Here's How Different The Japanese Elementary School System Is Compared To The US, As Told From Someone Who's Experienced Both

During the summers of 2008 and 2009, I attended a public elementary school in a Tokyo suburb. As an American, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

Five children smiling and posing together, two making peace signs
Jen Adams/BuzzFeed

For some context, I grew up in Hawaii, but I'd frequently visit my grandparents in Tokyo during the summers. For whatever reason, when I was in third grade, my mom enrolled me as a student at the local elementary school near my grandma's house. Funny enough, this was actually the same elementary school that she attended as a kid.

Map showing multiple locations with focus on Mukodai Elementary School amidst Tokyo area map

Looking back on it, I'm not exactly sure how this was all allowed. I vaguely remember my mom taking me to the school district office one day and signing a bunch of papers. I also held a Japanese passport and established my grandma's house as a place of residency, so that probably helped.

Five children standing outside a building, smiling and making peace signs
Jen Adams

I spoke a little bit of Japanese with my family so I was able to talk to my classmates and understand most things, but I definitely remember feeling out of place at times.

Group of children posing playfully in front of a building
Jen Adams

But somehow, with my intermediate-level Japanese comprehension and my mighty 4-foot-something-stature, I managed to survive, and I even had a lot of fun. School life in Japan is a completely different world compared to the US, and it's all so interesting to reflect on. Here are 15 of the major differences I noticed:

1.The school year started in April and ended in March.

Teacher and students engaging in a classroom activity at desks

2.It was pretty common for students to have the same classmates and teacher for two years at a time.

Group of children raising hands in a classroom setting

3.Everyone was required to wear the same backpacks.

Four students with backpacks running joyfully in a schoolyard

4.Everyone walked to and from school without their parents.

Group of schoolchildren with masks crossing the street safely at a pedestrian crosswalk

5.Students ate lunch in their classrooms and helped serve meals.

Two children in chef hats and aprons are serving milk cartons at a school

6.The lunch was extremely delicious.

Photo of a traditional Japanese breakfast with various dishes and a milk carton on a tray. Text in image is promotional content

Here's another example of lunch: salad with miso dressing, toast with tuna, mayo, and corn, vegetable soup, and a carton of milk.

Japanese meal with text bubbles; soup, salad, milk

7.Everyone was required to wear gym uniforms during P.E.

Instructor with face mask standing before seated students in schoolyard, gesturing

8.There was a pool, and everyone had to have their names sewn onto their uniforms.

Group of children in swim caps smiling and waving at the camera, suggesting a friendly or welcoming travel-related event

9.You weren't allowed to bring snacks or toys to school.

Empty classroom with desks, a blackboard, and a wall clock, suggesting a possible educational tour

10.Sometimes, there was school on Saturdays.

Playground with a swing and climbing structure in front of a multi-story motel during daytime

11.There was a song that played on loud speakers every evening, and it meant it was time to go home.

Group of children joyfully jumping in the air at a park, expressing freedom and happiness, signifying the joys of travel

12.Students had to clean their classrooms every day.

Students participate in cleaning a classroom with brooms and cloths

In Japanese schools, students have to clean their classrooms and hallways for about 15 minutes every day. At my school, everyone kind of designated themselves an area to clean during this time. You could help sweep the floor, wipe down tables, or clear the chalkboard of any unnecessary marks.

Recep-bg / Getty Images

13.There were big communal sinks everywhere.

A young child washes hands at a public sink, highlighting hygienic practices while traveling

14.There were extracurricular clubs that everyone took part in after school.

Children in sportswear running in a relay race, exemplifying active travel experiences

15.And finally, everyone was required to change into their indoor shoes upon entering the school.

Child putting shoes in cubbyhole at a traditional Japanese inn, showcasing cultural etiquette

Check out more API-centered content by exploring how BuzzFeed celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! Of course, the content doesn't end after May. Follow BuzzFeed’s A*Pop on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to keep up with our latest API content year-round.

Illustration of diverse people celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with vibrant cultural elements
Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed