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