Considered as a fundamental point of growth for people around the world, education plays an essential role in determining the way a country and society functions. Each country has their own methods of teaching and raising children, particularly so in Japan where most students study relatively hard to strive for success in life.
The Japanese School Calendar
The Japanese academic year begins in April and ends in March, completely different from other academic systems in the world. One academic year is divided into three trimesters: April – July, September – December, and January – March. In the summer, the students have 6 weeks of holidays. In the winter and spring, students have two-week breaks. The logic behind starting the school year from April is that most people perceive spring as a time when life is beginning anew. Along with this season of new beginnings, April is the month when Japanese cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Many schools tend to have cherry trees growing near the school, and this is when parents enjoy taking pictures of their children entering the school.
Japan’s lower education system is based on a 6-3-3 system: 6 years in elementary, 3 years in lower secondary, 3 years in upper secondary school. It is compulsory for the students to spend 9 years at elementary and lower secondary school. Then, there are the institutions of higher education such as universities, junior colleges, and specialty colleges. For students with disabilities, there is the “special support education”, a system designed to support those who need special help toward independence in society.
Japanese School Life
Most of the junior high schools require students to wear school uniforms. Girls wear a sailor outfit and boys wear a military-style outfit. The purpose behind wearing uniforms is that it can help build a sense of community within the students.
In order for the students to perform well at schools, the Japanese education system ensures that the students eat healthy and balanced meals. In the public elementary and junior high schools, the lunch is cooked according to a standardized menu by health care professionals. Then the students will serve lunch by themselves and eat in their classrooms, alongside their homeroom teacher. This close sense of community in the school develops an opportunity to show respect, by saying “itadakimasu” before and “gochiso-sama deshita” after each meal.
Japanese students generally study Japanese, Science, Mathematics, Physical Education, Health, and a foreign language at school. Not only do the students learn the mandatory subjects, the students also learn basic life skills such as sewing, knitting, cooking, and other handicrafts in school. Students also learn traditional skills such as the Japanese calligraphy “shodo”, where an ink-dipped brush is used to draw Japanese characters. “Haiku”, a form of poetry that uses simple expressions to express deep emotions, is also taught to the students. This is an opportunity for them to discover and respect their own traditional culture. There are also many sports and cultural clubs or activities offered, all taught by regular teachers.
Most Japanese schools do not employ janitors or custodians. The students themselves clean the classrooms, cafeterias, and toilets. When on cleaning duty, the students are divided into small groups and assigned with tasks that rotate throughout the year. With the requirement of cleaning the school, the students can learn the skills of working as a team and helping one another.
Compared to other countries, skipping class is not a problem in Japan. OCED conducts the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. From the results of PISA 2015, it has been reported that “On average across OECD countries, 20% of students reported that they had skipped one day of school or more in the two weeks…; in Japan, 2% of students so reported.” With most students attending school, the country’s literacy rate should definitely be above average. According to an article from The Guardian, Japan’s “literacy rate is frequently put at 99%”. Japan’s approach to learning and studying is the frequent use of reviewing and testing the class materials. This has proved huge success in establishing basic academic skills for the students.
While the process is often quite different for individuals applying to Japanese universities abroad, Japanese students who wish to enter high schools or universities must pass the institution’s entrance exams. It is very hard to describe the magnitude of how important the entrance exam is, as it basically determines the student’s immediate future and eventual success. Each college has a certain score requirement. In other words, to enroll in that particular college, one must score above that minimum requirement. Japanese students encounter endless nights of no sleep and often attend cram schools after school to achieve a higher score. Junior high school students often begin studying for entrance exams two years before actually getting accepted into their desired high school. For college students the competition is very high, especially if one aims for high ranked universities. Allegedly only around 56% of students pass on their first try of the college entrance exams. If one doesn’t pass the exam, they have the option of studying for an entire year on their own and taking the test again next year. This would be another cycle of stress and studying. This period of extreme studying preparation for entrance exam has developed its own nickname: “examination hell”. After having taken and passing the entrance exam, the students usually take a little break to travel or work to save money. A students’ college years are considered the best years of a person’s life.
As one can tell, Japan’s culture has a strong correlation with their educational system. The culture behind students respecting the school community, learning their own country’s tradition more, cleaning their own school, and scoring high grades is what makes Japan’s education system unique in some way. However, having such a system, that tries its best to make students perform the best as they can, can have some downsides. Specifically, the emphasis on pressuring students to score full marks on the entrance exam is daunting, since it means the only way for them to enter college is through their exam score. Hopefully, there will be another system for students to be assessed on, not just based on their score.