What’s the Diff?: Japanese and American High Schools

This will be a new segment called “What’s the Diff?”. Basically I would discuss the differences between Japanese culture and American culture. I will be as objective as possible and only report on what I have personally experienced. If anyone has experienced anything different, please comment below 🙂

So this post will discuss the differences in Japanese high schools and American high schools. There are some minor differences like the number of grades to major differences like class schedule and teacher rotation.

Educational System

The Japanese educational system has changed over the years, shifting focus on teaching English at early grades. Not much is different here aside from the number of years in junior high and high school. In the United States, students are in junior high for 7th and 8th grade (or 6th grade depending on where in the U.S.). But it is across the board that high school starts at 9th grade and continues up to 12th grade, so four grades (freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior).

Japanese schools have high school reduced to three years: first year, second year, and third year rather than freshman, sophomore, blah blah. Schools can also be deemed high level, mid level, or low level. High level is exactly what it sounds like; these students are mostly university bound and focused on studies. Low level is the opposite in that rather than students are motivated to go to a university, they train to go out into the job market for a specific job. That is not to say that at high level schools, there aren’t students who just want to work and at low level schools, there aren’t students who want to go to a university. This is just general throughout the students in these schools.

Where does that leave English? Different schools have different mentalities towards English. A high level school will teach English based on the tests that are given to students who want to enter a university. For the most part, English is taught out of a textbook and phrases learned are kind of dry and not the way people speak. Yes, it is grammatically correct, but if the goal of the class is conversational English, a textbook won’t help you much. Low level schools, since these students have accepted that they will be in a job that does not require them to learn English, most of them tune out and don’t care. Makes sense too. Think back to when you were a high school student. Unless you were going to be a math teacher or get into the sciences, geometry class was not important to you and you tended to either tune out or go about the motions and not really care about the subject. While some of us may think that English is the most important thing to learn in school because it allows you to globalize yourself, if you are not going to use it in your future job, then there is no point to learn it. It is tough to get around that mentality, especially when you are passionate about the subject yourself, but it is what it is. These are high school students after all.


It comes as no surprise that Japanese people are very busy at their jobs. None more so than teachers in any school. Teachers do so much work here that some stay late to finish some work. They also coach the various after school club activities. Some of them are the academic advisers and counselors for students who need help choosing classes or need someone to talk to when they are in trouble. But that is the same as American schools too so what’s the difference? Only a few things. For one, teachers are the ones that move from classroom to classroom. Students stay in their homerooms while the teachers move to different classrooms. That’s not such a big deal really; just different.

Teachers also do not have individual offices but one big shared room called the teachers’ room. Students would open the door, apologize for the intrusion, and ask for a specific teacher and then walk to their desk area. The teachers’ room is an interesting place sometimes because it can be super quiet and kinda awkward to talk to make noise, or it can be a busy place with people talking every which way. I prefer it to be a little noisy personally so I can talk to people and not be awkward. Also, in the teachers’ room, you are allowed (or at least at my school) to answer your cell phone if it rings. I don’t know if this was just a summer thing yet so we shall see but that was different. UPDATE: it is different. I have not heard very many phones go off during the school year so far.

Teachers also move from school to school once their time at one school is up. For the most part, the maximum amount of time a teacher spends in a given school is five years (this can obviously vary, but this seems to be common). After those five years, they pack up and move to a different school. They can either move to another school within the city they live in or move elsewhere outside of the city and commute to their school. Some of my teachers commute for an hour by driving to get to school and even some live in different prefectures entirely. The reason for this change in environment is to keep teachers fresh and learn to adapt to different school environments. They have a chance to teach at high level and low level schools and anywhere in between. It allows for a more well-rounded teacher.


As you may know, Japanese students must take entrance exams for high school and university. Depending on how well they test will determine what school they can go to. With that said, students spend much of their time studying or in club activities. Club activities are a huge deal here and with good reason (what with all that studying). Much of their identity is from these club activities so you will hear a lot that “I belong to the badminton club” or “I am in calligraphy club”. And you can tell who is in what club (soccer players are usually dark, baseball players have super short hair, etc.).

Remember, students do not change classrooms. Teachers do. I sometimes wonder how students feel about this. I get antsy staying in one room for too long. But it does allow for an actual homeroom environment that is different than the American schools where usually students move.

Students also have to clean the classrooms after school. American students do not.

School uniforms are a given difference. Japanese students must wear them, American students don’t have to. The school uniforms also differ in weather. There is a summer wear and winter wear with summer wear being short sleeves and no ties and winter wear being long sleeves, jacket, and tie. Students switch to winter wear on October 1st (usually).

The students are so fun! Some of them can be super energetic, especially the girls. Yes, it is true that many students are shy at first and are apprehensive to speak English for fear of being wrong. But you will find those students who don’t care and will just say it or try to ask a question in English. The point is that they are trying and practicing and that makes perfect. In my opinion, they also have more personality than American students and that may be because they want to stand out more. Everyone is wearing the same thing so it is hard to individualize yourself outside of the trinkets you have, so having a big personality helps you stand out from the rest.

How about American students? Aside from there are no entrance exams, no uniforms, and the students have to move, not much is different. American students still place an emphasis on club activities as part of their identity, whether it be the quarterback of the football team, cheerleader, or class president. Maybe they are a little more vocal about things because there is not much of a fear of being wrong there. But although they are separated by thousands of miles of ocean, the students have the same interests and life experiences as the others from the other side. Both like music, movies, TV, hanging out with their friends, eating, sleeping, club activities, boyfriends, girlfriends, love interests, family problems, finding your identity.

Class schedule

Here is probably the biggest difference between Japanese and American schools. Now this is probably because I am on the teacher’s side of the system so I am still getting used to this. But the schedule can change…and I don’t know why or how just yet. For instance, my schedule changed today in terms of different classes I will be going to and in what order. But in my head, I am like, what changed? Why did it change? How does it change? How does the schedule change? I am so confused… I did ask why not just have the students take a free day and catch up on homework or something, but that doesn’t seem to be a thing. Class must commence and there needs to be someone there doing it. Kinda like a substitute, only the substitute is another fellow teacher who is hopefully available to teach it. Scrambling to find that teacher who can fill the spot if a teacher is absent…that seems to be quite the nightmare. There is no call in a substitute teacher system here like in the U.S.

In American schools, if there is something during a certain period, that class is just canceled for the day and nothing else is moved or changed. For instance, if there is an assembly during 2nd period PE, you just don’t have 2nd period PE for the day and the teacher makes it up the next day. That doesn’t seem to be a thing here. The schedules and classes are changed around to accommodate for things like assemblies or fire drills. For the most part, the schedule stays the same throughout the whole semester or year and you have the same classes every day. Every day, same teachers, same classes, five days a week.

School itself

At least at my schools, all of the classes are inside in one or two buildings rather than spread throughout an entire campus like most American schools. Depending on your grade, you go to a certain floor of the building. At some schools, it makes sense where you go and others it doesn’t. For example, if you are a first year, you are on the first floor, second year second floor, and so on. Sounds simple enough. But some schools have it switched so it makes it confusing. Luckily the classrooms are all labeled with signs that have numbers on them, which brings me to my next point.

The classes are also separated into advanced to regular classes. You probably saw in anime the 1-2, 2-4, etc. on little signs on the doors of the classrooms. The first number represents the year (first year, second year, or third year) and the second number represents the class (1 is top and trickles down). So that would mean 3-1 is the top of the class final year students.

Oh and there is no wifi available (or at least I haven’t been told the password) and not every classroom has a projector or computer to use for PowerPoint presentations. Most classrooms still rock the chalkboard. This struck me as a bit of a surprise because I am like…Japan is the forefront of technology, yet the schools are not updated as such across the board. Or maybe it was because I was spoiled teaching at a university that I had forgotten what it was like to be in high school, but I am pretty sure my classrooms were all whiteboard. Maybe not PowerPoint because I was growing up in the age where that was becoming a thing.

Other than that, there isn’t one system that is better than the other. It is just different ways of doing things but takes some getting used to but I am sure it makes sense. Is there anything I missed that is a difference? Fellow ALTs: are your schools different than mine? Let me know in the comments and I can add them to the list!


About Lucy

I like to write about anything and everything. From fictional writing about random characters I come up with in my head to research papers that requires hours of reading to get a single page in, I love it all.
This entry was posted in Living in Japan, School Life, What's the Diff? and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What’s the Diff?: Japanese and American High Schools

  1. driagoolinde says:

    Awesome post! I look forward to reading more “What’s the Diff?”


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