1. Before exams, children have to learn their manners
While at elementary school, the students are not drilled so very hard in learning core subjects (compared to later years), rather there is a greater focus on values and ethics. Students are taught respect and gentleness. They have to learn how to be compassionate and generous. Virtues like self-control and a sense of justice are also shown great importance. Only when these foundations are laid, are students then expected to master the core curriculum in junior-high and high school.
2. Term starts at the beginning of April
The start of the school year coincides with the first bloom of spring, so dramatically marked in Japan by the appearance of the sakura cherry blossom. It is thought that this means children start their school years with a feeling of positivity due to the end of the winter months. This timetable is quite unlike most of the world, where school starts at the end of summer or start of Autumn. Perhaps we should all switch to the Japanese way!
3. Kids do all the school cleaning themselves
All students are expected to take part in the cleaning chores of the school. This inculcates in them an almost natural work-ethic. They form teams and learn what it takes to get a job done well, with cooperation and hard work. They don't only clean the classroom, but the cafeteria and lavatories too. Consequently, the children are much more careful not to make a mess of their school, and learn to despise uncleanliness. As a child I would have hated it if we were told to do this, but now I am sure it would have been a better thing if we had done so.
4. Eating in the Classroom
In Japan meals are important communal moments. Students eat the same balanced and well-prepared meals as one another, almost always in the presence of their teachers. This helps build a strong bond, and encourages good table manners. Before every meal, everyone has to pray and say thanks (itadakimasu), and at the end they do the same (gochisosama deshita). These are highly polite phrases that express gratitude to the earth, to the food itself, to the cook, and also to their social superiors present at the table.
5. All high school students enjoy extra-curricular activities
If Japanese kids are not working, they are playing. So, after school is just as important as the school hours themselves. Their time is then divided into extra study, either at one of the many juku private schools, designed to improve exam scores in math, science and English, or at school sports and musical clubs. Every junior high school student chooses a club to join, such as swim, table-tennis, baseball, brass band, chess etc, and then pursues their ability in that club for the rest of their school years. They socialize with their group and spend most of their weekends with them too.
6. Kids are taught beautiful poetry and calligraphy
Japan never forgets its own traditional art forms. So, kanji (over 2,000 Chinese characters), Hiragana and Katakana (the two native writing systems) are all taught to students. They have to learn exactly how to write each character, writing strokes in the right direction and in a very precise order. They use bamboo sticks and rice paper for this process. Haiku poems from Japan's rich literary history are also recited and learned by heart. Every student understands the importance of preserving their cultural heritage.
7. School uniforms are obligatory, inside and outside school
School uniforms become obligatory by junior high school. Since every student wears the same attire, all social barriers are erased and everyone is considered part of the same school body. The same goes for haircuts. Boys are supposed to have short cuts, and girls medium length hair with a short fringe. When in public, school children are not feared by people, but respected. Thus, there is good harmony between generations.
8. Japan's school truancy rate is only 0.01%
It is very rare for children to fail to attend school, which I wish I could say about my country! Not only do all children attend, but they also try to pay close attention to their class lectures. It has been calculated that around 91% always listen to their teachers at all times. And I thought I was quite a good student, but there were certainly many hours that I day dreamed away while my teachers were talking!
9. One exam decides everything
High schools are so rigorous in Japan that a high school graduate here is considered as educated as a university graduate in Italy, itself a very important and cultured land. So, for those who would pursue a college education, competition is quite fierce. One exam will decide whether they get the marks required to attend their single college choice. If they fail to meet the grade they will probably not go to university, but they will still be very employable in Japan's high employment economy.
10. After completing school, college is considered a holiday
So hard is the effort required in the national school system that graduating is considered the first great trial of their lives. The following college years that some of them will move to are considered more of a reward to be enjoyed than something to be taken very seriously. At university, students are regularly seen sleeping through lectures, so universities in Japan do not rank very high internationally. Perhaps this is simply a result of working so hard during their early teens at school.