I don’t know if I’ve actually written a post just about schools before and the difference between those of Australia in Japan. Having just finished up my ALT career, it seems like a good time while at least one is fresh in my mind.

The information in this post is much more up-to-date for Japan than Australia, because I haven’t been involved with an Australian primary school for 18 years, and for secondary schools only sporadically or through family over the last 12 years or so. And unlike in Japan, I’ve never been a regular teacher in an Australian school (but was a choir teacher in a secondary school for a few months while their usual one was away). So if you can correct me, readers who work or have kids in schools (Blossomkitty, お願いします!), please do!

And with that, onwards we go.

Greater-known (or at least published) things about Japanese schools:

School lunch

Read about Japanese school lunch here, here  or here.
I am a big fan of school lunch in general. A lot of kids like it, but others would rather bring their own, which they can and have to do in high school. This usually means their mothers making it. Otherwise they can buy bread or rice balls from people that come to school to sell them, and some high schools have vending machines.

A Japanese school lunch. Image: 2 BBolloms

Australia doesn’t have school lunch. It’s BYO or buy it at the canteen. And a school canteen, by the way, is not a bottle. It’s a place where you can buy food. It’s not a cafeteria: in most cases, you don’t eat at the canteen. You take the food away and eat it somewhere else. In Australia most schools let you eat anywhere except the library or computer room. Lunch time is free time. Some schools try to get you to finish your lunch in the classroom before you go out to play. But I think some schools don’t let kids eat inside unless it’s raining.

A school canteen in South Australia. Image: school’s website

My school canteen used to sell flavoured popcorn for 50c, which was great. At recess (morning play time, 11-11:30) they sold cinnamon toast which was a really popular snack (intended for kids who hadn’t had breakfast, I eventually learned) and in summer they had what we called slurpees – like those frozen ‘slushie’ drinks you can get at 7-11. The food there wasn’t especially nutritious. I wasn’t concerned much with nutrition in those days, but I think that’s the main reason my parents preferred us to take lunch from home.


Cleaning is one of the duties that are part of school life in Japan, from kindergarten to high school. Everyone is in designated groups with a designated leader. Each group has an area they are assigned to cleaning for a month or so, and then they get shuffled around. Some schools play music during cleaning time (those were my favourites). Some schools have a great time cleaning, like the ones you see on the video. Some schools have a no-talking policy during cleaning, about which I learned when I got myself and some kids into trouble by talking to them during cleaning. Some kids clean to get the school clean. Some kids run around with brooms that never touch the floor. Some kids stand in one place sweeping the same clean area, leaving the large dirty section of floor next to them at the top of the stairs because it’s not their assigned area and is therefore irrelevant to them.
As I have just been reminded by this good article in the Japan Times, Japanese schools do have a ‘janitor’ but their job is really more like school maintenance in cases that I’ve seen, as opposed to cleaning floors or emptying bins.
In Australia, students don’t clean the floors – that’s done by paid cleaners who come at night. At my primary school we put our chairs up on the tables – was it every day or just on Fridays? – so the cleaners could get the vacuum cleaner under the tables. We also had bin duty where two of us took the classroom bin out to the skip where the cleaner dude would empty it, and took turns to bang the blackboard dusters together out the window. I don’t remember what else there was, but there was probably other stuff.

Possibly lesser-known points about school in Japan (and how they compare with Australia 20 years ago, which is actually not as unnatural a comparison as you might think)

Term dates

Japan has three terms, or ‘semesters’ as some like to translate it (but they never translate it to ‘trimesters’?). They are:

April – July (this year, 6th April to 20th July)

September – December (this year, 1st September to 25th Dec, yes inclusive) and

January – March (in 2018, 9th January to 23rd March).

In that order. Like Europe and North America, the longest break is the summer holidays, which fall over August. The spring and winter breaks are both around 2 weeks, during which kids are largely hanging out at school playing sports together anyway. Most Japanese kids (and adults, in my experience) assume that Australia, like most of the Western countries in the Northern Hemisphere, starts the school year after summer, in September.

Except, of course, that summer in Australia is from December to February. For specifics, you can see here, but basically Australia has 4 school terms:

Term 1: late January – early April, followed by ‘Easter holidays’: 2 weeks

Term 2: late April – late June –>winter holidays: 2 weeks

Term 3: mid-July – late September –> spring holidays: 2 weeks or 3 if you’re lucky

Term 4: mid-October – mid-late December. The latest you could expect term 4 to finish is the 23rd of December.

Summer holidays, aka Christmas holidays: January is off.

They’re probably trying to stop people using terms like ‘Easter holidays’ and ‘Christmas holidays’ now that assuming Christianity is less PC. Speaking of which…

Religious Education/Instruction vs Moral Education

It’s probably always been a bit controversial, but I’ve only become aware of this since finishing school. In Australia there are church volunteers who go around telling kids about stuff from the Bible in half-hour sessions. These used to be opt-out, meaning that unless a parent specifically requested that their child not be instructed about the goodness of Christianity, the child had to sit there and be instructed. I remember wishing I could have had a note to opt me out so I could play computer games like the other 1 or 2 kids who weren’t participating. It was changed to opt-in in 2011 and the numbers dropped a fair bit. I think educators are leaning more towards views that education should be secular and that kids should be taught about religions (comparatively) rather than what you might call indoctrinated into one religion. According to this article about it, they’re also trying to focus on respecting people and treating each other well, to reduce the significant problems Australia is having with domestic violence.

Japan doesn’t have religious education as far as I know, other than what students might learn in Social Studies. What they have is dōtoku 道徳, ‘Moral Education.’ This is where they basically get taught how to behave in Japan, as far as I could make out from the teacher I asked about it the other day. How to be polite and respectful. Read more about it here.


Japanese primary school kids grow flowers, tomatoes and other plants at school! Each kid has their own little plastic pot and a plastic bottle with a little sprinkling shower head they attach to it to water their plants. At some schools they grow rice, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. I think this is great, especially these days with the increasing availability of pre-made food. I don’t think many Japanese kids would get to be like those kids on Jamie’s School Dinners who didn’t recognise celery.

I don’t think gardening is as widely spread in Australian schools. I don’t recall doing it at school myself. However, I’m pretty sure my mum did some at her school way out in the sticks about a hundred years ago. My high school introduced optional horticulture and viticulture subjects during my last couple of years there, but it wasn’t the same.

School camp


School camp was probably my favourite thing about primary school. My favourite book at primary school was Don’t Pat the Wombat! by Elizabeth Honey and I remember waiting impatiently to go on camp in grade 4. It was 2 nights or maybe 3 down at Point Nepean/Portsea where Harold Holt didn’t come back from. It was called school camp, but actually we didn’t sleep in tents, but cabins. We saw a canon, listened to (sea!)shells and took turns sitting in a helicopter. It was very exciting. I think I was keeping a diary at the time and some of the girls in my room or another room found it and read it, much to my dismay.

Grade 5 and 6 camp was longer, maybe 4 or 5 days. We went to adventure-y type places with high and low ropes courses and a great big flying fox, and did horse riding and went on a 15-metre swing. It was the Best Thing Ever.

Tents were for Year 7 onwards, when we started cooking our own food, doing more hiking, cycling, surfing, rock climbing and stuff. At my school it was called Outdoor Education. By Year 10, when it was no longer compulsory, we had to plan our menu and route and carry everything we’d need for a 6-day hike, and take turns to navigate with compasses. It was the best. My partner and I took us in the wrong direction for the first half hour of the first morning. Then we figured out something was wrong. Camp was the only time I felt alive (I wasn’t a very active teenager), and you could get along with people you otherwise wouldn’t, and you could cut each other’s hair or talk about poo and nobody cared so much.

In Japan, they have a ‘school trip’ which starts out as an overnight trip to some tourist destination in grade 5 or 6 and builds up to 2 or 3 nights by the time they get to year 9. It’s usually to some sort of tourist destination. My schools went to Tokyo, Okinawa, Kyoto, and places like that. Most of the kids love it, but many of them have never been camping, and often not for more than one night if they have.

The school ground

In Australia, school grounds usually have some bitumen areas, a hall/gym, classrooms, common areas and an oval (or more than one). The oval is a large area of grass that may or not actually be in the shape of an oval. It might be square or circular. There is usually a cricket pitch of packed dirt or some harder surface in the middle.

Primary schools have play equipment (monkey bars, slide etc) over a surface of what’s known as tanbark. Some schools have tennis courts, outdoor basketball/netball courts, pools, and/or soccer ovals. Then there are specialty classrooms like art rooms, music rooms, and in secondary schools, science rooms, home economics rooms, drama rooms, and maybe woodwork/ceramics rooms, and usually some sort of auditorium or performance centre. I think music usually has more than one room in secondary schools. Some schools have media/multimedia study areas… oh and of course, every school has a library.

Playground over tanbark. Image: an ACT school website

Most schools in Australia are quite sprawly, taking up a large area of land and not extending upwards for many storeys – it would be rare that you’d see a school building as tall as three storeys, I think. And of course, there is a first aid room/nurse’s room, staff room, and principal’s office. I think all schools also have a reception desk, usually near the principal’s office.

As far as I am aware, most schools in Japan don’t have grass – or common areas. The ‘ground’ is a coarse sandy dirt, sort of like tiny tiny gravel. That’s where kids run around, play soccer, baseball and dodgeball, and what play equipment is on.

The guraundo (ground) at a school in Tochigi. Image: Tochigi Film & TV Commission

Everywhere else outdoors is either concrete/asphalt or dedicated garden bed. Inside, there is the genkan 玄関 (shoe locker area for changing between indoor and outdoor shoes), classrooms, radio room,  staff room, library, office worker’s room (not sure what goes on there – accounting? General admin?), specialty rooms like music, science, art, home economics. I’ve never heard of a drama room or media room in a Japanese school, but they have computer labs. Some schools have kitchens where lunch is made on campus, if the school is big enough – others get it delivered from a local school lunch centre. All Japanese primary schools seem to have pools. Even my school last year that had a total of 36 students had its own pool. Some junior high schools have them, too. The pool gets emptied at some point after summer and by the time the next summer rolls around, it can be pretty gross. Cleaning it out is a school activity.


Most schools in Australia have uniforms. If schools have uniforms, they are compulsory. Some primary schools just have polo shirts and shorts or tracksuit pants and a windcheater, but some have sport and non-sport uniforms. Secondary schools with uniforms usually seem to have both.

I think all Japanese schools have uniforms, but primary school kids don’t seem to wear them a lot of the time. I’m not really sure how it works. I think they have sport uniforms and other uniforms too, but sometimes they don’t wear either. They have some pretty random English on their clothes sometimes.

The red and white hat you can find in any Japanese elementary school. It’s white underneath. Image: Amazon

Hats are mandatory for children in both Japanese and Australian primary schools. In Australia they may or may not be uniform, but in Japan, they’re standardised. All kids have an aka-shiro boushi, 赤白帽子, a red and white reversible cap with an elastic chin strap. They use them to mark out teams when playing tag, for instance – if you’re ‘it’ you wear the red side and everyone else is white. Most schools also have another hat, whose colour varies from school to school. Yellow is a common colour. So is blue, but I’ve seen purple, green and more.


Australia (and the West, yes?): Correct = tick. Incorrect = cross. Or underline or circle, if students/teachers feel that X are too aggressive – just something to draw attention to it.

Image: marcofolio via boredpanda

Japan: Correct = circle. Incorrect = cross – or tick if you can’t be bothered lifting the pen another time.

This was so confusing for me when I first came. Eventually it was OK in the classroom, but now I confuse myself all the time by forgetting which system I’m using when studying Japanese.

There are more oddities about schools in both Australia and Japan. If you’re made it to the bottom of this post, well done! お疲れ様でした。 It took me a while to write and as long to find the photos.



6 thoughts on “Schools

  1. That is interesting to learn of your recollections of what was enjoyable at school. It makes it easy and fun to read. You have given me some ideas: in two weeks, I can say ‘poo’ every day and cut Matt’s hair. Sounds like fun!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. oh, dear, I wrote a really long comment that must have not sent….so…. I will write it again ☺ Eating in the school grounds in Australia doesn’t really happen anymore, because of the high incidence of anaphylaxis. Our primary school does lunch orders once a week, but nearly all of the local schools also have sushi lunch orders once a week. The kids can order hand rolls, gyoza and inari and it is delivered to the school. This is VERY popular.
    Not much cleaning happens in school time (except in my kitchen-where the kids wash dishes, wipe down tables and sweep the floor). I don’t know of any government schools that offer religious education anymore? Maybe some do… not sure.
    We have a huge garden, which the kids grow a lot of the food we cook in kitchen class. They have a dedicated garden class, with a qualified horticulturalist. Many schools in Australia now run this program, it’s called the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, or programs like this. (I think about 1000 schools, nationally??)
    School camp, still popular, from grade 1 or 2 and I am going to my first one in three weeks….Woo hoo….
    My school is on the edge of Sherbrooke Forest and is lush and green… not all schools are so lucky, but I agree, most have more grass than Japanese schools. And, most have uniforms. The strictness of enforcing the wearing of said uniforms varies…..
    And finally, marking… my Japanese teacher puts beautiful big red flowers over everything when I get it right. Kind of starts out like a circle but just keeps going ☺☺

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, things have changed since I was at school! But I had heard about the Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden program. That’s amazing about the sushi lunch orders! There are some places where I find it hard to imagine that happening (in small country towns, for example).
      And it’s so sad about the anaphylaxis. Allergies are becoming more of a thing in Japan now too – probably still a few years behind Australia.
      Haha, the はなまる? I found it weird at first how teachers would write over the top of correct work. But it’s pretty cute.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks! I meant to put this in the post – I’ll have to do a separate one. For now, though:
    They do, but far more are undiagnosed. Apparently it’s left up to parents’ discretion whether or not they want their kids to be put in a special needs class/school. All the public schools I know of have at least one extra class that has a special name, often named after a flower like ‘Violet’ or ‘Dandelion,’ that has very few kids in it. Depending on the school and the class, those kids might join the other classes for some subjects (Art, PE, etc) or might have everything just in their class. There are a lot of kids with ADHD, Aspergers or other social/learning difficulties who are in ordinary classes and really struggle – or in some cases might really disrupt the learning of the other 30 kids – and there are some kids in separate classes who might be fine in ordinary classes. I think this depends on the parents and what they decide, and maybe the student’s wishes too.
    I think diagnoses are probably gaining popularity in Japan too. But it’s hard to tell if general awareness is growing or if it’s just me gaining awareness over time!


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