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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. 

October 2004
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 applicants..). 

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. 

April 11
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 idea. 

April 12
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.