Mrs. Kramer's Class Has Some Questions

(note: Sure it's been nearly 8 months since I returned from Japan, but this piece just seemed to trickle together very slowly.)

Being that my mother has been an elementary school teacher for over thirty years, my teaching in elementary and middle schools in Japan was ripe for experimental exchange between our students. My mother curated a set of questions from her students for me to ask mine. Some of these questions I was simply able to answer myself, while others are the result of my polling various different students and getting a feel for the best answer. My students really enjoyed knowing they were getting questions from Miami. After I returned to Miami from Fuji City, I came into my mother's class room and spent time with her students, presenting them with the answers from the Japanese students as well as fielding any new questions they may have had. It was great experience for both the students and myself.

1.  "How do you say Good morning in Japanese?" Ohayou gozaimasu, pronounced phonetically as “Ohio go-zai-mas” 2.  "What are the most important things that Mr. Kramer has taught you?" My students felt that "Hello" and "Thank you" were the most helpful. 3.  "What important celebrations are part of Japanese culture?  How do you celebrate them?" The most important holiday on the Japanese calendar is Shogatsu, which are New Years Day celebrations. New Years Eve is not a big party day as it is in much of the western world. Not long after the clock strikes midnight, the people of Japan go to sleep so they can rise early to go to the Shinto temple the next morning. Some of the more clever students responded with “My birthday!” 4.  How much time do you spend on homework after school, and on weekends? Japanese school usually runs from 7:30 AM until 3:20 PM, but more often than not, students come to school early and leave late to participate in club activities (sports, academics, competition practices) often not leaving until 6:00 PM. After that, most all students attend juku, which are cram schools tutoring students in various subjects such as English and math. Juku often goes on until 9:00 PM or even later. Some students will usually study or do homework upon returning home. So the answer to the question is “quite a lot.” 5.  How much do you read after school? Reading is hugely popular in Japan, in my junior high school there were always lines out the library door during recess of kids returning and checking out stacks of books, often 10 or 20 high. Many students will read recreationally between classes, comic books being especially popular, but novels of a wide range of genres are also read. So the answer to the question is, again, “quite a lot.” 6.  What do you like the most about your country? “Peace!” and “sushi” were  easily the most popular answers. 7.  Do you know enough English that you can flaunt it to other people? As an indication of the answer, only a select few of my students would even understand what this question means. 8.  If you could go anywhere in Japan, where would you go?  and why? Hokkaido and Okinawa are by far the most common answers to this question. These locations are much like Alaska and Hawaii of the US. Hokkaido is the northern most island of Japan, with abundant snowfall and distinct cuisine. The Sapporo Winter Festival is by far the most popular festival in Japan. Okinawa is the southernmost island group in Japan, actually being closer to Taiwan than to main land Japan, and is seen as a tropical paradise. 9.  How fast does the bullet train go? 240-300 km/h (149-186 mph)! 10.  What kind of sports do you like to play? Basketball and soccer are by far the most popular sports in my junior high school, with baseball close behind in third. We actually had the number one boys basketball team, number one softball team and number one boys soccer team in Fuji City for the 2010/2011 school year. 11.  What is the favorite food in Japan? As far as Japanese food goes, sushi and various types of fish were popular answers, but the winner, by far, was ramen noodles. Ramen is basically Japanese fast food; cheap, delicious and leagues better than the Cup Noodle we associate ramen with in the States. Outside of Japanese food, McDonald’s is also a big favorite. Some of my students have such an affinity for the Golden Arches that they thought it to be Japanese and called me a liar when I told them it was from America. 12.  What is the most popular sport that people like? Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Japan. Some of my students are under delusions that soccer or basketball are number one, but that’s usually because they play those sports for the school team. Soccer has definitely been gaining popularity in the nation and grows larger with each passing FIFA World Cup. 13.  What is the best part of living in Fuji City? I exclusively received two answers, “views of Mt. Fuji” and “my house.” A testament of the exciting metropolis that Fuji City is. 14.  Does Mr. Kramer speak Japanese very well? “Oh yes, very well, very good.” They are liars.

20 Differences Between the U.S. and Japanese Education Systems

My mom sent in the following question:

Can you tell us more about the vast differences between the Japanese education system and  the U.S.  that you haven't touched on already?  One thing you told me that is interesting is that students there aren't rewarded or given treats of any kind.

You're the best, Jon!

I still wouldn't say that I know a whole lot about the Japanese education system, being that my position is more like an outside contractor than a proper teacher.  But I can give however little information I've come to learn since March.  Keep in mind that since I don't have first hand knowledge as a Japanese teacher or student there's a good chance that the information isn't 100% accurate, and it may only be relavent for my specific city or region.  Also, much of this info will be fore junior high since I spend most of my time there.

  1. Teachers and administrative staff change schools every 3-8 years, the younger teachers moving more frequently.
  2. In elementary and junior high school there are no actual grades, I don't even think that it's possible to fail, you just have to show up.
  3. Discipline is far different than that in the States.  There is no such thing as detention (the kids typically stay at school long after classes are over to do club activities anyhow) or suspension.  Troublesome kids are free to get up and leave whenever they want with no consequence, if a kid doesn't want to do the work that's his problem.  If a class gets out of control the teachers have a tendency to ignore that there's a problem and just continue on for the kids that care.  But all that said, there is far from a discipline problem with the students.  I have practically no problems maintaining order and attention in the classroom.
  4. Every teacher is required to coach a club activity or sport.
  5. At the beginning of the year the home room teachers in junior high school visit the homes of every single one of their students for a meeting with the parents.
  6. About a third of the way through the year the parents each come to school for a meeting with the teachers.
  7. The principle is mostly a title only position, given to an older teacher close to retirement, the vice-principle does much of the day to day running of things.  The principle is still the face of the school and also receives a lot of respect.
  8. You have to apply for high school and take a standardized test as part of the application, similar to college.  Students often travel an hour's journey to a different city just for high school.
  9. School officially starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:20, but students often come much earlier and leave much later.
  10. There are typically no yearbooks.
  11. Schools almost never have fancy names, often just whatever neighborhood they are in.
  12. Home room teachers eat lunch with their students.
  13. There's often half-days of school on Saturdays.
  14. The school year starts in mid-March
  15. There are only two real vacation breaks.  Summer vacation, which is the entire month of August, and winter vacation, this year being from December 25th to January 5th.
  16. If there's a national holiday on a Thursday you still have to go to school on Friday.
  17. There are no custodians, the students clean the school.
  18. In elementary and junior high, all students walk to school on a pre-designated route.  For high school kids either walk, ride their bikes or take public transportation.
  19. Curriculum is handed down from the national level as opposed to the state level.
  20. There are 240 school days in Japan, 160 in the U.S.A.

That's all that comes to mind, but I'll be sure to post more as they come to mind.  As always, everyone is welcome to ask questions of their own in the comments section or email me at

Kyushoku: Delicious School Lunch

Japanese school lunch (Kyushoku) is a completely different world than the cafeteria lunches seen in the U.S.A..  Growing up a bagged lunch kid, I don't have an intimate knowledge of the food, but it was from what I'd call well planned or good.

Here in Japan the meals are extensively planned, balanced and, best of all, I love it.  There have only been a handful of time where I did not enjoy my lunch, but even then, there's always one kid in the class who absolutely loves it and will gladly add yours to his mountain hawked off other kids.

99% of students at junior high school eat school lunch, a pretty solid testimony to both its nutritional value for parents and its taste for the kids.  The menu is planned out in advanced by dietitians and is extremely balanced.  Almost every meal has a starch (bread, rice or noodles), a protein (fish or chicken), "greens" as my southern family may call them (vegetables), a sweet (often fruit, sometimes pudding, jelly or some topping for the rice, all with a cold milk carton to go along with it.  In addition to all that, as a teacher I get some green tea too.

Each classroom has a printout of the upcoming lunch schedule (typically monthly) telling them what that food is going to be as well as the caloric, protein and fat content of the food (it averages to about 800 calories per meal).

The food itself is really varied.  I've had curry, udon, Italian (udon with meat sauce and a side of salad with Italian dressing, to be fair), clam chowder and tons more.  There's also a lot of Japanese foods, obviously.  I feel that it's a pretty good sample of what a typical Japanese person eats at home.  Lots of fish, rice and miso soup.

I took photos of three weeks of school lunches to check them out click "Read More".

A slow news day

As I was prepping for my day of teaching at elementary school on Tuesday, my ALT coordinator (the guy that is basically in charge of me and provides my schedule) tells me that the someone from a newspaper is going to come take my picture.  I figure it's for the PTA newsletter, something I've had my picture taken for before at my junior high school. About ten minutes later, the vice-principle shows a man with a camera and notepad to the English room.  He presents me with his business card and we do our self introductions. Pretty quickly he eased himself into interviewing me.  He continually apologized for his scarce English, but my Japanese was no better and I did the best I could to meet him in the middle.  He was a pleasant guy and asked where I'm from, how old am I, what Japanese foods I like, my recent travels, the other schools I teach at and a few other basics.

Unfortunately my first class shows up and I had to quickly get myself ready and teach some English (a post-summer vacation refresher on objects!), probably not giving him all the answers he would have wanted.  He took some photos of me teaching and before I could notice, he was gone.

Last night I got a message from my friend Alex that lives in the next town north, Fujinomiya, that he came across a newspaper article on me in the Gakunan Asahi Newspaper that services both Fuji City and Fujinomiya.  So it wasn't some PTA paper.  Today when I first arrived at work, this time at junior high school, one of the English teachers told me he saw the article on me and presented me with a copy for me to keep.

Ladies, gentleman, family and friends, my Japanese print debut:

A newspaper article on me, for some reason.

Excuse the terrible picture of the paper, it's the best I can do at the moment.

I have a less than a vague idea of what it says, but from what I've gathered from others and my knowledge of katakana, a little bit of it talks about where I'm from, the fact that I play dodgeball with the kids and the lesson that I'm teaching in the photos. That and the word "communication" is repeated a few times.

I am pretty curious as to why a piece was written about me in the first place.  There are over a dozen other foreign ALTs in this city, and they are here year-in year-out.  I even know a few ALTs that have been here over a decade.  Whatever the reason may be, it's a surprise and I'm glad to be of service.

Who's teaching 4th period again?

In every single classroom in junior high there's a small blackboard right next to the door that has that class' schedule for the day broken down by period.  Often it's a mix between subject, teacher and lesson. Today I came to my 4th period class to see this on that blackboard.


Next to the 4 is the Kanji for "English" and next to that it says "JonJonJonJon".  Needless to say, we all shared a good laugh over it.

The ABCs in Japan

When I first had my Japanese students in Elementary school sing the ABCs, I was really confused when what they were singing didn't really synch up with how I was doing it. So on the second go around and stayed quite and listened and this is what I heard.

Slightly different from what I'm used to from the US and definitely enough to through me off.

Have you seen this person?

The other day, I found this posted near the front office of one of my elementary schools, where I spend about a quarter of my time: Have you seen this person?

From what I'm told (and from what I remember of what I'm told) it say something along the lines of

"Do you know who this is? He's our new ALT who will be teaching here for 1 year. His name is Jonathan Kramer. Can you say hello in English?"

The picture was taken by one of the teachers I met at the board of education meeting when I first arrived (amazing guy, even more amazing teacher) and the school as a whole is great.  The posting creeped me out a little bit when I first saw it, but once I found out what it meant it made me feel even more welcome at the school.