And since the children are our future, I think I have a pretty good grasp on the direction this place is heading (you can count on enjoy many soccer, much boy bands, and of course, Disney Lando).
So what exactly makes these small future adults of Japanese descent different from the rest of the world (or at least Southern California during the 1990s)? The following reflects my (incredibly scientific) research thus far.
Hopefully this answers all the questions you've ever had about the lives of junior high school students in Japan. Oh, you've never had any questions about the lives of junior high school students in Japan? Well, you probably do now.
1. they dress like Sailor Moon
Now before you say, “Duh! Sailor Moon comes from Japan and so it's the characters in the show who are inspired by Japan's schoolchildren, not the other way around,” know that I realize this (and if you didn't realize this, then, I know, mind blown). However, it took some time for me to shake the image of those sparkly childhood heroes of mine reflected in every one of my students (even the boys?). Students have summer and winter uniforms, and this includes everything down to their shoes (white with different colored stripes to denote different grades – which is surprisingly useful in identifying students). Whatever company is producing all these uniforms must be making a killing (and that's before you account for all the creepers who like to dress up like the school girls).
2. they are japanese
Again with the, “DUH! You're in Japan, of course, they're Japanese.” Again I realize this, but for me, it was quite a change to see a class of homogeneous purebreds staring back at me. Among the almost 400 students participating in this charade referred to colloquially as education at my school, they collectively amount to maybe four non-Japanese students (and note that no student is not without some Japanese blood). Maybe there's nothing wrong with that, but when students make a point of singling out the non-100% Japanese kids with chants of “haffu” or “[insert nationality here]” it becomes a very sad thing (my being 0% Japanese must be quite traumatic for them to deal with).
3. they like pencil cases
Every student has a pencil case. Every student. And these things are fully equipped (I'll have to get my hands on their list of required materials). Given that a child's typical means of individual expression (their clothing?) has been eliminated as an option for Japanese students, many take advantage of being able to use their own pencil case as a subtle attempt to inject some of themselves back into their schoolchild shell. Hello Kitty, Peanuts, Disney, and oversized zippers are popular designs, along with strangely worded English, athletic brands (Puma, Yonex, Nike, etc.) and the occasional fruit shaped case.
4. they are fine
If I say, “How are you?” how would you respond? Japanese schoolchildren are taught to respond to this question with, “I'm fine” (or to be more specific, “I'm fine, thank you. And you?). Now, technically this may be an appropriate response, and you may even respond with this yourself on occasion, but coming from the mouth of a Japanese child it sounds incredibly unnatural and not reflective of how they really feel (tortured would be the correct answer). I have begun the futile effort of converting them from “I'm fine” to “I'm good” and from “I'm so-so” to “I'm okay” (since this is much more reflective of how an English speaker would answer this question. Source: I'm an English speaker).
5. they all have the same subjects
In my junior high school (or middle school as I prefer to call it) days, there were two levels of most subjects: college prep and honors (because let's admit it, some kids try harder than others, e.g. NERDS). I even had an elective class that I got to pick for myself (although woodshop wasn't as exciting as I had hoped – far too little carnage). At the schools I have worked at in Japan, distinctions between different levels (i.e. an advanced class and a standard class) do not exist, and all students are required to take the same subjects (no electives). Hooray conformity!
6. they say hello to their teachers
I cannot escape the calls of everyone around me while at school. Students (are what I think must be required to) say “hello” (in Japanese) to every teacher they pass in the hall (or teacher that passes them). Should I find myself walking down a hallway of students I do one of two things: simply repeat “Hello” over and over until the crisis has ended (i.e. I have hidden myself, now crying, in a bathroom stall), or duck into a classroom and make small talk about how everyone is (spoiler: they're fine) until the bell rings. However, student behavior provides a stark contrast to the behavior of my Japanese colleagues – they just silently walk with their heads down avoiding eye contact when I see them in the halls (of course, they're simply not wanting to set a precedent for interaction with me – completely understandable).
7. they eat school lunch
Some ninety-five percent of students at my junior high school (a statistic I just made up, but that is reflective of what I have seen in schools) eat school lunch. Occasionally I will happen upon a student with a meal from home, but these students are the exception (and I wouldn't be surprised if they needed a damn good reason to bring their own lunch). Students are not permitted to have money (or snacks), and their lunches are paid for with their ID cards. When I was in middle school the most popular school lunch usually consisted of a personal pizza, a large chocolate chip cookie, and a soft drink. I suppose that sounds like poison compared to the thoughtfully planned school lunches of Japan (but that doesn't mean it isn't delicious).
8. they will “see you”
The next generation of Japanese are also taught to say “see you” (pronounced “shee you“) when bidding adieu to one another. Again, you may be able to justify the use of “see you”; however, “see you later/at lunch/tomorrow/next week”, “bye”, and “see ya” are far more natural alternatives to this crazy world of “see you” I have found myself in. Every time I make the mistake of uttering the phrase myself, I take one metaphorical step closer to the literal killing of myself. It's even starting to sound correct at this point – please tell me that I am just losing my mind. (But seriously, leave a comment and tell me if I'm losing it).
9. they don't change classes
Except for when a class calls for a specially equipped classroom (science experimenting, art doing, or sometimes even English learning), students don't change classrooms between subjects. Instead, the teachers are the ones who move from class to class during the passing periods (ten minutes out here). This means that each (homeroom) class has every class, every day, with all the same students. The only time students have to mingle (or even see) the rest of their peers is during passing periods, at lunch (where they still sit according to their homerooms), or after school.
10. they greet each other in the morning
If you find yourself walking past a school one morning in Japan and are concerned by the number of audible screams emanating from within its walls, do not be alarmed. Chances are it's just the morning greeting. Morning greeting? Yes, you know, that time in the morning when students stand outside the school and shout (sometimes literally scream) おはようございます (ohayou gozaimasu/good morning) at every student and staff member arriving at school. I can never quite tell how genuine the kids screaming salutations are.
11. they clean the school every day
Every (normally scheduled) day, all the students in the school equip themselves with rags, brooms, and dustpans as they take off to a predetermined location with a team of four or five other students to conquer the task of cleaning said place. For ten minutes in the afternoon, students sweep, scrub, polish, and vacuum their school. Every detail down to scrubbing the toilet bowls is taken care of by the students (I wonder how they decide who goes where). However, I have seen these kids clean, and I can assure you that they do a half-assed job at best (and I can't really blame them). Perhaps cleaning time would be better employed as recess time.
12. they don't have recess
Speaking of recess, one of the most popular cartoon gangs of the nineties could never have existed in Japan. Why? Because children at (my) junior high schools in Japan do not get to enjoy the glorious period of time known as recess. The only break time they get is fifteen minutes after lunch to hang around in their classrooms or play some of the most disorganized and quickly paced basketball that I have ever seen (can't wait for the NBJ to take off). I have yet to inform them that this thing called recess exists (in the United States, at least) for fear that their heads will explode upon learning they are living in a prison.
13. they eat lunch with their teachers in their classrooms
The middle school I spend most of my time at has a cafeteria, but it is only large enough to accommodate half of the school's students at a time. Classes alternate each week between eating in their classrooms and eating in the cafeteria. When eating in the cafeteria, the students have assigned seats (with their classes). When eating in their classrooms, students convert their desks into predefined table groups and eat with their teacher supervising from the front of the room. Either way, students are universally afraid of sitting with me ever since they saw me eat a raw carrot (which apparently nobody in my school (or Japan?) has ever seen before).
14. they keep journals
I just discovered this recently, but every student has a school-issued journal that they are required to write in every day. Their homeroom teachers check these journals daily to keep tabs on student lives (and emotional states?). What exactly gets written down in these things? They're pretty thorough – everything from wake up and sleep times to how much time the student spent watching TV and using the computer. That's not enough? Well they also are used to write down every day's schedule (because remember, classes change) and to note whether or not a student was bullied.
15. they have quiet time
For the last ten minutes of every day, before they either go home or start their club activity, all the students are quartered in their homerooms where they put their heads down on their desks for ten minutes of silent reflection (or perhaps the only sleep they'll get all day). But make note, this time is not for relaxation, this is for the students to think about what they've done during the day, what they're going to do that evening (homework, homework, homework), and what they need to do the following day (everything again). I do the same thing in the staff room, but I sleep instead (nobody else is on board with the program as of yet).