What Finland means to me —a series of interviews with Japanese on themes and people that connect Finland and Japan
In the past several years, most people who have considered studying in Finland are very likely to have read the book titled Because I saw the blue light—commentary on the study in Finland by 16-year-old. At age 10, Erika Takahashi, the author of this book, currently studying at Oulu University, was mesmerized by the Moomin. Wanting to know more about Finland as a whole, she decided to go to Finland after graduating middle school in Japan. Takahashi compiled a book on her experiences and almost 10,000 copies have been sold since its 2007 publication.
In 2004, Takahashi graduated from a high school in Rovaniemi and entered Oulu University majoring in geology. Then she expanded her interests to biology and now seeks to become a teacher in Finland. At her graduation she is going to obtain teaching license for biology and geography.
Foreign national minors without referees are not permitted to stay in Finland for a long time. Takahashi had to find a referee in Rovaniemi, who helped find her a host family. She was lucky enough to meet a welcoming family who gave her great care for four years.
Takahashi says she owes her smooth adjustment to life in Finland to this family who took great care of this international student. They supported her language studies for example by providing Finnish words on items in kitchen, such as JÄÄKAAPPI (refrigerator) and LEIVÄNPAAHDIN (toaster).
At school, teachers and students, too, were welcoming from day 1. After the school principal had introduced Takahashi in front of all new students, other students came to talk to Takahashi and the soon she had many Finnish friends.
"Initially I was not able to speak Finnish fluently, but that was not a problem. My friends gave me comfort by saying: 'It is amazing that you came to Finland ALONE!'" Takahashi said. Through meeting with Finnish people, who accepted and tried to understand who she was, gradually gave her self-confidence.
Some years ago she was offered to write stories on Finnish education to Japanese media. To do research Takahashi attended classes for one year at one elementary school in Oulu. There she found the answers to her longtime question: "Why do my friends understand what I am thinking, or what I desperately need?"
In Finnish language class at that elementary school, pupils were encouraged to speak up and debate ‒ a rarity in Japanese elementary schools. One day, one student talked about his/her research on the South American indigenous tribe and the whole class discussed about what they had just learned. On another day, children were talking about whether humans can hear whale's voice or not. Teachers do not prepare "correct answers" nor lead children to settle at one conclusion. Instead, they were encouraged to express their opinions. As they do so, Takahashi said, pupils are very likely to grow their imagination, too. That may help them understand feelings of others, she added.
Young students also learn that it is important to listen to others. Teachers would tell why so whenever children in the class failed to listen to their peers.
Unlike in Japan, where education tends to be full of lectures, Finnish students often do group research work. Takahashi came to conclude that, through this long-time training to work with several people who may not share opinions, children would have a better chance to understand other people's feelings, just as her classmates at Finnish high school understood her situation.
In Finnish schools the absolute evaluation system is widely used. As students are evaluated against their earlier performance rather than other student's performance, it does not hinder mutual aid. The evaluation system plays a big role in encouraging students help one another, Takahashi said, because the comparative assessment system often hampers mutual aid. In her case, one friend who excelled in biology taught her the textbook from cover to cover. This may not have been possible if they had been graded on a bell curve.
In 2012 her high school friend gave Takahashi a Moomin book for Christmas. It opened a new door to this huge Moomin book fan. She sent this book to her book editor in Tokyo the following year and as a reply received a surprise request to translate this book into Japanese. The translation book Moomin Characters Zukan (picture book), which she describes as "a book that helps understand other people whose lifestyle is different from yours" was published this month.
By the time her first book was published in 2007, Finnish education had been receiving enormous attention from all over the world. Takahashi herself simply wanted to know Finland in every aspect and naturally has been drawn to the Finnish education methods.
One 8th grade girl once told Takahashi: "school for me is a ski jumping ramp," meaning she can learn a great deal at school to broaden her perspectives and more opportunities. Now, Takahashi is hoping to become a teacher to educate many young students like this girl.