Japanese and American School Differences

If you have ever wondered how different the education systems are in the United States and Japan, you are not alone. Many people are curious about the similarities and differences between these two countries, especially when it comes to schooling. I saw a post on Mental Floss that mentioned Japanese and American school differences, and I wanted to do my own version. What’s the deal with school uniforms, and do students really clean their own schools without janitors? Let’s find out!

School Uniforms

When people think of Japanese school uniforms, there’s a high chance that Japanese school girls come to mind. Their sailor uniforms have become famous around the world and somewhat of a fashion symbol. However, not every school has school uniforms that look the same as they do in Japanese animation and comics.

The uniforms you see students wearing in Japanese entertainment are mostly based on what you would see in real life in Japan. However, the girl sailor uniforms and boy Meiji-era military-style uniforms are gradually being phased out for more Western styles. Every junior and senior high school administration can decide on the uniform and can further tweak it depending on trends.

There are usually two kinds of uniforms that students wear, one for summer time and the other for winter. The changing of seasons is a big deal in Japan, so when you start seeing students go from the dark uniforms of winter to lighter uniforms in summer, you also feel a sense that the season has changed everywhere!

Japanese High School Uniforms in Winter and Summer
Example of uniforms for different seasons

Every school is different, but students are usually not allowed to wear makeup, accessories, have unique/odd hairstyles, or color their hair. As someone that grew up in the multicultural United States, the first time I saw students gathered in an auditorium, I was a bit overwhelmed at the sea of black hair and school uniforms because I had never experienced anything like that in my own country.

Uniforms represent the school a student attends and can either be a symbol of pride or embarrassment. If you live in an area and learn about the local schools and their uniforms, you’ll quickly be able to identify the school uniform. People can sometimes be unfair and prejudge a young person only because of the school uniform he or she is wearing.

Japanese school shoes

Indoor Shoe System

Did you know that students and staff must change their shoes when arriving at school?  Teachers usually change into indoor shoes.  On the other hand, students have designated indoor shoes called 上履き “uwabaki” that they change into when they arrive at school.  However, they are not all the same.  Depending on the class year, the shoes/slippers could be different.

For example, at the high school I taught at, there were three colors of shoes: Red, Blue, and Green.

Example of modern uwabaki
This style was used at my school

The first years would wear red, the second years green, and the third years blue. Whenever I would see a student, I could know what grade he or she is in from their shoe color.  Of course, the rank of the colors would change whenever the 3rd year students would graduate and new first-year students joined the school.

When I first started working at a Japanese school, I rarely paid attention to anyone’s shoes.  It was only later that I realized their importance and usefulness. When visitors come to the school, they are required to slip off their shoes and wear guest slippers. This makes it very obvious when someone does not work at the school or is an outsider. It is very quick and convenient to assess someone from a distance. “Oh, that person is a visitor” or “that boy is a 2nd year student running down the hall”

Cleaning the School


Students take out garbage bags, wipe the floors, and do other cleaning tasks around the school. Every group or classroom has jobs divided up among the students. The students in charge of a particular area are rotated daily or weekly. Some students clean well, while others sort of half-heartedly do it. If you’re imagining everyone happily cleaning a school and smiling, that’s not the case. 😉 Teachers also have designated positions in the school where they must go and watch over the students cleaning.

One Classroom System

Students are assigned to one classroom for the year

When I was an American high school student, all of my classes were in different rooms and buildings, and I had 5 minutes to hurry to my next class. In Japanese schools, students are assigned a classroom and stay there all year. At the high school I taught at, there were 8 different homerooms. That means each class identifies with its number.

Students don’t go to different classes or rooms; teachers come to them. After a class is finished, students have 10 minutes of break time in which they can visit other classrooms or hang out in their own. However, once the school chime rings, students are expected to be in their desks with their books already fetched from their lockers. The next subject’s teacher will also be expected to come to the room with any necessary materials such as print outs, etc. For students, I think this system is convenient, but I feel bad for teachers because it can sometimes be overwhelming to transport all the needed materials and equipment to each classroom.

One Staff Room to Rule Them All

A Japanese School Staff Room

The size and number of staff rooms differ for every school, but the school I worked at had a massive staff room. I’d say about 80% of the teachers were in the main staff room. That’s over 40 people!


Let’s go over the good points of teachers being in the same staff room.

When a student has a question or needs to discuss something with a teacher, he/she opens the staff room door and can usually approach a teacher’s desk and ask for help. If that student’s own teacher is not there, the student can ask for help from another teacher of the same subject. For example, a student can walk in with a Math question and ask ANY Math teacher for help. That’s really flexible and helpful for students.

If students ever need help, they just need to know the location of the main staff room.  No hunting for a teacher’s office or trying to figure out the hours they are available. If teachers are at their desk, they’re usually ready to stop what they are doing and help students.

When quick announcements or meetings occur, everyone gathers in the staff room and locks the doors, barring students from entering. Important announcements are made on the spot so that everyone immediately understands schedule changes or upcoming events.


With teachers all being in the same room, there is less privacy than in North American schools. If a teacher needs to take an official phone call through the school, everyone in the room can guess what the conversation is about. It may also be more difficult for students to approach teachers when they want to discuss important matters they don’t want others to know about.

Another issue is noise and distractions. It is very easy for the noise level in the staff room to increase significantly throughout the day. Dealing with doors opening and closing, copying machines, coughing, and other things can reduce the ability of some to concentrate. I don’t have the source on hand, but I read somewhere that open rooms without cubicles cause roughly 20% more stress than those with cubicles. I believe it because I was mentally exhausted on some days after staying too long in the staff room.

Some teachers are helping students all day whenever they are free at their desk, regardless of their workload. This can cause teachers’ lesson planning and scoring to pile up, making teachers staying at school until late at night. I’ve personally witnessed a teacher that rarely was able to eat his lunch without students asking for help or simply wanting to chat with him, not considering his lunch/break time. Times like that are when I think designated office hours would be better.

The next disadvantage has been echoed to me from teachers I have talked to over the years. In the main staff room, there is usually a boss or two in the form of a vice principal or assistant principal. The hierarchy in the school is made very obvious because the boss always has a desk where he or she overlooks everyone else. It has been described to me as the “eye of Sauron”.

Wrapping Things Up

There you have it. If you have ever wondered how Japanese schools achieved such high scores internationally, maybe some of these differences are factors. Regardless, I find different school environments in different countries to be fascinating!

If you have spent time in a Japanese or North American school, what did you experience that was different than that in your home country? I’m really interested in this topic, so please let me know in the comments.

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