Life in a Japanese School

By Maiko Covington

The Subjects We Study
Date: Wed, 6 Mar 1991 19:33:30 GMT

Hello, once again. Taking into account responses I have received on the subject, I have decided to post some more on the net. Again, for all readers on rec.arts.anime, I realize this doesn't really have much to do with anime, but I thought that you might be able to gain some insight into the world the characters live in by reading articles such as these. Also, keep in mind that I have no training whatsoever in sociology or related fields, and hence all comments printed here are strictly my own observations.

The Subjects We Study
In Japanese school, most of the classes you take are not of your own choice. Everyone is pretty much expected to take the same classes, and these are nationally standardized. The exceptions to this rule are:
(1) In high school students are generally split into two groups - those planning on studying math and science in university (or if not going to university, planning to get a job related with these fields), and those similarly interested in the humanities. The two groups are not split until the last year or so of high school, when the sciences group takes more science classes, and the humanities group is expected to take more Japanese, ancient Japanese, and writing classes instead.
(2) There are a few classes which are designated as electives, and you get to pick those from grade one. Among these choices are: whether to take Japanese history or world history, whether to take calligraphy, art, or music for the "arts" requirement.
(3) In the third year of high school you get to pick a few of your classes. This partially ties in with (1).

For instance, after you have taken biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science, the science stream students get to pick which science they would like to spend their last year studying. Similarly, the humanities people (or really anyone, I suppose) can choose to take either advanced Chinese ancient poetry or advanced ancient Japanese writings. Note that students are divided into classes partly on the basis of these choices, as I mentioned in Part I in middle school, you do not get to choose your classes.

The subjects we take in high school are pretty much as follows: Modern Japanese, Ancient Japanese (and ancient Chinese poetry like the Rongo by Kousi <= Lun4 Yu3>), history (either world history or Japanese history), ethics, writing, math, physics, earth science, chemistry, biology, home economics (where you learn all about nutrition - ew..), P.E. (this is required all 3 years), health, art, English, English composition, English reading, government/economics, and maybe that is about it.

Of course we don't take these all at the same time. Generally you take from between ten to fourteen classes at one time. This sounds horrendous, but keep in mind that up to 3 of them are P.E. and you are also taking art, health, and home economics, which aren't too taxing. Also - perhaps this is the most important part - you don't have all of your classes every day. The schedule rotates throughout the week, and in every classroom you enter you will find a schedule taped to the wall, in most cases decorated with cute little drawing of anime characters. Because of this, even though Japanese school is six days a week (Saturday is a half day, though) and summer vacation is shorter, the actual ammount of time you spend in any one class probably is not much different from the time you spend on it in the United States. (All those people writing the newspaper articles on how much more time the Japanese spend studying their subjects in school don't know what they are talking about.)

About the level of the classes - high school is not required education (that's why you have to take an exam to get in), so different high schools have different levels. The public schools are at a quite high level, and then there are private schools at levels both above and below this. Basically though, everyone is required to take math for 4 years, and so like when I came here I got to go directly into Math 2C. I really don't know about the level of American school, but... When they do all those comparisons between American and Japanese public schools and say how their kids do so much better than American ones, though, often they forget that the Japanese public schools do not necessarily reflect the average students. The level of most school is pretty high, though. They just expect everyone to study hard, and if you don't, you just don't graduate. That is that.

P.E. Class
This is probably of interest to the anime fans, as it is a scene shown often enough in high school anime. Basically, there are changing rooms, and you have to wear a uniform for P.E. There are 2: For girls, you wear some sort of white shirt with your name sewn on, and then (eww.. I hate these) these little pants called "bloomers". What they are are thick polyester/cotton briefs that might as well be underwear for their size. They are in a contrasting color (mine were dark blue). Then, you wear your school socks and school-bought gym shoes. The boys dress pretty much the same except they get to wear regular shorts. Both boys and girls wear warm up suits when it gets cold, again with your name on it.

One thing peculiar to Japan I think is the hatimaki. This is a ribbon/headband that you tie around your head (like those ones you see in hoky ninja movies that say "Banzai" on 'em). These are plain, though. One side is red and the other is white. This is so when you split up into teams, the two teams can tie their hatimaki opposite so you can tell them apart.

Two other things I forgot to mention that have some bearing here:
(1) In Japan you don't get to decide whether to wear the summer uniform or winter one just by if you are cold or not. Oh, no. There is a day called "koromo-gae" (changing of the clothes) where everyone in Japan changes from winter to summer uniform or vice versa. The days are in October and June, and on that day EVERYONE (oops) changes uniform on the same day. If you just changed to winter uniform and then it gets really hot in late October for some reason, too bad. We used to not like changing to summer uniform in P.E. 'cause it meant you had to wear those bloomers. No matter how thin you are, those bloomers will make you look like you have thunder thighs.
(2) When you enter school building in Japan, you have to change your shoes, just like when you enter a house. At the front entrance to the school is a HUGE genkan with rows upon rows of little cubbies. You go to your cubby and switch your outside sneakers for "uwabaki" or "inside shoes", which are bought at school and generally are some form of slip on soft-soled sneaker. Often (as in my school) different grades are distinguished by different color rubber toes or stripes on the uwabaki. The background color is always white. (Mine were white with blue rubber toes.) Well, these shoes are different from the gym shoes, but some people would wear their gym shoes to class and their uwabaki to gym, which could get you in trouble for being out of uniform, but everyone did it anyway. (P.E. you have gym shoes for the gym, and more for outside ne.) Also everybody used to draw all over their uwabaki (they're cotton) with magic markers, and write their name on it.

The Inside of the Classroom
The inside of the classroom is basically the same layout no matter which school you go to. In the front of the room is a blackboard (usually black), desks are lined up in rows facing the blackboard, and there are windows one one side of the room and the sliding doors to the hallway on the other side. In front of the blackboard is a raised part of the floor (or else a low wooden platform) where the teacher stands to lecture. The teacher would also have a small table or podium to keep his stuff. Teachers too have to change their shoes but they get to wear slippers of any kind they want. In the back of the room are the unlockable lockers, which I mentioned in part I, and there might be hooks for umbrellas or coats or some such.

What really makes the room different, though, is the fact that since students don't change rooms and are in the same classroom all day long (see part I) the room is full of stuff owned by the students like bags, games, etc. and the walls are covered with student-made props and posters for events and such. It is really kinda personalized. We had the posters we made for bunkasai (I will write about that later) and also other stuff, plus the schedule. In every room is also a small bulletin board (oops) where is posted "kongetu no mokuhyou" (this month's goal). Also every room has a closet full of cleaning supplies. A lot of people bring zabuton and tie it to their chair. Some people just sit on the padded hoods we make in case of an earthquake (interesting note: these hoods are the same kind they had in World War II in case of an air raid). I did this. Basically though, when you go into a room or look at people's desk it is really personalized; you can tell who occupies it.

I will be back soon to write some more stuff, this afternoon. Please wait for it then. Please excuse the bad writing, and thank you for reading this post.

Maiko Covington (

 <<Previous Page || Next Page>>

Additional Info:
Life in A Japanese School By Maiko Covington.
Her text has remained true to her original posting. The overall title of this section was chosen to best represent her articles rather than "My High School Days" as originally titled by Maiko-san. Her articles were originally posted and may be found here: My High School Days. You may reach her at the this email: as email in article is old and defunct.

She has been asked if she will write some more of these and her answer is, "The answer to that question is, not likely in the near future. The events in those posts occurred more than 10 years ago now, and I honestly don't think I could get myself into the same frame of mind."

Home - Books - Materials - Back to Top