Thursday, February 17, 2011

How Japan works: part 2 - School

This is a topic I should have addressed much earlier seeing as how a spend a large percentage of my waking hours at such an institution, but 1) I actually wanted to have half a clue as to what I was talking about and 2) familiarity breeds contempt so by being in the situation on a daily basis, the ins and outs seemed much more humdrum and unworthy of comment.

Let's put the hypothesis of #2 under the microscope

- it's completely untrue - There is much to note about the school system in Japan. In fact, the school I teach at is such an anomaly in the Japanese public school system that in the 1 year I have been teaching there, we have had visitors from two Korean delegations, 300 members of the ministry of education, 3 Japanese TV crews, 1 German radio crew, and countless regional school boards come for tours. There are two factors that make this school stick out. One is the fact that it is one of only about 4 or 5 public schools in the whole country that are combined elementary and middle schools (more on that in a bit). The other is the that for the past three years the school has been conducting a research program that involved teaching English to all grades (current MOE guidelines dictate mandatory English from grade 5 on). Hence the 300 MOE guests coming to see the end result of the three year program.

But enough about me - how about the system at large?

Public education in Japan begins at preschool. There are 保育園 (Ho'iku'en) which are preschools that are both privately and publicly operated, although both come with a tuition fee. And admittance to either requires a degree of foresight as there is often a waiting list (anyone with a bundle of cash and a desire to run a business could likely make a few yen operating a private preschool here as the demand far outstrips the supply). The monthly fee for a public preschool can be as low as $130 a month, less that the private option, but the real fee is based on the parents' income. (A couple making about 70K USD a year can expect to pay around $600 a month). Such class warfare has amazingly enough not attracted much commentary from Republican commentators in the US who seemingly love using such examples as the obvious horrors that await us following Comrade Obama's eventual Glorious Socialist Revolution.

After preschool comes 幼稚園 (You'chi'en) which is essentially kindergarten (and often called 'kindaagaaten' by the more fashionable institutions over here) For this there is again a private and public option, the key difference with the US being that it covers 3 years (age 3 - 5ish) and the schools are often unconnected to the elementary schools in the area. One of the 'hot trends' for parents with 'more bloody yen that is good for them' is to send a child to an international preschool, which is often (and I speak as a former employee of such a place) staffed by group of borderline alcoholic foreigners whose greatest skill is a passable grasp of the English tongue and a serious desire to get to the bar as soon as 5 o'clock rolls around, as well as a seemingly subconscious desire to impart the concept of dry wit and sarcasm on the youth of Japan. Not that any of MY coworkers were of such ilk.

However, the foreign teacher gig is slowly changing (actually, compared to the rate most things change in Japan, it's proceeding at a pace that would shame most interstellar vehicles) but more on that later - if I remember.

Following a stint at a preschool, it is off to elementary school, where 98% of students put the US to shame when I comes to being unbelievably adorable.

As evidence I offer these pictures of 1st graders participating in 凧揚げ (tako'age, or kite flying)

- My indifference to your camera will defeat your cold heart!

- Our gumboots and random kite themes will strike warmth into your ice-queen visage

Elementary school runs 1st grade to 6th grade where the adorableness quotient is slowly drummed out of them, although very slowly. The big kick is the jump from elementary to middle school. All of a sudden, the days of kite flying and trips to the candy factory (actual field trip at my school) are replaced with uniforms, rote memorization, and unequally distributed puberty. The transition can be brutal, which is why the combined elementary/middle school is so intriguing. One of the biggest problems in Japanese education (as perceived by the Japanese at least) is the difficulty students face in the sudden switch from the halcyon carefree days of 6th grade, and the brutal mind-cram that arrives with your Prussian military-inspired school uniform.

Middle school is giant race for the passing of the 入学試験 (Nyuu'gaku'shiken) or entrance exam. That would be the high school exam.

Yes, while our near-beard spouting bong-toting 14 year old Wunderkinds are guaranteed a spot at the local high school simply because their parents fork over some considerable portion of their hard-earned salary to the local school board, in Japan, no such promises are made.

But before you think that this is like some progressive "right school for the right child" experiment in future-world (or since even public schools charge tuition - a Mitt Romney wet dream of vouchers if you like) you should know that the all the public schools hold their entrance exam on the same day. Which means you can apply to only one. The way this works is that your teacher and parents and you all sit down and look at your grades and decide - this is the public school you can probably get in to.

In short - you can chose one public school and one private school to apply to (private school exams are on a alternate but equally synchronized day) - your reach and your safety with no room for error. (well, some, but more on that tomorrow!)

coming up...part II in our ongoing series on Japanese schools

featuring more pictures, school lunches, and a shocking twist that will have the critics wondering if up has become down!!

No comments:

Post a Comment