Sunday, September 18, 2005

Queen's Classroom...

Japanese television is in general an even worse wasteland than television in many parts of the world. The variety shows seem to dominate, with very little differentiating one from another. Japanese television in general does not have any long-run dramas and very few comedies, short or long-run. Most dramas last less than a year, even highly rated ones.
A fairly unusual show has been airing for about 6 months now, called JoOu No Kyoushitsu, which translates to Queen's Classroom. The drama stars Amami Yuki as Maya Akutsu, a sixth-grade homeroom teacher in a primary school. And it attacks just about every problem that the writers had with the current state of Japanese education. I don't know that I agree with the analysis of what all of those problems are 100%, but I respect the hell out of the producers and writers for coming up with a really gutsy effort to address some real issues in an entertaining way. The show, unusual for a drama, aired on Saturday night, which allowed parents and kids to watch the show together. It has had good ratings, but sponsors are apparently loathe to be associated with the program.
Maya, not Maya-san, is what the students call their teacher, and this absence of an honorific is indicative of the ambivalence with which they hold her--calling someone by their first name is a casual thing in Japan, especially towards a teacher, and calling her that without an honorific is worse. Of course, they don't call her that to her face. Her demeanor is what gives the show it's name: That of a queen. She challenges students by saying incredibly arrogant things like "only three out the forty of you will be successes in life," pointing to real statistics that show that is the number who end up in first-class schools and first-class companies. At first we don't know that this is a stretegic way to get the kids to open their eyes, it is just her being a bitch. As it goes on, we see the method in her adopted personae. For there is more than one: The queen, the bully, the guardian angel, the devil. The above photo asks the question well, which is she an angel or a devil. She is good at everything, from dancing, singing, fighting, drawing, whatever. One of the hallmarks of her queen persona is what she says--"Iikagen ni mezamenasai", which I would translate as "open your eyes to mediocrity", but which might also legitimately be translated as "stop being so stupid." It is said in an extremely haughty and arrogant way that is hard to love. And yet love is what we, and Kanda, finally have for her.
Tonight's special last episode lasted for 90 minutes, was where we discovered this, and from my point of view, the weakest episode in the series in some ways, owing to it's overly sentimental parting of students and teachers at graduation time. It was, however, very necessary, and even in it's formulaic sappiness was able to make a point that needs to get made.
It is hard to explain the whole series in one posting, and I hope for any of you that are interested in Japan, that it gets subtitled and shown outside of Japan. You might try this site, as I heard rumours that from here you might find independently subtitled versions on Bit Torrent.
Some of the topics covered during the run of the program were:
  • Bullying. This theme actually came up in different forms in different episodes, but Maya makes it clear that it is up to both the person being bullied to stand up for themselves, and for those people around to stand with them. It is not her role as a teacher, she seems to be clearly saying, to save anyone. That is up to the students to do for themselves (though actually she does save them).
  • Forgiveness. Even after being bullied, the main female student character, Kanda, forgives her tormenters. And she convinces other students to forgive a girl who stole from a classmate.
  • Setting an example. One of the other female teachers tries too hard to be friends with all of the students, forgetting what her role was--a teacher--and making her less effective.
  • Excellence. Maya stands for nothing less than perfection when students train to do something. Interestingly, she also teaches the lesson that it is up to those who are better at something to help those who aren't as good, through encouragement, teaching, or whatever. Excellence is not about someone else's standard, but about everyone working together to be as good as they possibly can.
  • Consistency. Even at the sappy ending, Maya could only say 'cut out your nonsense blubbering.' For her to have broken down and joined the students in their crying would not have been consistent. Students need to have teachers who don't get caught up in the moment, but who are consistent. They learned to trust Maya because she was totally consistent.
As a former junior high school teacher here in Japan, I can say that it is a mess. The way that teachers are trained, mentored, evaluated, promoted, and paid is a farce. The way that those teachers then teach, mentor, caution, scold, dicipline, coach, console, and prod is, as one would expect, also a mess. The public education system is definitely broken in some fundamental ways. I have a world of frustration that built up in my few years in that system, and some hurt to go with that.
This show made a strong statement, which is heard because of the medium--a fairly entertaining TV drama--in a way that I couldn't, especially as an outsider. This is important stuff, and I hope that this drama gets people talking, as it has, I believe.
I will end with my own observation, one that I made several times in my career as a teacher, both of junior high students, trade school students, and university students: With no possibility of failure, there is no possible way to measure and reward success. Students are not allowed to fail tests. If they get 0 points, that is just a hiccup. Because of the risk-averse, failure-averse, nature of the Japanese society that I have previously mentioned, they take great care to prevent their young from ever experiencing risk or failure, for fear that it would scar them, or brand them as failures. What this drama pointed out is that it is necessary to accept and learn from failure. Pretending that it isn't failure is not only not helpful, it precludes those kids from being real successes.
I hope there are more shows like this, as it made for some enjoyable and important conversations in our family.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was surprised that the drama was so forceful in its message.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can watch this with English subs at

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is a great drama and i love it so much, i would recommend all the parents to watch it.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check ebay for english subbed versions out of malaysia. The english subs are pretty bad but if you have some knowledge of basic japanese you'll do ok. The DVDs appear to be commercially available DVDS made for the Malaysian/Chinese market and are not bootlegged so they should be around for a while

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the series but not the specials. My favorite moment in the entire series was in episode 8 when Kazumi dreamt of what she hoped was Maya's true identity.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Bang said...

i enjoy watching this drama. It is different from the usual love triangle drama.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best education drama ever...
I learnt alot from the drama.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was the first and probably the best japanese drama i've seen yet. The other one i liked was 'life'.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Lennon said...

Thought provoking is the word to describe this drama.
Though it is forceful on the message. It does bring a strong message to the audience. And hopefully many would understand it.

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My best moment in the entire series in the first episode when Kazumi peed on herself...hahaha
thaat was so cool.

5:10 AM  
Anonymous KH said...

This drama is damn good. It really shows the kids' perspective of the world and how they solve their problems. Throughout the series, the viewer will keep enticipating and wondering what the children might do each time they are thrown a difficult situation by their devilish teacher. Every episode I'm like, "what's she/he gonna do?"

It really pushes the viewer to think hard about the themes mentioned - reality, happiness, studying, bullying, friends, forgiveness, etc. The story does a good job of portraying the character Maya. It starts with a devil and started showing her humanly side, though it's a little bit cliche, but you won't feel any of that because you'll like her so much like the kids.

11:19 AM  

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