I ran into an elderly neighbour at the bus stop the other day. He was on his way to a junior high school reunion. "We're in our seventies now though," he said, "so there might only be twelve or fifteen of us." My first though was how wonderful that was. Can you imagine in your seventies still being in touch with that many people from when you were thirteen?! And for most of you to still be living in the same town? I imagined them all, the 74 year olds calling the 76 year olds "sempai". The class clown will still be the one cracking jokes, the smart kid will still be the one everyone asks for advice... and there my second thought hit. These things, the things I love about Japan, are the reasons we have to get Tiger out of here. Because he was the weird kid, and so he will forever be the weird kid.
When he first came to live with us he had never been to a friend's house to play, or had a friend over. Play dates are too hard to organise if you are running an orphanage with a hundred kids, I guess. We worked on social skills intensively for a while and he's fine now, but after a few bumpy visits word got around that he was weird and kids stopped coming over to play. He'd never ridden in a car (the orphanage had a bus, of course) and raved to the other kids about these amazing buttons that made the widows open. The other kids laughed; it was like he came from another planet. First exclusion, then bullying. You wouldn't pick him from a group of "regular" kids these days, but it doesn't matter. His role has been determined. We've sent him to Scouts and he's in a sports club not affiliated with school, but neither has been the source of socialisation we'd hoped for. Everything here is centered on school life, and the scouts never hang out once the meetings are over.
School. I love love love Japanese preschools and elementary schools (junior high I feel is 80% focused on crushing kids' souls, on the other hand). I'm still learning a lot about the system, however, and one thing I am learning is that the system has no safety net for kids who are too far outside 'normal'. Our local school has been accommodating and creative, but we're at the end of the options available within the system and at this point it would be hard to describe our situation as anything other than "the system has given up on our child". It turns out not to be an uncommon situation:
Sayoko and her husband, both Japanese, are the parents of an eighth-grader with autism. The family recently returned to Japan after spending five years in the U.S. During his time abroad, their son was able to transition from special education to a mainstream classroom, where he was a straight-A student in his last year and had teachers enthusiastically recommending college in the future.The irony of leaving Japan before we're ready because that's what the only Japanese member of our family needs is not lost on us, but that's where we are right now.
Despite this stellar record, his autism and its attendant issues with communication mean that Sayako’s son would land squarely back in the “special education” track in the Japanese system. He is currently attending international school, where is he in a mainstream classroom but receives little tangible support for his autism.
“In the Japanese system we are told that even many highly educated, ‘high-functioning’ persons with disabilities can’t get jobs, so it is better for them to attend a vocational high school and gain employment under the ‘disabled persons’ scheme,” Sayoko says, referring to the quota system that exists at big companies. “This idea is instilled into parents of children with disabilities right from elementary school. The path ahead for our son is far from clear.”