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.
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.
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.