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A Reporter Abroad: Safety Concerns Up, Classtime Down in Japan

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Web Extra!Assistant Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo spent the past two weeks visiting schools and interviewing educators and policymakers in Japan. Stories generated from her trip are scheduled to begin appearing next month in Education Week. Meanwhile, the following reporter’s notebook shares some brief observations about the education system there.

In this largely rural school district of Hikami-gun, the mountains rise steeply above quiet valleys and trickling streams. Soft summer breezes send waves across rice paddies and blow the bunched stalks of onions that hang from rooflines. Miles and terrain provide a safe distance from the problems of city life.

Yet even here, a region famous for its organic vegetables, black beans, and sake, there is an unease about safety, particularly in the district’s 35 schools. A massacre at an elementary school in Osaka—the nearest city, an hour away—has made school safety a top concern where it was once taken for granted.

Kuroi Elementary School in Kasuga, for example, now has a heavy metal gate where an outdoor hallway meets a small resi-dential alleyway. Visitors are asked to wear name badges and staff members now keep closer watch on the school’s 240 students.

Schools around the country increased security after a man killed eight children with a knife upon entering Ikeda Elementary School in Osaka in June 2001. Thirteen other children and two teachers were injured in the attack. Mamoru Takuma admitted the crime in court last month, the Japan Times reported.

At Kuroi Elementary, Principal Shouichi Yamochi admits the safety measures are inadequate to stop a madman. But he believes efforts to strengthen ties with local residents are raising awareness of the school’s value to the community and bring a different kind of protection and support.

It’s lunchtime at Sakiyama Elementary School in Ichijima. Just as in schools all over the country, school lunch here is a carefully orchestrated event.

The meals are prepared according to strict nutritional guidelines and delivered promptly to classrooms on rolling metal carts. Several students don surgical masks and headscarves before setting up the buffet at the back of the classroom. The students offer a blessing before diving into the day’s fare.

On this day at Sakiyama Elementary, the school "in front of the mountain," the lunch tray bears little resemblance to what is typical in U.S. schools. Lightly breaded and fried sardine-like fish, homemade potato salad, chicken and vegetable soup, and a bowl of steamed white rice are the offerings.

The din of excited chatter between classmates and bursts of laughter, however, is the same in any language.

Visitors to any school in this country are greeted with a bow and a pair of slippers. After stepping out of shoes and putting on vinyl loafers, a visitor is invited to enter the building. The slippers are removed when entering a carpeted classroom, such as the computer lab or music room.

Students are also required to leave their shoes at the door and put on uniform, indoor loafers.

After walking through a school for a few minutes, it is fairly obvious how the slippers got their name: They often slide off, especially when going up or down steps.

Elementary students in Japan show few inhibitions for expressing their feelings in the classroom. Children often hold hands while paired together at desks or computers, walk down hallways with arms flung over each other’s shoulders, and even greet some visitors with a hug and "I love you."

So it is hard to believe that the classroom can be a cruel place for some children. The schools here have experienced a wave of bullying in recent years, with classes of children sometimes targeting a single classmate for ridicule and even violence. To counter the problem, Japanese education officials have tried to increase the focus on character education. Some lessons adopt themes of unity, friendship, or helping one another.

One 4th grade science class at Sakiyama Elementary offered an example of how teachers are trying to integrate social lessons within the content areas. As students learned about hermit crabs, teacher Katsumi Inatugi, asked why a sea urchin might attach itself to the crabs’ shells.

Students began discussing how the poisonous sea urchin prevents other sea creatures from eating the crab, while the crab allows the urchin a certain mobility that helps it travel between food sources. Mr. Inatugiasked students their thoughts about the relationship. One insightful girl stood quickly and with a smile said: "They are like a family, because they help each other."

Very good, the teacher said, as he held up a banner with a final message to end the class. It read: "Help Each Other."

Saturdays have traditionally been a school day in Japan, but no more. As part of a comprehensive reform plan, the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, Culture, and Technology has been phasing out the six-day school week. This year, for the first time, students are not required to attend school on Saturdays. The new policy is popular among the children.

“Now, I play baseball on Saturdays,” boasted one student. "I sleep late," added another. Still others spend their free time swimming or taking music lessons.

The policy, however, worries some teachers who find it difficult to cover all the subject-area content with at least 70 fewer instructional hours each year.

Many parents do not approve either. With many adults continuing to work six days a week, some at part-time jobs necessary to supplement their salaries, parents worry that children will have too much idle time alone.

Another problem, some educators have found: Students are spending so much time playing or participating in group activities each weekend that they are more sleepy come Monday and have a hard time concentrating on their lessons.

Coverage of international education is supported in part by a grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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