In the most succinct comparison possible, Japanese elementary school children are like a pile of kittens.
Visiting the local elementary schools has been the highlight of each and every week during my time in small town Japan, where I have spent nearly two years of my life. Always scheduled on a Wednesday, my weekly trips to internationalize the little people are a nice break from the junior high school, where students are sometimes rude, moody, swayed by adolescent hormones and pushed to mental anguish by the strictness of the educational system. At the elementary schools, on the other hand, the children are still allowed to act like children.
And Japanese children are ridiculously cute. No really, if there was a cute-o-meter, the kids at my schools would overwhelm it, sending the needle spinning and breaking the contraption. They have identical hats and identical bags, but unlike the junior high students, there are no uniforms. Instead they wear colorful t-shirts with pictures of koalas and bicycles, jeans with rainbow studs, ruffled skirts and pink knee socks with pictures of cakes, cats or sunflowers. Their eyes are full of wonder and excitement. At the end of the day if you ask any child if they had a good time at school, the answer will almost invariably be yes!
From the moment I arrive, I am assaulted by little hands (sometimes the wrong one) trying to shake mine, toothy grins and eager greetings. Every time I turn a corner, I hear a gasp of surprise and the exited announcement of my presence to unseen friends. All day I am waved at, called out to, begged to join in games. Sometimes I am even asked for my signature and unsolicited hugs are common from the younger students.
I know and cherish that this will be the closest experience I have of fame in my lifetime.
But it is more than this unwarranted popularity that I love; it's their innocence that warms my heart. Two first graders once asked me if I really came from a foreign country. When I answered in the affirmative, they turned their heads towards one another, eyes saucer wide and passed the word "amazing" between one another as if it were a secret code. The younger students sometimes debate my gender and a first grader once suggested that I might want to brush my hair because it looked messy. I had of course spent a considerable amount of time that morning trying to achieve the perfect straight-out-of-bed look.
Despite their innocence and wonder, Japanese elementary school kids are already well on their way to being proper, functioning members of Japanese society. By this I mean they know how to follow orders and how to be perfectly obedient. It takes a class of 40 students, regardless of age, no more than ten seconds to put themselves in perfect order, sitting down, legs positioned properly, backs straight and waiting at attention. By perfect order I mean sitting in equally spaced, uniformly positioned rows organized by name. Not one arm, leg or foot is left dangling outside of the perfectly straight lines. Now imagine 400 children, from 12 different classes, totally and completely mixed together and scattered across a large gym, doing the exact same thing...in less than half a minute. In Western nations, the thought is inconceivable. Here, it is expected.
There is a game I often play to practice numbers, called quite simply, the number/group game. I call out a number and the students must form a group with that many members and quickly sit down together. If they are unable to join a group, they are out. It seems silly and easy, but the kids love it and they cheer in anticipation and excitement when I announce the game. Playing with the first and second graders is the most rewarding. At some point I always call out One and take immense pleasure in the confused looks that turn to laughter when they realize that this means they can sit down by themselves. Calling out larger numbers brings instant panic followed by looks of complete satisfaction and contentment when a group reaches the goal. The students grab each others hands, pull themselves into a close huddle and often pile up on top of each in the rush to complete the task. As they await my approval they hold their breath, silently praying for my OK. Sometimes they giggle when an arm or a leg is positioned in someone’s face or someone slips. I always find it hard to count each group because their little limbs are so entangled and confused, their tiny eyes peering at me like little birds in nest that I can’t make out one student from another. And I can‘t help but think of piles of kittens.