Japanese teachers tell their students that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, a graphic image used to convey the risks of not fitting into this conformist society.
But what if the student never had a chance of fitting in with the other nails in the first place? It's a problem Japan's educators increasingly confront as the number of foreign students in this homogeneous society climbs.
Until now, the nation's classrooms have been full of Japanese kids who understand the same cultural references - as well as the expected behavior on the playground and in the classroom.
The 1990s is changing that, bringing a new wave of immigrants to Japan. Those immigrants have brought their children - making many of Japan's schools a front line of integration. But the lack of a national policy on foreign students, combined with a difficult language and rigid social customs, have posed tough problems for Japanese educators.
Many educators say incorporating foreigners into the school system, hard as it may be, yields benefits for everyone involved. "It helps us and other students to learn of different cultures, different life patterns, different values and ways of thinking," says Hisayoshi Ohashi, principal of Yotsuya No. 1 Middle School in Tokyo. "That is part of a good education."
His junior high school has sat in the middle of Tokyo for a half-century now, its wide classroom windows overlooking a dusty baseball diamond, and beyond that, skyscrapers and a river of busy traffic. Mr. Ohashi estimates that the school got its first foreign student 10 years ago, and with eight foreigners in the current student body of 257, it has more now than it's ever had.
Each school has its own approach
The foreign flood gates opened in 1990, when the Immigration Control and Refugee-Recognition Act was revised to boost the number of foreign workers and make it easier for foreigners of Japanese descent to live here.
By 1997, the number of foreigners living in Japan had jumped almost 70 percent from a decade earlier to 1.5 million, and 17,296 of their children were walking to Japanese schools every morning. In that year, the three main language groups of foreign students were Portuguese, Chinese, and Spanish. These were followed by English, Tagalog (Philippines), and Korean.
Those kids and their teachers are spread all over Japan. A recent study found that 64 percent of elementary schools and 46 percent of junior high schools have a staff member who teaches Japanese to foreign students.
There is no national system like the North American "English as a Second Language" curriculum. This has drawn criticism from teachers.
Foreign students mean more work for instructors, who have to make sure they are following the lessons. But the Ministry of Education does provide support and language courses through its Overseas Japanese Children Education Division, and each school tailors that help to fit its needs.
Mr. Ohashi believes a national system wouldn't be a good idea - that different areas have different needs and the education ministry's current approach allows each school district to meet to its own needs.
At Yotsuya No. 1 Middle School, new foreign students can go a nearby education center in the afternoons for the ministry-sponsored language education. The local school district funds additional programs, supplying counselors to help foreign students who may have problems adjusting. They go to extra lengths to help students when they first arrive as well.
Foreign students at Ohashi's school spend their first 30 days accompanied by an adviser, who walks them through the cultural intricacies of being a student in Japan. The adviser teaches the student the basics, like the school schedule. They show the student how to take their shoes off as they enter the school and don special indoor slippers. They explain what students should bring in their knapsacks, along with the written and many of the unwritten rules of school life.
"The students turn out to be quick learners," says Ohashi. "They help us communicate with their parents!" Dealing with parents who don't speak Japanese is one of his biggest problems, he says. A survey by the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies found that 10 percent of foreign parents don't speak Japanese and 80 percent can't read it. The school uses volunteers to translate when needed.
Schools share lessons
The Yotsuya school has learned a lot about coping with foreign students through exchanges with other schools. The local school district holds meetings every year for teachers to share the lessons they've learned from having foreigners in the classroom.
Yotsuya's students seem to adjust well. Chinese students Yang Yang and Wang Jia-zi arrived at the school last year unable to speak Japanese. Neither opted for the ministry language classes, but both manage classes easily now. Wang Jia-zi is one of the best students here.
School was strange in the beginning, though. "I found it very peculiar that students were always talking during class and didn't pay much attention to the teacher," she explains. Now, she says she has adjusted. Enough so that she talks in class too? "Just a little," she says with a laugh.