More McDonald's than Mitsubishi

Students at Japanese schools in Britain can find themselves painfully torn between two cultures.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ALL is not well in the hothouse world of Japanese schools in England. A couple of days ago at Gyosei International School, near Milton Keynes, 26 youngsters decided to rebel against the school's tough disciplinary regime. They had had enough, it seems, of being woken at 6.30am and expected to study until 10.30pm, of being forbidden to visit McDonald's and discouraged from supporting the local football team.

The teenagers, all boarders, barricaded themselves in their dormitory and chanted slogans criticising their teachers, according to one report. Another has been suspended and sent back to Japan after being involved in a row with a teacher over school rules which he said were "petty and stupid".

It is not easy growing up as a Japanese child in England. In fact it is not easy growing up as a Japanese child at all. Japanese mothers, determined that their children should be high achievers, drive them to study quite literally from morning to night. Five-year-olds lug satchels laden with homework, teenagers go to crammers in the evening to up their grades so that they can go to a better university and there are regular reports of suicide among schoolchildren.

Education in Japan is like an escalator. The right university leads automatically to the right company. Even though the lifetime employment system is beginning to break down, high-fliers still want to enter the big corporations such as Sony, Hitachi and Mitsubishi, who recruit exclusively from Tokyo University, the Japanese equivalent of Oxbridge.

Put the Japanese school in the middle of an English town or village and the pressure becomes still greater. There are five Japanese schools here, in Acton, Horsham, Bury St Edmunds and Wrexham, as well as Gyosei in Milton Keynes.

Shitennoji School, near Bury St Edmunds, is like a little Japan in the middle of the English countryside. Most of the staff speak little or no English, classes are conducted in Japanese and the curriculum is the same one that prepares students for Japan's tough university entrance examinations back home. Yet whenever the students venture outside the school gates, they find themselves in a small English village. They need only watch English television to be aware of the more relaxed life beyond.

Japanese society is inexorably changing but it is still a nation of conformists. To quote the old Japanese saying, "a nail that sticks up must be hammered in". Anyone that has lived abroad is de facto a nail that sticks up.

So Japanese living and working in England send their children to Japanese schools so that they will not be at a disadvantage when they go home. There are also children who have been sent to England by wealthy parents in the hope that they will learn English - but in the disciplined environment of a Japanese school. Quite how they are expected to learn English when most communication is in Japanese is another matter.

Fiona English, head of the English language unit at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, deals with Japanese students of university age who have come to Britain for the first time. "They have particular problems," she says, "both in terms of the educational culture and in terms of being cut loose." Occasionally students are so seduced by the social scene in London that they go AWOL. One girl student "found herself able to do far more than she could have done within the rigour of family and social constraints there would have been in her own culture. In the end she dropped out. She had found the whole experience all too much."

Another problem is the wide gulf between the Japanese educational system and ours. "Japanese education up to first degree level at university is very much a matter of learning by memorising and being tested on what they can remember," Fiona English says.

One Japanese student could not understand why she kept getting low marks when she conscientiously wrote down everything she had learnt. "She was amazed when I told her about my eight-year-old son. When he was studying the Romans, he was shown pictures and asked to speculate about what was going on. In Japan they'd be told what was going on."

In Japan this year there have been riots in schools by rebellious children desperate to break out of the straitjacket forced upon them. There have also been recent cases of children murdering their parents or their fellow students.

Perhaps the rebellion at Gyosei is partly a reflection of the changes happening at home. In any case, when - if - the young rebels of Gyosei go back, no doubt they will take with them a new-found sense of freedom.

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