Books: Excerpts

September 11, 1991 6 min read

“To understand Japan--its work ethic and its strong identity one must understand these lessons as they are taught in schools,” writes Bruce Feiler in Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School. Mr. Feilers book recounts a one-year stint as an English instructor at a junior school in the small city of Sano, north of Tokyo.

In the following excerpt, he describes the importance of the kumi [the homeroom class], in helping students develop a sense of group loyalty. A fellow teacher has invited her American co-worker to join 9-1, her 9th-grade homeroom class, in its annual Trash Day du ties. On the outing, the author begins to realize that the strong alliance built between teacher and students in the kumi is easily transferred later in life to a reliance on corporate co-workers.

Every day we are awakened to our own neighborhood,” screamed the headline atop the student handout. “Let’s freshen our city today.’' At an outdoor rally just after lunch, each student received a mimeographed map, marked with a route for his or her kumi to follow, and two empty plastic bags: one for paper, the other for aluminum cans. After the guidelines had been explained, the principal took to the pitcher’s mound and reiterated the theme of progress.

“This year we want to press toward greater cleanliness,” he yelled.

“This year we want to achieve a new order. Let’s go out and make our city proud.”

After the pep talk, the members of 9-I headed west out the back gate, toward the span of factories and small plants that lined the outer fields of Sano. Like other events during the school day, this seemingly burdensome activity was carried out with great verve and enthusiasm. The students raced in and out of muddy ditches as well as up and down trees in search of unsightly debris. The local newspaper sent a photographer; shopkeepers and mill workers emerged from their buildings to cheer the students on. The whole experience felt like a holiday parade. My students were so spirited that they even carried their class flag on the hunt, a red and white banner with a caricature of Mrs. Negishi [their teacher], emblazoned with the slogan “9-I is Number 1.”...

Compared with the normal drone of classes, events like this were thrilling for the students, and they reinforced the message that community service can be fun when performed in a group. Trash Day was a painless way to teach students that their rights as students go hand in hand with their responsibilities to the nation. The only problem in the course of the afternoon was that the students felt they had not met this year’s goal of greater cleanliness.

“I was embarrassed by how much trash we found this year,” one of the girls in 9-I complained at the end of the day as she dumped her cans into a recycling bin. “Our city shotfid be ashamed.”

“Our school should be ashamed as well,” her friend added.

“The streets around here are just a mess. I think we shotfid ask the P.T.A. to help us with this problem.”

“But what can they do?” the first girl asked.

“Maybe they can go with us,” her friend answered. “We could pick up trash together.”

The first girl thought about this idea and agreed that it was worth a try. “If our parents don’t care about this problem,” she declared, “then we should show them how.”...

Japan has no pledge of allegiance. Most classrooms display no national flag, and the national anthem--a wistful paean to the imperial line--is rarely played in schools. Yet Japanese schools succeed in teaching students a profound and lasting national pride. From Method Training ]class meditation tapes] every morning to Trash Day once a term, students learn the importance of working with a group and serving their community. In short, they learn to be good citizens.

In Sano, as elsewhere, schools aye the focal points of neighborhoods. Students cycling through town are treated with respect. Teachers hold esteem in the eyes of the community. National news media give extensive coverage to regular school events, like the sports festival, the entrance exams, and the changing of school unfforms in October and June. All this attention serves as a constant reminder that education is vital to the continued prosperity of the country.

Schools are successful in Japan for this simple reason: they are seen as a national-security priority. Most Japanese know that their country has few natural resources-no oil, few minerals, limited arable land--so they learn to exploit the one resource they have in abundance: people. Beginning on their first day in school, students learn a familiar refrain about their country: “Japan is a small island nation with few natural resources, which is surrounded by countries that are bigger and stronger and out to weaken us. If we are to succeed, we Japanese must work harder and longer to overcome these odds.” In essence, this has become the Japanese pledge. By stressing this code and encouraging children to sacrifice their personal desires for the good of the country, schools have been able to achieve what is, perhaps, their highest calling: to forge allegiance to the state.

Activities such as cleaning the school and clearing the neighberhood of trash are part of the Ministry of Education’s overall plan to encourage a national identity. As expressed in the Course of Study, the government hopes such events will help produce citizens who will “love our nation and strive for our nation’s advancement on the one hand, and contribute to the welfare of mankind on the other.” While these words are lofty, as are those in our Pledge of Allegiance, they seem to hold meaning in the daily lives of students, perhaps more so than the words of our pledge, “liberty and justice for all.”

The exhaustive emphasis on group training in Japan also has negative side effects, especially on students who for one reason or another feel left out of their kumi. In my early months as a teacher, no one mentioned to me that students who live abroad for awhile are often shunned by their classmates when they return to Japan. No one told me that the country still suffers from the legacy of a 400-year-old feudal class system that was officially outlawed over a century ago. And no one warned me that certain students are ostracized by their peers because they come from families that are still tainted by this past. In Sano, all of these problems would boil to the surface in the course of my year as a teacher, and one would end in tragedy.

While the kumi network has definite drawbacks, the system triumphs in one of its primary goals: to develop a community ethic among most students. Through repetition and eventually habit, students learn that they should spend a part of their day, indeed a part of themselves, tending the world around them. What begins in the homeroom at school later becomes the spirit of cooperation in many companies which so many Westerners admire. The lesson from the kumi is that this spirit is not mysteriously passed down through management seminars or religious rituals but is systematically and deliberately taught in schools. For students who pass through this system, a simple axiom serves as their personal pledge of allegiance: This above all, to thy kumi be true. .

From Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School, Bruce S. Feiler, Ticknor & Fields, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y. 10003; 320 pp., $19.95 cloth. Copyright 1991 Bruce S. Feiler. Reprinted with permission.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Books: Excerpts