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