(This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune)
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
MITAKA, Japan: At the Little Angels English Academy & International Kindergarten, the textbooks are from India, most of the teachers are South Asian, and classroom posters depict animals out of Indian tales, including dancing elephants in plumed turbans. The kindergarten students even color maps of India in the green and saffron of its flag.
But Little Angels is situated in this Tokyo suburb, and only one of its 45 students is Indian. Most are Japanese.
Despite an improved economy, Japan is suffering a crisis of confidence these days about its ability to compete with its emerging Asian rivals, China and India. One result has been a growing craze for Indian education.
The Indian boomlet reflects the insecurity of many Japanese in their country's schools, which once turned out students who consistently ranked at the top of international tests. One response has been to look for lessons from India, the country many here see as the world's ascendant education superpower.
Bookstores are filled with titles like "Extreme Indian Arithmetic Drills" and "The Unknown Secrets of the Indians." Newspapers carry reports of Indian children memorizing multiplication tables up to 99 times 99, compared to Japan's relatively lax elementary-school requirement of knowing nine times nine.
And Japan's few Indian international schools are reporting a surge in applications from Japanese families.
The thought of viewing another Asian country as a model in education, or almost anything else, would have been unheard-of here just a few years ago, education specialists and historians say.
Much of Japan has long looked down on the rest of Asia, priding itself on being the region's most advanced nation. Indeed, Japan has dominated the continent for more than a century, first as an imperial power and more recently as the first economy in Asia to achieve Western levels of economic development.
But in recent years, Japan has grown increasingly insecure, gripped by fear that it is being overshadowed by India and China, which are rapidly gaining in economic weight and sophistication.
The Japanese government has tried to preserve the country's technological lead and strengthen its military. But the Japanese have been forced to shed their traditional indifference to the region.
Suddenly, Japan is, grudgingly, starting to show a new sense of respect for its neighbors.
"Until now, Japanese saw China and India as backwards and poor," said Yoshinori Murai, a professor of Asian cultures at SophiaUniversity in Tokyo.
"As Japan loses confidence in itself, its attitudes toward Asia are changing. It has started seeing India and China as nations with something to offer."
In education, Japan's respect has grown in seemingly direct proportion to its performance below its Asian rivals on international tests.
Last month, a national cry of alarm greeted the announcement by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that in an international survey of math skills, Japan had fallen from first place in 2000 to 10th place, behind Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
From second in science in 2000, Japan dropped to sixth place.
While China has stirred more concern here as a political and economic challenger, India has emerged as the country to beat in a more benign rivalry over education.
In part, this reflects China's image in Japan as a cheap manufacturer and technological imitator. But India's success in software development, Internet businesses and knowledge-intensive industries where Japan has failed to make inroads has sparked more than a tinge of envy here.
Most annoying for many Japanese is that the aspects of Indian education they now praise are similar to those that once made Japan famous for is work ethic and discipline: learning more at an earlier age, a heavier reliance on rote memorization and cramming, and a stronger focus on the basics, particularly in math and science.
India's more demanding education standards are apparent at Little Angels Kindergarten and are the main source of its popularity.
Its 2-year-old pupils are taught to count to 20, 3-year-olds are introduced to computers, and 5-year-olds learn to multiply, solve math word problems and write one-page essays in English - tasks that most Japanese schools do not teach until at least second grade.
Japanese anxieties about the declining competitiveness of the country echo the angst of another nation two decades ago - when Japan was the economic upstart.
"Japan's interest in learning from Indian education is a lot like America's interest in learning from Japanese education," said Kaoru Okamoto, a professor specializing in education policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
As with many new things in Japan, the interest in Indian-style education has become a social fad, with everyone piling on at once.
Indian education is a frequent topic in public forums, from talk shows to conferences on education. Popular books claim to reveal the Indian secrets for multiplying and dividing multidigit numbers.
Even Japan's notoriously conservative Education Ministry has begun discussing Indian teaching methods, said Jun Takai of the ministry's international affairs division.
Eager parents have begun trying to send their children to roughly half dozen Indian schools in Japan, in hopes of giving them a leg up in Japan's still intensely competitive college entrance exams.
In Tokyo, the two largest Indian schools, which teach kindergarten through junior high, mainly to Indian expatriates, have received a sudden increase in inquiries from Japanese parents.
The GlobalIndianInternationalSchool says that 20 of its approximately 200 students are now Japanese, with demand so high from Indian and Japanese parents that it is building a second campus in the neighboring city of Yokohama.
The other, the IndiaInternationalSchool in Japan, expanded to 170 students last year, including 10 Japanese. It has plans to expand again.
"We feel a very, very high interest of Japanese parents," said Nirmal Jain, principal of the IndiaInternationalSchool.
The boom has had the side effect of making many Japanese a little more tolerant toward other Asians.
The founder of the Little Angels school, Jeevarani Angelina, a former oil company executive from Chennai, India, who accompanied her husband to Japan in 1990, said she initially had difficulty persuading landlords to rent space to an Indian woman to start a school. But now, the fact that she and three of her four full-time teachers are non-Japanese Asians is a selling point for the school.
"When I started, it was a first to have an English-language school taught by Asians, not Caucasians," she said, referring to the long presence in Japan of American and European international schools.
Angelina said Little Angels, unlike other Indian schools, was intended primarily for Japanese children, to fill the shortcomings she found when she sent her own sons to Japanese kindergarten.
"I was lucky because I started when the Indian-education boom started," said Angelina, who goes by the name Rani Sanku because it is easier for Japanese to pronounce. (Sanku is her husband's family name.)
Angelina has adapted the Indian curriculum to Japan by adding more group activities, decreasing rote memorization and omitting Indian history.
Encouraged by the kindergarten's success, she said she planned to open an Indian-style elementary school next year.
Parents are enthusiastic about the school's more rigorous standards.
"My son's level is higher those than those of other Japanese children the same age," said Eiko Kikutake, whose son Hayato, 5, attends Little Angels.
'Indian education is really amazing! This wouldn't have been possible at a Japanese kindergarten."