For Japanese children, little time to daydream

April 28, 2006   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — Today is Thursday, so I meet my 7-year-old son after school at the bus stop and nag him to walk home quickly so we can make it to soccer practice on time. At home, Yataro changes into his soccer uniform and switches his school satchel for his sports backpack. I put a piece of candy in his mouth as we walk out the door and grab our bikes for the 15-minute ride to the field. I chastise him for riding zig-zag. “Each loop like that takes up more time!” I shout, tailgating him on the bike path. The day is still young.

After soccer practice, Yataro will go to abacus class for an hour of addition and subtraction drills. After that, homework and piano practice. Friday, swimming and abacus; Saturday, English and judo.

These days I feel like I’m back at my former job running the mad schedule of the president of a large resort. Only now I’m keeping track of my second- grade son’s after-school activities.

Along with the rest of Japan’s growing number of parents fixated on their child’s education, I’ve been swept up in lesson mania. We want the best opportunities for our kids. We want them to keep up with their peers. And if there’s even a glimmer of talent in there, we want to mine it for all its worth.

More than 80 percent of elementary school children take classes outside of the classroom, according to a survey last year by the education and marketing firm Benesse, with the share reaching more than 90 percent for second and third graders. Swimming, music and English rank the highest in popularity. Among Yataro’s elite private school classmates, the breadth of lessons include rhythmic gymnastics, pony riding and Lego building. A popular book, “How to Guarantee Winning in Children’s Lessons,” advises parents on the dos and don’ts of navigating through the maze of choices.

All of these classes aren’t cheap; one third of families spend more than $170 per month on classes, according to Benesse. One mother recently asked me what I thought about an English language tutor for her daughter who wanted to charge $119 per hour. The steep expenditures are a factor behind the population crisis in Japan where women have just 1.29 children in their lifetime, among the lowest fertility rates in the world. In a 2002 government survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said “high costs” prevented them from having as many children as they would like.

I marvel at Yataro’s energy level, but I also worry that I’m running him into the ground. Exhaustion from after- school activities was one of the topics at a recent parents’ meeting where mothers bemoaned their children being groggy after school and mixing up their various lesson bags. By the time we get home each evening and I coach him on his homework, Yataro’s tolerance for sitting at a desk is nearly gone.

Slacking off on school work is not an option: Many of his classmates practice “sakidori” – literally “grasping ahead” – mastering writing and math years ahead of their current grade level, which keeps the class pace intense. When I point out mistakes, Yataro often glares at me, exposing the whites of his eyes, and then throws pencils and erasers around the room. Time for a parent-child therapy session? Unfortunately, no time slots left for that.

Sundays are set aside for downtime and playdates, but is one day enough? I remember when I was his age hanging out with friends outdoors every afternoon, roller skating, playing house and daydreaming on the swing set. If Yataro even lets his mind wander momentarily, someone is always on top of him, whether it’s his abacus teacher ordering “concentration!” or soccer parents shouting “What’s the matter with that goalie?” as he leans against the goal post watching the clouds drift by.

I know I should lessen his load, but each activity seems indispensable: He loves soccer, and it seems only as a young boy can he be so exhilarated by a sport he isn’t the star of; piano opens up the world of music; abacus should cure his slow pace at calculations; swimming is a must at his school; and I want judo to instill a Bushido spirit in him to compensate for the lack of male kinship he suffers from my being a single mother.

“The sooner you get there the sooner you can … ” I was saying to Yataro recently in my routine harassment to get him to abacus class, when I paused to think of yet another enticement to get him to move faster. Instead, he surprised me with a most luxurious thought: “We might have time for a walk outside.”