Aisatsu – The Importance of being Seen and Noticed

By Meredith Stephens

The stereotype of Japanese education abroad is of excessive formality – we imagine students in uniform lining up in rows bowing to a cold, stern teacher. This formality can be observed in ritual behaviours such as greetings, in which the interlocutors use honorific language while bowing at prescribed angles. In the morning you must use the honorific ohayo gozaimasu to greet your superiors at work, or teachers at school. However, these greetings are not simply used to express hierarchical relationships, as I gradually came to understand after dropping off my daughter every morning at the school gates.

I always found it puzzling why formal greetings – aisatsu– were such important rituals in Japanese schools. At my daughters’ primary school there was even a banner exhorting students to perform aisatsu. According to the newsletter for parents, giving aisatsu was an explicit educational goal. I was even more taken aback when it was my daughter’s turn to officially perform aisatsu duty. She had to turn up to school early when her name was on the roster, position herself at the school entrance, and say ohayou gozaimasu [Good Morning] in a loud and confident voice to her schoolmates as they entered. Privately I thought this was taking it a bit far. Did greetings have to be taught? Didn’t they arise naturally when you first met the gaze of another in the morning? 

I come from a family of dreamy latecomers. Waking up in the morning for school or work was always the hardest part of the day, and sadly my children seem to have inherited this trait. They had trouble waking up for school, and I had trouble waking up early enough to wake them up. We were the family of stragglers who never seemed to be aware of what was going on and tended to forget to take certain required items to school. On more than one occasion my younger daughter forgot her randoseru [school satchel] and I managed to accompany her all the way to school without noticing. Needless to say, the teachers were incredulous when this happened.

Primary school children usually walk to school in small groups with their schoolmates. Being something of an overprotective helicopter parent, I accompanied my daughter to primary school every morning. It was quite a long walk because I chose to send her to the school with the smallest enrolment in the district, which was a considerable distance away. We never tired of this walk because we had to pass though the historic Tokushima Central Park, gaining entry over a stone bridge, passing the former samurai’s garden, passing statues, spotting herons where the castle once stood, and finally walking through an avenue of towering trees to the school entrance. When we arrived at the school gates, usually the last to arrive, the principal was there, greeting us with a resounding ohayo gozaimasu. He was leading by example.

As the seasons changed and the years went by, I noticed that the principal never failed to greet us enthusiastically at the school gates. Even when it was pouring with rain, he was there to greet us, under his umbrella. Now my children are at university, and I look back fondly to the memory of this “come rain or shine” greeting at the school gates. Sometimes I would like to wind the clock back. I have come to understand that the formal greeting of ohayo gozaimasu was not just the principal’s way of modeling appropriate behavior when meeting others in a formal setting in the morning. The warmth in the principal’s eyes and tone of voice conveyed a sense of caring and inclusion. Being included was a welcome (no pun intended) experience because we were a visible minority and neither my daughter’s nor my Japanese language skills matched those of our peers. Meeting a Westerner is so rare in remote areas of Japan that many locals feel they have to speak English to them. Nevertheless, my daughter’s school day began by being greeted in exactly the same way as her Japanese classmates.

Furthermore, observing the practice of aisatsu by the principal gave me insights into how I should treat my own students. The attention we give our students contributes to their experience of being seen. Being the subject of a teacher’s attention, the knowledge that one is not invisible, enhances learning. I try and remind myself of this powerful experience of being seen and noticed by the school principal when I interact with my own students. There are so many things I want to tell my students that it is tempting to get carried away with my own thoughts. I don’t always exercise the patience to focus on listening carefully to what they want to tell me. Giving my attention to others doesn’t come naturally, but I will continue to try to still myself and allow space for the students to feel they are being noticed and heard.