So You’ve Seen A Lot of School Anime
There are numerous examples of anime we have seen that all take place in school. From Sailor Moon to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, I am sure it has captured our curiosity to what school in Japan is really like, to the point we wished to experience it ourselves despite its vigorous demands. As previously shared in another article, "Should You Learn Japanese Through Anime", not only have I been an English teacher in Japan for the past six years, I had the chance to study abroad in Japan when I was 17 as well, so I can share first hand knowledge of what's real compared to anime.
The Basic Educational Structure
To start off, Japan has elementary and junior high. Yes, high school is also there but is actually not legally required. Elementary in Japan is more or less no different from America. Students are taught all subjects by their homeroom teacher throughout the day as seen in the controversial series, Kodomo no Jikan.
Junior high and high school in Japan is totally different from how it is done in America. As opposed to changing classrooms per class period where an individual is not likely to always have the same classmates, students in Japan are in the same classroom the whole day with the exception of some classes like PE and home economics. While in America, students change classrooms, in Japan, it is the teachers that go from one classroom to the next.
As seen in Great Teacher Onizuka, the other teachers take turns teaching class 3-4. At all grade levels, each class is assigned a homeroom teacher that will conduct morning and afternoon meetings, talk with the parents of the class, and perform other administrative duties in relation their assigned class.
When I taught at a girl’s high school, I actually had the opportunity to be a homeroom teacher, which is never heard of with foreign teachers such as myself. Since it was a private high school, rules can be changed to some extent. It was a strange feeling at first, and as seen in other anime told through the teacher’s view like in GTO, being a homeroom teacher gives one a special connection to the students, no matter how crazy they may drive them. Now time to further share more about the wonderful structure of the Japanese education system.
For your first lesson in understanding Japan’s education system, since the end of World War II, the citizens of Japan have been constitutionally required to have at least a ninth grade education. From first to ninth grade is gimu kyouiku, or compulsory education. Due to the constitution saying children have a right to an education and the reforms from the 1990s, when it comes to discipline problems, students between the first and ninth grade cannot be suspended or expelled in the public school system (though it can happen in private schools).
And as a whole, corporal punishment is totally illegal. Because school anime tends to be portrayed mostly through private schools where these rules don't always apply, western viewers don't have the opportunity to see how discipline is conducted in Japan in a more realistic context.
Whenever there is a problem, such as a fight, the students will talk to their homeroom teachers, the teacher that is head of the grade they are in, and the teacher in charge of the student. They disciple about the problem and how to fix it. Usually the principal is never involved in the disciplining because if the principal gets involved, it is seen as a sign of failure that the teachers cannot handle their students.
If the teacher cannot do anything, then the principal will scold the teacher. As seen in GTO where Onizuka is given problem students, the administrative staff puts pressure to straighten them up and they don't directly involve themselves in the process.
If you've seen the old school title Ranma ½, there are numerous instances of characters being forced to stand in the hall and hold buckets of water. Due to progressing reforms after the broadcast of some of those episodes, it is now illegal. In Azumanga Daioh, it was also mentioned that such forms of discipline are no longer in practice. I was told this was very common in the 1970s, as well as was corporal punishment as a whole, but they were phased out from the 1980s. Many old school teachers still caught up in their old ways have been known to make the news if they hit a student.
In addition to the constitutional stipulations, a student between elementary and junior high cannot be held back a grade regardless of their academic performance and/or attendance. In comparison to America, any student at any grade level can be held back if their performance is not up to standard. In regards to truancy where I grew up, unless it's a severe medical condition that requires time away from school, if a student does not show up for a certain amount of days, they are required to report to court and some times child protective services are involved.
While in Japan, a good number of students refuse to come to school because of mental health issues, bullying, or just don't how to handle people. Regardless, students between elementary and junior high will still be allowed to graduate. A real life example of this dates back to the Sasebo, Nagasaki incident in 2004 when an elementary student killed her classmate, despite the killer not being able to attend graduation, the principal still awarded her a graduation diploma in hopes that it will integrate her back into society.
From another perspective, potentially holding back a student could hurt the group harmony and the feelings of the student, and the progressing phenomenon of helicopter parents raising hell. If anyone is a perfect example of a helicopter parent in anime, it is certainly Chichi from Dragon Ball Z in regards to Gohan. They put pressure on their children because they care too much, but without realizing that the care they are providing can be counter productive.
In most instances, elementary students in Japanese public schools do not have to wear school uniforms, though they will wear a white shirt and blue shorts for PE. This is demonstrated in anime such as Chibi Maruko-chan and Doraemon. As opposed to the trendy JanSport backpacks Americans wear to school, Japanese elementary students all use a box-like backpack called a randoseru and can cost as much as 40,000 yen (somewhere above $350 USD under Abenomics) and is guaranteed to last throughout elementary. But once in junior high, students will be required to wear a uniform.
The only time that academic performance really counts is when students attend high school. Since high school is not part of the compulsory education system, it is actually optional to enter, but students must take an entrance exam in order to get in (and a good percentage of Japan still possess a high school education). In addition to regular school, students will also be going to cram school during the evening. Cram school is just essentially more schooling, but is also focuses on getting students to pass the entrance exams.
This is also emphasized through Ami in the Sailor Moon franchise, when she takes Usagi to her cram school when they first become friends. Between August and March will be an intense period for ninth graders because that is when they get ready for high school exams. For private high schools, their exams start as early as January while public high schools tend to have their entrance exams in March. This period is known as Juken Jigoku, or Examination Hell.
For university exams, there are schools called Yobikou, literally meaning preparation school. High school students or legal adults who failed the tests (modern day rounin) attend these schools. In Chobits, Hideki attends Yobikou in order to pass the entrance exams to enter university.
Other Ways to Get Into High School in Japan
Besides examinations, there are other ways to enter high school in Japan. Sometimes certain students will join a school because it is famous for a certain sports team that has achieved countless national awards. Take for example one student is good at baseball and helped his junior high team win titles. If there is a high school that is famous for its baseball team, that school will be able to recruit that student and will be able to attend on a baseball scholarship in hopes that student can help the school win another Koushien, the high school baseball championships in Japan.
For some private schools, they do have dormitories for students from outside the area. In Prince of Tennis, Yuuta, Fuji’s brother, attends a different high school and resides in the school dorms. Of course, maintaining to the equivalent of a C average will be required in order to participate, while this rule does not apply at the public junior high level from my experience.
The Fun that Is High School
High school is a very unique situation in Japan that is very rarely shared in anime beyond the surface level. To start off, as of 2010, public high school in Japan is now free but parents must still pay tuitions at private schools. Japanese students have many options beyond a regular high school.
In addition to your typical high school, other high schools widely available in Japan are kougyou-ka, or industrial high schools; shougyou-ka, or commercial high school; and in some smaller towns up in northern Japan there is even a Nougyou-ka, or high schools to learn agriculture like in Silver Spoon.
Due to not being constrained by the compulsory education laws, high schools both public and private do have the authority to suspend, expel, and hold back misbehaving and underperforming kids. There have also been cases of students being held back and/or expelled due to inadequate academic performances, intolerable misbehavior, and taking too many days off.
One example of anime where a student gets held back is in the highway racing cult hit, Wangan Midnight. In that series, Akio, a high school senior, is held back for one more year due to missing too many days.
Up until the late 1990s, gakurans and sailor uniforms were all the style. As seen in recent anime, blazer uniforms are being commonly used. In the 1970s and 1980s, many delinquent students were modifying their uniforms with longer coats for men and skirts for girls as a means to exhibit they are in a gang.
Jotaro from the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Stardust Crusaders (taking place in 1987) is an example of wearing the long coat, or the chouran. To discourage this, some schools during those periods transitioned from the gakurans and sailor uniforms to blazers. In the original 1991 publications of the Wangan Midnight manga, the male characters wore the old school uniforms while the 2007 anime adaptation modernizes the uniforms to blazers.
Though never mentioned in any anime that I am aware of, another reason why schools in Japan are making these changes is of course nobody wants their uniforms to look alike. If a student is missing or does something wrong, schools want a uniform that can be easily identifiable. Plus, if a high school wants to recruit students, they do their best to make their uniform stand out in hopes that other people would be interested in enrolling in their school.
All the Fun of Japanese Schools
As seen in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Kyoukai no Rinne, high schools tend to have school festivals. The purpose of these festivals is of course to express class pride and school pride. They are open to the public so friends from other schools, parents, and junior high students interested in joining the high school can come and see what is going on. Classes and clubs decide what they are going to do.
The brass band could give a performance, the basketball club could give basketball lessons, a class could be doing their own themed restaurant, the drama club could be doing a play, another class can be doing a haunted house, and groups of friends could be doing a band performance. I have seen numerous school festivals teaching in Japan and I am pleased to say that what is portrayed in anime is very accurate to the real thing.
Another fun thing that Japanese students get, that I didn't have in high school back in America, is the school trip or the, shuugaku ryokou. In GTO, the students of Seirin Gakuen go to Okinawa. For students in Tokyo, trips to Kyoto are the norm. The purpose of these trips is to give students a first hand education about other parts of Japan. However, other schools can give better packages where students had the choice of going to Okinawa, Australia, France, and Oregon.
In previously stated sports anime, school is also a common backdrop. So why is teenage sports or high school clubs seen in anime such a big deal? Yes, it takes its base audience, the Japanese back to their roots. In secondary education, participation in a club is strongly emphasized in Japan though it is optional. It looks good on your college application, but being in a club actually prepares students for the real world.
Just like in school, senpai and kouhai relations are a big part of the working force. It gives students an understanding of that relationship along with teamwork, hard work, and having a goal. Though not everyone will achieve their ultimate goal in being number one in Japan, great memories will be made and will also build character for the members.
Do Japanese Students Go to School on Saturdays?
As of 2002, Saturday schools are officially abolished. If you have seen Kimagure Orange Road, which was broadcasted in the 1980s, it was always common that the characters were going to school but only in the morning, which was true at the time. This was changed because companies were starting to allow workers to take Saturdays off and the education system should reflect that. However, there are some private schools in Japan that still do the Saturday morning system.
SAN-NEN B-GUMI!!! KINPACHI-SENSEI!!!
If anyone wants to see a very accurate media portrayal of the Japanese school system, I strongly recommend the J-drama, Kinapchi-sensei. It was sporadically broadcasted from 1979 to the “retirement” of the character in 2011. The series does give a very insightful view to the difficulties of Japanese students and is a great critique on Japanese society as a whole.
It covers issues such as juken jigoku and how in real life students have committed suicide over failing their exams, domestic abuse, helicopter parents, transgender issues, and so on. Plus, it was referenced in the first episode of the 1998 GTO drama series. I guarantee you will get something very educational out of it.