Musings about Japan and life as a human, a cosplayer, a minority, a music lover, an English teacher.

Category Archives: JET

3 Things about Japanese Schools that I Didn’t Have When I Was in Elementary School

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.


Stomachaches at Work – Part 2

(Click here for Part 1)

Soon after, the nurse came back and gave me a thermometer and told me to take my temperature as she went to get a plastic bowl in case I needed to throw up again. The thermometer read 34.9℃, but being used to Fahrenheit, I didn’t know if that was low or high. I tried to remember the formula to convert it…the temperature multiplied by 9/5…but I couldn’t remember what was after that.* So I waited for the nurse to come back so I could tell her, and she exclaimed, “That’s low!” She asked if I needed to go to the hospital, and that the principal and vice principal said it was okay if I did. I refused though, since I knew I didn’t have a fever and I wasn’t throwing up anymore. I just wanted to go home and rest.

I continued to lay there, but my stomachache still felt uncomfortable. I knew then that laying down was actually not helping my stomachache at all. After the bell marking the end of 6th period rang, I got up and told the nurse that I needed to go to the bathroom.
To put it bluntly, I felt constipated. Sounds like an embarrassing issue, but it happens to everyone, right? No big deal. I sat there, feeling like I needed to go to the bathroom, but nothing was happening. My stomach still hurt, and these episodes of sharp pain happened about three times before something happened. As I sat there, my legs were shaking and my face felt extremely cold, as if all the blood had drained from it. After previously learning about how digestion works (it can take up to 24 hours for food you eat to pass through your body), I knew it wasn’t the school lunch that made me sick; I narrowed it down to the biggest meal I had before that, which was the curry rice I had for dinner Sunday evening. I ate it pretty fast, and before that I had scarfed down a bag of 7 small raisin bread rolls that I bought that morning. It was just too much for my stomach to take.

After about 20 or so minutes in the bathroom, I managed to go back to the staff room and prepare to go home. I told the homeroom teacher whose class I was teaching that there was no way I could ride my bike back home, so another teacher offered to take me home and pick me up the next morning if I was feeling better. I took her up on her offer, and while in the car she asked how I was feeling, the timeline of when everything was happening, and she commended me on trying to teach even when I wasn’t feeling well but that I shouldn’t overdo it.

After getting home, I went to the bathroom again and then went to bed. I couldn’t fall asleep very easily, so I messed around on the computer and checked for the symptoms I had, and then tried to go to sleep under my warm electric blankets. I woke up about two hours later, feeling hungry but not sure what was okay to eat, or if it was even okay to eat at all. I felt dehydrated after vomiting though, so I drank some Aquarius (sports drink) and then made some miso soup and tofu. I was sorely disappointed that the freshly cooked rice I had in my rice cooker was going to have to sit there, and that the cream stew I planned to cook that evening would have to wait, as I didn’t get to bring home the carton of milk from school that I needed. All of my after-work plans were postponed–I couldn’t go to the post office to mail a package, I couldn’t go to the ATM, I couldn’t go to the BOE to sign my re-contracting form…everything had to be put on hold.

I decided to just take it easy and play Star Ocean: The Last Hope until about 10:30pm, which is the time I felt it was best to go to sleep. I normally go to bed around 11:30 and get up between 7:00 and 7:30. But the teacher who took me home said she’d call around 7:30 the next morning to see if I could go to work, so just in case I had to wake up earlier than usual.

I wasn’t sure if I still wasn’t feeling well or if I was hungry, but I needed to eat something if I was going to go to work, so I had half of an apple and a slice of bread. I also took two packs of dried seaweed to snack on if I needed to.

And so now I’m at work. Half of me is wondering if I should have stayed home. Hopefully I made the right choice. The principal said that I could go home early if I’m still not feeling well, so I might do that.

*The formula to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit is (temperature in ℃) x 9/5 + 32. So my temperature was approx. 94.9℃, which definitely isn’t a fever.

Stomachaches at Work – Part 1

I wasn’t at all prepared for what would happen yesterday.

As far as I was aware, it was a Monday like any other. It’s certainly not my favorite day of the week–not necessarily because it’s Monday, but because it’s the day that I teach the 6th graders. They’re in that “We’re too good for English” phase which makes teaching them a little more challenging. Even though they enjoy the games, I feel like most of them haven’t warmed up to me compared to the younger kids.

So today I wanted to be a little more energetic. Sure, they might’ve thought that I was weirder than they already think I am, but I didn’t care. Anything that would make them be more alert and responsive.

The first three classes went well. The kids had fun and I was glad. By the end of my third class–which was after lunch–I wasn’t feeling very good.

I occasionally have stomach problems at work, after lunchtime. It would be a sharp pain in my stomach, and I’d end up in the bathroom for at least 10 minutes, if my class schedule allowed. I tried to counter it by eating more slowly, chewing my food more, and occasionally skipping the carton of milk that’s served to us every single day (because I thought it may be related to lactose intolerance).

After I started doing that, the stomachaches occurred less frequently. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t.

And then there was yesterday. It was a normal school Japanese school lunch, not one that I hadn’t eaten before: white rice, steamed broccoli and crab meat, and a stew of beef, konyaku, quail eggs, and other things (I know it sounds strange, but it really is a typical menu here).

I noticed discomfort almost immediately after I finished eating, but I figured that the pain would go away if I just focused on class. But near the end of 5th period, my stomach was hurting, and as soon as we finished I left and dashed to the staff room to put my stuff down before rushing to the bathroom.

I could only stay in there for 10 minutes though, because I had my last class for 6th period. Once again, I told myself that if I just ignored my stomach pain, maybe it’ll go away.

It didn’t.

We weren’t even halfway through the class when I started feeling really hot, as if I had a fever. My face felt weak but I tried as best as I could to hide it. I rushed our pronunciation practice, told them to practice on their own, and then told their teacher that I wasn’t feeling well. She rushed me out of the room and I ran to the nearby sink and leaned over it because I knew what was coming–I threw up.

Despite that, I wanted to continue class, but I knew the teacher wouldn’t let me even if I asked. I went to the health room, told the nurse what happened, and she led me to a bed and told me to lay down. As I lay there, I wondered what that 6th grade class must’ve been thinking, and what their teacher might have told them to do. I felt bad that they couldn’t play the game I had planned for them. I was blaming myself for causing such a burden, and blaming myself for these continuous stomach problems.

(Click here for Part 2)

School Uniforms

After today’s Rock Band Club rehearsal, The supervisor for the club–who happens to be my English supervisor–laid out the rehearsal details for the club’s performance this Saturday. Everything sounded good to our drummer, a 6th grade girl, except for one thing…

5th grade girl: 先生、私服着ていいですか? (Sensei, can we wear regular clothes for the performance?)
Supervisor: そうね…学校のイベントなので、制服を着てください。(About that…this is considered a school event, so please wear your uniforms.)
5th grade girl: えええええ?!じゃ、行きません!(What?!?! Okay, I’m not going!)
Me: (クスクスクス) (*snickering*)
Supervisor: まぁ、それもいいけど… (Well, that’s fine too, but…)
5th grade girl: センセイ!!! (*whining* SENSEI!)
Me: *raises hand* 先生、私、私服でいいですか? (Sensei, can I wear regular clothes?)
Supervisor: *nods* いいですよ。(That’s fine.)
5th grade girl: もう!!! いじめ!(Enough!!! Stop making fun of me!)

My Favorite.

Last week, I continued a lesson with my “good” 6th grade class at my smaller school on “favorites.” I taught them the expression “My favorite _____ is _____.” and used colors, subjects, and TV shows as examples, and then asked them, “What’s your favorite school memory?”

The kids all said things like the 6th grade school trip, or their week-long “camping” trip in 5th grade, or their visit to the middle school they’d be attending in April. After they all answered, I asked their teacher what his favorite school memory was.

“Hmm…my favorite school memory is…kyuushoku.”

School lunch.

I burst out laughing and the kids all went “EHHHHHHHHH?!?!?!” He defended himself, saying, “I look forward to it when I’m hungry!!! And it’s delicious, right?”

He’s right about that. Our school lunches are pretty good.


At the school marathon today, I sat down with the 4th graders when three of the girls asked me if I was going to run as well.

4th grade girls: 先生、走る?
Me: No. (I still wasn’t feeling too well after the past few days)
4th grade girls: 走って!走って!
Me: Ehh…
One girl: …*face lights up*…ranningu!
Me: *laughing hysterically* Okay!
All three: YAY!!!

They all outran me, by the way. I thought I was gonna collapse before I even got back.

Talks with Students

Yesterday I ate lunch with the 3rd graders at my smaller school. When I came in, the students were particularly excited to see me, and a representative from each group joined in a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to determine which group I would sit with. Once that was decided, it turned out that I actually ended up sitting with another group because a kid from there was absent that day, thus leaving a desk open.

Somewhere along the way, one of the boys whom I think was part of the winning group got left out when they turned their desks to make a cluster. To make matters worse, it also happened to be his birthday, and the girl in charge of leading the pre-meal blessing (“Itadakimasu!”) forgot to tell everyone to do a cheers with their milk cartons and wish him a happy birthday, which we ended up doing only after the teacher reminded her.

So this boy was pretty upset. He faced the back of the classroom, away from his lunch, and wouldn’t talk or respond to anyone. Everyone started eating, having given up on him, so about a 1/3 of the way through my lunch, I got up and walked over to him, and started asking what was wrong, how old he turned today, and telling him that his food would get cold if he didn’t eat it. Then his teacher asked something to the class (I couldn’t hear what she said) and some of the kids started raising their hands, which at least made him turn around. I told him one last time to eat, and then went back to my seat.

But instead of sitting back down, I stood up in front of everyone and said, “Hey, let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday’. You know that song, right? One, two, three!” and then we all started singing “Happy Birthday” to him, which made him smile as he finally started eating.

As I sat down, the teacher thanked me and the boy I was sitting next to patted me on the shoulder and said (in Japanese), “That was really nice.”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of what I did. Normally I don’t do too much when a kid is mad or crying, because I don’t want to baby them. But seeing that it was his birthday, there was no way I could’ve left him alone. It made me realize that ALTs shouldn’t be afraid to step in when they see something going on. I’ll think about that if a similar situation ever happens again.

“I love you”

My students are writing Christmas letters to their loved ones. Thus, I instructed them to sign their letter, “Love, (their name).”

A conversation with a favorite 6th grader of mine (yes I do have favorites) was as follows:

Him: (in regards to the letter) Sensei, “‘Love’?”
Me: Yes, “love.”
Him: LOVE??
Me: Yes, “love.” Like, “I love you.”
Him: *stare* …I love you.
Me: *stares back* I love you.
Him: I love you?
Female classmate: (In Japanese) She said “Aishiteru.”
Him: O_O NO!
Me: No?
Him: I don’t like…you.
Me: *feigns disappointment*

Nice to know my kids have come to love me as their English teacher.

This year’s concerns.

Starting in September, I’ll be teaching a whole new bunch of children.

I guess being away from teaching and from students for a month and half has made me less sad over leaving my old schools (among other things), but what I will miss is the familiarity that I finally gained from being there for a year. It’s the life of a JET in Ono, as well as for many JETs throughout Japan. Some JETs are lucky (or unlucky) that they get to stay at designated schools for their entire time; their visits don’t change. As for me, I’ll be transferring to a different school (or schools) within the city every year. It’s a good and a bad thing, I guess.

My concerns for this year are small, but they are things that I need to get used to.

One is mode of transportation. Last year, I had to get used to riding a bike; in the rain, in the snow, in the wind, and in the scorching heat. This year, I have to take a bus. My schools are so far away that riding a bike would just be way too exhausting (though a previous teacher had done it before).

While taking a bus is nothing new to me, I was a little nervous about it at first since it wasn’t something I did a lot in Japan. The train was always the easiest mode of public transportation in Japan, and I never thought to take a taxi or ride a bus. But since I have to now, it’s something that I have to learn a little bit about. It’s not hard, really. Well, it’s not for me since I’ve lived here for sometime, and because the person who taught at my schools helped me get my bus card as well as told me the basics of which stops I need to get off, charging the card, and taking a receipt to the BOE so that they can reimburse me for the total expenses. I just calculated earlier today that my cost of commuting per month is around 17,000 yen, which is significant. Just a few days ago I went to Sannomiya and just put in 10,000 yen, just so I don’t have to worry about not having enough for the bus fare for a while.

Another concern–a much bigger one–is getting used to a new class procedure. The curriculum is generally the same, and most of the materials available are as well. But I’ve noticed slight changes in how classes seem to be run, and I’m sure that there must be a slightly different array of things that the students are familiar with. For example, at one of my schools I had a class of 4th graders who were super-familiar with three different picture books, while the classes at my other school had only read one of those three. I also didn’t have the 5th and 6th grade English textbooks at one of the schools until they just got them in April.

At one of my new schools, the 5th and 6th graders almost exclusively learn out of their textbooks. This makes planning lessons extremely easy, but at the same time I still have to figure out ways to make the class interesting. I also have to deal with these “point cards” that a lot of the classes are using…we didn’t have them at either of my old schools. Yet another thing I have to get used to.

Talking to my co-workers.
At my old schools, I rarely consulted with any of the teachers about class beforehand, unless it was something about whether the children needed colorpencils, or if class was going to be held in the library area instead of their classroom. Apparently at one of my schools, there are these “after-school meetings” with homeroom teachers of each grade. My supervisor said that, while they’re scheduled for just about every week, they really only occur maybe once or twice a month due to everyone being busy. While I do like that there is a schedule for consultation (which I think is a step in the right direction as far as “team-teaching”), it puts a little bit of pressure on me to have lessons and ideas planned in advance. But this shouldn’t be too difficult, I suppose.

I’m still in “summer slump” mode. The actual teaching part of my job is fine; it’s the lesson planning that’s kind of a pain. But once the school year starts, I’ll have to get into work mode whether I’m ready or not.

ESL Games: Calendar Party (Based on Mario Party)

No, it’s not exactly a party with chips and dip, dancing and Spin the Bottle (do people still play that? I’ve never even done it).

I’ve heard of making board games out of calendars, but I wanted to add some elements to it to make it more interesting. Calendar Party (I came up with that name on a whim) is loosely based off of Mario Party for Nintendo. I won’t explain how Mario Party works, but it’s basically a board game involving the roll of a die (or dice).

I did this game for the first time just this morning with my sixth graders. I would recommend trying this game out only after you’ve gauged the English ability of your target class

So here’s what I did:

1. I started with a blank calendar, with Sunday through Saturday written at the top:

With this you can use the calendar of any month and just write the dates in. I laminated it before putting in the dates so I can reuse it with dry-erase markers and change the calendar to a different month.

2. After your dates are in, you can make special spaces. I made plus and minus spaces that will allow players to advance or go back if they land on them. I also made a “Back to Start” space, which is usually assumed to be bad, except for in special cases (which I will explain later). Other spaces are quiz spaces. If a player lands on a quiz space, they have to answer an English-related question. I try to make them pretty simple since these are elementary school students we’re talking about, but you’re free to make the questions as easy or as difficult as you like.

3. In Mario Party, the #1 goal is to get as many stars as possible. There will be only one star on the board at a time, and the location will change every time a player/team reaches it. (In this case, I’ve decided to use an American penny, just to make the kids mesmerized before the game starts.)

So let’s say the first “star” is placed on the 31st. The rule is simple: Get to the star before someone else does. Players/Teams will take turns rolling the die and trying to advance to the star, running into plus/minus spaces and quiz spaces on the way. Once a player/team reaches the star, that counts as a point for them. This doesn’t mean the game is over (unless you’re short on time, then you can make it over). When the star is reached, a new star will appear on the board, but in a different location.

How do we decide where the new star will be? Randomize it. Write numbers 1-31 on cards, then put them all in a bag and pull one out without looking inside the bag. Whatever number that is, the new star will be in that space. It could be right in front of another player, beyond reach of everyone in a single die roll, behind a player…who knows.

4. Deciding who goes first. Players/teams will draw a number from the bag, and the order will go from the team with the highest number to the team with the lowest number. I considered the roll of a die or doing group Janken the way my students usually do, but that takes more time.

5. There’s one more rule, based on a previous version of Mario Party (Nintendo’s up to 8 so I don’t even remember which one it was): If a player/team advances and lands on a spot where another player is, those two have to battle it out! The easiest thing to do as a battle is to do Janken (Rock, Paper, Scissors).

So let’s say Orange is on the 13th of the calendar. Red is behind, but rolls and moves enough spaces to land in the same spot. Red and Orange now have to play Janken. The winner gets two choices:

“SWITCH”: Choose any player on the board and switch places with them.
“BACK”: The winner rolls the die, and the loser must move back the designated number of spaces.

There are some conditions to this “shared space” rule. If a player is on a plus/minus space and advances/moves back to the same spot where someone else is, there is no battle. That’s just to reduce the amount of times teams have to play Janken, which can really slow things down if it happens too often. Also, sharing a space as a result of switching/being switched does not count as a Janken battle.

6. So where’s the English? In the quiz spaces, which I mentioned before. Also, when each player/team advances spaces, I would encourage getting everyone to recite the English date names written in the calendar (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.). You can also replace the “shared space” Janken with a quick quiz question instead.

Those are pretty much the only rules I have for now. This game is very flexible, so you can add/remove/change all kinds of things for this game. It’s still very much in “beta” version, as I literally came up with this Mario Party thing about an hour before class (though I had been thinking of doing a board game since last week). When I come up with more ideas I’ll add them. Also, if you have any suggestions or questions, feel free to let me know!