Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Discipline in Japanese Schools

Recently another ALT was recalling the differences between the myth and the reality of the Japanese school system. “When I was growing up,” she said, “we heard so many stories about Japanese schools. How they were so strict, and if the students acted up in even the littlest way, they were disciplined severely. Man, what a pack of lies that was.”

Indeed I have the same memories. When I was in middle school and high school, my teachers loved to talk about how lazy and spoiled we American students were in comparison to our Japanese counterparts. Whenever we complained about too much homework, we were told that Japanese students did twice as much as we did and didn’t dare complain about it.

I don’t know if those stories are still being told, or with the burst of the bubble economy some of those myths have been burst as well. As with all myths, it does have some basis in truth, but there is a lot of exaggeration and misunderstanding.

I’ve broached this topic before, but it is hard to compare any aspect of Japanese culture in relation to Western culture. For instance you can not say that Japanese are more or less polite than Americans, because that comparison implies there is an agreed upon universal standard of politeness, which there is not. Some Japanese manners strike Americans as overly polite, others as down right rude.

It is the same way with talking about discipline in the schools. You would be amazed what these little buggers can get away with over here. At the same time, you would also be amazed at the minor infractions that seem to cause all hell to break loose.

Of course it is difficult to make generalizations. As with America, every teacher is different. Some teachers are real battle-axes and don’t let the kids get away with anything. Other teachers are really soft and the kids run all over them. And some teachers are pretty cranky, too lazy to discipline the kids on a lot of matters, but then every so often will unpredictably explode.

That being said, here is a brief summary of what the kids seem to be able to do with no consequences, or at least a slight verbal reprimand: talking during class, sleeping during class, reading comic books during class, bullying between classes, fighting between classes, fighting with the teacher, fighting in class, and of course kanchoing the American
I’m exaggerating only in the sense that some of these I’ve seen only once, and not repeatedly. I once saw a teacher engage in a physical struggle with an 8th grade boy. She wanted him to sit down, he refused, they grabbled, and then she gave up and just nodded to me to resume the class. I also once saw a boy get kicked in the face by another boy between classes, with absolutely no punishment for the offender. The Japanese teacher pretended she just didn’t see it.

Now, here is a list of offenses that will really get you in trouble: not standing up straight at the beginning of class for greetings. Not wearing the right school uniform. Not participating in the beginning of class greeting. Not singing the school song right. Missing a button on your uniform. Not standing up and bowing right at the big school ceremonies.

Or in other words, there seems to be a big emphasis in Japanese schools on form over function. Given what the kids get away with, I can’t believe what they get in trouble for.

Last week I was teaching a 6th grade class. We were doing a warm up song, and one of the boys wasn’t singing it in a loud voice. The teacher stopped the class and made the kid do a solo. Then he yelled at him for a half hour. No kidding, a full half-hour. I was watching the clock because I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to even have to teach, but then he gave me the last 15 minutes to do a game. So now we’re one whole lesson behind with the 6th grade class because someone wasn’t singing the opening song properly.

Again, this is a lot more puzzling in light of what they actually get away with. I thought of all the times a lesson of mine turned into a disaster because the kids would not stay quiet or stay in their seats. Or sometimes they even run up to the front of the class to grab my teaching materials when my back is turned. None of this seems to invoke the wrath of the homeroom teacher, but messing with the opening song, like messing around with the opening or closing greeting, is something that really invokes a lot of yelling.

And when they yell, they really yell. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes a teacher has to yell. I learned that very quickly. You can’t be a nice guy all the time.

But my personal philosophy is that you should only yell when you need to restore order. When the kids are already being submissive, I don’t think you should continue yelling at them. And to continue yelling at the top of your voice for a half hour is just weird. Especially given the trivial offences that seem to set them off. But that’s how they do it in Japan. I’ve had similar experiences in Ajimu. One teacher took up a whole class to yell, (really yell) at one girl student. I still have no idea what she did. I think it was something related to not doing the opening greeting properly. I just stared at the ground with the rest of the students while this was going on. Then after 40 minutes of yelling, the homeroom teacher abruptly left the room and I was alone to entertain the kids. I tried to do a game, but the class wasn’t in much of a game-playing mood. And then while I was trying to engage them, the homeroom teacher suddenly came back in and started yelling again.


Anonymous said...

Thanks man I was looking for insight on actual Japanese discipline and this is probably the best Ive found

Joel said...

glad to help

Nozomi said...

Hi, my name is Nozomi. I live in Miyazaki.My boyfriend is an ALT and always talks about how Japanese people acts. So I became more curious and I did some googling and I found your blog. I really enjoy reading your blog!! I think you're a great writer. Because I see that you lived in Ooita, I feel that your blog is very close and personal to me.

I really admire the fact you take the time to put up the pictures and to post your resources I would really like to talk to you and hear your opinions about Japanese culture.

My boyfriend said that ALTs really want to positively affect Japanese people he said that he would be happy if some Japanese people told him he was really moved what he said. That's why I'm writing to you now.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment Nozomi

Joel said...

Update, 2012:
This post has been getting a lot of hits recently. (If you google "Discipline in Japanese schools" it often comes up as the first hit). So I should make a disclaimer: I'm not in any sense an expert, this post was written 7 years ago mainly because I was just bored at work. I made several sweeping generalizations and stereotypes in this post that 7 years later I'm somewhat embarrassed by.
So read this post with a grain of salt, and apologies for the gross generalizations.