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Culture

Kids’ Summer Homework in Japan: With Friends Like These

For better or worse, summer-long school assignments have been a family affair in Japan for longer than you might think.

By 6 min read

As I’m knocking back some imo jochu (sweet potato shochu) during the Obon holiday, my wife tells me she needs me to go take some photos in front of our local train station.

“What for?”

Our son’s jiyu kenkyu (independent research project), she tells me.

Jiyu kenkyu, for the uninitiated, is one of the major headaches confronting Japanese kids and their parents during the natsu yasumi (summer break), sometimes also referred to as  (kaki kyuka) on some school calendars sent home to parents.   In an open-ended research project, students are allowed to choose what they will study but must produce a poster of their findings that is then presented at school. The best projects are sent to a regional contest, with the winning entries bumped up to a national contest.

Summer break friend

As a bio-chem major, the notion of jiyu kenkyu strikes me as rather good—it compels children to examine the world around them, to be curious about its phenomena and to conduct an investigation, inculcating them with the Scientific Method at the tender age of 8. In the past years, my elder son has built handmade vacuum cleaners out of plastic bottles using different sized motors and blades and power sources.

It was not only fun (and a little dangerous), but also quite educational. It helped him along a path of building and tinkering, something that he still loves to do today.

The problem with jiyu kenkyu is that it is only one small but time-consuming part of the thick bundle of summer homework euphemistically called “natsu yasumi no tomo” (“summer break friend”)—and boy, with friends like that…

It includes an 80-page workbook with drills covering each subject, extra printouts for kanji (Japanese characters) and math study, reports, diaries, art projects, calligraphy, book reports and producing the front page of a newspaper. In addition, there are a slew of contests for essay writing, artwork, calligraphy, haiku (poetry) and more.

What do parents think?

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One of the purposes of “natural yasumi,” or summer break, is to instill in children the ability to learn independently—at least according to schools.

Switch on any terebi anime (animated TV show) in the final week of the summer break and you will surely find cartoon parents yelling at their children to finally hit the books, a standard theme of popular shows like Sazae-san and Doraemon.

In a survey conducted by PR Times, two-fifths of parents said that although their children managed to get through the bulk of the work at the start of the summer break, the book reports and jiyu kenkyu tended to be put off until the very end of it. That’s been the case in our home, too, requiring me to put my shochu down and hump over to the station and snap some photos.

Half of the parents in the survey reported also having to help their children with their research projects. Another 40% helped with the book report, which in my younger son’s case ended up being six handwritten pages long; while another 34% assisted with the art project. Only 16% said they didn’t lend their children a hand at all.

Growing up in America, homework was the very antithesis of summer vacation, which in my day lasted three glorious months and was spent entirely at our cabin in the San Bernardino mountains east of Los Angeles, swimming, playing shuffleboard and ping pong, hiking and—most importantly—forgetting half the stuff our teachers had tried to cram into our thick skulls during the previous nine months. Come to think of it, I doubt I even read books back then, whereas my sons today devour several books a day, sometimes in one gulp.

Cramming and more cramming

But, naturally, they have different ideas here in Japan about the purpose of kaki kyugyo, as the summer break is officially called. One of the main purposes of it is to instill in children the ability to learn independently. All well and good, but sheesh—talk about wet blankets!

Most elementary school kids, though, have it comparatively easy. At least they can spend time with their “summer break friend” in the comfort of their own home. The older children get, however, the more likely they will be doing hard time at a juku (cram school).

Two-fifths of sixth graders, according to Child Research Net, attend extracurricular cram schools. That figure rises to almost 60% in the third year of junior high school. Many juku hold special summer break “camps,” which might sound like teepees and totem poles, but actually involves studying sometimes 12 or more hours a day, with daily tests determining the seating arrangement of the students—the sharp-witted twirling mechanical pencils in the front of the class; the dolts slumped in a miasma of self-loathing in the very back row. In high school, the drudgery of cram schools is replaced by kagai jugyo, supplementary lessons held throughout most of the summer “break.”

Switch on any terebi anime (animated TV show) in the final week of the summer break and you will surely find cartoon parents yelling at their children to finally hit the books…

Is all this cramming, all these projects, all this review really necessary? Well, according to a survey by the advertising company Eole, 65.4% of parents believe it is, a figure that was mirrored in the PRTimes survey. However, 37%  felt that calligraphy wasn’t (probably because cleaning up the mess afterward is a major hassle), 36.3% said that the poster was a waste of time, while 30.1% felt the book report could be done away with (again probably because two-fifths of parents had to help them with it).

The only true authority: my wife

Naturally, the only Japanese parent’s opinion I really give a tinker’s damn about is my wife’s. When I asked her the same question, she said that she was far more shocked to learn that American kids had none. After some thought, she said, “Come to think of it, the only reason parents today don’t question the need for summer homework is that they had to do it themselves when they were young.” And she’s right: Natsu yasumi no tomo has been around since the Taisho era, meaning her great-grandparents also had to do it.

“Oh, and don’t forget to take those photos,” she adds. “Chop-chop.”

With a sigh, I put my sweating glass of shochu down, push myself out of the chair, grab my ichigan refu (single lens reflex) camera, then head out the door.

This year’s jiyu kenkyu is about CO2 levels found in the environment. Apparently, my son picked up a kit containing phenolphthalein, a chemical compound that is used as an indicator in acid-base titration. A weak acid, the deprotonated ion is fuchsia in color. When in contact with CO2, however, the color fades. The faster the color fades, the higher the level of C02.

My son predicted that due to all the car and bus traffic around the station C02 levels would be high, but to his surprise, they were not.

At first, he guessed it may be due to the fact that almost 40% of new cars sold in Japan now are so-called “next generation,” namely, electric, hybrid and so on. What we learned was that it was actually hard to record atmospheric CO2 levels with cheap kits from hobby shops. (The quickest reactions, incidentally, were triggered by gas from carbonated drinks and air fresheners.)

And so, like generations of Japanese parents before me, I can only acquiesce, despite the constant niggling. I find some solace in the fact that my son didn’t bother asking daddy to contribute some of his hot air for the project.

How is summer homework for your school-age children handled in your home? Do you get as involved in the projects as the kids? Or do you scramble to help as the return to school approaches? Let us know win the comments!

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