Take a Bow

By Jessica Hutchison

life as a Japanese student

Ever wonder what life as a Japanese student & Japanse school is like? Me too. I’ve never been one, but I’ve heard about it from a lot of friends. Today I’ll tell you about it, at least, from secondhand experience. Obviously, not every student in Japan has the same experience in school. But it’s also not quite how it seems in that shoujo manga you read in high school. School in Japan is pretty different from what you might be used to if you live in the U.S. (or anywhere that isn’t Japan, really). A cool thing to keep in mind is that Japan’s school system is consistently ranked as one of the top in the world. I just checked and the first list I saw had it as number two under South Korea. So what is this incredibly effective education system like for its students? 


The Basics

The Japanese school year goes from April to March. There is summer break in August and winter break around New Year’s with a few other holidays, but Japanese kids attend a lot of school. They can attend school up to 250 days a year (Americans do about 180). The grades are divided into three major blocks, similar to the U.S. Elementary school is six years, middle school is three, and high school is three. College is just about the same as anywhere else in the world, with four year bachelor’s degrees and higher degrees offered. 


Another easily recognized part of the Japanese school system is the uniform. Most middle and high schools require students to wear uniforms. When in uniform, students are expected to act a certain way, as they are seen as representing the school. Some schools can be pretty strict on what students are not allowed to do while in uniform. This doesn’t stop a lot of kids though. I still remember seeing some of the bolder girls hitching up their skirts super high (they are usually knee length), and some boys eating as they walk down the street (this is really rude in Japan). Elementary kids are easy to spot even without uniforms. The first year kids usually can be seen in big groups with adorable yellow hats. A lot of elementary students are also required to carry the same type of backpack, which are normally color-coded for boys and girls. School can be close enough to walk to, but for many older students, it requires a commute.


I once talked to a girl who had an hour and a half commute each way when going to school. There’s not really school buses, unless you count the ridiculously cute ones shaped like pandas and puppies, but those are only for the young children. Many students take public transportation. I’ve even heard of some who would have to commute so far to school, their parents rent them an apartment closer instead. When students arrive at school, they exchange their shoes for slippers that they only wear in the school building. This follows with the Japanese custom of removing your shoes before you step inside. 

Entrance Exams

You might wonder why a student would have to commute so far to school. For private schools and most high schools, entrance exams are required. A better score will get you into a better school, and that improves your chances of finding a good career. The high school you attend is almost as important as the college you attend, and it can make a big difference in whether or not a college or job will be interested in you. Sometimes students will make it into fairly prestigious high schools that are very far away from where they live. They would rather make the commute than give up the opportunity to go to a better school, so they ride the train and the bus to go. Everyone I talked to hated these entrance exams. It’s a lot of pressure to put on really young kids (we’re talking middle schoolers, here). The college entrance exams are just as bad. Kids spend hours and hours every week to prepare for them, because the highly ranked universities can be very competitive. But from what I heard, if you got into a top university in Japan, you were set for life. I guess it’s a lot of pressure at a young age, but it can help them figure out their lives and find success very early on. 


The Daily Lives of High Schoolers

Most of my friends were either in high school or fresh out when I asked them about school. And from what I can tell, high school is pretty intense in Japan. As is true with most secondary educations, the curriculum is fairly rigorous. Students have several classes during the day, including the usual subjects like math and history. They also take English, which has given many foreigners the impression that all Japanese people speak English. This isn’t quite true. While there are many who are more than proficient with English, most Japanese people remember English just about as well as Americans remember their high school Spanish classes. They can say “Hello” and “This is a pen,” and that’s usually about it. 


After classes, most high schoolers participate in extracurricular activities. Sports are fairly popular (especially baseball—boy do they love baseball), as are music groups and other clubs. While club activities might be the end of the day for many, some students will continue on to cram school in the evening. Cram school is to help students study and prepare for entrance exams. It’s almost like tutoring, but a little less personal. Most students return home after dark and continue to study for a couple more hours before going to sleep and starting the cycle over again. 


Free time

This is very limited in high school, and some schools will go as far as forbidding their students from dating or getting jobs while they are in school so they can focus on their studies. From what I can tell, that’s pretty extreme, but it isn’t unheard of. High school sounds pretty scary from an American perspective, but there’s a reason Japan has one of the highest ranked education systems in the world. Japanese people are very intelligent, and the level of discipline they reach with their school system is something incredible. Obviously, no education system is perfect, and Japan still has its flaws. This system probably works great for some students and not so great for others, but isn’t that always how school is? 


The education system is an important part of any culture, and understanding Japan’s schools can help us understand more about the Japanese people. If you want to learn more about Japanese culture (and work on improving your Japanese as our American school year starts up here) be sure to check out our daily podcast! 


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