Teaching in Japan's 'Cram Schools'
Yoshiaki Takahashi's job is the result of Japan's school failure, he says
WHEN Yoshiaki Takahashi was a schoolboy, he spent many hours in a chicken coop with a flashlight and a favorite novel, lest his father find him."Whenever my father discovered me with a book, he would tear it up," Mr. Takahashi recalls. "He thought literature would turn a man into a good-for-nothing bum." In a clever deception, he read books in English. "My father then thought I was just studying a foreign language. He was so impressed that he gave me an allowance to buy more books." With the extra change in his pocket, Takahashi bought a paperback every morning and finished it before reselling it to friends at a 10 percent discount on the way home from school. Raised near a United States naval base in Japan in the 1950s, Takahashi listened to the military's radio broadcasts in English and devoured English-language newspapers. Later, at his university in Tokyo, he studied linguistics and philosophy, eventually landing a job as a high school English teacher. "I began teaching only part-time as a graduate student, never really intending to become a teacher," he confesses. "I just wanted to be in touch with English." But 12 years ago, he moved on to a new type of teaching. He has become one of the most sought-after English teachers at the leading Japanese "juku," a type of cram school dedicated to preparing students to pass the entrance exams for Japanese universities. The importance of Takahashi's occupation is unique to Japan. His juku, known as Sundai Prep School, was founded in 1918 and has become the premier pipeline for students wanting to enter the nation's best universities. Of all the freshmen admitted last year to the prestigious Tokyo University, nearly half came from Sundai. The enrollment consists of high school students seeking after-hours help or graduates who failed the exams the previous year. Because a university degree can secure a top corporate job in Japan, there is an intense competition among students to memorize facts that might be asked on the entrance exams. This has spawned a booming industry in jukus, which focus their teaching on the five exam subjects dictated by the government: Japanese, English, math, science, and social studies. A ripple effect of the competition is that elementary schools and high schools often are ranked by how many of their graduates enter the select universities. Some cram schools even train toddlers to pass exams for entering desirable elementary schools. Takahashi recognizes the irony of holding a job that wouldn't exist if Japan's education system was working. "Cram schools used to be behind the scenes in education, but nowadays their role is indispensable in providing what the public school system fails to do," he says. "We, the juku teachers, have to fill in the gaps for students." Takahashi criticizes parents who think they are doing a favor for their sons or daughters by pressuring them to get into good schools that practically guarantee a secure career. He tries to teach students more than just how to pass the exams, often citing the historical origin of English idioms that can prove tricky for non-native speakers. "My goal is to have the students develop an intellectual interest in English," he says. Since the rules of English grammar rather than conversational ability are tested on the exams, Takahashi's lectures are largely in Japanese.
HIS devotion to the subject is reflected in his great popularity among students. "Mr. Takahashi's way of teaching is very systematic," says Rei Okada, who is making his second try at the exam for Tokyo University's architecture school. "He is easy to understand because his grammatical explanations make logical sense." Takahashi's classrooms are packed with about 200 students, who are unusually attentive. m not registered for this class, but Mr. Takahashi allows other students to come to his lecture," says one student, who is standing. Many are forced to stand for lack of seats. Some use opera glasses so as not to miss any details on the blackboard. As in most Japanese classrooms, Takahashi gives a one-way lecture with minimal reaction from the students. That doesn't bother him. "Having taught for nearly 30 years, I have a sense of where students have difficulties understanding," he says. "I get feedback through the questions I am asked afterwards. Teaching is a scholarly process, figuring out where the breakpoint is between comprehension and confusion in students." The common practice of giving students material to memorize is a sign of the teacher's laziness, he says: "I constantly ask myself what hinders a student from comprehending." One of his professors said that a teacher is like a reservoir behind a dam. "What he meant was that a teacher must continually educate himself to be able to supply the knowledge that students need. A good teacher needs both a scholastic mind and compassion," Takahashi says. "I am 120 percent satisfied with my teaching job," he says. Juku teachers, unlike their high school equivalents, just teach, without performing duties outside the classroom such as coaching sports or counseling. While regular high school teachers also have a high social status, juku teachers like Takahashi are respected as professionals. He is often asked to give talks at seminars set up by regular teachers around the country. Many high schools buy videotapes or receive satellite broadcasts of lectures by juku teachers. A high demand for jukus has allowed Sundai to expand to about 45,000 students. But the quality of Japanese students has changed over time, notes the school's public-relations chief, Ken'ichi Kondoh. "The students today are perhaps more passive and easy-going. We don't see as much desperation." Takahashi acknowledges that the equality emphasized in postwar Japan's educational system worked to raise the general level of education, contributing to the country's economic efficiency. But, he says, there is a need for change. "Unique aptitudes have been repressed in the name of equality," he says. "Japan should begin to value diversified abilities."