An examination of a nation’s elementary schools can offer insights into its business and cultural practices.
In Japan, foreign executives may wonder, “Why is decision-making such a multi-staged, time-consuming process?” or “Why does it seem that group consensus, achieving perfection, and preparing for every contingency are often the goals of business meetings?”
The answers to such questions can be found in core elements of Japan’s elementary schools, when formal compulsory schooling begins.
The group over the individual
In the United States there are accolades for seemingly any achievement.
In Japanese schools, individual competition is shunned. While the 100-yard dash winner at a US primary school may be awarded a blue ribbon at the annual sports day, for Japan’s sports day, children are placed into small groups with other children who run at the same pace.
The individual win is valued solely for its contribution to the student’s designated team. And though children may recognize if they have been assigned to a fast or slow group, sharing of this information is discouraged.
Casting individual likes and dislikes aside, all Japanese children eat the same school-served lunch and are expected to not only try but to finish everything that was prepared and served.
Showing respect and appreciation for the food and its preparation is a learned value. Often, children who are slow or picky eaters miss after-lunch recess to finish their meals.
Meanwhile, in the United States, children can select their food from a cafeteria line or bring their own packed lunches from home.
The rote vs. the critical
Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology mandates the curriculum and approves textbooks for the entire nation, while in the United States, learning materials and how they are taught can vary from school to school, even from classroom to neighboring classroom.
And while most questions asked by both teachers and textbooks in Japan have a predetermined, fill-in-the blank, or multiple choice answer, US students are encouraged to think creatively to come up with a diverse range of answers and to engage in a critical discussion.
This teacher- versus student-centric pedagogy is evidenced by the arrangement of chairs and desks in rows facing the front blackboard in Japan, while desks are often arranged into groups in the United States, to encourage group discussion and peer learning.
Similarly, in the Tokyo municipality second-grade Japanese language arts course, students read a Japanese translation of Arnold Lobel’s short story, “The Letter” from the Frog and Toad series.
They spend a month on this unit, dissecting every sentence for syntax and grammar, and reading and re-reading it aloud to perfection.
In the United States, this illustrated 10-page story would likely have been a week’s unit at most, teachers instead opting to cover more varied materials. They would go for more breadth and less depth, to captivate the individual interests of students.
Teacher hours and career expectations
According to the 2013 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, teachers in Japan work an average of 54 hours per week—the longest of all OECD nations—while teachers in the United States report working 45 hours per week.
Further, according to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014, Japanese instructors teach 40 weeks per year; their US counterparts teach 36. And, while Japanese teachers work regular hours throughout the summer holiday, US teachers have their summers off.
Unlike in the United States, where teachers’ desks are often in their classrooms, Japanese teachers, alongside the headmaster, work from a single teachers’ office.
This is not to be confused with a teachers’ lounge for socializing, where instructors work together before and after the school day. US teachers typically go home when the school day is finished, and can complete their work remotely.
And while teachers in the United States typically remain in the same school and often teach the same grade year after year, teachers in the same Japanese municipality can be rotated from school to school every year and be assigned to different grades.
Responsibility lies with the child
US students may be considered a bit coddled. Japanese students are expected to roll up their sleeves and care for themselves, their classmates, and their classrooms.
They walk to and from school on their own starting in grade one, carrying their own pencils and notebooks in the traditional Japanese leather backpack.
At school, they have a weekly assigned chore to help clean their classrooms. There is no janitor.
Students on lunch duty bring the lunch cart to the classroom, serve each child, then return the empty cart with cleared serving utensils and trays at the end of the meal.
Mandatory vs. voluntary PTA involvement
In the United States, many enthusiastic parents volunteer for the parent-teacher associations (PTAs). Parents in Japan must commit to serving one full year per child in elementary school.
Mostly, Japanese mothers dread this experience, where meetings to discuss tedious details about the specific flowers in the bouquets to be given to teachers leaving the school can last hours.
Usually, the only parents exempt from mandatory PTA duty are those who are expecting a child or are ill. Otherwise, even full-time working mothers must attend, even when they are the sole breadwinner for the family.
Homogeneity vs. heterogeneity
With 98.5 percent of Japan being racially and ethnically homogeneous, there is very little diversity in the classroom.
Though elsewhere differences are thought to enrich academic engagement, and are seen as a necessary component of innovation, in the Japanese classroom standing out can unfortunately attract bullying.
When there is less difference in the classroom, there may not be the necessity for more individualized instruction. So, while Japanese classrooms can have about 35 students— a common practice throughout Asia—US classrooms typically have fewer than 25.
No tech vs. all-tech aspirational
Yes, fax machines are still used in high-tech Japan. Likewise, there are no tech gadgets of any sort in the typical Japanese classroom.
All communication with parents is through a daily written diary transferred between each student and his teacher, a minimum of five printed letters home per week, and telephone calls to the house—not mobile—phone.
In the United States, technology adaptation and the “flipped classroom” are all the rage, and parent-teacher communication is usually via email.
Transparency vs. privacy
Japanese elementary schools are highly transparent. Parents are invited into the classroom for full-day observations three times per year.
Face-to-face parent–teacher conferences are mandated, and group parent–teacher meetings are held at least once per trimester.
And, while in Japan the onus rests with the teachers to communicate with families, it often rests with parents in the United States.
Leisure vs. learning
It has been argued that, in Japan, rather than being academic, much of what is learned in the younger elementary years is related to culture and discipline.
Then, starting in grade four, students who are applying for more competitive middle schools start attending after-school cram schools, called juku, in the evening to prepare for entrance exams. This trend continues when applying to high school and universities.
In the United States, elementary school children are still expected to learn in the classroom and attend play dates and leisure activities such as soccer, drama, and painting after school.
April vs. September start
The Japanese academic year begins on April 1, compared with a start date around the end of August or beginning of September in the United States. While the Japanese school system is based on trimesters, most US schools have two semesters.
Japanese school vacations are also relatively short compared with those in the United States: one week over winter, two weeks in spring, and six weeks in summer.
With just two weeks off between academic years, there is little time for preparation or nostalgia when leaving high school for university.
In the United States, where students often have 10 weeks of summer holidays, students and teachers alike have plenty of time to prepare for such transitions and the coming school year.
Schoolchildren first engage with the society at large in elementary school, making this exposure to cultural practices and values highly impactful.
Elementary school may be the first place where Japanese citizens learn that teamwork and the institution are at a premium to individuality.
This is also the time when students observe their teachers working long hours and mothers contributing tirelessly to the fabric of the school.
And though some may criticize Japan’s educational institutions for promoting sameness over creativity, the nation must be admired for producing some of the world’s top literacy and completion rates as well as educational outcomes.