Every weekday morning Japanese elementary school students, ranging in age from 6 to 12, can be seen walking in groups toward their local school. Some schools insist the kids wear uniforms while others do not. The wearing of uniforms is usually decided by the school’s PTA. However, there is one thing that all elementary kids have in common and that is the school bag, or “randoseru” in Japanese. Each child, heads off to school, with one of these bags strapped to his or her back. Inside these leather back-packs are all the textbooks, notebooks, pencils and rules needed for a day of study. There’s no need to squeeze a lunchbox between the books; elementary schools across the nation, serve the kids hot or cold lunches everyday. The standard colors of the randoseru are red for girls and black for boys – in recent years, however, various colors can be seen.
All Japanese elementary school students walk to school. The average walking time is around 15 minutes; public schools forbid the kids from riding bicycles. Private schools, however, do allow cycling and often offer a bus service for students that live far from the school. Most public schools require students to be on the school grounds by 8:30am with classes starting from 9:00am. School gates are closed and locked from around 8:40am – there is an intercom at the gate for later comers. The reason for the gates being closed and locked is to stop strangers entering the school grounds; in the mid-90s a crazed man entered a school with a knife and killed eight students before being arrested by police. A year later he was executed.
Most public schools are constructed from concrete and all painted in the same dull color – not much imagination goes into school design, that’s for sure. Playgrounds, for the most part, are void of grass; absolutely not green. Children play dodge-ball, kick-base and other games, on dirt. I am told that the lack of lawn is due to the lack of money needed for maintenance. Various education boards in each prefecture, continually complain about funding to no avail. It appears the Japanese Central Government considers a green, natural educational environment not as important as building another highway and tend to use obfuscation in an effort to appease the masses.
Education at elementary level is the same as any other country. Classes usually last 40 to 45 minutes and cover all the basics of learning – reading, writing and arithmetic. It has only been recently that the Japanese Education Department declared English to be a compulsory subject in all elementary schools – from April 2011, 5th and 6th grade students will have weekly English lessons with native speakers. Prior to this governmental mandate, English at elementary level was not compulsory, thus many schools did not offer the subject. With this announcement, many Japanese parents are jubilant with the news that English has now been incorporated into the elementary curriculum. It has been a lack of vision, on the part of the rank and file in Tokyo, that has hampered the development of English for Japanese students. Japanese have the worst English skills in all of Asia, simply because of the anachronistic beliefs of stubborn bureaucrats. Thankful, future elementary school children, will learn the English skills their parents were denied.