5 Lessons Learned From Teaching Kindergarten In Japan

Just a few more days to go, and I’ll be saying farewell to another kindergarten class. Teaching kindergarten has its own set of challenges, especially now that I’m a “working mom.” But, I’ve picked up a few things in my years of teaching. Here’s 5 lessons learned from teaching kindergarten in Japan.

5. Learning Japanese Is A Lifelong Journey

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Just throwing the obvious out there. The Japanese language is terrifying complex, and seeing native speakers struggle nearly makes me wonder if I’ll ever be fluent enough. But, for all my struggles, I have a few strengths that I share with my class.
My kids are always there to fill in the blanks when I forget a word or teach me new words (names of insects, construction vehicles, etc).

In return, my years of studying helps them with technical stuff: particles, intonation, dates and time, counting with markers*.

My former students who are now in elementary school participate in gakudo (学童), which is essentially daycare for elementary kids. I help them with their kanji  (Chinese characters) workbooks, and in return, I get to hear about how difficult it is.
The point is, these kids, like me, have been picking up the language since day 1.

But,  there will likely never be a day when either of us can put down our pencils (or tablets) and say, “I’m done!” It’s weirdly comforting knowing that there’s never an end and that there is always room for improvement.

*E.g. One pencil (一本 | ippon) versus one cat (一匹 | ippiki)

4. You Can Use Chopsticks” Is A Genuine Compliment

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A lot of foreigners get irked by this phrase*. The reaction is typically, “I’m an adult, of course I can use chopsticks. Do you think it’s ‘sugoi’ (awesome) when a kid can use chopsticks?”

Uh, truthfully, yes.

From what I’ve seen in the classroom, using chopsticks properly is a skill that takes much dedication.

I personally take pride in being told that I hold my chopsticks nicely because, hey, it’s part of my job to teach kids how to use them properly.

Not only how to hold them, but etiquette such as not passing food with chopsticks, not standing them straight up in rice, etc.

How to properly use chopsticks. Source:小学生の67常識 (Shougakusei no rokujyuu nana mana-)

If you still don’t think, “Wow! You can use chopsticks!” is a genuine compliment, look at the people sitting around you the next time you go out to eat in Japan. I guarantee you will see all the different ways that people hold chopsticks, and very, very few are correct!

*It can be said many ways, such as Ohashi wo tsukau no wa jouzu desu ne! お箸を使うのはすごく上手ですね!

3. There is No Specific Japanese “Look”

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Being in a kindergarten/daycare facility has really changed my understanding of what it is to be “Japanese” and how Japanese people ‘look.”

Western discourse on Asian beauty always (or seems to) focus on the “desire” for pale skin, large eyes with double eyelids, and colored hair as an obvious yearning of western beauty standards.

I don’t deny that there may be an unconscious (or even conscious) internationalization of these traits. But, I will tell you that these traits are clearly seen in Japanese babies and toddlers.

Plenty of Japanese kids are born with light brown hair, which darkens over the years. It finally turns dark chestnut brown or black when they are around 6 years old.

There’s also kids with naturally “tanned” skin and curly hair (even curlier than even little Kaiju’s); kids with big round eyes, and double eyelids, too.  

2. Greater Awareness Of Children With Mixed Heritage

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Going back to the previous lesson, about a Japanese “look,” often you really can’t distinguish between a “Japanese” child and a child of “mixed” heritage.

3% of all marriages in Japan are international marriages (国際結婚 | kokusai kekkon), and statistically, the vast majority are between Japanese men and Asian women. 80% of Japanese men in international marriages have spouses from Asia, with a majority being Chinese.
(Original text: 日本人男性の国際結婚についてみると「アジア妻との結婚が約8割で、最も多いのは中国人妻」となっている。From NLI Research Institute)

This is reflected in our student body as well in previous schools where I’ve taught. Many students have a Chinese or Korean parent or some sort of (non-Japanese) Asian heritage.

1. How To Be A Better Advocate For My Child

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Tying up all these lessons is perhaps the greatest lesson of all: how to navigate Japanese society as a mother.  

I’ll have to build bonds with little Kaiju’s future teachers and continue to work on my language skills so that nothing is lost in translation.

There will be days when I will have to comfort her after a hard day at school, knowing that from my experience in the classroom, most kids have no malice in their hearts when they say or do something. They’re still working on understanding how their actions affect others.

I also know there will be instances when I’ll have to break out the communication notebook and write a detailed request for a meeting. And, that won’t be because I don’t like the teacher; it’s because I need confirmation that my child is in a caring environment when I’m not around.

Overall, I’ve gained the social tools that will help me stand up for myself and for her. While it won’t be easy, at least I know what to expect in the next few years.

These are just 5 lessons learned from teaching kindergarten in Japan. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I’ve still got a lot to pick up! 

5 Lessons Learned From Teaching Kindergarten In Japan


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