Surely, there are many beautiful things about Japanese schools.
The identification and recognition of them depend on the observers and their cultural background and interests.
In this article, I would like to give emphasis on the seven things that I always consider impressive.
I could not contain my admiration that it drove me to share them here.
For Japanese people, these seven things are just common practices that are part of their routine.
But for a foreigner like me, they are simply beautiful and worth sharing to the world.
On my first day at school, I was almost late when I arrived at the door of my classroom.
I was expecting a rowdy class since they were in First Grade Junior High School (Grade 7).
But I did not hear any noise.
I thought that was strange.
When I entered the room, all of them were quiet with their eyes closed.
There were two students standing in front of the class.
It was so quiet and it was so unusual to me.
When the bell rang, the two students in front of the class said: `Please, open your eyes, please stand`.
Everyone stood up, we started the greetings and the class went on.
On the next period, it was the same scenario before the class started.
Then, I realized that it was part of their routine.
This routine practice is called “mokusou” in Japanese.
It may literally mean “silent contemplation” or “to be quiet and contemplate”.
The students can usually do silent contemplation when they close their eyes.
Hence, “mokuso” in Japanese schools means closing one`s eyes and contemplating quietly.
It has its roots in the ancient practices of meditation related to kung fu or Buddhist meditation.
In my opinion, this is a good habit since it helps not only the teachers to start the class easily, but also the students to dispose themselves to the process of learning.
A Japanese colleague shared one time that “mokusou” is really to help the students focus their attention to the new learnings that they are about to receive.
This is meant to clear the students’ minds from the previous subject’s worries and preoccupation.
Besides, in-between each class, the students become active playing around with their classmates.
This brief meditation therefore before each class helps the students calm down and concentrate on their studies.
Later on, I began to appreciate the wisdom behind this routine.
When the students do the mokusou, I also follow them and have my eyes rest for a minute.
I appreciate the silence that also helps me concentrate more on the job that I am doing.
2. Absence of cafeterias
It was never mentioned during our training and orientation days that Japanese schools have no canteens or cafeterias.
This was a bit disappointing for a foreigner like me who was used to taking some snacks between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner.
Hence, there is never a chance to eat some snacks during vacant periods.
It took me a few weeks to get used to it.
It also forced me to take breakfast seriously so that I would have enough energy until lunch time.
For Japanese people, eating in-between classes may disrupt the concentration of the students and/or teachers.
Besides, there is only a ten-minute break in-between each class in the morning and afternoon (except between the fourth and fifth periods with 70-minute break for lunch).
Thus, obviously, snack is hardly possible since each class starts two or three minutes before the scheduled time and ends two or three minutes after the scheduled times.
Indeed, snack time is not popular in Japanese schools.
For this reason, a student or teacher should really take a breakfast heavy enough to allow them to perform their tasks until lunch time.
As the days went on, I began to appreciate that snack times are not really necessary in Japanese schools due to the academic tasks that students and teachers need to do every single day.
They are so preoccupied with their school activities to take snack.
This can serve as an indicator of Japan’s strict academic discipline. Thus, it is not surprising to see how the majority of the students excel in their chosen field of interest, be it music, arts, sports, science, social studies, and so on.
The absence of cafeterias in Japanese schools has some practical implications.
Imagine the amount of money I could save every month.
I used to take snacks twice a day. The minimum average amount per snack is 200 to 300 yen.
There are at least 19 school days per calendar month.
Having said that, I save at least 7,600 to 11,400 yen per month.
This is also the same with the Japanese students and teachers.
They save certain amount of money.
Then, in terms of school facilities, the space that could have been used by cafeterias and dining areas are used for other purposes.
Moreover, the accumulation of garbage is significantly reduced compared to other country’s schools with cafeterias.
And since there are no canteens, students bring their bento (packed lunch) that they eat inside their classroom.
Schools prepare lunch for their students.
There is a special facility in each public school where lunches are prepared.
Lunch is served between 12:05 to 12:50 and students eat their lunch together in their respective classroom with their Homeroom Teacher.
The process of preparing and serving food is another amazing thing that I discuss below.
Seeing the students in their white apron, white hat, and white face mask as they carry some trays of plates and small bowls, and containers with food for lunch and trays with milk and other dessert like fruits, and serve their classmates their lunch, is really a new experience to me.
It is beautiful to behold how organized the kids are.
This beautiful scenario is `kyushoku` or Japanese school lunch time.
After the fourth period, which ends at 12:05 in elementary and 12:20 in JHS, some students (usually five to nine students) from each class wear their food-serving uniform (white apron and hat and face mask) and head to the school kitchen.
They get their class’ lunch including the plates and small bowls for soup, milk (which serves as their water), and dessert (sometimes fruits, sometimes sweets).
Then, they head back to their classrooms where they serve their classmates.
The chairs are usually arranged for a lunch table where students could enjoy their lunch while enjoying a good and fun conversation with each other.
The food are distributed equally.
After everyone has had his/her share, one or two students say “itadakimasu” (which literally means “I humbly receive”), and then the rest of the class responds “itadakimasu” with their hands clasped and bows slowly in front of the food.
Then lunch begins.
“Itadakimasu” in the meal setting may mean “Let’s eat!” or “Bon appetit” or “Thanks for the food” (and for all the sacrifices done just to have this meal).
As a gaijin (foreigner) and Christian, this phrase has already been included in my prayer or “grace before meal” since it also means thanksgiving for the blessing that is right in front of me.
It is also interesting to see the kids eating everything on their plate, even a single grain of rice.
I was once told by a friend not to leave even a single grain of rice on my plate when I eat.
Leaving nothing is a sign of great respect to Japanese culture.
Later I understood that Japanese has this saying: “Okowa hitotsubu hitotsubuniha shichinin no kami sama ga sundeiru” (which means “Seven gods live in one grain of rice”).
Hence, no single grain of rice should be left on the plate.
Kyushoku is well prepared and well planned by dietitians.
Before one o’clock, everyone should be done eating.
Then, again, one or two students stand up and say “gochisou samadeshita” which may literally mean “That was delicious” or “That was quite a feast”.
That phrase is a signal that lunch time is finished.
The students stand up and bring their plates and milk containers to the designated area.
The assigned students then bring the dishes to the kitchen.
The whole class brush their teeth and prepare for the fifth period that starts at 1:30pm.
I did not know the power of janken until I saw how it settles many things in Japanese schools, especially among the students.
Janken is the Japanese version of rock, scissors and paper (or bato-bato pik in the Philippines).
I have already seen many times both in the Philippines and in the USA how janken can make the class funnier and more engaging.
But it is only in Japan where I see how janken can settle many things among the students.
For instance, during lunch time, when there is an excess milk or fruit, the teacher asks the students if they still like extra milk or fruit.
Definitely, many students raise their hands.
To settle that, they stand up and gather at the center.
They do janken.
The winner gets the extra milk or fruit.
Surprisingly, the students accept their fate as decided by janken.
Janken is like an established rule that should be followed by everyone.
Hence, the students take this seriously whenever they play inside or outside the class.
Seiso is a Japanese word for `cleaning` or cleaning time.
Japanese students clearly understand that cleaning their classroom is their responsibility.
Hence, they make a conscious effort to keep their classroom clean.
They put their trash in the proper place.
They arrange their chairs properly.
They clean their boards (yes, the famous black board) after each class.
(But their board is amazing because there is a magnet. Flash cards and carts can be posted easily.)
They keep their bulletin boards clean and organized.
They arrange their books and bags neatly.
Although there are some helpers in some public schools, those helpers are limited to cleaning the hallway or the staff room or faculty room.
The absence of classroom janitors is the direct effect of Japanese culture of making the children clean their own classroom; and not the other way around.
A Japanese colleague shared one time that by cleaning at least their own classroom, students are taught to be responsible and independent.
Cleaning, according to him, teaches many good values to students like cleanliness, camaraderie, initiative, and being responsible.
The Japanese students are trained at their young age to have a sense of ownership of their own school so that they avoid behavior that could damage school properties.
School cleaning time develops a sense of harmony among the students.
This is actually preparing them to live a harmonious life in their society.
No wonder, harmony is such a sacred word for the Japanese people.
What makes this impressive to me is that despite Japan as a first world country, it still maintains its tradition to make their students clean their own classrooms.
In my home country, which is considered as a developing country, the students` duties of cleaning their classrooms are becoming big issues especially in private schools.
Hence, almost all the private schools in my home country have their own janitors or janitress who clean the students` classrooms.
In some public schools, this is also becoming an issue especially to those parents who do not want their kids to clean their classroom.
Another aspect that makes this point impressive to me is the way the students do their tasks in cleaning their classrooms.
They seem to be just playing around but they are mindful of their work.
Everyone contributes his/her own action towards the completion of the tasks.
Certainly, there are some students who tend to have divergent behaviors.
But the good thing about being within a group or a community is the pressure to conform to the majority`s actions of fulfilling their tasks.
Lei is a Japanese word used to command students to bow.
It is so heartwarming to be always respected.
One of the best things I like about my Japanese students is that their politeness is consistent.
Japanese students demonstrate respect not only to their teachers but also to their classmates.
Their respect to their teachers are shown in many different ways.
In my two Elementary schools, the students fetch their English teacher from the staff room.
They enjoy having a small talk with me while we are on our way to our classroom.
They also want to carry my stuff or other materials for my class.
They try to practice the little English they learned.
They ask simple things like: What is your favorite color? What fruit do you like? What sports do you play? What is your favorite subject? What animal do you like? Who is your favorite star?
For elementary students, being able to ask one complete sentence in English is such an achievement.
Being commended makes the students look up more on their teacher.
Inside the classroom, they are eager to assist their teacher in setting up flashcards on the board or setting up other materials and equipment like the big TV to be used in the class.
Everyone stands up, especially in high school, and greets the teacher with a bow before the class starts.
Everyone says the word `onegaishimasu` (literally translated as `please` but onegaishimasu means more than that).
After the class, the students stand up again and bid goodbye to their teacher.
When entering the staff room or the teachers` room, the students stop right at the door and say `[ohayou gozaimasu] shitsurei shimasu` (that could be translated in Tagalog as `Mawalang galang na po` or `forgive my intrusion` in English).
Then, after saying this phrase, the student can already proceed inside.
When leaving the staff room, the student stops again right at the door and says `shitsurei shimashita` or `arigatou gozaimashita`.
Their politeness is also demonstrated on their day-to-day relationships with their classmates.
Their sensitivity towards each other is also evident.
I remember one time during the crossfire game, I asked questions in English and they needed to respond in English too with the complete sentence.
I asked `who is the kindest person in this class?`
After a few seconds, no one raised a hand.
I thought they did not understand me.
I repeated the question.
Everyone was quiet.
That was unusual.
I looked at the JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) and asked: `Is the question difficult?`
The JTE smiled awkwardly and said: `Yes. Please change the question`.
I understood what she meant.
I was late to read between the lines.
I realized that they understood the question.
Hence, they were quiet because that question was really unusual to them.
They did not answer the question because answering that question means favoring only one person and setting the others aside.
Thus, in the next class`s crossfire game, I avoided questions like that.
Surely, there are also rowdy and restless students especially in the elementary schools, but the vast majority of the students demonstrate politeness in many impressive ways.
It is not a surprise then to experience Japanese society with gentle and sensitive people.
7. Rare tardiness
Japan is a time-conscious society.
Hence, being late is a mortal sin in Japan.
The rule of ten minutes is always observed.
The classes throughout the days have a 10-minute interval.
This is definitely not a time for students or teachers to take a quick snack (as I mentioned above).
Rather, it is a time for each class to have enough time to transition to the next class.
Students arrive at school at least ten minutes before eight o`clock.
The Kouchou Sensei (principal) conducts a meeting with the Kyoto Sensei (vice-principal), head teacher and with other few teachers; then, the Kyoto Sensei facilitates a 10-minute meeting with all the teachers in the staff room.
Then, the HRTs (Homeroom Teachers) have ten minutes to prepare and head to their classes.
During the school events (like the opening ceremony or closing ceremony), students should be ready at the venue 10 minutes before the event.
I observed this pattern in the JHS where I am teaching.
Ten minutes before 8:00 am, the students are in front of the school building waiting for and greeting the other students who are coming.
This is part of the routine not only to greet their fellow students but also to encourage them to come earlier and join the rest of the students in welcoming and greeting their fellow students.
This 10-minute rule has already become part of my habit.
Whenever I have an appointment or work, I always come ten minutes before the scheduled time.
For example, if my work starts at 8:00 am, I should arrive at school at 7:50 am.
If my appointment is at 9:30 am, I should arrive at 9:20 am.
Ten minutes before the scheduled time is the widely accepted `on time` in Japan.
If I arrive on time (like 8:00 am or 9:30 am), I am considered late.
Likewise, if the students arrive at school at 8:00 am, they are already considered late.
Japanese students are strictly trained to be punctual.
This punctuality is one of the biggest contributors to their being responsible citizens in their society.
This time-consciousness has a huge impact on the students` lives especially when their academic training is over.
I have been trying my best to be consistent with this 10-minute rule.
Unfortunately, many were the days when I was tardy rather than early.
I can even tell if I am already late or still early whenever I go to school early in the morning.
If I still see some students (most of them are my students) walking towards the school, I know I am still on time.
But if I hardly see students walking towards the school, I know I am already late.
Moreover, big clocks are almost all over the school facilities like hallways, classrooms, playground, gym, library, and so on.
In the classrooms for instance, there are two big wall clocks.
The one on the side is for the teacher, while the other one above the black board is for the students.
The students` clock is 2 or 3 minutes advanced.
In the staff room, there are three big wall clocks that are three or four minutes advanced.
These are some indicators that show how time-conscious the Japanese people are.
These also show how serious the students` training is as long as punctuality is concerned.
Those are the seven things that impress me here in Japan as far as schools are concerned.
If you think there are other things, kindly share them in the comment section.
We would be happy to learn more.