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Published in Print: September 25, 2002, as Opening the Doors

Opening the Doors

As part of _moral_ education, educators are placing more emphasis on interpersonal skills and stronger relationships between the generations.

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As part of ‘moral’ education, educators are placing more emphasis on interpersonal skills and stronger relationships between the generations.

The elderly gentleman cradles the sharp knife and the bamboo shard in nimble hands. He is deep in thought under a worn fishing hat, as if the glint of the blade and the smooth curve of wood have transported him to the overgrown banks of a river on a lazy afternoon.

His concentration is not broken by the excitement he's created at Ogawa Elementary School in this small town, located three hours outside Kobe. The boisterous youngsters hover over the master as he whittles the twig into a whirligig, a popular traditional toy. The 5th graders in the afternoon-club activity soon get to work with knives of their own, turning often to their mentor for help.

Down the hall, a handful of 4th grade girls hunch over steaming bowls of noodles, stirring as directed by a grandmotherly woman who worked as a lunch lady here before retiring several years back. Still other children are learning traditional Japanese sword fighting, called kendo; making Temari balls lined with intricate, colorful threads; or mastering the art of the tea ceremony.

The school's approximately 85 students can choose from 17 clubs in all, all taught by elders from this bucolic region. Until recently, the Japanese schoolhouse, a revered symbol in this education-oriented society, was generally closed to the public. But now, many schools have begun to invite, even coax, community members in.

As part of "moral" education, educators are placing more emphasis on interpersonal skills and stronger relationships between the generations. In a society where one-child families are the norm and studious children often have few outlets for interacting with peers, some observers say, many young people lack basic- communication skills and a sense of purpose. Amid growing worries about an aging population—of the nation's 125 million residents, children younger than 15 represent fewer than 15 percent; those 65 or older account for 17 percent—educators are hoping to foster students' understanding and empathy.

"Kindness and tolerance—these things are more important than just getting a good score on tests," Principal Yuko Ogino says. "We can say, 'Be kind to older people' ... but now, we have to give them an opportunity to experience what that means."

Vol. 22, Issue 4, Page 33

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