The basic school system in Japan is composed of elementary school (lasting six years), middle school (three years), high school (three years), and university (four years). Education is compulsory only for the nine years of elementary and middle school, but 98% of students go on to high school. Students usually have to take exams in order to enter high schools and universities. Recently some middle and high schools have joined together to form single, six-year schools.
Japanese children enter the first grade of elementary school in the April after their sixth birthday. There are around 30 to 40 students in a typical elementary school class. The subjects they study include Japanese, mathematics, science, social studies, music, crafts, physical education, and home economics (to learn simple cooking and sewing skills). More and more elementary schools have started teaching English, too. Information technology is increasingly being used to enhance education, and most schools have access to the Internet.
Students also learn traditional Japanese arts like shodo (calligraphy) and haiku. Shodo involves dipping a brush in ink and using it to write kanji (characters that are used in several East Asian countries and have their own meanings) and kana (phonetic characters derived from kanji) in an artistic style. Haiku is a form of poetry developed in Japan about 400 years ago. A haiku is a short verse of 17 syllables, divided into units of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku uses simple expressions to convey deep emotions to readers.
Students eating lunch together (AFLO)
Elementary school children on an excursion to the Lake Biwa Canal. (City of Kyoto, Board of Education)
In Japanese elementary schools, classes are divided into small teams for many activities. For example, as part of their education, every day the students clean the classrooms, halls, and yards of their school in these teams. In many elementary schools, the students eat lunch together in their classrooms, enjoying meals prepared by the school or by a local "school lunch center." Small teams of students take turns to serve lunch to their classmates. School lunches contain a rich variety of healthy and nutritious foods, and students look forward to lunchtime.
There are many school events during the year, such as sports day when students compete in events like tug-of-war and relay races, excursions to historical sites, and arts and culture festivals featuring dancing and other performances by children. Students in the highest grades of elementary, middle, and high schools also take trips lasting up to several days to culturally important cities like Kyoto and Nara, ski resorts, or other places.
Most middle and high schools require students to wear uniforms. Boys generally wear pants and jackets with stand-up collars, and girls wear two-piece suit with sailor collar or blazers and skirts.
A member of a school tennis club
Almost all middle school students take part in an extracurricular club activity of their choice, such as a sports team, a musical or arts group, or a science club.
Baseball clubs are very popular among boys. Soccer (football) clubs are also gaining popularity. Judo clubs, where kids train in this traditional martial art, attract boys and girls. They may be inspired by the many great Japanese judo athletes, both male and female, who have won medals at the World Judo Championships and the Olympic Games. Other popular sports clubs include tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and volleyball. In every sport, many games are held between schools and at the regional level, so students have plenty of opportunities to compete.
Among cultural clubs, meanwhile, one that has lately gained popularity is the go club. Go is a strategic board game played with black and white stones. After a manga (comic book) about the game was published, more and more schoolchildren started enjoying go. Other options for students include choir and art clubs. Brass band, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement clubs are also popular.
A school music club at practice
Go, a board game played by two players using black and white pieces. The aim is to capture the biggest area. (AFLO)