Japanese Early Childhood Education

Back to Japan

My work on early childhood education focused on how Japanese children are socialized into being members of formal organizations. In two ethnographic texts that I wrote about this issue – entitled, respectively, “Body Projects in Japanese Childcare” and “Japanese Childcare” – I explored the organizational arrangements and informal dynamics by which children are brought up in Japan’s institutions of early childhood. This project was based on over three months of fieldwork in 1988 and 1994.

The first ethnography (and related articles) focused on the place of bodily practices in socialization and was one of the first works about Japan that sought to apply insights of studies about the body to this society. I proceeded from the following, rather simple, proposition: while a host of very good studies of Japanese preschools have been published in the past decade, these works tend to overlook a number of key issues related to embodiment and to affects. Borrowing from Mike Featherstone, I explored early socialization as a set of ‘body projects’: a series of practices undertaken (over time) to design the body according to prevailing cultural definitions and images. The concept ‘body projects’ allows us to understand how the body is, at one and the same time, a malleable material good capable of being fashioned in a certain manner, an entity which represents social relations and notions, and an embodiment of affective attitudes and stances towards the world. To be sure, body projects can be seen as individual undertakings in which people intentionally fashion their physical frame to conform to accepted social notions. But the intriguing question in regard to such projects in preschools involves the organizational schemes that use the body in enculturating children. The analytical challenge then is to uncover the procedures and methods utilized by such institutions to fashion children’s physical forms and emotional postures and attitudes through such activities as sleeping, eating or playing.

The second ethnography on early childhood education focused on the organizational life of kindergartens and sought to place the organizational dynamics of preschools in a comparative perspective within Japan and outside of it. Representing an analysis of Japanese preschools as organizations, as administrative frameworks, I argued that previous works on kindergartens tend to look ‘through’ rather than ‘at’ issues related to organization. In other words, in almost all of these studies the organizational aspects of preschools are ‘transparent’ in the sense that they form the lenses ‘through’ which child care is viewed. In this book, I focused precisely on what was left unexamined in previous work. To put this by way of example, in order to understand the manner by which children learn to “become Japanese” it is not simply a matter of singling out how preschools employ the same set of cultural concepts and methods of training as those that are found in the framework of families. Rather, the challenge is to show how the implementation of such cultural notions and procedures is carried out by means of the organizational ‘logic’ — the rules and scale, arrangements and sets of

A few years ago I decided to return to this subject and spent six months (2005-2006) doing field research in another institution. This time my focus was on how such centers prepare children for school life and academic studies.

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Japanese Childcare: An Interpretive Study of Culture and Organization. London: Kegan Paul International, 1997. [Google Books]

Body Projects in Japanese Childcare: Culture, Organization and Emotions in a Preschool. London: Curzon, 1997. [Google Books]

Eyal Ben-Ari Disputing about Day‑Care: Care‑Taking Roles in a Japanese Day Nursery International Journal of Sociology of the Family, 17, 197‑216, 1987.

Eyal Ben-Ari Caretaking With a Pen? Documentation, Classification and ‘Normal’ Development in a Japanese Day-Care Center. International Journal of Modern Sociology 24(2): 31-48, 1994. [PDF | Download]

Eyal Ben-Ari From Mothering to Othering: Culture, Organization and Nap Time in a Japanese Preschool, Ethos 24(1): 136-64, 1996.

Eyal Ben-Ari Forms of Quality? Documentation, Standardization and Discipline in a Japanese Day-Care Center. Education and Society 12(2): 3-20, 1995.

Eyal Ben-Ari State, Standardization and ‘Normal’ Children: An Anthropological Study of Preschool. In Roger Goodman (ed.): Family and Social Policy in Japan: Anthropological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 111-30, 2002.

Eyal Ben-Ari Transnational Similarities, Ethno-theories and “Normal” Child Development: Early Childhood Education in Japan. In Julia Reznick (ed) The Production of Educational Knowledge in the Global Era. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 2009.


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Eyal Ben-Ari Formal Caring Alternatives: Kindergartens and Day-Care Centers. In Jennifer Robertson (ed.): A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Pp. 247-60, 2005.

Eyal Ben-Ari “It’s Bedtime” in the World’s Urban Middle-Classes: Children, Families and Sleep. In Lodewijk Brunt and Brigitte Steger (eds) Worlds of Sleep. Berlin: Frank & Timme. Pp. 175-91, 2008.


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