April, the beginning of the business and school year in Japan, is a time to enjoy the cherry blossoms and start your new life. If you have a child entering the school system it can be a time of great stress and panic as you try to figure out how to prepare your child for this big step, what needs labelling, what to wear to the entrance ceremony, how to buy gym clothes etc. There is so much to do! Fear not, you may have heard some scary stories about the strict school system in Japan, but it’s not as bad as you think. Hopefully this post can set your mind at ease a little bit about starting school in Japan.
First of all, let’s take a look at the education system in Japan, for those who might be entirely unfamiliar with it. For the youngest children there is the option of daycare (保育園) run by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour, or preschool (幼稚園) run by the Ministry of Education. Basically, daycare is for households with working parents and preschool caters to households with a stay-at-home caregiver, neither is part of the compulsory education system but most kids attend one or the other.
Compulsory education begins in elementary school (小学校), which has 6 grades; children start grade one the April after their sixth birthday. Middle school (中学校) is the second and final stage of compulsory education in Japan and it consists of 3 years, following elementary school. Both stages of compulsory education are free and starting from autumn of 2019, the government has decided to make public education free for children between the ages of 3 and 5.
A large majority of students attend high school (高学校) in Japan, even though it is not compulsory and requires guardians to pay tuition fees. The cost of high school varies according to the type of school, whether it’s private or public, and how prestigious the school is. Getting into high school requires students to pass entrance exams; many students spend their third year of middle school studying heavily in order to ace the entrance exam of the school of their choice. This pattern repeats in the third year of high school when students focus on university entrance exams. In Japan getting into the university (大学校) of your choice might be difficult, however once you are in the structure is a bit different than western university and a bit more like high school with prescribed sets of classes according to your field of study.
Starting any level of school in Japan comes with 2 important events - the explanatory meeting (説明会) and the entrance ceremony (入園式 for preschool, 入学式 for other schools). The explanatory meeting takes place before the beginning of the school year, often in March and perhaps as early as February depending on the school. At this meeting you will receive a large amount of papers explaining all sorts of things about the school, for example: the basic rules, what to do in case of absence, what uniforms you need, school supplies needed, availability of after-school care etc. The volume of information can be quite overwhelming! The meeting can also be quite boring and a preview of school-meetings to come as they tend to go through every piece of paper in the information package one-by-one, giving a detailed explanation for each item.
Sometime during this meeting the PTA will come up and a representative will explain all the wonderful things the PTA does at the school and how great it is to be part of it. The things is, at many elementary schools doing your time on the PTA appears to be mandatory, whether you think it is great to be part of it or not. The demands and duties associated with the PTA are different at each school and for each PTA position, from rigorously time-consuming to totally lax. There may be a PTA sign-up form to submit at the end of the explanatory meeting, along with uniforms to order or buy, so don’t try to sneak out early once you have the information packet!
After the explanatory meeting you can buy all the required school supplies prior to the entrance ceremony and the start of the school year. Buying school supplies can be a bit stressful as you have to make sure you buy the exact right type of bag/scissors/pencils etc. Not only do you have to buy a zillion items, you have to label them all - right down to individual crayons and such! One of the big items a child needs to start elementary school is a special backpack called a randoseru (ランドセル) that will last them all six years. These special backpacks can be quite expensive and are often given as a gift by proud grandparents as early as a year in advance. Randoseru are not exactly a mandatory school item but they hold significant cultural importance and most kids have them.
Besides school supplies you might be worried about buying the right outfit for your child to attend the entrance ceremony (if they do not have a uniform) and the right mama-suit or outfit for yourself to wear. When you’re a foreigner, getting the right look for yourself and your child can be a source of extra stress as you don’t want to get it wrong and stand out more than you already do. Try not to stress about it too much, in recent years entrance ceremony fashion has become less rigid, with parents and kids are showing up in a wider variety of fashions then previous years. Just don’t forget your slippers - your nice outfit cannot be accompanied by your nice shoes inside the school.
Entrance ceremonies take place at the beginning of April and as with all formal ceremonies in Japan, they are fairly serious. However, unlike the solemn sad graduation ceremonies, entrance ceremonies are happy occasions, marking the beginning of a new era students’ lives and welcoming them to the school. The fresh new students might march in looking timid and eager and then everyone will listen to numerous speeches by the principal, teachers, the head of the PTA, a senior student etc. welcoming them to the school. At an elementary school entrance ceremony, there might even be a skit by the sixth graders to welcome first graders and provide some entertainment amongst the many speeches. New teachers to the school will also be welcomed and will each give a small speech themselves. Once the entrance ceremony is done there may be group photos and you might be able to see your child’s new classroom and meet their new teacher. If you’re lucky, the cherry blossoms in your area will still be blooming and will add a lovely background to all the pictures you will want to take of your child embarking on their newest journey in education.
Once all the formalities of the explanatory meeting and entrance ceremony have finished, it will finally be time for the first day of school. You will load up your child with the required school supplies and it will be time for them to begin their new life. As you deposit your child with their daycare or preschool, wave goodbye your first grader as they walk to school for the first time, send your off your nervous middle school student or high schooler, or move your university student into their new apartment, one thing is for certain - you will worry about them and think of them throughout their first day more than they could possibly guess. You may also feel the passage of time rather acutely as you look back on their former “first days” and think about how soon the next “first day” will be upon you both - and how it won’t be long until they are finished all their first days of school and are off to take on the world all on their own.
By: Sandra Suzuyama