Japan is known for the obedience and studiousness of its youth and consequently, the strong work ethic of the adult workforce.

If kids in Japan are behaving in a way that is, as a New York Times article states, “incomprehensibly good” to the point of being “studious, law-abiding sissies,” maybe Canadians can learn a thing or two about how to make our delinquents delightful.

Canadian teachers and education majors alike will agree that troubled students—the graffiti-spraying, back-talking miscreants—can become the bane of any teaching professional’s day.

But what are the differences between the secondary education system here and there? And would adopting a Japanese model be worth it?

From a Canadian Perspective
Josiah Hussey, a third-year art history/sociology student at Carleton University, lived in Japan for one year under the Rotary International Youth Exchange Program, and obviously noticed differences in Japanese schools, some of which could contribute to the exemplary behaviour of their students.

“Students clean the school,” states Hussey. “There is no janitorial staff. Students are organized into teams and told to clean a portion of the school.” Hussey says these tasks range from changing the garbage to waxing the floors; all sorts of chores that Canadian children take for granted.

Hussey says that Japanese youth have much less free time due to their bugatsu, a mandatory school club that students attend seven days a week, nearly every day of the year, including holidays.

“A group mentality [in these clubs] is ubiquitous,” he mentions, “so it’s important to find a group to fit in, lest you become an outcast.”

He reminisces, though, that it was difficult finding a bugatsu that he was interested in, as sports were not his forte.

“I was horribly non-athletic by comparison. I ended up joining the girls’ volleyball team as an effort to stop people from picking on me.” Hussey says that it was a trying experience, but it was necessary to continue his schooling as close to a normal Japanese education as possible.

On top of the excessive time stressors of school and sports, Hussey noticed a very open critique of the students by one another and by the adults. Being publicly weighed is a perfect example.

“Every month, the students in the school are sent for a uniform inspection and also to the nurse/nutritionist. If they notice you’re gaining weight or getting out of shape, they’ll put you on a diet.”

He notes that in Canada, he would be considered thin, at five-foot-five, and 125 lbs, whereas in Japan, he was considered chubby. “It was so embarrassing…once you step on a scale, your stats appear on a big screen for everyone to see.”

According to Josiah’s observations, the Japanese education system instils a strict work ethic, a belonging and importance in the students’ respective groups and clubs, and a sense of guilt, self-observation, and self-degradation.

In the aforementioned Times article, it is noted that with all of these activities, today’s Japanese children don’t have the time to get into trouble.

“School rules require them to go directly home after classes, and many of them have homework and cram-school classes on weeknights.”

Cramming it all in
L. Lawrence knows about Japanese education all too well. In February of this year, Lawrence suffered through the excruciatingly long flight to Japan to become an educator, teaching English as a second language.

She teaches at a private institution, outside of normal school hours, only to better the students’ understanding of English.

Lawrence completed her Honours in History at the University of Waterloo and found herself with the desire to see the world.

“I was interested in…living and working abroad,” she says, after travelling in both Europe and South America. “Japan is a very safe and interesting place to live, and I thought that experiencing a new culture first-hand would be the adventure of a lifetime.”

When asked about the amount of schoolwork Japanese youth have, Lawrence says “the emphasis on education in Japan is extraordinarily important and dictates the lives of many young students.”

“Some students study English conversation at my school three times a week, go to their clubs seven times a week, attend cram school one or two times a week, plus attend other extra-curricular activities such as kendo lessons regularly every week. It is absolutely amazing.”
If a Canadian student had this much work to do per day, it would be seen as brutally unfair, but in Japan, it is the norm.

When comparing the strength of the general curriculae of Japan and Canada, Lawrence says she believes education in Japan is more regimented and involves more pressure.

Such things as a shorter summer break—four to six weeks in Japan compared to more than eight in Canada—and application into high school only burdens the students more, forcing them to focus solely on their studies. Summer breaks also include club practices and sometimes school.

So, if Japanese students are essentially learning more, due to their overwhelming amount of time dedicated to studies and clubs, and are behaving better, should Canada be leaning towards a heavier workload for its students?

Like comparing apples and sashimi
Amarjit Singh of the education faculty at MUN states that comparing national education standards is made difficult due to many different factors.

Apart from peer pressures and the typical pressures involving schoolwork, Singh says that a lack of respect by the teachers is the most worrisome stressor for Canadian students.

“A lack of respect, of listening, and a lack of help” are problems Singh identifies in Canadian teachers. “Many teachers do not take their students seriously.”

He believes that strict policies get in the way of learning, and that democracy is very important in the classroom.

“People who are taught democracy and taught to understand democratically have a lot of things to say.”

If this is true, then the Japanese curriculum of copious amounts of work and no play may not be as beneficial to students as it seems.

Singh also notes that in Canada, there is a debate between socio-economic classes on how much homework to be giving to young students.

Though some parents believe that lots of extra work is conducive to learning, other parents with less free time to help their children think that learning should happen in school.

Compared to Japan, cram school and English conversation classes are a separate cost by the parents, and much of the general schoolwork is done solely by the students, forcing a greater sense of independence. However, finding time to finish all their work is another problem.

Lawrence notes that many of her students are children of doctors and lawyers who can afford to put their children into private lessons. She also told of some students that are under the age of ten and drinking coffee each night just to finish their overwhelming workloads.

Singh notes that there is also a third stream of thought by Canadian parents stating that children should not have copious amounts of homework and extracurricular activities because children should have time to play and develop—a concept that would seem backwards in Japan, where developing happens during much of the students lessons and schooling.

So, how could Canadian educators and parents instil the behavioural values and work ethics of Japan, while still keeping their own values of free time and social development?

Lawrence believes that although both nations “have it right” in terms of education, she can see something that the Canadian education system may be lacking.

“I now see the importance of teaching children a strong work ethic at a young age. I also think it’s healthy for every student to be part of a social club to learn and practice a skill they can be proud of during the entire year.”

That said, she still believes “a happy medium is the best answer.”