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Something American Schools Can Learn from Japan: You Matter - THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN

Something American Schools Can Learn from Japan: You Matter

by Rick on March 1, 2017

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 United States. 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 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.

  • You Matter.Giving and receiving criticism constructively,
  • Surfacing differences in creative ways,
  • Resolving differences gracefully,
  • Hashing things out productively,
  • Getting others to change their minds,
  • 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 are 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.

Learning the disciplines of turning conflicts into creative, graceful, productive and loving partnerships must be the priority in schools.

Don’t get me wrong. The Japanese don’t have all the answers. Not all 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 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.  Even in the best schools, students tend to complain that English is still studied as a dead language, though of course it’s not that simple.


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. 2. I take responsibility. 3. We will triumph.

  1. “You matter.” (Each of us matters; not just some of us.)
  2. “I take responsibility.” (100%-0. Not: 50-50. Not just for my work, but also for others and the community. Not: “It takes two to tango.”)
  3. “We will triumph.” (We rise or fall together. Not: “Each man for himself,” and “The devil take the hindmost.”)

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.


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

richard westin March 2, 2017 at 7:34 am

You have articulated important concepts. The best I could ever do was try to explain to my children that good manners are a social lubricant. Welll done!

Elizabeth ackerly March 2, 2017 at 8:46 am

I love this. Yes! I agree these three cultural traits are uniquely expressed in Japanese Culture to a high degree and we can benefit from aspiring to them. It makes me think also: what weaves these traits together and makes it possible is the value of humility. The courtesy that you experienced comes from a humility binds people together in love, trust and respect. Humility is a hard thing to just have (as a human being) so cultural rituals and “etiquette” make it possible.

Anne Marie Schar March 2, 2017 at 3:35 pm

I was struck by this piece as I struggle with my daughter’s school and what specifically makes me uncomfortable about it. She goes to a public school. I generally am happy with the school. Overall people are nice. However, respectful and infusing the “you matter” is the missing piece, perhaps.

[I am pulling a long convoluted story here]

I am constantly amazed that adults feel free to speak so harshly to other adults as well as the children. There is a sense of “we are the bosses” and if you are not following each command (even those that you didn’t know existed) to the letter you are treated as an enemy, an infiltrator. You are bad.

I am struck now by the lack of civility. Treating the students as if they matter and are deserving of a civil tone. I have been pondering whether or not to approach the principal. Perhaps there would be more civility from children if it were modeled by the adults.

Rick March 2, 2017 at 11:47 pm

Thank you, for your comments. Anne Marie, Yes, the children’s behavior ALWAYS expresses or at least points to the culture the adults create. I friendly, respectful, insistent talk with the principal can’t hurt.

Rick March 2, 2017 at 11:50 pm

One thing we all have going for us is that 97% of all of us want to live in this kind of respectful, loving, mutually supportive environment, and we don’t have to do it the Japanese way. Together, we can design our own starting with one conversation at a time. It is a long process, but also, getting there is more than half the fun, because, we actually all want to be this way.

richard westin March 3, 2017 at 11:21 am

I passed your comments on to several people.
There is part of a Chapter in SHOGUN in which a tea ceremony is described. I think it was between a couple whose marriage was in trouble. It was a ritual ceremony used for such purposes.
I would be interested to know more about ceremonial behavior in Japan.
I think your son’s comment about Japan being civilized was right.
There is also something in their aesthetic sense that perhaps reflects tranquility that comes froma stable
society, Dunno. Deep questions.

Rick March 3, 2017 at 11:30 am

Aesthetics’s is BIG in Japan. Truth and Beauty go together.

Jon Madian March 3, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Rick, this is a beautiful fashioned piece!! Thank you. I will share it. Hugs home, my friend!! jon

Rick March 4, 2017 at 1:15 pm

Sally wrote me this email:
“Thanks for this spot-on perspective, Rick. I, too, was very fortunate to go to several schools near Nagasaki with my teacher son and received the same respect and sense of worth from the administrators in each school. The school board also took me out for a memorable dinner and presented gifts. I truly felt that I mattered and that my son’s work in their school was deeply valued. We have much to learn and emulate from Japanese culture and many others. America is still working on being civilized in so many ways. Every trip out of the US teaches me this.”
Thank you, Sally.

Susan Chastain March 5, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Wonderful insight! We all want to “matter” and to be able to feel that genuinely everyday is quite a concept!
Thank you for sharing. Dane has been asking for years if we could please go to Japan. This insight definitely makes an impression and one I’d love to experience there, among many many other things!
My very best to you! Susan

Rick March 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Susan, Great to hear from you. Love to Dane.

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