They say education is the foundation of society—and since Japanese and American societies are different in many ways, it may not surprise you that aspects of the two countries’ educational systems are like chalk and cheese. To find out just how different learning your ABCs (or あいうs) can be in the U.S. and Japan, study up on these nine things that are commonplace in Japanese public schools, but probably wouldn’t fly in America.
1. Dress Code
While only about 20 percent of public schools in the U.S. require uniforms, nearly all Japanese public school students suit up from junior high school on. The traditional uniform is a high-collared, black, military-style suit for boys and a beribboned sailor blouse and pleated skirt for girls (sorry ladies, there’s no pants option). These as-seen-in-anime styles are still the norm for middle school students, but the high school uniform is gradually being replaced by the tartan skirts and trousers with ties typical of Western parochial schools. Besides regulating clothing, shoes, and backpacks, many Japanese secondary schools impose strict bans on makeup, nail polish, hairstyles, and even eyebrow grooming that would make the average American teen wince. Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of Japanese school dress codes, though, is that until the 1990s, these mortifying buruma (bloomers) were the standard girls’ PE uniform.
2. No Janitors
You won’t find a janitor in any Japanese school. Instead, industrious students and teachers roll up their sleeves and spend a few minutes every day mopping the floors, clapping erasers, and even scrubbing the toilets. Which means that students wouldn’t dream of putting gum under their chair or doodling on the desks—‘cause they know they’ll just have to clean it up themselves.
3. No Substitutes
Leaving 30 teenagers unsupervised in a classroom would be the stuff of nightmares in an American high school, but that’s exactly what happens when a teacher calls in sick in Japan. Japanese secondary schools rarely use substitutes; instead, students are trusted to study quietly and independently.
4. The Sasumata
Even in a country as safe as Japan, schools have to prepare themselves for the possibility of a violent intruder. Enter the sasumata: an aluminum pole with two curved prongs at one end which is adapted from an ancient samurai weapon—and found today hanging in schools all across Japan. The idea is to use the tool to immobilize the trespasser (who is hopefully not carrying a gun, which would be highly unlikely in Japan anyway).
5. Kancho-ing the Teacher
If the sasumata doesn’t work, there’s always the kancho. A favorite prank among elementary and kindergarten students, all foreigners coming to Japan to teach English are duly warned about getting kancho’d. How it works: kids clasp their cute little hands together, extend the pointer fingers, then aim them right at the unsuspecting teacher’s butthole.
Forget PB&J, it’s hot lunch every day at Japanese elementary and junior high schools. Students and teachers forgo cafeterias, instead eating all together at their desks in the classroom. Everyone eats the exact same meal, which is prepared by lunch ladies and served by students who take turns dishing out the rice, fish, and soup to their classmates. And because waste is a big no-no in Japanese culture, schools are known for enforcing 100 percent membership in the Clean Plate Club, requiring even the pickiest of eaters to finish every last bite.
Greetings are an integral part of Japanese culture, and school is no exception. At the beginning and end of each class, students stand and greet the teacher, then bow in unison. Many high schools also bring a little of the dojo into the classroom with a brief mokuso, (closed-eyes meditation) to allow students to center themselves before class.
8. Saturday School
One-day weekends were the norm for Japanese schools until 1992, when the government began phasing out Saturday lessons as part of a national push for a more relaxed educational system. Despite this, many school boards ignored the change and continue to hold extra lessons on Saturdays—and almost half of all Tokyo elementary and junior high students still spend at least one Saturday morning a month doing math instead of watching cartoons.
9. Summer Bummer
Japanese students do get a five-week summer vacation (about half as long as America’s), but calling it a “break” might be a stretch—unlike in America, the Japanese summer break is right in the middle of the school year, and though school is technically out, students and teachers will still typically come to school almost daily for club activities. Even elementary school students are assigned a legendarily hefty summer homework packet.
Japanese-style education seems to work for them; the latest OECD global math and science rankings place Japanese high schoolers at fourth in the world, while students in the U.S. have slipped to 28th place. So though we probably won’t find American students scouring the bathroom floor while wearing a pair of bloomers anytime soon, Saturday school may be worth considering.