Elementary School in Japan
If you are living in Japan with school age children, the issue of school where to send your children is a large issue. Let's look at elementary school options.
The educational system - what is studied, the school calendar, class size, etc. will be different from what most foreign parents have experienced.
For expats and those with the financial means, international school is an option in some Japanese cities. Particularly, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe have a wide selection of schools, in several languages (English, German, French, and Korean though this is mainly for Japanese-Koreans).
Other cities have fewer options. Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Sendai, and Sapporo all have at least one school, generally in English. Kyoto has one English-language school, and one French-language school.
For those who prefer the local public school, what to expect?
From an American perspective, Japanese elementary school plays a much larger role in the life of the family and the community. The six years - first grade to sixth grade - will be an eye opener and an entree into your community.
Japanese School Year
First, the school year is much longer. Instead of roughly 180 school days a year that is typical in the US, in Japan 220-230 is the norm. Vacations are therefore shorter. The summer holiday runs from roughly July 20 August 25 and is the longest break.
The school calendar is also different. In Japan, the school year starts at the beginning of April and ends in late March. Aside from Golden Week, in May, the first break is the aforementioned summer holiday, which starts around July 20.
Students return to school in the last week of August. There is a short break at the end of the first semester in October and then the second semester begins. There will be ten days off at the end of the year and for the first few days of the new year.
In addition, Japan has quite a few national holidays with many coming in early May, the Golden Week break and then again in September.
The elementary school day begins with the walk together with other children from your neighborhood to school. Your child will be assigned to a group, based on where you live. That group has a pre-set meeting place and a daily meeting time. You have to get Junior to that spot by, for example, 7:52 am. At that time, the children walk in their group to the school.
When they get to school, the children dump their backpack a bulky item they use for six years called a "randosell" and anything else at their desk and then go outside to play for a bit before the first period begins.
In the first few years, school ends at three. By the fourth grade, there is a sixth period, which means the day ends at four o'clock.
Most classes have around 35 students. Teaching is a mix of teacher-centered formal and very casual. Lots of group projects.
After School Program
For the first three years, there are after school activities that last until 6 pm. This is only for children in homes in which both parents work.
The children eat in the classroom, not in a cafeteria. They take turns serving each other, in a rotation system. When their turn comes, Junior needs to have the mask, cap, and white smock to wear when he is serving.
Compared to many schools in other countries, Japanese schools are quite spartan. The buildings are concrete and unattractive. Heating and cooling is often courtesy of individual space heaters and fans. There is usually no central heating.
That means the gym is boiling in the summer, quite cold in winter.
The halls are beat up, and badly maintained. The children clean up the halls and toilets and classrooms.
You will have to buy the pre-approved backpack; shorts and a shirt for gym; sew a name tag on the gym shirt; prepare a cotton lunch bag that contains: chop sticks and a hanky.
You will be given a full list that includes in addition to the items above pencils, notebooks, etc.
Public elementary schools do not use uniforms.
School Visiting Days
There are class observation days throughout the year, and two or three times a year on Sundays for working parents.
Often after these class observations, there will be a parent-teacher meeting. You will be asked to introduce yourself, and discuss the issues your child is having.
Most schools have their annual festival in the fall (pictured above). This is a highly organized event that takes weeks to prepare for. It involves races, performances, and is scored. The children are divided into several teams (red, blue, white). It is one of the major events on the annual calendar.
Japanese. Unless someone at the school can speak a bit of English, you will have to get up to speed. (Some parents come to rely on their child, though it is best if you have an idea of what is going on.) If you progress along with your child as s/he moves up through the grades, you should be able to keep up.
English as a subject is now offered once a month or so. It is mainly games. The Ministry of Education is threatening to make it a required class in the near future.
You will have a fair amount of contact with the main teacher. Teachers send home messages in a "communication notebook." You will see them at the class observations. Last, twice a year the teacher will come to your home to talk about your child with you.
In the six years your child attends elementary school, you will have to serve on one committee. If you are not a native speaker of Japanese, you will probably get out of PTA duty.
When the children are small, they will have outings (ensoku) several times a year. On those days, you have to prepare a lunch.
When the children get into the fourth grade, they will take over night trips, some lasting as long as 4-5 nights.
The only fee, aside from what you pay in taxes, is the roughly 4,000 yen/month for lunch. You will have to set up an automatic bank wire payment at a local bank. You cannot choose the bank, which means that if you do not have an account there you will have to open an account at that bank for this purpose.
The above amount is less in the first few years, more as the children get older.
Japanese elementary school will make you a part of your community. Your child will make friends with children close by. Bullying exists but is not nearly the problem it was in the past (schools and parents and teachers are hyper-vigilant about this).
Elementary education in Japan emphasizes language (Japanese), math, play, and group projects.
It is time intensive, for both children and parents.
Don't be put off by the buildings and school yard (no grass).
Note: There is some variation among schools, so not all of the above is 100% accurate for every school.