- Life & Culture
What is school life typically like in Japan?
In terms of education, Japan is one of the top-performing countries in the world, alongside countries like Hong Kong, Finland, and Canada.
Analysis from the NCEE tells us that “there is a clear correlation between the quality of a country’s educational system and its general economic status and overall well-being”. So, it may come as no surprise that Japan, one of the world’s largest economies in the world, also offers a top-class education.
It begs the question: what is school life like in Japan?
In this article, we explore elements of the Japanese education system that might help to indicate why their education system is so successful, and how that translates into “typical” day-to-day Japanese school life.
The Structure of the Japanese Education System
The first thing to understand is the fact that the Japanese education system is highly standarised, with a national curriculum that ensures a consistent educational experience across the country. Students typically go through a highly uniform educational structure of six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, and three years of high school.
Western education systems, on the other hand, especially in countries like the United States, can vary significantly between states and even individual schools. Some Western countries have a similar 6-3-3 model, while others may have different divisions, such as elementary, middle, and high school, or primary and secondary education.
Schools in Japan often open at, or shortly after, 8:00 am, with students arriving between 8:00 and 8:30 am. All levels of schools have six periods per day, with the first period usually starting after 8:30am.
In Japanese elementary school, each period is 45 minutes, while in junior high and high school, each period is 50 minutes, with a small break between periods.
Japanese students put in a whopping 240 days a year at school, a whole 60 days more than their American counterparts.
Although a significant portion of these days are dedicated to preparing for annual school events, Japanese students still log more classroom hours than their Western counterparts. While Saturdays were traditionally half-days, recent educational reforms have led to a decrease in the number of required Saturday sessions.
The Japanese Ministry of Education calls the shots when it comes to course selection and textbooks, leaving schools with limited autonomy in shaping their curriculum. Academic high school students generally tackle a three-year curriculum covering maths, social studies, Japanese, science, and English. Additional subjects may include physical education, music, art, and moral studies. Given the array of mandatory subjects, elective options are relatively scarce.
Japanese education also places a strong emphasis on standardised exams, notably the university entrance exams. Success in these exams often determines a student’s future academic and career paths, since the prospect of finding a good job in Tokyo balances on the school they attend.
University entrance exams are particularly rigorous and highly competitive, but, practice tests at school and “juku” (or “cram schools”: summer lessons in nonacademic subjects) help teachers to usher students toward institutions whose examinations they are most likely to pass.
In comparison, western systems typically prioritise a holistic approach to evaluation, considering factors beyond exams, such as extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendation letters. While standardised tests are common, they might not carry the same weight as in Japan, and universities frequently consider a broader set of criteria than just grades.
What does the Japanese Education System Look Like for the Average Japanese Student?
Travelling to School
High school students in Japan usually don’t drive cars. Instead, many opt for a stroll or hop on their bicycles if the distance isn’t too far. On your average weekday in Japan, you can expect to see groups of elementary schoolers walking each other to school, rather than their parents. For longer journeys, public buses and trains are the go-to, even if it means changing lines a couple of times — it’s not unusual for students to clock in two or more hours each day just commuting.
Once they’ve sat their standardised high school entrance exams post-junior high, some students find themselves trekking quite a distance to attend the school that their test scores landed them in. As we said before, the school day kicks off at 8:30AM, so these early birds might be leaving their nests as early as 6:30AM.
Some students catch up on much-needed sleep, or dive into their textbooks during the lengthy commute. However, public transportation also becomes a social hub, providing a chance for students to catch up and chat with their pals.
Of course, there are some ground rules. School policies regulate behaviour on the way to school, which can include
- no chewing gum
- no snacking
- or reading books on the move
Basically, nothing that might dent the school’s stellar reputation, which speaks to Japan’s culture of respect and integrity. And speaking of reputation, each school boasts a unique uniform, making its students stand out in the crowd (and far easier to report if they break school policy).
However, whilst policies such as those that suggest students stand on buses and trains to leave seats for others, the further they get from school, the more those rules tend to loosen up.
The Japanese School Day
Once students arrive at school, they step into an area filled with small lockers, where they stash their street shoes and slip into their school slippers. This is a continuation of Japanese customs, whereby guests and residents of homes, accommodations, restaurants, temples, (and even some hospitals and hotels) are expected to take off their shoes at the door, and slip into slippers suitable for inside.
Many schools kick off the week with a school-wide assembly, and afterward, students gather in their homeroom classes to dive into the day’s studies.
The school day commences with some essential housekeeping tasks, like attendance-taking and announcements. Students handle these responsibilities on a rotating schedule called “toban.” This is one of many ways in which the Japanese school system is quite different to the UK & US system, where teachers usually take attendance and collect work.
Typically, each homeroom hosts around 40-45 students, and they stick to their homeroom classrooms for most of the day. Teachers, on the other hand, navigate from room to room, operating out of a central teachers’ room. The only time students venture to different parts of the school is for subjects like physical education, laboratory classes, or to use other specialised facilities.
Between classes and during lunch breaks, classrooms buzz with activity and chatter. While some schools may boast a cafeteria, providing healthy, balanced meals, most rely on students bringing box lunches from home. These homemade lunches, usually prepared by mothers in the early morning hours, feature a nutritious mix of rice, fish, eggs, vegetables, and pickled goods. You can find out more about Japan’s healthy food culture in our article, Japan’s Healthcare System vs The US.
As the academic day winds down, all students pitch in for “o soji,” the school cleaning routine. They sweep classrooms and hallways, empty trash cans, tidy up restrooms, clean chalkboards and erasers, and pick up any litter on the school grounds. Again, this is a greatly contrasting element of the Japanese school day, when compared to Western school systems.
The day will typically finish with students returning to their homeroom for end-of-day salutations, which ends before 4:00 pm. After this time, junior high and high school students will usually take part in club activities, “bukatsu”, until about 6:00 pm.
Working in a Japanese School
Working in a Japanese school is a unique and enriching experience that blends tradition, discipline, and a strong sense of community.
If you’re lucky enough to be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), stationed at one of Japan’s broad range of public and private schools, you can expect to teach your own classes, accompanied by a Japanese teacher, to help manage the classroom and overcome any language barriers.
Taking on a teaching role anywhere in the world can be an incredibly formative and life-changing experience, but there’s nothing quite like teaching in Japan, with one of the best education systems in the world.
Here’s a taste of what you should expect!
Most schools in Japan will have a principal (“kōchō-sensei”) and vice-principal (“kyoto-sensei” or “fuku-kōchō-sensei”). The number of homeroom/form teachers will depend on the school population. Class sizes usually range from 20 to 40 students. Each grade will have a head teacher, and each class will have a homeroom/form teacher, according to the Japanese school system.
Your First Day in a Japanese School
In most cases, you will be introduced to your schools prior to your first working day. You will meet a representative of each school, likely the head of the English program, and quite likely the principal and vice-principal as well. You should be shown your desk, shoebox, and other things that relate to you and will likely be asked to give a brief self-introduction to the other teachers, in Japanese if possible.
On your first day, unless otherwise notified, you will be expected to find your way to school on your own. Be sure to check and double-check your route, as a late arrival on your first day can sour your relationship with the school for the entire year! When you arrive, you should change into your indoor shoes, find your way to the teachers’ room, and offer a hearty “Ohayō gozaimasu!” with a bow at the door. You should already have been shown where to sit, so simply proceed inside and get settled into your role as an inspiring educator. If not, the head of the English program should be ready to guide you.
There may be an official welcome for you given by the students, where you will need to give another introduction, this time in English. If you come at the beginning of the Japanese school year (April), you will likely be introduced along with the other new teachers to the school, as Japanese teachers rotate regularly, only spending an average of three years in a school at a time.
If you want to know more about Japanese culture, Interac is home to a wealth of free articles to help give you a taste of life in Japan. Or, you could experience working and living in Japan first hand, by signing up to be an ALT with Interac!