School in Japan

From the moment I arrived in Japan, I’ve felt like a small child.

So little of my life’s knowledge applies here–from reading and writing to knowing the right way to behave, Japan is different. Even though navigating daily life has been a fun travel challenge, I still hoped to get some extra insights by attending a Japanese school.

And so I tagged along with 8-year-old Yukiko to her public elementary school in the town of Seki, in Gifu prefecture. Yukiko’s school has students from six to twelve years old (1st through 6th grade) and is very proud of the fact that they’ve been around so long: more than 120 years!

The Japanese school year actually begins in April and runs until July, when summer break begins. This lasts for only six weeks and the students are back in class from September 1st until the end of December. The final trimester runs from around the second week of January until the end of March. After about a one-week break, the students return for the “new” year, one grade older.

Like students all across Japan, Yukiko studies Japanese, mathematics, natural science, social science, music, gym, and art (schoolchildren begin studying English in fifth grade). Calligraphy is part of Japanese class, where students learn to paint various characters using long brushes and black ink.

What struck me as the most different from schools in America and Yukiko’s school was the amount of self-discipline and responsibility that very young children are faced with. Even kindergartners are given daily tasks that they must do. Jobs are rotated, but everything (cleaning, making lunch, leading the class) are responsibilities that fall upon the children themselves.

Yet with all this self-discipline and “work,” the kids seemed like kids anywhere else, playing around and having fun. There was plenty of shouting and roughhousing, but there were also times of total silence and concentrated study.

I’m not entirely sure that I could hack it as a Japanese schoolchild even now–it looks like it requires a lot of hard work–but I was grateful for the day I spent exploring Yukiko’s world. Traveling to tourist sights might offer the more exotic treasures of a particular destination, but going to somewhere as simple as a school offers the rare chance to compare what we know from home and enjoy those real differences.

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Yukiko Kameyama, age 8, who brought me to her school in Seki, Japan (AE, NGS)