Schooled in Japan

An Indian mother’s viral blog post in Malayalam - her initial skepticism, then mounting admiration of Japan’s school curriculum.

Manju Manoj - blog post (language: Malayalam) published on June 22, 2010

Just a foreigner

Nandana was two-and-a-half when we first set foot in Japan. Without knowing a word of Japanese, my foremost thought was ‘stay for three years, return to India when my daughter is old enough to join primary school’. 

At Nanto city, we settled in and my daughter joined a Kindergarten. She picked up her first words in Japanese. We were delighted at her aptitude, realizing later that most kids have the same amazing skill.  

Adapt and discover

Three years expatriate residence in Japan whizzed by. I learnt to speak rudimentary Japanese adapting well to my life in this small town. No other language could help me ‘fit in’ quite so well. I gave birth to my son and my daughter grew up. Moving back to India was no longer considered. Career challenges were more of an immediate concern. 

I learnt to my utter surprise that six months after the upper Kindergarten level begins, the Japanese government starts procedures to help this new generation make the transition into formal schooling. The government - not the parents - takes the first step. 

Nanto had one elementary school, one junior high school and one high school.  Without exception, it is obligatory for all parents residing in a particular community to enrol their children in schools located closest to their residence - not at another ‘more attractive’ option 10 or 20 kilometres away ‘selected’ by parents.

First Day

Fukuno Elementary School

The upper level Kindergarten class kids, Nandana included, visited the local primary school, Fukuno Elementary school, together.  Parents and guardians received an invitation later. I went on the specified date, meeting other ladies whose children were admitted to Grade One. Many of them had completed their own elementary education there. We inspected every nook and cranny, extra-curricular and sports facilities including the swimming pool. Medical checks, vaccination checks, measurement for school uniforms for pupils was scheduled separately.

A month before the academic year began, the government informed guardians and parents, “primary school starts on April 07 at 8:45AM.  We invite you for this momentous occasion.” 

‘First school day’ functions (conducted for junior high school and high school levels too) are accorded great respect in Japan.  The dress code is formal. Japanese ladies wore the kimono. Gents wore formal suits.  As the only foreign mother, I wore a saree, the traditional formal Indian dress and became quite closely, uncomfortably aware of Nanto’s chilly weather in April.  As the function came to a close, Nandana’s school books were handed over to us.

School’s rules - walk alone

The next day, my first grade child must walk alone to school.  This little kid who was earlier dropped off by car at her Kindergarten, is required to walk alone to school - particularly so, if the pupil lives within the two-and-a-half kilometres perimeter of the school. Those who lived further away could avail of the school bus. If a neighbourhood child senior to the first grader attended the same school, the ‘new admission’ could accompany that child to school for the first week. The school made arrangements in advance for this assistance.  After that week, the first grader chose, whether to walk with that schoolmate or independently. Rain, snow or sunshine - the child must walk to school. 

The first day, I walked by my daughter’s side for half the distance scared that she may lose her way.  As the days added up, I acclimatised.


Both my kids studied in Japan.  That, I understand, was fortunate.  

Books and sports are just a part of the Japanese educational curriculum. The school provided lunch for all students and staff. This included the rice and vegetables grown and harvested by their pupils. From sowing the seedlings all the way down to harvesting the crop, Japanese Fifth Graders cultivated paddy. Fourth Grade pupils grew vegetable and fruit in the school garden, contributing that for school lunches. Even during the summer holidays, these children water the plants and tend to it.

Graduation Day, March 19, 2010, Nandana at Fukuno Elementary school, Nanto City

Primary school children recording the growth of their potted plant.

Once the classes are over, children are given 15 minutes to keep the school clean. It is the rule, the school’s daily routine. Each pupil is given a place to clean - the toilets, the corridors, the lobby, the classrooms et al. The spot assigned changes every month.  Cleanliness is not just preached, it is practiced.

Tilting it

My first reaction was skepticism and reservation, comparing this with the overwhelmingly Indian bookish education. My view changed substantially after going through copious amount of blogs

Learning to raise plants begins from the first primary school year. Each child is entrusted a potted plant. These pots line the outside of the first, second and third grade class rooms.  An apron is part of the school uniform.  Turn by turn, it is children who serve the school's lunch to their school mates. 

Pet care is also in the curriculum. Children are responsible for an aquarium, hamsters and rabbits. Teachers monitor the contribution to the welfare of these living things. 

Cleaning the class room after lunch

and online discussions by parents, who expressed distress at the hectic, overzealous academic quantity of knowledge dropped on to school kids in many Asian countries and the sheer competitive strife.

Neither my daughter or my son, Nived, ever considered their education a burden.  It may have felt otherwise occasionally, but for the most part, my kids gained plenty.

Japanese school education is completely free. Every subject is taught in Japanese.  English has no predominance. This was a great source of concern to me. I speculated with gloom about my children’s future after friends and relatives threw scorn at my children’s lack of fluency in English and at Japan’s ‘make-believe development’.

Living skills

Is this criticism valid? My mother put it right when she said  “There is merit in every language. Regardless of the language used as medium of instruction, the value is in the knowledge gained.”

Blog post author's son, fourth grader Nived, waters his cucumber plant at the Fukuno School garden 

True enough. My own school education was in Malayalam - the native language of India’s southernmost state, Kerala.  ‘A..B..C..D..’ began in Grade Four.  English was ‘just another subject' until I moved out of Kerala. Now, I translate from Japanese to English and earn from it.

The life-skills taught in Japanese schools gave my kids self-reliance. Frogs in paddy fields, bouquets gathered for disciplinarian Mom as they walked back home, banters with Nanto neighbours are some childhood memories that take them beyond gadget games and far beyond academic strictures.

This year, my son Nived scored high marks in ACT in the 7th grade - the only student from his school to get this recognition. Nandana is in college, aiming to graduate in business studies.

I have no reason to complain about Japanese school education. 

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