by

Although this has died off in more recent times, there was a period where it seemed like every other American politician would look to Japan for inspiration in order to try and reform the American School System. “There needs to be more math!” some would yell. “More science!” others would say. Rarely would this conversation make it past a skin deep level. People think that if America has more math and more science we’ll suddenly be able to compete again on a worldwide scale. When that didn’t work, we turned to the idea of “better math and science teachers,” but I’m afraid that’s not going to work either. The changes we’re trying to make to “be more like Japan” (not to mention many other Asian countries) in education just aren’t the things that make Japanese education successful.

Now, I’m not saying that the Japanese education system is perfect (in fact, it has a whole bunch of other problems, though math doesn’t seem to be one of them), but I thought it would be interesting to talk about it while we were on the subject. In fact, if you’re a parent you might see things that you can utilize with your child as well. As we’ll learn, the parent-child relationship is a very important aspect of how Japanese children become good learners.

Japan’s Love Affair With Stress

stress

Photo by madtea

When I think of the Japanese education system, I personally think about the college examination tests that most high schoolers end up taking, probably because I saw what it did to my friends the year or two before they had to take it. At the end of high school this single test decides your future. You get to choose one college you want to go to. That college has a certain score requirement. If you don’t reach that score you probably don’t go to college, and what college you go to decides your future fate and salary as well, much more than it does in America. So, you want to shoot for the best college possible that you think you can get into… but if you overshoot it and fail the test, you spend a year as a ronin; basically, that’s one year where you study and get ready for the test next year, because you didn’t get into college. Talk about stress.

But, the stress doesn’t only come from the test itself. The preparation for the test is much worse. Often starting from elementary school a child will begin going to juku, or “cram school.” This is school after school with the goal of getting you into a better middle school. If you can get into a better middle school, then you go to more juku so that you can get into a better high school. A better high school means a better opportunity to get a higher score on the college entrance examination. Still though, you go to even more juku in high school to prepare yourself for the test. It’s no wonder it’s lovingly nicknamed the “hell test.” And, if you fall behind and don’t get into a good school? Well, extra juku for you then, kiddo.

It’s no wonder that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Despite this, Japanese students (and Japanese society on a whole) are able to handle extreme amounts of stress. The stress a Japanese person deals with on a day-to-day basis is even infamous throughout the first world. I think that this extreme stress is our first clue, though. It hints at why the Japanese education system is successful, though in a very indirect way. In the end, I believe that it comes down to a concept known as amae.

Amae and Indulgence

amae

One of the most obnoxious things about Japanese children, in my opinion, is how dependent they seem to be on their mothers. You see this over and over again, and this dependence is even encouraged by society! “You’re creating a society of spoiled brats!” I used to think. Recently I’ve changed my mind, though.

The word amae comes from the word amaeru, which, according to Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi (he’s the guy who basically made this term a thing), can be defined as “to wish to be loved.” On top of this, it has connotations of a need for dependency and a request for indulgence of one’s perceived needs. This amae type of relationship is the ideal for all close relationships in Japan. It starts with child and mother, but expands out to student and teacher, student and upperclassmen, salaryman and boss, husband and wife, etc. It’s the senpai-kohai relationship in a nutshell. If everyone is able to indulge their needs into everyone else then everything will work out, or so Japanese society has been saying for quite a while now. Turns out they’re onto something.

Let’s go back to everyone’s first amae relationship: mother-child. Most mothers indulge their children to some degree – feeding them, changing them, calming them when they cry… etc. But Japanese moms are supposed to take these indulgences to another degree. It’s so prevalent in Japanese society that they have come up with extra ways to describe and talk about this type of relationship. You certainly don’t see that in too many other cultures. It’s kind of like how Eskimos have a ton more words of snow. The Japanese have more ways to talk about it because it’s that much more important in their society.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at, though. This dependence… this indulgence… this amae… it’s what keeps Japanese society together. It’s the root cause of the successes you see in the Japanese education system. It’s also why society is so orderly and safe (at least for now), I think, and it all comes back to how much a mother indulges their child. Let’s find out why this is so important.

Non-Cognitive Versus Cognitive

heart-and-brain

Photo by ajari

Most people think that IQ, the ability to memorize, etc., are the key metrics for determining the future of a child. These are what economists call “cognitive skills” and it turns out they are not very good predictors of future success. What are good predictors are what’s known as “non-cognitive skills.” These are things like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence (there are a lot more, too). Think about it this way: The kid who has the persistence to practice math for 10 hours a week will do better than the cognitively smart kid who doesn’t bother doing their homework because they’re lazy and everyone’s told them they’re “soooo smart.”

The importance of cognitive versus non-cognitive skills is really highlighted in a study done by James Heckman on the GED program. He compared students who graduated from high school with those who passed the GED exam, which is a way for those who didn’t graduate from high school to get something that substitutes for a high school diploma. The thing is, though, this tests cognitive skills as a way to see if a person “knows enough stuff” to have passed high school. It’s closely linked to an IQ test (another test of cognitive ability) in many regards. That’s the problem, though. It’s assuming that high school exists to teach students cognitive skills and nothing else. With that in mind, let’s look at how these students did later in life. It’s not a pretty sight.

When Heckman looked at 22 year olds from both groups, the difference was huge. Only 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree. Compare that to 46 percent of high-school graduates. On top of this, GED recipients had nearly the exact same future outcome as high school dropouts. Higher unemployment, higher divorce rate, lower annual income, and a higher chance of using illegal drugs to name a few. Even though they are supposedly equal on a cognitive level to their fellow high school graduates (and considerably smarter than those who dropped out of high school but didn’t take the GED), their future successes (or lack thereof) was exactly the same.

What I’m trying to say is this: non-cognitive abilities end up being a much better predictor of success than cognitive ones. Your ability to persevere, to have self-control, and so on are the things that decide the future of almost every student, not how “smart” someone is… though non-cognitive strengths do happen to make for a higher cognitive potential later on in life.

marshmallow

To illustrate this, We only need to look as far as the famous “Marshmallow Test”. In the late 1960s a professor at Stanford (Mischel) decided to test the willpower of four-year-olds. Researchers brought each child into a small room and offered them a treat (like a marshmallow). They were told that the researcher was going to leave the room and the child could eat the marshmallow when they returned. But, if they wanted to eat the marshmallow right away they could ring a bell, at which point the researcher would return right away and the child could eat it. The twist here is that if the child waited for the researcher to return on their own, no bell, they would get two marshmallows! In this way, they tested the child’s self-control, a very important “non-cognitive” skill.

It turns out, the correlation between how long a child could wait and their future success was very tightly woven together. When they checked on the students a little over twenty years later, they found that children who were able to wait 15 minutes for their marshmallow had, on average, a 210 point higher score on the SAT than those who rang the bell after a mere thirty seconds.

Think about it, the kids with stronger non-cognitive skills were able to work harder, had more willpower, self control (“should I study or watch TV tonight?”), and grit, and because of this scored higher on their SAT tests, which just so happens to have a correlation with future income and other success indicators. Over and over again, studies have shown that non-cognitive skills are the things that are worth developing in your children.

Amae and The Development Of Non-Cognitive Skills

japanese-kids

Photo by ajari

Now we know that non-cognitive skills are an excellent way to predict a child’s future, but how does all this relate to amae? It turns out amae and the amount of it that is received by a baby/child directly correlates with how well someone can develop these special skills.

One researcher (Meaney) has been looking at the effect of rat-moms doting on child-rats. When a rat-mom licks and grooms one of her pups, it (amazingly) actually alters their gene expression! Certain chemicals are affixed to certain sequences on a pup’s DNA and when a rat-mom licks and comforts her child-rat, this gene sequence gets “turned on”. By turning on this particular gene sequence (through enough love and attention), the rat babies grow up to be far more courageous, curious, and less nervous. When a rat-baby lives a healthy, not-stressful life, this may not cause much of a difference. But, when scientists pick up and stress out the baby rats over and over again for an experiment, it makes all the difference.

Scientists found that the rat babies with a strong attachment to their mothers (the mother would give them licks to relieve the stress) grew up with that DNA sequence turned on. The mothers that were less attentive created rat babies that were considerably more neurotic, shy, and less courageous. This “attachment” (which I should note is very often associated with amae) made all the difference in the development of these rat-baby’s non-cognitive skills and future lives.

Unsurprisingly, this is the same with humans as well. In the 1960s, Ainsworth, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, ran a test to study just this. He had a young 1-year-old child and its mother sit in a room and play for a while. Then, the mother left the room, sometimes leaving the baby alone or with a stranger. After a while, the mother would come back. Then they categorized the reactions by the baby:

  1. Child greets mother happily, running to reconnect with her with joy and/or tears (Securely attached)
  1. Children who pretended to ignore the mother when she returned. Children who lashed out at the mother. Children who fell to the floor in a heap. (Anxiously attached)

Although Ainsworth theorized that this lack of attachment (#2) could “create psychological effects that could last a lifetime” (he was right, by the way) it wasn’t until 1972 when Everett Waters took this test even further. He found 267 pregnant women who all had incomes below the poverty line. When the babies were age one, they were all given the attachment test that Ainsworth did in the ‘60s. Then in preschool, he followed up again. Two-thirds of the “securely attached” children were categorized by their teachers as “effective” in terms of behavior. Compare that to only one in eight (12.5%) children who were anxiously attached got the “effective” label. Skip ahead to 10 years old. Forty eight of the students were invited to a summer camp where they were unknowingly studied. Those who were anxiously attached during baby-times spent more time alone, were less confident, and had more trouble socially. Now skip ahead to high school to see the real kicker. Using data from when the children were just four years old, they found that they could have predicted with 77 percent accuracy which children would drop out of high school… and we all know how dropping out of high school tends to turn out, GED or no GED.

The interesting thing about “attachment” is how differently the Japanese and American societies think of it. In Japan, this “attachment” is highly encouraged, even in non mother-child relationships. In America, independence is more encouraged. Though America’s stance has softened since the Spock Baby Book days, you still see this going on to a certain extent.

This is just a guess, but I wonder if this has anything to do with the prevalence of ADHD in our society. The reason I say this is because of the difference between the number of boys and girls that suffer from it. Boys in America have ADHD at a 13.2% rate. Girls are only 5.6%. If you think about the difference in how boys and girls are raised, it’s hard to ignore this discrepancy. Girls in America are doted on more, given more attention, and more likely to be taught to be “dependent.” Compare that to boys who are supposed to be raised as more independent and tough. Is it possible that the way we raise boys versus girls is what’s causing more boys to have trouble paying attention? Self control, willpower, and the ability to pay attention are all non-cognitive skills. If “attachment” and “dependency” are the things that develop a child’s non-cognitive skills… could this be why more boys have ADHD than girls? Could the “Spock’s Baby & Child Care” book craze (which encourages parents to be cold to children and not indulge them) be part of the reason why the US has such high rates of ADHD, thanks to the lack of amae? It certainly seems possible, though I’ll have to submit to the experts on this one, as it’s just a guess.

Back to attachment, indulgence, and how they negate stress, though. What’s really interesting about this (which we found out from the rat mothers) is that as long as a mother is attentive and indulges in their child’s needs, the harms of stress can be negated. It’s been shown over and over again that a stressful life is very harmful to babies and children growing up. During childhood, this stress mainly attacks the prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain that is “critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions” (Tough).

In fact, there are direct correlations between childhood stress and your future life. Using something called the “ACE score” (which is a way to quantify levels of childhood stress), one Burke Harris sent out a questionnaire to 700 patients of her clinic. She then turned the answers into an ACE score and found something startling. Those with 0-3 ACE score (low stress in childhood), only 3 percent had learning or behavioral problems. Compare that to 51% of those with an ACE score of 4+. Stress during childhood has an effect on your ability to pay attention, control your temper, follow directions, so on and so forth… things that are directly related to the non-cognitive skills that happen to predict your future success.

“Wait, Koichi!” you suddenly say. “I thought you said the Japanese childhood was a particularly stressful one!”

“What a focused point!” I’d reply. “I see your rat mother doted on you well as a child!”

That’s right, remember the rat mothers and rat babies? Stress can be negated by indulging rat moms. With a strong enough attachment all the stresses of home and life are negated, meaning the child can learn from the stress without all the long term issues that the stress can cause.

One study at NYU shows this perfectly. Clancy Blair followed 1,200 infants from birth, measuring their reactions to stress via cortisol level spikes. Family turmoil and other problems at home really affected a child’s cortisol levels, which is to be expected. But, Blair found that if the mother was responsive and attentive to their child, and there was that attachment, this would negate the stress and keep the child’s cortisol levels in check. This prevents the prefrontal cortex from getting messed up, which in turn allows a child’s non-cognitive skills to blossom (not to mention the cognitive ones, too!). It all comes down to the amae.

This is partly why I think that a Japanese child is able to grow up in such a stressful and difficult school system. Despite the stress it usually ends up okay! The amount of pressure a mother has to indulge her children is what’s keeping these kids afloat and (in general) healthy. I’m not saying there’s no bad eggs, because there are, but it’s hard to ignore how well so many kids cope with stress, which allows them to learn important lessons about failure, dealing with it, and becoming a stronger person. Their mothers (and all the other people they have amae-based relationships with) are there to keep them from falling apart.

Let’s Pile On The Stress And Ganbare!

japanese-kid

So now we know that amae is allowing kids to deal with stress without the negative effects it tries to bestow. And we also know that amae is creating children with stronger non-cognitive skills, the best predictor of future success. But, this is fairly focused on very early childhood (though there are plenty of older Japanese school kids who are super dependent on okaa-san still). What about elementary, middle, and high school times? What’s going on here to develop soldiers of the non-cognitive (and therefore cognitive) type?

To me it comes down to word 頑張れ (ganbare), which means “persevere.” It’s so prevalent in Japanese society, in fact, that people will yell it out for just about any reason. If you’re playing tennis, your supporters will yell “ganbare” instead of “you can do it!” If you’re going to take a difficult exam, you’ll hear “ganbare” as well… as if trying harder will help you to get a better score right before you take the test. The difference is a stark one, though. “You can do it!” is all about hope. “Ganbare” is open to the possibility that you may not do it, but it does ask you to try your best. The possibility of failure isn’t ignored.

Actually though, it turns out that just trying harder will get you better test scores, no matter how you prepared for it. This is what psychologists call “conscientiousness,” and it is an incredibly important non-cognitive skill. I believe with the prevalence of “ganbare” (persevere!) oozing out of every Japanese orifice, they are simply reminding people to be more conscientious. They are reminding people to sweat the small stuff, concentrate, and try hard even when you don’t actually have to.

In one study during the 1960s, Calvin Edlund gave seventy-nine children an IQ test. All of them had similar socio-economic backgrounds. Then, he split the group into two and had them take the test. Seven weeks later they took the test again, except this time one of the groups were told that they’d get an M&M for each correct answer. On the first test the two groups had a fairly even average IQ. On the second test the M&M group went up an average of 12 points. Taking this experiment further at the University of Florida, two researchers split the two groups up further. The interesting part is that the “low-IQ” children, who scored an average of 79 on the IQ test, now scored a 97, which is average. In this case, what is their true IQ? Is it the 79, when they weren’t really “trying as hard,” or is it the 97 which they got because they tried?

I feel like this happens in all things. This “conscientiousness” will help a child (or adult!) to do better in all categories, not just IQ tests. Paying attention and trying harder even when you don’t have to is a sign that you have grit, self-control, and some other non-cognitive skills. Just by “trying harder” you become smarter, in a way, and this push to “try harder” comes packaged up into one word, (I bet you can guess what it is), ganbare. How important it is in Japanese society is hard to ignore, and I think it’s one thing that really shows how much focus is placed on character and non-cognitive skills in the Japanese education system (and society).

Learning Disabilities and Stereotyping

japanese-class

Photo by Emrank

Another big difference I see between Japanese and American kids is how they’re segregated. That’s right, even after racial segregation has come to an end, we still see cognitive segregation in America. In Japan, if you’re falling behind in class, you don’t get held back a grade and you don’t get put into a “special class” (that being said, a lot of people do get institutionalized, unfortunately). No, you stay with your class and graduate with your class, and that’s final.

The thing is, “group identity” is a powerful force. If you identify yourself as being stupid, you’re going to do worse in school. If you identify yourself as “different” you are going to act differently.

In one study in the 1990s, students at Princeton were tested on how well they could complete a 10-hole mini golf course. With white students who were told that this was a test of their “natural ability at sports” they scored 4 strokes lower than similar (also white) students who were told that this was a test of their ability to think strategically. Alternatively for black students, when they were told that this was a test of strategic intelligence they were four strokes worse. When told that it was a test of natural athletic ability they did better. As you can see, stereotyping yourself can have an effect on how you perform. In American classrooms those with ADHD are stereotyped as being less able to pay attention in school. In extreme cases they may be put into special classes where that stereotype becomes stronger. In Japanese classrooms you’re in your class whether you like it or not and everyone’s expected to perform to be the same, for better or worse.

I’d like to think that this expectation to be a part of the group unit of the classroom is part of the reason why students in Japan score better than the US. That’s not to say that this focus on the group isn’t a bad thing as well. When you are different you are often ostracized or bullied more than in US classrooms, which has the same sort of effect as segregating a classroom (though possibly worse). So, while there’s some good things about this there is some bad as well. Japan’s education system is far from perfect, after all.

A Careful Balance

balance

So we’ve seen how a mother’s attentiveness gives her child the tools to be able to take on the world. We’ve also seen how non-cognitive skills, such as perseverance, seeps through every nook and cranny of Japanese society. Then, we took a look at stereotyping and how it’s less encouraged, at least in terms of “who’s smart and who’s not,” giving everyone a more even playing field.

Japan is without doubt creating a lot of children with a lot of grit, I would say. After seeing what affect amae can have on a child growing up (anywhere in the world), it makes me wonder if this is a big part of the reason why Japanese children can take on so much stress and hardship during their education (and beyond… that salaryman life!). I also wonder if this is why they put so much stress upon their children. Do they do it because they can? I think they probably do.

While indulging your child and letting them depend on you are important for negating the harmful outcomes of stress at a young age, stress is important as well. Recently a lot of psychologists have been looking at the lives of the wealthy and their kids, and they are surprised to find that these children seem to have more issues than poor inner city ones. When you look at the rich parents of children who go to a fancy school, you start to see two “problem type parents.”

The first of these is the parents who become emotionally detached (where’s the amae?) while still expecting high levels of achievement (stress). After all, you’re going to a fancy private school so you better do well, no buts about it! These kids, who end up having attachment issues with their parents, end up with all kinds of problems later on:

To Luthar’s surprise, she found the affluent teenagers used alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and harder illegal drugs more than the low-income teens. Thirty-five percent of the suburban girls had tried all four substances, compared with just 15 percent of the inner-city girls. The wealthy girls in Luthar’s survey also suffered from elevated rates of depression; 22 percent of them reported clinically significant symptoms. (“How Children Succeed”)

The second type of parent is the opposite of the first one. These are the parents who OVER indulge. One study shows how people who make a million or more dollars a year tend to be “less strict than their own parents.” Basically, they make life too easy on their children. This makes for a lot of indulgence and very little stress, and as we learned from parent type number one, you shouldn’t have one without the other. These parents would call teachers to try and raise their child’s grades on papers, or try to get time extensions for things, or even ask if their child can retake a test. Without ever having to deal with their own stresses and failures, these kids grow up helpless and unable to deal with the challenges of real life.

Too much amae is not good. Too much stress is not good. But, an equal amount of both… that works out well. So in a society with so much amae it only makes sense to heap on an equal amount of stress. When these two things are imbalanced you run into problems in education and society.

How Japanese Children Succeed

gakkou

Photo by ajari

So here’s how I see things happening in Japanese society… at least the stuff they got right. There’s a lot that’s going wrong as well, but with America’s recent obsession with “making our school system more like Japan’s” I thought it would be good to go through all of this step-by-step so you can see why it works, rather than looking skin deep and trying to throw more money at math and science.

First, a baby is born. I could possibly go into how Japanese mothers tend to choose natural births over C-sections, and how this creates a stronger attachment between baby and mother, but I don’t know much about that, so let’s leave that part there. Then, the child and mother grow close. Through all the amae the mother gives, there is a sense of dependency from the child. Attachment is formed, and that grows through childhood. This dependency is really obnoxious to anyone who didn’t grow up in Japan.

This extreme amount of amae is what lays the foundation for their future. By the time they reach school age, they are more courageous, curious, have more self control, etc. All those non-cognitive skills are more developed. I think this is why you see three year olds riding the train by themselves, going on errands for the parents., so on and so forth. You’d never see that in America, though I think this is mostly due to all the bad people out there (maybe they didn’t get enough amae too?).

When they get into school these non-cognitive skills help them to socialize better and deal with disappointment. Kids are pretty wild and random and often do what they want. Being able to deal with other kids and control your temper is what is going to carry you through the younger school years. Right about here you really start to see a lot of ganbare too, one of the non-cognitive skills that is thought of as very important to teach every person in Japanese society. This gets beaten into you for all aspects of life, and we see a lot of middle schoolers and high schoolers who value perseverance over natural ability. In fact, have you ever seen a Japanese anime that isn’t about some kid overcoming difficult odds by just trying harder? Okay, maybe sometimes, but this is a recurring theme for a reason.

All of this personal growth crescendos at the end of high school, when they have to take their college entrance examination test. The only reason all the stress up to this point hasn’t destroyed them is thanks to the way relationships are set up: It all comes down to amae. Teachers, other students, siblings… etc. If everyone important to you indulges you, and you do the same for them, it all works out. Replicating this amae relationship beyond mother and child is the only way to balance and negate out the stress, which is stronger than most other places in the world.

What I don’t know is what came first. Did the stresses of society cause Japan to evolve in away that let them cope with it? Or, did it just so happen that the amae in their society is what allowed them to deal with the extra stress, so they add more and more on, which allows their students to learn and grow stronger. It’s the chicken and the egg problem, basically.

Whatever it is, I think we’ll see things change. In fact, I think it’s already happening as the Japanese school system becomes less and less “Japanese.” Maybe it will be a good thing, and maybe we’ll see more creativity come out of it (something that Americans do tend to do better). I have a feeling that there’s a happy compromise somewhere, though. I don’t think it’s in the middle, as I think science has spoken when it comes to a lot of these ideas. But, I do think it’s somewhere a little less stressful than where the Japanese have their dial set right now. Still, we can learn a lot from it, and they can learn a lot from us. As long as education keeps getting better with each passing generation we’ll see some good things happen, though until we can change our whole society (which is near impossible in a short period of time, I think) it’s probably going to be a while.

P.S. A lot of the American-related education stuff came from the book “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. If you’re interested in education I highly recommend it. As I read through it I couldn’t help but see similarities between the success stories and how a lot of Japanese society already works, which is what inspired me to write this article. There’s a lot more in Tough’s book, though, so please take a look if you find this kind of thing interesting! The more people to read about education the better prepared our future children will be!

Bonus Wallpapers!

amae-1280
[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]

Sources

  • Robert Benesh

    Wow! This is a great article. I have read “How Children Succeed” and I definitely noticed its influence on this article, but you certainly synthesized what’s in that book with other information in a way that made it extremely applicable and interesting.

  • Robert Benesh

    This article is also a great tool to explain why stress is often overwhelming for adults in Japan (because they now lack the amae that allowed them to handle great amounts of stress).

  • linda lombardi

    My previous attempt at this comment disappeared into the void… hope it doesn’t appear twice…

    I read something lately, I can’t remember where but maybe more than one place, that made an observation connected to your point about “Ganbare”: In the US we think that innate talent is what’s important, and in Japan they think it’s trying hard. Many consequences flow from this, because if talent is what matters, then if you’re talented you don’t have to work hard, and if you’re not talented, what’s the point?

  • http://yokaiakito.tumblr.com/ Gerran C.

    Thank you so much for posting this article! While I’ve learned a bit about the Japanese school system from generally studying the culture, this brought some amazing insight into it!

  • Marika

    One of the best articles I have seen from Tofugu in a while, excellent job. This is a topic that I have often wondered about–how Japanese responsibility to one another (or, amae) affects their work ethic. I’ve thought myself that the reason that American education and work environments are rather unsuccessful is because of little emphasis on responsibility in relationships; that is, only moderate pressure to live up to the expectations of your boss, teachers, parents, etc. The emphasis, I think, lies more in living up to your own expectations of yourself, and essentially disregarding what others think of you, which doesn’t make for very hard working students or employees.
    Really enjoyed this elaborate look at the topic.

  • azimnoch1

    I think this might be the most interesting article I’ve read on Tofugu! Thank you for the post. I hope to see more like it
    .

  • Kwami

    In theory, they would still have amae from their spouses, children, coworkers, and friends. Right?

  • a2ms

    I appreciate the insights into the Japanese education system and the way children are raised. Up until now I didn’t understand how a system where children can pass to the next grade even if they don’t have the grades/requirements can work so well. Now I see each milestone in the education system filters people by their abilities and at the same time gives people the confidence to keep going. It is very harsh, but ultimately seems effective.

    However, I think the stress levels that the Japanese society endures all their life could be unnecessary. There are other countries with exemplar level of education and quality of life, like Finland or Norway, where the society doesn’t seems as strict (but maybe I’m wrong).
    And while _amae_ can be very related to a culture, I think _ganbare_ is something people from any other country in the world can easily understand and adopt to improve themselves.
    Ever since I started studying Japanese, I stopped saying “good luck” and “you can do it” in both my mother tounge (Spanish) and English, and replace them with more encouraging words that are close to the meaning of ganbare.

  • Mei

    This helps me understand some things a lot better…

    Why Japanese people seem to get extremely attached to a person, but act distant at the same time. They don’t want to lose that source of “amae” so they continuously search for someone to fill that void and try not to get hurt by being the first one to move on.

    Well, basically people everywhere are like that, but it’s more significant in Japan because of the stress…

  • McGill

    Great article, really!

    I myself take everything done by (social) academics with a big grain of salt – in the end it’s all statistics and statistics can be interpreted in all kinds of ways.

    Just one example, the marshmallow experiment. You quoted “It turns out, the correlation between how long a child could wait and their future success was very tightly woven together.” Why were the words ‘could wait’ used and not ‘would wait’ ? So much judgment is already made by using ‘could’ and chances are high that this then easily taints the the subconsciously expected ‘outcome’ of the test.

  • DAVIDPD

    The whole “ganbare” or “fight” concept is something I think The Government cooked up to push its people further with less. They also have it in South Korea, where they say, “Fighting!” or “Hwaiting!” Just look at the size of the country. It is pretty amazing that Japan would become one of economic powerhouses of the World. Just the physical bodies required is mind boggling that they could become what they are today. Also, I would think the monoculture and nationalism is a huge factor in Japan’s success.

  • http://aamukherjee.tumblr.com/ Abhishek

    Thanks for the post! The psychological experiments were especially interesting to read.

  • satoshideath

    Nice. You delivered your promise, Koichi. This article almost looked like a psychology essay. :p One thing I should point out is that regardless of the Japanese academic success it does not change the fact that:

    1. Their suicide rates are still high (is academic success worth this much?)

    2. Against the backdrop of this academic sucess, how many Japanese Nobel Prize winners are there? 19. Not as many as one would expect when seeing their high literacy rates and their academic success.

    3. It (the japanese education system) is simply a system with big advantages and big flaws

  • Henry

    Here you go. From the Oatmeal

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I completely agree with you – it’s definitely the off hanging out on one deep end of the spectrum with a few other Asian countries. There always ends up being some kind of balance, when you take too much of one thing, you lose a lot in another.

    Nobel Prize winners is an interesting point too – Nobel Prize winners, I’d say, need both technical smarts as well as creativity. Japan has the technical smarts… but really lacks in the creativity department, so that makes quite a bit of sense, I think.

    As for suicides… if I was a robot I’d probably say that it is worth the stress. If I was a person I’d say “no, probably not worth it.” I think I’m somewhere in between on that issue.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    The monoculture is a really good point. It comes back to the whole idea of stereotyping your group. I guess they’re just stereotyping themselves to put in the extra ganbare, so everyone feels like they need to keep up… that’s a good idea, thank you!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That’s a great point about the word “could” – when I think about it now… I’m not sure which word is more appropriate :s I’ll have to read the study again and see if I can figure that out, since you’re right, it ends up being two different things.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    <3

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing them relax a bit too :)

    I think they are, to a certain extent, actually, but there’s still that feeling that you have to cling to the old overworking ways of the 80s and 90s. We’ll see what happens in the next 10-20 years. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s good to try to do both at the same time… you lose that group spirit and I think that’s something that Japan really tends to crave and need to make things work.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    It really seems like in America we shy away from the stress and responsibilities :( Our children seem to be getting more and more fragile, though that’s just a casual observation. I hope this switches back around, though. American kids need some of that structure, I think. Thank you for reading, too!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yup! That’s why I think that they actually do end up dealing with stress throughout life without having heart attacks and dying from it at an early age.

  • satoshideath

    Now that’s a quick reply!

    P.S. When I said you delivered I was referring to an email convo I had with you where you said you would bring the topic of amae in Tofugu in the future. :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Haha, yeah! Very influenced. I was reading that book and just thinking “omg, it all makes so much sense now!” Then I’d write part of the article before reading more of the book, and when I read more I’d be like “no no no, now this needs to change, and I need to add this in.” It’s such a great book, I’m glad you read it too!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Uh oh, did I miss up my Their/they’re/there’s somewhere?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Oh good! Haha. There’s plenty more to dive into with amae though… I hope we can get into it more in the future, so look out for it! :)

  • Henry

    “Turns out their onto something.”

    I’m sure you know the difference though, the cartoon was just for snark, sorry.

    Good article anyway! Not sure how reliable the psychology experiments are (like McGill pointed out), but interesting nonetheless.

  • john smith

    Wow, great! Yet another article contrasting something in America to something in Japan. This is just what Tofugu.com has been lacking!

    *ahem*

    I realize that you guys love love LOVE Japan, and that’s admirable, even necessary for the dedication required to maintain a site like this. However, every other article here for the past few months has seemed to me to be an attempt to show just how the US pales in comparison to Japan in some way, whether it be reformulated Chu-Hi, strip mall sushi, or differing educational practices. (The exception being the always insightful columns written by Mami. Her writing is the main reason that I continue to keep up with Tofugu at all.)

    Now, if you wanted to make a point about how much more you happened to prefer apples to oranges, that’d be well and good, but why oh why is the US treated as if it were the only country in the Western world worthy of comparison — negative or otherwise — to Nihon? Contrary to what some believe, America doesn’t own the Western world. Why can’t most of the authors who write for Tofugu simply praise the qualities that they see inherent in another country without denigrating their own? It doesn’t make the writers of these pieces — whether we’re talking about John or Koichi or whomever — seem humble, thoughtful, well-traveled, or self-critical, IMO. Rather, it makes them seem as though their one and only aspiration in life is to become Japanese citizens, then die of happiness. Heck, even the criticisms of Japan in articles like these tend to be little more than one- or two-line throw-ins, qualified with comparative statements about how life in the US isn’t coming up roses either.

    Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mean to attack the content of this piece in particular, which was comprehensive and made interesting points; rather, I think the *tone* of many of Tofugu’s articles has been off kilter for some time. I mean, is it wrong of me to want the articles here to be informative without being quite so comparative?

    It’s right around here that some great wit starts writing his/her “you should stop visiting the site, problem solved!” reply…but is it terribly unrealistic to want Tofugu to be as good as it once was, could be, and — occasionally — still is?

  • Alvin Brinson

    A lot of it does go back to the parents and community expectations. In America, we like to credit the TEACHER with creating good or bad students. However, whenever I conference with parents of “problem” kids the parent usually focuses on either defending their child’s behavior, questioning my teaching abilities, or they don’t even show up to the scheduled conference. Anything EXCEPT trusting that yes, their little angel is a little demon in class, and whipping some discipline into them.

  • Jake Chesser

    Fantastic article. Really well thought out and researched. I know you apologized for a few days with no post for this one, but I would much rather see a few of these posts every now and again than a fluff post every day.

    Lovely stuff!

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Hmm, only part way through, but some of this just doesn’t ring true with my own experiences in life. I had/have a very loving, doting, and attentive mother, but I turned out to be in incredibly shy and neurotic teen/adult.

    I also find it very easy to be patient and wait for something, whereas other might get antsy or impatient, but I found it very hard to muster up much motivation to study or do homework when I was in high school (still have an issue with this today trying to learn Japanese).

    I think I find the lack of give and take… the one-sidedness of just studying or just having this information flow all going in one direction to be very boring. Which is one reason I find video games so engaging as it’s an interactive medium. A big reason that WaniKani was able to grab my attention, at least for a couple months was thanks to it’s interactive nature.

    I don’t know… again this is just my reaction part-way through the article (and off the top of my head as a gut reaction), but some of the reasoning and points just do not jive with my own life experiences at all.

  • http://batman.doesnthaveasite.com スクイグリー

    There were a lot of interesting, nuanced observations (and seemingly, rigorous studies) in that article that I’m glad I’ve read. I’m grateful to have my thoughts on the subject ordered in a manner that seems to actually made some headway into the subtleties of a subject that almost defines an entire human life. It’s certainly a lot more refreshing than thinking about education as a simple cocktail of various subjects that a child swallows.

    I think the idea of ‘persevere and everything will be alright’ is quite a powerful feeling to be filled up with, no matter what age you are. But – as the article stares – you need to have faith that everything WILL be alright (I can think of few more convincing definitions of ‘alright’ that complete emotional and social contentment and harmony with a person you love), AND that you need to persevere for it (cue complete societal respect for those who gan/mbare the hardest). It seems quite natural that the combination of the two would allow one to completely put their head down and ‘go for it’ (possibly with lots of blaring electric guitars, emotionally-expressive face close-ups, and crazy dynamic colourful background effects).

    I think it’s also interesting to consider the other sources of amae that people seek out, other than from real people. I think a lot of the placid, jewel-eyed, emotionally-transparent two-dimentional girls that adorn most anime represent a kind of ‘ideal source of human affection’. Not that they’re generally very representative of real people (especially in terms of eye size), but then they might not need to exist if they did reflect real people. Being able to animate something lends itself more to escapism that filming actual reality. I think a lot of anime is cooked up to be emotional treacle. And lots of people seem to like gorging on it. It’s like prepackaged amae in little bite-sized portions. Maybe we should animae.

    One thing to note though; I’m still not sure if low levels of amae at an early age actually ITSELF has significant long term effects, or whether it’s that the conditions in which one fails to receive it generally fail to change throughout the child’s entire life. If a child has an inattentive mother (sticking with mothers) at 3 years old, they’re likely to have the same inattentive mother (and same lack of amae) at 10 years old and so on. Rather than there being a ‘critical period’, I wonder that if a child COULD somehow find a source of love and affection that it could trust at a later stage, it could then go on to develop the sort of belief in persevering FOR something that the other children have had since Day 1. It’d take a bit of working (the mini-golf study illustrates how deep self-perception defines our outlook), but I can’t help thinking it might be possible.

    Maybe I’m just too optimistic to believe that a child gets permanently academically ruined after Day X of amae deficiency, but I do think that humans remain more plastic and malleable than is generally assumed. Like the mini-golf study, I think our actions are often more a result of how we’re seen (by ourself and others), than the potential we actually have to change.

    Anyway, sorry if that was a bit long. Thanks again for the article.

  • http://batman.doesnthaveasite.com スクイグリー

    I think the ‘society’ thing is just as important as the ‘doting, amae-machine’ of a mother. Unless everyone you know understands and supports your mother’s fondness as the ‘right’ way of doing things, then it’s possible that you might have felt that your family life was a haven AWAY from rest of the world, rather than an integral part of it.

    I’m sorry if it seems really presumptuous… it’s just this is how I felt about mine. I always felt a kind of secureness at home that I didn’t think the rest of the world would understand, which I think is really different from the environment in this article where that kind of behaviour is actively encouraged by the child’s entire world, There’s a kind of consistency throughout the whole thing.

    I felt shy and nervous, because the world of school felt so disjointed and ununderstanding (there’s really gotta be a better word that… and it’s not ‘derstanding’) of the things that I loved. It’s hard to excel in a world you don’t feel comfortable in.

    Again, I’m sorry if this all seems too presumptuous, but I think I can relate, and I also think I can see the position taken by the article.

  • Moxey

    First, this was an interesting read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    The concept of Amae works in education, however where it doesn’t work and becomes somewhat of a hindrance is within gender relations. Typically (as you have noted in your article by focusing entirely on the power that Mothers have) women are those who give amae to others, especially their children. If you have a child in Japan usually the women will give up working so she can focus all her energy on that child. Through this sacrifice children in Japan are able to cope with a lot of stress from a young age. The downside of this system is that women grow up believing that the greatest thing they can do is give Amae to their children, to repeat the cycle and be the doting mother etc etc. In turn men grow up thinking that they deserve this kind of treatment from the women in their lives, a great wife is one who can look after her husband. This stunts women from the get-go, men are expecting women to give them love and attention without having to give much in return. The cycle of Amae is passed from Mother to wife. Having such high levels of stress from such a young age creates a normalcy toward working extreme amounts, this flows seamlessly into the Japanese workplace. Amae is the concept that supports men to work such long hours, because they know that their wives will relieve their stress when they return. Just as their Mothers have.

    I feel your article was really about male students, if you had considered both genders you would have made the connection that Mother’s are the ones who give Amae to their children. The choices are less for women in Japan, and I believe the concept of Amae contributes to this.

  • http://batman.doesnthaveasite.com スクイグリー

    I found that really interesting to read. Thank you for for writing. The constant mention of ‘mothers’ does highlight the question of ‘gender’, but there were so many other ideas to consider in the article that I didn’t properly consider it. The mother/wife crossover is an interesting topic in itself – if a bit Freudian sounding. It’s fascinating how many connections can be drawn between things in a culture. I hadn’t properly considered many of the things in the article, and certainly not this extension of them.

  • Mister トルコの頭

    While all of the pieces on Tofugu are op-ed, this one spends its majority Helm’s Deep in psychobabble. There is no better word since the article misses the connection between post-war American impositions upon Japan’s educational system and its subsequent reforms. This included the abolition of Shinto.

    Here’s an excellent and free read if anyone is interested in history:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=J2MOS0lMJEAC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    It will catch you up, proper like.

  • Hinoema

    “It’s no wonder that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world… Despite this, Japanese students (and Japanese society on a whole) are able to handle extreme amounts of stress.”

    Maybe, maybe not. Considering the high rates of alcoholism and suicide in Japanese society, I’d say it’s less *handling* stress than using strong social bonds, a sense of collective responsibility and an assurance that there always a higher authority to fix things to dissociate from stress; a great coping mechanism, at least until it spectacularly fails. This could also explain why it seems, to many Westerners, to be such a difficult process to accomplish anything significant when dealing with Japanese businesses. Decision making- a source of stress- is avoided, reallocated and dissociated from to the point of impeding the actual accomplishment of a task.

    Essentially, what I read here is that strong social bonds create a stable environment for education and success. (No, really? *lol*) A good observation which leaves out the question of why Japan seems to have a stronger structure of social integration vs the US, what is sacrificed for this, and if this is particular metric of success is actually that positive or healthy (re: alcoholism and suicide rates).

    Also, RE using collegiate achievement at age 22 as a measure of lifetime success based on ‘non-cognitive’ (social) skills ignores an entire raft of sociological, economic and cultural differences both between various socioeconomic groups in the US (and in Japan, really) and between American and Japanese society. It makes for an incomplete (and sloppy) observation as well as a ridiculously narrow definition of success. (Don’t forget, Bill gates would be a failure by that metric.

  • Tina

    Great article! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I think it’s spot on, at least for the preceding generation (i.e. people who are now in their 30s). The overbearing “monster” parents are becoming more and more obvious in Japan, especially in schools and extra-curricular activities. Parents are fighting for their kids, often unnecessarily, almost always excessively. While there are extremes featured on TV (one youngster’s mom called the boss and demanded to know why her child was stuck doing zangyo (overtime)! another girl refused to sit at a certain desk in an office because she might get a tan, and how daaare her boss assign her that seat) and are made to be ridiculed, there are many parents out there that are causing well-meaning teachers, counselors and entertainment staff (at theme parks etc) a lot of trouble over nothing. (Example: parents who rip a new one in staff for an accessory not being available in pink, which made their daughter sad. Because they couldn’t make it a lesson of it: “I’m sorry honey, you can’t always get what you want” ) And never mind the messed up effect it’ll have on the kids. Could this imbalance be considered some kind of super-amae? Or is there just not enough stress because schools/teachers are too concerned about parental repercussion? There are going to be sooooo many overly righteous little monsters in the years to come.

    Also I don’t know if it has any relevance, but birth order (in relation) to amae may have an effect on kids too. I’ve noticed those with siblings (older, younger or both) tend to be more balanced in social settings. Perhaps it’s more of a constant socialization thing, or a mutual amae relationship on the go?

    I wasn’t intending for this post to be so long, but one last thing regarding the ADHD point. While I have no doubt that it’s more prevalent in the US for a number of reasons, it is also most likely under diagnosed in Japan. Not only is being different not a good thing (perhaps the kid would be better off in a smaller class with a teacher who understands their needs), but mental illness is still a pretty taboo topic.
    A school counsellor was recently fired for having the gall to suggest to a child’s parents that he/she may have ADHD. The parents were greatly insulted, complained to the school board, who reluctantly had to fire her. Perhaps it’s a combination of the monster parents and the taboo issue, but it’s surprising this could happen.

    Anyway, my thoughts distracted me from the main point which is: great article and pretty encompassing! I do think that the fact that amae exists and is nurtured does help relieve a lot of stress. Someone mentioned the gender context and while it most definitely mostly leans in favor of men, it does go both ways in most relationships but perhaps manifests itself differently.

    Definitely going to check out that book!

  • Cali Pellegrini

    I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned it and I think I agree. The whole system is “biased” towards men. I believe that there might be a way for change, where men start taking more active roles in giving amae and women in receiving it. I believe it can work out, if everyone gives and takes an (roughly) equal amount of stress and relief. Then both men AND women would be able to cope with stress and have equal opportunities for successful professional careers AND successful personal lives.

  • Cali Pellegrini

    “It all comes down to amae. Teachers, other students, siblings… etc. If everyone important to you indulges you, and you do the same for them, it all works out.”

    What would be a concrete example of a teacher giving amae to a student? And a boss to an employee?

  • Marcus

    Very interesting! Thank you! It was a wise choice to save this site to my favorites. xD

  • Neo

    I completly agree. The worst thing about the cycle is that people don’t realise they are in one. For example, a study asked British students if they thought that people treated men and women differently all the British said that no, they believed equality was real. However, some non-British students were in the group and said they believed Britain was quite sexist, at least in comparison with their home countries. This shows that people don’t realise they are in a cycle if they have lived all their lifes in it.
    By making small changes, the situation can change a lot. Amae should be a thing parents give, not only mothers.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Ah darn! Thank you, I’ll get it fixed.

  • NotSoFast

    I think it’s important to temper the desire to jump from this article to conclusions such as “American education and work environments are rather unsuccessful”. How are you determining this? Yes, Americans don’t do as well as Japanese, and pretty much any other developed country, in math and science. But as Koichi mentioned, every system has its pros and cons, including the Japanese one.

  • GameKyuubi

    I live in Japan. I work in the school system. While this article is illuminating in many ways, I disagree with some of its suggestions.
    – It states that classes aren’t separated, but that’s not the case in my experience. Some classes are divided into “strong” and “weak” groups of students.
    – This type of learning does not necessarily increase cognitive ability. Instead of asking people to think critically about a problem before reattempting, it tells them to just throw themselves at it harder, which encourages political and social blindness. It teaches students not to question. If you don’t know, and your superior says no, that’s that. It pushes the enforcement of the status quo. The term “non-cognitive” literally means “non-thinking”. It shows quite obviously in the lack of creative ability in classrooms. If there’s no template for work, nobody knows what to do. Not even the instructors.
    – I’m interested to know how you think the father fits in to all of this. In my experience, the father is very detached from the family, another “chicken and egg” thing, where it promotes the mother as caretaker and promotes the father as salaryman, working from 6am to 10pm and then doing it all over again, sometimes not seeing his family for days or weeks.
    – I identify with the “trying harder gets better results” bit. It’s something that took me a while to figure out. I identify with that a lot, but I think it’s something that is, ironically, more applicable in America, where a few carefully placed words and a show of power and cunning can persuade anybody.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    Only your version of “good” is not the same as everyone else’s. If it changed to what you think is good, then there’d be others complaining. Writers should write what they want. If people like it that’s great, if they don’t read the next thing.

    If you know you don’t like a certain writer’s style, don’t read their articles. Come for Mami, leave for whoever you don’t care for.

  • RukkuB

    Slightly off the main topic of the article, but I wanted to comment on the mention of cognitive segregation. In the article, you wrote that ‘another big difference…between Japanese and American kids is how they’re segregated…we still see cognitive segregation in America. In Japan, if you’re falling behind in class, you don’t get held back a grade and you don’t get put into a special class’. This would seem to imply that cognitive segregation isn’t an issue in Japan, but at the beginning of the article you also made mention of there being ‘better’ middle schools and high schools. Cognitive segregation does occur in Japan, but at the level of schools, rather than at the level of the classroom.

    However, this segregation isn’t purely cognitive. The focus on a student’s need to ‘ganbare’, a focus on effort over ability, could give Japanese education culture the appearance of being fair and meritocratic, where a student failing results from the student not trying hard enough. I don’t think this is warranted though. As you illustrated nicely in the article: an individual’s skills, cognitive and non-cognitive, are strongly influenced by that person’s environmental context.

    This was an interesting article. It was great to see it on Tofugu.

  • Ariana Bliss

    Well stated. I would like to especially agree with your last point about the GRE. A quick search will bring you these statistics from ETS about one of the latest batch of GRE test takers. Only 34% of the GRE test takers are between the ages of 18-22, another 31% is between 23-25, 20% more are between 26-30, and the remaining 15% are over 30. This doesn’t exactly make the statistics given in the article comparing GRE test takers’s “success” by age 22 (ignoring all those in the appx 66% who take the test at a more mature age)) with that of people who didn’t take the GRE as being a meaningful comparison at all – even if we could define “success”, or think of a 22-year-old as someone to be considered when looking at “long term success” rates. Also of note is that of the 74% of people who took the GRE on American soil, only 68% were US citizens. 17% of GRE test takers who took the test overseas were Asian, 80% of them Chinese. Starting to look as if the author of the GRE study was comparing apples and oranges, as seeds.

  • Ariana Bliss

    Hinoema’s comment mentions the important idea of disassociation from stress. (Decisions take forever, nobody wants to take responsibility, hard yes/no answers are avoided, or only implied, strong emotional states like anger, fear or sadness or even passion are not supposed to be shown…). When I imagine many of the Japanese mothers I know, I can honestly say that rather than being the nurturing, attention-lavishing amae type, they fall more under the definition of amae with connotations of spoiling. “Hai hai hai hai, ja katteageru yo.” They constantly let their limits slide. They don’t want to bothered with having to deal with an emotional public meltdown, so they buy yet another Tomica car or Pokemon figure. While this (along with all of their contributions to cram schools) is a wonderful way to support the sluggish economy, I wouldn’t put it under the heading of “nurturing and loving.” And often they will do this because they know they have to save their battle lines for making their tiny children spend many hours a day in front of piles of worksheets. You could say this is balancing the stress with love, or you could call it bribery. Whichever way you see it, I think this may point us to one reason the Japanese schools are seen as so “successful” – endless hours of studying. This brings us to gaman, which is wonderful, and available in any culture, I believe. Why is gaman at not getting a toy or a chemically processed snack of less value than sitting for hours at the local Kumon and ploughing through worksheets, endless worksheets? So many ways to define “success.” But no way to get it without gaman, endurance, perseverance and trying hard again and again and again. Any successful person anywhere in the world knows that.

  • Ariana Bliss

    Continuing, by avoiding fights with their children (one way of thinking of amae), aren’t these mothers disassociating themselves from stress? The same applies to forking over cash every month for cram schools – they don’t have to deal with the stress of forcing their children to put in 16 hour days of studying. And they’ll have more of a chance of avoiding the stress from a dreaded failure of an entrance exam. As long as failure is dreaded, its possibility avoided, creativity is on it’s death-bed.

    PISA scores, university rankings, GRE results, Fortune 500 listings, and even Nobel Prizes are only measures (perhaps not even very accurate ones) of certain types of success. Measures are useful, they can give us confidence or take it away, they can show us areas of possible improvement, or train us to stand up and try again. But one inch is not the same as one centimeter, just as success in one arena is not success in another. And balance is important. Too much weight on one side, and the whole scale will tip.

  • Gizmotech

    As someone who teaches at a couple of schools in Japan which both segregates kids based on learning disabilities and general performance levels, as well as teaching at a tokubetsushiengakou for the hearing and mentally impaired, I suggest you revisit your section on learning disabilities after performing more research. While a large part of Japan might subscribe to the group advancement theory, there are certainly parts of it which do segregate things. On top of that, the ENTIRE senior high school system is designed around the idea that you apply to the school for the “smart”, “Business”, “low performers”, “private” which entirely segregates kids based on any number of factors from economic standing to academic performance.

    I’m in no way saying that the US or Japan is better, but your claims about Japan are incomplete.

  • Craiggles

    I think it’s important to note most people viewing this are American, and why compare say Russia and Japan? I don’t know enough about Russia’s education system to make a rational decision and no matter how many “facts” an internet website throws at me I can’t even truly believe empirical evidence if I don’t have preconceptions (maybe intuition) and/or experiences to form a proper foundation to those claims.

    I just believe they are appealing to their audience since 317,493,212 people currently live in America and, “According to a survey published in 2006, 13% of EU citizens speak English as their native language.”

    SOOOOOO, yeah. Probably over 90% of people reading this website are Americans… when writing an article and using another country to show compare/contrast for a better idea of the situation, than I think they aren’t making any mistakes here.

    tl;dr:
    I’m not saying your argument is entirely invalid, but I think the point wasn’t about contrasting other nations but shedding as much light as possible in a blog styled post on the Japanese and the US seemed a viable option to show contrast to paint a better picture since most people reading this are in fact Americans.

  • Japanese

    Most of the people reading this blog are coming from outside Japan, right? I don’t really agree with what is written here. In classic Japan, a lot of the families were based on 3 generations living under one roof, in villages where everyone knew everyone else. The eldest son would normally inherit everything (“the house”), whereas the younger siblings were ideally expected to strike it out on their own. Things moved at a leisurely pace, nothing changed much. There was not so much emphasis on school work, since your position in life was determined to great extent by your family. They chose who you should marry. The child had an amae relationship with a large number of people within the community, already at a very young age.

    “Ganbare” is a slang word that became mainstream only after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. During WWII there was a totalitarian education, and afterwards the young people streamed into the cities to rebuild and start “nuclear families”. This generation was essentially uprooted immigrants coming to a big city. The corporation they worked for was the only thing that took care of them. There was stress and competition; those with “high education” would climb higher up the corporate ladder, so these parents became obsessed with pushing their children into the best schools. The children born around 1960 were the first generation that was subjected to so much competition and stress in school.

    The current Japanese system is not the product of some deep deliberate thinking, it has its roots in the turmoils of our history. The obsession with pressuring small children comes from the excessive concentration of the population in a few cities. This will change in a few decades, when most of the population get over 60. If there are so few children, there cannot be so much competition anymore. If you compare 1870, 1900, 1930, 1960, 1990, you will find that the social attitudes and education systems were completely different.

  • Risa

    You do have to consider, however, that gender roles are deeply rooted in Japan and that Japanese feminism is VERY different from American feminism. One of the biggest differences is that while feminists in America push for independence, Japanese feminists have much more of the group mentality because it is something so integral to their culture (as mentioned in the article above). To me, it seems that the feminist movement there is less about getting girls out of the mother/wife role and more about getting everyone to depend on each other, male or female, and the power that a woman can have as a wife or mother (which, in some ways, has been historically better than how mothers were viewed in the west). The gender roles are slowly changing, but amae continues to be important all-around.

    (And think of all the times you’ve read/watched a story about a Japanese man telling the woman he loves that he wishes she’d depend on him more! That’s amae right there, and in the other direction.)

  • Horgh

    This said, American, Australian, and Canadian teachers have stronger unions, and are given more authority over the students and their parents. As an Aussie teacher was telling me, parents can’t just come in and start smacking teachers around and hope to get away with it because their taxes pay their victims’ salaries. In Japan? Not only can they do that, the school staff will simply forget the incident and act as if nothing ever happened.

    Yet, it isn’t to say that parents in Canada, America, or Australia aren’t interested in having more say in how schools work (but not necessarily make any efforts when it comes to making things run smoothly…) and aren’t actively critical of educational institutions. I keep hearing friends complain about how their kids aren’t getting the attention they deserve and how some teachers are awful (which, in hindsight, I agree with. Some of my secondary school teachers were horrible, but who else would want to teach in the middle of nowhere?).

    Yeah, Japanese parents and parents around the world probably have more in common than you’d think.