With an impressive 99% literacy rate and a 95% high school graduation rate, Japanese school-children are considered some of the brightest in the world. So what’s the secret of this successful school system, and how does the American classroom compare?

Let’s examine just a few of the differences and similarities between the classroom experiences of Japanese and American students.

How Do Japanese Classrooms Compare To The West?

1. School Uniform

The first and most visible difference between the average American classroom and the average Japanese classroom is how the students are dressed. While American schools tend to opt for a loose dress code, Japanese schools largely go down the uniformed route.

Uniforms will vary depending on the school, but common themes are “sailor” style uniforms for girls, or full blazers and ties like a posh English boarding school. Japanese school-children tend to wear their uniforms very neatly and are generally immaculately groomed. Something tells me Japanese teachers don’t hand out many dress code violations!

2. Footwear Rules

In Japanese classrooms, students do not wear their outdoor shoes – but nor do they go shoeless as they would at home. Both students and staff store a special pair of school shoes in a locker onsite which are worn only indoors. This allows the uniform to look polished, without risking bringing outside dirt into the building.

3. Classroom Set-up

In American high schools, classrooms tend to belong to particular teachers, and students move from classroom to classroom throughout the day, depending on who is teaching them. In Japanese schools, the opposite is the case – students remain in a set classroom.

This classroom might remain the same throughout a student’s whole time in the school – which gives a sense of ownership over the space. There are obvious exceptions to this rule – for example, students have to leave the classroom for some practical classes such as Home Economics. Desks in Japanese classrooms are generally moveable – meaning teachers can rearrange classrooms to their individual preferences upon entering.

4. One Teacher vs Many

In Japanese elementary schools, one teacher instructs the class on all subjects – and the students may have that teacher for more than one academic year. This leads to close relationships between students and teachers, and also means that teaching staff has to be “all-rounders” in terms of academic specialty.

This changes in junior high and high school, when different teachers will visit students in their assigned classroom to instruct them on individual subjects. This system is very similar to that of the American classroom.

5. Formality with teachers

While there is a degree of formality within the American school system (the vast majority of schools address teachers by their title and surname), Japanese schools crank it up a notch.

Students will use a standing greeting with a bow when their teacher enters the classroom and will give a formal thank you bow when teachers are leaving. This is dual-purpose – it serves both as a mark of respect to the teacher, and to mark a definitive start and end to the lesson. It also allows a small movement break for students, who may have been sitting in the same classroom for hours at this stage. Some schools also encourage a quick meditation before the start and end of each lesson for students to center themselves.

Keigo, or the honorific form of Japanese, is used when speaking to one's elders – and teaching staff very much fall under this bracket. In fairness to American schoolchildren, English does not have a particular dialect to be used specifically to show respect – but overall, American children would address their teachers in a more casual manner.

In Japan, it is not considered culturally acceptable for students to speak negatively about their teacher, even outside of school – which is a value that often isn’t observed by Western school children!

6. Teacher-Parent relationship

In both America and Japan, you will find incredibly dedicated teachers who go above and beyond to help their students succeed inside and outside the classroom. Japan, as with most things, takes this to new levels. Within the Japanese system, teachers will often complete a home visit at the start of the year to the families of individual students. They will meet with parents and inspect the child’s study and homework set-up in the family home.

Contact between teachers and parents is expected on an extremely regular basis in Japan – with many schools asking teachers to send out newsletter-style updates to families a few times per week!

7. School lunches

School lunch is generally eaten within the classroom, rather than an American-style cafeteria set-up. Many schools cook hot lunches on-site, which are delivered to classrooms and shared amongst the students and their teachers. Classmates take turns serving each other lunch.

These lunches are generally extremely healthy and provide an opportunity to teach students about the principles of nutrition and lack of food waste. If a school does not provide their own lunch, students are expected to bring in bento (boxed lunch) from home – and a strict no junk food policy covers both staff and student lunches.

Compare this with American schools, where the healthiness of school lunches is often called into question and facilities like candy vending machines are commonplace – it is evident that Japan and America take very different standpoints on who is responsible for the students’ diets.

8. Cleaning Duties

Japanese schools do not hire cleaning staff – and yet they are world-renowned for their high standards of cleanliness. The responsibility for cleaning the school falls to the individual students, and dedicated cleaning time is built into the daily classroom schedule.

This serves to educate students on taking responsibility for the upkeep of their surroundings – a value that clearly translates to the wider world if the streets of Tokyo are anything to go by.

By contrast, American schools tend to have a janitor and cleaning staff on their employment, and students generally do not hold any responsibility for the cleanliness of the school building.

9. Transport to and from School

Many American schools provide a school bus system, whereby children will be dropped and collected from their homes to their school buildings. This is not the case in Japan, where students will generally either walk to school or use regular public transport.

10. School Calendar

The American school calendar tends to run from September to June, with an extended break for summer vacation. The Japanese school year runs from April to March, with a summer vacation of approximately 40 days commencing in late July. A major difference in the Japanese summer vacation is that the school generally offers programs and activities to students during the break (some of which are compulsory), and students are expected to complete homework and study during vacation time.

In terms of day to day schedule, the school systems are similar – Japanese schools run from about 8.30 am to 3 pm, with additional time allotted for after-school clubs and extra-curricular activities. Up until 2002, Japanese school schedules incorporated Saturdays also – but they now operate a five day, the same as American schools (although apparently many high-performing schools will break the law and still operate a six-day week for at least some of the month).

11. Grade Structure

Similar to the American school system, the Japanese attend elementary, junior high, and high school. The only difference between how the school grades are divided is that Japanese children spend a year longer at the elementary level, and a year less at junior high.

12. Emphasis on Extra-Curriculars

Similar to the American school system, Japan places a strong emphasis on the importance of extra-curricular activities. Every individual school will offer a range of sport and social after-school clubs, and the vast majority of Japanese children will be a member of at least one.

13. Entrance Exam System

Japanese children are required to take entrance exams for each school they attend to determine whether or not they will be accepted – even elementary. Factors such as academic ability and even the reputation of their previous school will be taken into account in the final decision.

This is not generally the case in the American school system, where the catchment area and school district tend to be the largest deciding factors in school placement.

14. Ceremonies

American schools host graduation ceremonies upon completion of high school, and sometimes more informal graduation ceremonies to celebrate students completing elementary school and junior high.

The Japanese system has graduation ceremonies upon leaving all three school levels, but also hosts ceremonies to signal students starting their academic journey at each of the three levels – which I’m sure you’ll agree is a really lovely idea.

15. Asking Questions

Here’s an interesting one, which involves a bit of generalization if you’ll forgive me for this. In American classrooms, asking the teacher questions tends to be encouraged behaviour. It shows engagement with the material, critical thinking skills, and an eagerness to learn. You might even see an American student debating different ideas with their teacher, if they are particularly passionate about a subject – again, this behavior is often encouraged in the American school system.

In the Japanese school system, there is an expectation of polite quietness during class time – and as such, there are very few questions asked. There is also a collective cultural embarrassment around making mistakes or being seen to misunderstand things – which again reduces the number of questions asked by students.

16. No Substitute Teacher System

I had to double and triple check this one because I couldn’t quite believe this could happen – but apparently, it’s true. If a teacher is sick in Japan, the schools generally don’t hire a substitute. Instead, students will quietly complete unsupervised self-directed learning in their classroom for the day.

Now, I didn’t go to school in America, but I can only imagine what would have gone on in my Irish classroom if 30 teenagers were left unsupervised – and it would not have been anything even loosely resembling quiet study. This difference, more than any, highlights the cultural differences between the Japanese student and their Western counterpart.

Similarities But Very Different

In some ways, these two school systems are strikingly similar – and yet, the overall classroom experience between America and Japan looks completely different. Like so many other aspects of life in Japan, the core cultural expectations that underpin schooling color the Japanese classroom in such a way that it is unique from any other classroom in the world.

Now, who’s organizing a reality show where a Japanese student switches with an American student for a semester?!