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On Reading Totto-Chan: The Little girl at the window

It’s interesting how conventional wisdom is so binding and divisive. Yet, some of the most unifying works in literature have been written in the most divisive times of the world. What we call world wars, seem to inspire and evoke, so much compassion, quest for freedom and harmony. Sad it is, how destruction seems to be the only thing to make humans pause, think and act. If only it was possible to do so, without destroying first.


Totto-Chan, may have been written as a woman’s memoirs of the unconventional education she received in Japan before the war. However, what’s striking about the book is that absolutely not one element of the unconventional education is driven by division or rebellion. One can see elements of design thinking, sustainable co-existence, genuine connections and human interaction. Kids learn to engage respectfully and compassionately, not just with other humans but with life itself.



For instance, the first most striking thing about the school is that it is operated in the used and discarded railway carriages and the gate to the school seems to be made of two huge trees. The school seems to accept students who are rejected everywhere else. The protagonist who has been rejected by her earlier school doesn’t know anything about it and has come with her mother to hopefully get accepted in this school.


Totto Chan's mother is compassionate and understands that her daughter isn’t incapable of learning but that she processes information differently. She doesn’t even tell Totto-Chan that Totto-Chan has been told to leave her previous school. As opposed to the pressure the modern parents create on their children to score and perform in exams, this mother simply wants her child to learn.


The next striking incidence in the book is that the headmaster, Mr. Kobayashi allows Totto-Chan, a young girl to speak to him for so long, 4 hours. It indicates how the man seems to have broken free from the role he’s expected to play. This is not a person who believes that kids cannot have something meaningful to say. This is a person who is genuinely interested in the people that he is talking to, even when they are students who are as young as first graders.



Similarly, the next highlight of the book is the importance of eating sea food and land food. The insistence on the combination, but absolutely no insistence on what that food should actually be, is a perfect example of design thinking. One could be eating fish and rice, or shrimps and potato, or any other combination that has a sea food and land food. This struck me in particular when I was reading about how the Vietnamese problem of malnourishment in children was solved. As Tim Brown, the founder of IDEO talks of it in his article


“The Sternins and colleagues from Save the Children surveyed four local Quong Xuong communities in the province of Than Hoa and asked for examples of “very, very poor” families whose children were healthy. They then observed the food preparation, cooking, and serving behaviors of these six families, called “positive deviants,” and found a few consistent yet rare behaviors. Parents of well-nourished children collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from rice paddies and added them to the food, along with the greens from sweet potatoes. Although these foods were readily available, they were typically not eaten because they were considered unsafe for children. The positive deviants also fed their children multiple smaller meals, which allowed small stomachs to hold and digest more food each day.”


Another striking feature of the education at Tomoe Gakuen, Totto-Chan’s school is the ‘inclusive’ nature of the school. We see a differently abled child raised by a Christian family cross the barrier of possible exclusion and bond with his class. In the pre-war Japan where differences of religion and physical handicap weren’t much acceptable and foreigners were seen with suspicion, imagine an American child, who can’t speak Japanese, doesn’t know the basics of etiquette and is new to the land. It is the children in his class who help him adjust, teach him what they know and learn English from him as part of the exchange.


Mr. Kobayashi is one of the strong advocates of what we call ‘alternative education’. Children are free to tell their teachers what they want to do and what they feel like studying. They are given the experience of camping in a hall; children bathing together naked and moving past their physical insecurities; handicap children winning every sport; there are so many examples of profound life lessons that can be learned from the way the headmaster teaches. the book inspires one on so many levels. It’s not the uncontrolled, irresponsible freedom, but the ability to be there, to connect without compunctions and to explore oneself way beyond what any institutionalized education can teach.





It’s the freedom ‘to be’ that Mr. Kobayashi provides the children while creating for them, a responsible, safe environment. Sure, he guides, mentors, moulds the children under his tutelage, but he doesn’t do so in a structured role, as if play-acting the life. He does it as one human with another, without creating the barrier and division of age.


Sometimes I wonder if the headmaster would have been able to document, turn into fancy research papers, his study, learning and execution of what we now call ‘alternative education’? Yet, when the school is bombed in the war, there’s the indomitable desire of the headmaster to rebuild and restart it (though that never happens).


The school may not have been started again, but the memoirs have been written and continue to inspire the spirit of freedom, inclusion and creativity.


To anyone who wants to feel emotion, compassion, problem solving skills, a very vague sense of what freedom might feel like, a longing and some amazing tips on teaching, parenting and dealing with kids; this small book is a must read.


Look forward to hearing from you what this book evokes in you. Do share!

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