Every few weeks a list about Japan, like this one, starts making its way around social media. Generally speaking these lists are full of half-truths. While a few of the points are spot on, most of the items feel less than accurate. Even the items that are accurate are written in such a way as to avoid the negative aspects of these rules.
I never quite know what to do with those lists. I’ve lived in Japan since 2004 and in that time it really has become a home. I don’t really like seeing wrong information being passed around, even if that information is an attempt to be positive. So, this post and the one to follow are an attempt to place some accuracy on top of a social media listicle.
But first, a little about me and why I feel comfortable speaking out. Since 2004 I have consistently worked in Japan in education, most of it full time. For the two years I went back to grad school I still did the occasional job and average teaching at least one day a week. I’ve worked in elementary, junior high, and senior high with most of my time divided between ES and JHS. I’ve regularly visited special needs school. I’ve worked to the average public neighborhood schools and high end private schools. Currently I teach English in an all girl’s elementary school.
But, even with those experiences I recognize that Japan is a large area. I can’t say that my experience holds true for the entirety of the nation. I can say that I feel comfortable speaking for the greater Tokyo area (Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.)
So, here us my take on this list.
1) Substitute teachers
The linked articles makes the claim that there are no substitute teachers and that students are trusted to organize themselves when a teacher is absent.
The first half is mostly true. There does not seem to be a system for short term substitutes. However, I have never heard of students being left on their own for a period at the JHS or ES level. If a teacher is absent, the rest of the school is left to scramble. Class schedules for the entire school can be altered to fill the void. Teachers with open periods may be put in charge of a class just to have a body present. When I first started out, I was even drafted for this. My duties were to pass out worksheets and make sure nothing crazy happened. Nothing did and they were good kids, but an adult needed to be there just in case.
Also, keep in mind the big picture. With no system of substitutes teachers are left with two options. Disrupt the entire school, or come to school sick. So, teachers come to work hacking and coughing, spreading germs and sickness, to keep from disrupting the school. But don’t worry. They’re wearing a paper mask and gargling, so everything is okay.
2) The Students Are Janitors
Again, this is true and the list makes mention of the kids learning responsibility. Maybe that’s true. I’ve certainly been at a school or two that really pushes those ideas. But, most of the students and teachers are just going through the motions. Trashcans are emptied, sure, but outside of that a lot of the dirt is just kind of pushed around. Rags that students use to wipe floors are filthy and seldom replaced.
Everyone is just kind of aware that the main goal is the 15-20 minutes of cleaning time is to do the bare minimum and just look busy. Sadly, given my work experiences, i do wonder if that is the real lesson that gets imparted.
3) Weekend School
Yes, being at school on a Saturday is relatively common. That doesn’t mean that classes or held. Most common seems to be a few extra hours of school clubs. There is the occasional special program or other kind of prep work.
I remember asking a few teachers what they thought of having these Saturday activities, or the notion of returning to proper school on Saturday. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that most teachers would like to have a real weekend. Many even told me that they would rather go back to proper Saturday lessons, as the current system basically is a way of milking the staff for unpaid overtime.
4) Hardly a summer vacation
When I grew up summer was awesome for that almost three month holiday, and yes, that is missing from the Japanese school year. But while there isn’t a three month chunk, there are numerous holidays and plenty of times for the kids to have off.
Still, there are school clubs. Once JHS starts and school clubs kick into full gear, they can be an almost daily occurrence taking precedence over all else. Of course, this depends on the club. Perhaps the students in more art based clubs won’t be expected to devote so much time, but clubs like volleyball or especially baseball, might even pull seven days a week of practice, with morning and evening practices also being common during the school year.
Since we are talking days in school, lets go ahead and look at the amount of time spent in school. For the most part the school year in America is about 180 days. The school year in Japan is about 240. That’s quite a difference. Or is it?
When I was a student, in Florida and Georgia, almost every school day was a full day of school. There were the occasional pep rally, special event and/or field trips, but for the most part each day was a full day.
Japan is a little different. Half days are quite common. These half days can be because there is a special program coming up and the school needs to prepare for it. The yearly sports day held at school can have as much as a week of half days. Also, usually the first and last day of each trimester involve going to school, listening to the opening/closing ceremony, perhaps a homeroom meeting, and that is it. I often wonder if we subtracted all the days were no lessons were held, or just simply counted the amount of lesson periods, how much difference would there be between the American school year and the Japanese one.
The second part can be found here.