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.

2 thoughts on “Early observations of school life in Japan

    • thanks for your interest! As i’m sure you know, school culture differs hugely from country to country. I taught in a school in China a few years ago, and that was also very different. I see from your blog you were just in Stockholm! One of my favourite places in the whole world, so I hope you had a good time there.

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