In my travels around the internet I run my nose into a lot of dark and strange corners. Those corners inhabited by fanatical otaku and clueless Japanophiles are interesting in the same way that watching a train wreck is.
Uh-oh, here come the rotten tomatoes. Let me clarify: I don't judge anyone by what they like, mind you. I don't look down on anime and manga fans, since I'm one myself. Even if our tastes differ, what you dig and watch and relate to is your business. Note that my description said fanatical and clueless. Luckily for humanity, fanatacism and cluelessness, while serious conditions, are curable with a good dose of reality. It's just a matter of getting the medicine down.
So what am I on about? Well... in the aforementioned dark Intertube crannies, I sometimes read posts on blogs and on message boards that go something like this:
I will never experience Japanese school life. Woe is me. Bawwwww.
And I shake my head for several minutes. Where in heaven does this come from? I have a pretty good idea. Could it be... anime series that feature multi-hue-haired girls with cute sailor suits battling demons and giant mecha while wielding ancient mystic katanas? Or perhaps groups of giggly kawaii girls who spend their school days chatting with friends, eating cute box lunches and occasionally being instructed by a goofy and eccentric teacher whom they have a crush on?
Who actually buys any of this crap? Do you think life in the USA is accuratly represented by Beverly Hills 90210 (uh-oh, showing my age here) or Jersey Shore (that's modern, right?)
Yes, kiddies, open up. Time for some medicine.
I've lived in Japan on and off for a quarter of my life... nine years all told. I've worked in the Japanese public school system (mostly junior high) for eight of those years and I have a pretty good idea of what Japanese school life is really all about. Ready?
Generally speaking, it's a lot like school life in the USA, except much more regimented and stifling.
How about Japanese students?
Generally speaking, they're pretty much like kids anywhere at that age- balls of hormones, self-doubt, awkwardness, and acne, except they also have the crushing weight of compulsion on their shoulders.
Japanese kids rise at dawn, eat breakfast, and head to school, where they often have pre-school club activities. What's that? Yeah, clubs. Like you see in those shows. They aren't technically compulsory, but if you DON'T join a club you're pretty much marked to be a social outcast by both your fellow students and teachers as well. It's one of those things that everyone in Japan does because society dictates that there's no other true choice. Back to our day. School begins with the morning meeting. Rise. Bow. The teacher tweaks his or her class into a fine-tuned machine. Six classes plus lunch. Cleaning time. End-of-the-day meeting. Then club again, often until five or six o'clock. Then homework, usually lots of it. Weekends? More club, Saturday practices for half the day, Sunday matches for half the day, tournaments, etc. Summer vacation? Only a month long, if that, and not only are there summer projects to do (i.e. enough homework to last every day of the summer) but you are also restricted by rules... my current schools just distributed their summer break guidelines to the students (and we had a special assembly to teach them). They include such goodies as not being outside after 6 pm and knowing that if the teachers (who live in town) catch you riding a bike without your helmet, you're in trouble. The only actual vacation time is the five or so days of Obon. That's it.
If that's not enough, many kids also attend juku or other night schools or are forced into activities (like piano practice) by their parents. All of this is a really good dress rehearsal for Japanese corporate life (7 am to 11 pm) but not so good for anything else.
My students have to (by school rule) greet any teacher each and every time they pass them in the hallways, even if they see them fifty times a day. They have to show similar deference to their upperclasspersons (sempai). When entering the office they have to bow, greet, and state their purpose before being recognized and then granted permission to enter.
Not to mention that in some schools, there are the bullies to deal with.
Oh, and yes, they wear uniforms. Which at most schools are made of cheapass, ugly polyester (that melts if, say, you get too close to a bunsen burner) yet cost hundreds of dollars (the uniform manufacturers have sweetheart deals with the government and collude openly). They're hot and uncomfortable and while you do get lighter uniforms in the summer, everyone has to follow the changeover rules- no summer uniforms before June 20, say, no matter how frigging hot it gets... and remember that Japanese classrooms are rarely air-conditioned. I taught a class last week where, I kid you not, it was 37 celsius (that's 99 farenheit) in the classroom.
Colorful hair! Actually, kids aren't allowed to color their hair. Or wear it over a certain length or in certain styles. Or wear jewelry. Or makeup. Or paint their fingernails or allow them to grow over a certain minuscule length (there are clippers in every teacher's desk if they find violators). Or wear socks other than brands specified in the school codes. Or have pencil cases that are too ostentatious. Or carry any money. Or eat anything other than school lunch (no candy).
Add all this onto the normal pressures and mood swings of adolescence. Still having fun? Still baww-ing that you don't get to experience this wonder?
I'm not saying it's all bad. Japanese schools still recognize the value in music and art classes and these activities are well-funded (though still regimented and creatively not so exciting). I do like the fact that students clean the school, too. I try to have as much fun with my students as I can and try to let them be as casual as they please around me. They're good kids. And yes, I do go and watch the clubs play baseball and volleyball and other sports. They're fun to watch and when finally just allowed to play, they have fun with it.
Some of you out there might be applauding the regimentation and thinking what kids in your country need is a good dose of this. Well, the problem is that the rules in many places are breaking down and, as a result, the teachers and schools have no instructions and no idea of how to discipline the kids, much less a set of procedures. I taught for two years in one school that had kids in self-mutilated uniforms wandering the halls, disrupting classes, and taking swings at teachers that tried to intervene... and the teachers had no recourse to any authority to stop it. Generally, you cannot expel a student in Japan, and everyone graduates whether or not they do the work, so there's no way to get rid of bad apples. If the parents want to ship them to a private school or juvenile academy, great. If they don't, you're stuck with them.
Look, you know Japan doesn't have mystic swords and giant mecha (at least not yet). So don't believe the rest of the BS either. It's different, and it's not necessarily better. It has warts. Big ones. Japanese people are, after all, people. Their systems are run by flawed humans, for flawed humans. To ascribe anything else to them is, I think, ultimately downgrading their humanity.