10 Things to Expect Before High School in Japan

by Suzanne Bhagan

Do you want to learn how to eat ramen like a pro, find rare Pokemon on Mount Fuji, or get lost in the crowds at Shibuya Crossing? If you do, why not consider a high school study abroad program in Japan? There are so many programs out there to get your juices flowing. Once you’ve decided if studying abroad in high school is right for you, here are a few things to expect during high school in Japan:

Cherry blossoms blooming
The school year in Japan starts in the spring, with the start of the cherry blossoms blooming.

1. The school year starts with sakura.

One of the major differences between Japanese high schools and Western high schools is that the school year starts in April, not September, and finishes in March, not June. Many schools host official entrance ceremonies to coincide with the budding of the sakura or cherry blossoms. Believe it or not, those little pink suckers help to create a sense of expectation and hope for the coming year.

Once the school year starts, there’s never a dull moment. Expect tons of events like school trips, ball days, concerts, and graduation. Get a chance to do funny relay exercises during Sports Day, or undoukai, or get scared stiff by a Grudge look-alike at a student horror house during the Cultural Festival, or bunkasai.

2. One look fits all.

While going casual may fly in some high schools around the world, this is a definite no-no in many Japanese high schools. Each high school in Japan has its own distinctive uniform, whether it’s high collared, military style jackets for the boys or Sailor Moon type outfits for the girls. Uniforms also change with the seasons, because winter uniforms need to be a lot heavier than summer uniforms. In some high schools in Japan, the dress code may be strict, with teachers checking students’ uniforms meticulously, even nail and hair length! Also, don’t wear makeup, nail polish, or piercings at school; keep those for when you let your hair down on the weekend.

Three young Japanese girls in school uniforms
Get used to blending in with the crowd in your school uniforms.

3. Shoes off!

The Japanese are sticklers for cleanliness, even in high schools. When you get to school, you’ll see rows and rows of cubbies near the student entrance. Get used to trading your outdoor shoes for regulation indoor shoes every time you go inside. Trust me, you’ll thank your lucky stars to slip those babies on, especially if outside’s wet, muddy, or snowy. Also, you’ll have to get indoor gym shoes to keep those already spotless gym floors squeaky clean.

Insider Tip: don’t ever go barefoot. The Japanese prefer keep their tootsies covered all the time (even in summer!), so stock up on some clean, new socks. Even if you don’t have that many, they’re pretty affordable in Japan and you can pick them up almost anywhere.

4. Schedules, schedules, schedules.

Classes are usually 40 minutes long, with 10 minute breaks in between to do whatever you want. Also, instead of shuffling from class to class, you get to stay in your homeroom for almost all subjects, except things like gym and art. However, classes at Japanese high schools may be a bit different than what you’re used to.

Usually, the teacher lectures and writes everything on the board while students listen and take lots of notes. Students rarely raise their hands to ask a question during class and class discussions are not the norm. It’s also common to see kids sleeping in class and the teacher does nothing about it. Get ready for lots of homework, even during school breaks, too. Additionally, don’t get offended if some of your Japanese peers can’t hang out with you after school or on Saturdays, because they often have to go to juku, or cram schools, to prep for university entrance examinations. Rigid schedules are the norm for Japanese high school students.

Sports day festivities in Japan
Let loose and have fun with your fellow students on sports day!

5. Grab a broom!

Another way Japanese high schools differ to other high schools around the world is that there aren’t any janitors. If you make a mess, guess who’s gonna have to clean it up? You, of course, together with your friends. Everyday, before or after classes, all students and teachers get down and dirty during soji or cleaning time. There are plenty of brooms, mops, toilet brushes, and dust rags to go around. Even if you’ve never cleaned your room back home, now’s not the time to get squeamish; just muck in, because everyone else will be! Think of it as quality bonding time with your peers.

6. Respect my authority (cue Cartman)!

Japan is world famous for its awesome team spirit and one of the reasons for this is respect for hierarchy. Before and at the end of every class, you’re expected to perform aisatsu, which involves greeting and bowing to your teachers, who are considered your superiors. Even if you see your chemistry sensei rushing down the stairs, take a moment and acknowledge him or her. If you want to see someone in the staff room, knock first and say, “Shitsurei shimasu!”, or “Excuse me,” before you go in. Many students also say, “Shitsurei shimashita,” when they leave the staff room as well.

Although you expect some level of hierarchy in student-teacher relationships, it also worms its way in students’ personal relationships. In Japanese high schools, there’s serious respect for the sempai/kohai, or senior/junior, relationship. In other words, you better respect students in the years above you, even in your school club.

7. Bring a bento.

Lunchtime at Japanese high schools is a bit different. Many schools don’t have large cafeteria halls; instead, students eat in their homerooms. Unlike Japanese elementary schools and junior high schools, high school students don’t eat mandatory school lunches. Instead, when you attend high school in Japan you’ll be expected to bring a packed lunch, or bento, from home or the konbini (convenience store). Eating with hashir (chopsticks) is the way your peers will eat, so practice, practice, practice if you want to impress your classmates and avoid spilling rice everywhere. It’s also a good idea to bring stuff like sweets or cookies to share in order to make friends more easily, especially on Valentine’s Day or Halloween.

Bento box lunch
Your lunch might not be as cutesy, you’re almost an adult after all, but you’ll love nomming on your bento during lunch hour.

8. Club activities rock!

Clubs or bukatsu are serious business at Japanese high schools. In fact, all high school students are expected to join at least one club during the school year. There are tons of clubs to join, from sports clubs like cheerleading, ping pong, and kendo, to cultural clubs like calligraphy, photography, and brass band. Some clubs meet once a week while others are more hardcore. If you sign up for a sports club like the baseball team, for example, expect lots of practice on mornings, evenings, weekends, even national holidays. Alternatively, if you join a culture club like the English Club, expect a more relaxed schedule.

Also, note that although high school students have regular school breaks during spring, summer, Golden Week, and winter, many Japanese students choose to come in during vacation to take part in club activities. Talk about dedication!

9. Prep for the land of many seasons.

Japan is a temperate country, so depending on where you go, prepare yourself for white winters, spectacular fall leaves, screaming cicadas, and typhoons in summer, and of course, pale pink cherry blossoms in spring. Although many classrooms have heaters for the winter and air conditioning for the summer, don’t expect these gadgets to be on full blast 24/7.

Many high schools in Japan cannot turn them on until a specific date, so stock up on portable fans and sweat rags for the summer humidity and disposable hand/feet warmers for the winter, when your classmates will think it’s a good idea to keep the windows open. You can always pick these necessities up for peanuts at your local 100 yen store though. Another good idea is to keep a small towel handy, since high school toilets don’t have fancy hand dryers or paper towels usually.

Winter in Koya, Japan
Prep yourself and pack for every season!

10. Play the gaijin card.

Depending on what country you’re from and what you look like, as a gaijin, or foreigner, expect to be very popular at your high school in Japan. If you’re American, expect a lot of questions, since many Japanese high school students are ga-ga for American culture. If you’re not, expect to be asked whether you’re American.

Some high schools in Japan may ask you to make a speech in front of all the teachers and student body, so wow them by memorizing a self-introduction in Japanese. Afterwards, expect lots of ridiculous praise like, “Your Japanese is so good!” Also, expect lots of random students shouting “Hi!” to you in the corridors. If you’re an extrovert, this is great. If you’re an introvert, it could take some getting used to.

Now comes the hard part, where should you attend high school in Japan and what program should you choose? It all depends on your personality and your preferences. Our suggestions? Read high school program reviews twice, nay thrice, and talk to people who have actually done the program or attended the high school in Japan you are eyeing. If you’re still stuck, ask yourself these 7 questions before choosing your high school study abroad program in Japan. You can (and should) also use myGoAbroad to save your favorites and compare program options too!