Today I wonder how we - or is it now 'they'? - might react to a different type of observation. An 'Open Day', at which mother and father get to see what they imagine to be a normal day for Little Johnny and ourselves. (For all I know, such an event may already be in the pipeline or a reality back home, as discriminating parents looking to make informed choices further assert their role as the ultimate customers or 'consumers' of education.) And whilst we're at it, how about opening the doors on a Saturday?
Snow meets me off the eastbound Tokaido Line at Shizuoka Station and we head directly to the neighbourhood school. We leave our shoes at the entrance and head down the long corridor to where her 11-yr old cousin, Fu-chan, dressed in a bright orange sweatshirt numbered '88', sits at a table of four in a large science lab, ten minutes into a chemistry lesson.
Our unsuccessful attempt at a discreet entry to the classroom causes some distraction and arouses not a little curiosity. (No, he does not have a gaijin parent.....) Our visit is a surprise to him too.
We join a line of no more than ten observers to the side of the large classroom, which has two rows of four wooden tables and a wrap-around board at the front. Most of the writing is in hiragana and katakana; there are few kanji. In a country which leads the world in audiovisual technology, the interactive whiteboard is conspicuous by its absence. (Having hosted a small group of visiting Japanese teachers looking to observe their use during the previous academic year, this comes as no surprise.) But there are teacher-friendly gadgets such as an automatic, belt-driven board brush cleaner which a number of the boys queue up to use after the lesson and which I have not seen elsewhere.
My expectation based on stereotype is that primary school-age pupils in Japan would be less fidgety and their lessons more sedentary. The silence certainly holds when the teacher speaks, although a few pupils appear distracted as lunchtime approaches. During practicals, they move around freely and switch tables; some are up to no good even with an audience. The atmosphere on this special occasion is relaxed. Sensei never raises her voice.
The experiments finished, the tables having been cleaned and equipment packed away, the goodbye routines are played out individually yet respectfully between the teacher and each table quartet. There is no collective farewell between her and class.
We thank her for having hosted us. Throughout the time, she has seemed at ease and there is no sensation that our visit has been unwelcome or intrusive, not that this is a country where such a sentiment would be revealed. As an insight into the Monday-to-Friday reality of lessons in Fu-Chan's school, the experience tells us little, yet in these isolated 25 minutes I doubt that she has had an off-day. The parents have seen their children are relaxed and valued, and leave grateful and contented.
We return to our shoes, skirt around the sandy courtyard playground and take the five-minute walk through the neighbourhood back to Snow's home. A bowl of miso ramen awaits. I assume the teacher eats well too.