When I first came to Japan in August (already six months ago!), people asked me what I found surprising about Japan. I couldn’t think of many in the moment, but I’ve been keeping a list and now I have so many that I need to separate this by category. So this is the Surprising Things: School edition. These are all little things that just make me go, “Oh yeah. That’s different.”
1. The very first thing I had to do when I arrived at my school in August was switch to indoor-only shoes for the school. The indoor part of the school begins inside the doors, at this raised part of the floor. I screwed up on the shoe changing a few times before I got used to it. This is because the outdoor shoes STRICTLY do not touch anywhere on the indoor part, and I was very used to putting shoes next to each other to change. The indoor shoes policy is great! The floor remains rain/snow-proof and only gets dusty, not dirty. The second part of this indoor shoe thing is that you can walk with your indoor shoes outside IF you are walking between the school and the gym on the wooden boards, but these wooden board crosswalks stay outside so they get dirty… This seemed quite contradictory for me, but now I just accept it. I wonder what shoes students use if they go outside for gym.
2. There are world maps in the English classroom and the English office. Japan is in the middle of these map. Also seeing Taiwan the same color (and therefore part of) China on maps was different.
3. In America, you can say “Good morning” until noon, but in Japan my coworkers say “konnichiwa” (hello) to me starting around 10am. It’s very confusing for my brain because I don’t have that “good morning” to “hello” switch turned on (yet). Therefore I either say 1) “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning), 2) pause awkwardly before my brain catches up and finally say “konnichiwa”, or 3) fail to respond because the moment has passed too quickly. But my failsafe is that I just do the quick nod-bow in all three situations and speak quietly in the hope that they will think I responded appropriately even if I didn’t.
4. I knew that students did a lot of cleaning at the school but I didn’t realize they don’t have a janitor at all. But every morning I see this lady (sometimes two) sweeping the main corridor. Maybe she’s just responsible for the parts the students don’t do. There’s also a maintenance guy. I’m not sure how it works, but the ladies’ bathroom that I use remains clean and I feel pretty safe sitting on the floor in most areas (see #1). I feel like the combination of having homerooms and being responsible for them and a certain part of school (like 3rd floor girls’ bathrooms) fosters a sense of ownership (over the school) in the students. If I ever became benevolent dictator of a school/kingdom, I would make my students/subjects have indoor-only shoes and be responsible for cleaning the school/kingdom.
5. The guitar club at school only has female members. They play classical guitar in unison. It was just surprising that there are like 20 members and they’re all girls.
6. Also, there are a bunch of girls playing percussion in brass band! That was really cool to see. I always remember percussion in WYSO (this youth orchestra I was in for the majority of my formative years) being 95% male, and thinking “Where are the girls?”. Brass band percussion is way more representative, so yay! I wonder if there are instruments in Japan that are stereotypically played by more of one gender than the other, and if it’s different than Western stereotypes.
7. The insane amount of time spent on some club activities. In high school, I did forensics (speech and drama competitions not dead people) and we had to get coached at least twice a week. Coachings were 30min to an hour depending on your event, and we traveled to tournaments on many Saturdays. If you made the state team, you might have to get coached during spring break. The brass band at my school practices every weekday till ~8pm AND Saturdays from 10am-6pm, AND students come to school during breaks for practice! Apparently this encompasses individual practice as well, so students probably don’t practice at home. At my high school, people in the play or musical would have this kind of schedule, but not year-round. Crazy!!
8. The 5pm bell that sounds like an ice cream truck. I’ve been told it’s to tell children to go home. (But some go to cram school… I don’t know. Ice cream.) This article here says it’s also a daily test of the emergency broadcast system. Interesting.
9. Game show-type sounds for getting things right vs. wrong. Like ding-ding-ding! and the buzzer sound. But in Japan the sound for right answer is similar to a doorbell that says “ping pong” or “bing bong”, and wrong answer is the same buzzer noise but you say “buuuuuu”. This is confusing for me AND my students. I’ve been trying to practice the right Japanese sounds because my students don’t understand when I say, “Who got it right?”
10. The printer is completely different. It eats paper and shoots it out. Seriously. I took a video so you can understand. Maybe you don’t find this interesting, but having spent most of last summer maintaining printers in Mississippi, I definitely had a mind-blown reaction the first time I encountered the Japanese printer! The first part is medium speed, the middle part seems like nothing is happening but is actually the printer quickly eating up the paper, and the last part is the fastest speed. That’s right, Japanese printers are fancy: not only can you choose the light/darkness of the ink, you can also choose the speed it spits out paper!
Edit: Apparently the US has these kind of printers too, so maybe they’re just less popular. At our school, we have one printer like the other ones I’ve encountered in the US but three of these eating-spitting paper kind. We’re encouraged to use the latter for making more than 10 copies.