Early observations of school life in Japan


Seeing as I came to Japan as an assistant English teacher, Japanese school makes up a big part of my life currently. As such, my schools are very much worth writing and thinking about. In short, I’ve been very impressed with how school works here, but school life in Japan is still very new to me and I am in no position to talk in terms of good or bad just yet. Instead I am restricted to commenting on what I currently like or dislike about the differences in system. I also work in a limited environment that cannot be representative of Japanese schools as a whole. Though there are some points that will be universal across the country, many of my observations will be completely unrepresentative of other schools.

Quick note on the lack of photos on this post compared to usual. The education system here is rightfully disapproving of public sharing of photos including students, so I have only used a photo where students’ faces are not clear.

General observations

Firstly, school size.  My base school is much smaller than I am used to. Where my secondary school had nearly 2000 students, I estimate my base school has fewer than 500 students – maybe even fewer than 400. I don’t know if this is standard across Japan, but other schools I have seen around Matsuyama do not look much bigger. It could simply be that Japan prefers smaller schools, but more of them.

Being in Japan, there are some things you would only get in Japan.  There are some rooms for example with tatami floors; an iconic element of Japanese buildings. One day after school at one of my elementary schools I attended tea ceremony club – they did that naturally in a tatami room in the school. Though my school doesn’t seem to be particularly into martial arts, I know some schools are. The local high school for example has a Kyuudo club, Japanese style archery.

The school day is very long here. The teachers must be in school before 8am, and most are in well before then. I leave at 4pm, but the other teachers stay for longer. I essentially follow the time schedule of the students, but plenty of students stay longer than me for sports and clubs after school.

On the mention of sport, a higher proportion of students really tries hard at sport, and enjoys it more for trying all the harder. I disliked sport at school and only really started to enjoy it after I left. The culture around sports was different. In the UK, there were the sporty kids and the not-sporty kids. I was amongst the latter and would try hard not to be involved. I was driven away from sports by the macho approach donned by the sporty kids. Students in Japan seem more supportive of each other when it comes to sports. For my middle school’s sports day, each of the teams (each year group has one class of each group colour – red, yellow, blue or green) had its own group dance that they did to egg on their teammates. Green, my team, just would not give up with the group dance. They kept going for a big proportion of the day.

One element of the schools here which makes me uncomfortable was very present during sports day: the militaristic element. It’s not just there during sports day, but marching, coordinated routines, dramatic flag-waving, unified shouting, and bowing to the national flag was all there making sports day feel occasionally like a battleground. It was a very happy battleground, but a battleground nonetheless. There is something puzzling about Japan’s occasional overt militarism. They have had no official standing army since World War 2, yet military-inspired culture is still going strong.

Non-academic and responsibility

I know of many people in the UK that lament how UK schools apparently do little or nothing to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Though I do not 100% agree with that sentiment, there is some truth to it, and without getting into the phrase ‘real world’, which bugs me like no other phrase, Japanese students do develop non-academic skills as an obligatory part of school life. Students help for example every day with serving lunch. They dress up in white aprons and face masks and make sure their classmates all have their meal. Following lunch in the elementary schools, the students pull out their toothbrushes and follow a guided tooth brushing video. I’m still confused by the existence of this video and despite it not being far off watching paint dry, I watch it every time with the utmost attention. I just can’t help myself.

I’m not entirely sure what roles they are, but a large proportion of students seem to have responsibilities between classes to report messages and collect items from the teachers’ office. Where in the UK a visit to a teacher’s office was unusual and maybe even a little intimidating, there is constant dialogue between students and teachers here.

The students are also the school cleaners. There is a cleaning period every day where the students and teachers (but mainly the students) get out brushes and cloths, and sweep the school clean. I help with cleaning the teacher’s office, which suits me fine – I just stand up from my chair and start. The students cover the whole building. Students in the classroom, students in the office, students in the corridors, students in the bathrooms; everywhere gets covered in a mere 20 minutes.

Learning focus differences

As a language teacher and enthusiast, I can’t help but feel the language teachers are too serious in the middle school. My fellow language teachers are kind people who are good with the students, but I can’t help finding their classes a bit too serious for language learning. I remember having quite wacky classes for German back in school and the wackiness was exactly what was needed for language learning. Efficient language learning should utilise all sorts of memory and recall tricks, many of which can focus heavily on the silly. Addressing that of course can lead learning in the opposite direction – all silliness and no substance – but being too serious in language learning slows down progress. You have to shrink inhibitions to develop communication. Language learning is essentially a study in communication after all. The best language learners are willing to gesture a lot (though cultural differences can really screw that up sometimes), they smile and show expressions clearly, and they just go for it. Of course that is easier said than done – I know first-hand – but it makes all the difference.

There is however also fantastic news on the language front. Japanese students get started young. There is an initiative in Japan right now to improve the country’s English standard and one of their methods to achieve this is to further encourage the learning of English in elementary school. This is great news. Although elementary students don’t push to a particularly high English level, they should be less intimidated by the idea of studying English when they’re older. In the UK most students only begin foreign languages at secondary school where, as a new subject, it is considered intimidating and overly difficult. The walls of inhibition go up and few get past an elementary stage.

Outside of the world of spoken language and into a different kind of communication, everyone seems to learn to read music in music class. That was at least in my school reserved for students that took music as an optional subject later on in school. I see that as a wonderful thing. I see it as a step towards demystifying music, making it more accessible; it takes a good chunk of the elitism out of music, as can develop occasionally in the UK. I sat in on an elementary school music lesson where every student was reading standard notation to learn how to play the Doraemon theme tune. Most students were learning on the recorder or melodica, but one student had the piano part and a few others were learning percussion parts. They had a whole band going and I was left thoroughly impressed.

Meditation before class

Something that really impresses me is the short meditation times between classes. Students sit with their eyes closed in silence for a few minutes before class begins. The teachers however do not, and personally I think if the students meditate before class, so should the teacher. The teachers work hard to be role models in so many different ways, so why miss out this opportunity? If the benefits of meditating before a class are recognised for students, is it not reasonable for teachers also to make use of those benefits?

Student/teacher dynamic

I expected a stronger sense of hierarchy in Japanese schools than actually exists. Though the final word amongst staff will always be reserved for the principal, the student/teacher dynamic is softer than I expected. It could well be that my schools, being in a small town, are more relaxed than city teachers but that assumption doesn’t really work in practice. The teachers here work not directly for the school, but for the Matsuyama board of education. They change schools, mainly within the city, every few years so most of the teachers here in Hojo will have also worked in inner city schools.

Discipline is very interesting. The stereotypical highly regulated, ordered classroom doesn’t exist. Instead, the students generally keep themselves in better order than students in the UK would. This is great on average, but when there is a troublesome student, you notice. The main teachers often aren’t so adept in controlling them as in the UK, and I personally am not allowed to be involved in disciplining students. Though I am happy not to have to discipline anybody, it can be frustrating when it would be useful and there is nothing I can do.

The question however is still there. Why do Japanese students require less explicit discipline? I think part of the answer lies in the teacher/student dynamic, as both sides appear to treat each other more as people and less as a teacher and student. When you start seeing someone as a person more than you see them in their role, you tend to stop being an ass where it’s not necessary. Similarly in UK schools, the teachers who did treat students on a more equal level tended to be rewarded with more abiding students. I also wonder if the short meditations in between classes help. I can’t help but notice that often one or two of the students who keep an eye on the other students to check they have their eyes closed and therefore are not meditating themselves are amongst the cheekiest in the class. I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-academic responsibilities like school-cleaning and food-serving contributes to the students’ self-discipline, but the thought is purely speculative.

What next?

There is of course much still to learn about Japanese schools. Here are a few things I want to explore further. I’m mystified by the ‘moral education’ text book I’ve seen in the office. The very concept of teaching morals out of a standardised textbook puzzles me, and I assume the class has its roots in the national learning movement of the 19th century, but I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to, as cynical as it may sound, is this. How come so many Japanese students genuinely really like school? What’s the secret?

Leading on from that mystery, what can other countries learn from Japan’s school system?

There is still much more to learn, and for that I’m thankful.

Setting up life in Japan


It’s been a month now since I moved yet again to a new place, this time settling in Japan. I had wanted to see Japan for a long time. Even the first time I moved away from the UK to China with Project Trust, I had originally hoped to go to Japan instead, and it had been years before then that I had dreamed of going there. Now, I’m here.

First Impressions

I came here as part of the JET programme, a programme run by the Japanese government to help promote cultural exchange in Japan. The majority of Jets, including myself, become English language teaching assistants. So, for the first time in over four years, I’m back to teaching English.

I live and work in Hojo. It’s a small town just outside of Matsuyama city, the largest city on the island of Shikoku. It’s not the most known city in Japan, so for reference it is south of and across the sea from Hiroshima.

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Hojo is a quiet place. Once it’s own town, it has been swallowed up by Matsuyama. I imagine this is due to Matsuyama getting larger, whilst Hojo (and simply all of Japan’s rural areas) steadily depletes of people. When I first arrived it struck me as a ghost town. I realise now that it’s not quite a ghost town, but it can be eerily empty sometimes. Japan has a rapidly ageing population and it shows much more clearly in smaller towns. Most young people move to the cities, leaving the age demographic in the countryside heavily skewed. That said, there are clearly enough young families in Hojo to fill up the schools. There are two junior high schools, a senior high school and numerous elementary schools, and where there are schools there are young families. Where they all these young families are however, remains a bit of a mystery to me.

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It is a nonetheless a beautiful near-ghost town. On one side of Hojo is a bright blue sea dotted with sub-tropical islands. The closest of these islands is called ‘Deer Island’, as it is…well…inhabited by very tame, very friendly deer…as well as plenty of impressively large insects and dangerous plants, but that’s Japan. On the other side of town, rice paddies run up to the edge of lush green mountains. Storks stand in the paddies as giant dragonflies flit across them. It is on all accounts a very idyllic place; it is probably the most beautiful place I have ever lived.

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My local city is no metropolis either, but it’s a pleasant place. It is one of the few lucky towns in Japan to actually have a real castle. Most of Japan’s castles of old are really replicas that were built after the originals were burnt down by A. warring clans, B. war between Samurai and the government, or C. bombs in the second world war. Matsuyama castle has, despite all the burning of castles round the land, been standing since 1611.

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It is also famous for Dogo onsen, apparently one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the country, and the inspiration for the onsen in the Studio ghibli film ‘spirited away’ (a film that, coming from someone that doesn’t really enjoy watching films) should be obligatory viewing…as are all studio ghibli films.

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We also have the best city mascot. Japan being Japan, in constant need of being adorable at every corner, it has many a cartoon mascot. Matsuyama’s flagbearer is Mikyan, half dog, half Tangerine (mikan in Japanese, hence the doggo’s name). Mikyan also has an evil friend, dark mikyan.

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I should be forgiven for thinking dark Mikyan was a lime (such an evil fruit, you know), but apparently the evil version is a rotten mikan.

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I am yet to buy any Mikyan-related goods, but I will no doubt have 60 Mikyan soft toys, Mikyan curtains and carpets, Mikyan pajamas and formal suit by the end of my time here.

The nicest thing about coming to Japan as part of the JET programme is that you have a community as soon as you get there. Despite Matsuyama being a small city, there are around 30 JET ALTs (Assistant language teachers) in town. There are three of us in Hojo. So, in those tricky first few weeks where you are just trying to settle in and meet people, us JET folk get a head start. It helps of course that they’re a really good bunch of people in Matsuyama, a group who will no doubt get mentioned a fair few times in future blogs. It is true that despite having been here a month now, I feel I haven’t got to know the other ALTs well enough yet (partly down I imagine to my ineptness at dealing with small-talk…) but I’m more than happy in knowing that there is such a good group of people just half an hour away on the train from Hojo. It’s going to be a highlight of my time in Japan getting to know these fabulous folk.

Seeing as I’ve been here a month, I should perhaps write about the events of the month. After all, there were a few festivals in town, as well as a few natural disasters nearby, but for today I’d rather talk about Where i’m personally at. Writing about events and the like will have to wait for another time.

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Back in school I set myself a list of goals, a list which I deemed not achievable. Included on that list was to become a hyperpolyglot (able to speak 6 or more languages), be able to consider myself a writer, get a first class degree at university,  travel the world, and explicitly live in Japan and Germany.

Well, i did all that. Plus more. That is in itself amazing and I have to stop sometimes and think – did I really do all that?? how did that happen? But that has created its own challenges. What happens when you achieve what you really didn’t think possible? What do you do when all your goals are already surpassed?

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I have formed new goals since my school days, but the realisation that a list I deemed impossible to complete was actually very much possible. That evokes my confusing feelings. Positive, but confusing. I don’t want to share all of my new ‘unachievable’ goals here, but they are big ideas. Maybe I will surprise myself again after a few more years of work.

Of course in the short term I have my goals for Japan. This little piece of writing represents the beginning of one of those goals. I am putting pen to paper (and then often transferring it over to the digital world) once more. I hope that I can be more honest and more meaningful in what I write from now on. Writing has a capacity to be extremely powerful, for both the reader and the writer, but holding back restricts that. In the past, I have held back. Sometimes that was to avoid panic from my readers. Sometimes it was to avoid terrifying myself. yet in the long term that does no favours to anyone, so lets start with some honest writing right here.

Honest thoughts at the beginning of my life in Japan

I could easily record only the amazing, the positive, the envy-evoking parts of life in a new land. I have done that in the past. Now, if i look back at what i wrote about living in China, I can see right away that something is missing; that my recollections are insincere. The honest feelings are gone now, and with it a true recollection of events.

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So what am I really thinking, past the rose-tinted glasses?

This is my 6th consecutive year of not staying one place for longer than a year, and it’s having its effect:

Year 1. Kuitun, West China. Year 2. Start of degree, Leeds, UK. Year 3. Beijing. year 4. Part back in Leeds, part in Leipzig, Germany. year 5. back in Leeds. year 6. Japan.

I feel detached. Though it is true I was disowning the UK to a certain extent even before the first time I left it, but it truly does not feel like a home anymore. I feel most at home with a backpack on, boarding a train to somewhere I’ve never been. I think when I left the UK, I wasn’t just looking for experience and adventure, but I was also running. I still haven’t worked out what I was running from, but that running away has led me all the way here to Japan. I’m still running. Perhaps my situation is like Sparrowhawk, in wizard of Earthsea, running from the parts of himself he doesn’t want to face. If so, I don’t know what those parts are. It certainly doesn’t stop me from running.

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I would have thought that after 5 years of moving so regularly that it would get easier. Instead it has been the opposite. Moving to Kuitun was strikingly easy. Not speaking the language, moving to the Gobi desert at the age of 19, I settled in in less than a week. Now with more experience living abroad than many will ever have, I found Japan very hard to settle into. By western standards, Japan is cleaner, more polite and freer than China (that last point is worth discussing heavily in the future), and yet China was so much more comfortable to me. Maybe 19 year old enthusiasm softens cultural change better than holding a degree training students in the art of cynicism. That is at least relatively cynical in comparison to 19 year old enthusiasm. Technically if your academic work is cynical, it probably isn’t properly academic, in the same way it should not optimistic.

That said, I do still love the adventure of this unpredictable lifestyle. It’s just getting harder and harder. When I look to see what old friends are doing, and I see there (apparent) stability, I don’t understand it. So many people that seem content with gradual change. Content with the same job, the same circle of friends, the same scenery. I’ve only been here for a month and I’m already busy considering what happens next. That perhaps sounds condescending of those who have settled. Really it is the opposite. It is a mix of something similar to envy, and an inability to understand that way of being. I have the option to stay here in Matsuyama for up to five years, yet the idea of being somewhere for longer than a year seems so strange and distant to me now. As much as I have loved the places I’ve lived, the only place I was not ready to leave was Germany (which for anybody who is in doubt, is the finest place in the whole world).

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I can almost here the unrestrained yells of ‘privilege!’, ‘ ohh, your life is so hard!’ wailing across the hills at this point, but there is a tendency to look at any situation in absolute terms. This is an extreme irony, as nothing, nothing, (spot the flaw here) is absolute.

I am kicking myself for writing that, but the point is staying, as it just highlights the prior sentence.

For every wonderful experience, there is a dark side, or at least an opposite, to it. For every opportunity I am privileged to experience, there will always be some kind of repercussion. There is an analogy from one of the existentialist thinkers (Kierkegaard possibly?) of two brothers that highlights this problem better than I would be able to personally. It’s work looking up, but in short, one brother leaves his home town for adventure, whilst one stays. One day, they meet again, both in envy of each other. The brother who went has stories and adventure under his belt. The brother who stayed has a family, a community and stability. Both want what the other has.

So after 5 years of moving at least once a year, I sympathise with the brother who went. Adventure is no absolute wonder, as valuable as it is.

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And this is how I begin my time in Japan. I have completed one line of impossible goals and I begin a new collection of impossible goals. I am so happy to be in a childhood dream, yet I’m also at a point of limbo. I’m still running. At some point I want to know what I’m running from, but I think I’m too afraid to turn around.

Watching the rain fall over Matsuyama castle as I write this is somehow grounding. Five years on from when I started running, I don’t know where I’m going. Yet the road truly is longer than the goal, and the road is as beautiful as it is winding.

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