The bizarre and unreasonable rules schools in Japan enforce upon children are not preparing them for the modern world where technology is changing what it means to be human, says Agnes Chan, a bestselling author of parenting books.
Rather, she says, the oppressive school system is killing creativity at the same time as overprotective parents keep a tight psychological grip on their children, setting absurdly high expectations and doing just as much damage, she warns.
“I don’t think parents and society are expecting the right things from children,” says Chan, who now juggles multiple roles such as singer, TV personality, lecturer and UNICEF goodwill ambassador, between her writing deadlines.
“They expect them to be a ‘good student,’ they expect them to score well on tests, they expect them to obey rules. That’s not important anymore because computers do better. We have to teach children to be human, so human that robots can’t imitate. That’s the survival game,” she stresses.
A native of Hong Kong, Agnes Miling Chan, who took her singing career to Japan in 1972 when she was 17, started as a teenage pop idol and ended up as an advocate for children in her 40 on-and-off years in Japan.
She married her former manager, a Japanese man, and is a mother of three boys who all grew up in an unconventional home and went on to Stanford University, the same institution where she entered a Ph.D. program in education while working and getting ready to have her second son.
Today, with a never-ending demand for childrearing go-to guides and a plethora of beleaguered parents seeking advice on how to “raise their kids right,” it seems only natural that Chan has found a new calling as a parental expert.
When she holds book signings in Asia, like she did in Tokyo for her recently released “Michi Ni Katsu Kosodate” (Parenting in the Age of the Unknown), Chan is greeted by sleep-deprived moms and moms-to-be who bombard her with a barrage of parenting questions.
“I can understand their anxiety. Our world is changing so fast. It’s not like when I was young. It’s no longer just addition, it’s multiplication. We’re preparing our children for the jobs we don’t even know will exist in 20 years,” she says.
The 63-year-old opinion leader, once known as “the fairy from Hong Kong,” says though her two older sons were not brought up in the digital age, her parenting style has always been the same: old school.
No micromanaging, keeping a flexible timetable, scheduling screen-free time, exploring the outdoors, bonding with board games, teaching through play, and engaging with children over homemade meals and birthday cakes.
Meanwhile, many modern Japanese parents bend over backwards for their children. Whether it be cram schools, music lessons, calligraphy lessons, soroban schools or sports clubs, they are investing more in children believing that it is possible to buy a leg-up in life.
Money invested for a child’s education, including cash rewards for good grades, is tangible evidence of parenting success, they tell themselves. But when Chan praised her children, it didn’t require pulling out her checkbook.
“Knowing he can do it is enough of a motivational factor. I’ve tried to build their self-esteem, self-belief, curiosity, creativity, responsibility and also resilience. All these things are even more important now because social protection, like lifetime employment and seniority-based pay, all these things may be gone.”
Chan worries the education system in Japan is going backwards, and many of its educators are not up to her high standards, the very reason for the national epidemic of teen suicide, bullying, truancy, social isolation and other social issues affecting youth.
She sees problems the country was tackling when she gave birth to her first son 30 some years ago remain unresolved, and parents having yet to snap out of the shared delusion that the path to success is extremely slippery.
Japan is such a “role-perfect society,” she says, explaining that some grow numb to its homogenous, group-oriented, hierarchical nature. But then others are non-conformists, the ones who would be called “the nail that sticks out (and gets hammered down).”
“Parents want their child to succeed, and they feel that there’s only one way: to push them to be elite. A-level grades, art, music, sports, the so-called high culture values. This stereotype has to go away,” Chan says.
“This is not the way to teach self-worth to children. They bully others because it’s one way to feel their worthiness. Bullying is such a big issue in Japanese schools, and they’re always trying to cover it up. It’s everybody’s responsibility,” Chan says.
Lessen pressure on a child to be smarter than a classmate or more athletic than a teammate, and he or she will perform better knowing that failure is a normal part of learning, she says.
She never sent her sons to after-school cram schools, a lucrative private tutoring business in Japan, but transformed them into self-driven individuals. She gave them the freedom to make their own mistakes. She refused to let fear dictate her parenting.
Chan realizes how mothers are haunted by the perfect mom image sold by modern society, where risks seem to lie around every corner, but she knows from experience parenting and perfectionism do not go together, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline.
“First thing: Don’t compare. Japan is a crowded society, and it tends to compare. But a parent should tell a child, ‘you’re good as you are.’ Let him or her know your love doesn’t depend on a test score.”
She does not hide her frustration when she talks about how Japan fails to allocate sufficient resources to protect children. While an inordinate amount of money is spent on the elderly, the lack of social support for child wellbeing is leading people to delay marriage and childbearing, she says.
“People are scared away by the cost of raising a child, and how much money they think they need to get a child into a good college. Nobody is talking about the happiness of parenthood,” she says.
Because she, as the fourth child of six, was raised by a demanding “tiger mom” who practiced tough love, Chan was unhappy with her own upbringing and wanted to break the cycle of toxic parenting.
One of Chan’s two brothers grew up to become an accountant, and the other an engineer, each granting his mother her wish, and her sisters also allowed their mother to choose their career paths.
“She wanted me to become a lawyer, but I disappointed her. I was the only one who disappointed her. That is how parents showed love back in her generation — making sure every child has an accepted, respected role in society.”
“But me, I didn’t believe that. I wanted my children to be happy, and that’s my priority. The only way to do that is to let them believe in themselves and decide for themselves who they are and what they want. It doesn’t matter if you become famous or become rich. If you’re a dreamer, you’re always happy.”
Japan’s education system — the national curriculum, centralized school system, rote learning, and examination hell — will not change overnight, Chan says.
But she reminds us that the classroom is not the only place where learning happens. Let children manage danger. Let them cope with consequences. Let them find their own way out of the muck and mire. Let them develop autonomy. Let them fail. Let go, she advises.
“Letting go is hard for any parent. After junior high, I made my children believe they are capable of making their own decisions. I was very scared, but I respected their choices. When my eldest son picked the No. 7 school instead of the top-ranked U.S. boarding school, I hoped he would realize it was a mistake. But it turned out it wasn’t.”
That son, Kazuhei, is now a CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley. Her second son Shohei is an engineer in Silicon Valley, and her youngest son Kyohei, 22, will enroll in a graduate degree program at Stanford this year.
“It’s great my children got into Stanford, but that’s not the goal. There are a lot of Stanford graduates who are unhappy. I’m happy because they’re happy,” Chan says.
“In Chinese we say ‘cheng long, cheng feng,’ and it means you want your son to become a dragon and your daughter to become a phoenix. But every child can take a different route. Every child can be his own dragon and her own phoenix.”