We've been here about five months now, so I've had time to reflect on some of the key similarities and differences between American public school culture, which I've been a part of most of my life in one way or another, and Japanese public school culture. I realize that some of the comments I make may not reflect the reality of junior high schools up on the mainland of Japan, since Okinawa is truly its own place with its own history, norms, and ways of life. What I'm going to share is based on personal experience and reflection only! Regardless of location, however, I do hope to shed some light on some American stereotypes of Japanese schools and students. I will try not to be too wordy so that my American students can read and appreciate some of these points. :)
- Forget your ideas that Japanese kids are studious, quiet, and perfect! Kids are kids everywhere. Some of the junior highers I work with here are--shhh!!--not perfect. Some have really tough home situations. Some are mouthy and rude sometimes. Some love to get a rise out of you by saying crazy stuff in English, probably picked up from TV shows, music, and movies. Some sleep through class or blow off the assignment entirely. Of course, many are fantastic students who love English and are doing great. I only get to see them in this one setting: English class, which for some is just not their best subject, so they act out. They're kids.
- Kids here love pop culture, whether from their own country or various others. This is another universal, I think! They cover their folders with pictures of rock stars, boy bands, actors, and beloved characters. This is one cool way they can express themselves in a sea of identical uniforms.
- The process of gradually separating from family and immersing oneself in the life of friends and activities really kicks into high gear in junior high. (I'm listing this as a similarity because this also happens in the U.S. around this age, but here it's far more pronounced.) These kids are often at school until 7 or 8 p.m., and on weekends they're back at school for club activities and sports or doing other school-related activities like taking special English tests to help them get into good high schools. Family time diminishes more and more as the child goes through the three years of junior high.
- Community, community, community. (No, not the TV show. Can't wait for more episodes, BTW! 6 seasons and a movie!!) Anyway, a class of students here has an entirely different level of teamwork and togetherness than a typical class of middle schoolers in the U.S. In general, classes stay together throughout the three years, instead of getting a new group of classmates every year. And while a "class" of junior high students in the U.S. may be together for homeroom and possibly nothing else, a class of students here is together all day long for pretty much every subject. (Some students might be pulled out for special ed services occasionally, and in P.E. they might separate boys and girls for some activities, but that's it.) These kids sit together at assemblies and events, serve lunch to each other every day, clean up their classroom and the entire school together daily (no janitors at schools here!), plus go to every class together. That builds a very different kind of class community than what I'm used to seeing and experiencing back home.
- Shoes. That says it all. Well... OK, I'll elaborate on that a bit! People here are incredibly particular about shoes, and that goes for the kids as well as everyone else. The kids come to school in whatever street shoes they want. Then they place those in a shoe locker for the day and wear their school-issue slippers most of the day. (These slippers are like deck shoes.) Now, you'd think those slippers would be fine throughout the school since they're never worn outside, right? Wrong. When they actually enter most classrooms, they have to again remove THOSE shoes and enter the class in their stocking feet. Most teachers here (and by most I mean every single Japanese teacher; the only exception is me) teach an entire 50-minute class in their stocking feet since they have to remove their inside shoes as well before entering the classroom. Because of my back and foot pain, I have a separate pair of shoes I have to wear in class. I also have to remember to bring them to taiko class in the community center, conferences, and other places since there are tons of places where you must remove your shoes. This adds another layer to the whole passing period thing since you have to have shoes stowed in the shoe locker before you come to class and sit down. (How they keep track of whose shoes are whose is a complete mystery to me; they look 100% identical.)
- The level of trust placed in students here, and the way that trust is usually deserved by the kids, continues to astonish me every time I see it in action. While every club or sport has at least one faculty coach or advisor, the kids basically run their own practices in many instances. I've observed a few clubs when no teacher was present, and everyone was more or less on task and engaged. The teacher might set the day's goals, but in many cases they're not the ones running those clubs. (I can't think of a single sports practice or club activity where the teacher wasn't essential to the flow of activity and the use of time.) For special events like the Culture Fest as well, classes decide on their own how they're going to exhibit, whether with a whole-class dance, just a few kids presenting a skill or talent, or some combination of both. Student leaders start and end every class period, often without teacher involvement. Most regular days and even special events just run like clockwork because the students are so well prepared--and trusted--to take the ball and run with it.
There are plenty more observations I could make, and I'm sure I will before our time here is up! Are you teaching elsewhere in Japan?? If so, you probably have plenty more insights and can touch on how mainland Japan differs from Okinawa in the points I've mentioned. Do you teach in the U.S. and also have opinions and insights?? I've love to hear all in the comments below. Thanks for reading!