A Parent's Lament: Why Can't My Child Stand Out?

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One night in March, I returned home and found my nine-year-old daughter Emma quietly crying. She attends our neighborhood public elementary school in a suburb of Tokyo. I don't want to go to school anymore, she said. Emma was suffering from something that is sad but all too common in Japanese schools: bullying. Bullying takes many forms. Boys kick and punch, but girls use their mouths, Emma said to her father. Three girls in her class were trying to ostracize her. Like all the students, Emma walks to school. In the morning those female classmates ran away screaming when they spotted Emma, as if they had seen something terrible. In the classroom they whispered among themselves while looking at her. This can happen to any child. One week later, Emma found out it was somebody else's turn. This time, another girl was picked on because she sits in a certain pose, with her spine erect. Sitting differently is enough to attract teasing. Naturally Emma does not like to stand out; individual excellence as well as physical differences encourage bullying. Her father is British, so she looks slightly different from the others. Her hair is a lighter shade than that of most Japanese children, and so is her skin. Emma was not really aware of these differences until she entered school. When she was a first-grader, she often said, Mummy, I want to look like you. During those days, she was reluctant to go out alone with her father because together they drew stares. A child's desire to be like others is encouraged by school policies. Japanese public primary education emphasizes uniformity and conformity. Although children are free to wear what they like, the school curriculum discourages individualism. Last year, Emma's third-grade class performed on stage a well-known Chinese classic featuring a monkey with magical powers. As there are never enough roles to go around, students share parts. Each of the main characters was performed by two or three students. Everyone has to say a few lines because school policy demands equal opportunities for all. On sports day all the students are divided into three teams--red, blue and yellow. The teams compete for an overall championship. There are no individual events. End-of-term school records also downplay individualism: all students can get good grades as long as they try hard. The grades don't necessarily reflect a child's achievement. Parents often find out only when their children go on to junior high school that they haven't yet mastered their elementary school subjects. Emma can enter our neighborhood junior high automatically, and most of her peers will do so. But neither my husband nor I wants Emma to go to that school because the students there do not look lively or energetic. The principal is not enthusiastic about installing classrooms with even electric fans in spite of sweltering hot Japanese summers. What he seems to value most is the virtue of perseverance. To enroll in a private junior high school, Emma must compete with other children. For that, she must go to a cram school where she will study far more advanced lessons than she would in ordinary school. Many of her classmates already attend a cram school, and some kids started going when they were three-years-old in order to enter prestigious kindergartens. Those would help them get into prestigious elementary schools, prestigious junior highs, prestigious high schools and eventually prestigious universities to guarantee a successful career. My only concern about Emma's going to a cram school is that she wouldn't get home until 9:30 p.m. Already she goes to bed later than I would like. But she likes to discuss the day's events with me in the bath before retiring--this is our quality time together--so she waits for me to return from work. A recent survey shows that children go to bed 27 minutes later than kids did 10 years ago. The need to study at cram schools in the evening, the tendency for students to unwind at 24-hour convenience stores on their way home and the lure of computer games at home means the trend is likely to worsen. Last month I attended the graduation ceremony at Emma's school. Sixth-graders were asked what they were looking forward to, and each one of them walked to the center of the gym and announced his or her wish. As I listened, I realized how everyone wants to conform and be like all the other children. Emma doesn't want to be different, because that would mean she isn't part of a group. Our children are afraid of being alone. One by one, the sixth-graders at the graduation said the same thing. They want to have friends. Hiroko Tashiro, a TIME reporter in Tokyo, headed the parent-teacher association at her daughter's school last year