Mostly they came after the war, a curse in their own way, like England’s ugly new towns.
The cram schools, or juku, existed since the 19th century, but their modern explosion was a response to a ballooning education system. In post-war Japan, going to a university no longer marked you out as part of an elite. Entry into a prestigious university became ever more important. And so students got their heads down and took notes at after-school education centres, which ironically often developed their own entrance exams.
At these cram schools, students take part in lengthy after-school lessons, sometimes as long as two hours without a break. All this after a long day of school, of course. They might also stay and complete their homework at the facility. Figures seem to differ a lot, but between 45 and 75% of Junior High School-age (12-15 years old) youths go to juku, while the figure for High School age (15-18 years old) is lower, at around 40%. Students typically attend classes three or four days a week, although this depends a lot on age groups and parents’ means. I don’t know how widespread this is, but I’ve certainly met high school students who attend at the weekends, as well.
The juku are only a semi-official part of Japan’s education system, but they’re a clue to a broader problem: overwork, which doesn’t necessarily drive up standards. Japanese Junior High School teachers work the longest hours in any highly developed country1, with about 56 hours per week worked. Incredibly, primary school teachers work nearly as hard, with a 54-hour week being standard. All in all, teachers can expect to work 80 hours of overtime per month. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK was the second-worst offender.
So does the juku system suggest that Japanese students are overworked like their teachers? Well, the answer to that question is a bit more complicated. Another OEDC study found that 15 -year-old Japanese students (i.e. students in their final year of Junior High School) only do 3.8 hours of homework a week, which is less than the world average. But you have to factor in time spent at the juku, which increases as students progress through school. The amount of homework also increases throughout High School, and one of my high school language learners reckoned four hours a night is normal in the last year of high school.
There’s also extracurricular activities, which Japan takes super seriously. Most students belong to a club and do club activities regularly. Baseball or basketball, athletics, sewing, fundraising, chess, poetry, calligraphy; you name it, there’s a club for it. Club activities arguably play an important part in creating Japan’s highly cohesive, team-spirit culture, and it’s only fair to say that most students seem to really like them. However, they do add their own burden for teachers, who typically spend 7.5 hours a week running or facilitating after-school activities. It’s pretty common for students in their final year of High School to ‘retire’ from club activities, to make more time for study. One of my students quit tennis club in her final year, for example.
View from the Sidelines
My position as a teacher in an eikaiwa has given me a strange, and probably skewed, sense of the Japanese education system. I’ve taught elementary school, JHS and HS students, and I’ve also taught teachers at all levels. Listening to them, I’ve found out a lot about the Japanese education system, its advantages, frustrations and impact. The education system values creativity more than it used to; but it often tires teachers out too much to be creative. School is interesting but exhausting for students. Club activities absorb a lot of students’ personal time, but they are nonetheless beloved by most.
But I guess I have a weird, disjointed view, because everything I know is secondhand and what I’ve learnt is kind of unsystematic. So I thought I’d take some time to ask some High Schoolers about their school lives. I asked a few of my students to fill out a questionnaire, and I heard back from two of them (unfortunately for gender balance, they were both males). Many thanks to my respondents, who I won’t name in the article- but because they both have ‘K’ names, they’re going to be K1 and K2 from here. Over to you, guys.
How big is your school?
K1: in total, 1300 students; there are about 40 students in each class.
K2: about 600 people.
At school, which subjects do you study?
K1: maths, English, Science, Japanese…
K2: English, maths, Japanese, history, science etc.
Which subjects do you like and dislike?
K1: I like English, and I’m not good at Maths.
K2: I like math and dislike Japanese, because math has definite, clear answers, but Japanese doesn’t.
How much homework do you do each night?
K1: I think the average for students in my year (3rd year) is four and a half hours. But my goal of college is difficult, so I try to study hard. On weekdays, I study for five or six hours.
K2: one to two hours, depending on the night.
Do you take part in any extracurricular activities?
K1: in High School, no. In Junior High School, basketball. Playing basketball now is too hard because I have to study.
K2: yes, baseball!
What’s your favourite thing about school?
K1: School culture festivals (bunkasai), because often at High School we are studying alone, but during bunkasai we can co-operate with classmates. For example, in first grade we built haunted houses and designed model jet coasters. We also gave a dance performance. In third grade, we made and sold food such as yakisoba and churros.
K2: School events, particularly sports day, school festivals, class sports matches, things like that.
What would you change about your school?
K1: difficult question!
K2: I would relax/change some of the rules about school uniform.
What’s your goal for the future?
K1: to become an Air Traffic Controller.
K2: to go to university, study medicine and become a doctor.
That’s all for now folks. Thanks for reading. Since I’m off to summer camp, I’ll update soon with some news of my exploits. Peace and love.
1 The countries studied were all in the Organisation of Economically Developed Countries, or OEDC.