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.

That time I moved to Germany, and became critical of organised education


Two weeks ago I moved to Germany, but let me talk about something completely different and seemingly unrelated. (I get to Germany later on)

I love and hate my degree simultaneously. On one hand, it lets me be an explorer of sorts. That extends much further than literal travel, although that certainly plays a part! On the other hand, it gnaws away at my attempts to hold onto my other interests. Where can I find time to create, be it writing, drawing, painting or music; when essays and language practice watch over like vultures?

I’ve been acutely aware for months how draining it is to sacrifice everything in the name of a piece of paper. That piece of paper will in the end be the bearer of a number for others to nod at with disinterest before nodding with disinterest at another piece of paper bearing a similar number. For me it may symbolize four years of loving struggle; a pursuit of knowledge and skills. Hidden within that number will be stories, excitement and pain, friends many gained and a few lost along the way. For the disinterested nodders, I will be that number, and that number will carry as much depth as curved line can without context to explain it.

Yet us students keep on striving for that number.

For the past two years my main goal has been to work less hard. Yes, less hard. The problem is, I just can’t do it. Back in the UK I would wake up early so I could work a few hours before uni began, then between lectures I would work. Some of that work I would do in coffee shops – that was my break for the day. Back at the flat, I would cook, then work again. For the last few months before I moved to Germany, I did actually succeed in making time for guitar most evenings too, and occasionally writing articles for my student paper. Weekends? What’s a weekend.

A small number of my readers will know that I used to write fairly profusely before I began my degree, and since then something has appeared here maybe once every couple of months. In every post over that time of sparse writing, I’ve written about how rarely I write, then claim that this time I’ll be back to writing properly…and then I’m gone again for months. That comes down simply to not giving myself free time.

For me, it’s a testament to why the myth that hard work guarantees success is just that, a myth. What I gain from over-work is to sit at a slightly higher than average spot on my degree, but far from the ‘best’, whatever that may mean. What I lose is peace of mind, and my interests outside of my degree. There is a difference between hard work and efficient work.

The paradox lies in how much I actually love what I study. Language learning is practically a game. You learn the rules, and as you progress you open up new skills, stories and places. Further on your entire way of thinking changes. It is no hyperbole to say that language learning does change your world entirely. But neither is it my whole world.

To further that paradox, my other interests which I am ‘losing’ to my degree benefit so much from my degree. My writing now enjoys global influence. Musically I’m no longer restricted to the (relatively) limited approach to music of the English speaking world. Yet with no time dedicated to letting these rich influences grow into my own creations, I’m left wondering whether in the end I gain or lose more.

Ironically my first step to escaping the domination of my degree over my life was to do even more. At the start of this year I started reading at least a book a week outside of my degree, and what a decision that has been. Aside from forcing me take time out from university content, my learning has become so much richer over the space of a few months. One books in particular has ripped apart my view of learning and exposed a certain futility in the organised education system which practically encapsulates my life.

The book is relatively well known, a cult classic so to say: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To those unaware of this book, it is much more gripping that the title makes it sound. In fact, Earth shattering is how I would describe it.  I don’t want to give away too much about its story, but the book is extremely critical of modern organised education. The character Phaedrus is driven mad (ahem, got to be careful with words here) by university’s goal of good marks over accumulation of knowledge. As a professor he plays with removing grades entirely from his classes, which is met by opposition from students obsessed numbers on pieces of paper.

Phaedrus is also highly critical of modern education’s rationality. This may seem an odd criticism, but as he points out in the book modern society has rationalized the world to a point where all that cannot be empirically analysed. University sneers at any other approach, despite rationality’s interdependence on the irrational. What does a degree accumulate to? A number. What does self study result in? You choose. It doesn’t have to  result in anything other than the journey. The point is, when education is too structured and too rationalized, it becomes a means to an end. An abstract number is valued thousandfold over the road taken to get there.

In passing I’ll just say that this topic is just one of many within the book. Up to the last sentence (actually, especially the last sentence) I found personal philosophies and world views being teased and snapped into tiny pieces. But back to education.

Applied to my own university experience, I see parallels with both Phaedrus (extremely worrying given the events in the book) and his students. The striving for grades is strangely counter-productive. In order to give grades, a particular content must be fed to students. In offering a particular content, certain elements must be considered more important that others, and each student learns not what is most valuable to them, but instead what is plastered onto all.

But what other option is there? We all need to get our little number so we can be chosen to be a number in another organisation further along the people production line.

An interesting thing happens when Phaedrus abolishes grades. That course suddenly becomes about the journey. With no way of checking progress, the students have to go out of their way to learn. With no abstract goal to achieve, the goal becomes the road instead.

I think rich, meaningful education is to be found on the road, not the mountain top. Somehow we all forget that once you’ve climbed up to a peak, there’s another path to take on the way back.

These ideas where actually coming into my head before I read zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance but the book helped consolidate those views. The fact I read it in the first place was a result of trying to escape the abstract goal-oriented university approach. It was only after reading the book however that it became clearer where the standard university learning approach was leading: Eventual burnout imposed disinterest to my studies and the loss of all my other interests. That is not the place where I want to be.

This is the context in which I start my time in Germany. Yes, I am studying here and that makes everything I’ve written here look contradictory, but really this is about unhinging the dominance of university based study. I intend to write regularly about my life here over the next few months. Much of that will be in this context of my struggle with structure.

At the end of March I moved to Leipzig, a city in the east of Germany near the Czech republic. These days it’s known as a cultural hub, with a huge music scene, a plethora of museums, and numerous events throughout the year. I’ve heard that people from Europe’s city of Cool, Berlin, are even moving to Leipzig. Sure enough, there is plenty happening here. I only need to walk for a few minutes from my flat and I usually find something interesting happening. To impromptu street gigs to guys painting forests on buildings, this is a city living and breathing creativity.

Yet Leipzig is in the former east. Not so long ago, it was one of the major cities of the German Democratic Republic. Hints to that past are everywhere. The west of the city where I live is a region marked for redevelopment, highlighting its past as a factory district. What is now the cool cultural part of town in the near past was dominated by industry. The city is much more openly left wing than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before too, and by that mean most of the left spectrum is covered. Die Linke are the German political party with its roots in the communist past, and they have a meeting place just down my street. They’re rather popular in the city. There’s a definite presence of something a bit more anarchic too in my part of town. Some of the local graffiti reads for example “Capitalism kills; kill capitalism”, or “Burn all prisons! Solidarity for all Prisoners!” On a lighter end of the political spectrum, social initiatives are everywhere, and there is a feeling of strong local solidarity. I haven’t got out with my camera yet, but I’ll have some examples from the street for you all soon no doubt.

Seeing as I’m here in Leipzig for a few months I’ll keep everything simply to an overview tonight. I’ll write more in detail  as I have more to say!

Although my university course back in the UK is German and Chinese, that’s not what I study here. It would admittedly be a little odd studying German in Germany…as it’s best simply to live the language of a country where you live. As for Chinese, I get a much needed break. Instead, I study a mix of politics and German literature. I also chose a Swedish course as an opportunity to move forward a language that’s been in limbo for a while. Studying in a second language is quite the experience, so there will be plenty to write about there. The hours are unnaturally short in comparison to the course at Leeds, and this will hopefully be the perfect environment for working out my uni study and interest balance. I refuse to let Leipzig steal my writing time at the very least!

It was always my intention to get involved in the music scene here in Leipzig. One of the most exciting things for me, is that Leipzig is home to one of the world’s largest goth festivals. Now that’s something a bit different, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.

While I’m here I also need to be thinking about a dissertation topic. As it happens, as I was wondering around the streets near my flat, it suddenly struck me how much of the Leipzig vibe is dependent on it’s Communist history. There could well be a dissertation topic in there. ‘Ostalgie’ or nostalgia for East Germany is well documented, but most discussion of positive remnants left from the DDR are concerned with social elements and not culture. That needs more thought, but it could be really interesting.

So there we go. I’ll be writing as I explore Leipzig, but see this as an introduction of sorts. I just want to wrap this all up with a thought about my rant on education that makes up over half of this post. Although I am technically here to study, in many ways I am using my time in Leipzig as 1/ a break from the uphill fight that my degree has been, and 2/ an opportunity to balance the system with my drowned out interests. My time in Leipzig isn’t meant to be about goals, but about moving along a road and making that road a little bit wider.

 

 

 

 

 

quick thought on ‘education’


What do we really learn from more?

Do we learn best when we are in schools or universities  being told what to believe and what work we should do in order to understand something; or do we learn best by following the subjects our hearts take us to in our spare time?

Is an institution filled with ‘experts’ really a learning environment or is maybe: a coffee shop, your house, a forest, at the top of a mountain; a better place to learn?

Do we learn from others or ourselves?

Is an hour in a classroom more informative than an hour with a piece of paper, a pen and your mind?

I’m not going to write answers. If i did, i would just be doing what the teachers or lecturers might do in the second question. Stop and think about the questions, even if you no longer attend any form of education-I include evening and weekend classes as education by the way.

I will write one statement though.

We are always learning.