On the journey to meet the high standards of education in Japan

Since 2003, PBS has followed children from different countries as part of the documentary series "Time for School." In this fourth installment, hear the story of Ken Higashiguchi from Nara, Japan, where the school hours are long and the expectations are high.

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  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    Baseball's taught me to appreciate my parents, my mentors, and my fellow teammates.

    That's something I learned in elementary, middle and high school.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken Higashiguchi is six years old and lives with his mother and father in Nara, Japan, a nation committed to having a fully literate society.

    Nearly every child in Japan goes to school. And today, like Ken, thousands of six year olds are preparing to attend their opening day ceremony.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    I have to wear this for a whole hour? It's embarrassing.

  • CHIZUKO HIGASHIGUCHI:

    We want to give Ken a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities. The most important thing is for Ken to be happy for his life.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Today, Ken joins the ranks of students who follow a long, well-planned journey through one of the most successful school systems in the world…and one of the most demanding.

    Unlike his counterparts in much of the world, Ken is well prepared for first grade. He has been in state-funded day care since the age of one.

  • JUKU TEACHER:

    How are you?

  • KIDS:

    I'm fine, thank you. How are you?

  • JUKU TEACHER:

    Very good. I'm fine, thank you.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Along with many Japanese school children, Ken attends private after-school classes known as "Juku schools."

    Ken's parents are pushing him to get the best education possible, but the hours are long and the expectations are high.

    Both of Ken's parents work full time, but they devote their weekends to their only child…often doing what Ken, now nine, loves most: playing baseball.

  • CHIZUKO HIGASHIGUCHI:

    So far he likes everything, including sports, studying, and playing around. I think he feels that if he makes the effort, he can do anything.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    This much?

  • CHIZUKO HIGASHIGUCHI:

    Turn it down.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken is now in third grade at Saho Elementary School and often arrives early to play with his friends.

    After decades of imposing stringent standards and an 11-month school year, Japan has dropped Saturdays from the school week.

    But one thing hasn't changed: teaching teamwork, the hallmark of the Japanese workforce.

  • HIROAKI ONISHI:

    I have 30 students, and I'd like for them to do something together continuously.

    That's how we started skipping rope together once a week for a year back in April.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Today their goal is to achieve 1,000 consecutive jumps.

  • HIROAKI ONISHI:

    You guys jumped 300 more than the time before. Do you know why we were doing this?

  • STUDENTS:

    Team…

  • HIROAKI ONISHI:

    Teammates!

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    When I grow up, I want to be a professional baseball player, or a school teacher.

    When I started I didn't know how to catch or throw or hold the bat.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    At 12, Ken is finishing 6th grade and trying his best to balance his love of sports and his need to study.

  • CHIZUKO HIGASHIGUCHI:

    He reads in the paper and the news about other kids in other countries. He thinks going to school and playing with friends are a given. And having meals every day is a given.

    I think that at a conscious level he understands the reality that there are kids his age, who can't go to school and have to work in order to survive. I just don't know how much he understands that emotionally. I think that's what he'll have to learn as he gets older.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken is 18 years old and has never missed a single day of school.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    School is a place where you can really expand your knowledge, and where you can also meet new people.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken is about to graduate from high school and start college, carrying on a tradition of discipline, and teamwork, which he mastered as captain of his baseball team.

    Today the whole school community is here for Ken's last game.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    Playing baseball has taught me the importance of motivating the team, not only by what I say but also by what I do.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken's team loses the game. His tireless focus on training makes the loss especially difficult.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    We really wanted to win, so I tried hard to pull the team together, but still it seems it wasn't enough. Next year, the team will continue to do their best.

  • CHIZUKO HIGASHIGUCHI:

    Whenever he was having a hard time, I saw him gather the strength to move on … and then I was able to gain that strength too.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    Learning not to run away from difficult situations has definitely been my biggest achievement.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken also learned lessons from the tragedy that struck Japan in 2011: the earthquake and tsunami that claimed 16,000 lives.

    Ken traveled with his mother the 400 miles from his home to the damaged region.

    Students at Ken's school gathered funds for the effort and sent care packages.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    I was in student government for two years.

    During that time, the Great Earthquake happened.

    We raised money and came up with new ideas. That's how we contributed.

  • KIKUCHI HARUKA:

    He doesn't compromise and doesn't let himself off easy. I believe this is the man he is trying to become.

  • HIROSHI HIGASHIGUCHI:

    I think we created a good environment for him to be able to succeed at what he wanted to do.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Ken is now off to college near his home. He will study to be a physical education teacher and will try to bring the lessons of teamwork and concern for others to future generations.

  • KEN HIGASHIGUCHI:

    I think the first step is to put our words into actions, and then we can have a positive impact on those around us.

    That's the kind of person I want to be.

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