Expectations for Japanese Children

Linda Bennett

Children in Japan learn from the family, school, community, and nation how to be members of Japanese society. In each group, a child learns the self-discipline and commitment expected to be a supportive and responsible group member. The family, school, and nation all take on important roles in teaching the child the rules and norms of society.

At Home and at School

In the home and at school, a Japanese child is encouraged to develop a sense of self-discipline (hansei) and hard work. Children are expected to persist toward a goal, and it is considered more important to try hard and not give up than to achieve the goal.1 Japanese society embraces the notion that all children are capable, and children learn the phrase yareba dekiru, which means that if you try hard, you can do it.2 Japanese children are encouraged by their mothers, teachers, and peers to do their best.

Within the Family

The family bond in Japanese society is strong. Traditionally, the father is the financial provider, while the mother takes care of the household and provides child care. Today, women's roles are slowly changing as more and more women choose to continue working after their children are born.

Within the family structure, the mother sets the expectations for the child. She creates a relationship with her child through amae, the desire to be passively loved. The child is dependent on the mother and is cared for unconditionally.3 It is the mother's responsibility to raise her child with love and security.

The "Kyoiku Mama," or Japanese educational mom, is dedicated to supporting the education of her children.4 The mother makes sure the child receives a quality education. If the child succeeds in school, the family is also considered to have succeeded. The child's mother helps with homework, teaches discipline, provides a supportive home environment for studying, and is involved at school.

Within the School

When a child enters elementary school, he or she learns a new set of expectations. Many elementary schools in Japan have the following goals posted in the front of the school: Children should strive to persevere (gambaru), to be kindhearted (yasashii), to be strong and healthy (jobu na), and to be diligent in study (susunde benkyo).5

The school environment is a reflection of the school's philosophy and the classroom rules. The following example of educational objectives from Senda Elementary School in Hiroshima shows how the focus of the school is on the development of the child.

School Educational Objectives

The school is primarily responsible for the education and development of: (1) well rounded children with the integration of right morals and physical strength, who make good judgments and think creatively; and (2) humane and rich children who have solidarity with society and the common good.

In a study of Japanese kindergarten teachers, Shigaki found that teachers want to nurture and foster a human-like child (ningen-rashii kodomo).6 The guiding values for children are that they should be sympathetic-empathetic (omoiyari), gentle (yasashii), socially conscious (shakaisei) and cooperative-harmonious (kyochosei). The following classroom rules were displayed on the wall of a first grade classroom in Hiroshima.

Classroom Rules

1. Be cheerful

2. Be active

3. Be enthusiastic

4. Smile

5. Enjoy your life

The classroom teacher determines the framework for classroom rules. The enforcement of rules depends on the members of the class and their peer relationships. Teachers assume that a child "comes to school with a clean slate," and that students want to be good. Japanese elementary school teachers encourage children to listen, concentrate, learn the right way to do things, and follow the customs of the school.7

The elementary curriculum in Japan is designed to support the social life of the child and to develop an awareness of being a citizen of Japan. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has established objectives for elementary moral and social studies education that focus on the development of the child.8 For example, in the moral education curriculum for Japanese schools, the child learns to "respect the freedom of all and to take responsibility over one's own activities."

The four major objectives of the moral curriculum are diligence, endurance, ability to decide to do the hard thing, and wholehearted dedication. The social studies curriculum is designed to help children develop an awareness of being citizens in a democratic and peaceful nation. Elementary social studies themes include community, family, work ethic, community cooperation, and national cultural and social heritage.9

A young student quickly learns what is expected of him or her in school. The school philosophy, classroom rules, teacher and pupil interaction, and national curriculum are all designed to contribute to his or her mental development and an understanding of expectations.

The "National Family"

A child in Japan is a member of the "national family." All Japanese children are cared for by the whole society, and all Japanese adults help teach the norms and customs of the society. Children learn that the group is more important than the individual, and that the individual should not stand out. Appropriate behavior includes learning how to be reserved, cooperative, and supportive of the group.

Certain rights and responsibilities for children and adults are also set forth in the Japanese Constitution ratified in 1946. Articles 20 and 21 deal with individual rights and are similar to the U. S. Constitution's First Amendment, as follows:

The Constitution of Japan, Chapter III, Rights and Duties of the People

Article 20: "Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite, or practice. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity."

Article 21: "Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated."


Children in Japan are members of family, school, and society, all of which help to instruct them in cultural and social norms. The child is expected to be self motivated and disciplined, and to follow the rules established by Japanese culture and tradition. By learning about what is expected of Japanese children and how they deal with rights and responsibilities, students can better understand what it might be like to grow up in Japanese culture. By learning about expectations for Japanese children, American children may also reflect upon their own lives, rights, and responsibilities.

Teaching Activities

The following activities fulfill the performance expectations for several themes of the National Council for the Social Studies curriculum standards:

1 Culture

4 Individual Development & Identity

5 Power, Authority & Governance

9 Global Connections10

Family Structure

Introduce students to the family structure in Japan. Three basic tenets to emphasize are: the mother as caregiver, the father as financial provider, and the extended family as valued intergenerational connection. Talk about what is involved in the role of mother as caregiver. Then ask students to discuss how the division of roles in Japanese society compares or contrasts with family structure(s) in the United States.

Expectations of Children at Home and at School

a. Introduce students to the values taught to Japanese children at home and at school. List and define for students such terms as:

hansei (self-discipline)

gambaru (persistence toward a goal)

yasashii (being kindhearted)

jobu na (being strong and healthy)

susunde benkyo (studying hard)

omoiyari (being sympathetic-empathetic)

shakaisei (being socially conscious)

kyochosei (being cooperative-harmonious)

Ask students if they think the same values are important in their own family and classroom. What examples can they give? Can they think of other values that are important in their family or school?

b. Japanese values emphasize the group over the individual. Japanese children are taught to do their best, but not to try to stand out from the group. Students are expected both to support each other and to criticize (shame) those who are not considered to be trying hard enough. Ask students to compare Japanese expectations with what is expected of them in school. What do they think about the differences? Why?

c. The Japanese use the term ningen-rashii kodomo to describe a "human-like child." Based on the Japanese values being discussed, what do students think is meant by ningen-rashii kodomo in Japan? What do students think best describes a "human-like child?"

The National Family

Japanese children are part of a "national family" whose members have rights and responsibilities as set forth in their constitution.

a. Help students compare the rights guaranteed in Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution of Japan (see above) with the related freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

b. Have students discuss what the following rights mean to them:

Freedom of religion

Freedom of assembly

Freedom of association

Freedom of expression

Freedom of private communication

c. Illustrate the meaning of freedom of expression by using the following scenario as a basis for student discussion: "The librarian will choose what book you may take out of the school library today."


1. M. White, The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children (New York: Free Press, 1987).

2. H. Stevenson, "Japanese Elementary School Education," The Elementary School Journal 92, No. 1 (1991): 109-120.

3. T. Doi, The Anatomy of Dependence (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1973).

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. I. Shigaki, "Child Care Practices in Japan and the United States: How Do They Reflect Cultural Values in Young Children?", Young Children 38, No. 4 (1983): 13-24.

7. White.

8. Ministry of Education, Course of Study for Elementary Schools in Japan (Tokyo: Author, 1983).

9. P. Thomas, "Social Studies in the Japanese Elementary School," Horizon 23, No. 2 (1985): 21-27.

10. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations for Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: Author, 1994).

About the Author

Linda Bennett is an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She recently designed Citizenship Education, an Internet site with elementary school curricula on Japan and civics education, based on materials and ideas collected during her 1995 Keizai Koho Center Fellowship. The website address is: http://tiger.coe.missouri.edu/-esse/citizen.html