This article is part of the series on my July 2018 trip to Japan. Please see the table of contents page for other articles in this series as they are posted.
I was very lucky to be able to have the opportunity to observe first grade elementary class for an entire day in a school in a less popular region of Tokyo. My son also participated, although as a member of the class instead of a passive observer. Because I knew I planned to write a detailed blog article about, I took pretty detailed notes on my phone throughout the day.
You may already know that in Japanese culture, walking into someone’s house with your shoes on (referred to as dosoku / 土足) is considered extremely rude, such that I’ve heard even thieves will take off their shoes before robbing someone’s home. However, in some places where the floor might be dirty inside a building (for example in some bathrooms), there is a custom to change into slippers or shoes specially for that purpose.
Japanese schools also follow the same practice, such that when children arrive they must take off their shoes near the entrance and put them into a shoe box (kutsubako / 靴箱), and then put on their inside-shoes which they generally keep on everywhere inside the school building (kousha / 校舎). I was loaned slippers for the day and my son loaned shoes. While I am talking about shoe boxes, I should mention that students in Japanese schools often help out with cleaning of various parts of the school, and it so happens that the day we attended a few students were assigned to clean out a portion of the shoe boxes.
Once the children were inside the classroom, class began and the children pushed the desks to the back of the classroom in order to make a circle on the floor. While the teacher stepped out for a moment, a student from a higher-level class came in and did roll call. Then they played a game called “Handkerchief Dropping” (Hankachi Otoshi / ハンカチ落とし) which involved one student standing up, walking around the circle, and dropping a handkerchief immediately behind one of the children with their eyes closed. As soon as that child realized the handkerchief was dropped, he or she had to stand up and try to chase the handkerchief dropper who was trying to return to the only hole in the circle. If that person is caught, he or she must go the center of the circle for the time being. This game was pretty similar to the game Duck-Duck-Goose which is commonly played in the U.S.
After this, the desks were returned and the whole class did a polite greeting (aisatsu / 挨拶) where they said “arigatou gozaimasu” as a group. They said “asa no kai ga hajimaru” (the morning meeting is going to begin) and then stood up together, said “ohayou gozaimasu”, sat, and said “yoroshiku onegaishimasu”. This latter phrase is difficult to translate, but in this case expresses the sentiment of getting along with others. I knew politeness and greetings were important in Japanese society, but watching this procedure was interesting.
Next, they called roll again (I think this was because some of the students from other classes returned to their classes), and my son was asked to give a brief self introduction (jiko shoukai / 自己紹介). Soon after, the “morning meeting” was declared to be over (asa no kai owari). Graded homework was returned to the students and a new printout (purinto) was handed out as well.
Then, the first hour of class began: Japanese language (kokugo / 国語). The teacher wrote a sentence on the board with blanks, and the students had to copy it down and fill in the blanks. The teacher went around and verified all the students’ work. (By the way, I think there was around 30 students in this class). Next, the teacher passed out another handout about hiragana and used color to indicate the stroke order of each character.
During all the instruction I was surprised by a mix of casual and polite (desu/masu) language used by the teacher to the students. All of the students were called using the suffix -san for girls and -kun for boys. I was also surprised by the teacher’s use of the word “chigakunai” (using the verb “chigau” as an adjective, when it is technically a verb), which I thought was not proper grammar. But I guess it is acceptable enough to use in school now.
After that, the children opened their textbooks and read a story out loud (the title was “ooki na kabu” / 大きな株), switching readers on each line. That ended the first hour.
The second hour was arithmetic (sansuu / 算数) and another printout was passed out about subtraction (hikizan / 引き算). The exercise was timed for only two minutes and everyone began together on a signal. Next, the students stood up and made a line, and the teacher asked questions like “saigo kara nibanmei wa dare?” (“who is second from the end [of the line]?”). Then the teacher turned on a TV which showed a PC screen and showed similar questions, and after that did questions like 10 = 9 + __. Later, there was another handout about arithmetic. During this hour several staff members came into the class to assist the students or observe.
Next was outside recess time. The children were allowed to run and play freely around on the large school grounds for 15-20 minutes. There were various things to play with like swings, tires, and monkey bars. Even though son was only there for one day, he was already playing along nicely with the other kids, who somehow managed to coordinate to try and trick me so I couldn’t find him, saying things (in Japanese) to deceive me like “Oh, he isn’t over here. Try over there, where you might find him.” I wasn’t expecting first-graders to work collectively together for such an objective.
The next hour was library time (toshoshitsu / 図書室) where children got to pick out three books to borrow during the summer break, as this happened to be the 2nd to last day before summer break. The teacher skillfully did a book reading (yomikikase / 読み聞かせ) about several firework teams competing to show the most beautiful fireworks.
The 4th hour was the music (ongaku / 音楽) hour. They began with the school song (kouka / 校歌) whose words were printed on the back wall. Then they did the kamehameha song and a bunch of other songs from a book, clapping and using tambourines to keep the beat. During the last part of music hour, they used “harmonica keyboards” (kenban haamonika / 鍵盤ハーモニカ, also called pianika) which are basically small keyboards that make a sound when you blow into the mouthpiece. I have heard this type of instrument was used in Japanese classrooms for decades, and I felt like it was a great idea to get kids interested in music since they generally enjoy making noises with their mouths. I think the kids had their own instruments, but my son was loaned one for that time. The children were generally pretty well in sync and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Next was lunch hour, where I was asked to eat in a side room (ouenshitsu / 応援室) and was given a tray of bread, shepherd’s pie, vegetable soup, milk, and cucumber and mikan salad. While I won’t say the food was amazingly tasty, it was fresh and definitely healthy. The milk was delicious though, it tasted different than milk in the states. At first since there was no rice I thought they had made a special meal just for me, but when I returned to the classroom I saw that everyone was given the same thing. Students were allowed to have seconds of some of the items if they finished everything.
After lunch, several of the classes went on a mini field trip to a forest right outside the school grounds. They were asked to think about what changed since when they last came a few months ago, and also asked to observe what types of bugs they found. I noticed that Japanese children seem to be much more interested in bugs than American children, or perhaps it is in nature in general. The forest was pretty big and we saw many types of bugs, such as dragonflies (tonbo), frogs (kaeru), water striders (amenbo), and crickets (kourogi). We even saw a gopher––or should I say saw movements in the dirt that hinted at one below. The teachers were strict about telling children to not play with the gopher as it might get hurt. The students all brought along canteens (suitou / 水筒) and some time was given to drink during the field trip.
An hour later, we were back in the classroom and began the “kaeri no kai” (“going-home meeting”). During this, the children were asked what they enjoyed about the day(“kyou yokatta koto”) and my son was given a little interview about his experiences that day.
Overall, I was really impressed by how kind the teacher was, and how she calmly managed students who misbehaved. For example, while one boy was not paying attention to class and doing something else, the teacher said the polite phrase “sore, ato ni shite moraemasu ka?” (“Would you mind putting that aside for later?”). In a few cases she did get upset because some children weren’t doing as they were told, but still managed her emotions well in these situations.
But what left the biggest impression is how the students reacted to me, a Westerner in a school that appeared to be 100% Japanese people. Some children just stared shyly from a distance or silently followed me around at recess time, while others aggressively approached me and asked questions like how to say certain words in English. One girl said (in English) “Do you like Donuts?” and another asked me politely if I would go play with her during recess time. During the time I was eating in a side room, the door was left open and groups of children would stop and stare at me for a few seconds when they passed by and caught sight of me. My son also seemed to be quite popular, and one of the kids directly asked me if he was coming back tomorrow.
One of the children politely asked me “eigo shitteru?” (“Do you know English?”) and when I replied in the affirmative he said “eigo ga suki?” (“Do you like English?”). I chose to answer honestly by just saying “futsuu”, which literally means “normal” but here has a neutral connotation. In retrospect, perhaps I should have said “suki demo kirai demo nai” (I don’t like or dislike it).
Even though parts of Tokyo have a lot of westerners (especially as tourists), it seems that some of the less touristy areas still have much less exposure to westerners, so I guess it was a rare opportunity that the children got to see someone like me.
Observing the class was great listening practice and I felt good to be able to understand a vast majority of what the teacher was saying. The hardest part was the school song, which had a few words I wasn’t familiar with––and the fact it was written in hiragana, rather than kanji, made it even harder for me to figure out some of their meanings. I was quiet during the class time itself, but I was able to exchange a few words with the teacher and the principal before and after school.
This was a very special experience and I’m really thankful to those people who helped set it up for me. I hope someday I can sit in on a middle school, high school, or even college class. Though in some ways I don’t expect to ever be able to have the same experiences as native Japanese people, this was a rare opportunity that I will remember for a long time.
Below is a picture I took of one of the empty classrooms during one of the break times. I don’t know about you, but it looks like something right out of a Makoto Shinkai film to me.
(Back to the table of contents page for this series)