Junior High School in Japan - A Primer for Parents 中学校
Joanne G. Yoshida
I got lucky.
A seat at the PTA just behind the first-year students.My daughter was seated in the last row, so I got to see her up close.
Since she entered junior high this is a rare position for me. I am reminded of that well-known universal equation - junior high equals: a period of life when the greater the distance between oneself and one's family members, the better.Even getting a photo of my daughter at her first Jr. High School sports day was tough.When I tried to get a photo of her with her class under the tents, she evaded my lens at every turn and I began to feel more like a paparazzi than a parent.
While I am still trying to catch up with the experience myself, I looked for various ways to enter writing this article on junior high in Japan. I wanted to convey something to you that could be useful for parents who have or plan to have children attend junior high school in Japan.
Unexpectedly, it was at a lecture at the PTA at my daughter's school that gave me a way in. The lecturer spoke about universal themes relating to becoming a teenager, but as they were presented in the context of the Japanese school system it was just what I needed to hear.
As I transcribed his talk into English sentences in my notebook I decided to use the pages as a base for the article, and to share them with you in the hope that some readers navigating this same terrain might be glad to stumble upon it too.
In Part One I will present my annotated notes with some Japanese words that might be useful to know during your stay in Japan through the middle school years. In Part Two I will talk a little about some of the particulars of the Japan school system including after school club and the uniform.
1. 思春期 Shi-shun-ki Puberty
The theme of the lecture was "How to meet Puberty". The title was written on a transperency projected on a large screen as: 思春期」とのつき合う方.
Shi-shun-ki is the pronunciation of the Japanese word for "puberty".The word is made up of three Japanese characters:
Shi, 思 "thought"＋ Shun, 春 "spring" (this connotation of spring is also used in the word that means "youth", sei-shun 青春）＋and Ki, 期 "period" (as in time period).
The guest speaker was a psychology professor from a local university. "Listen well," he began.
First he asked who thinks they are in puberty. A few boys raise their hands. Who thinks they have already finished? Not a hand goes up. He also asked, "Who knows when puberty starts?". Kids answers included the specific point such as "fifth or sixth grade" and "when you get a boyfriend". A parent said "when they are rebellious".Which brings me to the second word.
2.反抗期 Han-ko-ki Rebellious
In Japanese, han-ko-ki refers to this period where children begin to speak back to adults, to claim their independence, and to just plain "rebel". Meanwhile, the lecturer tells us the best answer to his question of when does one enter puberty:
If you think it's puberty, then it's puberty. Every person is different.
He changed the transparency on the overhead projector to explain that characteristics of this time period include both physical changes and emotional changes.Up to now, the body is that of a child.From the onset of puberty, the body becomes able to make a child.I found this clear definition useful and well presented to the students who were completely silent as they listened on.
For girls, there is sei-ri (生理）, for boys, sei-tsu (精通）- menstrual period and first ejaculation respectively. Puberty is a preparation time for becoming an adult. It is fraught with worry about how their bodies will change.
I watch my daughter's feet moving nervously and a little excitedly in her chair. The cute line of her cheek in profile is still to me the little girl's cheek. I wonder, will her profile become more angular, or maybe it will always be a little round.She picks up her toes and I see her sitting closer on the edge of her seat.
Who will I become?
3.悩み Nayami Worry
The lecturer spells out the "worries". As the body changes "I" become concerned and compare myself with those around me.A gap is formed between the real me and the "ideal".If we always compare ourselves to those around us, we put ourselves down and begin to dislike the picture we see of ourselves. The ideal is very high at this stage, and by setting such a high ideal, there is a gap and this gap is what produces the "worry" or in Japanese, nayami. It makes oneself look tiny, and one can't live up to this ideal.
This makes it a tough period. It also contributes to the rebelliousness because kids have this high ideal of who they are but learn that it's impossible to actually 'be' that. Thoughts form such as "Why can't I do this even though I am so adult?"
The good news is this high ideal does not last forever.
What happens is, the school helps the process as kids begin to make new friends, and are encouraged to join after school clubs (see Part 2, #2, Bukatsu) where they form relationships with second and third year students. They become accustomed to their place in the ranks of the school structure where the older students become role models to look up to and learn from.
4. 先輩／後輩 Senpai/Kohai Senior/Junior Rank Relationship
The older students are referred to as senpai. This designation means the ones who come before in a social structure, and the term is also used in society and the workplace for people in senior positions or "higher-ups". The term goes along with a code of behavior and respect for the ones who blaze the trail. The first year students are kohai, or younger students.
The second and third year students (senpai） will lead first year students (kohai) through the junior high experience. The lecturer explained this about the senpai/kohai experience: it becomes precious experience and is the way to realize that the 'ideal' is out of reach and to approach what is the 'real'.
Seeing oneself as 'small', 'low' changes and through relating with peers you rise in your own eyes towards 'real' and a sense of identity begins to emerge.Then you can graduate from puberty, begin to like one's self, and the rebelliousness begins to lessen.This period will most probably be all of junior high school plus the first part of high school, an estimated 3-4 years if all goes smoothly, we are told by the expert who has instilled in us already a great trust with his clear and easy to understand explanations.
Meanwhile, to parents - sit back and don't expect to be paid attention to during this period (you may remember it yourself from your own junior high school experience?). The next concept is:
5. 親離れ Oya-banare, 子離れ Ko-banare Separation from Family
Here is an important point, and one that I found helpful and perhaps can help you as well - this separation from family happens naturally. It is not really a 'problem'. Although it took me by complete surprise, I am now beginning to recover from the spin when my daughter entered Jr. High and seemingly all of a sudden wanted nothing more to do with me. If you have read some of my articles on this site, you can see how my daughter and I were practically inseparable since she was born. Well, not exactly, but we did everything together and in a sense she was my partner in navigating life in Japan for thirteen years. I was able to be naive and unknowing about things in her presence as I entered "Japan" from a child's point of view and almost grew up here along with her.
The pace of growing up of course was different. I am technically already grown up and was just 'growing in' to a new culture. She has by far surpassed me in language, cultural adaptability and socialization, as I came with another culture and she didn't. She was born into the culture, and progressed through each of it's stages naturally.
So here she is now, breaking away.Naturally.
The lecturer spells the next stage as clearly as the rest:
This separation is not in itself a problem.
The problem is: family.
It is natural for the distance from family to increase. His advice to parents:
As much as possible, let the kids go.
He acknowledged that the parents become a little lonely, but to become one's own person, the adolescent needs distance from family. If they don't , they remain in the shadow of parents and can't shine as oneself. This distance is needed in order to become oneself. Around high school, they will return. "Parents", he said again, "please be patient and wait. Of course, if something your kid does is glaringly bad, then say "bad" to guide them but that's about it. And, let your kids clean their own rooms. This way they can keep their privacy and you won't be tempted to look into their personal things and diaries etc.".
In summary, give them space. This can help in the han-ko-ki rebellious phase.
6. 素敵な人 Su-teki na hito Great Person!
In the process you the parents will also have time and space to pursue some things you might not have had a chance to do. After all, the lecturer continued, parents lives are 'hints' for the kids. He encouraged the kids too, even in their distance, not to 'escape' the family, but to listen, engage in conversation with family, and not to shut themselves up in their rooms. Make some family space, family time. Treasure it to become a su-teki na hito, great person, the best you can be!
Joanne G. Yoshida