Unique Differences Between Japanese and American Schools

I have put together a list of the few differences or unique things I have noticed over the years teaching and having my kids in the Japanese school system.  This list primarily deals with the elementary and junior high schools here in Japan.  I would also like to add I am no expert and feel free to comment on any errors that I may have made.  Alright here we go…

1.     Cooperation vs. Competition
In America we are pushed to be the best we can be.  We are ranked and graded for everything we do so we are always trying to get that coveted #1 spot.  Maybe that’s why America is where it is and we have so many great people (and worst)!!  But I think it also creates very self centered individuals.  Here in Japan I feel the way school and its activities are set up its more geared towards a team atmosphere where everyone works together.  You are only as strong as your weakest link.

I just touched on this briefly but this subject has many aspects that I would like to expand on in a future article.

2.      Greetings
Hellos, Goodbyes, and acknowledging your superiors are very important and ingrained from 1st grade here in Japan.  Kids show up at school and greet all teachers with a big “Good Morning.”  Then at the beginning and end of each class a greeting of respect and a bow is performed.  I would say the class greetings both beginning and end translate into something like “Thank you for teaching us.”  And at the end of school they have an allotted time for goodbyes.  Where the events of the day are recapped, announcements are made, and everyone says a formal goodbye to both students and teachers!

3.     No grades/No discipline
The title is a little misleading in that grades are given to the students but the grades given hold no weight.  It’s more of an update to see if you are keeping up with the class or need to be studying more.  For example, a student can fail every subject and still move on to the next grade.  This creates a problem for the student who has failed because he will never be able to catch up because he has moved up to the next level without knowing the previous level subject matter.  Ultimately killing any chance to correct his ways and having any hope of getting into a good school.

Also there is verbal discipline such as scolding, yelling, and lecturing a student when wrong is done.  But as far as any formal consequences such as detention, suspension, being sent to the principal’s office and being expelled these things don’t exist.  So once a teacher has lost control of his or her class it will be a long year for the teacher.  But that being said most Japanese students are much better behaved than their American counterparts.

4.     Student Janitors
There is no formal janitor because the students are responsible for cleaning the school.  But there can be several maintenance staff or PTA volunteers to repair and fix things students aren’t able to.  There is an allotted time of 15-20 minutes set into the schedule usually after lunch dedicated to cleaning.  Students do general cleaning of most of the school surfaces like floors, windows, bathrooms, walls, and desks.  I would have hated to do this when I was in school but due to its many benefits I think American schools should adopt this into the school day.

5.     Lunch together
Usually there is a lunch room with assigned seating for the entire school and if not lunch is eaten in their home classrooms.  Teachers are not exempt and must have lunch with the students.  Also lunch is prepared at a lunch center in big class size containers and then delivered to the schools.  Students are responsible for dishing out individual portions to classmates and cleaning up at the end as well.  ALL the school including the staff has the same lunch!

6.     Shoes for everything/Uniform
I am sure you have been to someone’s house or someplace you must take your shoes off before you enter.  It’s a pain in the butt, in my opinion.  Anyways the Japanese schools have taken this to the next level because they have different shoes for everything!  First there are the outside shoes that you use to come to school.  In the school entrance area you must change to your indoor shoes/slippers which might or might not be of different color to indicate your grade or class number.  Then the bathroom has its own set of slippers and lastly everyone has their own completely different set of shoes for the gym.  So if I have counted correctly you need and use a total of 4 different pairs of shoes/slippers on an everyday basis here in school.

Each school has its unique uniform as well which is enforced from preschool.  They have the formal uniform similar to a suit, then they have the warm ups, and lastly they have a PE uniform.  Preschool and elementary school uniforms are selectively enforced.  My kids have gone to schools where they must where the uniform everyday and others where they could care less what they wear.  But once junior high is entered it is 100% mandatory.

7.     No showers
Not sure about high schools but both elementary and junior high schools don’t have showers.  Not a big difference and I don’t even remember if my schools back in California had showers or not but I thought I would give it a mention anyway.

8.     National Curriculum
Everyone in Japan is taught the same national curriculum.  However the 47 different states of Japan do have a little control in adding their own individual curriculum requirements on top of that.  Makes for an even playing field where everyone receives the same education for the most part.  Some of the textbooks are a little biased here though.  Some of the darker sides of Japan are completely skipped or made to look trivial but I think any country’s textbooks try to make the home country look as good as possible.

9.     Standardized Test for High School
In America we have to test into college via some kind of standardized testing like the SATs.  But here in Japan, tests are taken to get into high school.  Due to the large level differences in students these tests are issued to see what level high school you are eligible for.  Unlike America, the public schools are cheaper and of better quality compared to the private ones.  Same goes for the colleges and universities here as well.

10.  Teacher rotation
To be honest, I don’t know the procedure back home dealing with this but I’m pretty sure it is completely different.  Here in Japan teachers have to rotate to a different school within their state every 3 to 7 years.  If married you will stay in your home county, but if single you are eligible to be transferred anywhere in your home state.  On top of the school rotation, every year teacher’s grades are rotated however the principal sees fit.  Every year is different for a Japanese teacher and most of the time they don’t know until 2 weeks before the change!  Both good and bad!

11.  School Schedules
The school year starts with the cherry blossoms in early April and ends in late March.  School is attended approximately 240 days which is 60-80 days more than in America.  There is a lot more non academic material in the school day here but Japanese spend much more time at school than Americans.  I feel this keeps kids out of trouble but also stresses them out more due to lack of free time.  In elementary and junior high school the academic day schedule starts at 8:30 and ends around 3:30-4:30.  But schools have incorporated quite a few extracurricular activities so most students show up at school closer to 8:00 and leave much later than 4:30.  Japanese holidays include a 2 week spring break, 1 week in May (Golden Week), 6 weeks of summer vacation, and 2 weeks winter break with a few other national holidays scattered into the year!

There are quite a few other minor differences, but I feel most of the major differences were covered here.  If I have missed any, relevant comments are always appreciated!  All in all if you don’t fall behind and are a diligent student the Japanese education system is very good no matter where you are in the country!


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