School Life: What Is It Like In A Japanese Public School?
Like a great many young Europeans and other English speakers who find their way to Japan, I have found myself teaching English in Public schools here. On and off, I’ve been in this line of work for nearly 8 years, and I have to say I love it.
However, I have also noticed that schools here in Japan are, in a great many ways, completely different to what I experienced from my schooling first in England and then later on in Scotland. So, today I would like to share with you some of my experiences and show you some of the differences between schools in Japan and those in the west.
Firstly, the actual make-up of how school functions here in Japan is somewhat different from what I experienced in Scotland. In Scotland, most kids start primary school (elementary school to my American friends) when they are 4 or 5 years old. In Japan, for most children they do not start elementary school (Shougakko in Japanese) until they are 6 years old. Also, in Scotland, primary school runs for seven years. In Japan it is only 6 years.
Likewise, the whole concept of Junior High School (Chugakko) and Senior High School (Kouko) was completely alien to me when I first arrived here.
In Scotland, rather than spending 3 years at junior high, followed by another 3 years at high school, as the Japanese do, we have high school for between 4-6 years, depending on our chosen career path and whether or not we wish to enter further education.
Photo : Hiroki ONO on Flickr
For all the criticism levelled at Japan in recent years for its seemingly poor grasp of English, Japanese kids actually spend far more time studying English than I ever did studying foreign languages at school. Most Japanese kids start studying English at elementary school 5th grade, when they are around 10 years old. In Scotland, I didn’t even start learning French until the first year of high school, when I was nearly 13.
From a teacher’s perspective, the learning methodology in a Japanese public school is also very different from what many of us have come to expect in our home countries.
When I was learning French, my teacher employed a variety of activities to enhance our speaking, reading, writing and listening skills.
In Japan however, its all about rote learning. Students spend class after class writing down and memorizing various vocabulary, phrases and grammatical structures. This methodology is applied not just in English class but also I almost every other class in school today. Perhaps this is why Japan continues to excel at a world level in areas like science, technology and mathematics, but falls short in areas like languages, arts and the creative industries.
Now, let’s look at the schools themselves. Like a great many aspects of Japan’s society, school life involves a great deal of ritual and routine, designed to enforce discipline and a sense of responsibility as well as build a person’s character.
Every class begins with all the students standing to attention, giving a respectful bow and saying “onegaishimasu” which in this context loosely translates as, “please teach us well”. Each class concludes with a similar ritual in which the students en-masse, bow before their teacher and say “Arrigatougozaimashita” which means “Thank you for your efforts”. These twin virtues of discipline and deference to your elders run through almost all facets of Japanese school life. You’ll also notice that many of the students can sometimes seem a bit sleepy.
The reason for this is probably “bukatsu” or club activities. These club activities are usually held before and after school. Meaning that a member of the baseball club, for example, may have to get to school around 7am, train for about 90 minutes, complete a full day of classes and then do another 3 hours or so of practice with the baseball club.
Can you imagine pulling a 12 hour day when you were 13 years old? I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’d be alive today if I had tried to keep to that kind of schedule 5 or 6 days a week when I was a teenager. I don’t know how these kids do it.
Another interesting facet of Japanese school life is just how much time kids spend at school, but not actually in classes. Events such as sports day, culture festival, graduation and school entrance ceremonies were simple matters of one day routine when I was at school. Not so in Japan, where days, even weeks can be spent in intense preparation for these events, with regular classes taking a back seat in the interim. However, when you witness these events first hand, and see how professionally coordinated everyone is, it really is a sight to behold and all that hard work seems worthwhile.
Life as a teacher is also quite different for those in Japan. As a foreign teacher I am fortunate not to have the same burdens forced upon me as my Japanese colleagues, however teachers in Japan can regularly expect to work 6 or 7 days a week, sometimes for as much as 14 hours per day. Also, whilst teachers in other countries can, for the most part enjoy similar holidays to the students, this is not the case in Japan, where even during vacation times, teachers are still expected to report for duty, even when there is little of anything to do.
In spite of these little foibles, Japanese teachers are for the most part great people to work with. If you are fortunate to ever find yourself working in a public school here in Japan you will find yourself enjoying not only a very easy and supportive working environment, but also a unique cultural experience. For those who want to work in Japan, teaching in a public school offers one of those very rare opportunities where one can get get to know real Japanese people who may not speak any English, nor even have any interest in English or foreign culture in general. These kinds of people, once you get to know them, can open up a whole new side of Japan to you, and show you places and experiences you would never previously have imagined trying.
Through getting to know my coworkers over the years, I have been introduced to the likes of calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, traditional dance and many other things I would never dreamed of trying otherwise.
Today I call Japan my home, and that is something I hope will never change. More than anything, I owe this to the great many friends I have made working in public schools here. Long may it continue.