Saturday, 23 March 2013

School is a Happy Place

Creepy mural by Japanese kindergarten kids looks like zombies
Usually school is a happy place. Sometimes there are zombies though. It's the risk you take when you allow six-year-olds to paint murals for the exterior of the school walls...

 I have written a few posts (and have a few more coming up) that talk about Japanese schools in a negative light. Overall I actually love schools here, it’s just that it is easier to quantify and describe the bad things than the good. It’s hard to write an interesting post about “atmosphere”. I’m going to try anyway, but forgive me if it’s a bit disjointed.
Rural Japanese school building beside rice field
A hawk circles the harvested field beside the school

Class Personality

Teachers have a great ability to personalise and set the town for their class, especially at the elementary level where one teacher teaches one class all day long. Good teacher quickly establish class traditions and rituals. One elementary teacher I work with has a particularly funny way of saying “good job” with an accompanying exaggerated ‘thumbs up’. He will only do it when his class are exceptional at something, and they live for it. Every time I complemented them during English class they would turn to their teacher and ask “good job?” excitedly. Even if I said they were doing a good job they wouldn't move on until they had got the coveted praise from the teacher. In some classes, when a kid wins a game there is a special “class cheer” that everyone would do for them, in some cases with a little dance. Some teachers have the kids do a kampai (“cheers”) with their milk before eating school lunch. Some teachers allow time every day for the extroverted students to do a short performance of stand up comedy or puppetry or whatever else they are into (which is a great incentive for them to keep quiet during the rest of the day). Even at JHS where teachers only teach one subject, the teachers will adapt to each class’s personality. For example, one of my JTEs asks the class every lesson about the day, date and weather. The kids raise their hands to answer. One boy always raises his hand to answer the weather, and every time he says very happily “It’s SUNNY!” If it’s raining or snowing or what have you the JTE asks with great exaggeration “REEEEEALLY?” And every time the boy answers “僕の心にいつもsunny” (it’s always sunny in my heart). You would think it would get old, but seriously, I look forward to it every time. It’s such a silly little ritual but it feels so safe, so happy and so familial. And it sets the tone for every lesson I teach with that class.
Penguin in a Japanese school, Evangelion eat your heart out
Also, sometimes there is a penguin in the staffroom when I come down for coffee.

Students Love Their Teachers, Teachers Love Their Students

Of course this isn’t universal (I don’t think there was any affection between my very bad no good JTE and her students), and it may be more the case in my part of the world than in metropolitan Japan, but the relationships between most teachers and most students here are amazing. One of my favourite junior high JTEs recently had lunch with some of her former students to celebrate their graduation from university. Yes, they still keep in touch. During an incident rescuing a kitten (who sadly did not go on to have a happy life), the kids who I was helping said to one another in Japanese “as expected from a teacher; teachers really are intelligent aren’t they?” Compare this to the popular English expression “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Over the course of the year a class will often settle on a specific caricature of their home room teacher and then proceed to draw it in various situations, occasionally even comic strips. Sometimes teachers like these representations of themselves so much they have them made into stamps that they then use when marking homework or even to sign letters. For their part, you can get a sense of the affection teachers have for their students from posts like this one and this one.
Japanese school kids standing outdoors in falling snow
They must especially love their teachers when it is snowing on school maintain climbing day...

Each Individual Has Value

I wrote an entire post about this, but I think it bears repeating. Despite the pervasive stereotype that Japan is group-centric and countries like Australia are individualistic, in Japan the entire class will wait for one student to catch up on the material. In Australia, the majority would take precedence over the individual every time. While this video is not representative of how most teachers would handle a challenge to their authority, I think the attitude of the students is pretty standard (although few kids would be brave enough to stand up to a teacher like that while so obviously frightened). The “group” is only as strong as the bonds between the individual members.
Friendship and "getting along" seem to me at least to be the primary goals of schools during the compulsory years. Academics are a very distant third behind socialisation and physical/emotional development. It's not uncommon for academic classes to be suspended for weeks at a time to give the students more time to practice their piggy-back jousting before sports day. I am completely serious. When I explain to kids the Australian system of staying back a year if you fail or skipping ahead if you do well, they were horrified at the idea of being separated from their friends. There's plenty of time after school to study, after all, but so little time to enjoy that shared experiences of daily life with your intimate friends. For reasons I don't need to elaborate on here, this appeals to me greatly.

Junglegym in Japanese school with forest in background
The boys on the jungle gym are JHS students. Nobody minds that they come back to the elementary sometimes to play. There are no slides at JHS, after all.
This isn't an exhaustive list of everything I like about Japanese schools, just a starter!
Share this article :


  1. That's neat. I am thinking of teaching English over that way (I've only been in remote areas), but maybe Taiwan? Not sure yet.

    1. Japan might be a bit of a shock after what you're used to! It's definitely a country that inspires strong feelings. People seem to either love it here or hate it.


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.