Hello from freezing, windy Japan! The country has been hit by a cold front of Siberian winds that have chilled the entire nation. As usual, the snow in Japan falls mainly on the Sea of Japan side, and people on the side of the country facing Korea and China are buried in white, while those of us on the other side of the Japan Alps merely get a lot of cold, biting wind. Lucky us.
The Japanese love it when famous foreigners come to Japan, and it’s always a big deal when top stars like Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves or “Bra-Pii” visits to promote their latest film. But this is not a new phenomenon — back in the 1920s, another famous man visited the country, creating quite a stir at the time. The man was Albert Einstein, and he had been invited to hold a series of lectures on General Relativity so that the Japanese could understand his theories. Everywhere Einstein went he was followed by reporters and fawning fans, and he stayed many months here, traveling all around the country and sharing his thoughts with leading Japanese scientists. He also schlepped around the Kyoto area, enjoying traditional ryokan inns and feeding the deer in Nara, just like so many other gaijin have done since. He was also fascinated in the physics behind the nightingale floors in Nijojo Castle in Kyoto, which are designed to squeak when walked on so that ninja couldn’t sneak into the castle. The Japanese really appreciate humility in a person, and this feature was more than abundant in Mr. Einstein, part of the reason for his great popularity here.
School has ended for my son, and he’s been working on his winter vacation homework, since Japanese kids always get assignments over long breaks to keep them from going baka. Although I’d be dishonest if I said I liked everything about Japan’s education system — I really dislike the idea that there’s only one correct way to approach any problem, and there’s still not enough tolerance for people like my daughter who don’t fit the standard mold of what a Japanese student is supposed to be — all in all I am impressed with the quality of education my kids are getting here. I’ve noticed some “best practices” that the Japanese put into effect to make education more effective. For starters, the importance of benkyo (studying) is taught at a very early age, and when students start the first grade parents buy them a special study desk of their very own, a good way to set the tone for the next nine years of compulsory education. The Japanese use many tricks and rhymes to help them remember things like the names of the planets in our Solar System or the first 20 digits of pi, and my wife can recite more than half the periodical table of elements because of memory tricks like this she used when she was small. One of these tricks involves changing how their numbers are pronounced in order to make them easier to say quickly, which helps Japanese children memorize their timestables, although it adds a layer of difficulty for American fathers wanting to help their kids with their studies.
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