Education in Japan and New Beginnings

Hey everyone! For this week I’ll be writing a bit about what I’ve learned about the Japanese education system. I guess the most logical way to go about it is to go through chronologically, but an important distinction to make from the start is that their school year begins in April and ends in March, so long term breaks like those in the American system are virtually non-existent.

The sequence generally follows this order: Nursery School, Kindergarten, Elementary School, Junior/Senior High School, and then University/Higher education. My younger host sister, Kaho, attends a combined nursery/kindergarten school and just moved up a grade from Tulip to Sunflower (the final year) about two weeks ago. This means that she’ll be entering elementary school in April 2016, but my other host sister, Chiho, just became a 2nd grader. There are community round-ups as students converge on their way to the elementary school, and I’ve usually joined them on my way to the train when their school’s been in session.

This can be said about those in other countries as well, but Japan’s education system especially serves to instill a sense of identity. All students take Kokugo, national language, classes where they start their long life journeys in memorizing Kanji, the Chinese characters Japanese uses. After her first year in elementary school, Chiho knows less than 100 and after almost three years of studying Japanese I’m familiar with over 1700. This doesn’t mean I am any more fluent than her (a 7 year old) though, but I am probably more literate. Something that’s been alarming is that if you speak to a Japanese child (or even an adult) you’ll find that they are unaware of the extent that Japan had colonized its neighbors. Japan started by annexing the Korean peninsula in 1910 and then followed with Taiwan, Northern China, and much of S.E. Asia before its empire fell at the end of WWII. The whole colonial issue will come up again later on in this post. The Ministry of Education omits much of this history in order to shelter its people/”move on” which has often put Japan under international fire.

Nearly all Junior/Senior High school students wear uniforms to school. During these years, participating in bukatsu katsudou, club activities, also becomes important as it determines friend groups. Through these you’ll see the senpai-kouhai, senior-junior, dichotomy start to develop. Within these relationships you’re obligated to respect those who’ve come before you and this mentality carries through into the university and even the workplace. Students usually have extracurriculars from a very young age as well. My host sisters take swimming and piano lessons and if my host parents had not been retired teachers with extra time, the girls would likely be sent to juku, cram school.

I’ve been able to visit several schools in Japan, mostly either for helping out with English activities or as part of my research project. I’ve visited Kaho and Chiho’s schools which are public but attending Doshisha University has led me to opportunities throughout its private education system as well. I’ve judged English speech competitions, helped carve pumpkins, and even led lessons at Doshisha’s Elementary and Junior/Senior schools. Students’ parents pay a hefty amount to put them into the Doshisha system at a young age, some even starting from kindergarten!

I also visited Kyoto’s Chousen School which is affiliated to a certain degree with N. Korea. Classes are taught in Korean and the school, along with several others like it around the country, are for those Koreans who remained in Japan after WWII. Enrollment there is dwindling though as graduates’ futures are limited nearly entirely to work in the Chongryon organization. These schools don’t receive funding from the Japanese government either because of their N. Korean association. One international school that does though is the Brazilian school I visited in Gifu prefecture. Students there are under the Brazilian system, learning English, Spanish, and their host country’s Japanese all in Portuguese. Some students end up traveling up to 4 hours each way just to commute to the school. Their parents send them there because they want them to be well prepared for a return to Brazil, but the reality is that most graduates end up working alongside their parents in Japan’s factories.

This is a typical classroom at Hiro Gakuen. Teachers are certified in Brazil before coming to teach in Japan.

This is a typical classroom at Hiro Gakuen. Teachers are certified in Brazil before coming to teach in Japan.

This poodle spends its days at the school's main office.

This poodle spends its days at the school’s main office.

Doshisha University was founded by an Amherst graduate in the late 19th century and is now one of Japan’s leading institutions. Something I often hear is that the education system here is much more difficult when you’re younger and eases off for college. Once you’ve made it into a good school, it’s thought that employment will come easy but finding a job takes overall priority. Students will miss class and even finals to attend job fairs but it doesn’t really matter because employers generally do not look at grades. I visited a friend’s homestay for his birthday party and his host father told us of how disappointed he was that higher education in Japan works this way. Coincidentally, his 10 year old son is Kyoto’s Abacus Champion, adding and subtracting series of 10 digit decimal numbers in mere seconds all in his head.

There are few opportunities here to receive training before actually starting a job. The way the system now works is that employers mostly hire those who have just graduated and train them as investments to their companies. For those graduates who couldn’t find a job during this period, the employment doors sort of close on them indefinitely as it becomes harder to find a professional job without skills or a “newly graduated” status that would lead them to those skills. I witnessed this employment frenzy as classes for Doshisha students ended in January and companies came to recruit later in March. It was like watching a sea of agent Smiths from The Matrix as third years dressed in black and white formal attire applying anywhere and everywhere just to ensure a job. Most now know what they’ll be doing after graduation and their senior year has just begun. Within all of this, public service jobs are most sought after because they bring job security with them.

Before I knew it, Doshisha’s first years started arriving and even I was being asked where things around campus were. My study abroad program (AKP) works on a different calendar from Doshisha’s and my fall semester was from September-December with a January-April spring semester. Classes for Doshisha students were from October-January and then just started up again this month as our classes ended. This means that I was able to interact with them much more last semester and they even took our elective classes with us for credit then. AKP is made up of a consortium of liberal arts colleges so all of us go to school somewhere in the states, and our professors for our elective classes come here on their sabbaticals. I’ve had professors from Oberlin, Smith, Bucknell, and also one from Ritsumeikan, another Kyoto institution. My Japanese teacher also taught at Smith for a couple of years before joining AKP.


At the end of fall semester we had the annual “Doshisha Eve”. Students (except for those in study abroad programs like AKP) have classes off for 3-4 days, celebrating with food and special events.

AKP is a homestay program and it’s relatively small with only 17 students this spring. It’s been very accommodating and generous with cultural activity and research grants, and it’s also been responsive to requests from students. For example, with their help I was able to get funding and plan a screening of the documentary Hafu on campus. You go into studying abroad thinking you’ll make all of these friends from the host country, and I have but I’ll have to say that my most meaningful peer relationships have been with people in my program. You also can’t discount opportunities to interact with people from all over the world who have also chosen to study abroad there.

We just had our closing ceremony last Friday but I haven’t headed back to the states just yet, instead setting off on a solo S.E. Asian backpacking tour in the spirit of mottainai. I’ve enjoyed studying in Japan because it has also meant learning about several other Asian countries and its interactions with them. In our International Relations course we talked about the Four Asian Tigers which have had rapid economic growths in competition with Japan. I had already visited one of them (S. Korea), so I thought I would visit the other three as well: Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. All of these were also occupied by Japan during the war.

I got to Taipei last Saturday and it’s been interesting to see how Japan’s cultural influence as an Asian power diffuses throughout the continent. You’ll find Japanese businesses like FamilyMart or Mo’s Burgers as well as staple foods like the onigiri just about everywhere. On subway safety ads you’ll see a silhouette that strikingly resembles a plumper version of Ash from the Pokemon series. Taiwan was probably the second in line after Korea in terms of colonial assimilation procedures. You don’t really see the sort of resentment the Korean Peninsula has towards Japan among the Taiwanese though, and they’re actually Japan’s number one tourists. Likewise, Japanese are big tourists here and I’ve heard Japanese being spoken several times throughout my days here, probably even more than English.

Getting by in a country without speaking its language is difficult but even if the readings are different, knowledge of the Chinese characters Japanese uses can help a long way in understanding things here. Some readings are actually really similar too and so when there was an earthquake during a show I went to last night, I understood those behind me saying 地震, dìzhèn in Mandarin and jishin in Japanese. I’ve survived with my Nihaos, Shishis, and hand gestures but you’ll generally find that English is truly a universal language. In case all else fails, your best bet is to approach with a friendly (or nervous) smile and they’ll help you out.

Sitting with Taipei 101 in the background.

In Taiwan with Taipei 101 in the background.

At the airport heading to Singapore now and then going to Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Hong Kong afterwards before returning to Japan one last time. Till then!

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