The schooling year here in Hokkaido runs slightly differently to the rest of Japan, and considerably differently to Australia. It has taken me a while to get used to the natural flow of things and they way that Kindergarten is done in Japan.
The school year begins in April.
Although New Years is celebrated in Japan in January (unlike some other Asian countries), the school and working year start traditionally from the 1st of April. It is such a strange thing, growing up in Australia and the Australian school system. Because of the seasons and the patterns of the year, it just flows so well. Start at some point near the beginning of the year – end of Jan, early Feb maybe. Have two weeks holidays roughly every 10 weeks of school, and a nice big chunk over the Christmas, New Year and Summer holidays. Can anything be more logical and awesome than that? From a parents point of view too, while the Summer holidays are long, at least it’s broken up by Christmas, New Years and warm summer days.
The school year is broken down into 3 terms (semesters?)
April – July
September – December
January – March
One month holidays for both summer AND winter. At first glance, this might seem like a pretty good deal but think again. Imagine living in Hokkaido, piles of snow surrounding you, and now imagine how your holiday might go living in a small apartment with three young children. Yep. Despite my very best intentions to get out in the snow and enjoy it (I really do like it), when the littlest one cries on a sled and gets cold easily, it gets pretty hard. I imagine this might be slightly more enjoyable as the kids get older and we can enjoy outdoor activities like skiing a bit more, but for an Australian not quite accustomed a snow lifestyle, it is taking some adjusting. This does vary to the rest of Japan though, where they don’t often have quite as long of a winter holiday.
There is no flexibility in which year the children begin school.
I know for many Australian families that the discussion of when to enroll their children in Prep can be an ongoing and lengthy one. I observed that many people were enrolling their children at a slightly later stage, closer to 6 years old rather than 5. In Japan, school begins at the age of 6, and the age of the child as of the 1st of April determines when they begin school. So for example; Heidi’s birthday is at the end of March and so she is the very youngest in her class. Some of her classmates might turn 7 in April, and so most parents talk about kids who are born between January and March as 早生まれ (hayaumare), literally translated as ‘earlyborn’, or as an Australian might say, “one of the younger ones”.
There’s only a small break between school years beginning and ending.
To illustrate the point – Heidi graduates from Kindergarten on the 17th of March and begins Primary School on the 6th of April. It’s not even a three-week break. It’s not a lot of time for the kids to rest and get emotionally prepared for big change. It’s also not a lot of time for the parents to run around getting the things you need together either. Which leads me to the next point.
At least for Kindergarten you need a LOT of stuff!
As I sent Heidi and Pippa back to Kinder today, here are some of the things that they needed: 2 sets of spare clothing in plastic bags, in their spare clothing bag. Their school indoor shoes, in their shoe bag. Their backpacks with their obentoo bags, with a lunch cloth, chopsticks and cutlery box, and cup. Their coloured class hats. A hand towel to hang up in class for drying their hands with. Their library bags. Their little ‘pouches’ which clip onto their shirts with tissues and bandaids (not a requirement but very popular). Their name badges. They were both wearing their normal outfits (no uniform) plus a snowsuit, beanies, gloves attached with string, snow boots and boot covers.
Kindergarten kids catch buses to Kinder
I am not sure if this is a Japan-wide thing, or just for Hokkaido, but Kindergartens provide buses for picking up and taking children home. Our Kindergarten is huge and so has three buses that take three different routes each morning and afternoon picking kids up. There are bus stops (ours is at our apartment buildings doorstep) just for the Kinder bus, and teachers who ride the bus. The bus drivers are also employed by the school and perhaps work as maintenance men or have some other roles of employment at the Kinder too.
LOTS of homework.
While Kindergarten children don’t usually do any academic-style learning and therefore don’t receive any homework that changes once they begin elementary school. There is a lot given, but especially over the school holidays! So much so that often kids prefer to be in school, because they have less work to do than compared to the holiday work they are given. And this includes in the holiday between the end of one school year and another.
I could go on, but I might have to save the other differences for another day. Interestingly though, while the differences are many (and I am realising how much so just as I write this), so far we have really had a positive experience with Kindergarten here in Japan. Heidi and Pippa attend a local Japanese kindergarten and both have friends, love their teachers, have learned Japanese and generally enjoy going.
**While you may not be able to read it, for those of you who are interested, click here to visit the website of our Kinder. It has some good photos which capture what it’s like.Or you can click here to read about the Kindergarten sports day last year.**