Stepping into Elementary Schools in Japan

Sherry L. Field and Linda D. Labbo

Before entering, we could tell that this school would be a special place. Nestled in a quiet urban neighborhood in the heart of Hiroshima, Senda Elementary School stood before us. "Welcome to Senda" exhorted a colorful banner prepared by the children. The artists had included representations of their faces--friendly, smiling faces like the ones we would encounter throughout our day at the school.

It was just before 8 a.m. as we stood outside the school's arched entranceway to see students arriving for their Wednesday classes. They came in groups, walking and chattering together, and dressed in casual clothing suitable for the 90-degree, late June weather. All supported sturdy bookbags, or randoseru, on their backs, and most carried brightly-colored cloth bags that (we later learned) held a change of clothing and a towel for swimming class--a much-relished component of Senda's physical education program.

The children smiled and waved at us, and several groups even managed a cheerful "Ohayo gaizamusu!" (Good morning!) before erupting into playful giggles, or shyer smiles and glances. We were a group of American, Australian, Canadian, and English educators taking part in the 1997 Keizai Koho Center Fellowship study tour of Japan.

An important part of visiting any school in Japan is meeting with the principal and teachers. Our meeting with Mr. Matsuishi, Senda's principal, took place in his office--a large, sunny room with comfortable work space and a sitting area for visitors. Mr. Matsuishi welcomed us with tea and coffee and presented our schedule for the day before explaining the educational goals of the school. The teachers would join us for a formal meeting later in the day, at which time we presented our gifts of textbooks and children's books from our home countries, and took part in a question and answer session with them.

The Structure of a Japanese Elementary School

Senda Elementary School is a public school, as are 99 percent of all compulsory schools in Japan. It serves grades 1 to 6, and follows the Course of Study (Gakushu shido yoryo) for elementary, junior, and high schools set forth by the Ministry of Education with the approval of the Curriculum Council. Each school in the public system may adapt the curriculum slightly to take into consideration the needs of the local community.

All textbooks used in Japanese public schools must be approved by the Ministry of Education and by the municipal board. Class size may not exceed 40 students. Most public schools are governed by municipal boards of education, usually comprised of three or five members appointed by the mayor or commissioner of the municipality. Public funding for education comes from the national government, the prefectures, and municipalities.1

The Japanese school year extends from April 1 to March 31 and includes three terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March. Three extended holidays break up the school sessions, the longest being the summer break from late July to September. Japanese children have traditionally attended school five and one-half days a week, but in 1992, a five-day week was piloted once a month. By 1995, it became standard for elementary schools to have the shorter five-day week every other week.

The Ministry of Education sets the school year at a required 210 days, and local boards typically add another 15 days for such special activities as open house, athletic meets, field trips, and arts and crafts festivals.2

Senda Elementary School's special activities include school visiting days during which parents may join in open discussion with the teachers. There are also class activities and field trips planned by the PTA for each grade level. First and second graders tour the local neighborhood and visit nearby businesses. Third graders visit one of Hiroshima's factories, an agricultural site (last year they participated in chopping rice), and a television broadcasting station. Fourth grade students visit a recycling center and plan their own recycling campaigns, while fifth grade students visit the Mazda manufacturing plant located in Hiroshima.

Senda's PTA members also plan lectures on relevant topics. For example, one of last year's lectures was about education for the physically and mentally challenged. Other PTA-planned activities last year included a school-wide bazaar, a spring athletic meet, a mothers-and-teachers volleyball competition, and language and cooking classes for mothers.

In our later question-and-answer session with teachers and Mr. Matsuishi, one topic that proved of great interest was the use of technology in U.S. schools. We learned that Senda Elementary was just beginning to acquire the hardware and software needed for widespread use of computers in the school (although several teachers do have individual computers in their classrooms).

Our Japanese counterparts also questioned us about the future of education in our home countries, and suggested that we all share a similar concern about motivating students and managing behavior. While Japanese teachers told us that they teach manners in their classrooms, they also said they believe this to be the job of parents. Teachers were surprised at the attractiveness, as well as the size and weight, of the textbooks they received from us. Japanese textbooks are typically paper bound and have few colored illustrations or photographs.

Visiting Classrooms at Senda Elementary

We made visits to several classrooms in order to experience a variety of grade levels and instructional activities. Children in Japan typically study Japanese, calligraphy, social studies (called ìlife studiesî for grades one and two), science, mathematics, physical education, art, music, home studies, and ethics.

Our first visit was to a fourth grade calligraphy class. The Japanese educational system devotes a great deal of attention to the children's learning of thousands of kanji figures. Some children are tutored privately in calligraphy. In this classroom, the teacher used an interesting display board that allowed her, after dipping her brush into water, to ìpaintî on the board, repeating and numbering strokes. After the formal part of the lesson, the children formed teams and taught their visitors how to make the kanji figure they had just learned. They provided each of us with practice paper, a calligraphy brush, ink, and their patient instruction, which consisted of the gentle repetition of the strokes we had just seen demonstrated--ichi (one), ni (two), wa (three), desu (four). These fourth graders reacted enthusiastically when we had completed our figures, presenting us with both our own work and samples of their calligraphy work.

Our next visit was to a first grade classroom for a Japanese reading lesson. The children in the class all had copies of their reading book on their desks. Three or four students were asked to read out loud from the animal story, with everyone else following along. Then, the teacher asked pairs of children to role play the action in the story, providing sets of children with props she had made (rabbit ears and dog ears). Pairs of students excitedly acted out the story, complete with dialogue and much hopping about.

Sixth grade social studies students had prepared a special demonstration of the traditional form of Japanese flower arranging, ikebana. This was a departure from the usual study of Japanese history at this grade level. Their teacher reviewed the basic lines and forms to be considered for the placement of each flower. Then, she distributed bunches of flowers, pods, and greenery to each of eight groups in the classroom. Five students in each group worked together to complete their arrangement. Like sixth graders everywhere, there was gentle teasing and friendly banter as they completed their work. Then, the students helped their guests to create an arrangement.

All of Senda's sixth grade students entertained us with a musical presentation on their recorders. They also asked questions about our schools. We learned that some of the sixth graders belong to an English club that meets after school and/or during activity time, and these students wanted an opportunity to practice their English speaking skills.

A Visit to Ochanomizu Elementary School in Tokyo

Ochanomizu Elementary School was founded in 1878 as the Training Primary School Attached to Tokyo Women's Normal School. Through the years, it has experienced many transformations and name changes. In 1980, it was renamed and attached to Ochanomizu University. In addition to the primary school, the larger campus also houses a nursery, junior high school, high school, and university buildings.

As part of a university training setting, Ochanomizu Elementary School has as its mission to: (1) achieve the goals of primary education, (2) research the theory and practice of primary education, (3) serve as a preservice teacher training site, and (4) offer various services, such as training for inservice teachers.

Students who attend the school commute from all over Tokyo and must pass an entrance examination in order to attend. According to Mr. Hashino, the assistant principal, one boy out of 70 and one girl out of 250 were accepted for the 1997/98 school year, making a total of 381 boys and 384 girls. There are three classes in each of grades 1 to 6. One hundred twenty students in classes of 40 make up each of grades 1 to 3. In grades 4 to 6, there are 120 students assigned to three regular classes, with an additional class of 15 students at each grade level. These students are ìreturneesî--students who have lived away from Japan and are assimilating back into their school and culture. These classes for returnees are kept smaller in order for students to have additional time to study Japanese, language, and calligraphy.

According to the Ochanomizu School Prospectus, ìëthe system of cooperative responsibility for the whole grade' has been in effect...since 1953. One teacher does not take entire charge of one class, but three teachers together take charge of the three classes of one grade during the school year. This is different from the ordinary ëclass teacher system' which is taken by other primary schools.î

The course of study is similar to that followed by elementary students all over Japan, with one notable difference. At Ochanomizu, students also participate in ìgrade activities,î or independent study. According to Mr. Takashima, principal of Ochanomizu, students in the grades 3 to 6 spend time conducting independent research and writing a major report during ìgrade activity timeî at the end of the school year. First and second grade students learn about ìlife studies,î an integrated social studies/science curriculum, during this time.

Touring the School

Upon arrival at Ochanomizu Elementary School on July 4, 1997, we were greeted by Mr. Takashima and Mr. Hashino. We then moved to one of the school's music rooms, where we were entertained by an array of choral and instrumental music performed by the school returnees. The performance included traditional Japanese folk songs, the school song, and the national anthems of the United States, Canada, Australia, and England. All of the children wore school uniforms of soft blue dresses for the girls and white shirts and dark shorts for the boys.

After the music recital, we divided into pairs for tours of the school conducted by pairs of returnee students. Our own guides were Yuko, a fifth grade girl whose father's job had taken her family to live in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; and Haruka, a 4th grade girl whose family had lived in Sweden. Yuko and Haruka took us all over the school. We observed mathematics lessons in grades 5 and 6 (some children worked together with their teacher on computations, some were using manipulatives to problem-solve, and some worked in small groups), art lessons in grade 4 (students were completing clay sculptures), science classes in grade 3 (an outside experiment to measure water), and Japanese reading classes in grades 1 and 2 (one first grade teacher was giving his students individual feedback on their written work, while a second grade class was reading a story).

We arrived last at the school's computer lab. Here, a first grade teacher was showing his class how to use the Macintosh software KidPix. With children gathered on the floor, the teacher used a large-screen computer projection to provide direct instruction on keyboarding skills and buttons. The teacher paused often to ask questions of the students, who came to the front of the room to point to the correct keys displayed on the screen. For the second half of the lesson, students worked in pairs on assignments using different KidPix tools. We observed some of the students trying to make a kanji figure with the software, which includes a paintbrush tool. They were frustrated by the fact that the paint was not easy to manipulate, and that, even though the paintbrush pictured looked like the calligraphy brushes they used at school, they could not control it easily.

Lunch time was spent in the teacher planning room with Mr. Takashima, Mr. Hashino, and the social studies team leader. PTA volunteers brought our lunch of corn, fish, shrimp, vegetable tempura, and tea. We learned that Ochanomizu prides itself for being the first school in Japan to have a jungle gym installed in the playground area, and for being among the first schools in Japan to introduce a student council organization.

As we finished lunch, we were again greeted by our tour guides, who walked us to the entrance of the school to say good-bye. We felt fortunate to have enjoyed such an educational day.

Future Trends in Japanese Education

The dominant trends in Japanese education today follow recommendations contained in a 1987 report from the Provisional Council on Educational Reform commissioned by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. These recommendations involved areas of ìelementary, secondary, and higher education; lifelong education; internationalization; the greater reliance on computers and information; and educational administration and funding.î3

Some reforms have already taken place, including a new Course of Study for elementary schools that was implemented in 1992. The school calendar year has been shortened, adjustments in the philosophy and mission of elementary schools aimed at less rigidity have been put into effect, and technology systems are being integrated into elementary schools. Additionally, private and business groups, such as the Sony Foundation, have been organized to ìtrain teachers about the newest and most creative teaching methods available.î4 Japan's main educational challenge today involves how to continue the high level of education available, while at the same time making the educational process more accessible and flexible in terms of both scheduling and curriculum.


1. Yasushi Tokutake, ìAbout Japanî Series 8, Education in Japan (Tokyo: Foreign Press Center, 1995).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Hidetoshi Uchiyama, Personal interview with the authors on November 24, 1997, in Athens, Georgia.

About the Authors

Sherry L. Field was a Keizai Koho Center Fellow in 1992 and Project Director of the Keizai Koho Center Fellowship Study Tour in 1997. She is associate professor of social science education at the University of Georgia and editor of Social Studies and the Young Learner. Linda D. Labbo is associate professor of reading education at the University of Georgia, and was a Keizai Koho Center Fellow in 1997.