With the new school year in Japan starting this week, I thought today would be a fitting time to share the valuable work of Aileen Kawagoe, a long-term resident of Japan. For many years, Aileen has been involved in sharing information on education in Japan through the Education in Japan Community Blog as well as building a thriving virtual community, the Yahoo group edn-in-jpn, which engages in daily dialogue on issues related to education in Japan, including the raising of bilingual children.
Not only have I found her blog helpful, but the virtual community she leads has offered a steady stream of useful information and interesting ideas flowing to my inbox. This is a large, active, and supportive group, and I’m continuously encouraging parents in Japan to take advantage of this tremendous resource.
If you’re a parent in Japan—or someone interested in education here from the perspective of international residents—I highly recommend that you bookmark Aileen’s blog and become a member of her lively virtual community.
Aileen was also kind enough to take part in an interview with me, via email, in which she discusses the background of her work as well as her personal efforts to raise two bilingual children.
“The discussion group and website grew from an email newsletter I began in 1999, out of the desire to network with other parents and educators…”
Aileen, could you share the highlights of your professional and personal background?
I have a varied career trail: I started my working life in a criminal law firm, moving a few years later into a completely new field…political policy planning and analysis. After that, I worked for a couple of American TV broadcasting stations, researching, reporting and then finally producing TV news out of Singapore, and later Hong Kong.
While living and working in Hong Kong, I married my husband, who’s Japanese, and gave birth to my first child, a baby boy. During that time I made another transition and became the assistant to the CEO of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. It was an eventful time, smack in the middle of the 1997 handover of the administration of Hong Kong by the British to China.
A couple of years later, I arrived in Japan with my husband and son, where I had my second child, a girl. The party stopped at two. The years up to now were spent mostly growing roots in Japan where I’m a housewife and homeschooling mom, with some writing and freelancing projects on the side, as well as blogging and managing the Education in Japan discussion group.
How did you come to start the website and the discussion group? Could you describe them?
The discussion group and website grew from an email newsletter I began in 1999, out of the desire to network with other parents and educators, and basically to exchange information about the local education system, schooling and homeschooling options in Japan. If you lived outside central Tokyo like I did back then, you were likely to feel rather isolated, sometimes going for months on end without seeing another foreigner’s face. Within months of starting the email newsletter group, I found hundreds of other “birds of a feather” with similar interests and concerns in schooling and homeschooling, or in education in Japan in general.
As a natural outgrowth of the early e-newsletter group, I’d accumulated so much information that it made sense to move it all to a central database. That database is now comprised of the Education in Japan website alongside the more dynamic Education in Japan Community Blog.
The newsletter membership started off with a very social dimension as well, with many members meeting for trips to museums and other places. The Yahoo group served this social dynamic of our virtual community particularly well, allowing us to chat with each other either online, bulletin-board style, or receive these posts via email as we exchange information, ask questions, or offer tips and opinions. We have always been a rather diverse group of parents, educators, researchers, and students. Located all over Japan, we may be long- or short-term residents or expatriates or local Japanese.
“We have a camaraderie and mutual respect that is truly rare for online spaces.”
What are your main satisfactions and frustrations with these efforts?
My main satisfaction has been the great resource that the virtual community has turned out to be, and to witness the intellectual depth of the discussions that take place daily within our group, as well as the warm, vibrant interactions between very real people, whether like-minded or of different viewpoints. We have a camaraderie and mutual respect that is truly rare for online spaces. This whole endeavor has surprisingly taken on a life of its own and become a whole lot more than what I ever envisaged in the beginning.
Finding the right platform for our community’s needs was frustrating in the beginning and it led to a few dead ends. Building on the content of my early newsletters, I enlarged the focus and breadth of coverage, and developed the website and community blog into what it is today, according to the life and flow of our lively community.
We collectively keep an eye on broad areas of education, policy, news and events. We also discuss educational methods, strategies, philosophies, options and research papers; we examine social issues; and we share parenting techniques and their impact upon our children and our educational goals. We may be comparing public schools with private schools in one conversation, but touching on day-to-day issues like vaccinations, flu epidemics, childcare or PTAs in another. In short, we touch upon and discuss everything that’s on the hearts and minds of our community.
What are three key things people should know about education in Japan?
Culture, culture and culture are the three things that touch upon every issue involving education in Japan. No matter how much we read online, we can’t navigate the educational scene in Japan until we come up close to real people and participate in the day-to-day rhythms of school, life and culture.
- Cultural dynamics will affect the dynamics of children’s play and parent-to-parent interaction around the sandbox as well as parent-and-teacher relations in the classroom.
- Culture will factor into how well your first self-introduction is received, and your place at parent-teacher meetings, your participation at school events and your understanding of the local educational system.
- Culture will play a huge part in conflict or problem resolution, and the kinds of choices and options available to you. Unless you intend to stay isolated in an expatriate bubble, learning to understand how things are done in Japan and how and why things are like that will go a long way toward smoothing your encounters with the educational system here.
What languages do you use in your own family? What are your strategies and routines for supporting your children’s minority language?
English and Japanese. We have taken the one-parent, one-language strategy route. In the early years, we strove for real but natural communication goals in the target language and strong literacy skills. The children have attended, at one point or another, a combination of international, local, public and private schools, but outside of school, we have always homeschooled daily in short sessions, read to our children daily, and had them read and write in both languages whenever and wherever possible. Hours of bedtime reading, lots of hands-on and weekend family activities, field trips and camping trips have also helped to increase the opportunities for interaction with our kids.
“…quite often, less is more, and that with less, kids get a whole lot more creative which is not at all a bad outcome.”
What challenges have you experienced as a parent raising bilingual children? How have you addressed these difficulties?
I moved around a lot with my husband and children and there were many disruptive periods with an absentee husband/father. This often disrupted my efforts to homeschool and distracted my children from their studies. I adopted a do-what-you-can attitude, lessened my expectations, and homeschooled daily, round-the-year, so that despite the disruptions, we saw ourselves always edging towards our goal of bilingualism. In the early days, some of the places where we lived lacked access to English books and bookstores, so the Education in Japan discussion group was a lifeline back then. I also learnt that, quite often, less is more, and that with less, kids get a whole lot more creative which is not at all a bad outcome.
What other key advice could you offer to parents seeking to raise children with good bilingual ability?
Parents can be too ambitious sometimes. Forget rigid and grandiose programs. Go with the flow and take your lead from the personality of the child. Engaging in natural play and bonding activities, and following your child’s natural dispositions and adjusting to his or her interests will go a longer way than any expensive literacy or homeschool program.