The Japanese Education System (as observed by an American)

So I work in a junior high school and in four elementary schools in a small city in Southern Japan. Almost a year has passed since coming here as a teacher, but I have spent time in Japan as a high school and college student, so I want to take this opportunity to analyze and compare some things that stand out to me. Most of these differences are in comparison to the American education system, which is definitely not perfect or without flaws, but living in Japan has made me appreciate some aspects of both systems.

1. Grades

Most people have this idea that Asian schooling is ‘better’ but I bet not many people know why they think that other than the fact that most comparative studies of test scores across the globe shows that Asia does well in most subjects. The fact is that more emphasis is put on test scores in Asia than anything else. As a teacher, the reason my plans are shut down is usually because ‘that’s not on the test’. However, at least at my school, my students’ grades are atrocious. They make 2/100 on tests and the teachers just shake their heads and shrug. I asked my JTE what the grade scale is in Japan, and she was confused and said, ‘We don’t have one.’ Now, this is just for middle school, but if you make bad grades on your tests, all that happens is your test scores from each subject are added up and your name or class average goes on a list and you compete with other classes. There is no such thing as being held back or failing a class. Students’ only motivation to do well in school is competing as a class for the top grade and getting into a good high school. However, most of my male students don’t care about getting into high school. I do have many female students who try hard in school to get into a good high school, but the sad truth is that most of them won’t become career women and will stay at home once they get married.

In college, there is no homework. Each class has either a test or an essay at the end, and your entire grade for the class depends on the score you make at the end. You don’t even get points for participation in most classes, and in classes where participation is required, most students will get their friends to sign the sheet for them and skip class. Getting into college is relatively difficult, but graduating is a breeze. Some of my friends even admitted to begging their professor for a passing grade they know they didn’t deserve because they needed the class for graduation. In America, grades are extremely important and your GPA does a lot to determine what school you get into and what scholarships you receive, etc.

2. Behavior

In American public schools, behavior is dealt with by sending a student to the principal or guidance counselor. Fighting is not acceptable and students are punished by staying after school in detention, getting suspended, or whatever is deemed appropriate.

In Japan, however, my students get away with everything. They hit each other, kick each other, talk back to teachers, refuse to do their work, sleep in class, and some even refuse to come to school at all. I was flicked off by a student, slapped in the face by another, and yet another grabbed my arm and squeezed so hard that the pain didn’t subside for a good thirty minutes. Nothing was done about any of this until I spoke up about it. Most of my ALT friends who have problems like this don’t speak up about it. I’ve heard of worse, and one of my friends has even had her house vandalized and has been locked in a room alone by some of her students, and not much more was done than a verbal reprimanding. Even when I did speak up about it, the teacher made the student talk to me and I was the one in charge of telling them off. I’ve seen students step over two boys wrestling in the hallway, and my teachers often hit students. Also, I’ve seen students get screamed at for thirty minutes for something that I would consider an honest mistake. I have learned to try to let things go because it’s not my culture and I’m not responsible for the kids, but behavior in Japan is definitely not as good as most people would think. I honestly don’t know what happens to students to make them behave after middle school, but Japanese adults are usually polite and helpful people. Perhaps this is because the Japanese society is all about conformity and no one wants to stick out in public, but my students test my patience on a daily basis.

3. Club Activities

In America, I was part of many after school activities and we were required to choose a sport at my school to promote well-being. I was usually one of the last people in the school if we had an upcoming play or Forensics competition, but the teachers usually tried to shoo students out after 3 p.m. We didn’t have practice every day, and we were expected to keep up with our school work and get plenty of sleep.

In Japan, I haven’t done as much as some other ALTs with club activities, but the effects of how long and how much they practice is felt by all teachers. Students practice after school every day and in the mornings as long as the weather permits. Some of them go to cram school afterwards and get home late to do homework. From the amount of students who sleep in class, I can tell that they practice hard and stay up late. However, because students don’t take breaks or get decent amounts of sleep, both their schoolwork and their ability to play sports or do well in other activities suffer. Japanese are infamous for working overtime, and it’s something they instill in children as well. Working hard is seen as the best possible thing you can do, even if you win or lose. However, it comes at a price and bleeds over to school.

In college I was part of a theatre club in Japan for a year during my study abroad time. We practiced for 6 hours a day every day, even on weekends. During the week of our play, we were expected to arrive at 6 a.m. and stay until the school gates closed at midnight. If we had an important role in the play (I was the sound operator so I wasn’t allowed to leave my post for meals or class) we had to skip class to help set up or rehearse. I loved my club, but I feel like too many of my members got sick and overexerted themselves. I feel like laryngitis and the flu could have been avoided if we took adequate rest breaks. But even when we were allowed a break, we were hesitant to take it out of fear that we would look lazy.

4. Creativity

In America, we were allowed to take electives and many of us took art, theatre, band, marketing, etc. I really loved doing choir and theatre and it helped me feel as though I was actually doing something I was good at in school. I took creative writing and journalism as well, and my electives really helped me decide what I wanted to do in the future and where I wanted to go to school. We were also allowed to choose a language that interested us. My school is special because it’s a magnet school focusing on academics, but I really felt as though my education meant something.

In Japan, students are all in the same class from the beginning of the year until the end, and the teachers are the ones who rotate classrooms. It’s hard on the teachers because we have to bring everything we need to class with us, and Japan still uses chalkboards and tape players. Classes such as swimming, science, music, and home economics are often in a different location, but other teachers must use what they can to make class interesting.

Creativity isn’t as important, and being independent is almost seen as a weakness or a lack of team spirit. I will admit that I love how well Japanese students learn to work together, but bullying is still a problem, and girls and boys hardly ever mix or look at each other in class. The other day at elementary school, we asked the students to draw something they are good at and use ‘I can’ to present it in English. A few of my students drew video games, but their teacher told them to change it. I ran over and stopped him, telling the students that it’s definitely not a bad thing to be good at video games, and he was surprised and apologized for sounding judgmental. But I feel like this happens a lot. Professions such as doctors and teachers are highly respected, but being a ‘unique’ person in Japan is seen as a bad thing. I’ve even had to explain that my use of unique was a compliment because one of my teachers was offended when I told her she was unique. They don’t want to be different, so they try to hide their true feelings and conform to what others think is good. There are many exceptions, and Japan is known for innovation and fashion, so not all hope is lost. I just wish my students learned confidence and individuality along with teamwork.

5. Events

In America, we had dances and school trips as well as concerts, pep rallies, and senior meetings. I feel like we bonded as a school and we had a lot of school spirit. I think it makes us a lot more comfortable with the opposite sex, but this may just be our culture.

In Japan, there aren’t as many events, and my school doesn’t have a school festival, so at times it feels a bit lonely. Students still have student council elections and they have a school wide singing competition, as well as a 2nd year trip (my school goes to Kyoto for a few days) but most of their events are in the form of ceremonies. In Japan, we have a day where the students take a walk, but I was rotating around and never went to a school on the day of their ensoku this year. We also have a class match where the students compete in sports, and a sports day, where the students spend a few weeks preparing dances (girls) and kumitaisou (where the boys do acrobatics such as making pyramids and formations). The sports day was really fun. I helped plant flowers and I ran the three-legged race with another teacher and I helped cheer on the red block. I know a school dance wouldn’t go over very well in Japan, mainly because the boys are too shy to talk to girls, and girls feign disinterest in guys as well. By college, though, most of this fades away. My Japanese friends in college all had a mix of male and female friends, but there is a stigma in middle and high school.

There are SO many ceremonies, though, and they take them really seriously. Graduation is really tearful, and teachers rotate at the same time students graduate, so we do a lot to honor the students and teachers moving on. The teachers and BOE staff also have a good amount of drinking parties in order to relax and get to know each other better outside work, which I think is good. I think this is something that naturally happens in America with coworkers going to dinner after work, but in Japan people are expected to stay late, so mandatory parties are a good way to coax everyone to participate. The power of peer pressure, people.

6. Responsibility

In America, we have a janitorial staff, and we aren’t expected to clean up our school or class. This means that a lot of the students litter and don’t care about messes in the cafeteria and whatnot. I feel like we disrespect those who clean our school and those who work in the cafeteria, when they are the ones doing the jobs no one else wants to.

In Japan, students clean their own school and classrooms. There are no janitors and no cafeteria workers. The school districts provide school lunch and send it to each school, where the students are responsible for serving each other and cleaning up the used dishes. This makes them understand that you can’t just throw something on the ground and expect someone else to clean it up. They know that anything that gets dirty, they will have to clean up eventually. Japan is such a clean country compared to America. There are hardly any trash cans on the street, yet there is hardly any litter as well. And most of you probably saw the news about the Japanese fans at The World Cup. However, a lot of the students are lazy when it comes to cleaning time, and the teachers have to yell at them a lot to stop talking and do their work. Still, it’s a good way to give them a little bit of responsibility that I’m fairly certain none of them have at home. (When I lived with a host family in Japan, my host mother did all the work and the kids rarely cleaned up, did laundry, or washed dishes.)


Okay, there you have it. Six differences of the Japanese and American education systems. I really do love living in Japan and I find that Japanese people are caring and polite and extremely funny people. However, sometimes the differences get under my skin and I just have to remember that nothing is better or worse. My students are really fun to talk to and I love having the opportunity to teach them when they behave. But bullying really breaks my heart, and I know some students would do better if they had a creative outlet or were allowed to express themselves. I feel like both systems have a long way to go, but we can’t progress if we don’t compare what works and what doesn’t.

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4 thoughts to “The Japanese Education System (as observed by an American)”

  1. I’m an ALT in Kyushu and I agree with this. I found it especially strange that in junior high grades were not very important (I work at one junior high and three elementary schools and one Kindergarten)
    That being said, I think the U.S. can focus a bit too much on their grades but Japan is the opposite and it makes it really hard to motivate the lazier students especially in a class like English which can be really uninteresting to them (since I am in a small town many of the students don’t believe they will ever need to use English)
    My first years in Junior High are much better about mingling with the opposite sex, but there is still a lot of separation. I had one third year class (who I had doing a speaking activity) and one side of the room was solidly girls and the other solidly boys and I stood in the middle and after a few minutes of watching them I pointed it out. They probably thought I was weird, but after I did I noticed a few male students drip over to the female’s side.
    Luckily all my students are fairly nice, and I’ve never had one be mean to me physically or verbally (maybe it’s because they all know I do Kendo though haha) however last year my co-English teacher had a lot of problems getting the students to listen to her. They talked about things other than class while we were explaining things and sometimes would throw paper across the room and such (One such day I caught the paper they were throwing mid air….and threw it away, it was pretty ‘kakoi’ (meaning cool) if I do say so myself)
    Needless to say I was shocked at first because that would have NEVER been okay at my school at home. All of the students talking and such would have been sent out of the room. HOWEVER, there is a law in Japan now where no student is allowed to been sent from the classroom while it’s in session. (They say it’s because all the kids are entitled to an education and sending them away from the classroom hinders that) That seems ridiculous to me because their actions are disrupting other peoples studying. So by keeping in the rowdy students who refuse to study they’re making it harder for the people who want to learn something, to learn something. I’ve told students off in class for being rowdy and usually they listen to me…for a while at least….but still. If I was a student here I’m 100% I would have had a break down in class. (I was a very serious students….maybe a little too much so….
    It is amazing though how great the team work is in Japan, once they put their mind to something, it gets done well, and efficiently.
    I think I’m really lucky that other than the fact some of the kids don’t pay attention in class (*cough* third years *cough* boys) at least they are pretty friendly to me, and to each other. My teachers are very good about catching bulling, and they are very serious about it when it happens.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I agree that America focuses too much on grades, and that Japan needs a better system to motivate students not only to study but to discover more of the world. The teachers play a huge role, and I feel like my JTEs who are closer in age to me always try to liven up the class and get the kids seeing new perspectives, but the older teachers just want to teach what’s in the textbook and be done with it. I’m glad you don’t have as much of a violence/bully problem!

  2. I learned a ton thought this post, and plan to see what else you have in store. Thanks a lot for the post and enjoy your time there. Culture is a very difficult thing to adjust to, and many people can’t handle it at all. You’re doing great, and keep it up. You’ll have learned so much when it comes time to move on to the next thing/place.

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