Culture · Culture Shock · Education · Elementary School Education · Information · Jr. High School Education · Living in Japan · Teaching

Some Thoughts on Japanese Education

So, a little while back I wrote about Japanese education a little, and perhaps created a kind of negative perspective on Japan’s system. I believe the post I am talking about was when I did my second drama review and went into some brief details about the social issues that are apparent in Japanese schools today. Here, I also mentioned students sleeping in classes and in general have an apathetic perspective on their own education. In general, I am unsure what my opinion is exactly about Japan’s system as I can see positive attributes and negative attributes to the system. I think it is therefore important that in this post I go into more details about the differences in the goals of education between American and Japanese schools.

At the Jr. high school I work at, there were a few students who we would call in America “drop outs.” I had only seen these students once in class, way back in September and I only saw them again in March a few weeks before graduation because they came to turn in some sort of paperwork. When I asked one of my teachers about them, they explained to me that they had essentially dropped out of school and had gone to less than 10% to 20% of all their classes during their time at the Jr. high school. When I asked about their potential for graduating, I was a little shocked at the answer I was given: 必ず、その生徒は卒業ができますよ・without a doubt they will graduate. Silly me again for thinking everywhere was like America – you don’t get the passing grades, you don’t go onto the next grade. It might be because of the whole losing face syndrome that Japan has going on, but Japanese schools and the education board refuse to make students repeat a grade – at least not until college. When I approached a teacher on this subject and asked them why this was so, the answer I got was, “If I do that, I will ruin their future.” Not only that, but if a student is made to repeat a grade, parents will be in an uproar and blame the school for not “watching their child more closely” (this is known as a monster parent). Furthermore, when said student did appear at school, I was even more shocked to see the teachers and school principal happy to see him and greet him with a very friendly, “Hey you, long time no see!”

This is something that I think no matter how much I come to understand Japanese society will keep surprising me.

It has been a discussion among my fellow AETs and myself for a long time and what we have come to realize is that we just have to accept the goals of Japanese education are very different and the Japanese system is very good at what it does: socialization. Not only this, but Japanese are not taught to be “free thinkers” in the sense American students are, but instead their primary and secondary education focus on its students being good test takers. In all national studies on education, Japan ranks far higher than America in subjects such as math and science. So, as long a student is able to pass an exam, the Japanese system is satisfied. In terms of socialization, Japanese children are always put in groups and always know where they belong in the school’s social hierarchy and in consequence, in the grander scale of all of Japanese society due in large part to the senpai-kohai system.

However, this form of education does not work well for Japanese learning English and it seems that no matter what Japanese do, the country as a whole cannot manage to learn and grasp the English language. Having lived in Japan for almost two years now, I find this to be a deep and wide problem stemming from anything and everything including history (never having been colonized) as well as wealth (managing to become the second largest economy without mastering English) as well as many other issues. It is very clear from talking with some students that they do not see the importance of learning English, “I don’t plan on going to America in the future,” and other such comments are often heard. Unlike in America, the Japanese system does not encourage its people and students to be “worldly” types or “multicultural.”
I believe that the big problem is the education system. Junior-high and high-school English education is for only examinations to pass – as I mentioned earlier. Reading and writing are important but commutation basics like speaking and hearing are not and students get flustered when called on in class for anything other than reading from the textbook. Not only this, but the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology are the ones who create the textbooks for English Education…and I find the books to be very very frustrating and not really teaching the students English but instead some robotic form of it. So, basically, some English-speaking Japanese are ruling Japan. Speaking-English is a kind of a special ability, at least until a decade ago. Japanese who can speak English, even broken English, can get good paying jobs and be promoted faster than non-English-speaking Japanese within the Japanese government. However, not many students what to work for the Japanese government or feel that they really need to learn English. My students tell me that they are Japanese and don’t plan to leave Japan, so they don’t think that they should have to learn English. What do you say to that? Some of them can learn enough words to get by on tests, or even get into a decent high school, but most of them don’t even bother to do that. Why should they? There are no repercussions if they don’t and no immediate benefit if they do. However, one of the main reasons the Japanese have a difficult time learning English is that the people in power will not be open to the input of native speakers.

In Japanese elementary schools, it is becoming compulsory for there to be English classes for 5th and 6th graders. Oh, wait; let me clarify that, “English Activities.” Now, you would think I would be excited about this, but I am quite the opposite…The new textbook for the elementary schools is terrible and we are not allowed to teach them how to read or write. Also, there are a few mistakes in the textbook that we as AETs have no choice but to point out to the schools and students. I have a lot of complaints about the new system being enforced and I would much rather stick to making my own lesson plans. I think, after only half a year of teaching, I know more about teaching children than the people who made this book. I will save any commentary about such matters until I have actually attempted to follow these terrible lesson plans.

School starts Monday. Time to get back on my 6 am wake-up schedule.

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