Japan is the land of many surprises. A lot of people describe the country as “different to what they’re used to” and many unique cultures and customs make it a fascinating country to visit. With the third largest economy in the world and with one of the lowest crime rates, Japan is well known for its fashion and entertainment subcultures, innovative and futuristic inventions, ancient traditions that have endured throughout centuries, its blend of western and eastern customs, and world-class cuisine.
Education in Japan has long been held as important. In the late 1800s, the Meiji leaders established a public education system, thus greatly increasing the country’s literacy rate. Even in the Edo period, over 70% of all children went to school. Today, 99% of people in Japan can read and write and school is still seen as a highly important stepping stone in early life.
Although there are similarities with Japanese schools and western schools such as with uniforms, exams, and grades, there are also several aspects of Japanese schools that may be surprising to many visitors to the country. With its own educational system, Japan has independently molded its youth into the harmonious society it is today.
Have you ever wondered exactly what school life is like in Japan? Here is a list of ten of what I consider to be the most surprising aspects I’ve come across at a typical public school in Japan. You might find that schools here are completely different from what you experienced as a child.
Let’s face it: kids are kids. No matter what culture or country they come from, there will always be two or three (if not the entire class) that tend to misbehave every now and then! It is one of the many challenges that teachers face in their line of work.
In many countries outside of Japan, sending misbehaving students out of the classroom is standard practice. However, it is a big no-no in Japanese schools. Article 26 of the Japanese Constitution states, “All people shall have the right to receive equal education…” and because of this, Japanese teachers do not dare to send students out of the classroom. So, as a result, Japanese teachers are accustomed to keeping their cool and remaining composed while continuing with the lesson. However, there are rare instances where this happens if a student continually disrupts the class.
What patience this must take! Children would be perceived as missing out on certain aspects of the class if they were sent outside, and therefore it doesn’t happen in Japanese schools.
One interesting fact about Japanese public schools is that everyone eats the same meal. Like in many other countries, students are able to pick and choose between buying their lunch at a cafeteria or bringing their own lunch boxes. However, in Japan, students are trained to eat the same kind of meal (regardless of their preference) and finish it in the allowed time. Most Japanese public schools do not have cafeterias where meals can be purchased, so students don’t get the chance to buy their own meals but on the odd occasion, homemade lunch boxes are allowed for certain occasions, as long as the contents comply with the school’s rules. This usually dictates that “bento” lunches do not contain unhealthy food or sweets. Homemade lunches usually consist of rice, vegetables, some kind of fish, seaweed, and sometimes chicken.
The first time I experienced a Japanese school lunch, I was amazed to learn that students were responsible for taking their meals from the school lunch area and serving them to their classmates while wearing white masks, gowns, and bandannas. After lunch, they are also responsible for cleaning up and returning meal containers – all under a teacher’s supervision. How awesome is it to teach children all about serving others, and taking responsibility for keeping their environment clean, all at such an early age!
Also, as a follow on from the previous point, if I may add, teachers and students eat lunch in groups with their desks and chairs arranged to face each other, especially in junior high schools. Growing up in a place where schools prohibit eating inside the classroom, it was totally surprising to me at first to learn that the classroom is not only a place for learning but also enjoying each other’s company over lunch as well. As mentioned previously, there is generally no cafeteria or set areas for students to go and eat their meals, except for in some elementary schools.
While some may tend to think this style can be too exclusive as children do not get to enjoy their lunch alongside students from other classrooms. However, during lunch, children tend to stick in groups that only contain their close classmates, so perhaps it allows them to mingle and interact with everyone in their class, not just their close friends.
Does this shock you? You’re not alone! This is probably the most glorious perk a student may ever have in their life.
In some countries such as the United States and the Philippines, students who do not perform well at school are held back a grade to further improve their skills. Luckily for the Japanese, they always advance to the next grade regardless of their test scores and performances. A student may fail every test and skip classes, but is still able to join the graduation ceremony at the end of the year. Their test scores only matter when they take entrance examinations to get to high school and university.
However, this doesn’t mean that Japanese children don’t have to work hard! Kids in Japan study hard to learn Japanese kanji so they can read the expected amount at the right age, as well as their other subjects.
In Japan, schools do not depend on janitors for cleanliness. Instead, students roll up their sleeves and clean every single part of their campus, including the toilets. Yes! Students, teachers, school staff, and even the highest ranking school leaders such as the vice principal and principal all join together in cleaning, with each person being assigned their own designated areas.
Japanese schools allow time for cleaning every day which is called “souji”. Some students wear a tenugui (bandanna) on their heads and before the actual cleaning starts, they sit in silence for a couple of minutes to meditate and prepare their minds and bodies, which is called, “mokuso”.
Through this unique Japanese school practice, students are trained not only to clean up after themselves but to also be responsible members of the society. The concept of hiring someone to clean up the school for them is completely strange and foreign to them.
During my first summer vacation in Japan, I bid goodbye to one of my co-teachers as I was getting ready to leave the school and happily told him to enjoy his vacation. His reaction? A deep sigh. I discovered from that moment on that teachers do not actually get a vacation, except for on national holidays, as they still need to go to work to keep up with their responsibilities within the school. In junior high school, students are members of their own respective clubs and usually, these clubs are supervised by teachers themselves and so certain activities as well as sports training continue throughout the vacation period.
But wait, there’s more! Also, on top of that, students are also given tons of homework to complete during the summer vacation as well!
Japanese schools require students to wear separate indoor shoes within the school building to maintain its cleanliness and prevent dirt from being brought inside. Also, since Japan is well-known for being the land of harmony where everyone performs at a similar standard without anyone standing out (one well-known saying, which is contrary to the western belief that individualism is important, is “hammer the nail that sticks out”), students also dress the same by wearing similar shoes.
Not only that, in junior high schools, they also use the exact same school bags provided by the school with an emblem of the school’s logo, as well as with reflective safety stripes to avoid road accidents at night since most students return home late by bike or on foot. Likewise, elementary students also use their own uniform fashionable backpacks called “randoseru”.
This makes students part of the group and representative of the school as a whole. Schools have many other rules to do with uniform and how the students present themselves. For example, dying your hair is strictly prohibited and students cannot wear piercings or a lot of makeup.
Students who are members of sports clubs have club activities both before and after school every day. Some of these include sports clubs where the children have to run several kilometers a day to stay in shape. As you might expect, this usually results in tired, sleepy, and not to mention sweaty students during class as they are all expected to wake up very early and return home late to fulfill their club activity commitments. It sounds like a lot of hard work, as persistence, commitment and determination are required!
Clubs are also extremely popular and most students are involved in something or another. They are very proud of the club and work hard to keep up with what is expected of them.
Japan may be one of the most progressive countries in the field of science and technology, but you may think twice if you get a chance to see the inside one of their schools. In many cases, pen and paper is still preferred over electronic devices. However, technology has slowly found its way into the system to help improve teaching materials and improve facilities at Japanese schools.
That being said, not every school has the most updated and high-tech equipment that foreigners may expect due to Japan’s high-tech innovative reputation. Old schools, especially, have not been updated for many years! Sights of outdated CD players, printers, and fax machines are still evident in many elementary, junior high, and high schools across the country. Instead of air-conditioners, electric fans are the most commonly used ventilation to save electricity, and in winter, central heating is very rare and in most cases, only kerosene heaters are available.
Moreover, classes are still typically taught using traditional teaching materials with textbooks as the main focus rather than whiteboards like you may see in other countries. However, as mentioned previously, technology is slowly making it way into the system with the internet and computers slowly being introduced for class presentations in some schools. So older Japanese schools have also had renovations too.
With homework and assignments during the vacation, school clubs and activities even on the weekend, and cleaning the whole school, studying in Japan means a lot of hard work and determination. Apart from students attending club activities in the morning and after school, most of them also go to “juku”, or cram schools where they can study certain subjects harder or learn to speak other languages. Every day, they are also given a heap of homework, leaving them with very little time to rest and sleep.
As a result, those students who can no longer fight the fatigue and drowsiness tend to doze off during lessons. You may also find it surprising that teachers tend to let them be as they aren’t able to do much about it and probably even sympathize with how tired they are! Although a teacher may call out a student’s attention for sleeping in class once or twice, it is unusual to see a student being reprimanded for sleeping.
With this insight into the daily life of a student at a standard public school in Japan, it helps visitors understand how the Japanese culture has been molded into the harmonious society it is today. So, if this sounds like the type of school for you or your children, be sure to bring plenty of determination and willpower as attending school here is not all about what you may see in Japanese anime. However, this disciplined school life prepares its students for the hardships of life that require such hard work, determination, and motivation to do well. What do you think? Do you think the west can learn something from how the Japanese school system works, or do kids here work too hard?