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  • Writer's pictureManami Okuda Wada

Agency Education in Japan #1: Okina Ki (Big Tree)

Nagoya, the third-largest city in Japan, boasts a rich historical heritage as the former stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate and is presently a hub for various Toyota-related industries. Locals often colloquially refer to it as a "closed" community, but is this characterization accurate?

Amidst the backdrop of burgeoning modern architecture that graces the cityscape, Nagoya is witnessing the emergence of novel educational initiatives fostered by its citizens, thus evolving into a thriving educational community. In this blog post, we embark on a journey to explore "Okina Ki," which translates to "Big Tree" in Japanese—a pioneering educational community tailored for elementary and middle school students.

As one boards the Meitetsu express train heading southeast from Nagoya towards Anjo-shi, the urban landscape gradually transforms into a picturesque vista. Located a mere 10-minute walk from Shin-anjo station, the Okina Ki building is nestled alongside vast expanses of lush green fields. Initially, Okina Ki operated in available public spaces within Anjo-shi. However, in its third year of operation, Masayo Endo, the visionary founder of Okina Ki, refurbished her parental residence adjacent to the verdant fields, providing a stable home base for children attending the program from Monday to Wednesday. Upon entering, one immediately senses the nostalgic ambiance of a well-loved family home.

The calm view of the field from the windows of Okina Ki

The core philosophy of Okina Ki revolves around empowering elementary and middle school students with agency. Firstly, students have the autonomy to decide whether they wish to attend Okina Ki instead of public schools. Moreover, they exercise their agency daily by choosing whether they want to participate in Okina Ki activities on a given day. This contrasts with the common adult experience of having little choice but to report to work, making it a valuable opportunity for children to make daily choices based on their circumstances.

On the day of my visit, none of the children had opted to attend Okina Ki—a rare occurrence in three years. While I was eager to engage with the children, I was equally elated to witness these young individuals learning the importance of exercising genuine agency. Traditional school environments often compel attendance, whereas Okina Ki empowers students to make informed decisions about their presence.

For students who do attend, the day commences at 10:15 with "Happy, Thank You, Nice," a show-and-tell program inspired by Alfred Adler's psychological theories. Lately, students have been experimenting with the Adler Class Meeting, a democratic forum for community engagement. Academics are tackled individually, with students utilizing online resources and external examinations in subjects such as Japanese and mathematics.

The pivotal event of the day, which I hope to observe on a future visit, is lunchtime. Here, children take charge of preparing their own meals within a budget of 300 yen (approximately 2 dollars). While a rice ball can be acquired for around 100 yen locally, children can pool their resources to craft more elaborate dishes. With two supermarkets and a McDonald's within walking distance, they have the autonomy to select the meal that best suits their preferences for the day. Self-preparation of lunch equates to a practical lesson in budgeting and negotiation—valuable skills for self-sufficiency and cooperation.

Masayo Endo, the founder of Okina Ki, will always have the biggest smile.

This agency-centered approach at Okina Ki is a brainchild of Masayo, whose son also chose to enroll in a citizen-founded institution known as Seto Tsukuru School in Seto-shi, Aichi. In Japan, alternative schools are often perceived as refuges for those who do not fit into the public education system. However, Masayo's vision is to redefine this narrative by actively promoting Okina Ki as a choice over public schools, rather than a passive fallback.

As these children nurture their identities and creativity through such experiences, one of their potential paths are Seto Practical College—a high school-level institution dedicated to fostering learning, employment, and entrepreneurial endeavors essential for the emergence of future freelancers. This journey signifies a departure from the traditional educational paradigm, where students cram knowledge to excel in standardized university entrance exams and secure positions within established corporations. By instilling a sense of agency from a young age, these children are empowered to chart their unique educational journeys, equipping them to thrive as self-actualized individuals.

Follow Okina Ki's Instagram at @okinaki2020.04

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