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University of Minnesota
Driven to Discover

Lessons From Japan on Disability Services

Misa KayamaSSW Post-Doctoral Associate Misa Kayama hopes her research on the rapidly evolving world of special education in Japan will shed light on disability services for children in the United States as well.

Japan is Kayama’s home country, but she received her social work Ph.D. in the United States, so writing about social welfare issues required her to be able to cross cultures. She chose to focus her dissertation on three Japanese children and their families, following them over two years to determine how they felt about special education services.

The culture of education

Until recently, special education in Japan was reserved for children with more serious disabilities like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. But over the past 10 years, children with attention deficit disorder, Aspergers syndrome, and learning disabilities have started to receive new services. In the United States, school social workers provide such children with social and emotional support, but, in Japan school social work is new, so children with disabilities don’t often work with a school social worker. In the Japanese culture, Kayama notes, receiving services, or being labeled as different, carries some risk. "This is a society where you are called 'stranger' if you are a little different from others," she quoted one teacher as saying.

Japanese culture also highly values working together, so separating children from their peer group in order to offer them additional support requires careful consideration. The Japanese educational system focuses on a concept known as kokoro, which refers to the spiritual process of children's development socially, emotionally, and personally. Peer relationships are used to create an environment where children are motivated to learn. Children not only work together on academic projects, but also serve meals to one another and clean classrooms together. Teachers in the study worried that if children were removed from the classroom, their peer education groups would be disrupted.

Another concept, known as ibasho, a place where one experiences comfort, peacefulness, and acceptance, did led parents and educators to see the value in creating specialized supportive environments for children. Educators felt they had to balance the need for specialized support with development of ibasho and kokoro within children's peer groups.


Kayama spent roughly 16 weeks over two years working in a school where she held a dual role as a researcher and an assistant teacher. She had hands-on experience with children and built relationships with parents. Those relationships were important, Kayama noted, because many parents are reluctant to acknowledge their children's special needs. She followed three elementary-school boys, using participant observation and in-depth interviews to gather data. Her research demonstrated how each boy made peace with his disability, as well as documented the support they received from their classroom teachers and peers, even though the school did not have a social worker.

Dai, an 8-year-old boy with Aspergers syndrome easily became overwhelmed in general classrooms. Even in the smaller special education room, Dai would occasionally have to remove himself and “hide” to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Though he would spend most of his time in the special education room, he would return to his regular classroom on special days, such as when the class held a party. Dai's teacher developed a way to enable him to come and go by incorporating the ritual language the Japanese use every day at home. His peers would say: "Welcome back," to which Dai would say: "I'm back."

Another child with Aspergers, Kateru, was able to socialize successfully with other children. Kateru, who was 7, had a nickname of Dr. Bugs, which came from his expertise about insects. But Kateru found that as second grade progressed, school became overwhelming and frustrating because he had to put in "300 percent" effort to keep up with his peers. Kateru also felt out of place when he was unable to sit still like his classmates. His parents let him choose whether he wanted to be in the special education room, which eventually became the place he spent most of his school time. The special education room offered a place for him to feel at home, or experience ibasho.

A third boy suffered from what Kayama terms "school phobia." Yasuke had a learning disability that interfered with his ability to read and do math. The 11-year-old was also teased because he had a stutter. Teachers suggested he study in one of the smaller special education rooms, but he refused, instead studying in the school nurse’s office or the counseling room. The following year, he began studying with teaching assistants in a room next to the special education classroom, where eventually he experienced ibasho, and made friends with other students with disabilities. From this experience, Yasuke branched out to a less structured classroom, and started to enjoy school once more.

All three boys continued to struggle at school, but they were able to adapt. Kamaya observed how they were able to embrace their disabilities and supports at their own pace and find ibasho, where they were motivated to work to overcome challenges, which is quite different than special education programming in the United States. In the United States, Kayama said, children's Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are created by teams of social workers and other professionals, often with little input required from the children whom they serve.

While this study's sample size is small, Kayama believes it could be a jumping off point. She hopes that school social workers in the United States can learn from the developing Japanese model.

"In both cultures, we talk about trusting relationships between parents and teachers," Kamaya said. "There is something universal in looking at developing trusting peer relationships as well."

Kayama is a post-doctoral fellow working with Professor Wendy Haight, the Gamble-Skogmo Chair in Child Welfare and Youth Policy.

In Kayama's Words

"It is an interesting experience to do ethnographic research in my own culture. My study in the U.S. gave me a chance to reflect on my experiences in Japan. I found many things that I took for granted more than I thought. I am currently involved in a research project focusing on Minnesota children with disabilities who are in the child welfare system. Here again, I am learning about U.S and Japanese children at the same time."