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.


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



  1. Monica
    Salem, Missouri
    September 24, 2011, 10:22 am

    Amazing! I think it’s the natural, everyday adventures of life that are the most fun to experience when visiting a new place. Thank you so much for showing us this part of Japan, Andrew.

  2. Evangela
    Tsuchiura, Ibaraki
    September 24, 2011, 8:52 pm

    My son attends a Japanese kindergarten (most start from age three but he started at four) and I am amazed at his responsibilities. He is in charge of two younger kids, feeding and cleaning the animals and cleaning. In fact, after this summer’s break, his first day back to school was only a half day and he was a bit disappointed that he spent the whole time cleaning instead of playing. But this kind of discipline really does help, at home as well as at school. He is always eager to help at home and even though the school rotates his group, he is given a chance to make decisions with the group and is learning how how to work in as a team and how to make individual decisions as well. He starts elementary school next year and I am a bit nervous but it has been a real learning experience for me as an American watching my son grow up in a Japanese school system. The only thing I do not care for is that Japanese pressure kids to make a career choice before high school. Then once in high school, that is all they train for. Their career depends on which high school they attend, doesn’t matter what college/university they attend. I really hope that is one pressure my son doesn’t have to face and I believe that the American view of “you can be anything at anytime” is a wonderful view. My Japanese husband studied so hard that he missed out on stuff he wanted to do as a kid, playing baseball or learning extracurricular activities. He instead focus on being an engineer since grade school because that is what his teachers told him he was good at (even though as a grade school he wanted to be a chef). So now he is in a position where he doesn’t enjoy his job and is literally scared to think outside the box, that he can change and it’s not too late. But that is not the Japanese way. The discipline is great and learning responsibilities is also a plus but also learning the freedom of choice would be wonderful.

  3. […] 80. Super-disciplined schools […]

  4. echowillow
    melbourne, australia
    September 28, 2011, 8:14 pm

    I attended primary school in Malaysia in what they call a chinese-medium school where everything was learned in that language. And it was compulsory to be rostered in different tasks to keep the classroom clean every week (clean windows, clean blackboard, sweep the floor, clean the bin etc.). Once I left for high school and exposed myself to other school systems, I realised how important those acts of discipline were. No matter what people say, I think discipline instilled in the young is so important, and with those chores comes teamwork. Japan has done great to keep those systems. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience! 🙂

  5. Lava
    December 8, 2011, 10:06 am

    Wow Japanese kids are so well behaved and work together so well. I went to school in Ireland and no one cared to clean up or grade themselves. By the end of the day, the classroom would be like a rubbish dump! We also had to bring out own lunch, otherwise we would have no lunch! I kind of wish I went to a Japanese school, its principles and the idea behind all the things they do seem to be very beneficial in character development and future career attitude.

  6. malti
    May 5, 2012, 11:07 am