Japanese Schools: What You Can and Can’t Get Away With, pt. 1

Author Bio: Dan Rasch is 24 and in Japan. When not exploring the Hokkaido wilderness, he may be found teaching English somewhere, clubbing in Sapporo, studying 漢字 , or just sitting at home with a bunch of music and books. Lv.24, Water/Dark type, can use CUT and Sand Attack.

Hey y’all. Guest blogger Dan Rasch here with the first of three posts about Japan, where I’ve had the privilege to live and work as an Assistant Language Teacher for a year and 3 months now.

Taylor and I were college buddies, and he’s asked me to help broaden this blog’s horizons beyond the borders of the world’s most populous country, namely to that feisty little island they don’t like to talk about. You know, the one with delicious food, meticulous devotion to tradition, and…well…other stuff:

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[not quite a tradition, but still…I mentioned the meticulous thing, right?]

Anyway, I can’t promise that my posts will include as many dank memes as Taylor’s, nor can I promise that it will be nearly as informed – I’d never been to Japan before getting this job – but after a year here I think I can jot down a few impressions that go beyond the usual “omg u guise Japan is so weird and so cute but also so weeeeiiiird” posts the internet is already so full of. 

So with a conscious eye on my own cultural biases (American and proud ‘uvvit) I’m going to do a little compare/contrast with the facet of Japanese culture I’m most familiar with thus far: life at a Japanese junior high school.

If you’re a fan of anime, are up to date on global school rankings, or subscribe to commonly held East Asian stereotypes, you’re probably under the impression that Japanese schools are super strict. I mean, they wear uniforms! Uniforms! In public schools!! Doesn’t that go against the rules of, like, freedom??

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[pictured: four unique snowflakes forced to suppress their individuality by a rigid and unfeeling system]

While Japan may not have as much of a reputation for “Tiger Moms” as their big red neighbor, I can definitely confirm that the schools in Japan are often mind-bogglingly strict when compared to an American education…about certain things. That is to say, my students are held to standards of behavior generally associated with the strictest of Catholic schools. But on the other hand, they get off scott-free for certain stuff that would have gotten any of us sent to the principal’s office.

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[unfair though it may have seemed at the time]

So just in case you find yourself retaking junior high school in Japan, I’ve thrown together a little list of do’s and don’ts for you. There’s quite a few, so I’ll be breaking it into three posts. My apologies for making the first part so long by way of introduction, but I do hope you’ll read the next two as they’ll be considerably more on-topic. 

Final Disclaimer: My first-hand experience is limited to 6 public schools in the reputedly less-strict northern island Japan, so don’t take this as the authoritative guide to the Japanese education system. Unless – again – you end up retaking junior high school in Japan, in which case better safe than sorry (cuz this stuff may save your ass). 

So yeah – here’s what you can and can’t get away in a Japanese school.

What you CAN’T get away with: Improperly Greeting Your Teachers

To put it mildly, the Japanese are strict about greetings. Elementary schoolers have some leeway, but once you hit junior high the teachers start to whip you into shape. My school has a biannual “Manner Improvement Week” where students have to fill out daily self-evaluations regarding how well they greeted their teachers in the hall. The criteria:

1.) Stopping

2.) Eye Contact

3.) Greeting the teacher loudly and clearly

4.) Bowing properly upon completion of the greeting

That’s right, for two weeks out of the year, every 12-year-old has to grade themselves on a scale from 1-5 as to how consistently they displayed proper respect to the teachers they passed in the halls that day.

[editor’s note: Dan, can you get me a job in Japan?]

And yes, they have to do this every time they pass a teacher – none of that *glance, head-nod, “hey,” and keep walking* nonsense, and god help you if you just pretend not to see them. During the actual self-evaluation weeks, teachers will literally stop kids and make them redo it properly if they screw up.

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They ease off the rest of the year – as long as you do a little greet-and-bow you’re in the clear – but again, I’m on a famously more relaxed island as far as Japanese manners go (think West vs. East coast). Plus, at the end of the day the kids have to gauge each encounter based on the teacher. The second-year science teacher may be a cool dude who will let you slide by with just a nod and some eye contact, but if you see the third-year Japanese teacher, hoooo boy – you’d better freeze up like a French soldier who just ran into Napoleon and get ready to flex them hips like a damned hinge. 

Once you’re actually in the classroom, however…

What You CAN Get Away With: Saying “Shit” Or “Go To Hell” In Class

Japanese has no “curse words,” at least nothing so dirty that you have to censor it or punish your kids for saying. There are dirty words, sure, but compared to Anglo-Americans there’s considerably more leeway among the Japanese with regard to when is or isn’t a good time to utter them. We in the West can’t even hear the sound of some words on the radio without demanding that the vowels be expunged so that we may spare the ears of our precious children from such filth.

So you can imagine my incredulity when, in the middle of explaining the importance of the difference between “s” and “sh” in English pronunciation (and how you have to be very careful about the word “sit” because many Japanese pronounce it like this other word that we shall not speak of), the teacher very nonchalantly chimed in, “Oh, you mean ‘shit?’ Yeah kids, ‘shit’ is like kuso so make sure you get that one straight.”

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[the teacher said a bad word! the teacher said a bad word!! this is so cool!!!]

Now I’ll admit, perhaps that one was justified from an educator’s point of view. But that’s just the beginning – I have heard students and teachers alike say the Japanese equivalents (in relative rudeness) of “shit,” “dick,” “cunt,” “shut the fuck up,” and even – gasp! – “go to hell” (literally just “die”) in class. Whether it was in jest or in earnest, it never seems to result in anything more than a light scolding – even though they’re saying it in front of the same teachers who ream them out for not bowing properly.

In fact, I’ve only seen one teacher even somewhat snap at a kid for saying some thing rude – she was writing the Chinese character for “vowel” on the blackboard (literally “mother sound,” with an abstract pair of breasts representing “mother,” of course) and read the pronunciation out loud: boin. It was at this point that a 13-year-old student of boundless wit was so amused that he could not help but mime a large pair of boobs bouncing on his desk and shouting “boing!!!” The teacher’s response – “How rude.” – and the class went on. 

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[“Fascinating contribution, Yuki. Can we get back to verb conjugation now?” ]

Now I don’t know about you, but at none of the schools I ever attended (none of them terribly strict) would I have gotten off that easy for something like that. At the very least you’d get a stern mini-lecture on classroom language, and as I recall, dropping a “shit” or an “F-bomb” ran the real risk of being kicked out of the class. 

So yeah. Kids here may have to grade themselves on their kowtowing technique, but they seem to be able to get away with lobbing curses at each other in class. Part of this has to do with the fact that Japanese has no equivalent to English profanity, but I think part of it is that they’re all used to hearing these words on TV. They know they’re rude; they’re just not verboten like the F-word is in America. As far as I can tell, so as long as the teacher knows that you’re not starting an actual fight then there’s no issue. Most likely, they’ll tell you to settle down and keep teaching without blinking an eye. 

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And that, dear reader, is cultural difference #1. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3…

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