The school in Japan is the place where learn from an early age to be part of the community and to obey the strict laws of coexistence: the students learn the discipline, the tidiness, the hierarchy of relationships (oldest schoolmates are called senpai, 先辈), and the rules of social life, respecting the place where they spend most of their time. So it’s no coincidence that most of the manga takes place in the school.
It begins in April and ends in March, with about two weeks off before the new year: the summer holidays last about six weeks and, in addition to national holidays, the students have two weeks of holiday at New Year.
At 6, Japanese children come into first grade of elementary school, which includes six years of study: compulsory education covers elementary and secondary schools.
Thus, the Japanese school system is structured in 4 stages:
– Elementary school (6 -11 years)
– Junior High School (12 – 14 years)
– High School (15 – 17 years)
– College or university (usually four years)
Classes start at 8 a.m. and end at 3 p.m., then there are the activities of the school clubs, sporty or cultural, or the after-school (juku) until evening; during the year there are many tests, like those of half and quarter-end, that keep students always prepared on the program.
Japan has the world record to the better educated population with 100% of enrollment in school, and zero illiteracy: high school enrollments are more than 96% at national level and close to 100% in large cities; all over the country there are 98 National Universities, the oldest and most famous is the TODAI (Tokyo Daigaku), the University of Tōkyō.
46% of students who finish high school goes to University; the degree course usually lasts 4 years, but once managed to enter, the student will achieve the degree effortlessly: is not expected the thesis discussion but only periodic written tests (in Japan have few or no oral tests) that allow to follow step by step the program.
Most of junior and high schools requires students to wear uniforms: they are compulsory for both sexes, one for summer and one for winter, and students must follow strict rules of conduct.
Students and teachers are responsible for cleaning their school (in Japan there aren’t school janitors); every day, part of the time is allocated to this task: each class (in elementary school there may be up to 40 students per class) is divided into groups that, alternately, clean classroom, corridors, bathrooms and other areas of school.
All Japanese students must study English from junior high school and most of them continues to study it for at least six years: is a pity that almost nobody knows how to speak it correctly, because in schools it’s not required a preparation for oral tests but only for written ones.
The Hell of exams
An important feature of the Japanese school system are the entrance exams, compulsory to enter the private schools from elementary to university: the access is open to the public schools but their quality is low, so the majority of Japanese families tries to send their children to private schools. So, to move from one school year to another, there are no exams at the end of year but at the beginning, in order to enter and not to exit; the period when they take place is in March/April, that’s the beginning of the school year, and is called from Japanese students “The Hell of exams” (試験 地獄 shiken jigoku).
These exams, in fact, are extremely difficult and can’t be faced with a generic preparation, so most of the students at the end of the school day goes to the famous after-school (juku), integrative courses for a fee, which usually begin at 5 p.m. and can last until 11:30 p.m. This amount of study, which to Western eyes seems incredibly excessive, it’s justified by the fact that the Japanese work system provides safe places to graduates of good Universities and ensures a life employment, although now things start to change.
Because entering the “right” University is essential to success in working life, is vital getting into the correct sequence of schools: the right kindergarten connected to the right elementary school, then to the right middle school and to the high school, to end up with the right University.
It’s always a path marked by exams until the entrance exam to the University that, unless coming from certain institutes, it’s perfectly useless groped; the exam is divided into two parts, at the National Universities: the first part is a standardized test given by the National Center for the Examination for Admission to the University, that all students take the same day; the second part is specific and administered by each University independently.
If a student fails the entrance exam becomes a ronin (a term used to describe a masterless samurai and now means a student who has failed the exam to the chosen University): he will spend the whole next year studying to take it again and, for this purpose, he will enroll in remedial courses of specialized schools.
These schools are increasing year by year throughout Japan and are attended, even during the school year, by high school students who are studying in advance for the exam (some take years to prepare).
Pros and cons
Referring back to concepts such as equal opportunities and the right to education, after the Second World War the schools were opened to all people, offering everyone the opportunity to study: but, because of this, were necessary the entrance exams, being limited places in the most popular schools.
The purpose was to “educate” the people prototype whom the industry, at that time, most needed: this was achieved, but at the expense of the students who, come out of the schools fully educated on specific and methodical concepts, couldn’t think with their head, were less able to judge and not very innovative and imaginative. For this reason, the National Council on Education Reform and others require often reforms, emphasizing of paying attention to creativity and respect for every individual.
In Japan, the surest way to be successful is that of the school and so every Japanese, since young, is put under pressure by the study; a factor is common to all levels of education: the notionism directed to not stimulate intellectual curiosity, indeed the student has undertaken only to get good grades in examinations, without considering the why of things.
“At 20, a Japanese is disciplined, obedient and respectful of authority“, says the writer Shuichi Kato; according to some experts, this school system, which produces a continuous stream of diligent Japanese people, would be the basis of the stability of the country: the “economic miracle” of post-war period would have its roots in the “miracle of education.”
According to others, however, the Achilles heel of the giant Japan would be in this kind of school that produces people unable to face the problems of the future; although in Japan itself, the disadvantages of the current school system are discussed and arouse growing concerns, many foreigners still are doting on this system and some even suggest to import certain aspects in Western countries.
A recent American research, for example, defines the Japanese school “highly effective and democratic“. “They consider it democratic because to each child is served up the same kind of education. In fact, this form of egalitarianism is a new form of totalitarianism,” says Steven Platzer, teacher at the University of Chicago, now at the University of Tōkyō.
The impression gets by the Japanese students is of a mass rigidly controlled and under constant pressure: seeing them go out in the morning from subway stations, in their dark uniforms, in order to get in line in the schoolyards, suggests more the idea of soldiers than schoolboys.