The Amazingly Different Remarkableness of Japanese and Americans


Japanese and American people are truly remarkable people, although they amaze in entirely different ways.

The Japanese excel in order and discipline.

My favorite example to illustrate this is the shugaku ryokou, which is like a field trip for an entire grade over a couple nights at some exotic location like the historical city of Kyoto or Tokyo Disneyland.  There, the students are divided up into small groups of four to five who are told to explore the locale without adult supervision and return to their lodging by a certain hour.

If you`re an American, there are so many things that are remarkable about the shugaku ryokou.  For starters, it’s hard to imagine four American high school teenagers collectively having enough maturity to study the travel guide and coming up with a two-day plan to explore the city.

But what is really mind-blowing is that the shugaku ryoko occurs every year in middle and high schools  across Japan without a single incident that makes newspaper headlines.  This means that unsupervised teenagers roaming the streets for an entire day manage to avoid having a brush with the police and return in time for dinner.

This is unthinkable in the United States, where the thinking would go “of course teenagers are going to be reckless and irresponsible and expecting them to act any other way  would defy common sense.”  Any American school that lets something like a shugaku ryoko happen will be rightfully sued for negligence.

Yet in Japan, communalism that imposes self-discipline and collective responsibility even on teenagers is so engrained in society and culture that most Japanese would find it difficult to understand what, exactly, is so remarkable about the concept of a shugaku ryoko.

But if Americans don’t excel in collective responsibility, they make up for it in individual exceptionalism, something I experienced going through the math education system in America.

Generally speaking, math education in America is frighteningly bad.  I could tell something was amiss as early as in second grade, right after I moved from Japan, when a textbook included “guess and check” as an appropriate tool to use in solving a word problem. It unequivocally is not.

The education only gets worse as years advance.  In middle school, the symbol ≠ is taught as if it can be used in an equation similar to the = symbol.  In high school, school administrators argue that calculators should be permitted on standardized exams for questions that test the student`s ability to estimate, like “Which is larger, √3 or 3√9?”  In college, freshman taking calculus gets a negative answer to a problem that asks “what is the area of….?” and moves on to the next question without sensing something odd.  

With American math education in such dire state of affairs, it was hardly an accomplishment that I excelled in the subject through high school, having been given additional math education on par with Japan.

It never crossed my mind that it would be any different in college, which is why I chose mathematics as my initial major to take the easy path.  The first two years went as expected, surrounded by classmates who didn’t know what a law of cosine was much less being able to recite it.

Then something happened in my junior year.  One day it dawned on me that I was the only person in class who was unable to follow the lecture.

The sudden realization was more puzzling than shocking.  The classmates who left me behind mostly went to public schools where the quality of math education should have been on par with what I received at my high school.  Where and how they learned the basics and developed the skills necessary to understand advanced mathematics was something that I could not begin to fathom. It remains a deep mystery to this day.

I can only assume that there is something intrinsic about the American education system that cultivates the gifts of the gifted.  Whatever is the American secret, I can definitively state that the Japanese education system and the society at large do not have it;  that`s why so many Japanese Nobel Laureates are at American universities.

In an ideal society, the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese and American extremes are added and divided by two to achieve some balance.  Unfortunately, that’s not the way people, culture and society work.

Since taking the bad with the good is unavoidable, the best we can hope to achieve is to leverage the good and temper the bad through the collaboration of diverse cultures and societies.  One of the benefits of modern globalization is that such collaboration is easily possible, if we only work to appreciate each other’s differences.

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2 Responses to “The Amazingly Different Remarkableness of Japanese and Americans”


  1. 1 Porus October 12, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Yes I fully agree with this article and think it is fascinating. I see this all the time: a sea of students who are simply subpar when it comes to basic math understanding. But there is always those one or two kids for whom everything is clicking. It is apparent within days that they will simply explode through the college system, surpass my ability quite quickly and do some great things in math.

    Where do these kids come from? I think most good high schools have a vibrant AP program that will challenge the brightest, most ambitious kids. We have magnate high schools which are a breeding ground for taking the best middle school math/science students and educating them properly. And our college system is, for its faults, the same way. A lot of people go to college for little benefit. But the best programs and the best colleges are simply better than most of the world in my opinion in terms of rigor and opportunity. So at every step of the way you get a lot of people languishing and a few being drawn to the cracks that are the key to success.

    Now just speculating, but if everyone in Japan has a reasonably good understanding and proficiency in basic math, and everyone is generally at the same level, maybe the potentially great students are held back being mixed in with a class that has a glass ceiling of potential. In the US from a young age, really bright kids are self-sorting into the hard path and pitting themselves against the “best of he best”

    • 2 joesas October 16, 2016 at 10:00 am

      Porus,

      Yep, completely agree about America. Having gone through it (mostly with you), I think you nailed what makes America works.

      As for Japan, the saying “the nail that stands gets hammered” is so true. In Japan, there is not so much interest in bringing out the best as much as there is ensuring that the entire class brings out the best. I suspect it’s a very frustrating place to be if you’re the best of the best.

      Japan and America exhibit fascinating cultural differences. They are at quite the extreme.


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