There are so many things to talk about with regards to life in Japanese schools – the quirky, the interesting, the disturbing… This article goes through the basics, and focuses mainly on elementary and junior high school life.
Japanese students are required to go through 6 years in elementary school, and 3 years in junior high, after which the majority continue their studies in high school for 3 years, then go on to university – if they make the cut. The rest either start working or enroll in a specialized college after graduating from junior high school.
The number of students per class varies by school, but in general, the big schools, which are situated in the city, have large classes, up to 40. Small schools that are located in the countryside can have as few as 3 students per class, no thanks to the 「少子化」“shoshika” or phenomenon of declining birth rate in the country.
Junior high and senior high students use the bicycle to commute to school, unless they live very near their school, in which case they walk. Both junior and senior high students wear a uniform to school, but an easy way to distinguish a junior and senior high student is that the former wears a white helmet when riding a bike, while the latter don’t.
Elementary school students are distinctively different. They do not wear a uniform, and everyone walks to school in designated groups. Each group has a mixture of students across all 6 grades, and is led by a Grade 6 group leader. Most schools require students to wear a yellow hat on their way to and from school. The requirements for going home are more complex – a host of factors like the weather, club activities, the end time of a particular grade’s last lesson of the day to name just a few, determine how and what time the students are dismissed from school each day.
Every morning, police officers and volunteers station themselves at crossroad and traffic light junctions near elementary schools, acting as traffic marshals in order to help enhance the students’ safety as they commute between home and school. For junior high schools, some get their own teachers to do the job if they don’t trust the students to commute to school safely and in an orderly manner.
A major turning point in students’ lives comes in their third year of junior high school – in the form of high school entrance examinations. From elementary school, although tests are conducted several times a year, students are not required to pass any of them in order to proceed to the next grade the following year. This goes on until their final year in junior high school, when they are required to take the all-important high school entrance exams.
Those students who have had a devil-may-care attitude towards studying (and there is quite a number of them, since no test they had taken before was so important) may suddenly become more serious, due to pressure from their surroundings – parents, teachers and peers. Failing the high school entrance exams means that they are unable to enroll in high school, which could seriously jeopardize their future. Private high school exams are much easier to pass than public high schools’, so students with poor grades can opt to enroll in private high schools. However, the downside is that private high school fees are a lot more expensive. Therefore, parents might not be able to afford to enroll their children in private schools. Hence, to prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring, many parents enroll their students in the very expensive cram schools while they are in elementary or junior high school.
Given the nature of the Japanese school system, it’s not hard to see that school life in Japan can be interesting from a non-Japanese person’s point of view, and also stressful to everyone – students, parents and teachers alike. How does it compare to your own country’s system?