Something American Schools Can Learn from Japan: You Matter

The minute I appeared in the front hall of Kugayama School the receptionist got up from behind his desk, opened the glass door of the administrative offices and came out to greet me with a smile, a bow and “Ohayoo gozaimasu.” The feeling that I mattered was inescapable. All day long, this same message was communicated to me at least a hundred times by everyone in many ways. From the first bow to the last goodbye, the people in this large Japanese school made me feel that I mattered.

Back in the States, when my son Peter is asked what Japan is like, he says, “Japan is civilized.” Peter has spent 17 years as an educator in Japan, and I can see what he is talking about after only two days here. Japan is more civilized than the U.S. Surprising? Why? Americans have been struggling with the challenges of forging millions of people into a community for only a few hundred years. Japan has been working on the problem for thousands of years.

Working out our differences with others is the hardest and most important challenge we humans face, and in case you hadn’t noticed, there is room for growth. This last election dramatizes our failures, yet again. There seem to be a lot of Americans who would rather be “right” than take on the difficult challenge of working with others to uncover a useful truth.

Of course, neither Japanese nor American schools have a monopoly on good behavior. But in Japan, at least, they understand that social skills are essential for a person to claim to be educated. Not so in American schools. “Bad behavior” is understood as a separate issue and usually blamed on the parents. Consider the following:

  • Giving and receiving criticism constructively;
  • Surfacing differences in creative ways;
  • Resolving differences gracefully;
  • Hashing things out productively;
  • Getting others to change their minds; and
  • Changing our own minds.

Such disciplines are obviously necessary for success in life, let alone the success of humanity on the planet. What good is it to create something of value, if you can’t get others to see the value? What good is it to be right, if you can’t get your boss or your colleagues to understand it? Obviously, optimal learning of these skills requires a complex social environment. Obviously, the best time to learn these skills is during the first 18 years of life.

Learning the disciplines of turning conflicts into creative, graceful, productive and loving partnerships must be the priority in schools. That it is not is proof that Americans don’t understand the situation. Our nation will fail and/or the world will collapse again into social chaos, if educators (and I include parents in this) do not put these skills at the top of the report card.

Don’t get me wrong. The Japanese don’t have all the answers. Not all of their young people graduate from 12th grade ready to take on the world. Good grades and high test scores don’t correlate with mastery of the hard, cognitive skills required to form partnerships. Good ideas still end up on the floor of the faculty work room. A Japanese high school student in one English class said, “We feel like slaves.” And Peter tells me that almost every school fails to fully exploit the potential of collaboration between Japanese and foreign teachers.

However, Japanese culture has developed some rituals that shape the container within which individuals can learn the disciplines of fighting it out constructively and creating collaboratively. These ritualized behaviors, internalized by adults and children alike, comprise three messages:

  1. “You matter.” (Each of us matters, not just some of us.)
  2. “I take responsibility.” (Not just for my work, but also for others and the community. 100%, not 50-50.)
  3. “We will triumph.” (We rise or fall together, not each man for himself.)

These three messages are not, of course, perfectly practiced, and they do not solve all the problems, but they do create a context for us to keep working things out with each other without killing each other.

At the end of the day at Kugayama School when I arrived in the front hall to go home, another nice man saw me through the big glass window. He got out from behind his desk, opened the door to the administrative offices, came over to me, bowed a greeting and asked if he could call me a taxi.

Rick Ackerly ’67 is a nationally recognized educator and speaker with 45 years of experience working in and for schools. You can follow him on Twitter at @Rickackerly. A version of this article originally appeared on his blog, The Genius in Children.