10 Differences Between Japanese And American Education

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Whether you loved or you loathed them, your memories of school likely play a large part of who you are, and quite possibly whether you are successful as an adult. Since Japanese culture is different from the West in a multitude of ways, it makes sense to wonder whether their schools are different too.

Not only are Japanese schools themselves vastly different in how they operate, but both countries have a completely different approach to learning. With different school years, holidays, and attitudes towards grades and learning, the experience for Japanese and American students is quite different. While we’ll never be so bold as to say that one is completely better than the other, it’s worth analyzing the differences and understands the effect those differences have on the students. At the very least, it’s cool to imagine what it would have been like if you’d gone to school in another country!

In this article, we’ll look at 10 major differences between American and Japanese education, and perhaps even muse on what kind of impact that has on the countries as a whole (although, since I’m not a social psychologist, feel free to take those musings with a pinch of salt). Some of these differences are quite simple in nature so we’ll cover those first, while some reflect a completely different approach to learning, which we’ll get into a little later.

10 Differences Between Japanese And American Education

1. The School Year

The American School Year

Most schools in the west begin their school terms in September after a long summer break, with the school year running from September to May or June. School was not compulsory in America until after 1920, and so before that many children would either help out at home, doing farming or other chores, or if they were older, they would work in the factories with their parents. Many of the chores at home would not be necessary as Autumn and winter started, and so that’s when children would be most likely to attend school. This pattern stuck even as school became compulsory, as children could continue to help at home during the busiest time of the year for farming, and then not be missed too much at home when it was quieter.

The Japanese School Year

In Japan, though, the school year begins on April 1st, and ends on March 31st. While there’s no official standpoint from the Japanese on why this is the case, most people in Japan see spring as the perfect time to start new things. It’s a time when the cherry blossoms bloom and life begins anew, so it makes sense that the school year begins too.

2. Holidays

American schools definitely carry the advantage here (if you’re asking the kids of course) since they get more holidays than schools in Japan. Japanese schools get around six weeks off during summer, and around two weeks for each of their winter and spring vacations. American schools, however, get around 11-12 weeks over summer, with similar breaks during winter and spring. Both countries have several different national holidays too. Up until recently, school was also held six days a week!

3. Extra curriculars

It would seem that the approach to extra-curricular activities is different too, according to most students who have had experience with both. In America, students are free to choose many different activities (or none at all) depending on what they’re interested in, and the only limit to the amount you can do is whether you have enough time. Alternately, in Japan students tend to choose one activity and devote all their extra time to it, and it’s expected that every single student will choose one activity. And when we say “extra time”, we mean all the time they have, including their summer break, since Japanese students are incredibly dedicated, perhaps even to a fault (we’ll get into that more a little later).

Not only do Japanese students attend their chosen club diligently every day after school, but they’ll usually go straight from their school to the club then to “cram school”. Known as juku, these are specialized schools that train students to achieve particular goals usually related to exam prep or entrance tests. With the addition of after-school activities and juku, most students in Japan spend an inordinate amount of time studying, which has led to some people criticizing the amount of pressure that they face.

Image courtesy of OZinOH

4. Uniform (and slippers)

In Japanese public schools and American school kids can wear their own casual clothes, but starting in Junior school, Japanese kids must wear a uniform, while most public schools in America have no uniforms at all. Obviously there are exceptions in each country in terms of uniform, but one thing that’s definitely different is the fact that students in Japan must change into indoor shoes when they enter school. This is something that’s done throughout Japan in both homes and businesses, so it makes sense that the children are taught from an early age.

5. Homework

Students around the world are familiar with homework, but many would say that the Japanese education system dishes out an inordinate amount. Not only do children in Japan start receiving homework the minute they start school, but they also receive it throughout the whole year, end especially throughout the holidays. During summer vacation in Japan, students still have to attend school for their team or club practices, and they get large amounts of homework to complete.

Many people would suggest that this is one of the reasons Japanese students are so disciplined, or at least are more disciplined than their American counterparts. There are high expectations set for them from the minute they begin school, and the strong support system at home only serves to solidify this. Of course, others would suggest that this is why students in Japan face a higher rate of suicide than many other countries in the world, with pressure and bullying being one of the highest causes of suicide amongst teens and even children. Until intensive research is done, both arguments for and against could be considered speculative.

6. Classrooms

Most schools in the west follow the same pattern – the students are given a class schedule, and when the bell rings you walk to whichever class you have next. In Japan, however, it’s the teachers that move, not the students. Students are assigned a room, and they stay there for the whole day, with the teachers moving from lesson to lesson. As a western person learning this, I was both envious and grateful this wasn’t implemented in my school. To be stuck in one room all day with the same students (and I’m specifically thinking of the kids at my school here) would seem prison-like, but alternately the chaos of hundreds of teenagers walking between corridors was something of a nightmare too. Logistically, it makes much more sense for the teachers to move around.

As well as staying put, the children stand and greet the teacher at the beginning and end of every class as a sign or respect, which is highlighted as incredibly important from a young age. It’s a testament to the children themselves and evidence of the trust they’re given from such a young age that they’re allowed to stay in the empty classrooms alone between each teacher, even in kindergarten.

Image courtesy of Danny Choo

7. Janitors

Every school in America hires janitors to keep the building clean and tidy, as do most other western countries. Continuing along the theme of Japanese students being responsible and respectful, it might not come as a surprise to you that the students clean their schools as well. There are no janitors in Japanese schools, no matter what the age of the children because the children are taught to clean the school at the end of each day.

This is something that definitely speaks to the culture in Japan as a whole – people are taught to have respect for the collective from an incredibly early age. Whether you would describe it as respect for the community or fear of being judged as a rogue outcast is up to you, but Japanese people are very conscious of the impact they have on the people around them, and this begins at school. Japanese children are noted for being tidier at school than American kids, most likely because they know they’re the ones who’ll be cleaning up the mess later.

8. School Lunches

American School Lunches

American schools in the past have been the source of some controversy, and they have something of a terrible reputation. Many public school lunch programs in America are considered incredibly unhealthy, and a 2009 investigation by USA Today showed that lots of the meat served in U.S. schools didn’t even meet the requirements for most fast-food restaurants. Because schools in America are funded by local governments and receive very little federal support, cost-cutting has resulted in cheaply made lunches that are less than nourishing.  In an attempt to offset some of the costs, some schools even give contracts to external vendors to feed their students.

This has resulted in certain fast-food chains providing foods like pizza and burgers every lunchtime, which in turn has led to an obesity crisis among children in the United States, which makes sense – if you were a kid at school and all you had to choose between was a slice of pizza or a meal that cost less than a dollar to make, which would you choose?

Japanese School Lunches

Japanese schools follow a collective approach when it comes to lunchtime (as if you would expect anything else by this point). Everyone takes turns serving the other students their lunch. In some schools, the food is cooked by kitchen staff, while some others have the students take turns making lunch. In most Japanese schools, whoever has served the food cleans everything up afterward.

There are obvious benefits to this methodology – mainly, the children learn to feed themselves and others, and the idea of living peaceably within a society is reinforced, as is accountability for others. Personally, I love this approach, and I think it’s something individualistic Western societies could really benefit from.

Image courtesy of Rich Pav

9. Participation

All the differences we’ve talked about so far really show that the Japanese and American school experience vary greatly. But, it’s in the next two points that we really get down to some fundamental differences in each country’s approach to learning; ones that really speak to their philosophies of what it means to be educated.

American Classroom Participation

One of these is participation in the classroom and whether students are able to engage with the material they are taught. On the whole, the American classroom is one of discussion, particularly when it comes to material that’s not necessarily black and white, like scientific advancement or literature. American students are encouraged to engage with the material they are presented with, and a teacher considers their work successful if their class is able to critically discuss the subject in their own words. This encourages creativity, critical thinking, comprehension, and in some cases a love of learning. Unfortunately, there’s a huge disparity in the quality of education and funding received across the entire country, so not every student gets an equal position from which to start in this respect.

Japanese Classroom Participation

Alternately, Japanese classrooms favor silence and submission. Historically, it has been the expectation that students sit quietly and listen to the teacher, or to copy what the teacher is writing on the board. When you take into consideration that children are expected to do this throughout the entire school day and then for most of the evening at cram school, you realize that students in Japan spend an inordinate amount of time just sitting and working without any real engagement at all. It certainly reinforces the country’s strong commitment to procedure and tradition and gets the children used to following rules and staying in the box. While this approach does not reward imagination, there’s definitely more uniformity when it comes to the quality of education across the country.

Many students who have been taught in Japan for the majority of their school years and then attend university in the west say they feel wholly unprepared for group discussion and participation. Some even go so far as to say they feel let down by Japan’s approach to learning since it seems to reward repetition and rote learning as opposed to creativity and ingenuity. That’s definitely supported by the figures – while Japan excels at overall test score success, the country falls behind in areas such as scientific breakthroughs and discovery, which require people to think outside the scope of what they’ve already learned as fact.

If all you have been encouraged to do is spend every waking hour learning the correct answers on the test, then rarely will you feel it necessary to go beyond what you’ve been given and assess it in a critical way.

10. Definition Of Success And Reward

While it might seem that Japan’s approach to rote learning is outdated, their definition of success is certainly one to take note of, as explained in this fantastic article by Alix Spiegel, which I’ll get to in a moment. It’s no secret that American culture favors the naturally intelligent “genius”. Idolized in popular culture, the idea that you are born naturally smarter than everyone else is seen as the ideal, and in the education system, it’s definitely something that’s rewarded.

Natural talent takes priority over working hard to improve on something you might not naturally be good at. Obviously, this is a generalization, and there are exceptions to this, but on the whole, American students are far more likely to be praised because they’re ‘smart’ or ‘gifted’ than because they worked hard to achieve something “mediocre”. In some cases, students are moved up entire grades at a time because they excel.

This is in direct opposition to the approach in Japan, where it’s unheard of that somebody would be given special treatment because they’re naturally gifted. While that might seem counter-intuitive for some, it’s incredibly beneficial to the majority, and in her article, Spiegel uses research by Jim Stigler to show why. Stigler traveled to Japan in 1979 to study teaching methods and noticed something incredibly interesting about their approach to struggle – the teachers were more likely to reward struggle than natural ability.

Image courtesy of Scott

In fact, one teacher chose the child who was struggling the most with the given task, brought them to the board to work it out in front of everyone until they’d got it right. For anyone educated in the west, this might seem mortifying, but in that classroom the children applauded and praised their classmates after they’d worked through the problem, thus rewarding the student’s ability to persevere. The child in focus here returned to their desk full of pride and with a beaming smile.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either, as modern-day students in Japan are regularly given academic problems that are just beyond their intellectual reach, and then rewarded when they manage to work through them. Stigler conducted another experiment to further prove how differently the two countries approach success – he gave first-grade students in Japan and America an impossible problem and then timed how long the children would work on it before giving up.

The American students tried for a mere 30 seconds on average, while the Japanese students worked for the entire hour trying to solve it. That small experiment has massive implications on the two societies as a whole. In the West, where the intellectual struggle is seen as a sign of weakness, people might be more likely to give up on something if they don’t take to it right away. In the East, where the intellectual struggle is accepted as a fundamental part of learning, people could be more likely to persevere through difficulties as opposed to giving up.

Neither Is Fundamentally Better

It’s clear that both education systems have advantages and disadvantages. On the whole, Japanese students benefit from a broader range of success and a standardized way of learning, while American students benefit from increased creativity and ingenuity. Neither system should be hailed as fundamentally better than the other, but we as a society should look to improve on what we have all the time, and this should include adapting methods and ideologies that have proved successful in other countries.

What’s undeniable is the fact that students in both countries have vastly different experiences, and many students lucky enough to experience both say that they appreciate the benefits of each experience. We’d love to hear from those of you who have been educated in either Japan, or America, or both! Is this list an accurate representation of your experience? Let us know in the comments!

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