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Notes from Japan

The Year of the Tiger Papa

By Suzanne Kamata

Courtesy: Creative Commons

When I returned to the university where I teach at the beginning of the year – the Year of the Rabbit in Japan — my Canadian colleague and I greeted each other.

“How was your winter break?” he asked me.

“Wonderful!” I told him about how both of my children, who have finished school and left home, returned for the holidays. We’d enjoyed feasting on traditional foods and lazing in front of the TV. “And yours?”

He rolled his eyes. “My son is studying for his high school entrance exam,” he told me. “It was so-o-o stressful.”

How well I remember those days! I think of the year that my own son faced that all-important test, the one that would supposedly determine his entire future, predicting what college he would enter, and then what kind of job, as the Year of the Tiger Papa.

You have probably heard of “tiger mothers” or “education mamas,” stereotypical Asian moms who push their children to succeed academically. Although after having lived in Japan for 23 years at that point I felt that I almost qualified as an Asian mother, no one had ever called me by either of those names. Of course, I wanted my children to do well in school. I was a good student myself, and I was well aware of the value of a good education. However, during PTA meetings, when other mothers were begging the homeroom teacher to assign more homework, mine was the lone voice lobbying for more recess.

Then, my son became a third-year junior high school student. I’d heard that in Japan everything gets put on hold while the kid in question prepares for the all-important high school entrance exam. Since I didn’t have to take an exam to get into my American high school, I really had no idea of the preparation involved. I deferred to my Japanese husband, whom I began to refer to as Tiger Papa.

During the long school holiday, I proposed a family trip to the United States.

“No, “ Tiger Papa said. “Our boy needs to study.”

“Can’t he study while he’s on vacation?” I asked.

Tiger Papa was doubtful. “He needs to study for ten hours a day. Plus, there’s cram school.”

“Well, okay.”

There are many debates about how many hours kids should study, and which country has the best educational system, but we live in Japan. For our kids, success in school meant doing well in the Japanese school system. If our son was willing to study ten hours a day to get into the high school of his choice, then I wasn’t going to stand in his way.

During the end of the year cleaning, my husband and daughter and I washed the windows and polished the floors while our son was holed up in his room with his books. He didn’t have time to hang out with his friends, but he was exempt from all chores. Occasionally, I would bring a cup of hot chocolate to his room.

On the morning of his entrance exam, he sharpened his pencils, strapped on a watch, and rode his bike to the high school where he sat for a five-hour exam. When he came home, he smiled for what seemed the first time in weeks. Come what may, his year of studying was over. I made his favourite soup to celebrate.

“It’s your turn to do the dishes,” Tiger Papa said afterwards. “And then you can clean your room.”

(And yes, dear reader, he got into the school of his choice.)

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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