Japan is hard on gifted children

By Michael Hoffman

Imagine you’re a 10-year-old kid and everyone thinks you’re weird. Your parents. Your teachers. Your friends. It’s a rare child who will say, “I’m not weird, you’re weird, the world is weird.” Rarer still: “I’m not weird, I’m gifted.”

But maybe that’s it. Maybe you’re gifted.

Japan is hard on its gifted children, says Shukan Gendai (Sept 3-10). There’s not even a word for it in Japanese. The English loan-word gifuteddo has to do.

The tendency here is to view difference as a problem, if not a disease. “I’ve had children brought to me who’ve been diagnosed with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” says Ochanomizu Women’s College pediatrics professor emeritus Yoichi Sakakibara. It’s lucky for those children that the first diagnosis was not the last word.

They weren’t ill, they were brilliant. The initial diagnosis would have buried them alive. And how many children have, in effect, been buried alive?

 Why, wonders Shukan Gendai, has Japan never spawned a Silicon Valley? Why are all the corporate shapers and symbols of 21st-century life – Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google – American? Because, says the magazine, the U.S. recognizes gifted children and encourages them. Japan, a similarly developed country with high educational standards, does not.

That may change. In June, the education ministry promised to include support for gifted kids in next year’ budget.

Money alone won’t do it. Deeply ingrained attitudes will have to change. This one has a long history. Novelist Naoya Shiga (1883-1971) wrote a short story about it in 1913. Its title is “Seibei’s Gourds.” The protagonist is a 12-year-old boy named Seibei, “passionately interested in gourds.”  

“After class, instead of playing with the other children he wandered about the town looking for gourds.” He oiled them, polished them, studied them, admired them. His class teacher, a samurai of the old school whose disgust at last turned to rage, showed up fuming one day at the boy’s home. Venting his wrath on Seibei’s mother, he soon had the poor woman in tears. His father came home, heard the story, “gave his son a sound beating” and smashed the gourds to pulp.

Seibei after a time develops a new interest: painting pictures. His father is not happy. The story ends leaving us wondering what he will do about it. We fear the worst.

There is no standard definition of “gifted.” A rough criterion is an IQ above 130. We’re talking maybe one child in 50. Pity the elementary school teacher faced with one in a class of 30 or 40. Pity the one kid who has to sit through the teacher’s labored explanations of points he or she grasps in a flash. If the child is restless, can’t sit still, blurts out the answer before the teacher has even asked the question, it’s understandable. So is the teacher’s frustration. The teacher has a job to do it and can’t do it. The kid has a role to play and can’t play it. Elementary school is no place for a child ready for university. But in Japan, by and large, elementary school is where the child will stay. Or else be turned over to the medical establishment.

Maybe things really are changing. Shukan Gendai tells a hopeful story. All through elementary school Takuma Onishi, now 23, was a problem student. Never on time. Homework never done. Attention span narrow. The good news is that his teachers, while not exactly encouraging him, didn’t bear down on him either. They couldn’t help noticing his perfectly effortless perfect test scores.  

 Like Seibei, he had his own peculiar interest – not gourds but paper airplanes. The ones he fashioned didn’t merely fly, they soared. Outgrowing that, he turned to houses. He studied house layouts in trade magazines he pressed his parents into procuring for him. Unlike Seibei’s father, they fed their son’s curiosity. In his teens he was already improving on the designs of professional architects. In 2018 he was admitted to Tokyo University of the Arts, a top architecture school, with the highest test scores ever. The following year he took an IQ test and scored 173. Not bad. He’s one in 395,271.

© Japan Today

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Hammering down the nail that stands out! That's "wa" in Japan.

8 ( +16 / -8 )

My wife's nephew, in 6th grade at elementary school, is gifted when it comes to maths. He's now learning 2nd year high school maths and is apparently breezing through it, and finds most of his classes at elementary school dead boring. He's a fairly quirt kid, so his talents are pretty much invisible unless you prod him or give him a complex problem to solve.

Fortunately his parents got him into a good private school that makes efforts to accomodate him, but there are limits to what they can offer. He's just itching to enter Kyoto University so he can do what he loves.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

I know one young boy, a boy 5 years, gifted attending a private international school with classes of just 3-4 students. Lessons are in English so he already speaks very good English. He will eventually go to university in the US.

In the UK I worked for a while with gifted children and disabled children too. The problem for gifted children is their emotions which are of their actual age while their intellects are way ahead of them. I helped them learn about their emotions and how to be a child of their age too.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

I think it's important to let gifted kids develop and dive into their interests, but it is really hard to make sure they still interact and develop socially too. My sister is having problems with her son in that sense- he's in JHS and taking university level maths, but has almost no friends at school. The pandemic didn't help things either in that regard. I hope he doesn't grow up smart but lonely. I think a lot of gifted kids face this problem of balancing their intellect and social skills.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

This is a great slice of life piece for Japan Today. Makes me want to find and read Seibei's Gourds. Thanks for including it in JapanToday.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

It’s a no brainer to encourage gifted children to excel, it’s a no brain that insists they remain at the same intellectual level as contemporary’s.

11 ( +11 / -0 )

Introducing ability grouping would be a start. So many eager minds suffer because they are forced to sit in classes that are too easy for them. On the other hand ,just as many student struggle in classes that move at a pace that is too fast for them. I imagine this change would have a huge positive impact on the creativity and productivity of Japans future generations.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Some schools used to practice streaming whereby the academically gifted kids were put together in one classroom, and the less academically kids in another. It worked well for years, and allowed for slow developers to transfer later. Now abilities are disregarded and they are all piled in together, and get bored and frustrated, as the less academically gifted take up most of the teachers' time.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

On the other hand ,just as many student struggle in classes that move at a pace that is too fast for them


You're trapped with your year group for life, be it in schools or faceless corporations.

Efficiency trumps effectiveness, never mind excellence.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

My wife’s mum was pulled aside after a high IQ test in early elementary school.

”Your daughter got a very high score. Please be careful. “

Poor thing ended up bored , disconnected and shy, even nearly quit school at one point. Good as gold now, became quite the character, but a telling story of how little interest the education system showed towards potential high achievers. Zero.

Plenty of time spent lamenting the bad students at teachers meetings though, oh how they loved to talk about those that refuse to fall into their lines of mediocrity and repetitive meaningless drudgery. The education system , although on the surface looks quite functional , has a dark unspoken underbelly that does tons of damage to young hungry minds.

How many potential geniuses and mavericks have been lost ? You have to wonder.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

In the US, a "gifted" student will be allowed to skip grades. I graduated HS at 16.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

That’s by far not limited to children. What do you think why there’s steady economic downturn and more and more lack of innovations or new products that sell globally and guarantee market leadership? Because gifted adults are nailed and hammered down even more than those children.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This is a good article. I know from my own experience in my home country. that however different it is from Japan it is far from paradise for gifted / creative children. The capitalist system does not want artists. It wants technicians.

Let me quote from the above article: "Why are all the corporate shapers and symbols of 21st-century life – Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google – American?" Please note that all of these companies are centered in California, or more exactly in the Santa Clara Valley.

Why California? The lack of rigid hierarchies and the disgusting snobby one finds on the East Coast, particularly in New English. You have to experience that snobbery to see it is true and how horrid it is. In contrast, the computer revolution welcomed people for what he knew and dreamed and not their social backgrounds.

Traditional American schools are designed for factory work, mental or physical. Eccentrics are not liked for that reason.

That said, there are teachers rowing against the current, like some my former teachers who encourage my writing and lent me advanced books.

All told, I have never another as stifling as the traditional Japan school.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

A 'gifted' child needs no teachers, only 'guides' because one of the gifts of being 'gifted' is very often the ability to self-teach in an almost compulsive way and the path they take may be crooked as they go from interest to interest until they find their 'love' and fixate on whatever it is until they have wrung from it all they can see of its interest to them. Trying to 'educate' the gifted is to mutilate them with the propaganda and limits that are used to cripple the 'average' person into 'obedience' which is absolute poison to 'genius'. As an observant philosopher pointed out:

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." - Arthur Schopenhauer

'Talent' can be tutored but what is still invisible cannot be and must be 'found' by the free explorer whose mind is uncrippled by the steel restraints of 'convention' or, as discussed in this article, 'normal'. Genius can never be 'normal' and will, very often, make the 'normal' extremely uncomfortable as they pick apart the spurious beliefs the normal are so often plagued with by their normality and 'education'. And 'genius' in the political arena is the first thing that ruling fascist psychopaths seek to destroy. Socrates is the classic example...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

This is an important subject. There may be a reason why Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks are so rare in Japan.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

RedstormToday  08:46 am JST

There may be a reason why Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks are so rare in Japan.

None of those people were gifted children.

Steve Jobs, doing school work at high school level as an elementary school age child is a prime example of a gifted child.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

My youngest has been flagged by her kindergarten and 1st grade teachers as being brighter than the rest of her class and able to figure things out much faster. Her advice was simply to get her spending more time studying by sending her to after school jukus and other weekend classes! My wife and I are against forcing our kids to spend all their time studying as we want them to be kids and have to time to figure themselves out, so we are looking at more suitable schools.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

RedstormToday  08:46 am JST

There may be a reason why Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks are so rare in Japan.

None of those people were gifted children.

Albert Einstein was also a gifted child.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

From what I have read, Einstein was so gifted as a child that the adults actually thought he was retarded, because they had so much trouble interacting with him. I think that situation is not unusual.

A lot of interesting comments on this thread. While I agree that much self-teaching goes on, there is also tremendous advantages when a gifted child is able to find an adult who can help them understand the world.

This is going to sound like bragging, but since no one knows who I am.......I tested at university level in all my subjects while in JHS, except for English. In first grade I was sent to a remedial English class. From my point of view, language is important, but insufficient to describe reality. When I finally got to university, I really, really loved it. It was so liberating. Not much need to study, except the things I wanted to learn, and like many others in my situation I found myself with lots of time available for exploring the world, whether through travel or through interactions with people I had not previously had a chance to meet. To this day I love meeting new people.

In my case I cannot say I made a great contribution to society, but I have really enjoyed life. It has been a great trip.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Most schools use streaming when they can. The biggest restriction is resources - staff and cash.

Once brighter kids realise that they have to play the game, game the system and bide their time, it's easier. They do the normal stuff that makes people happy, effortlessly, and push themselves in their own ways. Their adult life is their own.

It's unfortunate that the hand dealt to gifted kids all too often gives them poor social skills/shyness. In schools that can easily lead to them becoming isolated and bullied. Teachers may not be able to individually tutor them, but they should at least protect them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

While it may be hard on the individual gifted child, as a sorting mechanism, the system here takes no prisoners in its relentless embrace of elitism. Success, having ‘the right stuff’ means successfully navigating the juku and hensachi hoops which determine admission to the best educational institutions and then afterwards the trappings. From both nature (DNA) and nurture ($) perspectives, it helps to choose one’s parents wisely. More seriously, when it comes to a choice between either nurturing individual genius or the prerogatives of the group, no self respecting Asian Tiger Mum would endorse the writer’s unmistakably self-congratulatory tone in regard to Western individualism. To hitch one’s fortunes to the rising group, to them makes far more sense and is indeed the formula they are reluctant to jettison and which underpins their group success vis a vis Westerners who are being displaced on their own turf.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

RedstormSep. 16  08:46 am JST

There may be a reason why Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks are so rare in Japan.

None of those people were gifted children.

Henry Ford was a gifted child.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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