When I mentioned to people back home that I was teaching in Japan or that I had taught in Japan, I frequently heard statements such as, “Oh, wow! How was that? The students are so respectful over there, aren’t they?”
To which I smiled, told them about my experiences, and explained that the students were respectful as a whole but kids were still kids.
From documentaries or word-of-mouth or whatever other source, many people I know picture Japanese students as quiet, well-behaved, respectful, smart, and studious. Even though I tried not to, I thought pretty much the same thing before I went over there. And while this image is certainly true in some respects, it’s a bit too perfect an image. So let’s take it down from the pedestal and dust it off a bit, shall we?
Under the Dust
These are Japanese students from my experiences with them.
Quiet: The girls are typically more reserved. Some are extremely shy, but others are boisterous and eager to joke around with you. The boys can be just as reserved, but they tend to be a bit more rambunctious. They’re more prone to talking in class, joking with the teachers, and complaining that they don’t know English so, teacher, please speak Japanese. When it comes to calling on kids in class, though, don’t expect anyone to volunteer answers. Very few ever do. You’ll have to call names, pick a student’s number, or choose at random. Expect them to be hesitant and to confer heavily among their friends so they can give the correct answers.
Well-behaved: For the most part, the students behave well in class. The younger kids and the boys talk more and may do things like throw wads of paper at each other. Between classes, the students talk, play, sit on their desks, shout in the hallways, and so on. Some of these actions I expected, but Japanese schools as a whole seem louder to me, usually during breaks but sometimes even the classes were overwhelmingly loud and the teachers would continue to teach while some students talked. That said, the students are taught from a young age to be respectful, to listen to teachers, and to do things their proper ways, so by and large they are well-behaved. They’re just kids, so classes can get loud at times.
Respectful: Japanese society is hierarchical, and they have respectful forms of speech that they use depending on a person’s age and position. There are also proper and improper way to do things. Kids are taught these from a very young age. I saw elementary school kids enter the teacher’s office with a rushed or forgotten “Excuse me. I’m ___ from Class __, here to ___”. Sometimes all the teacher’s had to do was say “Start over”, and other times they would guide the student back out, explain what the correct way to enter was, and help them learn to enter and exit the teacher’s room. This taught the student the proper way to do this task as well as how to show the teachers respect in this instance. Older Japanese students have this down-pat. They know how to stand and bow at the beginning and end of classes, how to speak politely to teachers, and how to do as a teacher requests. That said, the students often have good rapport with their teachers, so they can still joke around with them and have fun.
Smart and studious: Japanese students are more studious in some respects. They have homework over vacations, which I didn’t really get until high school. The third years also have to study for high school and college entrance exams, so they take extra lessons. In larger cities, students may also attend cram school (juku). However, I’m not sure how much homework they get on average, so I can’t tell you if it’s more or less than might be expected in other countries. It’s also hard for me to comment on how smart students are as I only saw them in English class. There the levels ranged from poor to very good. I’m sure it all depends on the student in question.
Those are some of the major points about Japanese students. If you’ve had experience teaching in Japan, what do you think of these? Did I forget something? Let me know, and feel free to ask me other questions about students.