JAPAN: To Cram Or Not To Cram

JAPAN: To Cram Or Not To Cram

To Cram Or Not To Cram

To Cram Or Not To Cram

As my son begins sixth grade, the final year of elementary school here in Japan, I feel a sense of panic.

Have I taught him all he needs to know to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence?

(Mental note: enroll him in swimming lessons while I am still master of his schedule.)

Is his English up to par for his age?

(Reading: yes, writing: no. Another mental note: make more time for him to practice his English writing! He’ll need incentives…. Sticker charts won’t work anymore, what will we do?)

Does he have the ability to identify the difference between a true friend and a jerk? Somehow I don’t think so.

And then there are the looming educational choices. We never really considered that he would need to take the entrance exam for a private junior high, but recently I’ve heard unpleasant rumors about the neighborhood public junior high school. We never sent our son to cram school, so it would seem a private junior high isn’t an option. Are the local schools good enough? Should we start cramming now, sit the test, and hope for the best? Maybe put him into international school? But those are all expensive options that we couldn’t realistically afford for two children.

I have gradually come to the realization that most children in Japan at some point will have to attend cram school. This is something I have wanted to avoid. In my heart I believe that kids learn best through play, and that forcing them into cram schools and extra study stunts their growth in other areas. I had hoped that studying English at home would give them a big enough advantage to get into whatever school they aspire to, but I have to admit that I no longer believe it is enough. My anti-cram school, pro-childhood stance has limited my children’s options for junior high. I need to stop and reassess, then make some choices about a high school entrance exam system that I don’t really understand.

We are a family that could make that happen, financially, with some sacrifices.

To Cram Or Not To Cram

To Cram Or Not To Cram

But what about all of those families for whom it isn’t possible?

The cold, hard truth is that seemingly egalitarian Japan is quietly becoming a country of have and have nots.

It feels unfair and somehow immoral that children are not able to make the best of the gifts they were born with because of an entrance exam system that requires attendance at expensive cram schools to have a shot at the best schools, public or private.

Childhood poverty is a growing problem in this country. I hope the education system evolves to give every child a chance to follow their dreams.

Do all children in your country continue into secondary education? What process is used to place students?

Photo Credit to the author.

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

More Posts

WORLD VOICE: Japanese Women Fight To Keep Their Last Names

WORLD VOICE: Japanese Women Fight To Keep Their Last Names

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 11.32.02 PMThis Thursday, March 3rd, an event in Japan known as Girls Day, a day of reflection and prayers for the health and happiness of daughters, comes at a time when women’s voices are not being heard.

In the past few months, Japanese women have been at the crossroads of maintaining with what’s been traditionally acceptable or fighting to keep their surnames even after marriage.

A number of Japanese women have taken an age-old law to court, claiming that being unable to keep their surnames is a violation of their rights. One of the women, Kaori Oguni, argues, “By losing your surname-you’re being made light of, you’re not respected…It’s as if part of yourself vanishes”.

What has been at play is that an age-old law stemming from the patriarchal system that has dominated the family dynamic since 1896. Dating back from the 1600’s during the Edo period, whereby the population was ruled by the Tokogawa Shogunate (feudal system), the only people who had last names were those of the Samurai class, until the end of the Shogunate, known as the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800’s. This was created in order to create their own identities, separate from the Samurai class.

The current law states that married couples share the same last name, and while the law doesn’t specify whose name should be kept, most women keep their husband’s last name to prevent pressure and criticism from the public, or worse their families. It is now being challenged by some professional women who believe it unconstitutional to ban women from having a choice of whether to change their surnames once they marry.

Part of the problem is the continued use of a family register system that has been used for decades which lists every member of the family, like a census. Unlike the census, a daughter’s name is crossed off the family register once she marries and is added onto her husband’s family register. What is disturbing is that a woman’s surname is easily assigned from one register to another, without thought of ramifications for her or her future.

PicMonkey Collage

The family register is like a census. The “x” denotes when a woman is divorced, and more than 1 “x” means more than 1 divorce. The family register is how families keep track of their families, but if a daughter gets married, he name is crossed off and added onto her husband’s family register.

According to a source from Japan, this law has affected professional women more so than non-working women. The view has been maintained that the government is providing women a safety net by holding on to the idea of keeping their husband’s last name as future reference with regards to parental rights or inheritance issues.  By sharing one surname, it is seen as a way of binding one’s family and women become part of that unit, letting go of their own identity.

In addition to married women, divorced women are just as affected by this law. Once a woman is divorced, her name on the family register is indicated by an “x” and any future divorces would indicate additional “x”s. Once a woman is divorced, she has the option of creating her own register or going back to her parents’ register, but along with having an “x” on the register, it would be noted that it was a result of a divorce. While it may be seen as an efficient way of keeping track of the family system, it seems more like devaluing the woman’s importance in a family.

A few people interviewed regarding this issue believe that it is not just about changing one’s last name, it’s more about having the choice to change it for themselves.

Mrs. U, married for fifteen years never had a problem with taking on her husband’s last name. Her husband had an unusual last name and was proud of it, but over the years, she felt that having to explain her surname is inconvenient. It didn’t occur to her how much paperwork was involved in changing her name on all bank accounts, etc. She also didn’t think at the time how it would affect her sense of self, having grown up with the assumption that one day she would change her name. She wishes now she had given it more thought, though she feels she still would have taken her husband’s name. Her children also have pride in their unusual surname and she wants her daughter to have the option of keeping it, if that’s what she chooses.

Mr. A said that when he was married more than 40 years ago, it never once crossed his mind that his wife would not want to take his surname. When his daughter married 15 years ago, he didn’t feel sad when she changed her name. He always knew that would happen so he was okay with it. But now, he says that Japan is changing and women have a stronger sense of identity. He doesn’t feel that a family having different last names weakens the family unit, though he says many of his peers think this. He hopes his grandchildren will be free to choose whether to share a surname with their spouse or not.

Ms. N is divorced. She hates the practice of x-ing through names on the family register and feels it is discriminatory and an invasion of privacy. She thinks this particular case failed in the Supreme Court because the plaintiff approached it from the angle of ‘I’ve built a reputation and professional name for myself using my maiden name. Changing that disadvantages me.’ Ms. N feels this approach was selfish, bound to fail, and that anti-woman powers that be knew this and  used this case to strike down the cause. She thinks if it was approached from an equal rights standpoint, the result may perhaps have been different.

For Asuka Someya-Takahashi, who heads a non-profit organization called PILCON, this law has affected her personally and professionally. “I established a non-profit organization before I was married. Upon my marriage and resulting name change, I needed to file new paperwork with the metropolitan city office and legal affairs bureau. In spite of this, work communication often comes addressed to my maiden name. I am constantly unsure if I should be using my maiden name or married name on invoices, applications for subsidies, etc.”, says Someya-Takahashi.  

She adds, “I think if the law allowed couples to choose separate surnames, this kind of complexity could be avoided. The love and ties of family do not change simply because a family uses more than one surname. It’s very unfortunate that in today’s world there are still people who speak out against allowing married couples the choice of having separate surnames”.

With regard to her NPO, Someya-Takahashi explains the importance of PILCON. “PILCON is an NPO which expands upon the sexual health education in Japan. We strive to include information on reproduction health and rights (STI’s (sexually transmitted infections, fertility, equal relationships, etc.) that tend to be left out of the public discussion, in an effort to enable youth to make informed decisions”.

It is amazing to see how a patriarchal family system dating back so many decades still has the power to affect women of today, especially professional women who can affect change in their society.

I never thought that I would have an issue giving up my surname, until I got married. I was always known by my maiden name to my friends and family for years and it was my identity. I didn’t realize how strange it would feel to be called by a different name until I had to change my name in legal documents.

While I did have the option of keeping my maiden name if I wanted to, I decided to take my husband’s name as my own. I still consider myself an individual, but also as someone who is part of a family that believes in choosing their own identity. I believe that everyone should have the choice to be identified as the person they wish to be, not one dictated by laws. Here’s hoping that Japanese women continue to question and challenge the laws that restrict them, and create a future that involves freedom to choose their own identity.

This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Tes Silverman of Pinay Perspective World Mom Melanie Oda also contributed research to this post.

If you are married, did you keep your maiden name or take your husband’s?


Tes Silverman

Tes Silverman was born in Manila, Philippines and has been a New Yorker for over 30 years. Moving from the Philippines to New York opened the doors to the possibility of a life of writing and travel. Before starting a family, she traveled to Iceland, Portugal, Belgium, and France, all the while writing about the people she met through her adventures. After starting a family, she became a freelance writer for publications such as Newsday’s Parents & Children and various local newspapers. Fifteen years ago, she created her blog, The Pinay Perspective. PinayPerspective.com is designed to provide women of all ages and nationalities the space to discuss the similarities and differences on how we view life and the world around us. As a result of her blog, she has written for BlogHer.com and has been invited to attend and blog about the Social Good Summit and Mom+Social Good. In addition, she is a World Voice Editor for World Moms Network and was Managing Editor for a local grass roots activism group, ATLI(Action Together Long Island). Currently residing in Virginia Beach, VA with her husband, fourteen year-old Morkie and a three year old Lab Mix, she continues to write stories of women and children who make an impact in their communities and provide them a place to vocalize their passions.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

JAPAN: The Preschool Mom

JAPAN: The Preschool Mom

I see you on your black skirt suit, with the waist that doesn’t quite fit the same anymore and the blouse that doesn’t quite work when one is out with a toddler. It’s been awhile since you wore it. Your heels are just slightly dusty, and you are unconsciously rubbing your feet together in a way that betrays you are no longer used to wearing them.

I have been where you are, at the preschool interview (most preschools in Japan seem to require this,) with an uncooperative two-year-old. No one else’s kid seems to have a permanent cow-lick or is crying like mine is, you think. I can tell, because I have thought that, too.

Preschool Class

Preschool Class

But now I am on the teaching staff, on the other side of the table, so to speak, and I can tell you that we have seen multiple cowlicks today, and that the kids who don’t cry at the interview are no less likely to cry on the first day of school.

I wish I could give you a hug and tell you to relax. Of course we can’t love your child as much as you do, but we will come close! And since we send the kids home at two o’clock, all of those aggravating things that drive you bonkers will not be such a problem here.

I also want to tell you that it is okay to consider your own needs when choosing a preschool for your child. If you can’t handle making a bento every morning, by all means find a place that serves lunch. If you can’t deal with homework, then go for someplace that is play based. There are years and years of homework ahead of you both!

You don’t have to go where Daddy went, or where grandma thinks is best, or where the clique of neighborhood moms go. Look and listen, see the child that you have. Know who you are, and what your limits are. Then choose a place that best meets the needs of you both.

Of course I can tell you none of this, as you wrestle your feet out of your heels and into your indoor shoes, tugging your son along, the both of you getting increasingly frustrated. I try to give you a sympathetic smile, but you may not notice.

Best of luck to you, dear. Best of luck to you both.

What advice would you give to moms of younger children of you could?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog from our writer in Japan and mother of two, Melanie Oda.

Photo Credit: Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

More Posts

USA: Au Revoir and Thank You, Madame Warren

USA: Au Revoir and Thank You, Madame Warren

Mrs. Linda Warren

One day this spring, after taking the kids out to dinner, I checked my Facebook feed before I set out to drive home. I saw the news that my high school French teacher, Mrs. Warren, had passed away.

I began to drive home, and I felt such an emptiness, and I began to cry. I hadn’t seen Mrs. Warren since I graduated high school in 1994. That was 21 years ago. But, the impact she made to my life was so grand that I didn’t realize that there was a part of her that was always with me.

Mrs. Warren was an amazing French teacher. However, her greatest impact was not what she taught us about French, but what she taught us about life. For me, she was a teacher who peeked through hypothetical doors with her students, and said, “Look what is possible!”, and then said, “Go do it!” She listened to us, and she knew that we all had different wants and needs.

I remember that Mrs. Warren had a husband and two sons who she loved and spoke about very much and who were very into camping. So ironic because she, herself, belonged walking the streets and museums of Paris.

Every year she arranged to lead a bunch of school kids to France after school let out. She treated us all like her own. In the 1990s we had lectures at every step of the way: about the value of the Franc at that time compared to the dollar, our safety and what not to do and what to do in the French culture. She went over everything and then set us free to make our own decisions.

She led us up to the top of the Eiffel Tower and as much as she treasured the view, she seemed to be more excited about us seeing it for the first time.

Before this trip, I had only been on an airplane once to go to Florida and my parents had never been out of the country at that time. Mrs. Warren extended our boundaries. She taught her students that there was life outside of Brick, New Jersey, USA and how fun and interesting it was to explore the world!

The next year, after having exhausted my summer job savings on the trip to France, Mrs. Warren told her class about a scholarship competition from our town’s Board of Education for a summer foreign exchange. Since I had already been to France, I chose Japan because I yearned to see more of the world, and it was the country I knew the least about on the list. Everyone else who was applying chose a country which coincided with a language that they were learning at school. I realized that I had to come up with a different strategy for my essay and interview because I didn’t know any Japanese.

I wrote down all the stereotypes of Japan that I could think of and explained that I needed to go to Japan to get answers to questions such as, “Were the Japanese really obsessed with American baseball?” and, “Did the women walk around in kimonos everyday?”

However, although it was a very formidable obstacle, winning over the Board of Education, wasn’t the toughest thing in my way to get to Japan. After telling my parents about the scholarship for the foreign exchange, they said that I wasn’t allowed to apply.

As I mentioned before, my parents had never traveled internationally at that time, and I had extended them beyond their comfort zone when I went to France. But Mrs. Warren had been with me for that trip, and she had reassured them at the time, so that had been ok. This was different. There was no way they were going to allow their 17-year old daughter to go to another country on her own when she didn’t know the language. So, that was that.

Well, not really. I wrote and submitted the essay anyway. Not quite Malala standing up to the Taliban for her right to an education, but for me, it was rebellious.

My mom actually came into my room the night I was writing the essay and asked what I was doing. I didn’t lie. I told her the truth. I assured her that I probably wouldn’t win anyway and writing the essay was good experience for me. She looked at me, gasped in disbelief, and then since it was so late and she was tired and going up to bed, she said, “Ok, just don’t tell your father.” So, I didn’t tell him.

I remember the day I was in my AP Biology class and Mrs. Warren was standing outside the door. I had no idea why she was there. I waved to her and she kind of hid. I thought it was strange. It turned out she was trying to surprise me, and when I got out of class, she handed me a folder from the nonprofit foreign exchange organization, Youth for Understanding, and beamed as she gave me the news…

I couldn’t believe it!! I had won the scholarship, and I was going to Japan!! But, OH, NOOO!!!! Mrs. Warren didn’t know that my dad forbade me to apply. I had to tell her. So, I did.

My mom worked at the time as a teller at a bank, and without my knowing, Mrs. Warren went down to the bank and spoke with her. What teacher goes through the trouble and gets involved like that? Linda Warren did.

Mrs. Warren’s support justified to me that dreams were possible. That anything was possible! Even getting past my strict father and his sometimes totalitarian rule. (He doesn’t read my blog, so I can be all high school dramatic like that here.) It took a lot of convincing, but I did finally get permission to go to Japan for the summer. And, it definitely was one of the best experiences in my life.

Since Mrs. Warren encouraged me to travel internationally as a student, I have now visited sixteen countries. But perhaps some of the best things that have come out of my love of all things international are my English husband who also loves to travel, and the amazing opportunities the women at World Moms Blog and I have created together. We’ve spoken on a panel at the World Bank in support of the universal education for all children; accepted invitations to the White House and the United Nations; been on various delegations around the world to view health and education programs, and I still feel like we’re just getting started!

I can’t help but think that World Moms Blog may not have been, if I didn’t have Mrs. Warren’s support and invitation to the world when I needed her most.

Au revoir and thank you, Mrs. Warren. I am so grateful for your life. You are an inspiration. You are very missed, and I promise, I know now that everything IS possible. Your impact exceeds the number of the many students who had the opportunity to have you as a teacher.

Your life lessons proved much more valuable than what we thought we were getting when we signed up for your French class in high school. You were much more than a French teacher to me. Thank you for sharing your life with your students and inspiring us. 

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by founder, Jennifer Burden of New Jersey, USA, who is greatly missing her French teacher today as she heads to a memorial mass for Linda Warren. 

Photo from the Brick Memorial High School Class of ’94 Yearbook. 



Jennifer Burden

Jennifer Burden is the Founder and CEO of World Moms Network, an award winning website on global motherhood, culture, human rights and social good. World Moms Network writes from over 30 countries, has over 70 contributors and was listed by Forbes as one of the “Best 100 Websites for Women”, named a “must read” by The New York Times, and was recommended by The Times of India. She was also invited to Uganda to view UNICEF’s family health programs with Shot@Life and was previously named a “Global Influencer Fellow” and “Social Media Fellow” by the UN Foundation. Jennifer was invited to the White House twice, including as a nominated "Changemaker" for the State of the World Women Summit. She also participated in the One Campaign’s first AYA Summit on the topic of women and girl empowerment and organized and spoke on an international panel at the World Bank in Washington, DC on the importance of a universal education for all girls. Her writing has been featured by Baby Center, Huffington Post, ONE.org, the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life, and The Gates Foundation’s “Impatient Optimists.” She is currently a candidate in Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in the Executive Masters of Public Affairs program, where she hopes to further her study of global policies affecting women and girls. Jennifer can be found on Twitter @JenniferBurden.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

Japan: Ceremoniously Yours

Japan: Ceremoniously Yours

A Work in Progress

A Work in Progress

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Japan, standing as I did in many a cold gym on a drafty stage being stared at by bored students, is that in Japan even small changes are deemed deserving of a ceremony of some sort. I worked as an assistant language teacher dispatched by the board of education to seven different junior high schools. On my first day at each and every one of those schools, an assembly was held to welcome me. The principal gave a little speech. I gave a little speech. The head English teacher and a student representative gave a little speech, too.

On my last day, a very similar ceremony was held. Except that this time I got flowers. Seven bouquets of flowers and me trying to leave town…. I tried at other jobs, when other coworkers were leaving, to explain that these giant bouquets, while beautiful, were actually not desirable for someone who was (more often than not) preparing to leave the country.

“The flowers,” I was told, “Are not for the person leaving. They are for the people staying behind.”

Now that I’m a mom, I’ve noticed that Japanese school children’s lives are chock-full of ceremonies. It starts with preschool, when they have an entrance ceremony. Then a closing-of-first-term ceremony, an opening-of-second-term ceremony, then closing-of-second-term ceremony. It seems endless. But for the preschooler, it culminates in graduation and the send-off to end all send-offs, the “Wakare-kai,” a kind of Sayonara Party.

Now I don’t know about where you are from, but I have no memory whatsoever of having a preschool graduation, much less an after party. My parents may have privately celebrated my ascension into free (!) public schooling after I’d gone to bed at night, but I don’t think there was much to it.


(Hold on a second while I get a cold compress for my splitting headache….)

At my daughter’s preschool, it’s a huge deal. And it’s all put on by the moms. I don’t think this experience is rare for a Japanese preschool, but to me it feels totally over the top.

It starts off in October (a full six months before The Day), with each mother being assigned to a committee. And I do mean everyone, including, for example, my friend who has three kids under six and another on the way. There are a host of different committees, the lunch committee, the keeping-children-in-line committee, the video committee, the slide show committee, the teacher’s present committee, etc. I’m on the decoration committee.

It seems like it would be simple enough. Maybe some paper chains and balloons? But no. There will be a balloon archway for the teachers to walk through. We will decorate the back wall with scenes (we have to draw) of the momentous events that have transpired in our 6-year-olds lives at preschool. (I’m in charge of drawing a poster for sports day and the yearly school play.) There will be a podium decorated with paper mâché animals, mobiles hanging from the ceilings (no clue how we are supposed to get those up there,) flowers and tinsel on the walls, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve already spent hours in meetings that I feel we’re pretty pointless, not to mention hours on actual decorations, and I’m sure there will be an hour or two on the day for decorating and cleaning up.

I’m having a hard time thinking of any of this as being more than wasted time. But I have to wonder if,  like the flowers being given to the leaving teacher, the send-off party is not actually for the children at all.

What kind of ceremonies are held at schools in your country? To what extent are parents involved?

This is an original post by World Moms Blog contributor, Melanie Oda in Japan, of Hamakko Mommy

Photo credit to the author.

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

More Posts