Middle School in Japan

Hiroko Sato, left, with her younger sister, Koko-Chan, on the right.

Middle school in Japan is serious business – unlike the United States, where most middle and high school students don’t have to worry about serious tests until after they’ve been studying for a while, the Japanese educational system has serious entrance examinations beginning with grammar school.

In order to get into a good university, students have to attend a good high school, and in order to get into a good high school, they have to attend – you guessed it – a good middle school. This makes getting into the right middle school a very competitive process, which means extremely tough tests for students who want to attend.

Hiroko Sato is 13 years old, and recently entered 早稲田中学 – Waseda Middle School. Her parents attended Waseda University, as did her grandfather – my host father here in Japan – and they want her to attend the famous university as well. First, they made sure that she tested into Waseda Elementary School, and now being at Waseda Middle School gives her a good chance at getting into the high school – which more or less guarantees her a spot at the prestigious university.

What does attending Waseda University mean? Well, in Japan it means a promising career and a bright future – several of Japan’s recent prime ministers attended Waseda, as did the famous novelist Haruki Murakami. This means that for many Japanese kids like Hiroko, a test taken at the age of 12 can determine a big part of one’s future.

I spoke with Hiroko about the life of a Japanese middle school student – the following has been translated, by myself, from the original Japanese.

Hiroko Kato and Koko-Chan.

Josh: How difficult was the test to get into your middle school?

Hiroko: It was pretty difficult, but I studied very hard. It was very stressful.

Josh: What is the school calendar like?

Hiroko: I have school from April until July, then September until December, and January until March.

Josh: And you go to school Monday through Saturday, right?

Hiroko: Yes, but we only have four periods on Saturday. It’s six on weekdays.

Josh: How long is each period?

Hiroko: 50 minutes.

Josh: American middle school students don’t have class on Saturdays.

Hiroko: They are lucky! But Japanese have to prepare for high school entrance exams, so maybe it’s necessary.

Josh: Getting into a good high school is just as important as getting into a good college in Japan, is that right?

Hiroko: If you don’t get into a good high school, it is very hard to get into the university that you want. I have some friends who did not pass the entrance exams for Waseda middle school, and they were very upset.

Josh: This is why they have “cram schools” in Japan, right? Can you explain those?

Hiroko: Cram schools are like special tutoring to help students prepare for the entrance exams. It’s a lot of hard work and means no free time for students.

Josh: In your regular middle school classes, what are some of the subjects you focus on?

Hiroko: There is a lot of kanji and language instruction, mathematics, and social studies and sciences. Probably similar to American schools, except for language studies. We also have physical education each day.

Josh: Because Waseda University is famous for its sports clubs, I have heard that your school has these as well?

Hiroko: Yes, we have dozens of sports clubs. I am in the volleyball club.

Josh: What do you enjoy about it?

Hiroko: Because school keeps us very busy, our club is where we meet our closest friends. Volleyball is fun, but mostly I like being with my girlfriends in the club, to spend time with them and talk and have fun.

Josh: Is there lots of homework at your school?

Hiroko: Yes! I have writing homework each day, and a lot of reading also. It’s very serious. I hate it.

Josh: One thing that is very different about Japanese schools are the uniforms – all of the schools have uniforms, which is different from most American schools. What do you think about them?

Hiroko: They are fine. I don’t really think about it. It’s just school, and we can dress how we want to the rest of the time, so I don’t think people mind.

As you can see, Japanese high school students can still manage to have their own style, even if they all wear uniforms. Each high school and middle school has its own different uniform, with a special crest representing the school.

Josh: I know that you live at home, with your parents, but some of my friends have known other middle school students who lived with family friends during the week, so that they can be closer to their cram school, until they get into high school – have you known people who do that?

Hiroko: Yes, because commuting takes so long in Tokyo, and the city is so big, sometimes people do this, especially if they live far outside of the city. I have a friend who does this, but her parents work a lot also, so it would be the same if she was at home.

Josh: Do you like your school?

Hiroko: Yes, I like it a lot. Even though it is a lot of work, it’s not all so difficult. I have lots of fun, and I get to see my friends a lot during the day.

Josh: Do you have any questions for the middle school students in America?

Hiroko: Umm…is it hard to be a middle school student in America? What is the hardest part and what is the most fun part?

Josh: Thanks, Hiroko! I will ask them and let you know.

So, that is my conversation with Hiroko Kato – are there any other questions that you guys think I should ask her? Let me know in the comments section.

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Part-time journalist & student of communication studies.
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50 Responses to Middle School in Japan

  1. zephrym says:

    In America, it can be hard, but it is also a lot of fun. We have a lot of breaks, weekends, and holidays. We do plenty of non educational stuff in school, though usually they have some”educational roots”. We have to study hard, especially in my school, because some of our classes are for high school credits, and effect our GPA.

    • Josh says:

      You make a lot of good points, here. I’m really glad that you guys understand that Japan’s educational system being different doesn’t make it better or worse, necessarily. The real point is that Japanese schools prepare Japanese people for life in Japan, and the same goes for American schools and our way of life. One thing that is interesting: Because education is so standardized in Japan, generally speaking, what one person knows, everyone knows. They have to study everything, all the way through. In America, however, after middle school we start to get more and more specialized, and people who aren’t so good at math or some other subject gradually move away from it as they go on to college. However, in Japan, this doesn’t happen; people just eventually become good at math, because they have to keep doing it.

    • Giovanni says:

      In Japan you have to wear school uniforms. In the u.s you are free to wear whatever you like or want to wear, as long as it is appropriate to the schools rules. In Japan test are like the most important thing in your school life if you don’t succed then you don’t get in the school. I the u.s test are blnot that big a part on your grade that much. They go to scholar a lot more than us. We get a longer break than them and also we only have to do five days a week, not six. Their school days are also longer than ours by a few hours.

    • American says:

      Please stop calling the US “America” as if it was the only country in the American continent…..South Africa is a country and Africa is a continent, America is a continent as well and the US is part of it as it is any of the other countries

  2. Kees says:

    I think that middle school here is very different from middle school in Japan. I think that one main difference is because kids in Japan care more about their education. Second of all, I think younger and younger children are being stressed more and more about their education.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the great comment. I agree with you that kids are experiencing more stress at younger ages in some cases. However, it’s important to ask the question how they feel about it? What seems very stressful to us might not be that stressful to them, if they are used to it.
      As for kids in Japan caring more about their education, well, I’m not sure about that. They do this because it’s normal, just like our schooling system is normal for us. They want to be a part of society, and to end up somewhere good in society we often have to play by the rules that we’re given; that’s all they are doing, which is not so different from what you and I have done in America.

  3. kevin says:

    Very Interesting! Middle school in Japan is very different from ours. Kids in Japan have to work ten times more than us. If I were to live in Japan, I would probably stress everyday. Japan and America has a lot of things in common. In order to get into a good university, you have to prepare for high school.

    • Josh says:

      Great observations, Kevin. There are two sides to every coin, however: Compared to American universities, most Japanese universities are very easy; kids work very hard to get into a good university, and then it is time for them to relax. They skip lots of classes, spend more time with their “circles” (school clubs, like soccer club, chess club, music club, karate club, manga club) than in class.
      Also, it’s important to remember that these students are used to this way of life because for them, it’s normal.

    • American says:

      Please stop calling the US “America” as if it was the only country in the American continent…..South Africa is a country and Africa is a continent, America is a continent as well and the US is part of it as it is any of the other countries

  4. What is the hardest subject usually? Favorite Manga? Favorite game? Favorite Sport? Does she play chess?

  5. Zaidie says:

    Middle school sounds very similar to here in Japan. Many schools have uniforms, and we are probably one of the only schools in this city without sports clubs. We have six periods a day, though most schools have seven, and the classes sound the same as ours. Though we don’t have to take a test for Middle school, High school effects what colleges we can go to. What kind of activities do middle schoolers there do for fun?
    Thanks!

    • Josh says:

      Zaidie, thanks for the great comment and thanks for being comfortable with sharing your opinion, even though it is different from the views expressed by many of your classmates. It’s really nice to have polite differences of opinion, because this leads to good discussions and better understanding. I also thank you for reminding us that it is important to see the similarities as well as the differences.
      Hiroko says that middle schoolers at her school do many things for fun. She and her friends enjoy video games, dancing and listening to K-Pop (Korean Pop, very popular here in Japan), playing sports and watching television.

  6. Duy says:

    Wow. It seems pretty hard in Japan. I think one of the most biggest differences between middle school in Japan and here is that in Japan it is a lot more important to get in a good middle school. They’re so stressed to get in. It’s crazy how hard it is! Also I think I’m lucky to have not as much homework as they do and have some leisure time. I understand worrying a whole bunch about getting in to high school, but for middle school I think it is too much. Good thing they have fun. Lastly,what kinds of sport are there in Japan?

    • Josh says:

      Duy, thanks for the great comment. Their system is kind of flipped around from America; in the U.S., college is much more difficult and stressful than it is in Japan, but middle school and high school are more relaxed. Interesting, right?
      As for sports, Japan’s most popular sports are baseball and sumo wrestling, but many others are popular as well. Golf is very popular, but expensive to play because real estate is so expensive here, so most people go to virtual golf driving ranges, which is kind of like playing golf on the Wii, but much more high-tech.

  7. rowan132 says:

    it is very different in America. If i were in japan i would be really stressed with all the work. good luck Hiroko. In America we get saturdays off and don’t have giant middle school tests. At lunch I play YU-GI-OH with my friends. do you have time for that in Japan?

  8. Youki says:

    Aaaaargh. I don’t think I could deal with all the homework. Plus, due to the fact that I’m Jewish, I can’t go to school on Saturdays. Our tests aren’t as hard, and we get homework sometimes but not very regularly. We don’t wear uniforms either. Are you an Otaku(not hardcore)? If so, whats your favorite anime/manga.

    • Josh says:

      Youki, thanks for the interesting observations and great questions. Hiroko told me that her favorite manga is the one that her Mom wrote; this is the one I talk about in the blog post, about my host family. Her mom is the daughter of my host mother, who is a much older woman – old enough to be my grandmother! She said that she also likes a lot of Shoujo manga (little girls manga), which are mostly stories about friendship.
      As for the Otaku question, I’m afraid I couldn’t ask Hiroko that. Why? Well, although many Americans who like manga and anime might calls themselves an Otaku and think of it as meaning “nerd,” it actually has a much different connotation in Japan. In America, there is not really so much stigma attached to calling oneself a nerd these days. However, it would be very, very hard to find a Japanese person who would call themselves an Otaku. It usually is considered to be a very insulting term. Why? Well, the “otaku” phenomenon began during the 1990′s, with what is called Japan’s “lost generation.” After Japan’s economy declined, for the first time in a long, long time a generation of young people in Japan did not have careers to go into. Many of them felt their lives lacked meaning in a culture where work is so important, and so they stayed home and lived with their parents – this is where the term “otaku” comes from. It is the word for “house/home.”
      So, what we think of otaku in America (someone who likes manga and anime and video games) is actually just a very normal person here in Japan, because nearly everyone likes those things. An “otaku” in Japan is someone who is virtually a shut-in, with no job or real friends, and no ability to function outside of the world of video games and manga and other “nerd” culture.

      • Merlin says:

        Very nice to see someone in the know set about clarifying what “otaku” actually means. I remember seeing a very famous American singer-songwriter play in Shinsaibashi a few years ago, and he actually introduced the show with “Konban ha. Watashi ha otaku desu!” There was this audible awkward pause and then a very unsure ripple of giggles in the room. I just wonder how many other North Americans call themselves “otaku” without doing the actual research into what it means in the heads of their Japanese friends. Might help to find out before casually casting words around as if they were culturally-sanctioned slogans.

        This is a great blog. Keep it up sir!

  9. Justin says:

    Middle school in Japan is much different than middle school in America because there is much more homework there than there is in America. If I was in Japan middle school, I probably wouldn’t make it through the year with all that stress with homework. Hiroko, does your middle school have any special events to celebrate your school?

    • Josh says:

      Justin, thanks for the great question. Hiroko said that they have several special events throughout the year, including an annual festival.

  10. Edil says:

    I think school in Japan is a lot more different than in America because they have more work and more school days in Japan than in America. It seems like kids in Japan care a lot about their education. I would go to school in Japan for a week and see how school is there. Then maybe I can compare school in Japan and school in America. I already know that school harder in Japan than in America but I would still like to try.

    • Edil says:

      Another difference is they wear uniforms in Japan but at my school, we don’t. Do you know if Japan teaches similar math or other subjects like America?

      • Josh says:

        Edil, I really like your attitude: It’s always a good idea to try and experience something for yourself before you judge it. In this case, it’s important to remember that while Japanese school might be harder from an American point of view, many aspects of the system are things that Japanese become used to from a young age. Therefore, things that would be stressful for us are simply ‘normal’ for them. Meanwhile, there are many aspects of American schools that they would find terrifying. For instance, Japanese students tend to hate group discussions. As American middle school students, you are all probably much better at giving your personal opinion about something in front of strangers, because you are used to it; it’s a part of our culture, but not a normal part of their culture. So, American middle school might be equally difficult for a Japanese student as Japanese school might be for you.

  11. Molly says:

    Wow! I feel pretty lucky that we get to go to this nice, easy middle school. It must be hard to have a test you take at age 12 determine your life path. I love the uniforms, by the way! (Can you tell her that? :D ) Middle school here seems a lot harder, but also very interesting. I think I would learn a lot there. Like Edil said, they seem to care a lot about education. Are all the schools private? And to Hiroko: I love hanging out with my friends during school, and I do love to learn new things. I really dislike homework, though it seems that ours is lots easier then yours!

  12. Ders says:

    Well, Hiroko, being a middle school student in America is not actually that hard. I t is often okay to turn in late work, and we are not graded very harshly. It’s pretty easy to get straight A’s, as long as you pay enough attention in class. We can wear whatever we want, as long as it is not inappropriate for school.

  13. Ashok says:

    Middle school in Japan is very much different than middle school in America. For one, we barely have any tests that severely affect our grade. Also, the passing level for my math class (a high school course) is 70%, a value which I am guessing is a LOT higher in Japan. Also, how many people took the entrance exam to Waseda middle school, and how many were accepted? If it has such great alumni, it must be a very sought after school.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the great comment, and the interesting questions. The number of applicants for Waseda changes each year, but one of my professors happens to be in charge of admissions, and he told me a funny story. He said that during Japan’s “bubble years,” which is what they call the period of extreme economic prosperity in the 80′s-90′s in Japan, they would get nearly a hundred thousand applications each year. Most people knew that they couldn’t get in, because the entrance exam is so tough. But, because people had money, they still had their children apply, because the school is so famous that people could at least say they “almost” went there.

  14. Huy says:

    Middle school is definitely more important than back here in the U.S.. They have longer school days and less free time. So how do they spend their free time?

  15. Annie says:

    Middle school here is pretty easy. There aren’t very many tests and most of them are easy.

  16. Anandi says:

    Sounds like a lot of work to go to a Japanese school! Is it the top scores on the tests that get into the middle school, or is it that you have to get over a certain percent to get in? Is it easier to get in to a better middle/high school if you are a girl or a boy, or is it equal? Are there all girl or all boy schools in Japan like there are in America? I have never heard of staying at a family friend’s house to be closer to a school. You would have to like school a lot and be very dedicated to stay at someone else’s house for those reasons in America. Sounds like you have to be very dedicated to school in Japan.

  17. Gabriel says:

    School in japa seems much harder than it is here but we both have alot of homework and studying at our school. most schools dont have admitance tests but our particular school “ACCESS academy” has an entrance test that im pretty sure most of us took. Middle school is pretty easy it seams compared to there. The hardest part of school is stressing over the tests we think are going to be hard. the best part is probably getting to spend time with my friends. What is a students favorite thing to do in their free time?

    p.s. sorry for the late comment, i was sick

  18. tretay22 says:

    School in the U.S. is easier than school in Japan because of the time, the exams and test’s, and because of the uniforms. Not all schools in the U.S. have uniforms for that school, and not all have badges or name-tags. My half-brother has to wear a uniform and if he is not he has to wear his badge. My school does not have any uniforms or badges so we can wear whatever we want. The next reason is the exams and tests. You guys in Japan probably have a lot of tests and they are probably crucial to your grade for the term. If the grades were as hard to get in the U.S. then I would probably not get straight A’s. The third reason is the time from what i have read from your post this week you guys in Japan have to be in school every weekday’s (except from the breaks between the terms).Seem’s tough. I can not imagine going to school on my precious Saturdays. It is my favorite day of the week. I have one question to ask though. Do you have any lunch in the middle of a school day, and if so, is it long?

  19. Zeno XD says:

    I am glad I do not live in Japan! School sounds so hard!

    P.S. Should we assume that Hiroko is a cheater, since he said “…with my girlfriendS”, or is it just a string of breakups?

  20. Sona says:

    School here in America is a breeze compared to school in Japan, I can tell that the kids in Japan have a lot of discipline. Unlike some of the kids here (but not all).

  21. Anna says:

    School in japan seems a lot harder than in America. When I got into access it probably changed my life so I know what that is like. I’m glad I don’t have school on saturday because i like having free time on weekends.

  22. Mollie says:

    Well, Middle school in Japan vs Here in America?
    Well for one the system is different. You go to the high school you are zoned to. The programs are in the high-schools themselves. For example kids do harder courses in Middle School to get into the IB program which is definitly harder than normal classes.
    We have 7 periods a day and Saturdays free, but lots of homework.
    Some of the kids that really want to get into a good college study all the time, because IB is very difficult.
    Some kids also live an hour or two away from the IB school, because only specific schools have the program. Private school around here usually are more religion based rather than higher learning. They are elementary, middle and high all in one, and usually are attatched to a church. Really the circulum is the same, just with a bit of religion added in. You also have to pay money, and in places such as here there are no scholarships for High School.
    Basically the private schools are the same level as the publuc, except they do not contain higher-learning experiences like IB.
    During High School out periods are 55 minutes, and there are 7. In 9th Grade Pre-IB you have to take Spanish, a college History Class, Biology, Geometery, English, a class about Inquirey and lunch of course! But lunch is really just study hall cause thats what us IB kids do. It gets much harder each year. You also must start IB in ninth grade or you do not get to do it. You must take a writing test to get in.
    IB is also great on a college resumee as well as for future careers.
    We do not wear uniforms, but some of us dress conservativly to try and set a good example to our teachers. We literally dress for success, or some of us do.
    What do you want to pursue as a future career? I want to be a English Teacher in Japan, so I can teach customs, language, culture and also experience your beautiful country.

  23. Kristel Anne says:

    Interesting. I’m from Philippines. We only have 5 days a week especially in Public Schools. Our subjects are English, Math, Filipino, Physical Education, Social Studies, Science, TLE & etc. 50 minutes :”)

  24. Kristel Anne says:

    We also have to go to school wearing uniform. Long skirt, short sleeves :”) lot of rules especially hair cut for boys every month.

  25. Jolie says:

    For me, I think the hardest part is paying attention in science because most of the time, I barely get it. The funest lesson part is math because it’s easy for me.

  26. Rebecca says:

    It would be absolutely nerve-wracking to take an entrance test before studying. I would probably fail so bad! I would be clueless as to any of the tests we take in school without learning first. On the other hand, I am an expert at test-taking tricks used to figure out the answers based on context. (What I like to call the ‘mysterious Benedict society property’- often the answer to one question will be contained in another question.) Pssst, it’s a secret.

  27. Trisha says:

    When I wish want going to Middle School Japan. But I know some speak different japan,italian,french,korean,chinese, and other language. I want friends talk learn how speak language japan. Did you know where middle school? I’m 7th grade passed 8th grade next school in american we’re soon ((I do know now My favorite anime is otaku)) Then I taste perfect food this sushi! I love food japan! I kept work tried hard time…. I draw anime good!

  28. Samyu says:

    I feel in america the education is too easy…. it seems much harder there, plus i have kumon which that itself sucks…. and my sports and all my clubs…. i bet there its MUCH harder…

    • American says:

      It could be easy in the US but in the rest of the continent called America we have different education standars and system

  29. missfayelee says:

    Reblogged this on Frustrated, Like Everyone Else and commented:
    Quite accurate, if you ask me.

  30. American says:

    Please stop calling the US “America” as if it was the only country in the American continent…..South Africa is a country and Africa is a continent, America is a continent as well and the US is part of it as it is any of the other countries

    • Merlin says:

      There is no continent called America. There is North America, there is South America, and then there is the alternative phrase for the anachronistic “The New World” which was “The Americas”, which meant to the European mind of the times both North and South America. Certainly now, in the Japanese imagination, アメリカ (A ME RI KA) means the United States, and I think truly refers to the Lower 48.

  31. Fyxe Hexyz says:

    In malaysia we have no Middle Schools :D and the homeworks will depend on the teacher XD some will get.. teachers that gives a lot of homework T-T For english we just got 100+ papers :’(

  32. Gellan says:

    what are the universities that require a uniform? are there any such universities?

  33. Zain Sohail says:

    Sorry for the Awkward bump on this blog, but I thought I should also share my opinion.

    I study in a private school with British Curriculum so it’s actually pretty different from the American system and if I had a say, more like the Japanese system. Here we have exams in the first year (out of 3; according to Japanese system) of high school which are called GCSE. And again, more public exams in second year and final year. The second and final year really matter for entrance in a university. Our school also makes us wear uniforms and their is constant amounts of homework given to us :D I think I would hopefully be able to fit in if I ever go to Japan.
    P.S: Grade 10 student here (Or High school Year 1 according to Japanese system)

  34. Yvette says:

    Quite interesting, as a high school student I can see many things in common with my school. I attend a CTA (Career and Technical Academy) school; it specializes in different careers, such as: Education, Culinary, Automotive, Integrated Technology, Business and Marketing, and Medical which breaks into two: Sports Medicine or CNA. Because our school’s main focus is academics, we have no sports nor electives like Band or Choir; instead we have electives like: Video Production, Graphic Design, Drivers Ed, Film Acting, Journalism, Broadcasting, etc. Our curricula is based on PBL (Project Based Learning), which means we can have up to ten projects a year. Our high school also has eight classes; which are all 1 hour and 45 minutes long. Homework can take up to ten hours a night; and if your lucky at least five. Advance Placement is highly looked upon and is required. Personally, I have five next year (Junior Year): AP Psychology, AP Chemistry, AP Literature And Composition, AP US History, and AP Calculus. We do wear some type of uniform, though it depends in which program you are in. Because I am in the Medical Program, I have to wear medical scrubs (which had our name and Medical logo). We also have 50+ different types of clubs, from academic to sport clubs. Well, hope you have a nice day.

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