After over 3 1/2 years as an elementary school teacher in Japan, I’ve had plenty of time to observe how Japanese schools operate and what their children get to enjoy. I often reflect back to my own time as a student in an American public elementary school and think, “Wow, I wish I had that when I was a kid.”
I thought about it even more today as I sat in on the first meeting of the Cooking Club. For one, having a cooking club was unheard of as far as I know. In fact, I don’t recall my school(s) ever having any clubs other than brass band and chorus. However, America is a very large country and thus each school operates differently. When it comes to Japan, I think it’s safe to guess that nearly all schools share the same things.
So here’s a list of just some of the things I wish I had when I was an elementary school student. If you know of and/or went to a school in America that has some of these things, I’d love to know!
1. Club Activities. As I just mentioned, all of the schools in the city where I work have club activities. Anyone who knows anything about Japanese schools know that middle schools and high schools have clubs in which students participate nearly every single day, even on Saturdays and when school isn’t in session!
But did you know that the elementary schools also have clubs? (At least in my city.) They’re definitely not everyday, and in fact they aren’t outside of school hours, either. My current school has club activities during the last week and first weeks of the month, for one 45-minute school period. My previous school has them once a month, for two periods. The club activities range from sports like volleyball and table tennis, to cooking and sewing, to music, and even a tea club (for those familiar with Japanese tea ceremony). At my previous school, my former English supervisor (who also plays guitar) had started a Rock Band Club, in which I participated during the time I was there (and even after I transferred schools)! The club members learned to play guitar, bass guitar, and drums, and since my supervisor is a fan of rock music from the 60s through the 80s, he often chose songs like Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” and “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin. As someone who had never listened to that kind of music until now, it was a great joy and a challenge to try to sing something new. We got to perform during an intermission for the Special Education school’s play and even ended up in the Kobe Newspaper (Kobe Shinbun) last year! And I actually just met with my supervisor a few nights ago at the city’s karaoke place and he asked me to participate in the club again as time and schedule allows. What a great experience!
Of course, the Rock Band Club is quite a unique club to any elementary school. Even so, there’s plenty of clubs in Japanese schools that I wish I had when I was a kid!
On the flipside, one thing I am glad we had was the opportunity to learn a “real” instrument in elementary school. Of course all instruments are real, but what I mean is that, if we were interested, we could learn the violin, flute, trumpet, clarinet, and many other “serious” instruments from as early as 4th grade. (I picked up the flute when I was in 4th grade, as did my older brother.)
Elementary schools here have some “real” instruments like xylophones, snare drums, and even accordions. They also have recorders and “pianicas,” but no serious instruments. So when I tell my co-workers and students that I learned flute from when I was just nine years old, they think it’s pretty amazing.
2. A functional and involved Student Council. Not to say that Student Council at my schools weren’t involved…but actually, I have no idea how much influence they had on the school, and what they even did. When I was in 3rd grade, I remember when we had elections for what I think may have been the first time we ever had a student council…? My school only went up to 5th grade, and it was 5th grade candidates who ran for president. 4th grade candidates ran for Vice President…I think there was a secretary too, and then 3rd graders were allowed to run for Historian, who was responsible for taking pictures…or something like that. When it came time to nominate candidates, I was unanimously selected in my class to run for Historian. I won the election pretty easily, thanks to the fact that 1) I was known for being a top student in my grade, and 2) my mom who has a talent for drawing made really awesome election posters, one with the Genie from Aladdin and another with Sonic the Hedgehog.
However, I only remember ever being at one meeting. I don’t think we really did anything, either…I’m not even sure.
At my current Japanese school, the Student Council consists of members from 4th grade through 6th grade, and there are various committees, such as the Broadcasting Committee, who does the broadcast for the morning, break times, lunch, and cleaning time; the Athletic Committee, the Health Committee that assists the school nurse, the Pet Care Committee, who is responsible for taking care of the school pets (this school has rabbits; I’ve been to schools who kept rabbits as well as chickens), as well as many other Committees who collectively help run the school. Perhaps it’s because I’m seeing this from the view of a teacher rather than as a student, but the Student Council is very much involved and is given a lot of responsibility for discussion and decision-making as the teachers simply supervise them. There definitely weren’t that many committees in Student Council when I was in school, as far as I know.
3. Student-served school lunch. Some people may know this already, but in Japanese elementary schools, there is no cafeteria where students gather and eat lunch served by lunch ladies. School lunch is prepared at a School Lunch Center (給食センター) and distributed to all of the elementary and middle schools in the city. When lunch time comes, the kids in charge of serving school lunch pick up the food and dishes for their class, take them to the classroom, and serve them themselves while wearing aprons, caps, and masks. The entire school eats at the same time. When lunch is over, the lunchtime group takes the containers and dishes back, and the trucks from the Center come to pick them up.
From what I remember as a child, most kids DID eat school lunch, and very few people brought their own lunch (I was one of those people). At Japanese elementary schools, pretty much no one brings their own lunch everyday; in the case that a child has an allergy to something in the day’s lunch, they might bring a bento. There’s also a few days during the year where school lunch isn’t served, so all of the students have bentos then as well. Also, in American schools, we did have alternate choices for school lunch. If I happened to be buying lunch on a certain day, if I didn’t like what was on the main menu I’d grab the salad instead (to this day I still love salads and eat them almost everyday). Needless to say, when we had pizza or chicken nuggets, sometimes I’d scrap up from my allowance just to get it, haha.
And I also recall each grade taking turns eating lunch in the cafeteria as well. Kindergarten went first, of course. But with there being only one lunch line, it’s unfortunate that kids who got to the cafeteria later would have to wait for so long. And they wouldn’t get to eat with their teachers, either. (Though I suppose from the busy teacher’s point of view, that’s the perfect break from their children.)
Non-homeroom teachers here usually eat in the staff room, but it’s common for ALTs like myself to eat with a different class each day. For the most part I enjoy it, but on days when I’m extremely hungry, it’s a task to have to wait until the kids finish serving everything. (And sometimes I also need a break from the kids.)
These are just three of the many things about Japanese elementary schools that I didn’t have and kinda wish existed in US schools. I’m not sure what the big-city schools are like in Japan, but at least in the countryside, things seem organized in a somewhat convenient way. Of course there must be some things that I don’t like, but I can’t recall those off the top of my head right now.