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The Elementary School Wall in Japan




If you live in Japan you will be familiar with the government spending a lot of effort and money trying to get people to have more children. They are also spending a lot of effort trying to get women to stay in the work force. Japan has a highly educated population of women who could work, but for various reasons many still choose not to go back to work or actually just can't. One of the reasons they can't is one I am experiencing myself: "The Elementary School Wall" as I've heard it referred to in Japanese. 


The Support System Disappears

 It's a wall that parents but mostly mothers bang into as their child starts compulsory education and they find the fairly comprehensive support of kindergarten or daycare drops away. I believe from speaking to mothers across Japan that this “wall” is higher outside of Tokyo in the regions where it seems that the board of education located in each town or city still believe that mothers are waiting at home for something to do as if we are still in the Showa Era.


Daycare and even kindergarten now look after your child until 6:30pm at night in the one location. Snacks and lunch are often provided, you just need to pay the money. There is generally no change to this schedule. Even the summer holidays are covered. It’s generally a great system. There is also often a bus that for a small amount extra can pick up  your child and drop them home later that saved me hundreds of hours during the six years my I had a child attending kindergarten. 


When my first child started elementary school, I noticed suddenly that they were not at school very much. Particularly 1st graders come home very early for at least the first month. Elementary school assumes that children have had zero education of any kind before they start at nearly 7 years old though often now this is not the case. A lot of time is wasted acclimatising kids to a system they are already used.


Insufficient On Site After School Care

Of course there is “gakudo”, or after school care. However this is not universally available to all children who need it and it not even always located on or nearby the school property. I have heard stories from parents in Tokyo saying that their child would need to make their own way from elementary school to the after school care location some distance away. Places are also allocated to those who work in a full time job at a company first. Anyone else with another way of working, whether it’s part time employment or perhaps they are working for themselves has a very hard time to access a space for their child in these after school care places. And also very often they are not even very good places for children to be, they can be overcrowded and there is also a cost to them, too. 


Random School and Class Closures

In conjunction with that, as we experienced during COVID-19, after school care can also be shut down along with elementary school. Who then takes care of the children when that happens? Even if the children are well, they cannot attend. Classes in elementary school also close for COVID-19 or influenza outbreaks and then this is the parent’s responsibility to find somewhere safe for their children to be while they are at work, even if the child is in fact well and able to attend school. So far this winter both of my children’s classes have been closed at different times. 


Those are just a few of the 1000 paper cuts that mothers in particular deal with when their children enter elementary school in Japan. It’s terribly hard for them to keep working and not burn out with the requirements of a full time job which are also intense and the responsibilities of being a parent to a child in elementary school which fall largely on them. 


Just some of the things parents in Japan are expected to do: 

  • Be available to pick up or supervise their child when schools suddenly decide to close for a day or send children home early because of bad weather

  • Manage a mountain of summer holiday homework assigned by the school which includes various projects and is a full time job in itself for the summer break

  • Prepare bento for school lunch even when just one grade is absent from school for the day. Parents must be dynamic in their morning routine to suddenly find an extra 20+ minutes to make a bento even though the school lunch centre cannot handle one grade missing from a school for a day, even though they have one year advance notice of this difference. 

  • Show up at school for three class viewings during the year, sports day, school play, running race day, and then also deal with child care for the week day that becomes a day off school the following Monday when these activities fall on a weekend

  • PTA activities for things that often could be things the students themselves could do

  • Kodomokai: Neighbourhood children's association which seems like a double up of duties that could be carried out by the PTA or removed altogether

  • Flag duty at crossings to help students get to school in the morning even though your child might not actually use that crossing to get to school


Constant Schedule Changes and Young Children Home Alone

This is in addition to the game of: What time does my child leave school today? Students have an ever changing schedule and I find this in particular to be just dangerous more than anything. Children are leaving school at different times of the day depending on their grade and I often see a child walking alone or with just one other child at a time of day that drivers are not expecting to see children walking home from school. 


I see children who really are too young to be home alone are coming home to an empty house and letting themselves in. That might be fine when everything is fine, until things are not fine. Here in Fukushima we have definitely experienced everything not being fine. I have opened my home to children who are locked out and their parents will not be home from work for several hours many times. We do our best to make sure children in our neighbourhood are safe here but we also have the benefit of having lived in the same house for 13 years and my children know all of our neighbours. 


The mental load of all of the above, as well as the various items of homework that need to be checked and items purchased and provided for whatever is happening at school that week is a full time job. I often get to the end of the day and find that I’ve done very little of my own paid work. 


From April we will have one child in elementary and one child in junior high school. Hopefully this does not double the workload but still parental involvement is required for the PTA and for the club activities. I have a vivid memory from my days working at junior high of the post entrance ceremony meeting of parents for each class of new first grade students. You don’t get to leave until someone has capitulated and volunteered to do the PTA duty. The parents of one class sat stony faced and refused to engage while a teacher pleaded for volunteers. Eventually it was decided by….rock paper scissors. A friend recently wrote a description of the drama that ensued when dividing up the duties to parents of her son’s school club activities that included tears on behalf of the parents. This gives a good idea at just how overloaded most parents are and then are voluntold (made to volunteer) for roles that I feel could just be removed entirely. 


None of this helps the very low birth rate and reluctance or difficulty to return to an inflexible work place. When I speak about these things with my fellow mother friends they seem surprised that there could be any other way to do it. I am lucky that I have lived in different countries and experienced the education systems there to know that there are in fact other ways to do things. I hope we can be more intentional about how schools are run and that boards of education understand the knock on effects of their decisions to parents but frankly mostly mothers.


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