Written by Peter
I remember being a kid at Cheremoya Elementary School in Hollywood, California, back in the 80’s. Gross stuff, like all kinds and colors of gum stuck under the school chairs and desks, or the bathrooms always having wet floors and smelling of poop when some kid figured flushing was too much work for him. All sorts of swear words and cool bands, etched into class desks and benches outside. We had these huge, gray trash cans placed around the school, so we could throw whatever cans, cartons, papers…anything really, into those massive bins, full of who knows what. Kids got thrown in there once in a while, too (GROSS). And whatever didn’t make its way into those huge tubs was cleaned up by the janitor (or custodian) or two, although I can’t for the life of me remember any of them, though they were there.
We dressed up in our own clothes, wore whatever shoes we wanted, walked alone or with a friend or two to school, and life was pretty relaxed. After a day of school, we’d spend countless hours playing in the yard at the monkey bars or sand box or tetherball. It was our time, our lives, and we weren’t held to anything unless it was part of a school program, of which there were very few where and when I was. But no sports or music clubs, and I definitely didn’t do any work that wasn’t mine. I mean, why work with other people or support the school and the people there? They ain’t my friends or family. Well, at least the ones who weren’t my friends or sisters.
I’m sure the American school system has changed since the Stone ages when I attended, but I honestly can’t ever imagine it changing to the extent that the Japanese school system is different from what I experienced as a kid growing up in the States. I’ve been teaching here in Japan for a year and a half now, and what I’ve seen and experienced would be quite the culture shock to probably any red-blooded American, teacher or student. Having lived and taught in South Korea, I had adjusted quite a bit already, since South Korea and Japan do share some similarities in the way things are done at schools. But whatever I saw and experienced in South Korea, Japan has definitely taken to the next level. Most stuff, I’m a total fan of, though sometimes it seems just a tad too intense for this guy.
Anyway, let’s get started, shall we? Hajimemasu! Rei! Onegaishimasu!
1. Cleaning. General cleanliness in Japan is a pretty well-known fact around the world, and once you see what’s required of students AND staff at school, you’ll understand why. The schools that I work at set aside at least twenty to thirty minutes to clean up, and EVERYONE gets involved. From the youngest child to the principal of the school, everyone participates in cleaning up in some way. Kids of various grades are placed into groups to clean certain areas such as classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms. Teachers are also assigned to help out and oversee the groups, and every once in a while you’ll catch the principal or vice principal bust out major gardening tools to mow down the lawn or cut down branches off the trees. It was astonishing to see at first, especially coming from America, where if you’re not paid for a job, you don’t do it. But it’s not a shock to see how this discipline carries over into the intense and rigorous work-ethic that Japan is so notorious for.
2. Lunch. Another aspect of school life that departs greatly from what a student attending a school in America will experience. In America, you have the choice of bringing your school lunch (usually in a brown paper bag, although back in the day I had a metal Captain America lunch box) and eating outside, or you can pay for lunch tickets and eat in the cafeteria. But you do your thing, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There are no times of silence, or eating within a restricted amount of time (within lunch time of course), or having to listen respectfully to some student-led broadcast over the PA system.
In Japan, you again have this system of community and of working together.
Designated kids get in line and head down to the “kitchen,” where they pick up all of the prepared food, trays and utensils, and then head back to their classrooms, where they finishing prepping the meals and passing them out as the kids get in line. Students even have their own masks, aprons, and bandanas, for hygienic reasons. And after all the students have received their meals, they are led to clasp their hands together to say, “Itadakimasu,” which roughly can be understood as thankfully receiving their food. After kids are finished eating their meals of some assortment of rice or noodles, soup, veggies, and a little meat, they separate their plastics, straws, milk cartons, and food wastes, so that things can be recycled properly. When all is ready to be taken back down by the kitchen brigade to be cleaned up, students are again led to clasp hands and say “Gochisosama deshita,” or “Thank you for the meal (I just had).”
Absolutely mind-boggling and fully impressed when I first observed this.
3. General manners. One large difference, which I found to be true in South Korea as well, but much more so in Japan, is the standardized and systemized level of manners expected from everyone inside the school. There is a set way to enter the office when you are asked to run an errand or grab a set of keys, which includes stating your name, grade and class room number, and what your purpose of coming is. And before you enter, you ask permission to do so, only entering when given permission.
Before class starts, and although this differs a bit from school to school, students are asked to prepare themselves right before. They will close their eyes and ready themselves to learn the lesson ahead of them. The class leaders will then ask all students to stand, bow, and then pronounce “Onegaishimasu,” which can roughly be understood as “Please take care of us” (we’re in your hands). To this, the teacher replies, “Onegaishimasu,” or “Please take care of me,” and what you see is a mutual request to have each party respected and taken care of properly during class time (although if I’m honest, isn’t always the case with certain students).
This is another massive contrast to the US, with the experience of starting class (maybe) after the bell rings, and always having the teacher ask the students to settle down, but without the same level of expectation. And in general, the concept of life etiquette is expected to be taught in school as well as at home in Japan, with teachers and staff given that responsibility. Much more so than in western cultures, Japan, and many other Asian cultures, believe much more the community and in working together.
4. Clubs. This applies more once students have gone up to Junior and Senior high school, but once classes are completed, the great majority of students will remain at school for an extra (not considered extra in Japan) two hours to take part in club activities. Most of the boys will be involved in sports, such as baseball or soccer or tennis, and the girls will take part in volleyball, table tennis, and surprisingly make up the majority or all of the brass band (This must be why Japan has so many talented female artists and bands). Other areas in Japan will have different sports and clubs I’m sure, but in my area, these seem to be what’s made available. Everyday, students are expected to take part and be part of a group that they can make better, but can also better them. Talking with some students, it can be a bit much to deal with every day, but for the most part, it seems they enjoy it.
I remember coming home from school and watching HOURS of MTV, or reading comics, or playing my electric guitar in the bathroom (great acoustics), or just hanging out with friends. I loved having my “me” time, and couldn’t imagine that being taken away from me, as it shaped me to enjoy the arts I love, and to help me become the person I am now. Still, I’m constantly blown away and respect the level to which these kids are taught to live a disciplined lifestyle. I wonder if this is much easier for me to say as someone who didn’t grow up in this environment.
Now this article could definitely go on for quite a bit into all the different nuances of how much the schools in Japan differ from those in America, but it can generally be said that there is a lot more expectation and responsibility placed on children from an early age here. I honestly don’t recall having those things placed on me by my schools or teachers aside from a few scary ones that personally desired more discipline and scared the bejeezus out of me, but it was far from systemic. But just as much as the students are asked to put in, I also see that teachers are expected to put in that much more. There’s much more of time and relationship put into the two parties, and though it can be a bit much at times, I do also see how much fruit comes out of the intense relationship, and I do also see the potential of what good and prepared lives these students can have.
But what do you think? Would you give up your way of being schooled to be brought up in Japan’s school system?