Preschool in Japan
April is the start of the school year in Japan and that is the month in which
my daughter, Grace, started her first day of school. There is enough material
from this continuing experience to write a book but I'll limit my remarks. We
had decided to send Grace to a Japanese preschool as a way to integrate her into
the culture and language. I use the word "we" loosely since this was primarily
my desire, foisted upon my daughter and her mother, in an attempt to recapture
my misspent early childhood wherein I lived in Japan but did not learn the
language. Christine was, is, considerably less excited than I since she knew it
would largely be her responsibility to deal with the consequences of this
decision. In America, you send your kid to school and, some 14 years later, they
pop out of the system smarter or at least taller. In Japan, there is a real
question of just who is going to school – the child or the mother. This is our
story so far.
Having applied earlier to the school, we are invited for an interview. Yes,
preschoolers and their parents in Japan are interviewed. We dress up and arrive
at our appointed time. The headmaster asks his teacher-daughter to interview us
since she speaks "fruint Englis." We speak in Japanese. Grace clams up and
stares at the floor. Somehow she is still admitted (along with 100% of the
October – April
Following the interview, Grace is very, very excited about going to school. We
walk past the school quite often and she can hardly be kept from climbing the
fence to explore the castle-like jungle gym. Six months is a loooong time for a
3 year old. It isn't near long enough for Christine.
Time to order uniforms. We get an order form in the mail. What is a "Ryuk"?? I
spend some time looking at dictionaries and finally figure out it is short for
rucksack (backpack). I do this diligently for several other questionable items
but still end up ordering several articles of clothing meant for boys. The
school, confused, calls up Christine's Japanese friend who then calls Christine.
This will be the first of many indirect phone calls.
Grace's clothing and school supplies arrive along with a detailed, multi-page
instruction sheet for what to do with each item. The most important item is
labeling. EVERYTHING must be labeled. Every article of clothing, every eating
utensil and every school supply. I spend hours trying to interpret the detailed
labeling instructions. Christine spends hours putting Grace's name on underwear,
chopsticks (each stick), crayons (each color), and other items not normally
considered valuable enough to merit this level of attention. Heaven forbid that
Grace should come home without the midnight blue crayon. And I'm calling the
Embassy if my daughter comes home in someone else's underwear.
We all dress up and go to the entrance ceremony. Picture an auditorium filled to
overflowing. Mothers and kids sit facing the front of the hall, sharing one
chair. The fathers, every single one of them holding both a camcorder and
camera, line up like paparazzi in the front facing the mothers and kids.
Children crying, laughing and desperately trying to make their escape. Somewhere
in the distance a voice of authority is welcoming the children to the school.
After the speech, the headmaster, dressed as some manic children's superhero,
runs back and forth along the aisle between the mothers and fathers, yelling,
making exaggerated motions and trying unsuccessfully to put on some kind of
magic show. The kids look terrified. Eventually we make our escape. Grace,
stunned, seems less confident that this whole preschool thing is such a good
Grace goes to school. Having heard that they don't give snacks to the children,
Christine (acting in the role of nervous first-day-of-school parent), puts some
crackers in a bag and walks Grace to school. Upon arrival, she tries to explain
to the teacher that Grace expects a snack. So, would the teacher give Grace the
crackers when she is hungry? The teacher is taken aback by the boldness of this
request and an impromptu conference is called with other teachers. The teacher
comes back and explains, using hand motions and actions (picture balled-up,
twisting fists to the side of each eye), that the other children would cry if
only Grace got a snack (offering to bring snacks for everyone doesn't impress
the teacher). Later that evening, Christine gets a call from her friend
forwarding a message from the school explaining that she can't do this anymore.
Christine's reputation as a trouble-maker is cemented. Strangely, Christine
takes pride in this label.
April 12-Present Day
Grace comes home each day with a "Ryuk" full of notes and instructions which
Christine dumps in my lap ("if I get the phone calls, you get the paperwork,
buster"). I glance over them and highlight items of seeming importance, somehow
overlooking dates when the pickup time changes (which it does with mysterious
frequency). One day Christine answers the door only to see a friend with Grace
in tow. Another day, the teacher calls up wondering when Christine is going to
pick up our daughter. To emphasize the point, she puts Grace on the line so we
can be sure it is our daughter that was left behind.
Sigh. Only 14 years and 2.5
feet to go.