JAPAN is often described as a country of contrast, where modernity and high technology coexist with tradition and culture, with words such as polite, hardworking, punctual, helpful, clean and kind often used to describe its people.

How did Japan embrace the future, yet retain its traditions? How can it both be busy and crowded, yet still be polite and helpful?

The Japanese traditionally consider children to be precious gifts from god. Not surprising then that it is one of the countries that fully embrace the importance of early childhood education.

Studies have shown that early childhood experiences are crucial in building strong neural connections. Exposure to positive environments during early education will nurture intellectual, physical, emotional and social developments, which serve a long way towards success in life.

Japan’s preschool system consists of kindergartens and daycare centres for children under age 6. Many preschools have their own approaches, but they still adhere to the general guidelines issued by the Education Ministry.

The main aims of Japan’s early education are to guide “children to develop basic human attributes”. Preschool activities, like play time, music lessons, arts and crafts, are designed to instil social values, ability to communicate and socialise with others, to familiarise children with rules and social etiquette and to develop and nurture a child’s individual interests.

Nothing encapsulates Japan’s early education system more than the activities around mealtime. Enacted in 1954, the school lunch programme has evolved into an excellent way to provide balanced and healthy meals to students.

During mealtime in preschool, food is served by older students in an orderly manner. Lunch will only start after everyone has been served and with a traditional saying of thanks. Students will clean up after themselves after the meal. Thus, the mealtime ritual teaches kids teamwork, duty, etiquette, discipline and cleanliness.

Another aspect is the inclusion of history, culture and tradition in education. Japanese children often participate in celebrating Japanese festivals like Doll Festival, Boys’ Day and Star Festival at school, allowing them to appreciate the history and values behind the traditions and at the same time ensures their continuation and preservation.

This is something Malaysia can try and emulate. By organically incorporating customs and traditions from its multicultural population from an early age, it can foster greater understanding and tolerance among its population, a step in the right direction for nation building.

Nonetheless, all the good work will not be completed without parents playing their part at home. Japanese parents often encourage their children to join group activities to foster teamwork, to be polite and respectful to elders, provide balanced meals, to be mindful of others and to appreciate customs and traditions through storytelling, hence providing children with consistent messages.

The final and most important element is teachers. It has often been observed that Japanese preschool teachers behave like mothers in their gentle guidance of young students. Furthermore, the teachers are qualified, as all teaching positions in Japan require a minimum of two years of university-level education.

Preschools have its own philosophies and methodologies, and there is close collaboration between teachers, college trainers, schools, universities and related institutions.

Teachers work with researchers to review and refine practical applications of teaching methods. This often provides an opportunity for teachers to advance their careers, making teaching an attractive job choice.

Japan’s early education is not foolproof. There is concern that the push towards being good members of society comes at the expense of individual creativity. But it is an adjustment that Japan can make given the flexibility in its early education system.

When Malaysia embarked on the Look East Policy in 1982, one of the main objectives was to emulate Japan’s positive values, work ethic and management style. Students and government officials were sent to Japan to study and for training.

While the programme was successful in producing graduates, the number was too small to have a meaningful impact on the nation. Perhaps a better way is to adopt and adapt the Japanese early education system. Malaysia can emulate desired Japanese traits as well as utilise it as a policy tool.

According to Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, “the return of investments in education, is the highest in the early years”. Prioritising early education can be the best investment that Malaysia can make for the future of the nation.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 27 March 2021.

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