Japanese and Their Schools
It seems to me that Japanese teenage students like their schools much more than Canadian students like theirs. For me, that explanation at least partly explains why they willingly spend, or seem to spend so much time there. Some students arrive quite early - to practice at sports clubs, or to do their homework in their quiet, deserted homerooms, or else just to meet and chat with friends. And then after school I am surprised how many students stay late, hanging around their classrooms chatting with friends, or getting extra tutorials from some teachers, or once more practicing sports clubs. I suppose it could be said that the relatively small and cramped nature of most Japanese homes compared to most North American homes makes the school and its classrooms look more attractive to Japanese teenagers as a place to hang out than Canadian schools and their classrooms look to Canadian teenagers.
This year more than any time previously I am able to observe my students longer and more closely because of the terms of my current contract - the requirement that I be at the school five days a week from 8:30 a.m.-to-4:30 p.m. regardless of whether or not I have classes. The school wants to be able to boast in its promotional brochures and other advertising that there is a native English-speaking teacher on the premises all the time. Frankly, for me it is exceptionally boring having to be at the school doing nothing for hours at a time. I see it largely as wasted time, time that I could spend working at other paying jobs elsewhere in the city. I have not mastered the Japanese talent of looking busy while in fact doing nothing at all. It would be useful right now.
Through sheer boredom, I fall asleep at my desk like I’ve been drugged, or something. To keep awake I have some personal things that I can do using the school’s computers and photocopy machines, plus I can read and then re-read the morning English-language newspaper, write in my diary, read a novel, or else just wander around the school at my leisure initiating extra-curricular contact with the students, chatting to them outside of a lesson setting, and observing them acting normally in an unsupervised environment - i.e. playing sports with friends, chatting with friends by the drink vending machines, doing homework in the library, etc. It’s fascinating. Some kids will chat with me. Others shy away. Japanese junior/senior high schoolers segregate themselves by sex much more than Canadian students do and it is interesting to observe their interaction and behavior from a discreet distance. It’s like taking my family to the African Lion Safari near Hamiltonin my mother’s car and watching the wildlife through the windows. In many ways they behave exactly as their Canadian peers - running through the halls ike lunatics. But I also often
detect definite culturally programmed behaviors - male and female teenagers changing into and out of their sports gear for P.E. together in their classrooms with little or no provision for privacy or modesty. (Japanese culture’s attitude towards the body and privacy are so different from what Canadians consider normal that I cannot even begin going into it here and now.)
Even 90-minutes after classes end, there are still some students in their classrooms. This is especially true of the seniors, who are already preparing for the all-important university entrance examinations early in the New Year. Or, if they plan not to go to university, preparing for whatever they imagine as their future after high school. I have asked a few of them directly why they stay at school so late and have been told that they like talking to their friends. But that hardly strikes me as a firm enough reason to stay at school so late if one is not engaged in a club activity. So I think that students like their classrooms more than Canadian students do theirs. Here is the reason: in Japan, unlike in Canada, the classroom is the students’ domain, not the teacher’s domain. When periods change and school subjects change, it is almost always the Japanese teacher who walks to meet the students in their room, often carrying an armload, or a basket full of teaching supplies. Even now, it remains an odd sight for me to see the math teacher walking down the hall with a basket full of math stuff. Or, the geography teacher pass by with an armload of maps, or the science teacher carrying beakers, etc. to class. This is not always so, of course. There are specialized music, art, home economics rooms, and sometimes a specialized science room. But generally, the teachers go to meet the students, not the other way around. At the end of the lesson the teachers hike with all of their equipment back to their desks in the full-time, or part-time teachers rooms, or else in the department offices.
By contrast, in Canada the classroom is the teacher’s domain. Students change classes by going to meet the teacher in his/her domain, and the classroom is the teacher’s own little kingdom. Teachers have their desks and their personal things there, and they arrange and deck out the rooms according to their pleasure. When students are inside they had better well abide by the teacher’s
rules and routines, or else. When the bell goes and classes change, the students leave and the next wave arrives. The teacher stays and rules his kingdom. For discipline, a Canadian teacher could cast a student out of the kingdom by ordering him/her out of the room. But not so in Japan. I know, because I tried it. To be ordered out of the room is just confusing for Japanese kids because they have no place to go outside the room. So, if I angrily eject a student from the room then he/she just stands outside in the corridor wondering what it means. There is no disciplinary effect to it. Conversely, there is no rewarding effect to it, either. Canadian students/teachers might think it a benefit to be dismissed early. But since Japanese kids tay in their rooms from one class to the next, they again have no place to go if they are released early.
Japanese classrooms that I have seen are not nearly so pretty and comfortable-looking as I remember my Canadian classrooms being. Because the Japanese classroom is not the domain of a teacher, there is no professional adult resident there and responsible for maintaining it. Torn curtains, cracked or broken windows, missing clock (with a dirty circle on the wall showing where it once was), no chalk, many days worth of accumulated chalk dust on the board, overflowing garbage buckets (one for burnable garbage, another for recyclable trash), no ‘normal’ classroom accoutrements like a world map, or globe, or well-maintained bulletin board. Dirty and grotty, that’s what a Japanese junior/senior high school classroom is like. You may think that I might just be unlucky to have experienced a poorly run school. But I assure everyone, I have been in a lot of different Japanese schools over the years, and I think I know what is normal. The classrooms, in other words, are kept and treated by the teenage students much as they keep their bedrooms at home and treat their own stuff at home - a plain, soiled box.
In North America the pedagogical ideology is to make school - especially elementary school - as homey as possible so that it is a comfortable, safe environment for children. That is less true of secondary school, of course, but still, compared to Japanese secondary schools, one can see how Canadian and American secondary schools inherit the philosophy of the elementary school system. Japanese classrooms are not designed for comfort. In fact, a level of discomfort is designed into them in order to encourage the students to persevere, or “gambare,” which is a primary virtue in Japanese culture. To begin with, Japanese classrooms are almost always either too hot or too cold. This is firstly because schools, like almost all architecture in Japan, contain almost no insulation whatsoever in the walls. Once you heat a room up, or cool it down it never lasts for long as air is quickly exchanged with the exterior and the occupants return to discomfort. Secondly, operation of the ceiling-mounted, combination heater/air conditioner units is dictated by an official school timetable, not by the actual weather. It reflects the Japanese tendency for blind devotion to rules, and also their lack of imaginatively altering prescribed procedures to fit local conditions. So, for example, if we are experiencing a very warm May the air conditioners cannot be turned on. Instead, the heaters are still run because the official policy is to run heaters until the middle of June and not to activate air conditioners until after June 15th. Or, if it is really cold some October day the heaters cannot be turned on because the rules dictated that they not be turned on until after November 15th.
There are also seems to be official temperatures or some kind of group consensus (that does not include me) about what temperature the rooms ought to be. 28-degrees Celsius seems to be the approved temperature. I think it is insane. In the hot summer time, before classes break for the short summer holiday, I might arrive first at school in an uncomfortably hot and sticky state - drenched, really - in which case I happily set the cooler to a comfortably low temperature. But when the first Japanese teacher arrives, he (it is usually a man) immediately turns it up to 28-degrees - even when that temperature is warmer than the current temperature outside the windows. It forces me to wonder why, if they think my selection is too cold, they just don’t open the windows. Instead, in July they feel that they have to actively raise the temperature. It disturbs me because I often look to the teachers room as my haven from the discomfort of the classrooms, and instead I have to put up with a kind of ongoing silent war being fought there among teachers.
But it also exposes the dualism that runs through in Japanese culture. I mean that there is no “golden mean” in Japanese thinking. Everything either has to be very warm or very cold, black or white, right or wrong, etc. In education this thinking lends itself to a reliance on multiple-choice tests that recognize only one possible correct response (and are subsequently easier to mark than time-intensive essay tests). Many times Japanese teachers have asked me questions about which is the right word in a sample multiple choice test question that they want to give their students. I know they are bothered by replies indicating that more than one choice is possible (and possibly correct as well) because that does not fit in with what they have been taught and what they think. It’s odd, too, because Japanese language and culture also abound with vagueness. In language it is called “aimai.” It’s a wonderful mystery how the two go together in one society.
Schools are always recognizable from a distance: three-to-five floors high; one side is a plain face of unembellished cement and the other side, facing a crushed-gravel playground, is solid windows. A large clock faces the playground from the middle of the top floor. There is usually green wire mesh fencing surrounding the roof edges, where many schools have swimming pools, tennis courts, or extra playground space.
Public as well as private high students wear school uniforms. School uniforms are one of the globally-recognized trademarks of Japanese society. Traditionally these have been old-fashioned“sailor suits” for girls, and stiff-collared, high-necked, Prussian-style military jackets for boys. But in recent years blazers and neckties have become more common among boys’ uniforms, and girls’ styles have also evolved towards greater variety. I think in recent years school administrators are deliberately allowing students to deviate from the proscribed uniform and deportment rules. Boys grow their hair long and wax it. They use their belts to tie their trousers low, around their thighs, and keep their shirts un-tucked. Girls color their hair, wear accessories and openly sport pierced ears. They hike up their skirts provocatively and pluck their eyebrows, etc. Personally, I have grown to prefer the old style uniforms (they look really smart), and I prefer sex segregation (it reduces distractions).