We Need to Talk About Dylann

I brought up the subject of the Confederate flag with my son at dinner the other night.  I could have avoided it. We live in Japan, after all, and my son hasn’t been to the States in about four years. As a sophomore at a public high school in Japan, he is absorbed with his friends, and studies, and baseball. But I teach at a Japanese university where a lot of students have no interest in what goes on abroad. They chose to attend the local university because it’s close to home, and when I ask them what country they’d like to visit, they say, “Nowhere. Japan is best.” I want my son to be engaged in the world.

To be fair, he is more interested than most. His favorite subject is Social Studies. He reads the newspaper and watches the TV news. So he probably heard about the massacre of nine African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, before I brought up the issue of the flag.

I didn’t really want to bring his attention to the fact that this horrible tragedy had occurred in South Carolina, the state where his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins live. I didn’t mention that the killer, Dylann Roof, attended the high school down the road from my parents’ house for a time. I would rather that my son have a postive image of South Carolina, that when he thinks of his visits to the state he remembers playing in the surf at Myrtle Beach, or the carriage tour that we took on our visit to Charleston, or making a snowman with his cousins. But in two years my son will be elgible to vote in both the United States and Japan. He needs to have an awareness of current events and their significance so that he can vote for the change that he wants to see.

Thinking about the Confederate flag, and how it represents racial prejudice and hate, is a way to prepare my son to think about issues in Japan, such as the Prime Minister’s insistence on visiting the Shrine at Yasukuni in commemoration of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II. Just as many Americans, both black and white, see the Confederate flag as a symbol of the brutal enslavement of human beings, many see the Shrine at Yasukuni as a symbol of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia during World War II. Just as a minority in South Carolina defend slavery and white supremacy, the current administration in Japan defends the enslavement of women — the so-called “Comfort Women” — as a business deal.  Just as taking the flag down from the pole outside the South Carolina state house would be a welcome step toward healing festering wounds, I think that the Japanese government would be wise to avoid re-opening wounds by retracting apologies and denying the past. (And by not making official visits to Yasukuni.)

In Japan, teachers are not allowed to be “political” and there is some handwringing among educators as to how to prepare young Japanese to become part of the electorate (the current voting age is 20). Personally, I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to teach kids how to vote. I think the conversation can begin at home.


In Praise of Japanese Music Class

When I was a kid in Michigan, music class meant that we gathered our chairs around a piano and sang songs from a mimeographed lyric sheet.  Maybe once in awhile the itinerant music teacher would pass out some tambourines and castanets. 

Only now, all these years later as a mother in Japan, do I understand how lame all that was.  We never learned musical notes or how to play instruments or the names of the great composers.  Not during the regular school day.

Last week my daughter was thrilled to get a recorder and to begin learning how to play it.  The kids at the deaf school also learn to play taiko – traditional Japanese drums – and perform at the annual culture festival.  Before the recorder, my kids learned to play something called a harmonium. 

I had a look at my son’s music class workbook and noted that he was learning about Bach and Beethoven.  And although my hearing son has a dread of music class whereas my deaf daughter loves it (go figure), I’m so grateful that my children are being educated in the arts.


The Mystery of the Reluctant Third Grader

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been living in dread of this morning.  As recently as two days ago, Lilia started throwing hard, plastic objects at me when I mentioned going back to school.  Yesterday, I hung her formal attire in plain view to help her prepare mentally, and she hurled Jio’s new school shoes at it.  Ordinarily she loves dressing up, but I was afraid she’d grab it and rip the fabric to shreds, so I had to put it aside.  On other occasions, she has cried fat tears, making me think that she had endured some trauma at school that I knew nothing about. 

On the best of days, we have to drag her out of bed in the morning to get ready for school, and since she’s been sleeping in until 9AM or so these past two weeks, I could just imagine how difficult it would be to rouse her this morning at 7AM for the first day of third grade.  I was thinking yesterday that I would need to tranquilize her in order to get her into my car.  When she doesn’t want to do something, she starts thrashing and flailing, and boy, those little fists can hurt.

So this morning I asked my husband to get her up.  I was busy making breakfast when she came into the kitchen.  She seemed surprisingly chipper.  She ate her breakfast, got dressed all by herself (including tights), and checked the inventory of her school bags.  Towel?  Check.  Tissues?  Check.  She was at the door, raring to go, while I was still in my pajamas. 

“Man or woman?” she signed, wondering about the gender of her new teacher.  Her eyes were sparkling.  “Today I will get new textbooks!”

It was all very weird, but in a good way.  Maybe she was possessed by demons, and they’ve flown the coop.





My daughter has announced, via sign language, that she will not be going back to school in April.  She is going to stay home with me, she signs, and I am going to teach her English.

I am not sure how this all came about.  Last we asked, she liked school, especially math and art.  She really got into the story about Suho and the white horse that she covered in Japanese class.  She still talks, er, signs, about wearing a Mongolian costume and playing the batokin.

Maybe she got this idea about homeschooling because she saw me for the first time as a teacher.  At the end of the school year, I baked apple pie with the first and second graders and told them about Johnny Appleseed.  I wrote some English words on the white board at the teachers’ request.  The kids were mostly interested in the pie, but Lilia’s teachers commented on how she wasn’t clinging to me as they expected, and that she’d seen me as something other than her mom.  

I had a brief fantasy about homeschooling when I was writing an article on the subject, but I know myself and my relationship with my children well enough to know that it’s not for me.   But for the next week or so, I will happily teach Lilia how to write the alphabet and a few words.  And maybe we’ll write another picture book together like we did yesterday.


Only one day left of second grade.  A few days ago, I had a conference with Lilia’s teacher.  We talked about how she had become adept at counting on her fingers, and how she can now add and subtract triple digit numbers quickly and accurately.  We also talked about her inability to memorize the multiplication table, and how this will make long division in third grade very difficult.  We talked about how at ease and independent she is in her wheelchair, and how wonderful that she can go to the bathroom at school by herself.  We also talked about how she rarely uses her legs at school even though many therapists have told me that she looks like a kid who will stand and walk one day.  We talked about how she has not been able to learn how to speak, but she can understand a lot through lip-reading and listening.  We talked about how she can now recognize some written words and can now write some simple sentencesby herself, and also about the fact that the third grade Japanese textbook will be too hard for her to read.  Her teacher suggested that she study Japanese with the first graders.  It sounds more practical than pretending that she can keep up, while she gets in way over her head, but the girl has pride. 

I know that her cerebral palsy makes her different from other deaf kids, in ways that I’m still trying to figure out.  I feel like I’m standing on a divide – on one side, are teachers giving up, and the other is the shiny future I can give her if I push harder.  Or maybe it’s mostly up to Lilia and she will find her own way.

Debauchery on the School Stage

In the United States, where you can get sent home from school for aiming a chicken drumstick and saying “bang bang,” I doubt schools could get away with staging gunfights and whiskey drinking.  Here in pacifist Japan, however, folks are much more relaxed about that sort of thing.

 To wit, this morning I attended the Performing Arts Festival at my son’s school.  The first graders performed a play – “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”  Lilia’s class did this a couple of years ago at the deaf school, but the violent bits were pretty much edited out.  Instead of death by hot oil, the thieves were allowed to apologize and make friends with Ali Baba, and Ali Baba’s brother doesn’t get his head chopped off.  At my son’s school however, the brother is killed, hot oil is poured, and the first graders ran around brandishing sabers  scimitars.

The second grade performance was pretty tame – a mini concert of compositions from around the world.  My son banged the bass drum during “La Cucaracha.”  I was very proud of him.

The sixth graders did a kyogen piece, which is traditional Japanese theater.  Their intonation and acting were excellent.  It was very impressive,  The play in question was about two men working for a sake manufacturer who manage to get wasted on sake even though they are tied up.  When the master returns and finds them drunk, he beats them.  Drunkenness and violence!  Oh, my!

further evidence that my daughter is a genius

So today after school Lilia was rolling around on the playground with one of her classmates who was kicking a ball around.  He left the playground, but Lilia remained. I was standing on the sidelines, talking to her teacher about ways to help her remember words.  She was kind of going in circles, and I thought she might be stuck.  We went out to see what was up and she signed that she was making a picture of a face with her wheelchair tires.  She was working on squiggles for the hair.  I’ve seen her drawing in the dirt with a stick before, but this was the first time she’d tried to make art with her wheelchair.

“I’ll tell O-sensei (the art teacher),” Y.-sensei said.  We talked about how we could provide Lilia with paint and canvas and maybe a spare wheelchair just for her art!  Wheelchair art – why not?  The future is wide open before us. 

Drama Queen

Could it be that I have found a way to get Lilia to do her homework???

Next month, the culture festival will be held at my daughter’s school.  As in years past, Lilia will be acting in a play.  I’m not sure what the play is this year, but I know that my daughter got one of two coveted rabbit parts.  Yesterday, she brought home her script with instructions to go over her lines.

At the best of times, homework can be a huge struggle, with Lilia throwing pencils and prints across the room.  She is wont to grab a comic book or commence drawing whenever I leave her side.  And she is not keen to “read.”  So I figured we’d go over the lines after she finished everything else.

Well, lo and behold, Lilia voluntarily grabbed her script and indicated that she wanted to practice.  When she didn’t understand something, she looked to me for interpretation.  And then, this morning, on the 60-minute ride to school, she took the script out of her satchel and went over the lines again on her own.   Normally, when I try to make the most of our commute by handing her a set of flashcards or something, she throws the cards back at me.

Before I thought Lilia’s future might be with animals, or clothes.  But now I’m thinking, lights, camera, action!


My son’s annual school sports festival was held a couple days ago.  This time I went alone, armed with the video recorder.  My husband had a tournament game (which his team won- yay!) and my sister-in-law had to work, so there was no one to chase after my daughter in her wheelchair.  It was also very, very hot.  Around 33 degrees centrigrade, I’d say. 

The poor children had to stand very still under the blazing sun for about 40 minutes during the interminable speeches that made up the opening ceremony.  The other foreign mothers and I kvetched about that, but the kids never complained.

I participated in the tug-of-war and folk dance, and also the second graders’ parent-child race.  It was a relay, in which the parent and child were supposed to run up to a hula hoop, loop it over the two of them, and run around some cones.  There were some dads in front of us who were literally dragging their children over the gravel in their mad dash to win.  Some parents really get into it.  I suppose they want to impress their kids, impress the spectators, and they want to win!  At the end, the race was neck and neck.  My son’s best friend and his dad were anchoring the other team.  They were just a little bit behind, and in a heroic effort, the kid’s dad lurched ahead, slipped on the gravel and fell on his shoulder.  As it turned out, he dislocated his shoulder and now he needs surgery.  To make matters worse (for him), our team won.

Mi Narai

I just had an insight about homework.  Japanese kids are not supposed to be able to do their homework by themselves, and they are not necessarily supposed to be able to think for themselves.  Japanese education is based upon learning from watching, or mi narai.

Here’s proof:

My son has been agonizing over the 3 page book report he was supposed to write.  I tried to get him to think about the book and his experiences related to the book, but he just sat there with tears in his eyes, his pencil still.  I sympathized.   I thought the task was way too hard for a second grader.  I don’t remember writing 3 page essays when I was eight years old.  I dictated a few sentences, feeling guilty all the while, but then my sister-in-law dropped in.  She said she’d have a look at the book and come tomorrow (today) to help him with it.

Well, my sister-in-law, who is the mother of a high school student and a college student, came back to help this afternoon.  She whipped out an essay that she had written, and my son copied it.  That’s it.  She’s an upstanding kind of mom, and her younger daugther was at the top of her class in junior high school.  I guess she knows what she’s doing.