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

Category Archives: school

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!)

“Sensei, why are you single?”

Coming out of the restroom, I was greeted by some 3rd graders doing homework in the library area.

“Sensei, where’s your house?”
In Japan.
“Eh?! Not America?”
No! It would take more than half a day to get here!
“Ahhhh…so where do you live? Osaka?”
Here in Ono!
“Ahhhh…aren’t you married to XX-sensei?” (their previous teacher)
No, we’re just friends!
“Sensei, how old are your parents?”
Let’s see…my dad will be ___ this year, and my mom is ___.
“Ehhhhh…How do you know their ages?”
Eh?! Because it’s important!
“Really?? Why is it important?”
Because I love my parents!!!!!!

“Sensei, how old are you?”
I’m 23.
“Are you married?”
“Eh? Are you dating someone?”
“Eh?! You’re single?”
“Why are you single?”
HAHAHA! “Why?” Because single life is fun!
“Eh? Really? It’s not scary?”
*laughs* No, of course not!
“So Sensei, when you’re by yourself at home and you’re talking to yourself, do you talk in English or Japanese?”
*hysterical laughter* Actually, when I hurt myself, instead of “ouch” I say “イタッ” And when something is hot I say “アツッ.”
“Eh?!?! Wow!”

“Sensei, what type of guy do you like? Like someone from this school.”
Eh? I don’t like any male teachers here.
“No? Okay, what kind of guy do you like?”
Hm…someone who’s smart, fun, and handsome**.
“Handsome? *points at me* Handsome!”
No, I’m beautiful!
Eh?!?! *clutches chest* いたい…いたいよ…
I’m a beautiful person, aren’t I?
“You can’t say that about yourself!”
*falls over laughing*

Kids are hilarious.

*”イタッ” (ita–) and “アツッ” (atsu–) are shortened forms of “いたい” (itai) and”あつい” (atsui).
**The word I used for “handsome” was 男前 (otokomae), which means “handsome man.”


Let me tell you a story about a class of 6th graders at one of my current elementary schools.

When I first came to this school last August, I asked the former ALT how the students were, particularly the 6th graders. He said that class 6-1 was fine, but that class 6-2 was noisy and a pain to deal with. So I came here with pretty low expectations of both classes, but treated them as I would any other 6th grade class.

The former ALT’s words rang true for a week or two; 6-2 had a couple of rowdy kids, and 6-1 was quiet and not very cooperative…only the same few kids would raise their hands to answer something. And then, something changed. One week 6-2 came in, and their teacher got all of them to focus. When they got chatty and she told them to stop talking, they stopped. They’re still not my best class, but they pay attention and they try most of the time.

But the supposedly quiet 6-1 became a trouble class. Kids thought it was a good idea to start chatting while I was trying to teach. I still couldn’t get any of them to raise their hands, so I made a bundle of wooden chopsticks with attendance numbers written on them (in Japan the class roster is organized alphabetically and numbered, with the first student in the class given the number 1). Whenever I asked a question, I’d pull out a chopstick and call out the number, and that student would have to answer.

That still didn’t solve the talking problem though. The first time I sternly said, “urusai,” which means “noisy” but is used as a way to tell the class to be quiet. But week after week, I’d have to go through the same thing over and over.

Fast-forward to the past three weeks. The first week, when they talked I made a mark on the board and said that if I made 5 marks, I’d get the principal. They only got 3. The second week, I started at 3, and they managed to get through class with only 2. I admit, it was my lenience with them which is the reason why I didn’t have to go to the principal. I gave them so many chances because I didn’t want to simply stop teaching and have them fall behind the other class, and also because the cynical part of me really didn’t care whether they were learning or not, because it was their responsibility to pay attention, not mine. They aren’t a bunch of pre-schoolers anymore.

On Friday, I had planned to only give them one chance, and warn them of that at the start of class. But the problem with warning them early was that I didn’t want to start off on a bad note before they even did anything that day. So today I gave them 2 chances.

They squabbled the first chance. At one point I stared at a pair of girls for a good 20 seconds before they realized that I was looking at them to indicate that they needed to stop talking. A second time I singled out four students (two of them were the same two girls from before) and I told them to get out, but they didn’t move. I didn’t push it, and continued teaching after they stopped, but their homeroom teacher didn’t do anything either, which has been part of this long-standing problem.

Finally, about two thirds of the way through class, I tried to explain the next activity to them, but there was just too much chattering going on. They already had one strike against them. I turned to the board that had their strikes against them, erased the “1” and replaced it with a “2.” My heart was actually racing as I did it, and I kept thinking over and over, “I have to do this. I have to do this.” After writing the 2, some of the students didn’t even notice and kept talking. As they did, I just walked out of the classroom. Their homeroom teacher said nothing.

I walked down the hall to the staff room, thinking “I didn’t want to do this. I really didn’t.” (Of course, what teacher actually WANTS to discipline instead of teaching?) I knew the vice-principal wasn’t here, so I asked the secretary if the principal was here today. She told me to knock the door of his office. When I went to check, he wasn’t there. There was no way I could go back without a figure of authority, so I told her that he wasn’t in his office, and she went to go look for him after asking me why I needed to talk to him.

I saw the principal go straight to the English room, so I quickly followed behind him. I expected him to say something right away, but as I went in, he stood and looked over the class, then turned to me and told me to go ahead before he said anything.

The class was, needless to say, completely silent. I walked around to the front of the classroom, and said in English, “I shouldn’t have to do this.” I paused, pointed to the board where their strikes were written, and then said in Japanese, “5 times, 2 times, I shouldn’t have to tell you to be quiet even once, because you’re already 6th graders.” I continued in Japanese, telling them, “When I came to this school, I asked your last English teacher how the 6th graders were. He said 6-2 was noisy, but 6-1 was okay. It turns out it was the opposite.” I switched to English, pointed to the principal and said, “I shouldn’t have to get kocho-sensei to tell you to be quiet.”

I gave the floor to the principal, and he told the students who were talking to stand up. Of course with three teachers in the room, there was no lying about who was and wasn’t talking. He gave them a long lecture, without yelling or anything, and instead asked each student why they were talking, which embarrassed them as they mumbled quietly that they simply wanted to talk.

He lectured for a good ten minutes as I just stood there listening in kind of a state of surrealism. When he finished and gave the floor back to me, I quickly considered whether I should’ve said another thing or two about the situation, but instead I just pointed to the clock, explained that we had no more time, and that I wanted them to complete their activity for homework.

I concluded the class as usual, but before saying goodbye, I told them that I knew it wasn’t everyone talking, and that when the chatty students continue to talk, the others can’t concentrate and learn. I made them make a promise not to make me do this again. I don’t believe they’ll keep that promise, but hopefully they’ll prove me wrong.

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.