying all the time!” I nodded in agreement. And I couldn’t help laughing to myself at the irony: For all the talk about how different Americans and Japanese people are, some feelings are common to folks everywhere.

Greetings, all. We’re the Coverts — Brian, Kazumi and Kenya, one of the newer member families of Humboldt Homeschoolers. We’ve been visiting here in Arcata, and have truly enjoyed the people and places that the North Coast has to offer. We will probably stay here a little while longer before returning to Japan.

As I reflect on the course we have taken as new homeschoolers, I realize that getting to this point has meant wading through a virtual minefield of stereotypes that Americans and Japanese seem to have about each other concerning education. Here are a few of them.

1. “Most Japanese students are potential rocket scientists.” (Sorry folks, just not true. Great test-takers do not necessarily make for great thinkers.)

2. “Japanese public education is better/worse than the American version.” (It’s about the same either way, since Japan’s educational system after World War II was patterned almost identically after the U.S. system.)

3. “Japanese youth have better social skills than American youth.” (Huh? People in Japan often comment that it’s the other way around.)

4. “Japanese families are so close” or “American families have fallen apart.” (Not completely right on either count.)

5. “American-style public education is so democratic.” (Any homeschoolers out there care to tackle this one?)

6. “Homeschooling will never work in Japan.” (That’s what they said in the U.S. of A just a few short years ago.)

There’s a running joke in Japan about the nature of U.S.-Japanese political relations: “Whenever Washington D.C. sneezes, Tokyo catches a cold.” Let us hope that the same principle will apply to the concept of home learning at the grassroots level as well!

Indeed, there is much that home learners in Japan and in the States can share. For me, it’s exciting to be raising our kindergarten-age child at this period of history because we are literally making history by our very commitment to our families through home learning. In the years to come, I look forward to our family — and many others like ours — being a kind of intercultural bridge between home learners around the globe.

And that’s sure to be welcome news for people like our elderly Japanese friend, the gardener, who is already planting the seeds of true learning for children in his own humble but important way.

Brian Covert is a writer from California who has been living in Japan for more than 10 years.