Room with a View|Jul 6, 2007 9:44 AM| by:


Book: Totto-Chan; Author: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

Totto-chan is a recollection of memories spent while growing up, during which the school that the protagonist/author studied in created a lasting influence. Tomoe, was an unusual school in Tokyo during World War II, run by the rather unconventional headmaster Sosaku Kobayashi, who believed in freedom of expression and activity. Relying on natural methods of learning, and allowing each child to explore his or her world, with little pressure of time and other orthodox rules generally applied in most schools, Tomoe and its students, who studied in railways cars instead of concrete classrooms, seems to have been a bold and beautiful experiment, especially for those times.

Totto-chan is a highly recommended reading for not just those connected directly to the world of education but also parents who are often products of the “old” system.

Given below are some random excerpts translated by Dorothy Britton.

Lessons at Tomoe

Going to school in a railroad car seemed unusual enough, but the seating arrangements turned out to be unusual, too. At the other school each pupil was assigned a specific desk. But here they were allowed  to sit anywhere they liked at any time.

After a lot of thought and a good look around, Totto-chan decided to sit next to the girl who had come after her that morning because the girl was wearing a pinafore with a long-eared rabbit on it.

The most unusual thing of all about this school, however, was the lessons themselves.

Schools normally schedule one subject, for exam­ple, Japanese, the first period, when you just do Japanese; then say, arithmetic the second period, when you just do arithmetic. But here it was quite different. At the beginning of the first period, the teacher made a list of all the problems and questions in the subjects to be studied that day. Then she would say, “Now, start with any of these you like.”

So whether you started on Japanese or arithmetic or something else didn’t matter at all. Someone who liked composition might be writing something, while behind you someone who liked physics might be boiling something in a flask over an alcohol burner, so that a small explosion was liable to occur in any of the classrooms.

This method of teaching enabled the teachers to observe, as the children progressed to higher grades, what they were interested in as well as their way of thinking and their character. It was an ideal way for teachers to really get to know their pupils.

As for the pupils, they loved being able to start with their favorite subject, and the fact that they had all day to cope with the subjects they disliked meant they could usually manage them somehow. So study was mostly independent, with pupils free to go and consult the teacher whenever necessary. The teacher would come to them, too, if they wanted, and explain any problem until it was thoroughly understood. “Then pupils would be given further exercises to work at alone. It was study in the truest sense of the word, and it meant there were no pupils just sitting inattentively while the teacher talked and explained.

The first grade pupils hadn’t quite reached the stage of independent study, but even they were allow­ed to start with any subject they wanted. Some copied letters of the alphabet, some drew pictures, some read books, and some even did calisthenics. The girl next to Totto-chan already knew all her alphabet and was writing it into her notebook. It was all so unfamiliar that Totto-chan was a bit ner­vous and unsure what to do.

Just then the boy sitting behind her got up and walked toward the blackboard with his notebook, apparently to consult the teacher. She sat at a desk beside the blackboard and was explaining some­thing to another pupil. Totto-chan stopped looking around the room and, with her chin cupped in her hands, fixed her eyes on his back as he walked. The boy dragged his leg, and his whole body swayed dreadfully. Totto-chan wondered at first if he was doing it on purpose, but she soon realized the boy couldn’t help it. Totto-chan went on watching him as the boy came back to his desk. Their eyes met. The boy smiled. Totto-chan hurriedly smiled back. When he sat down at the desk behind her-it took him longer than other children to sit down-she turned around and asked, “Why do you walk like that?”

He replied quietly, with a gentle voice that sound­ed intelligent, “I had polio.”

“Polio?” Totto-chan repeated, never having heard the word before.

“Yes, polio,” he whispered. ”It’s not only my leg, but my hand, too.” He held it out. Totto-chan looked at his left hand. His long fingers were bent and looked as if they were stuck together.

“Can’t they do anything about it?” she asked, con­cerned. He didn’t reply, and Totto-chan became em­barrassed, wishing she hadn’t asked. But the boy said brightly, “My name’s Yasuaki Yamamoto. What’s yours?”

She was so glad to hear him speak in such a cheerful voice that she replied loudly, “‘I’m Totto-chan.”

That’s how Yasuaki Yamamoto and Totto-chan became friends.

The sun made it quite hot inside the train. Some­one opened a window. The fresh spring breeze blew through the car and tossed the children’s hair about with carefree abandon.

In this way Totto-chan’s first day at Tomoe began.

Sea Food and Land Food

Now it was time for “something from the ocean and something from the hills,” the lunch hour Totto-­chan had looked forward to so eagerly.

The headmaster had adopted the phrase to describe a balanced meal – the kind of food he ex­pected you to bring for lunch in addition to your rice. Instead of the usual “Train your children to eat everything,” and “Please see that they bring a nutritiously balanced lunch,” this headmaster asked parents to include in their children’s lunchboxes “something from the ocean and something from the hills.”

“Something from the ocean” meant sea food – things such as fish and tsukuda-ni (tiny crustaceans and the like boiled in. soy sauce and sweet sake), while “something from the hills” meant food from the land – like  vegetables, beef, pork, and chicken.

Mother was very impressed by this and thought that few headmasters were capable of expressing  such an important rule so simply. Oddly enough, just having to choose from two categories made preparing lunch seem simpler. And besides, the headmaster pointed out that one did not have to think too hard or be extravagant to fulfil the two re­quirements. …

Sometimes a mother had been too busy and her child had only something from the hills, or only something from the ocean. But never mind. As the headmaster made his round of inspection, his wife followed him, wearing a cook’s apron and holding a pan in each hand. If the headmaster stop­ped in front of a pupil saying, “Ocean,” she would dole out a couple of boiled chikuwa (fish rolls) from the “Ocean” saucepan, and if the headmaster said, “Hills,” out would come some chunks of soy-sim­mered potato from the “Hills” saucepan.

No one would have dreamed of saying, “I don’t like fish rolls,” any more than thinking what a fine lunch so-and-so has or what a miserable lunch poor so-and-so always brings. The children’s only concern was whether they had satisfied the two requirements – the ocean and the hills – and if so their joy was complete and they were all in good spirits.

“Chew It Well!”

Normally one starts a meal by saying, “Itadakimasu” (I gratefully partake), but another thing that was dif­ferent at Tomoe Gakuen was that first of all every­body sang a song. The headmaster was a musician and he had made up a special “Song to Sing before Lunch.” Actually, he just made up the words and set them to the tune of the well known round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The words the headmaster made up went like this:

Chew, chew, chew it well,
Everything you eat;
Chew it and chew it and chew it and chew it,
Your rice and fish and meat!

The words fitted the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” so well that even years later many of the pupils firmly believed it had always been a song you sang before eating.

The headmaster may have made up the song because he had lost some of his teeth, but he was always telling the children to eat slowly and take plenty of time over meals while enjoying pleasant conversation, so it is more likely he made up this song to remind them of that.

After they had sung the song at the tops of their voices, the children all said “ltadakimasu” and settled down to “something from the ocean and something from the hills.”

School Walks

After lunch Totto-chan played in the school grounds with the others before returning to the classroom, where the teacher was waiting for them. “You all worked hard this morning,” she said, “so  what would you like to do this afternoon?”

Before Totto-chan could even begin to think about what she wanted to do, there was a unan­imous shout.

“A walk!”

“All right,” said the teacher, and the children all began rushing to the doors and dashing out. Totto-­chan used to go for walks with Daddy and Rocky (her dog), but she had never heard of a school walk and was astounded. She loved walks, however, so she could hardly wait. As she was to find out later, if they worked hard in the morning and completed all the tasks the teacher had listed on the blackboard, they were generally allowed to go for a walk in the afternoon. It was the same whether you were in the first grade or the sixth grade. Out of the gate they went – all nine first grade pupils with their teacher in their midst and began walking along the edge of a stream. Both banks of the stream were lined with large cherry trees that had only recently been in full bloom. Fields of yellow mustard flowers stretched as far as the eye could see. The stream has long since disappeared, and apart­ment buildings and stores now crowd the area. But in those days Jiyugaoka was mostly fields.

“We go as far as Kuhonbutsu Temple,” said the girl with the rabbit on her pinafore dress. Her name was Sakko-chan.

“We saw a snake by the pond there last time,” said Sakko-chan. “There’s an old well in the temple grounds into which they say a shooting star fell once.”

The children chatted away about anything they liked as they walked along. The sky was blue and the air was filled with the fluttering of butterflies.

After they had walked for about ten minutes, the teacher stopped. She pointed to some yellow flowers, and said, “Look at these mustard flowers. Do you know why flowers bloom?”

She explained about pistils and stamens while the children crouched by the road and examined the flowers. The teacher told them how butterflies helped flowers bloom. And, indeed, the butterflies seemed very busy helping. .

Then the teacher set off again, so the children stopped inspecting the flowers and stood up. Someone said, “They don’t look like pistols, do they?”

Totto-chan didn’t think so either, but like the other children, she was sure that pistils and stamen were very important.

After they had walked for about another ten minutes, a thickly wooded park came into view. It surrounded the temple called Kuhonbutsu. As they entered the grounds the children scattered in various directions.

“Want to see the shooting-star well?” asked Sakko-chan, and naturally Totto-chan agreed and ran after her. The well looked as if it was made of stone and came up to their chests. It had a wooden lid. They lifted the lid and peered in. It was pitch dark, and Totto-chan could see something like a lump of concrete or stone, but nothing whatsoever resembling the twinkling star she had imagined. After staring inside for a long time, she asked, “Have you seen the star?”

Sakko-chan shook her head. “No, never.”

Totto-chan wondered why it didn’t shine. After thinking about it for a while, she said, “Maybe it’s asleep.”

Opening her big round eyes even wider, Sakko-chan asked, “Do stars sleep?”

“I think they must sleep in the daytime and they wake up at night and shine,” said Totto-chan quick­ly because she wasn’t really sure.

Then the children gathered together and walked round the temple grounds. They laughed at the large bellies of the two Deva Kings that stood on either side of the gate, guarding the temple, and gaze­d with awe at the statue of Buddha in the semi­-darkness of the Main Hall. They placed their feet in the great footprint in a stone said to have been made by a Tengu – a long-nosed goblin. They strolled around the pond, calling out “Hello!” to the people in rowboats. And they played hopscotch to their hearts content with the glossy black pebbles around the graves. Everything was new to Totto-chan, and she greeted each discovery with an excited shout.

“Time to go back!” said the teacher, as the sun began to dip, and the children set off for the school along the road between the mustard blossoms and the cherry trees.   ­

Little did the children realize then that these walks – a time of freedom and play for them – were in reality precious lessons in science, history, and biology.

The Great Adventure

Two days after they camped in the Assembly Hall, the day of Totto-chan’s great adventure finally came to pass. It was the day of her appointment with Yasuaki-chan. And it was a secret that neither Mother nor Daddy nor Yasuaki-chan’s parents knew. She had invited Yasuaki-chan to her tree.

The students at Tomoe each had a tree in the school grounds they considered their own climbing tree. Totto-chan’s tree was at the edge of the grounds near the fence beside the lane leading to Kuhonbutsu. It was a large tree and slippery to climb, but if you climbed it skilfully you could get to a fork about six feet from the ground. The fork was as comfortable as a hammock. Totto-chan used to go there during recess and after school and sit and look off into the distance or up at the sky, or watch the people going by below.

The children considered “their” trees their own private property, so if you wanted to climb someone else’s tree you had to ask their permission very po­litely, saying, “Excuse me, may I come in?”

Because Yasuaki-chan had had polio he had never climbed a tree, and couldn’t claim one as his own. That’s why Totto-chan decided to invite him to her tree. They kept it a secret because they thought peo­ple were sure to make a fuss if they knew.

When she left home, Totto-chan told her mother she was going to visit Yasuaki-chan at his home in Denenchofu. She was telling a lie, so she tried not to look at Mother but kept her eyes on her shoelaces. But Rocky followed her to the station, so when they parted company, she told him the truth. “I’m going to let Yasuaki-chan climb my tree!” she said.

When Totto-chan reached the school, her train pass flapping around her neck, she found Yasuaki­-chan waiting by the flower beds in the grounds that were deserted now that it was summer vacation. He was only a year older than Totto-chan, but he always sounded much older when he spoke.

When Yasuaki-chan saw Totto-chan, he hurried toward her, dragging his leg and holding his arms out in front to steady himself. Totto-chan was thrill­ed to think they were going to do something secret, and she giggled. Yasuaki-chan giggled too.

Totto-chan led Yasuaki-chan to her tree, and then, just as she had thought it out the night before, she ran to the janitor’s shed and got a ladder, which she dragged over to the tree and leaned against the trunk so that it reached the fork. She climbed up quickly and, holding the top of the ladder, called down, “All right, try climbing up!”

Yasuaki-chan’s arms and legs were so weak it seemed he could not even get on the first rung without help. So Totto-chan hurried down the ladder backward and tried pushing Yasuaki-chan up from behind. But Totto-chan was so small and slender that it was all she could do to hold onto Yasuaki-chan, let alone keep the ladder steady. Yasuaki-chan took his foot off the bottom rung and stood beside the ladder, his head bowed. Totto-chan realized for the first time that it was going to be more difficult than she had thought. What should she do?

She wanted so badly to have Yasuaki-chan climb her tree, and he had been looking forward to it so much. She went around and faced him. He looked so disconsolate that she puffed out her cheeks and made a funny face to cheer him up.

“Wait! I’ve got an idea!”

She ran back to the janitor’s shed and pulled one thing after another to see if she could find something that would help. She finally discovered a stepladder. It would remain steady, so she wouldn’t have to hold it.

She dragged the stepladder over, amazed at her own strength, and was delighted to find that it almost reached the fork.

“Now, don’t be afraid,” she said in a big-sisterly voice. “This isn’t going to wobble.”

Yasuaki-chan looked nervously at the stepladder. Then he looked at Totto-chan, drenched in perspiration. Yasuaki-chan was sweating profusely, too. He looked up at the tree. Then, with determination, he placed a foot on the first rung.

Neither of them was conscious of the time it took Yasuaki-chan to reach the top of the stepladder. The hot summer sun beat down, but they had no thoughts for anything except getting Yasuaki-chan to the top of the stepladder. Totto-chan got under­neath him and lifted his feet up while steadying his bottom with her head. Yasuaki-chan struggled with all his might, and finally reached the top.


But from there it was hopeless. Totto-chan jumped onto the fork, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t get Yasuaki-chan onto the tree from the stepladder. Clutching the stepladder, Yasuaki-chan looked at Totto-chan. She suddenly felt like crying. She had wanted so badly to invite Yasuaki-chan on­to her tree and show him all sorts of things.

But she didn’t cry. She was afraid that if she did, Yasuaki-chan might start crying, too. Instead she took hold of his hand, with its fingers all stuck together because of the polio. It was bigger than hers and his fingers were longer. She held his hand for a long time. Then she said, “Lie down and I’ll  try and pull you over. “If any grown-ups had seen her standing on the fork of the tree trying to pull Yasuaki-chan – who was lying on his stomach on the stepladder – onto the tree, they would have let out a scream. It must have looked terribly precarious. But Yasuaki-chan trusted Totto-chan completely and Totto-chan was risking her life for him. With her tiny hands clutching his, she pulled with all her might. From time to time a large cloud would mercifully protect them from the blistering sun.

At long last, the two stood face to face on the tree, brushing her damp hair back, Totto-chan bowed politely and said, “Welcome to my tree.”

Yasuaki-chan leaned against the trunk smiling rather bashfully. He said, “May I come in?”

Yasuaki-chan was able to see vistas he had never glimpsed before. “So this is what it’s like to climb tree,” he said happily.