West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs

The Japanese School System Part 2

By Josiah Lebowitz

Sorry about all the missed days last week. While I actually did have internet access during my trip, I had very little time to actually write anything. But now I’m back it’s time for part 2 of my entry on the Japanese School System.

Junior High

A Junior High School in Japan

Junior high in Japan covers grades 7 – 9 (though here kids are called first, second, and third year junior high school students). Like elementary, junior high is mandatory and, unless their parents opt for a private school, kids attend the junior high school closest to where they live.

Subjects pretty much stay the same as in elementary, but tests are harder and there’s more homework. Students also have a lot less recess time. Clubs begin to become a more important (and time consuming) part of many students’ lives and cover an extremely broad range of hobbies from sports and music (in Japan, school sports teams and bands are actually student clubs) to anime and mystery novels.

School Uniforms

A bunch of kids in their school uniforms.

Junior high is also when most students start wearing school uniforms or seeraafuku (sailor clothes), so called because their basic design is based on US navy uniforms. Each school has their own unique uniform and, if you’re familiar with an area, it’s very easy to tell at a glance what school a kid attends by looking as his/her uniform. The typical boys uniform usually consists of dark slacks, a belt, a white button down shirt, a dark tie, and a blazer or coat of some kind. Girls, meanwhile, get long socks (usually either white or dark blue / black), a dark skirt (generally ending a little above their knees), and sailor style blouse (usually white) with a short tie. They may also get a dark sweater or blazer to wear over their blouse when it’s cold. Students will, without fail, wear their uniform every day to and from school and on school trips. At school, however, many students spend much of the day in their gym clothes (usually thin gym pants or shorts (often blue) and a t-shirt (white) with an optional sweatshirt or jacket for cold days). Similarly, many staff members will come to work in a suit and tie but spend the day in gym clothes. I think the goal is to put on a good appearance for those outside the school, but I’m not entirely sure.

Sports Day & Culture Fests

There are several big events throughout the school year. The graduation ceremony is one of them that most of us can relate to but sports days and culture festivals aren’t something we usually see in the US. These events tend to have the most importance in high school but they’re held in junior high and many elementary schools as well. Note that both of them usually take place on weekends to encourage parents to attend (in return, students get one day off the following week).

An event at an elementary school sports day.

Sports day divides the students into two or more teams (usually by grade and/or class). Throughout the day, the teams compete in a variety of different sporting activities. Relay races, ball tossing games, and even eating contests are all popular options, but the exact set of competitions can vary wildly. Points are awarded for how well the teams do and, at the end of the day, whichever team has the most points is declared the winner.

Culture festivals are sort of like fairs. Each class and/or club is tasked with creating some sort of booth or presentation and the whole thing is opened to the public. Popular student booths / presentations include: restaurants and cafes (sometimes with special themes), plays, musical performances, club demonstrations, and haunted classrooms. I never quite figured out who gets the money earned by the restaurants and other pay attractions. I assume a lot of it is used to pay expenses but I don’t know if whatever is left goes to the students or the school…

School Trips
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the good old school fieldtrip to the nearest zoo, museum, fire station, or whatnot. Japanese schools do that. However, they tend to have much more impressive trips as well. Starting in late elementary school or junior high, students tend to go on one big school trip each year. For example, in the elementary school where I used to work the sixth grade kids went on a several day trip to Kyoto and Nara (which were a good four hours away by bullet train and are a very popular school trip destination) and at the junior high school where I’m working now, the third year students recently went on a two day ski trip in the area near Mt. Fuji. And if those trips aren’t elaborate enough, I know one girl whose class actually had a school trip to Seattle, Washington! I have to admit, I’ve rather curious as to why the school picked Seattle instead of New York, Orlando, Hawaii, or the Grand Canyon (the popular US tourist spots for foreign travelers), but that’s beside the point. Of course, these trips aren’t free and parents do have to pay for them, but it sure makes that trip to the zoo seem rather dull, doesn’t it?

High School
In a big change from the US, high school in Japan is not mandatory. Though the percentage of Japanese kids that attend is still somewhere in the mid to high 90’s. Because high schools aren’t mandatory, most are privatized and, like colleges, there are more prestigious high schools that have a good reputation for certain subjects or for large portions of their students going on to prestigious universities. Because of this, it’s quite common for students to attend a high school that’s an hour or two away from the home. Some may even move out of their parents’ home and live with relatives or even in a private apartment just so they can attend a particularly good high school.

As a note, the more prestigious high schools tend to expect a certain level of achievement from their students (maintaining their reputation is important if they want to keep attracting lots of new students). Some even go so far as to interfere in students’ lives outside of school, forbidding students from getting jobs, going to arcades, and taking part in other non-school related activities in hope that they’ll spend more time studying instead. Naturally, these rules are difficult to enforce and are often ignored by the students (though many will change out of their uniform before engaging in such “forbidden” activities).

High school itself is very similar to junior high and covers grades 10 – 12. As with junior high there are school uniforms, clubs (which are often mandatory and tend a play a much bigger role in the students’ lives), and a wide variety of classes (though unlike many US high schools, students in Japan usually don’t get any say in which classes they take). The biggest change is that, instead of a set school lunch, many high schools have a cafeteria and students are free to buy lunch there or bring their own.

Exam Hell
As I mentioned a moment ago, like US colleges, some Japanese high schools and universities have better reputations than others. High schools may brag about the percentage of their students that make it into big name universities like Tokyo University while the universities will brag about the percentage of their students who went on to get jobs in big name companies. In many ways, your future professional life in Japan can be determined primarily by your choice of high school. But getting into the best schools isn’t easy. Third year junior high and high school students must pass an extremely difficult set of entrance exams (both national exams and specialized exams for their preferred school) in the spring leading up to their graduation. In the US, a decent SAT or ACT score will get you in almost anywhere. In Japan, the tests are longer and harder and, if you want to get into the top schools, you need really good scores. These periods in students’ lives are often referred to as exam hell. In addition to their regular school work, serious students will devote the vast majority of their free time to studying and attending cram schools, often getting very little sleep and working themselves to exhaustion. When it comes to high schools, students will often pick a fairly easy to get into back-up school, in case they fail to get into their top choices. For university, however, it’s common for students who fail their exams to keep studying and try again the following year (in Japan, entrance exams are only held once per year and new students always start school in April). Students like this are referred to as ronin (an old word for masterless samurai) and may spend several years attempting to get into the school of their choice before giving up pursuing a different path.

College and University
While getting into a Japanese university is extremely difficult, things get considerably easier once you’re in. In fact, from everything I’ve heard, standards are pretty lax and it’s extremely difficult to fail a class. In other words, so long as you passed the entrance exams you’re almost guaranteed to graduate from university no matter what. Because of this, many university students focus more of their energy on their hobbies (often as part of a school club), part time jobs, and just relaxing and enjoying the freedom they have prior to joining the work force (which, in many professions, tends to leave little time for any sort of personal or social life).

And that’s the Japanese school system. It certainly does some things well (giving students a sense of pride, discipline, and hard work, helping them find friends and become part of a group, etc) but it has its problems as well (overworking students, teaching heavily towards tests (which is one reason why, despite years of English lessons, most Japanese people can’t handle even the most basic English conversation), and the like). I think Japanese educators could learn a few things from the educational system in the US but I think that US educators could learn quite a lot from Japan as well.


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