I've been teaching children for over three years now, and it isn't without it's challenges, that's for sure. Whether it's made me more tolerant of children, I can't say for sure, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, Japanese children are just like any other children in the world. Some are good; some are terrible. Some are bright and some are dull. Some really like studying and some of them don't. But children in Japan - just like almost everywhere else - tend to follow the same patterns as their predecessors. They go to nursery, they attend primary school and then they start middle school (or junior high school for my audience across the Pacific). And middle school is no joke. Mess up here and it could spell doom for your future.
Entering Middle School
Pro: Primary school is a doddle but I get the vibe that when children become middle school students, it's really time to start buckling down. In a way, this is a positive as it starts to prepare them for the real world. Because we adults know that it's not all fun and games. We have to grow up, adapt, follow the rules and get in line. It isn't to say that we don't learn some of these rules in primary school either but I get the vibe that there's more of a sense of seriousness about middle school
Con: Say goodbye to your childhood. In my current job, it isn't uncommon for children to quit taking English lessons right before middle school. Maybe the parents consider English a little bit of fun before the real work starts; who knows? But tests increase, the workload gets harder and I feel like the freedom they might have experienced in primary school becomes considerably non-existent.
After School Clubs
Pro: The Japanese are usually quite slim. And I think one of the reasons why is because they promote lots of extra curricula activities; especially sports. In the UK, after school club happen once or twice a week for an hour at best. But in Japan, they take it very seriously. In a way, it's great for keeping kids fit or getting them to make friends with each other. It's also something to look forward to after class.
Con: Unlike the UK, after school clubs are a little bit over the top. I once taught a girl who was in the tennis club. When she arrived for my lesson, she was so tired after having trained for well over five hours; there was an up and coming tournament apparently. Some kids go to club every day. As I said, the Japanese are really particular about their extra curricula activities. But it can get to the point where they suck the fun completely out of it.
|Middle school boys wearing gakuran|
Pro: We've seen the anime. And I've seen enough kids (and adults) to know that uniformity is another thing that is taken very seriously here. You will look polished and you will represent your school well; even when you're not attending class. I actually quite like the 学ラン(gakuran) style uniform as it really does look quite smart.
Con: Like most uniforms the world over, there isn't really much chance for self expression. In school, dying your hair (a reasonable colour) or make up is not allowed. The most I've seen kids do is unbutton the blazer or wear the undershirt. If the kid plays sports, they must wear their PE kit - even on a weekend. A child represents their school everywhere. And sometimes when it's not even school related - a dance club, for example - there are uniforms for those too.
Pro: Also known as 塾 (juku). The minute a kid is due to start middle school, the salesmen come knocking apparently. Cram school is a way in which middle schoolers keep on top of their grades. It's useful for kids who fall behind in certain subjects or for the kids that want to be at the top of their game. I benefitted from an after school "cram class" of sorts when I was in secondary school and it really bumped my grade up. In the UK, these types of schools aren't so apparent however, but in Japan, they are everywhere.
Con: On top of all the homework and after school clubs and piano lessons and English classes, juku is another thing to add to a middle schooler's long list of things to do. Unfortunately however, like all childrearing in Japan, cram school does not come cheap at all and most parents feel pressured into sending their kids to cram school out of fear or them falling behind their peers.
Middle schoolers can undergo some very long days in Japan. I've seen students riding their bicycles home at around 10pm at night which completely boggles the mind considering that in the UK, most kids are home well before dinnertime. I've had children arrive at my lessons completely famished - having not even eaten due to their long schedules. But in a way, it's almost indicative of what is to come because when one enters the workforce, overtime is eminent. Getting home late is eminent. Skipping a meal is on occasion eminent and it doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.
So I commend the students here. They work really hard and go through some tough times. I often hear however that once they overcome this hurdle and enter a decent high school, it gets easier after that. Even university is a piece of cake apparently but that's a entry for another time.