Japanese Schools

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So you’re thinking about teaching English in Japan, are you? Glad to hear it. For those of you who have never taught abroad, Japan is a perfect first stop, in my opinion. (Perhaps I’m biased, though.) If you’ve been teaching abroad for a while now and want to give Japan a go, I recommend it.

In this post, I want to talk about Japanese schools: how they are divided up, what times of the year they hold classes, and testing into schools. This information is based on my experience teaching in a rural town from 2013-2015, as well as from experiences of other teachers, both foreign and Japanese, that I knew there. For other topics related to teaching in Japan, see my upcoming posts.


Trajectory

Japan has elementary school, middle school, and high school. Although elementary and middle school are mandatory for all children, because of social pressures, nearly all students go on to high school, and many aim for university right after that. I recall a story from my friend’s mother, who moved to Japan with her husband, started a family there, and still lives in Japan today. She said that it is uncommon to see students take time off between high school and university, and that the general “life path” that everyone needed to follow was “public school, university, career.”

Grades and Ages

It’s common for young children to go to either preschool (youchien) or daycare (hoikuen) from the age of three. When I studied abroad, my host sister attended preschool. When I taught in Japan, my smallest elementary school had a “kindergarten” class. I’m not sure exactly what ages the kids were.

Elementary school (shougakkou) runs from the 1st grade (~age 7) to the 6th grade (~age 12). You’ll hear them referred to as “1st years”, “5th years”, and so on.

Middle school (chuugakkou) has three grades. As the counting system begins anew with the school change, they are called “1st/2nd/3rd year”. However, if we continue counting up from the 6th grade, these years are equivalent to 7th grade (~age 13), 8th grade (~age 14), and 9th grade (~age 15).

High school (koukou) also has three grades and, again, the numbering system starts over. Your students will be “1st/2nd/3rd years”. This is equivalent to 10th grade (~age 16), 11th grade (~age 17), and 12th grade (~age 18).

The School Year

In Japan, the school year begins in April to coincide with the spring. The year is broken up into trimesters. The first two are almost the same number of months in length, but the third semester is by far the shortest. The following may vary slightly depending on region, but, in general, the year is broken up like this:

Early April – Semester 1 starts
Late July – Semester 1 ends

August – Summer vacation*

Early/Mid-September – Semester 2 begins
Late December – Semester 2 ends

Late December/Early January – Winter break*

Early January – Semester 3 begins
Mid-/Late March – Semester 3 ends

Late March-Early April – Spring break*

About the Breaks

1. Summer vacation is about 1 month long. Students will come in for part of the day for club activities. If you have an English speech competition to prepare for, students may seek you out then as well. Students will have summer homework.

2. Winter break is about 2 weeks long. As Christmas is not an official holiday there (very few people in Japan are Christian), you may have to teach on Christmas, or you might have to “desk warm” on Christmas. (More about “desk warming” in another post.) Again, students may come in for club activities, and they’ll have winter homework.

3. Spring break is the shortest: 1 to 2 weeks long. During this time, teachers may change schools (more on this in another post), and that could even include moving towns. Spring break is just long enough for them to finish grading work and, if they have to transfer, to move towns.

Holidays

Major holidays are listed in calendars with red markings. Note thatSundays tend to be marked in the same way and may not actually be holidays. The longest holidays are Golden Week (April/May) and New Year’s (a couple of days long, so get your shopping done early). Your teachers should let you know, but you can always double-check. More on holidays in a future post.

Testing In

Unlike in the United States and other countries, Japanese students must take entrance exams to enter high school. Distance and finances taken into account, they can choose any high school they like and apply there, but they must past an entrance exam. The same is true of universities. So students in their final year of middle school and high school will study hard and spend extra time at school for review sessions. They may also have juku (cram school), but I have no experience with that as those tend to exist in larger cities. I’m not sure if this is true of high school or not, but I’ve heard about students not being accepted to their university of choice and waiting an entire year to re-take the entrance exam. These tests are huge deals, and your third-year students will kick their studying into gear, particularly in winter and spring.

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