Visiting schools in Japan

Most of our second day was spent visiting a large public primary (elementary) school in Tokyo.

It is always interesting to see other cultures in action. Nothing shows you the values and norms of a society more than a primary school in action. What is valued? How do they train up (inculcate) their young? Where’s the money spent?

The building put most Australian public primary schools to shame. Although everything is enclosed, it was large, open and airy; clean and tidy; no graffiti or damage; wide corridors. The building itself was new, so that helped. But the government clearly values their young and schools.

We had to take our shoes off at every school we visited. Teachers and students do too. They have lockers as they walk in and swap to their inside shoes. We put on slippers they have for visitors. I tried not to think whose feet had been in the slippers before me.

The slippers were one size fits all. Unless you are a large Anglo man.

They had specialist rooms our primary schools do not have. Joint science, textiles and food technology rooms with tables that flipped to be multipurpose. Australian primary kids look forward to high school to access Science and food tech. They mightn’t want to come if they already had them at primary school!

Others, like the library, were not good. Of course, being a city school, space is a premium so there was no natural outside play areas. There were two large play/sporting area with artificial turf and netting or high fencing to stop balls flying off. One court was on the fourth or fifth floor. Eye-opening was the pool. The teacher with us said every primary school has a pool as swimming is part of the curriculum. The entrance to the pool had several rows of outdoor showers so the students could be cleaned before they entered the pool. The toilets were nothing like the horrid things we give students in Australian schools.

By mid-morning, I was desperate for a cup of tea. Maybe a bikkie. I’d even settle for a cup of green tea. When the recess bell went, I spiked up, eyes alert for any sign of morning tea.

No. Nothing. Turns out they don’t snack like us. The students may have a drink of water. But they don’t snack! They eat a decent breakfast and a hearty lunch. If we followed this, we’d end our obesity problem. But I do look forward to cups of tea!

Lunch is eaten together in the classroom, with students taking turns to serve. They all wait until everyone is served, say thanks, and then eat.

We had a bento box. A work of art in packaging – but I’d rather have eaten the rice and chicken dish the kids and teachers had. (We had to separate all the plastic so I think it may be recycled.)

After lunch, everyone cleans the school. Corridors are swept and mopped. Shelves wiped down.

All the Australians were waiting to witness the cleaning in action. “Imagine bringing this in at home.”

Ah, there’s the rub! You can’t bring in bits of a culture, of a society. They clean, not only because they have done this from early years of primary. They wait to eat, not only because it is the school rule. It’s part of bigger values.

  • Cleanliness and order
  • Group over individual
  • Structure
  • Conformity

These are clearly the values.

Parents don’t come up and complain. Demanding rights for their child. Parents don’t say, “My child will not pick up rubbish.”

Apparently they found some of my questions confronting. You don’t ask questions. (Yes, I am considered “direct” in Australia too. But my questions were not challenging at all by Australian standards. We were here to learn; how does one learn without asking questions? But one does not ask questions so directly. Apparently.)

They definitely didn’t understand our questions about students with disabilities and integration. When they showed us the room for “special” kids, those with learning difficulties, we were all shocked into silence. It was an almost bare room. A few seats. No posters. No life.

We visited two English classes. The students had to talk with us and write our answers for a later task. The questions were the same. And were the same ones I’d heard from school groups that had visited my school. (What’s your favourite colour?) As were the greetings. Clearly they all learn from the same hymn book, the same set texts. The words and phrases also seem set. There is one way to say and do things. “Pleased to me you.” Don’t confuse things with “Nice to meet you.”


There were a couple of European students. I wanted to know what it felt like growing up in a homogeneous mono-culture, with largely one race, when you were visually different. Was there acceptance? Racism? A cultural divide? Coming from a multicultural society, we are so used to diversity. Yes, we have racism and inequality but we also accept and celebrate diversity. We couldn’t ask the students and the concepts were beyond understanding of the translator. One of our tour leaders said my questions, eg on gender equity at a high school we visited, were not translated properly. So we got answers to totally different questions. Still, I also think, if you live in a homogeneous culture, it is hard to step outside of it. Just as it is hard for all of us to step outside ourselves, our lives, our society.

We also visited a private Catholic school in the shadow of Mt Fuji. The school went from pre-school to high school. Its buildings were not as flash as the government school, nor the private secondary school we visited. But of all the schools it had the warmest, friendliest vibe. It may be strange to have a Catholic school in a Buddhist Shinto country. Not many of the students or teachers were Catholic. Apparently it is the ethos parents like. Whether the warmth and friendliness was due to the origins of the school or the principal, I’m not sure. He was the nicest principal we met. Smiled and joked. (In the video you will hear one little boy, who is offscreen, really getting into the singing. I hope his enthusiasm and quirkiness is encouraged.)

Still, the very strict and hierarchical nature of Japanese society was evident. The principal gets the floor. No one less speaks unless spoken to. All the other staff had to stand around the room while the principal and guests sat. This happened at all the schools we visited. None of the staff sat at the tables we were sitting at, no one went out to get spare chairs so they could sit too when there were no spare seats. They stood formally to attention. (At one school, the Deputy and another leader it two also got to sit. But the rest were spread around the room, standing formally.)

The buildings in the Catholic school were not as flash. The student lunch not as elaborate. But I’d rather be at a place where staff and students smile. To see the kids get into the singing was a joy.

Schools and schooling are both a product and a tool of society. I’m. It sure how the quirky kid goes in Japan.

Watching the Tokyo primary students go home, the uniformity and conformity is evident in the uniform, hats and bags. And yet what’s not to like about the building of independence? Imagine infants and primary students being allowed to walk home in Sydney!

Hows this for a bike shed?

It was at the private secondary school we visited. Such infrastructure!!

16 thoughts on “Visiting schools in Japan

  1. Oh, this brought back memories! I went to Japan as part of an AEU (Australian Education Union) exchange and spent a couple of days in a primary school. So similar to the one you describe. I too was amazed that the children cleaned the school, including washing windows. And the lunches! My class, grade 1, was large (over 30 children) and very well behaved, but there was a happy noisy atmosphere. I was surprised at how little technology there was ~ but I was there over 10 years ago.
    You mentioned inclusion….I visited a Grade 6 music lesson. There was one girl who came from Peru or Brazil. She sat alone while the other children worked in musical groups. I shouldn’t make assumptions from one instance, but it did seem to fit in with our ideas about the difficulty of inclusion of non-Japanese.

    • Stepping into another system, one so different, does help you reflect on your own, doesn’t it?. Hardly any technology still.

      Yes, one instance isn’t universal, but one of the European students looked very unhappy. The other, in class, a young girl whose father was Italian, seemed extra keen to connect with us. I wonder if some of that comes from seeing people who “look like me”, to see yourself reflected in a place that would happen rarely.

  2. From one extreme to another – conformity vs individuality. I loved that the kids had access to food and textiles in their curriculum.Cannot imagine the kids cleaning. At the library where I work, it is theoretically every staff member’s responsibility to tidy. But I have had many staff members who refuse to pick up anything a customer leaves behind. When we reopen after COVID-19, I suppose we will provide gloves! It is sad to think of kids not being encouraged to smile, laugh, joke and sing zestfully. But worse to think of kids with disabilities not being accommodated and not having access to a normal classroom environment. All that being said, I am still a believer in order and structure.

    • I think we had totally different understandings of what a disability could encompass and so we talked at cross purposes, like having a parallel conversation, not really connecting.

      Amazingly the kids were hardly supervised at all. They just did it. A couple could be seen to be shirking but most just got on and did it. Same at the catholic school, cleaning up after the art lesson.

  3. More than anything, Japanese schools honor and re-enforce the group over the individual. The foundation of Japanese society has always been the group, whether it’s the family or the school or the workplace, and it’s reflected in cultural activities and in the language. You’re either in the group or out, your place determines how you interact with others. It’s the reason their society works like it does, and the reason foreigners love visiting there – the cleanliness, the politeness, the helpfulness, the order. Does it work for everyone in Japan? Definitely not, but it works for most. These days there are thankfully many options for students who do not “fit” into the public schools (like our grandson), such as international schools, or Catholic schools.

    I love that students clean their schools and learn at an early age. It’s unimaginable here, but it instills a level of respect for the school that we don’t have here. Same for serving other students their lunch – such a simple way to teach respect for others.

    Japanese schools have some serious ongoing issues that aren’t well-addressed, IMO (bullying and disabilities to name two big ones) but on they work for Japan and Japanese society.

    • Yes to the reason why foreigners like to visit – a structured, well-run society. And that’s why you can’t take bits to another country. It works for most, because they’ve grown up with it. Cleaning the school without all the other long lessons and without parents stomping their feet for their darling to get their way and making your own decisions etc etc etc. It’s like seeing people at night, with no traffic in sight, waiting for the green walk signal.

      Such an interesting topic for sustained discussion which can’t be done via blog chat. Wish we could talk. Would love to talk about this and how your grandsons combines the two polar opposites. American individualism with Japanese group think. Both have strengths and problems.

      • One thing I have found interesting is that in spite of being such an ordered, group-focused society, Japan still produces amazingly creative writers, artists, entertainers, musicians, and so forth, which often clashes with Western notions of freedom and creativity. Their society seems very rigid and rule-bound, and yet it’s more malleable than we might think. I believe their creative freedom doesn’t often fit within our Western constructs.

      • That is part of the issue. We have constructs that are hard to think beyond. Our constructs of perceived reality limit our thinking and critiquing.

  4. The Favourite Youngest son is studying Japanese at school (yes, the Year nine one. No, no arguments about Japanese). He has the opportunity to go to Japan in Year 11 (I think?) if he keeps going with it. I think they let the odd parent come along to help supervise. I am an odd parent…

  5. Arrrgh! I missed that you started blogging this trip!! Oh gosh – I have to go and read all of these posts immediately! Very excited to see this!

  6. How interesting, to see these cultural differences. It’s the same with the no-snacking cultural value in France: Australia could learn a lot from this.

    I love the bikes and walking. Again, it could happen. Australia has become far too wrapped in cotton wool. I’m assuming the Japanese kids are biking and walking even in urban areas, with busy traffic like our cities?

    The school cleaning – remarkably – happens at my school. They do “campus duties” morning and night. I’m a huge fan. It teaches them real-world skills, service, motor skills even. Kindness.

    • Yep, they are biking and walking in the urban area. We are too cotton-wool wrapping and too quick to blame and look for fault. Wide footpaths help.

      Cleaning is easier without snacking and all the rubbish it brings, with indoor eating while sitting at desk, and with no outdoor shoes biking dirt inside. Cockatoos at my school would starve!

  7. It’s so interesting to see how schools work in other countries. I think it’s a great way to teach respect by getting the kids to take part in cleaning the school and the way they wait for everyone before starting to eat. I often think it’d be great to include things like this in the British culture, but as you say, we can’t just bring in bits of a culture.

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