Japan, Teaching English in Japan

Are Japanese and American Children Really all that Different?

I spent all of last week shuttling back and forth between my old job teaching (mostly North American) pre-schoolers at an International school, and my new job, teaching ESL at a Japanese after school preschool program. The whole experience was exhausting (imagine working for nine hours straight, all of your students under the age of six) but the experience got me thinking.

Are Japanese and American three-year-olds really all that different?

My Japanese boss believes that answer is a definite ‘no’. She believes all children are basically the same, especially at the preschool age.

My ESL teacher friends have all sounded in with a resounding “Hell yes”. As more than one friend put it “Japanese kids are really, really weird.”

Here are some of my observations from the last few days.

Five Differences Between Japanese and American Children

* Japanese children tend to ‘shut-down’ when they’re upset. I’ve noticed that if a Japanese child is either angry, sad, bored or just doesn’t want to do something, he or she will give you this blank, expressionless ‘poker face’ look (that is, if they look at you at all). They won’t acknowledge they’ve heard you and won’t even respond when you tap them on the shoulder or say their name. It’s perplexing because you’re left try to surmise why it is they’re upset, (or if that’s even the case). I used to think that it was because they couldn’t articulate their feelings in English, but I’ve watched them do the same thing with the Japanese staff. The Japanese teachers will usually try to joke around in order to coax a smile out of them, or else cuddle them and heap lots of praise and encouragement.
My reaction is to assume it’s an attention seeking behavior and ignore it, but maybe I’m wrong?


American children do this too and might say things like: “I’m not talking to you!” and then go sit in the corner and pointedly ignore you, but it usually doesn’t last more than a minute or two. I find with American children, it’s fairly easy to discern what they’re feeling, mostly because they won’t hesitate in telling you. Or it’ll be written all over their expressive little faces. But then, perhaps someone not familiar with American children wouldn’t say that it’s easy.


* Japanese kids are used to being ‘man-handled’. I’ve observed this happening a lot, especially when mother’s drop their children off at school. If the child is in a bad mood and doesn’t want to go, he won’t say a word but will instead, just sit on the floor and refuse to budge. No screaming. No crying. No tears. Just the silent treatment and the ‘poker face’. It’s uncomfortable to watch, because the mom (embarrassed), will whisper and speak softly in the child’s ear, pleading and trying to gently pull him into a standing position, but to no avail. After about five minutes, she’ll pick him up and carry / drag / yank / pull / push the motionless child into the room. He’ll then silently walk back out of the classroom and drop like a dead weight onto the hallway floor and the whole process will start all over again.

When teaching, I’ve found that I can quite easily maneuver a child around by gently pushing him or her in the direction I want her to go. Or if I want a misbehaving child to sit, I can simply pick them up and place them in a chair. This isn’t true with American children. If you try to coax a child into a line by pulling them by the hand, for example, he or she will likely shout: “I can do it by myself!”

* Japanese children are fiercely competitive…from a very young age! They seek adults approval and are perfectionists. They won’t offer an answer to a question unless they are sure that it’s the correct one. This makes games hard to play at times, because the children are hesitant to just ‘take a wild guess’, which is often necessary for a game to work properly. It’s interesting because even though they’re competitive, it’s usually only with themselves. Every time we play a game and a child is struggling with an answer, another student (even someone from the opposing team, will whisper the answer in the child’s ear. It’s sweet and adorable but I’ve got to wonder: Why? Does it have to do with the whole group culture orientation, (“I help you, you help me”?) Or is it that they can’t stand to see one of their classmates uncomfortable or embarrassed?

American children, on the other hand, have no problem volunteering an answer, and won’t hesitate to shout out an answer, oftentimes when the teacher hasn’t even asked for one. For the most part, they’re a lot more uninhibited and more willing to take risks. I guess that can be attributed to the American educational concept that “there are no wrong answers”. They also have an ‘every man for himself’ attitude towards games and will be quick to shout out “Hey, he cheated!” or “That’s not fair! You helped him!”

* Japanese children need ‘genki’teachers! It’s funny, because when I first started working at the international school, one of my boss’s criticisms was that I was ‘too energetic’. “Speaking in a loud, overly-excited voice, just adds to the chaos and will make the children more rowdy and disruptive. Speak in a normal, quiet, soft tone of voice and they will calm down and listen to you.” This is more or less what I was told, and it really worked. At the Japanese school, however, my boss told me that I need to be more ‘genki’ (excited, energetic and expressive). At first, I balked at the idea. I follow the philosophy that if you plan an interesting, fun lesson, you shouldn’t have to work hard to encourage the children to participate. They’ll naturally want to join in because it’s fun. But I think that because Japanese children are quieter and more timid than American or Western children, they need an energetic teacher to ‘show’ them how to have fun.

* Japanese children love silly, physical humor! That’s another reason why the ‘Genki teacher’ thing seems to go over well. Children love it when the teacher ‘accidentally’ trips over a chair or messes up the words to a song. One of the best teaching tricks to use with Japanese children, is to intentionally get an answer wrong and have them correct you. They never seem to grow tired of this and will gleefully shout out: “Noooo! That’s wrong!” ‘High Fives’, sound effects, funny drawings on the board…these all go over amazingly well in the Japanese classroom.

American children aren’t so quick to buy into it, however. If a teacher ‘accidentally’ dropped his flashcards in front of a class of pre-school American students, for example, they’d more than likely roll their eyes in annoyance.

My boss pointed out that perhaps a lot of my observations have less to do with the fact that my students are Japanese and more to do with the fact that they’re non-native English speakers and in an ESL setting.

What do you think?

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

8 thoughts on “Are Japanese and American Children Really all that Different?

  1. I’m completely convinced those differences are cultural. The differences are so in-line with basic Japanese / North American differences, I find it hard to think it’s an ESL thing. I’ve worked with El Salvadorean children and they are way more rambunctious that Canadian kids… Culture affects young children, too.

  2. I actually have very little experience with American children, so I have no reason to be surprised by anything Japanese kids do. That’s funny. If I’m ever in an environment with lots of kids when I’m back in the US I’ll probably be really startled and confused.

    When I first came here I was really apprehensive about the whole genki thing. I don’t know if you had this experience with your first company training, but everyone gave me the impression that I needed to be some kind of wild dancing clown to get kids into it. It started to make me really anxious. All through the training session (the whole one hour haha) the guy kept barking, “More silly! More funny! Sing a song! Students are bored!” I was like omg, what am I doing, I will never succeed at this job, I take myself way too seriously to let these people make me their gaijin monkey, I’m so fucked…

    But thankfully I was right in thinking I don’t have to jig to and fro and pull lots of goofy faces to show the kids a good time. I’ve think the best personality a teacher can have in the classroom is open, relaxed, friendly and engaged with an inexhaustible (or convincingly faked) sense of humor. I laugh a lot and try to put across that I’m having a good time and they should join the party. I think it’s worked out pretty well. Obviously I do the hokey pokey like everyone else when I’m at elementary schools and the physical/silly humor thing is SO true with younger kids, but overall I think even younger kids appreciate a little dignity with their fun more than my trainers seemed to want me to believe.

  3. Beth,

    I can soooo relate to that! Especially the whole “gaijin monkey” thing! I agree with your take on teaching…which is why I’ve been struggling with my new job! They’re always telling me to be more genki! I’m like, “If have to smile any bigger, my face will fall off!” Plus, it doesn’t fit well with my personality to act like that…and yeah, I think you can be a well-liked children’s English teacher without resorting to acting like the princess from that Disney movie “Enchanted”.

    I actually just quit my job over this…Well, for a lot of reasons (which I’ll go into later when I have more time) but this was definitely one of them.

    That’s awesome that whoever trained you eventually let you do your own thing and didn’t try to push the whole ‘genki’ thing. That’s lucky.

  4. No, don’t give him that much credit. They just dropped me off up North the next morning (seriously) so I was on my own and the next thing they heard were my rave reviews. And I have never, ever, ever had anyone tell me to be more genki in any of the schools I’ve worked in since.

    The most baffling thing was that the main school I was being sent to was a junior high. Did they really think the gaijin monkey act would go over for even 2 seconds with a bunch of sullen 15 year olds? I mean what the hell.

    I bet you’re sooo gonna love your break from ESL…

  5. Huh. That’s weird…yeah, I don’t know what to think about the whole genki thing. It’s left me totally confused. I mean, none of the kids are ever genki. Even the young ones…Half the time Japanese kids seem sullen or sleepy or bored. I don’t know. I can’t read them! It’s frustrating. And me acting more excited about the game or activity does nothing for them. But somehow the myth that it makes this big difference is continually perpetuated everywhere here. I really don’t think they know what they’re talking about.

    BUT I still think you’ve got to smile a lot more here, and use an a more ‘peppy’ tone of voice then you would with American kids. But I think that’s just to make up for the language and cultural barriers.

    I think I want to go teach in Thailand next. I hear it’s a lot easier.

  6. Really? In Yamagata all of the kids up through JHS 2nd-years have a ton of energy. Everyone keeps telling me students in Tokyo are extremely different, but they can’t say how. Haha, I guess we’ll see?

    I plan to try Thailand out, too. I know a guy who’s teaching over there and he loves it, but this is what he had to say about the actual teaching side of things, if you’re interested:

    “the teaching jobs here pay extremely low wages, in most cases half of what you could get in any other country.

    the 20-25 year old university students act the way we acted when we were in junior high. the 16-19 year olds are basically children. things mature at a different rate in this country. this can be frustrating at times.

    you have to learn thai to teach here, because no one in your class will speak english. at all. i know 20 teachers from 20 different schools here, and it is the same in every school. the university system pushes students out after five years, even if they failed every single test. actually, you cannot fail here—-every one graduates, no matter what.”

    Oh, ESL! The wackness is half the fun I guess.

  7. Thanks for that! Actually, that makes me want to teach there even more! I hate that I have to work so hard to get the kids excited about things. And shy kids frustrate me. I just have no patience with them sometimes…I hear that Thai kids don’t have that problem, so that’ll be a relief.

    I don’t know if the difference lies in that fact that its a big city and the kids are just jaded or over-stimulated or if it’s just the school I work at (the curriculum sucks) but the kids act pretty bored most of the time. It’ll be interesting to see how your experiences compare!

Comments are closed.