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How the ultrarich in Japan educate their kids

20 Comments
By Michael Hoffman
Photo: Fast & Slow/Pixta

Once upon a time – a good beginning for a children’s story – children ruled the daylight. They owned the outdoors. The streets and alleys of old Japan swarmed with kids and rang with their shouts, laughter, songs, tears.

Actress and left-wing activist Sadako Sawamura (1908-96) described it all in her memoir “My Asakusa.” That’s the working-class Tokyo neighborhood she grew up in during the 1920s. “Because every house was cramped,” she writes, “parents encouraged their children to play outdoors. Fortunately the neighborhood then had many vacant areas… perfect for the children to play hide-and-seek and ‘compete for territory.’” Many other games as well.

“Quarrels frequently arose,” she recalls. “One child would shove or push another and they started to wrestle … When a child cried occasionally the parents ignored it and never appeared … The children didn’t need parental help. Their leader would settle the dispute fairly.

“Children are creatures of the outdoors,” she says. “Compared with children today” – circa 1976 when the book appeared – “who watch television in a centrally heated house, those who romped about in the cold, with bare hands and feet, thickly clad in quilted clothing, were more healthy – both in mind and body.”

They were not, by today’s standards, educated. They didn’t have to be. Today’s children do. And today’s education is a costly, grueling process. How do the rich educate their children? asks Shukan Gendai (Nov 25).

With passion, and with money. The magazine’s report – though not the drama, as we shall see – opens with entrance exams. It’s early morning, Nov 1, in Tokyo's upscale Hiroo district. Children fill the scene, very small ones, but they hardly seem “creatures of the outdoors.” They are dressed, like the mothers who accompany them, in navy, the color of the exclusive private elementary school whose entrance exam they are on their way to. Their pace is solemn, “their faces tense.” Well they might be. Few will pass. Of the 1,400-odd tots whose parents seek admission for them, only 144 will be chosen.

Those who do make it through this very narrow gate will enter the rarefied world of education for the very rich and the very (if the tests truly test) precocious. The school Gendai describes is an affiliate of the prestigious Keio University. From elementary school it’s more or less smooth exam-free sailing into an affiliated junior high school, an affiliated senior high school, and finally college. Once you’re in, you’re in, more or less.

Let this particular school stand for others no less exclusive. The little examinees are typically tested, in tests staggered across a week, in reading, writing, arithmetic, speaking, drawing; they run races, skip rope, imitate the examiner’s movements, recite texts from memory. We don’t hear what the kids think of it all. Maybe to them it’s all fun and games. Not to the parents, and it’s hard to believe that some, more likely much, of the pressure isn’t felt by them. Other matters aside, measuring in purely in financial terms, “You could buy a Porsche for the money you have to spend,” one parent tells Gendai. He can afford it – he’s earning 20 million a year, roughly four times the national average. Anything less, he says, would make the requisite preparations impossible.

They begin before the child is born, or even conceived. When to conceive is the first issue. Wealthy couples looking ahead to the best education for their future children prefer a May birthday. The school year begins in April. A child born in May will be among the youngest in the class. A few months make a big difference at that age. The older kids must forge their own paths. The younger ones can follow the leaders and learn from them, acquiring thereby a kind of second-hand maturity. So the thinking goes, anyway, and gynecologists say May birth is a major theme of pre-conception consultations.

No playing in the alleys for these kids. Scarcely out of the cradle, they are marched from lessons in this to lessons in that: reading, drawing, music, sports. Home tutoring fills whatever gaps there are. “The sky’s the limit,” says the parent quoted above. Sawamura would be shocked at how little unsupervised, unorganized, spontaneous play there is in the lives of today’s children – the richer their families, the less.

There are two main roads to riches in today’s Japan: celebrity and venture capitalism. The venture capitalist families watch the celebrity families with jealous wariness. Is a star, or a star’s wife, expecting? When? Best avoid that month for one’s own child, goes the conventional wisdom. (Many schools, not all, test kids born the same month together.) Whether it’s the money stars notoriously spend on preschool education or the irresistible glitter of their celebrity lives, the feeling is, Gendai hears from the non-celebrity mother of a girl who failed her test, that children of stars have an unfair advantage.

So, allegedly, does another category of examinee – children whose parents, grandparents or siblings are graduates or current students. It may be so or it may not. Discontent spawns all kinds of allegations.

Sawamura’s world was no child’s paradise. She herself, bright and eager, had to fight for an education against a family and a society that deemed it unnecessary for girls. Elementary school yes – but high school? Her father would not hear of it. Finally he yielded to her wheedling and gave permission, but flatly refused to pay. Never mind: “My mother said she could scrape together the necessary money for me until I found a part-time job” – which she soon did, tutoring a neighborhood child. “Neither of my parents ever came to my high school even once… I don’t think they even knew where it was. No one in my family asked to see my report card at the end of the term. Therefore, only my own desire determined the extent to which I studied. I was a bit lonely, but in my own way I found attending school and studying to be a splendid life.”

There’s a happy medium somewhere. Somehow we never seem to find it.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

20 Comments
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There are two main roads to riches in today’s Japan: celebrity and venture capitalism.

As for Japan, so the world.

Good on Shukan Gendai for being so perceptive and addressing the elephant in the room amongst capitalist "democracies" that the labor market does not pay, rarely returns a fraction of the fruits of labor to the worker, and occasionally provides a living wage.

That declining birth rate sure is a conundrum innit?

8 ( +12 / -4 )

A child born in May will be among the youngest in the class.

Yes, and because his or her classmates are significantly more developmentally mature, will always be struggling. At least, this is the wisdom in other parts of the world.

But, yeah, how come every child doesn't get the same quality of open-minded education for them to reach their full potential? Funny that. You might believe there is a political reason behind it: that from a society's point of view, some kids are born to be duds and others are favoured based on the luck of their backgrounds. And a positive feedback chain of lifelong and social disparity is induced. Is that what the society wants?

2 ( +8 / -6 )

A child born in May will be among the youngest in the class.

That's a typo. A child born in May will be the oldest, and therefore most developed.

As for the story, if that is what being wealthy and well-to-do, means, I'm pleased I'm out of it.

fwiw, as someone who learned Japanese to a very high level in my twenties and who knows people who developed other skills, web design, advanced woodworking etc. as adults, I am skeptical about the Japanese belief that toddlers must have knowledge or languages drilled into them on a "now or never" basis. Just because you have given up on learning doesn't mean other adults aren't capable of it.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

A child born in May will be among the youngest in the class.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

What I wrote after quoting the incorrect information in the JT article was that a child born in May will in fact be among the OLDEST in the class. A child born in May will turn 6 almost a year BEFORE entering elementary school the following April. But everything I wrote before and after the quote has ... disappeared.

A 6 year old with a May birthday will be noticeably bigger and more physically, socially, and mentally mature than most classmates with fall and winter birthdays. By the time younger classmates start to catch up as growth rates slow in later grades, parents hope that their May-born child will already be a confident, recognized leader of the grade-school piranha pack.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

The 書道 on the wall is not to the standard I would expect from an elite school.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

More hypothetical speak

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Poor kids.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Cast system is real, sadly.

Still this medieval system of privilege kids is alive and kicking in Japan.

Is fascinating how other countries, like some of the Europeans ones, that are not as developed as Japan, have 10x times better education system and better quality of life.

-1 ( +7 / -8 )

How is this any different than the US? The kids in private and selective schools get much better education than in public schools. The rich and the few non-rich with superior intelligence are separated from the rest. The one positive is that at least some kids get an all-round good education. Many other countries have the same standard. Public schools produce under-educated kids, some of who can barely read.

-2 ( +6 / -8 )

Gene HennighToday 12:21 am JST

How is this any different than the US? The kids in private and selective schools get much better education than in public schools. The rich and the few non-rich with superior intelligence are separated from the rest. The one positive is that at least some kids get an all-round good education. Many other countries have the same standard. Public schools produce under-educated kids, some of who can barely read.

Why don't you focus on the topic which is Japan? I went to a public high school in the US and some of them are very good. Depends on the area. What we do guarantee in the states, however, is that everyone can access high school with no entrance exam other than maybe for classroom placement.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Many countries have elite schools and universities. Those in Japan receive government subsidies like the public ones. State education needs to be free to the end of high school.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Japanese elite schools are more accessible than British ones. And better.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publicschool(United_Kingdom)

0 ( +4 / -4 )

The Wikipedia link does go to a valid page. Try DuckDuckGo.

British School in Tokyo's new campus

https://japantoday.com/category/picture-of-the-day/british-school-in-tokyo%27s-new-campus

Elite schools are always available to those who can pay the fees.

British elite schools offer a limited number of scholarships.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

How is this any different than the US? The kids in private and selective schools get much better education than in public schools.

Absolutely.

The rich and the few non-rich with superior intelligence are separated from the rest. The one positive is that at least some kids get an all-round good education.

Very true.

Many other countries have the same standard. Public schools produce under-educated kids, some of who can barely read.

Depends on the country and how the curriculum is applied, in Japan, the public schools for the most part are better than the private schools. My kids went to public, but a few years ago put them in a private international school, definitely not cheap, but the quality of education is very top-notch.

-6 ( +2 / -8 )

I respect the French education system, Baccalauréat.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Interesting the "ultra-rich" in Japan are not sending their kids to schools in the West, like China does.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Most rich people in Japan are fleeing overseas. They want to educate their kids into English more than Japanese. They are clearly more open-minded than Nihonjinron folks in the country.

Other matters aside, measuring in purely in financial terms, “You could buy a Porsche for the money you have to spend,” one parent tells Gendai. He can afford it – he’s earning 20 million a year, roughly four times the national average. Anything less, he says, would make the requisite preparations impossible.

Damn, that's shockingly low. Rich kids in Thailand or Indonesia or Vietnam or anywhere in ASEAN would earn more than 500,000 USD a year now - no tax. These kids aren't even having parents on the billionaire level!

Japan has become really poor!

-9 ( +1 / -10 )

Around the world one trustworthy proof of educational excellent is the IB (International Baccalsureate) program. Schools must prove and continue to prove their excellence to remain involved with IB. Students can choose to take specific courses or earn a full IB diploma. Public schools around the world offer this. When searching for a school, hone in on IB schools and search there first.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Private education, there is good and a bad side to it, I've worked in private and state comp in the UK, quite often the private education kids, yes they are bright, but not street wise, as where state run schools the kids are tougher, and more switched on. The doctors, solicitors, barristers, top accountants there school background will more than likely be from private education, I find that private school kids have to be spoon fed, this is a general observation, it's not 100% accurate

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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