Differences between the U.S. and Japanese Education Systems
By Yumi Nakata
On May 6, 2014
I was born and raised in Japan but moved to California to attend college. Even though I was able to read and write English, I was nowhere near the level necessary for me to succeed in college level classes. So I signed up for a five-week intensive English program at the California State University.
It wasn’t a degree program so the overall atmosphere of the program was much more relaxed but even in this program, I noticed the differences between American and Japanese educational styles.
My American ESL (English as Second Language) teachers really encouraged the students (the majority was Japanese!) to actively participate in the class. They wanted us to ask questions during the class, discuss our opinions with our classmates and give oral presentations in front of the class. All of which was new to the Japanese students in the program.
There were many differences between the U.S. and Japanese education system. Here are three differences that I found challenging.
#1 Raise Your Hand To Ask A Question!
I was surprised to find out that it is ok to raise your hand and interrupt your teacher to ask a question. They actually like that because it shows that you are interested in learning the subject. But it’s the complete opposite in Japan. Japanese teachers expect students to stay quiet while they teach and write on the blackboard. I was used to copying whatever my teacher wrote on the board and then anxiously waiting for my teacher to ask me a question.
I went to a very competitive high school in Japan and the teachers would randomly ask questions to make sure that we were paying attention. If we had any questions, we would just see our teacher after class and we had to make sure the question was important enough for the teacher to answer.
I was very surprised that American students would just raise hands and ask questions during the class.
#2 Discussion and Presentations
The American curriculum emphasizes the importance of group discussion and presentation. Again, I was so used to just sitting in class quietly that it was really hard for me to speak up and join in on group discussions. I wanted to remain silent but had to force myself to speak up because actively participating in the discussion section and doing a group presentations or a solo presentations were part of the grading. Sometimes the presentations took up nearly 25% of the total grade. So I couldn’t afford to remain silent just because I was shy.
#3 You Actually Have To Attend Class
Japanese students study very hard in high school, so they can pass the entrance exams to get into a reputable national or private university. Once they get into their dream college, things become more relaxed as they are almost guaranteed to graduate. This is the opposite of many American universities where the entrance is easy but graduation is difficult.
Some Japanese students whom I met didn’t graduate because they didn’t understand what it took for them to graduate from a college in America. University students in Japan often skip their classes to party and have their classmates sign the attendance sheet but instructors in America would not tolerate their students faking their attendance.
Japanese college perpetuates the lecture-style text-bound curriculum that doesn’t encourage students to actively participate in their own learning. So it is understandable why many Japanese students want to focus on having fun rather than actually studying. I secretly envied my sisters in Japan talk about their college life. It sounded like they were having a blast meeting new people, finding baito (part-time jobs) and going to go-kon (group dating) when I was having a mini nervous breakdown preparing for my next presentation!
I don’t want you to think that American students don’t party in college because they do! In general, one of the biggest differences I found between the American and Japanese education systems is that students in America are expected to actively participate in their own learning. Thus, American universities are generally much more rigorous than Japanese universities.
I went to an academic high school that focused on preparing students for Japanese university entrance examinations, so I knew that I would be working my butt off if I decide to go to American college. It was never easy but I am glad that I chose this route.
If I give some advice to any Japanese students interested in attending college in America, I would say “You will be studying…a lot!”
Some professors were really hard because the university that I graduated from had many world-renowned scientists, medical doctors and professors. But I took so many interesting classes and learned a lot. Would I do this again? Sure. Absolutely. I love studying!
If you are a foreigner and have experience attending Japanese college, I would love to hear your story!