Back to School – 10 Ways School is Different in Japan

With the American school year now in full swing, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at Japanese school life and how it differs to a typical American student’s experience. In the US, we may view Japanese culture as meticulous and strict, but Japanese students consistently rank as some of the happiest in the world—and their test scores are impressive, too! Here are some of the things that really stuck out to us as unique:

10. The school year starts in April and ends in March, with breaks for summer, winter, and spring vacation. Primary school (shougakkou) is 6 years; junior high (chuugakkou) is 3 years; high school (koukou) is 3 years. Note: high school is not compulsory.

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9. Students stay in their classrooms and the teachers come to them, rather than the other way around! Students are known by their classroom number, e.g. “Yuki is in 3-5″— meaning Yuki is a third-year student in class #5.

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8. Uniforms (seifuku) are mandatory starting in middle school, and differ from uniforms you might see in the US! The boys wear military-style suits and the girls wear what has come to be known as a “sailor” suit.

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7. They don’t have a choice about which foreign language to learn; in 2011, English was made mandatory for 5th and 6th graders. They continue studying English through high school.

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6. Students take off their shoes at the school entrance and leave them in their cubbies, at which point they don their “indoor shoes,” which are used only at school.

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5. School festivals (bunka-sai)—students put on a massive festival each year where they showcase their skills and schoolwork, and even serve food to guests. This custom continues even into the university years.

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4. The tone of graduation ceremonies is solemn and even sorrowful, rather than happy or excited. There is more of an emphasis on saying farewell to your classmates and teachers with whom you now share a strong bond. Many students attend the same elementary school and middle school, but it is likely that they will be split up for high school. Students must take difficult entrance exams in order to gain acceptance to high school, and some students opt to attend trade schools or start apprenticeships instead.

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3. School lunches are VERY healthy (compared to American school lunches) and usually consist of a main dish plus rice, milk, and a small snack. It is called kyuushoku or “daily meal.” The lunches are prepared by a school cook, but the students take turns serving the lunches. Everyone brings their own set of chopsticks and no disposable utensils or plates are used. Every class has a set of spoons and plates that they must take care of. Lunch is really important in general—students must be respectful and eat all of their food.

2. Students all brush their teeth (a ritual called “hamigaki“) after kyuushoku. The younger children sometimes brush as a song is played over the school loudspeaker that directs them as they brush.

1. No janitors work at Japanese schools! Instead, the students clean the school during the daily “souji” tradition/ritual. The students are split up into groups (always a mix of the different grades) and divide the responsibilities (windows, floors, bathrooms, etc) between them. Through sweat and elbow grease, students learn to love and care for their schools!

BONUS: Many of the teachers wear tracksuits and gym clothes instead of suits and office clothes! Writer’s note: While I was living and teaching in Japan, I asked many people why teachers dress this way. I never got a straight answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the very active nature of their work. Japanese teachers are very involved in their students’ work and lives. Many of them coach sports or sponsor a school club in addition to teaching classes, so it’s easy to imagine that they’d want to be comfortable while doing so. It’s not unusual for a teacher to spend more time at school than at his or her own home! 

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