ABU DHABI // A little before noon at the Japanese School in Abu Dhabi, 20 kindergarten children are noisily enjoying their packed lunches, too young to understand the educational initiative in which they are pioneers. "Sensei, sensei," they cry, each trying to attract the attention of the teacher at the same time. Bento boxes cleared away, there is half an hour left for play before parents arrive.
As the children start to skip, jump and spin around the classroom, Abdullah, one of four Emirati boys enrolled in the school, proudly shows his teacher, Yuko Morimoto, that he is able to write his name in Japanese. The Emirati children, aged three to five, are taking part in a special educational project launched two years ago by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. In 2005, Sheikh Mohammed founded the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which is behind the experiment.
To benefit from the education systems of other countries and to share in cultural exchanges, Emirati children are being enrolled in the French, Chinese, German and Japanese schools of Abu Dhabi. Dr Rob Thompson, the head of special projects at ADEC, said the programme, driven by Dr Mugheer Khamis al Khaili, the council's director general, linked with other activities in international education in the emirate, such as the opening of the Sorbonne and scholarships for Emiratis to study overseas.
"This is about cultural understanding," he said. "If you start the children young, they can really add to the educational wealth of the country." As the Japanese School is small with just 40 students, only two Emirati children are able to join each year. Each class combines three grades, which means the four Emirati boys are in the same classroom. All of the teaching and communication is in Japanese.
The two older children, aged five, have been at the kindergarten for two years and are already able to express themselves in Japanese. Ms Morimoto, who has been teaching at the school for six months, said it was important that the Emirati children were able to learn as much about Japanese culture and behaviour as the language. "Of course, at first they don't understand what we are saying," she said. "This is all about trial and error. The boys are living within two cultures, one is Japanese and the other is the Islamic culture of the UAE."
To help the Emirati boys keep up with the activities, they arrive at school an hour earlier than their Japanese classmates to practise new words that may be in the songs and games they will learn that day. The Japanese kindergarten places an emphasis on learning through play and enjoyment. Ms Morimoto said the main aim of the project was for the children "to grow up together, teach each other and learn from each other".
"The most important aspect of Japanese education is harmony and co-operation," she said. "We try to understand other people's feelings." Maria Yogo, the curriculum co-ordinator at the Japanese School, said there had been some teething difficulties with the programme. "The classes are in Japanese only and there are no teachers that understand Arabic at the kindergarten, so it can be difficult for the Emirati children to express themselves and they can become overactive," she said.
"The children make great efforts to learn the language, but sometimes they do not learn as quickly as you might expect. They are only in school three to four hours a day, and then they go home and are not exposed to the Japanese language." She said for the Emirati parents "coming to a very different environment, which has never before accepted foreign students, takes a lot of courage". "There are cultural differences," she added. "But we learn from each other. We learn to respect different traditions and religion.
"Emirati families are usually big and it is normal for them to have a housemaid. At the school, the children must get used to daily activities such as putting their toys away. Once they discover they can do it for themselves, the children are confident and proud of themselves." One of the unique aspects of the Japanese system from kindergarten through to high school is cleaning time, an activity the whole school takes part in.
"When one of the parents found out his son was cleaning, he asked, 'Is that a punishment for my son?'," Ms Yogo said. "We had to explain that it is just a part of the school activities to clean up the school. The children enjoy taking care of their environment. When two cultures mix, there are always some questions." The benefits of the programme for both the Emirati children and the Japanese were immense, she said.
"Outside the classroom, Japanese children may not have much opportunity to communicate with local people," she said. "Here, they have a chance to engage with local children. This is a good experience for the Japanese community as a whole." Although only boys have so far enrolled in the programme, it is open to any Emirati child provided he or she starts in the first year of kindergarten. The children will be educated up to ninth grade, when their parents will have the option to send them to high school in Japan. All teaching is in Japanese, although the children will also study Arabic, Islamic studies and social studies in Arabic as they progress through the grades.
Hiroshi Fujii, the vice chairman of the governing board of the Japanese School, said the programme was just one of many ways in which Abu Dhabi was turning to Japan to improve its educational standards. In 1998, the Kumon maths method, named after the Japanese senior high school teacher who formulated it in the 1950s, was brought to schools in Abu Dhabi. The method, which focuses on independent learning, has proved a success.
"There have been very good results in the Model schools," Mr Fujii said. "We have seen the same results with Emirati students as with Japanese students, which shows it is not about the capability of Emirati children, it is about the educational environment." He said the Emirates wanted something different "from the European and American way". "The Japanese system has created a lot of tools to teach maths and science to young children," he said.
But he added: "This is the first trial for us to accept local kids within the Japanese school. The Japanese are famous for their discipline and diligence. That is why, I believe, the Crown Prince wanted Emirati children joining a Japanese school." Zayed al Sanadi, a network administrator, has enrolled his son, Khalifa, in the school following a six-week trial period. Khalifa is full of energy and never stops smiling as he runs around the classroom playing with his new friends.
Mr Sanadi jokes that Khalifa enjoys being at the school more than at home, but says firm discipline is one of the main reasons for his decision to send his son here. "In the Japanese system, there is a high level of respect," he said. "The mentality is different. For example, in other schools if the child is naughty, you might isolate him in a chair and ask them to apologise but here it is more respectful. They learn the importance of treating people with respect.
"My son is only three years and eight months [old], but he is learning to do everything by himself." He admitted that when Khalifa was older, it would be difficult to help his son with his homework in the same way as Japanese parents. "But this will make him independent," he said. "He will have to improve himself. He will be ambitious." Mr Sanadi, a fluent English speaker, added he would be happy to send his son to high school in Japan if it was the best option.
"My son will be able to speak Arabic and Japanese and he will pick up English," he said. "He could be an ambassador or a public speaker. His career is already guaranteed. When there are chances like this in the UAE, you have to go for it." email@example.com