The childhood lessons that saved our lives in the face of the pandemics


Part of my most recent training was dedicated to the cross-disciplinary sharing of knowledge among fellow teachers. Through role-play activities and games, English teachers introduce, demonstrate, and rationalize the methods of teaching they adopt. They let their Japanese co-workers experience for themselves the effectiveness of learner-centered instruction and the way they help students build upon and expand the knowledge gained from GrapeSEED lessons.

In return, English teachers are briefed with the task of assuming the role of students facing social conflicts while Japanese teachers need to demonstrate how to assist children in coping with and resolving conflicts peacefully. With early childhood being the foundation for lifelong character formation, helping Japanese children learn how to exert self-control, resolve disputes, and show respect for others, forms the backbone of Japanese preschool education.

Later on in life, children go on to hone their skills through experience and practice not only at school but also at home and through extracurricular activities. Until the day comes when something as critical as the recent pandemic happens and the very same childhood lessons, along with some subsequently acquired cultural characteristics, allow them to save their own and the lives of others.

Articles circulating the Internet shed light on Japan’s alleged success in containing the coronavirus. Some criticize the government for the overly-optimistic and relaxed response to the pandemics while others justify the loose measures on the grounds that enforcement of restrictions on movement aren’t necessary for a society built on understanding, respect, and collaboration. 

Request and Encouragement

One of the explanations to the absence of compulsory power is that the Japanese people are so responsive to official requests they don’t need such orders. Jishuku (self-regulation) really works here.

Within the Eastern spirit of community, unconditional loyalty to the group represents the highest form of human achievement and virtue that everyone should strive to embody. This makes conformity to the will of the leader for the benefit of the group easily achievable. Similar to the preschool play experience, though grounded mostly on a rational judgment with less emotional reactivity, members of the group try whatever it takes to avoid being left behind and excluded from the group especially as a result of misconduct.

In Japan, peer pressure is enormously effective in producing conformity. One can witness people complying with socially, not even legally, enforced rules with great allegiance. Under the law and the constitution of Japan, the authority can only request that people stay home but they cannot order them to do so. That’s left to the silent but omnipresent power of peer pressure. 

While the rest of the world is seeing stringent lockdowns and penalties for violation, people in Japan are still able to leave their homes and go to work, go shopping, or simply run their errands. The difference lies in the fact that the Japanese do so in a socially-conscious manner.

Odd, as it may seem like to an outsider, Japan’s ‘soft’ approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic has its rationale. Respect and care for oneself and for the other, strive for harmonious social relations, and the undertaking of actions with minimal environmental and social impact is what makes Japanese society run on the approach of encouragement rather than enforcement. 


Back to the subject, while English teachers are highly consumed by the content, the context, and the method of facilitating students’ construction of knowledge, Japanese teachers take on the role of molding students’ behavior.

As part of their upbringing, the Japanese are educated and constantly reminded to look at the actions and the behavior rather than the person behind it. By modeling, the teacher shifts the focus on the behavior and away from the person: “Is it nice to hit a friend?” rather than “Why did you hit?”

In Japan, people never personally attack anyone and young kids are never scolded in front of their peers. When children don’t get to taste the bitterness (and at times even the trauma) brought by an imposed sense of guilt and shame, they grow into individuals possessing highly humane values like respect, being peaceful, and responsible. From an early age, Japanese are conditioned to build up a habit of speaking of and judging only people’s practices and doings, rather than who they are or what they look like. 

Respect One’s Privacy

Commonly, whether in the corporate office or in the classroom, members talk through the issue at hand as a group and share ideas so they can see others’ viewpoints and make a community decision. In sheer contrast to this scenario, personal problems are handled with discretion, discussed in private, and never considered a matter of public concern. In a place where private life and personal space are treated with dignity and respect, social-distancing happens with ease. 

Emotional Self-regulation and Rational Problem-solving

Respect towards one’s feelings, privacy, and dignity take supremacy over the identity of the group. The first step is to help the child calm down and control their emotions. The teacher speaks in private with the kid who is facing a difficult situation. Once the child has returned to their usual state of emotional equilibrium, the teacher helps through the situation so that the kid himself or herself can define the problem. If there is more than one kid involved, she invites each child, one at a time, to tell his version of the event while the other listens. 

  • Can you tell me what happened? Why are you crying? 

The child himself needs to come to an understanding through a gradually intensifying series of questions. Asking questions helps children to verbalize their thoughts. It also demonstrates the importance of using their words instead of using force. 

  • The teacher walks the kid through the “what if” negative scenario and let the kid realize what could have happened but did not. For example, “the friend you pushed could have bumped his head” “he could have started crying from the pain in his head.” “We would have had to take him to the hospital” 
  • Next the kids must acquire one of the most socially significant skills needed for living as a member of the Japanese community – the ability to see things from another person’s point of view: “How do you think he feels? How would you feel in his position? What if your words hurt her feelings? What if she decides not to talk to you anymore?” 
  • The next key step is to invite the children to verbalize possible solutions to the problem. She helps the kids see the plethora of positive alternatives for their negative behavior. “Can we use words instead of scratching/hitting? Can we ask nicely if we can have the toy? “Look, I know that you are ____ (excited). How else can we express our ______ (excitement)? “Can we share the toy with our friends? Can we play together with the toy?
  • Last, after children have worked through a conflict, talking about the effects of the resolution provides understanding about the importance of working things out.

If one kid is the victim and he is crying as a result of an “attack”, there is a high likelihood that the offender might start crying in defense and fear of being scolded. That is why teachers in Japan remain calm and composed and never resort to anger, judgement, or aggression when dealing with kids. As mentioned earlier, the priority is to calm down the kids and reassure them that they feel safe, loved, and valued and that they will not be in trouble. Teachers in Japan are encouraged to show only two kinds of feelings – happiness and sadness, while feelings of anger, rage and frustration are seen as unpleasant. 

Dealing with Older Kids

When the children are old enough, around the age of 5 and 6, they can understand the idea of cause and effect. In the book Verbal Judo. The Gentle Art of Persuasion you can find a clearcut approach to persuading your students. 

  1. give the reasons (___________ because __________) “I have to ask you to leave the classroom because your behavior is making it impossible for us to continue the class”
  2. give options (good news, bad news) “If you want to stay, you need to listen attentively and keep your body still (without moving around). If you want to run and shout, please leave the classroom and go to the hall”
  3. clarity – confirm his/her final choice “So you agree to listen to the stories and refrain from moving and talking unless you have a question or you wish to share your thoughts”
  4. Act

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