In Japan, a senior high school (高等学校 kôtôgakkô in the native tongue) is the first level of non-compulsory education, coming after junior high school and before university. Although Japanese senior high schools before World War II were very similar to German gymnasiums, they now only span three years of education (10-12, corresponding to ages 15-18), much like their American counterparts. That, however, is where the resemblance ends.

Senior high school is not mandatory, but almost all Japanese attend one anyway, as the job market is very limited without at least a diploma. There are both public schools (under municipal or prefectural supervision) and private schools, all falling under the eye of the Mombusho (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology), which regulates coursework, textbooks, and the like.

Getting into a senior high school is a matter of passing an entrance exam (入学試験 nyûgakushiken). Each school falls in a different position in the pecking order, and for public schools, which school a student attends is largely determined by how well they do on their exams. It is perfectly normal for a student to brave a two-hour commute every morning and evening to get to and from their assigned school on the other side of the city. For private schools, each school has its own exam, and getting into a top private school is almost as difficult as getting into a top university. All senior high schools, however, charge tuition, which can range from nominal to exorbitant.

The school year starts in April and ends in March.

Most schools require school uniforms: generally a summer uniform, winter uniform, and PE uniform. The summer uniform usually consists of a short-sleeved shirt ("cutter shirt") and slacks for boys, and a pleated skirt and short-sleeved blouse for girls (often with the traditional sailor suit collar, but not always). Winter uniforms tend to be more diverse: at some schools, boys wear stiff-collared jackets, while at other schools they wear blazers and neckties, and at other schools they wear sweaters or sweater vests. Likewise, some girls wear sweaters, some wear blazers, some wear long-sleeved sailor blouses. PE uniforms usually consist of a simple T-shirt and track pants, shorts, or bloomers. Uniforms vary from school to school, and it is possible to know which school a student attends simply by looking at the style and colors of their uniform: this is one of the ways Japanese schools have of fostering school spirit, and it doesn't work that well. Most schools have strict regulations on how the uniform can be worn, which leads to many Japanese schoolgirls throwing on makeup, putting on their loose socks, and hiking up their skirts once they pass out of their teachers' line of sight.

Street shoes are not allowed inside: students store their shoes in shoe lockers and put on slippers or school shoes to wear in the classrooms and hallways. This, coupled with the fact that students have to clean the school themselves at the end of each day, makes most schools very clean (although perhaps still dilapidated).

During the school day, students stay in the same classroom, and the teachers run back and forth from one class to the other. Since teachers don't have classrooms of their own, they do their planning in a single large staff room. The standard curriculum includes mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, classical literature in both Han-dynasty Chinese and Japanese bungo, Japanese history, world history, geography, and English grammar, vocabulary, and conversation (the latter is often conducted by JETs), with other subjects occassionally thrown into the mix. In the middle of the day, students break for lunch, eating either bentos or cafeteria food (ramen is the equivalent of the Salisbury steak in American schools, I think). Class sizes are around 35-45 at virtually every school: there is very little interaction between students and teachers, but nobody seems to complain.

Grading, I should emphasize, is entirely by midterm and final exams. It is possible to sleep through and/or skip high school in Japan, and still get straight A's by passing the exams. Homework does exist, but it is rarely graded.

After school, virtually every student is involved in some kind of extracurricular, be it sports (baseball and judo are the jock sports: kendo and tennis are where the smart kids hang out) or culture (calligraphy, music, etc). Many students go to either juku or yobiko after school, either instead of or in addition to their extracurriculars. Add that to the commute, and occasionally a part-time job, and you'll quickly see that most Japanese kids have very little free time, except on the weekends.

The two highlights of the Japanese school year are the 文化祭 bunka-sai, or "Cultural Festival," and the 体育際 taiiku-sai, or "Sports Festival." The former is a combination of talent show, carnival, and pep rally, where each class gets together to put on their own production: a food stand, musical/dance number, game, or other diversion. The latter is the Japanese term for a field day, complete with three-legged race.

Stereotypically, Japanese students work hard and have no lives. In reality, they can be really cool people, if a tad immature...

Taken from my own experience as a student at Ogimachi Senior High School, Osaka, 1999-2000: things might have changed since then...

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