The Japanese School System from an American Perspective

Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know. -Daniel J. Boorstin

Today marks the official end of the third semester. Yes, it’s the final end to the strange, strange practice of attending school for 8 weeks just so that the third years can study their brains out for the high school entrance exam. Saying good-bye to my beloved third years was quite painful. As one of them summarized it for me: ‘Goodbye for forever!’

*insert sad face*

From April on wards, we begin the whole ritual of entrance ceremonies and school life all over again. As an educator of seven months and a few odd days, it’s difficult to have an unbiased perspective because I’m still figuring out what my role in the school system is and how to best utilize to teach language and culture sensitively but it seemed like a good starting point nonetheless. I might update this piece again in another couple of months for the one year anniversary of my arrival in Japan. In the meantime…

School life. Otherwise known as, the never-ending compulsory thirteen years of general education specialization of doom. And then some, because let’s be honest, all the good jobs require at least a baccalaureate degree in Something (in America, it rarely matters what… unless, you know, you want to be doctor or a nurse).

So what do you kids learn in school these days, eh? I think it was quite funny that the principle at one of my junior highs really drove this point home:

Principal: ‘So third years, what do you use (insert ridiculous equation here) for?’

Third years: *BLANK STARES*

Principal: Step it up. High school’s much harder than what you’re doing here.

Anyway, here’s the basic breakdown of what the education system looks like (for the most part) in the United States…


Teachers: the institution you entered is the institution from which they will drag your cold, hard body off the desk. Tenure is practically guaranteed at the ten year mark. Also, you do not transfer from school to school within the district. If you are a middle school teacher, you do not walk from class to class, rather you have your own classroom and the students are expected to walk from class to class. You emphasize the importance of critical thinking over rote memorization. You don’t end work just because you’ve clocked out. If anything you’re grading papers while attending your daughter’s science fair or your son’s piano recital. When invited to a dinner party, you’re grading papers from appetizers to dessert and have subsequently lost all rights to being invited anywhere by your other friends.

Preschool (optional): finger painting, ABCs, 1-2-3s, and other exciting adventures in the realm of learning how to use the toilet properly.

Elementary School (Kindergarten to 6th grade): the seven single most fun years of education, replete with projects, interactive reports, and learning how to negotiate a fare trade from chocolate pudding to Hot Cheetoes during lunch. This was the life. Sadly, we didn’t know it until much later. Subjects learned: Math, Science, History, Physical Education, Social Studies, Music, Computers, English/Cursive (I’m probably dating myself here since cursive is no longer taught).

Middle School (7th and 8th grade): Suddenly, nothing was ever simple again. Raging hormones, blasting Lincoln Park through the house, and school dances. You learn to hide what you’re really feeling because the animals will tear apart the weakest link in any group. Also, group work sucks. Subjects learned: Math, Science, World History, American History, English, Physical Education, Drama/Home Economics/Band/Wood Shop/Etc., Home Room. Life is about attitude. It’s about being you in the face of a world that’s trying to socialize you to look like the previous generation. *insert Lincoln Park lyrics: I tried so hard and got so far but in the end it doesn’t even matter…*

High School (9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade): Suddenly there are all of these REQUIREMENTS to graduate and tests. All the tests in world: AP tests, SAT tests, high school exit exams, and then just your average test of the month/semester/year. The there is finding out your sexuality and where you fit in the grander scheme of things and finding a way to leave your hometown forever because you know, living and dying in the same house is too Emily Dickinson to be cool anymore (I joke), and then there was finding someone to attend the dance with you… High school was that strange period in life where you’re rushing to find things out before you leave for college, vocational school, and/or settling down with a job. Subjects learned: Maths, Sciences, English, Foreign Language, American History, World History, Electives, Physical Education, Economics, Law, etc. Depending on what state you went to and what requirements were in place, your high school education could have looked like anything. Also after school clubs and sports went a long way for your social life. This is also the age where you suddenly realize you have three apples and Mary Jane Vanderbilt/Onassis/insert-rich-family-name-here has twenty-five billion apples… the difference in life advantages between three and twenty-five billion are insurmountable… unless of course you’re intellectually one of the top 1% of your class and can afford to apply anywhere you want. But really, most of us were in the other 99% anyway >.>


Teachers: You are mother/father/nutritional counselor/sports coach/friend/cheerleader/moral instructor/teacher to your students. You emphasize rote memorization over critical thinking. Every three years or so, you face the risk of being uprooted from the institution where you teach and forced to relocate within the span of two weeks. As a new teacher you start at level 0 (no trust, no real responsibilities, and your presented ideas will not be seriously considered by any of your coworkers). The more years you’ve put into your institution, the more seriously you will be taken and the more responsibilities you will be given. You start work at dawn and at 10pm you’re still at your desk pulling overtime to be amazing. If your students get into trouble, the first person the police will contact is you and not the parents.

Preschool & Kindergarten (optional): The focal point of your education revolves around learning your shapes from your colors and how to use the toilet properly. Basically, whatever your American counterparts are learning but in Japanese. Also, moral education is considered the responsibility of the school. I can’t tell the difference from preschool or kindergarten in Japan. Preschool might have more of a day care vibe but I’m sure they have an educational curriculum as well. Children at this age are being prepped to be miniature adults in the subtler arts of politeness and etiquette. I’ve been faced with children as young as 3 who can sit still for a whole five minutes in seiza (which is quite the accomplishment if you knew how painful it normally is… that and they’re three years old… what three year old can stay still for five whole minutes?!).

Elementary school (1st grade to 6th grade): Compulsory. This is the first time you will have been separated from your parents if you didn’t attend either preschool or kindergarten. You have an entire classroom full of friends, with whom you are socially obligated to be friendly and kind. Yes. You are obligated to get along with EVERYONE. If you do not play by the invisible social rules that you soak up through careful watching and listening, you will be ostracized in the worst possible way to shame you into reforming your conduct (I wish I were joking). Because everyone is required to eat the same school lunch (delivered by the local food packing center), you learn the ninja ways of secretly stashing food until the teacher looks the other way and you can pass it to your friend who will eat it for you. In turn, you will eat food that your friend hates when the time comes to return the favor. Subjects learned: Math, Science, Japanese, English (grades 5 and 6, 1st through 4th receiving occasional instruction), Calligraphy, Arts and Crafts, Home Economics, Physical Education, Social Studies, Music.

Middle School (7th to 9th grade): Compulsory. If you were bubbly, full of life, and generally the happiest person that ever walked the planet at age 11… middle school is about to change all that. You start wearing a uniform, you’re worked to the bone in rigorous school subject, and are expected to conform to institutional standards of conduct. You memorize the book and regurgitate it for the test. Clubs and after school activities are one of the few times you actually have fun in school. Hormones run rampant. You look forward to lunchtime every day because by the end of the first four school periods, whatever you had for breakfast was just enough to get you through to third period but not fourth. Around this time you’re becoming more and more aware that being an adult is over-rated. You’ve been entrusted with responsibility since you could walk. Your excitement levels peak at school festival season and vacation time. To Americans, you appear like soulless zombies, but in reality you’re just trying to survive the battlefield that is intensive rote memorization learning to pass the high school entrance exam. Subjects learned: Math, science, Japanese, Home Economics, Music, History, Social Studies, Art, and after school clubs are mandatory. You will attend high school even if it’s not mandatory because life without a high school degree is too hard to live…. even if it means putting up with English for another THREE WHOLE years.

High School (10th to 12th grade): Not compulsory. I have no idea what you’re like by the time you’re fifteen but I can only imagine, given that middle school is so rough to survive. You had to pass the high school entrance exam. The bane of your life (aka English) is one massive pain in the patootty. Unless of course you’re one of the 1% who actually enjoy and can keep up with all the arbitrary non-rules of a western foreign language.


Heisei 27!!!

It’s been a bit of a shock that the New Year came and went so quickly. Even though logically the span of any given day is no different than the next, honestly it feels as if those first three days of 2015 zipped by like a horde of consumers on their way to a Black Friday sale. Doesn’t help that I’ve been having one drawn out battle with the cold outside and with the one I caught three weeks ago, which has kept my lungs dancing a messy tango. So it was pills, kotatsu, and mikan for me. What a great way to end 2014 and start 2015!

There’s something daring and novel about 2015. My gut feeling is that this is the year when Things will finally begin to Occur. But of course everyone is probably saying that right now: This is the year! This year unlike any others! Perhaps the symptoms of growing old should not be the onslaught of debilitating arthritis or creaky knees or a failing back but the realization that there’s only so much to do with so little time.  I should probably be obsessing less on my age and more over the fact that North Korea may blow up the U.S. to avenge their dictator any day now or that Russia is (still) making things awkward in Eastern Europe (again) or even fixating on Japan’s clever, political re-interpretation on the constitutional prohibition of maintaining an ‘army’. But here I am with a dozen half-finished manuscript on my desktop, moping over the certain (uncertain) fact of failure and that I will be a starving writer with nothing to show for it but stacks upon stacks of unpublished poems and short stories to line my coffin once I finally die from that infernal cold. Worse yet, to be an obscure writer, published but never read. Such is my pre-midlife crisis. And, yes, I know it’s ridiculous.

But between then and now I’ve got a lot of living to do, which I intend to begin by posting about the calendar system in Japan and some other frightfully educational information that first timers to Japanese culture might not know. Cheers!

As George and Ira Gershwin once famously composed: “You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes” though essentially they are equivalent in meaning. As go tomatoes so go calendar systems, in a manner of speaking. In the Western tradition, the Gregorian Calendar is a series of sequential years that are independent of who reigns/what ministerial cabinet takes over/presidential assassinations/etc. It’s 2015 C.E. (or A.D., depending on educational background) and it will remain so until January 01, 2016. Japan, on the other hand, has three ways of counting years that are in current use.

First, there is the Gregorian calendar which was adopted for convenience’s sake in the 1870s. And second, there is the more traditional method of counting the number of years since the current emperor’s ascent to the throne.

For example, when filling out your birth year in the Japanese calendar system for official forms, one must first list the reigning era’s name then the year since that era began and then the birth month and the birth day.

My birth date thus looks like: Heisei 03. XX Month. XX Day.

Basically it’s the same as writing:

1991/XX Month/XX Day


XX Day/XX Month/1991 (if you’re European)


XX Month/XX Day/1991 (if you’re American)

It gets a little confusing for obvious reasons: a) you must memorize the date and month on which each era began and ended, b) prior to Meiji, era names changed not just for enthronement (though that is the current trend) but also for wars, eclipses, plagues, etc., and c) it doesn’t translate very well into English (which has no history of using kanji). There have been other eras known as Showa, easily differentiated in Japanese by the type of kanji used.

Meiji Era: 23 October 1868 to 29 July 1912

Taisho Era: 30 July 1912 to 24 December 1926

Showa Era: 25 December 1926 to 7 January 1989

Heisei Era: 8 January 1989 to the present

Calculate from 1989 and some simple arithmetic will reveal that in Japan it is currently the 27th year of Heisei Era. Basically anyone born in 1989 will forever be reminded of their age while everyone else counts in their heads for a couple of seconds before receiving the same shock 😉


Finally, the traditional Chinese zodiac. Most people will know this one but not many are aware that the zodiac is still in use – albeit mainly only to mark the New Year and to associate the birth of a new child with a certain animal. 2015 is the year of the sheep. Anyone born in Heisei 03 (otherwise known as 1991) was also born on the year of the sheep. It’s a perpetual twelve year cycle, somewhat similar to the monthly zodiac of the West, only eleven months longer. Everyone born in 1991 will share the following sheep qualities, according to the Washington Post:

No one wants a baby born in 2015, the dreaded Year of the Sheep.

Sheep are meek creatures, raised for nothing more than slaughter. Babies born in the Year of the Sheep, therefore, will grow up to be followers rather than leaders, according to some superstitions. The children are destined for heartbreak and failed marriages, and they will be unlucky in business, many Chinese believe. One popular folk saying holds that only one out of 10 people born in the Year of the Sheep finds happiness. -Wan, William. Washington Post. 9 May 2014.

Quite the flattering portrait. Not as disconcerting once you realize that many a dragon (Emperor Nicholas II of Russia) and horse (Frederic Chopin) and snake (Queen Elizabeth I) have suffered from the aforementioned Sheep afflictions as well. Dragon is supposedly the luckiest of the twelve but that didn’t do the Russian monarchy any good. Michelangelo, on the other hand, enjoyed a wonderful career despite being a dreaded sheep.

And that is the calendar system as concisely as can be explained! Happy New Year to you all! 😀

Three Second Rule and Other Adventures in Home Economics









Home economics is taught during a students’ last few years in elementary school. Here in Aomori the topics covered include sewing, cooking, nutrition, cleaning, washing clothes, and farming. Though I did not have the opportunity to take pictures of the soy bean or potato harvesting that went on a couple of months ago, I might yet be able to see the rice being collected if I get called in next Wednesday. At this point in time I would like to point out that though my elementary school had a thriving arts and science program, home economics was the far away distant dream that would not be an option until high school…

Lunch in Japan is also quite different from the United States. Food is prepared by the local school lunch plant and shipped to each school in town but it isn’t served in a cafetaria or by any staff member. Instead, kyuushoku (school lunch) becomes a collaborative effort that is distributed in each class room by the students themselves, similar to cafetaria duties. Then while everyone is eating, students selected to serve as school announcers relate the nutritional information of each meal before playing music for the lunch hour.

Cooking days for home economics at the elementary school occur once in a couple of months, if not once a semester. Students contribute ingredients and the equipment is provided by the school for them to use. Skills learned include the proper ways in which to prepare food for consumption (washing, peeling, chopping, and spotting for mold or rotten parts of ingredients), how to read and interpret recipes, substituting certain items for others, and the actual cooking part itself. All students chop their own vegetables so emphasis on class cooperation and mature level of expectations are widely understood and followed.

But that isn’t to say that kids won’t be kids, even here in Japan where so many behave like mini adult versions. In one epic moment, one of my students accidentally tripped and dropped her ingredients on the floor. Before anyone, even the head teacher, could react she grabbed the spilled veg and invoked the most sacred rule known to man, woman, and child alive by shouting: “THREE SECOND RULE!!!” And yes, in the soup they went – much to the head teacher’s horror and my amusement.