Education by rote: why Japan is taking notes on Indian learning

Education by rote: why Japan is taking notes on Indian learning
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First Published: Wed, Jan 02 2008. 11 32 PM IST

ABC of knowledge: Children in a class at the Little Angels English Academy and International Kindergarten in Tokyo.
ABC of knowledge: Children in a class at the Little Angels English Academy and International Kindergarten in Tokyo.
Updated: Wed, Jan 02 2008. 11 32 PM IST
Mitaka (Japan): Despite an improved economy, Japan is suffering a crisis of confidence these days about its ability to compete with its emerging Asian rivals, China and India. One result has been a growing craze for Indian education in this fad-obsessed nation.
ABC of knowledge: Children in a class at the Little Angels English Academy and International Kindergarten in Tokyo.
The Indian boom reflects the insecurity of many Japanese in their nation’s schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. But now many people here are looking for lessons from India, the country many here see as the world’s ascendant education superpower.
Bookstores are filled with titles such as “Extreme Indian Arithmetic Drills” and “The Unknown Secrets of the Indians”. Newspapers carry reports of Indian children memorizing multiplication tables up to 99X99, compared with Japan’s relatively lax elementary-school requirement of knowing 9X9.
And Japan’s few Indian international schools are reporting a surge in applications from Japanese families.
At the Little Angels English Academy and International Kindergarten, the textbooks are from India, most of the teachers are south Asian, and classroom posters depict animals out of Indian tales, including dancing elephants in plumed turbans. The kindergarten students even colour maps of India in the green and saffron of its flag.
Little Angels is located in this Tokyo suburb, where only one of its 45 students is Indian. Most are Japanese.
The thought of viewing another Asian country as a model in education, or almost anything else, would have been unheard of just a few years ago, say education experts and historians.
Much of Japan has long looked down on the rest of Asia, priding itself on being the region’s most advanced nation. Indeed, Japan has dominated the continent for more than a century, first as an imperial power and more recently as the first economy here to achieve Western levels of economic development.
But in recent years, Japan has grown increasingly insecure, gripped by fear that it is being overshadowed by India and China, which are rapidly gaining in economic weight and sophistication. The government here has tried to preserve Japan’s technological lead and strengthen its military. But the Japanese have been forced to shed their traditional indifference to the region.
Suddenly, Japan is, grudgingly, starting to show a new sense of respect for its neighbours. “Until now, Japanese saw China and India as backward and poor,” said Yoshinori Murai, a professor of Asian cultures at Sophia University in Tokyo. “As Japan loses confidence in itself, its attitudes toward Asia are changing. It has started seeing India and China as nations with something to offer.”
In education, Japan’s respect has grown in seemingly direct proportion to its performance below its Asian rivals on international tests. Last month, a national cry of alarm greeted the announcement by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that in an international survey of math skills, Japan had fallen from first place in 2000 to 10th place, behind Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
From second in science in 2000, Japan dropped to sixth place. While China has stirred more concern here as a political and economic challenger, India has emerged as the country to beat in a more benign rivalry over education. In part, this reflects China’s image here as a cheap manufacturer and technological imitator. But India’s success in software development, Internet businesses and knowledge-intensive industries where Japan has failed to make inroads has sparked more than a tinge of envy.
Most annoying for many Japanese is that the aspects of Indian education they now praise are similar to those that once made Japan famous for its work ethic and discipline: learning more at an earlier age, a heavier reliance on rote memorization and cramming, and a stronger focus on the basics, particularly in math and science.
India’s more demanding education standards are apparent at the Little Angels Kindergarten, and are the main source of its popularity. Its 2-year-old pupils are taught to count to 20, 3 year olds are introduced to computers, and 5 year olds learn to multiply, solve math word problems and write one-page essays in English—tasks that most Japanese schools do not teach until at least second grade.
Indeed, Japan’s anxieties about its declining competitiveness echo the angst of another nation two decades ago, when Japan was the economic upstart.
“Japan’s interest in learning from Indian education is a lot like America’s interest in learning from Japanese education,” said Kaoru Okamoto, a professor specializing in education policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
As with many new things here, the interest in Indian-style education has become a social fad, with everyone suddenly piling on at once.
Indian education is a frequent topic in public forums, from talk shows to conferences on education. Popular books claim to reveal the Indian secrets for multiplying and dividing multiple-digit numbers. Even Japan’s notoriously conservative education ministry has begun discussing Indian teaching methods, said Jun Takai of the ministry’s international affairs division.
Eager parents have begun trying to send their children to Japan’s roughly half dozen Indian schools, in hopes of giving them a leg-up in the intensely competitive college entrance exams.
In Tokyo, the two largest Indian schools, which teach kindergarten through junior high, mainly to Indian expatriates, received a sudden increase in inquiries from Japanese parents starting last year.
The Global Indian International School says that 20 of its some 200 students are now Japanese, with demand so high from Indian and Japanese parents that it is building a second campus in the neighbouring city of Yokohama.
The other, the India International School in Japan, just expanded to 170 students last year, including 10 Japanese. It already has plans to expand again.
“We feel a very, very high interest of Japanese parents,” said Nirmal Jain, principal of the India International School.
The boom has had the side effect of making many Japanese a little more tolerant towards other Asians.
The founder of the Little Angels school, Jeevarani Angelina, a former oil company executive from Chennai, India, who accompanied her husband to Japan in 1990, said she initially had difficulty persuading landlords to rent space to an Indian woman to start a school. But now, the fact that she and three of her four full-time teachers are non-Japanese Asians, is a selling point for the school.
“When I started, it was a first to have an English-language school taught by Asians, not Caucasians,” she said, referring to the long presence here of American and European international schools.
Unlike other Indian schools, Angelina said Little Angels was intended primarily for Japanese children, to fill the shortcomings she had found when she sent her own sons to Japanese kindergarten.
“I was lucky because I started when the Indian-education boom started,” said Angelina, 50, who goes by the name Rani Sanku here because it is easier for Japanese to pronounce. (Sanku is her husband’s family name.)
Angelina has adapted the curriculum to Japan by adding more group activities, decreasing rote memorization and omitting Indian history. Encouraged by the kindergarten’s success, she says she plans to open an Indian-style elementary school next year.
Parents are enthusiastic about the school’s more rigorous standards.
“My son’s level is higher than those of other Japanese children the same age,” said Eiko Kikutake, whose son Hayato, 5, attends Little Angels. “Indian education is really amazing! This wouldn’t have been possible at a Japanese kindergarten.”
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Wed, Jan 02 2008. 11 32 PM IST
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