Now that several months have elapsed, I can say that my volunteer work at Zenryuji has offered me some unique glimpses into Japanese culture and language through the lens of children and a nursery school environment. The dynamics between teachers and children, between head teacher and a supporting teacher, and between the children and myself have been of particular interest.
Prior to coming to Japan, I was already quite aware of the hierarchy built into Japanese society as exemplified through things like the degrees of politeness in language and the senpai-kohai dynamic. At the nursery school, when a teacher is making an announcement or instructing the children to do something as part of the routine (i.e. when lining up), she uses polite language as a way to signal the formality of what is being said. On the other hand, it was interesting to observe teachers using plain speech when reprimanding the children, which I imagine was done in order to capture the teacher’s frustration and put the children in their place hierarchically, since plain speech can indicate the speaker’s superiority over the listener.
On a related note, though I do not find the power structure at the nursery school to be anywhere near as rigid as a regular corporate setting, it is clear that not all teachers share equal roles and positions. The two head teachers of the group of kids I usually work with are responsible for making announcements, directing the children during their routine, and, if necessary, reprimanding the children. Meanwhile a supporting teacher will help clean up the room or pour the milk for each child during snack time. Here too I have observed the use of casual speech by the head teachers between each other and to the supporting teacher, but the supporting teacher will use polite speech in response to perhaps indicate their difference in position within the structure of the daycare.
In my case, exchanges between teachers and I are exclusively in polite speech, while at the insistence of the children our exchanges are in casual speech. One child even corrected me the first day when I used polite speech too much, saying that it put too much distance between ussince our relationship should be that of friends. While this would not happen even among my peers, I suppose with children the rules get a bit hazy due to their age. Without any direct equivalent in the English language, these kinds of observations have been consistently fascinating.
In terms of the culture of raising children, I feel like my experience at Zenryuji was just like scratching the surfaceof it. What struck me immediately was the physical contact between teachers and students, where a teacher will not hesitate to grab or push a child as a means of correcting their behavior. My Asian background led me to be less surprised at the time, but knowing that in America such a thing would never be allowed without consequences did make me stop and think. That was probably one of the biggest cultural divides I had noticed while volunteering.
What was strikingly similar to what I have observed in America, however, is that children here are also keen on “playing house” during playtime. Participating children each take a role in the family such as mother or father, and someone is almost always “cooking” something (I need not mention how many times I have had to “eat” curry rice made out of sand). I noted that since children just about anywhere are most familiar with what happens at home, that represents one extent of their imaginations at this point in time.
Similarly, the children tend to quarrel with each other very easily about small things like sharing toys and someone not “apologizing” enough for something they did. I find being consulted on such matters a bit of a handful since I am not always sure what is culturally appropriate to say. Usually in the case of sharing toys, other teachers will go for the diplomatic approach and encourage the children to share, especially if one child has two of something. In the case of having children reconcile through apology, I think more so than the child wanting to apologize on their own it is the teacher’s authority that compels them to do so. I know in my case even if I were to say someone should apologize, they would either continue pouting at me without following through on the direction, or would simply run away. It reminds me that even though I am well-loved by the children, due to my age and outsider status I am in this limbo between teacher and friend, making my influence less effective. Whether in the future I will become more of one or the other remains to be seen.
What an interesting post, wow. In my CIP, I didn’t even stop to think about whether the manga teacher uses different language when talking to his assistant, etc, so I am really impressed that you noticed the subtle differences in the social structure among the teachers. Also, the observation you made about Japanese teachers being more physical with their students surprised me as well, because you’re right — that would not fly in America. You’re lucky though; these kids seem adorable and I smiled like a dork at reading the pretend house section. Your comment on being in limbo is a very insightful one, because I think some people might assume that playing with children would be easy in terms of Japanese, but you show the challenge of finding the right language. I gather that you plan on continuing this CIP next semester, so good luck!
I’ll admit I didn’t notice those little things at first, and it was more like after midterms that I was able to catch those sorts of subtleties. My words definitely don’t do these kids justice though; they’re mega cute and affectionate. I myself was surprised at how challenging the language would be at this CIP. I guess it goes to show that there’s still plenty for us students of Japanese to learn.
Thanks for the comment!
Wow, it’s nice to see your insightful article. I don’t know but I have a feeling that being the teacher makes you look nicer.. Might be yes…Also the feeling of no authority makes it a great ending since I also often experienced that during my volunteer experience both in China and India. It’s a little bit frustrating and hopeless ha, but too bad we really cannot do anything with it. Glad you point that out.
One last question about your “playing house” observation, does boys participate into that a lot? I mean in China, even some high school girls would continue play with that, but boys are less likely to join in. I dont know if Japan is the same story.
Indeed the hierarchy structure in this situation is quite a dilemma indeed. I suppose being seen as almost a teacher has some benefits, though there are occasions when I wish I did come off more authoritatively. Maybe then I wouldn’t get dog-piled so much all the time (though it is fun once in awhile).
The boys also willingly play house, often doing a father or brother role. In America too I believe boys grow out of it faster than girls do, though I can’t say for boys in Japan at what age they stop wanting to participate in that type of game–maybe middle school? It would be interesting to find out.
Thanks for the comment!