The Japanese School System Part 1
While that modern Japanese school system was somewhat modeled after the one in US, it’s undergone a number of changes that make it uniquely Japanese. Here’s a quick overview of how it’s set up. Since this is a long subject, I’m breaking it up into two parts, the second of which will be up next Monday.
The School Schedule
The Japanese school year starts in April and ends in March. All in all, it encompasses a lot more days than the American school year. Some schools (mainly high schools, I think) have a half day of classes every Saturday and breaks are much shorter. Aside from the odd national holiday, kids get off for a week or two after the end of the school year in late March, a week at the end of April / beginning of May for Golden Week (a week long period containing four national holidays), a month or so (usually August) for summer break, and a week or week and a half for New Years.
Kids tend to spend more time each day at school than in the US as well. They arrive around 8 AM (though some come earlier for club activities) and stay at least until classes end (around 3:30 or 4). Many, especially high school students, stay considerably later for various club activities. As a note, at many high schools joining and being an active member of a school club is mandatory, so not all students spend so much time with their clubs because they want to. Naturally, many members of the staff arrive before the kids every morning and stay much later as well.
Preschool & Kindergarten
Preschool or kindergarten is optional, like in the US, and is mainly for parents who can’t (or don’t want to) care for their young children during the day or want to get them an early start on learning. Some elementary schools have preschool classes that children can be enrolled in, but there are numerous private preschools and kindergartens as well. Children are usually dropped off by their parents or picked up by a bus. As is to be expected with young kids, classes are a mix of light learning, songs, and games. Unlike a day care, preschools and kindergartens have set class schedules with the kids arriving and leaving at the same times every day. It’s worth noting that some preschools only cover a part of the age range. For example, I taught at two preschools. One had three year olds and some younger kids who too little to be part of the real classes while the other had only four and five year olds.
Like in the US, elementary school is mandatory, with kids attending the one closest to their home. That is, unless their parents opt for a pricy private elementary school instead. Japanese elementary schools teach grades 1 – 6, so kids are mostly ages 6 – 12.
Elementary schools usually don’t have uniforms (though there are exceptions) though the kids often have special hats and sometimes coats as well to wear on their way to school and on school trips. These are usually in very bright colors, so the kids are easy to spot. They may also have an official school set of gym clothes, to be worn during P.E. classes and other heavy physical activity. And, while it’s not required (at least as far as I know), most elementary school kids have the same kind of rather boxy backpack, which are supposed to last them until junior high.
Elementary schools (and all schools above preschools for that matter), rarely have buses. While parents will occasionally drop their kids off, it’s more common for the children to walk to school. They usually live only a short distance from their school but children who live further away or attend distant private schools will often take the bus and/or train. On any given weekday morning in Japan (so long as it’s not a holiday), it’s quite common to see large numbers of little kids walking down the road, getting on and off buses and trains, and the like. Clearly parents here have a bit more faith in their kids than many in the US do these days.
The school day is divided up into 6 class periods (though in elementary school the 6th is often skipped or used for optional things like club activities), along with a lunch break and a couple of recesses. Aside from the basic subjects (Japanese, match, science, P.E. etc), many elementary school kids also have classes in home economics, music, art, and English (until very recently, English wasn’t taught in many elementary schools but it’s since become mandatory for 5th and 6th graders). While some elementary schools have clubs, they’re optional and occupy far less time than junior high and high school clubs do.
Lunch is provided by the school (for the equivalent of several dollars a day). School lunches tend to have a pretty diverse menu and, in a nod to the US (or at least what Japan thinks the US is like), a glass or carton of milk comes with every meal. Unlike all the horror stories about US school lunches, the ones in Japan are fairly healthy and of good quality (they’re primarily Japanese food and made on site by the cooking staff, so there’s not a huge amount of sweets or fatty foods). In fact, the vast majority of the teachers and other school staff eat the school lunch just like the students.
And then there’s cleaning time. Japanese schools have a daily cleaning time (usually right after lunch or recess). Kids (usually in groups of two or three) are assigned different parts of the school and sent off to spend 15 or 20 minutes cleaning. Some student groups are supervised by teachers (especially in elementary schools), but many aren’t. While students may occasionally have access to vacuums and other appliances, the cleaning is primarily done the old fashioned way with brooms, rags, and buckets. And, believe it or not, the kids are usually pretty disciplined and get their work done without complaint. The purpose of cleaning time is to teach the kids about hard work, help them develop a sense of pride in their school, and encourage them to keep things neat and tidy (because if they make a mess, they’re just going to have to clean it up later).
Depending on the size of the school and the number of students, there may be anywhere from one to several classes per grade. Students generally stay in the same class throughout their entire time in elementary school, keeping the same classmates and homeroom teacher for all six years. This focus on class identity is further strengthened by the fact that students spend the majority of their time in their main classroom. While they will go to different rooms for classes that require special equipment (science and P.E., for example), for most classes it’s the teachers, and not the students, who go from room to room. As a note, homeroom teachers usually teach one subject or another, so they have much more to do than just supervise their own class.
While elementary school students can certainly be energetic and loud at times, they tend to be much politer and better behaved then American elementary students. Bullying is uncommon, kids almost always do what they’re told, they hardly ever disrupt class, and they mostly have a good attitude about things. While Japanese culture and things like the aforementioned cleaning time likely contribute to this, it also helps that Japanese parents and teachers haven’t become as discipline averse as those in the US. In the rare times when I’ve seen a student cause problems, the teacher isn’t afraid to yell at them or even give them a smack if necessary. Of course, such things aren’t usually necessary and teachers are sure not to take things too far, but such extreme actions tend to stop a problem child in his tracks very quickly and act as a good deterrent. While I have heard a couple of horror stories about teachers who bully or terrorize their students, all the ones I’ve met myself have been very kind and understanding to their students, only resorting to punishment if absolutely necessary.
And that’s elementary school life. Overall, it tends to be a fun and easy time for children, before things starting getting busier and more difficult in junior high.