Monday, 29 May 2017

The Japan Files ~ Mental Health

I am not an expert.

I studied psychology for three years. I had a brief stint with Childline and I counsel (I say this loosely) my friends when they're in need, but I am far from qualified to talk about this topic. Nevertheless, I have made a few observations about Japan and it's attitude towards mental health issues, and I have also come to the following conclusion:

There seems to be no real acknowledgement of mental health in this country.

I have seen countless people running around who I know have issues but they're allowed to roam the streets freely. People who shout, clap, make other strange noises, people who talk to themselves or who try to talk to other people even though it's obvious that they're not in their right mind.

Photo courtesy of  Exposing the Truth
I booked an appointment to see a psychiatrist. I filled out a form and spent no more than a couple of minutes in the room with the doctor who asked me all of two questions and immediately prescribed me medication to help me "relax". I remember thinking "that was quick; that was easy". If I was a drug addict, I'd know where to go next time. But in the UK, it's not common practise to prescribe medication to just anyone. I would assume that with the prescription of drugs would come a little bit of counselling too and there just didn't seem to be any of that.

From what I've heard, mental health, other disabilities and associated issues are often swept under the carpet. As a teacher, I've met children who have had clear behavioural problems that often go unacknowledged by the parent. None of the teachers were trained to deal with that sort of thing but we were expected to deal with it anyway, no matter how taxing or difficult it made teaching the class.

Some people don't want to acknowledge that their loved ones may be suffering with something because in Japan, mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness, or a sign of "bad blood". And no one wants to be seen as "that family" with "that kid". He's just 元気(genki) - energetic, is all. There's nothing wrong with my son. He's completely normal.

And you know, it's not dissimilar from the black community too. Things are changing, but older generations didn't like to acknowledge mental illnesses either. A case is point happened to me during university when I had a bit of a dark period. My grandmother's solution was to simply "put it out of my head". But it's never that simple is it?

It isn't to say that Japan is a complete lost cause however. I've seen some families where a member is clearly unable and the family members appear to be taking care of them. I see a lot more of them now then when I first arrived in Japan. But I don't think Japan is the kind of country that likes to talk out it's issues.

With words like 我慢 (gaman) - perseverance - and 頑張る (ganbaru) - to do one's best - people are encouraged to overcome all obstacles; large and small. But when they can't gaman or ganbaru anymore, what can they do and who do they turn to?

I've said it before, but I think Japan is a country that - while very advanced in terms of technology - it's about fifty years behind in terms of interpersonal and sociological development. I don't think I'll see a dramatic shift in my generation, but I hope Japan takes the steps towards taking better care of the psychological well-being of its inhabitants and removing the stigmas attached to mental health issues.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Life and Times of being a Middle School Student in Japan.

I've been teaching children for over three years now, and it isn't without it's challenges, that's for sure. Whether it's made me more tolerant of children, I can't say for sure, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, Japanese children are just like any other children in the world. Some are good; some are terrible. Some are bright and some are dull. Some really like studying and some of them don't. But children in Japan - just like almost everywhere else - tend to follow the same patterns as their predecessors. They go to nursery, they attend primary school and then they start middle school (or junior high school for my audience across the Pacific). And middle school is no joke. Mess up here and it could spell doom for your future.


Entering Middle School

Pro: Primary school is a doddle but I get the vibe that when children become middle school students, it's really time to start buckling down. In a way, this is a positive as it starts to prepare them for the real world. Because we adults know that it's not all fun and games. We have to grow up, adapt, follow the rules and get in line. It isn't to say that we don't learn some of these rules in primary school either but I get the vibe that there's more of a sense of seriousness about middle school

Con: Say goodbye to your childhood. In my current job, it isn't uncommon for children to quit taking English lessons right before middle school. Maybe the parents consider English a little bit of fun before the real work starts; who knows? But tests increase, the workload gets harder and I feel like the freedom they might have experienced in primary school becomes considerably non-existent.

After School Clubs

Pro: The Japanese are usually quite slim. And I think one of the reasons why is because they promote lots of extra curricula activities; especially sports. In the UK, after school club happen once or twice a week for an hour at best. But in Japan, they take it very seriously. In a way, it's great for keeping kids fit or getting them to make friends with each other. It's also something to look forward to after class.

Con: Unlike the UK, after school clubs are a little bit over the top. I once taught a girl who was in the tennis club. When she arrived for my lesson, she was so tired after having trained for well over five hours; there was an up and coming tournament apparently. Some kids go to club every day. As I said, the Japanese are really particular about their extra curricula activities. But it can get to the point where they suck the fun completely out of it.


Middle school boys wearing gakuran
Pro: We've seen the anime. And I've seen enough kids (and adults) to know that uniformity is another thing that is taken very seriously here. You will look polished and you will represent your school well; even when you're not attending class. I actually quite like the 学ラン(gakuran) style uniform as it really does look quite smart.

Con: Like most uniforms the world over, there isn't really much chance for self expression. In school, dying your hair (a reasonable colour) or make up is not allowed. The most I've seen kids do is unbutton the blazer or wear the undershirt. If the kid plays sports, they must wear their PE kit - even on a weekend. A child represents their school everywhere. And sometimes when it's not even school related - a dance club, for example - there are uniforms for those too.

Cram School

Pro: Also known as (juku). The minute a kid is due to start middle school, the salesmen come knocking apparently. Cram school is a way in which middle schoolers keep on top of their grades. It's useful for kids who fall behind in certain subjects or for the kids that want to be at the top of their game. I benefitted from an after school "cram class" of sorts when I was in secondary school and it really bumped my grade up. In the UK, these types of schools aren't so apparent however, but in Japan, they are everywhere.

Con: On top of all the homework and after school clubs and piano lessons and English classes, juku is another thing to add to a middle schooler's long list of things to do. Unfortunately however, like all childrearing in Japan, cram school does not come cheap at all and most parents feel pressured into sending their kids to cram school out of fear or them falling behind their peers.


Middle schoolers can undergo some very long days in Japan. I've seen students riding their bicycles home at around 10pm at night which completely boggles the mind considering that in the UK, most kids are home well before dinnertime. I've had children arrive at my lessons completely famished - having not even eaten due to their long schedules. But in a way, it's almost indicative of what is to come because when one enters the workforce, overtime is eminent. Getting home late is eminent. Skipping a meal is on occasion eminent and it doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.

So I commend the students here. They work really hard and go through some tough times. I often hear however that once they overcome this hurdle and enter a decent high school, it gets easier after that. Even university is a piece of cake apparently but that's a entry for another time.