Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School

This 1991 book tells the story of Bruce Feiler who went to Japan to teach English for a year. The book is an excellent examination of the Japanese culture and the difficulties an American might have in trying to adapt to it. Despite the difficulties, though, Feiler does adapt very well and makes numerous friends and does a very credible job teaching.

It's fascinating to read about his adventures in taking his first multi-person bath; in his experiment with nanpa, or picking up girls, and the astonishment of many Japanese that he could speak Japanese very well and even use chopsticks!

The book also goes into detail on the Japanese educational system and gives the reader a good idea of what the typical student does during the day. He also has a number of statistic and other things which are quite interesting.

For example, "In terms of time, Japanese students spend twenty-five percent more days in school than Americans, so a high school graduate in Japan has spent as much time in class as a college graduate in the United States.

This is related to the fact that the Japanese school system is for all practical purposes year-round, divided into terms with relatively short breaks between the terms. This avoids the "gone all summer, forget everything" problem that plagues many American students in U.S. schools.

The purposes of the schools differs, also. In Japan the purpose is basically to produce young adults who will be good citizens and fit into the culture well. In the U.S., the purpose is to prepare students for their specific careers, and to satisfy the politicians by passing numerous standard tests. In essence, the Japanese system is to produce someone who will fit into their culture well; in the U.S. the overall well-being of the student is irrelevant.

"In terms of dropout rates, ninety-five percent of Japanese children graduate from high school, compared with seventy-five percent of Americans." In some U.S. cities, the graduation rate can be even lower, down near sixty percent. Fancy accounting procedures tends to keep this hidden from the public, however.

"Schools are successful in Japan for this simple reason: they are seen as a national security priority." Japan, a country of limited natural resources, must develop their many available resource and that is people. Thus, students are brought willing to sacrifice some of their own desires in order to benefit the society in general.

Keeping in mind that this is a 1991 book, some of the material reflects concerns only recently in the news, and this relates to what is in Japanese textbooks and how some other countries are protesting what is in the books and what is left out of the books. He writes that the history book used (at that time) in the junior high where he taught had five pages dealing with World War Ii. One page was the early years and the attack on Pearl Harbor; one page was about the middle of the war and island fighting, and three pages dealt with the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the dropping of the atomic bombs. The Japanese attack on Nanking (also referred to as the "Rape of Nanking" ) is covered in three sentences, the Japanese invasion of Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia are not mentioned at all.

It is interesting to compare things left out of U.S. textbooks. For example, the entire "let's-wipe-out-the-Native American-savages" thing, how the white man basically attempted genocide on all the native peoples of this country is generally glossed over. The forced American opening of Japan (Admiral Perry), the American-business backed coup in Hawaii that took it from being an independent nation to a U.S. possession; the (unnecessary) Spanish-American war in the late 1800's; these and other examples show that history is written by the winners and the politicians, and things that the politicians don't want people to know or think about are generally left out of the standard textbooks.

The book also does point up some problems in Japanese education, of course, including the fact that students who go abroad for a year or more and then return to Japan will often face discrimination by their fellow classmates. The problem of bullying (ijime) is also covered, as it's a fairly significant problem in the schools. (Although the bullying is more psychological in nature, whereas in U.S. schools it's both psychological and physical.

Another major difference in Japanese and U.S. education is in the public's attitude towards teachers. "The teacher in Japan has long been accorded a special, almost sacred status." A lot is expected of them, but they are looked up to and generally treated with respect, whereas in the U.S. teaching is often seen as a job that's not really very significant and that carries little social status.

There's more in this book, too. It's well worth reading and it's written in a style that makes it very readable.

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