Baseball, Miso Soup, and the Hot-Blooded, Warm-Hearted Teacher

In the United States, mothers are revered and teachers get little respect. But in Japan, just the opposite is true: Schools are considered secular cathedrals, and teachers have become lay priests, with a special, almost sacred, status

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Americans continue to be fascinated by Japanese schools. Is there something we can learn from a system that produces the best test-takers in the world? Should American schools be as demanding as their Japanese counterparts? Should all American students wear uniforms, as Japanese students do?

Bruce Feiler got a rare opportunity to see a Japanese school from the inside—as a teacher. Soon after graduating from Yale, the Georgia native—fluent in Japanese—took a job teaching English language and American culture at a junior high school in the small Japanese city of Sano. Feiler's book, Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School, published this month by Ticknor & Fields, is an account of his experience.

"In my city of Sano," he writes, "I was the first person they had met who had white skin, brown hair, and a 'high' nose—one that sticks out from the face, not one that starts high on the forehead. I was the first person they had known who was not Japanese. Even among teachers, those trusted with telling the new generation about the outside world, I was an anomaly."

To Feiler, one of the great strengths of the Japanese education system is its ability to teach children math and science skills. This feat is accomplished by having all public schools follow a curriculum set by the Ministry of Education and by having a teaching system based almost entirely on lecture and rote memorization. But Feiler believes the Japanese have paid a price for their achievements. He writes: "The same monolithic teaching methods that work wonders in teaching mathematical formulas and scientific data are less successful in encouraging children to interpret historical trends and express themselves in a foreign language." Feiler concludes that Japan has as much to learn from America's less-structured style of teaching and learning as we do from theirs.

But, as the following excerpt makes clear, when it comes to the status of teachers, Americans could certainly learn a thing or two from the Japanese.


One morning in early February, I sat down with my colleague Denver (his real name was Kenzo Hamano, but he preferred to be called Denver, because an American once told him he looked like John Denver) to plan a game of English charades for his 7th grade students. On a list of vocabulary words that students would be asked to act out in front of the class, I wrote the word “mother.”

“What can the students do to act like a mother?” he asked.

“Oh, that's easy,” I said, cradling my arms around a make-believe baby and pretending to croon a lulla-by.

“But that won't work,” he insisted. “That's not what Japanese students think about their mothers. Motherhood doesn't have the warm image in Japan that it has in America.”

“OK, what is the image of mothers?” I asked.

Kyōiku Mama,” he said. “The Education Mother.”

The Japanese have borrowed baseball from the United States; they have lapped up apple pie as their own; yet they have stopped short of borrowing the American exaltation of motherhood. Mothers oc-cupy a social position in Japan somewhat akin to that of teachers in the United States: They are essen-tial for the welfare of the state, most people have fond memories of their own, but basically they are taken for granted, and certainly they are not lionized. The expression Kyōiku Mama, similar in tone to the term “stage mother,” is used to describe women who pressure their children to study constantly in order to excel on standardized exams. Other nicknames for overbearing mothers include Onibaba, “Devil Woman,” and Mamagon, “Dragon Mother.”

After learning these terms from Denver and hearing them repeated all over school, I set out to learn why mothers earned such ignominy, and who took their place as the keepers of the flame. My first stop was the home of Mr. Cherry Blossom, the regional curriculum adviser for the prefectural board of education.


About once a week while I was in Sano, I would visit Mr. C's home after school, spend the evening with his family, then drive with him the next morning to our office at the board of education. During these relaxed times, the evening pattern around the Cherry Blossoms' comfortable, two-story home was almost always the same: Mrs. C, a home economics teacher at a nearby junior high school, would pre-pare, serve, then clean up from dinner, and finally emerge from the kitchen around 9 o'clock to straighten the house or do the laundry. Mr. C, who usually returned home after his wife, would rush through his meal, take a quick bath, and then do leftover office work on his personal computer in the den. Though they had been a “love match” in their youth, never once during the year did I see them make physical contact, share a flirtatious glance, or exchange more than passing words with each oth-er.

“Would you like something to drink?” Mrs. C politely asked her husband after dinner on the night I came to talk about motherhood.

“After my bath,” he said, standing up and unbuttoning his pants. “Then I'll have some sake.”

“And Mr. Bruce?”

“The same,” he answered. “And make it warm. The rice tonight was cold.”

He dropped his pants and shirt on the floor and walked off toward the bath.

“My husband never waits for anything,” Mrs. C said as soon as he had left. “He eats fast; he walks fast; he even speaks fast. Some times I think he knows only three words: gohan, furo, futon; food, bath, and bed.” She picked up his clothes and laid them over a chair. “Do your mother and father talk to each other?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Especially before dinner. They call it `cocktail hour.”

“You mean they drink together, too? I can't believe it.” She poured hot water from the teakettle into the sink and began to wash the dishes. “My father talked with my mother when I was young, so I thought this was typical. But my mother says no. She says my husband's character is normal for Japa-nese men. I wish I had married an American.”

Japanese families, unlike those in the West, are not a haven for private love between individuals. Be-cause most marriages in the past were formally arranged, the family has traditionally been seen as a national social unit in which the husband earns the money and the wife tends the children. Japan has no ideal of Mom and Dad gathering the kids and the dog and heading out in the station wagon for a Sunday drive. Instead, the Japanese family is often lampooned as comprising an absent father, a nag-ging mother, and two children who go to school all day, attend cram classes all night, and rarely see their parents together.

Fathers have long been derided. According to popular lore, the four biggest fears of the Japanese are earthquakes, thunder, fire, and fathers. In the popular media, men are ridiculed as bumbling alcoholics who stumble in late from drinking parties every night and are wholly dependent on their wives when they are at home. “What is Boston Club Bourbon to you?” an announcer asks typical Japanese man in one television commercial. “Boston Club is my wife, my son my life,” the man answers.

Women get even less respect. Despite the preeminence of mothers within the walls of the family, where they control the money, the household, and the children, outside the home they are shunned, and often mocked, by both their children and their husbands.

“All my wife thinks about is entrance exams,” Mr. C said to me after his bath, as he poured me a cup of warm sake from a two-liter bottle with a rattlesnake coiled inside. “My older son, Yuji, must take ex-ams next year for university, and Takuya for high school. All we talk about is these idiotic tests.”

“But aren't they important?” I asked.

“Sure they're important. But children have other things to do. Sometimes I think that my wife knows only one word: benkyō, benkyō, benkyō; study, study, study.” He offered me a plate of raw horse meat, which I politely declined. “It's very good,” he said. “A delicacy. Anyway, what did your mother say to you?”

When I was a child, I told him, my mother nagged me with a different refrain. “Hobbies, hobbies, hob-bies,” she preached. “You must do more than homework; you must develop `personal interests,' as well.”

Mr. C slammed his cup on the table, clapped his hands twice, and bowed his head as he did at the Shinto shrine. “You don't know how lucky you are,” he said. “Japanese mothers never say that to their children. All they push is homework. Learning is not important, only studying.”


Several days later, I broached this subject with a group of young male teachers at a Denny's family res-taurant. It was late on Friday night, and we had stopped off after an informal drinking party for a late-night bowl of ramen noodles.

“I am really worried about my students,” said Machida-sensei, a stylish math teacher who had objected when the principal told him to wear a tie to class. “They seem to have no character. When they go home in the afternoon, they should be doing warm things like reading books or playing sports. Instead, they are always studying. They get this from their mothers.”

“Last night, a mother called me at 11 p.m. to talk about next week's exams,” complained Hongo-sensei, a physical education instructor. “I couldn't believe it—11 o'clock at night! I have no pri-vacy anymore. I never get any sleep. For the students, it must be even worse. They have to live with these people.”

“Is she a Kyōiku Mama?” I asked.

As soon as he heard this term, Hongo-sensei jumped to his feet, wrapped a napkin around his head, and pretended to draw a sword from his waist. “Kyōiku Mamas beware!” he sneered. “We know where you live.” He thrust his imaginary saber into the air with a snarl. Several couples in the res-taurant glanced over at this strange pantomime, and Hongo-sensei returned to his seat with one final riposte.

“I think the problem is that parents don't like to teach their own children,” Machida-sensei said when the saber-rattling was done. “Even if it's using chopsticks or getting dressed, they expect the school to do everything. Several mothers even called the principal over the New Year's holiday and complained that we were not giving students enough to do.”

"You've got to be kidding,” I said.

“It's true,” Hongo-sensei added. “The principal called me on the telephone and told me to start basketball practice a week before classes began. That's crazy.”

“Would this happen in America?” Denver asked. “How much time do teachers spend in school?”

“Not as much as you do,” I said. “American teachers seldom come to school on weekends and almost never during vacation. Of course, they have a lot of work to do and often take papers home, but most would never put up with this.”

“Do they have to make home visits?” Hongo-sensei asked.

“What's that?”

“We have to go to every one of our students' homes at least once a term,” he said. “Next week, I have to visit 45 houses in three nights and write a report on each one. How much time do students study? How much television do they watch? What do their rooms look like? The principal makes us do it. He thinks we are the education police.”

“We don't do that in America,” I said. “Parents sometimes come to the school, but teachers rarely visit homes.”

“You see what I mean,” Machida-sensei said. “We have to do too much. We hardly have time to teach.”


The teacher in Japan has long been accorded a special, almost sacred, status. In a country that views schools as secular cathedrals, teachers have become lay priests. The word sensei, though commonly translated as “teacher,” in truth has no equivalent in English. The two Chinese characters that make up the word literally mean “one who was born before.” The essential ingredient for a sensei is the wisdom he or she has gained through experience, not through reading books. In Japan, the wise one learns through time. Even today, the use of the word sensei as an honor-ary appendage to names is not limited to schoolteachers alone. Any valued adviser or mentor can earn the respect inherent in the word sensei.

In pre-modern Japan, schools were built around the personality of an esteemed instructor. The Toku-gawa shoguns who ruled the country between 1603 and 1868 established schools in many regions to train bureaucrats to run the state. In these Confucian schools, the master-disciple relationship was central: Instructors led through the example of their own character and conduct. “The teacher,” pro-claimed one of the most widely used textbooks at the time, “is like the sun and the moon.” In many cases, the students moved to these schools and ate, slept, and even bathed with their sensei.

In the years leading up to Japan's war effort in the 1930s and 1940s, military discipline became even more central to schools, and teachers were required to undergo martial training themselves. Eventual-ly, military officers were assigned to schools to work alongside teachers. The old master-disciple rela-tionship was not abandoned but rather was co-opted by the state. Teachers were still expected to lead by example, which in the new nationalistic context meant showing the utmost respect for the emperor. A “Memorandum for Elementary School Teachers” of the era advised: “Loyalty to the Impe-rial House, love of country, filial piety toward parents, respect for superiors, and charity toward inferi-ors constitute the Great Part of human morality. The teacher must himself be a model of these virtues in his daily life and must endeavor to stimulate his pupils along the path of virtue.”

When the American education authorities examined Japanese schools after the war, they vowed to eliminate these “authoritarian ideas” and replace them with “democratic values.” One of their initia-tives was to encourage teachers to form unions. Within several years, the newly formed Japan Teach-ers Union boasted membership of almost 85 percent of all teachers in the country.

Much of postwar education history in Japan has been dominated by a struggle between the conserva-tive national government, led by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and the liberal teachers' union, controlled by the Socialist and Communist parties. While the JTU has been a vocal proponent of re-duced federal control in education (as the Americans had hoped) and has gained some limited victo-ries, it has been unable to withstand the monolithic pressure of Mombushō, Japan's Ministry of Education. From its peak in the late 1940s, both the power and the membership of the JTU have de-clined precipitously in recent years. In Sano and southeast Tochigi, the JTU had no presence at all, and the teachers I worked with were affiliated with another, less vocal, union.

Teachers often complain that they have little freedom over what material to teach. With curricula writ-ten and approved in Tokyo, all classes follow predetermined schedules, which ensure that all students in Japan study the same material at roughly the same time. Just as Napoleon censored school text-books to stress the state over the individual, so the Japanese government strictly controls what infor-mation arrives on students' desks. This oversight is so extensive that in the case of junior high school English, the Ministry of Education publishes a list of 350 English words—from “a” to “young”—that all students are required to know before graduation. Yet despite the solid state control of classroom con-tent, teachers still feel responsible for the lives of their students. In the week leading up to our Friday night conversation, Machida-sensei had to be called away from class twice to retrieve a student who had returned home during the day, and Denver had to cancel dinner plans with me because of a special meeting with the principal to handle an incident in which a student had been caught drinking at home by a neighbor.

Compared with the United States—and most European countries, as well—Japan has an essentially homogeneous culture, with a common moral and religious heritage. Parents are more willing to give schools the authority to teach their children the common “Japanese” values of hard work, self-sacrifice, and national pride. Teachers, the ones who assume this burden, are thus given responsibili-ties that stretch far beyond their classroom door. As Machida-sensei said after he retrieved his student from playing hooky, “If I don't get him now, who will? If I don't help him today, who can?” This type of teacher, one who takes responsibility for the personal development of his students, who not only teaches science by day but also coaches tennis in the afternoon and makes house calls at night, is lauded in Japan as a Nekketsu Sensei, roughly translated as a “Hot-Blooded Teacher.” In a straight popularity vote, the Nekketsu Sensei would outpoll the Kyōiku Mama by a margin of 10 to one.


On the Monday morning after the gathering at Denny's, I went to see Mrs. Negishi, who in addition to being the teacher of 45 9th grade students was the mother of two preschool boys. During a break be-tween classes, she leaned on her desk and told me the story of why she became a teacher.

“When I was a junior high school student outside Tokyo, a soldier from America came to my school. The soldier was tall, with bright red hair and a shiny blue uniform. When he came to our class, he spoke too quickly for me to comprehend. I wanted to speak to that man, but I was afraid I could not catch what he was saying. I was very shy.

“After class, I spied the soldier walking out the back gate. I ran over to him, panting and out of breath, and uttered only one word: `Where?' At first, he looked at me for a moment, then he pointed out the gate and said some words that were too fast for me to understand. But that didn't matter at the time. I was so happy that this foreigner—this big, important man in a uniform—could understand me, that right there, standing in the middle of the schoolyard, I began to cry.”

She smiled, fighting back tears again, and ran her hand across a photograph of her homeroom class that she kept on her desk.

“I want my students to have the feeling that someone important understands them. It doesn't matter what language, as long as they know that someone cares—not about tests, or grades, or colleges, but about them. In my class, I try to do that.”

The third-period bell sounded in the middle of our conversation. Students and teachers flooded into the office. Mrs. Negishi motioned for a tall boy standing at the door to join our conversation.

“This is Sugiyama-kun,” she said. “He is one of my best students, and next year he is going to attend the most prestigious high school in Tochigi.” The boy blushed. “He has been having some trou-ble with English, so last week I went to his house to help him prepare for the test. I am sure that he will do well.”

I wished the boy good luck.

“Thank you very much,” he said. “I'll do my best.” He bowed and scampered out the door.

The profound attachment between teachers and students is the main reason why teaching remains a popular profession in Japan. Especially in small communities like Sano, teachers have genuine stature in the community. But sadly, intangibles like respect from parents and love for children have become the last job benefits to attract young people into education. As in the West, more and more people in recent years have been turning to the more lucrative and “exciting” careers of international business and finance. Although Japanese teachers earn high marks for their community service, they also must work painfully long hours, teach in overcrowded classrooms, and earn low wages. The starting salary for a university graduate like Denver with a comprehensive teaching certificate and three years of training in the system was roughly $15,000 a year, before national and prefectural taxes and a monthly deduction for school lunch. A teacher like Mrs. Negishi, with more than 15 years' experience, earned less than twice that amount. All this is true in a country where the cost of living is significantly higher than it is in the United States.

As much as she loved her job, Mrs. Negishi regretted that it left her little time for her husband and her children. She was a doting mother and often showed me photographs she had taken of her two boys as well as pictures they had drawn. In a show of professional prudence, however, she kept these pic-tures hidden in her desk.

As we walked to the fourth-period class after our talk about teaching, Mrs. Negishi seemed unusually distracted.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing,” she said.

“How are your boys?” I asked, suspecting a problem.

“One of them has a cold today, so he is staying at home. I couldn't be there with him, so I had to ask my mother to come and stay for the day.”

“I'm sorry,” I said. “I hope he gets well soon.”

“This morning, as I was leaving for school, my son said to me, `Mommy, which do you love more, your students or me?”' She paused before entering the classroom and stared down the empty hall. “Of course I love my children,” she said, “but I spend so much time at school.”


In the 7th grade game of English charades that had launched my search, a young girl drew the word “mother.” She walked to the center of the circle, raised her hands to her head like pair of horns, and wagged her finger in front of her face in a nagging, menacing way. In no time, the students had guessed the word.

“When mothers get mad,” the girl explained, “they become like the devil, and all children know that the devil has horns.”

After several more rounds of charades, a boy drew the word “teacher.” He marched to the blackboard and began writing furiously in the air. Without stopping for an answer, he sat on the floor and started scrawling on an imaginary pad. Finally, he pretended to take a mop and run it across the floor. Writing on the board, scribbling at a desk, cleaning the classroom floor—again the students had no difficulty guessing the word.

After class, I asked these 7th graders who they thought did the most to prepare them for everyday life. The results were overwhelming: One student said his father, six said their mother, and the rest of the class—35 students—chose their teacher.

While mothers remain at home, pushing their children to study hard for exams, teachers take over at school, mothering their students to work with others and develop strong moral values. This arrange-ment breeds tension between parents and teachers, who often have different goals. A well-known expression in Japan warns, “Any nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” This means that any student who shows exceptional ability must be muted to fit in with the group. In the classroom, stu-dents are taught not to flaunt their talents, “but,” Denver explained, “mothers want their children to succeed, to earn merit—to be pro- truding nails.” The Kyōiku Mama is born of this system.

To be sure, Japanese students still love their mothers. “Just remember,” Denver said, “mothers are still mothers. Japanese boys may complain a lot, but they always go crying on mama's shoulder.” The difference between Japanese and Americans, he said, is that Japanese children don't think of their mothers as the apple of their eye. To make his point, Denver told me a story about an American foot-ball game he had seen on television. One of the players had worn a headband that said, “HI, MOM.”

“I love my mother, too,” he explained, “but I could never wear that. I would be too shy.”

Although Japanese sumo wrestlers are not likely to shout “Hi, sensei!” into waiting television cameras anytime soon, perhaps that gesture would come close to capturing what students feel to-ward their teachers. “While my chess-loving father failed even to entertain me,” Natsume Soseki wrote in his famous novel Kokoro, “Sensei gave me far greater intellectual and spiritual satisfaction as a companion. Indeed, it would not have seemed to me then an exaggeration to say that sensei's strength had entered my body, and that his very life was flowing through my veins. And when I discovered that such were my true feelings toward these two men, I was shocked. For was I not of my father's flesh?”

Parents may provide the flesh and blood, but teachers provide the powerful example of their own commitment to serving the state. In our discussion after class, Denver put it best when he told me that the prevailing icons in Japan are not baseball, apple pie, and motherhood but yakyu, miso shiro, and Nekketsu Sensei—baseball, miso soup, and the Hot-Blooded, Warm-Hearted Teacher.

Vol. 03, Issue 01, Pages 54-59

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