Now that I've spent well over a year teaching junior high school in Sapporo I believe I have a firm grasp on how this level of schooling works in Japan. Overall, school is school. Students come and they learn lessons from people who know better than they do and it hopefully shapes them into good, productive members of society. It goes without saying that Japanese and American society are very different, but many of the values are the same and that reflects in the schooling. There are, however, areas in which large differences occur.
1. The Students
Kids will be kids, and that rings true when comparing Japanese and American junior high students. In Japan, junior high encompasses what we would consider 7th to 9th grade. That means the students are roughly 12 to 15 years old. I actually have a number of cousins which fall in this age bracket, so it’s a generation I am very comfortable with being around. Their interests are similar, watching television shows, shopping with friends, playing sports, etc. Japanese students are just a bit different in certain areas.
In Japan greetings are a big deal. You greet every time you see someone, always. When shopping you will walk past stores to ear piercing calls of “いらっしゃいませ!” (irrashaimase) which is a greeting said in the hopes of beckoning you into their fantastically friendly store. It’s something that every foreigner quickly learns to tune out in their daily life. Greetings at work and school are similar to this. In the mornings the hallways are filled with “Good morning!” shouted at you from every angle and ignoring a greeting is a major offense. Before class starts everyone is called to attention to formally greet the teacher (some classes just say “let’s begin” casually while others will stand, bow, and thank you for coming). Often I’ll see written for the daily goal of a class to have “really energetic greetings!” This is something I know I never cared about as a student, but it is something I will see posters about at schools in Japan.
Another way Japanese students differ is that nearly all of them are in some sort of afterschool activity. They are on a sports team or in the art club or they go to juku (after school intensive lessons). These clubs meet on a daily basis in most cases and are extremely time consuming and require an immense amount of dedication. When I was a student I wasn't in any club, at least not seriously, and I don’t really think any of my friends were. There was an afterschool center in the lunchroom where I waited with my friends while our parents worked, but it wasn't an actual club, more a glorified babysitter.
2. The School Year
Japanese schools function year-round. The school year starts in April, a little over a week after the previous one ended. This was very strange when I first moved to Japan as a week vacation didn't feel long enough to transition from being one grade to the next. There is another three weekish long break in August where many people travel and airlines tickets are insanely expensive, and a final break in winter that is two to three weeks depending on where you live (it’s longer in the tundra that is Hokkaido, which makes me very happy).
Because they go to school all year, they spend more time at school. When I first started teaching in junior high I was shocked at just how much time was spent not learning. Currently my school is preparing for the chorus contest to be held at the end of the month, for the last three weeks every sixth period has been spent practicing for it. That’s nearly a month of them missing a class every day. The latter half of September was spent preparing for the school festival after lunch. Because they don’t have that large summer break, they have the time to do these things that I never got to do in school.
They also learn a wider range of subjects consistently. When I was in junior high (middle school) I studied math, science, social studies, language arts, band and an elective that changed in the middle of the year. These electives varied between home economics, art, wood shop, etc. In Japan the students study science, social studies, English, home economics, music, art, language arts, and P.E. as well as classes called “moral education”, “class activities”, and “period for integrated studies”. Due to this, their schedules are different from day to day. First period Monday may be science but you’ll have science again Tuesday during fourth period. It is a lot of juggling and I see Japanese teachers often confused by where they are supposed to be at what time.
One of the things I was most excited about when I started middle school back in 2000
was that I would be changing classes every hour. It felt so grown up to carry around all of my books in my backpack and manage my schedule, making sure that I got to class on time with the three minute break I had. Teachers decorated their classrooms to match the subject they were teaching, bulletin boards covered in maps and items from around the world in social studies, science classrooms filled with animals we took care of, different rules of writing posted up in language arts. I felt immersed in the subject I was studying.
In contrast, Japanese students spend their entire day in one classroom. Their classroom. As a teacher I have to lug everything I need all over the school all day long, and the students are in the same small classroom for hours. They have a ten minute break between classes (which teachers spend trying to grab what they need for the next class and sit down for five minutes before heading to the next classroom). While you don’t get the same benefits I mentioned above, the fact that the students are in the same class with the same people all day instills a sense of comradery and feelings of having your own space to be proud of that I never had in school.
Students eat their lunches in the classroom, often breaking into predetermined groups and eating together. They decorate the classrooms themselves with posters that they make during the “class activities” class I mentioned before. They clean the classrooms (barely…). They even keep the same desk and chair all three years, moving it from classroom to classroom.
These are just a few of the ways Japanese schools are different. I hope you enjoyed it and I would love to hear about how your schooling varied from anything I talked about! What do you think about Japanese students staying in the same classroom all day? Do you think year round schooling is better? Do you wish that greetings and afterschool activities were more forced upon students? Let me know!