Japanese Schooling System




warning for long post ahead 

As a some people asked me on Twitter for writing purpose, I thought I’d share this with you all too.

The Japanese school system is slightly different from the western one but has some thing in common with the European one.

The first thing to know about the Japanese schooling system is that the school year starts in APRIL and ends in MARCH. Everything in Japan “starts” anew in April, and even companies ends their year in March. This is extremely important because the start of spring scans the start of the new working and academic year.

Generally the students have around two weeks of vacation between the end of the academic year and the start of the new called “spring vacation” (春休み). They also have generally a week off during Golden Week in May, around two to three weeks of vacation in August (お盆休み) and around ten days between December and January. That’s all about their school vacations for the year.

The first day of school they have the entrance ceremony, something that might be well-known to Americans but not to Europeans as most schools don’t have entrance ceremony.

The Japanese school system is divided in five parts:

  • Kindergarten (幼稚園) 3-5 year olds (day-care for younger children)
  • Elementary school (小校) 6 years
  • Middle school (中学校) 3 years 
  • High School (高等学校 or 高校) 3 years
  • University (大学) 4 years (6 to 8 for medical school)

The biggest difference is that their elementary school years are 6 and the university years are 4 instead of 3 (in Europe).

There are also a lot of vocational schools (専門学校) that are generally private and can be either high school-like or college-like. They are typically 2-to-4 years long.

Japanese education is compulsory until middle school but 99.9% of Japanese people go up to the upper secondary level of education.

Both public and private education are present in Japan, but while until middle school generally kids go to public schools, private schools and college are famous for high school and university.


School in Japan starts at 9 am and ends at 3 pm with one hour for lunch around 12 pm. They go from Monday to Saturday. On Saturday, their school day ends at 12 pm. They have around 30 min of ‘homeroom-ing’ where they talk about activities, school festivals and others. After school hours, students clean their own classroom in turns. In elementary school often they serve lunch at school and students are required to manage the lunch serving in turns
After the end of lessons, most students go to club activities or crams school, the few ones who don’t, go out or return home.

Entrance Exams

The toughest part of the Japanese schooling system (and the reason of most stress, suicide, mental health problems and bullism) are entrance exams. Generally Japanese kids have high pressure from their parents to get into a good school as the society values the name of the school more than academic success (you’ll see why in the University Section).

Generally the toughest years for Japanese students are the high school ones (and the last year of middle school if they are trying to get into a good private high school).

The entrance admission exams go from October to February depending on the school and depending on the school they’re trying to get into.

This is why 3rd years are “forced” to quit their clubs after summer and study for the entrance exams, especially if they are in high school. So the summer tournaments are the last ones where they can participate.


Something widespread in American schools but not much in European schools are school clubs. There are a various range of clubs depending of the school. Most secondary level schools value their sports clubs very much if they win in leagues because they make the school famous. It’s very important if the school doesn’t have any academic prestigious (that is, the chances of being able to enroll into a top-tier university) and the pressure the club members sometimes get into keeping a name in high school sports leagues is extremely high.

Clubs generally needs to have from 4 to 10 joining members and an adviser teacher to exist. If not, they get closed.

Often sports club have training before lessons (from 6am to 8am) especially during tournaments, and during these periods they also often have practice during school lunch hours. But generally clubs activities starts after the end of lessons at 3pm until 6pm. Schools with dormitories for sports club members often have their practice until 11pm, especially before and during tournaments.

Seniority system

The biggest part of Japanese schooling that also reflects the Japanese culture is their seniority system. The senpai-kohai relationship are extremely important and the ones who don’t respect this system are either: expelled from clubs, get disciplinary reports or get isolated from the rest of the class.

Of course it also depends from school to school. The more renowned the school is the more the rules are strict.

It’s very rare that a underclassman talks casually to a upperclassman and it’s important to always use honorifics (they don’t exist in English so there is no problem when writing), it’s mostly the “way of talking” (words, expressions, the ‘desu-masu’ form etc.) that makes the difference and even the biggest hotheads generally respect the seniority system. Even if you become close friend with a upperclassman unless you mutually agree to tone down the level of politeness you are required to speak formally to them. 
This is something that cannot be conveyed in english 100% so my advice it’s not not make the underclassman using slang expressions and swearing words if they are talking to a upperclassman unless they already do that in canon.


Contrary to the American system the Japanese students don’t change classes during periods. They are always in the same class with the same classmates and they move only for gym and home ed periods.

It’s also rare albeit not impossible to find students repeating a year.

The students (male and female) take turns to change in the classroom into gym clothes if they don’t have locker rooms (which is usually the case because more than one class has gym class in the same period. Locker rooms are mostly used by sports club members).

The students might change class when the new school year starts because class members get assigned randomly at every start of the academic year.

Generally, as I said that even for companies the year starts in April, it’s very rare that a transfer student gets transferred in another moment of the year (it’s mostly and anime-like thing lol).


I’d say 90% of Japanese schools use uniforms. There are cases where public elementary schools don’t use uniforms but I’m almost sure is compulsory for the second level education. Generally the uniforms are divided in western style and sailor style for girls and western style and gakuran for boys.

Rules for Uniforms

They depend from school to school, and usually the more prestigious is a (generally private) school the more strict the rules are going to be. 
For girls, there are cases where for their uniforms, they have to wear their skirt not up their knees, they are required to use the bows, under-the-knee socks and often they also need to have their hair styled in a certain way (ponytail, braids, other), cannot use any make up and cannot have their ears pierced. There are some even more strict schools that requires that all the students -the foreigner ones too- dye their hair black. 

For males, the strict schools requires them to have their shirt buttoned up and tie tight tied if they have western-style uniforms and their gakuran buttoned up if they have gakuran. They cannot dye their hair, cannot have them any longer than a certain cm and cannot pierce their ears.
In summer, the schools that have gakuran as uniform let the students have a short-sleeve shirt usually without any tie. 
Gakuran have the school’s symbol embodied in the buttons and often on the collar they have pins that represents the school year and some times the class rank (eg. class rep)

Public schools are more loose with rules, especially with the western style uniforms. Often in winter the students can choose the sweater they’d like (generally suggested by the school) to wear or the kind of socks they’d like, and they usually let the students dye their hair and have their ears pierced. But depending from school to school, the ‘how much’ you can dye your hair and ‘how much’ you can have your ears pierced can vary.

Uniforms are important because they become part of people’s school lives, and are nostalgic for adults. Young people in uniform are a symbol of ‘youth’ and ‘carefree-ness’, of a time that passed and that contains sentimental memories.

Student Council committee

Something again that is also in American schools but not often in European ones is the student council. Generally in anime the student council is a sort of god-like presence that has the same, if not more, power than the principal, they have access to any kind of budget and can do whatever they like. 
In reality, it’s not like that. While the student council committee often has words into managing the clubs and the budget, school trips and such, because the student council is a chance the school gives the students to ‘govern’ themselves to a certain extent to let them experience how democracy should work, they have not as much power as the exaggerating anime and manga tends to give. Generally the ones elected for the student council are the more popular ones, and when I say more popular ones I mean the most academically achieving student, which is the most important thing in japanese schools. Popular students are often not popular for their external appearance but more for their academic or athletic achievements that brings prestige to the school.

Differences between High School and University

High School in Japan is said to be one of the most difficult periods of their lives because they have to prepare for the university entrance exams. As I said before, especially for students in private (but even public) schools who aim to enter important universities, the pressure is high and cause of extreme competitiveness and bullism between the students. 
Both private and public high school are not free. Of course private schools are more expensive but even for public ones the yearly price goes around 300,000 yen (around 3000$). The uniforms are also very expensive, and they might cost between 200 and 1000$. This is why often poorer families buys bigger uniforms hoping that their children would ‘grow up to fit’ it in their third year.

Generally High Schools have two kind of courses that are the college-preparatory classes and the vocational classes. The first ones aim to train the student to pass the college entrance exams while the second ones are for the students who are expecting to find a job right after graduation. There are schools where depending the class you are in, the more high your academic success is.  (Eg, often being in the 3-A class means you’re part of the best students of the school, while being in the 3-B means you are also very good, but not as good as the first ones. It’s not always like this and it depends from school to school.)
It IS possible to change from the vocational course to the college-preparatory course but integrating the lacking parts is often difficult and nerve-wracking (though not impossible).

University in Japan is far different from Europe and America. In fact, university years are often called ‘college summer vacations’.
While they almost give up their mental and physical health to be able to enroll in the top universities, once you are able get in you generally do nothing. 
They don’t have any kind of oral exams, their written exams are often multiple choice ones, the evaluations are mostly based on group presentations and works and they don’t have much pressure as they know they are going to graduate in march of their fourth year anyway. 
The only thing required to fully graduate is attendance. In one year you have only 3 days of permit and they require you to come unless you’re basically so sick you gotta go to hospital. This varies from college to college but it’s generally the same. 
Students go there and literally sleep on desks (in fact, often assistants go around the class waking up students) 

Students in University 

The cost of University in Japan is around 1 million yen per year (around 10000$) and to pay for it most students either work a part time job or enroll in the japanese scholarship association.  Assistance is also offered by local governments, nonprofit corporations, and other institutions.

The top university in Japan is the Todai (Tokyo Daigaku) which is considered one of the best university in Asia. It’s ranked 1st in Japan and 5th in Asia, and around the 20-25th in the world. It’s a public university but it’s been said to have one of the most difficult entrance exam of universities in Japan. Who manages to get into Todai has a shining employment future ahead of them. Other top-tier universities include Kyoto Daigaku, Osaka Daigaku, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Nagoya Daigaku and more.

To be able to get into top-tier universities usually high schoolers go to cram schools (Juku) after their normal school hours. Often, the teachers in cram schools are currently top students at good universities. 
The ones who cannot get into the school of their choice on the first try become ‘ronin’ (which literally means samurai without master), this happens if they decide to not enroll in any of their other choices but aim to get in that one university they failed to get in. Usually they take one year off after high school graduation to concentrate on studies and pass their top-choice university entrance exams.

Generally, university students starts to search for a job between their third and fourth year of university, and, generally,  they get hired before they even graduate. They will start their job as soon as they graduate (that’s why also the working year starts in april, even though it’s not rare to get into a company in other moments of the year) and 99% of university graduates is said to find a job once they graduate. I’d have to say, it depends a lot on the student’s university name since as I said before, the employers valuate more the university name than anything since university students basically don’t have any academic merit in general and their degree mark is not even listed in their resume. 

They often have clubs also in university and there are some private universities that requires uniforms, but they are rare. 

They don’t have brotherhoods in university. They don’t make parties, especially in their own houses because: 

1. Japanese houses are small. Very small. Even if you are rich, your house is small. Especially if you live in Tokyo.
2. Usually college students are off-site, they live in small apartments or in share houses. The only share houses I know that host parties are the ones for foreigners and are always fully controlled by the house agency and they end at 11pm.
3. Japanese people are not that kind of social animals who like to go wild in parties in a house. The house is a sacred territory where things like parties don’t happen. They drink and have fun outside (usually at izakaya restaurants or karaoke) but never in their houses, especially if it’s the family house. In fact, it’s very rare to get invited at a Japanese’s house. If they want to study with friends, they study in cafes or libraries, if they want to have sex often they go to hotels unless one of the two lives alone.
4. Japanese houses are not the same as american single-family houses, they are narrow and full of things.

Another important thing is that underage drinking is way less widespread than one might think. 
Drinking is part of japanese culture and it’s considered a step into adulthood (you can start drinking at 20), so japanese people value very much this important moment and they don’t rush it by drinking underage (there are exceptions of course). 
Drinking in japan is important: as soon as you turn 20, you are able to ‘join’ the adults drinking in izakaya, restaurants and karaoke, you can go to your friends and/or company ‘飲み会’ (lit. drinking parties) and often you are even forced to drink even if you don’t want. Often you cannot decline your superiors asking you to go drinking with them and you have to drink if they fill your glass. It’s considered rude refusing because of the seniority system and because of the importance of the drinking culture. In fact, I had to learn in school how to ‘politely decline’ a drink and find a way to say the reason why I declined in the most polite way possible in order to not offend my superior.
It’s ordinary to see salaryman/woman and generally working people passed out in their own vomit on friday nights. Nobody considers this inappropriate because that is just ‘what they do’. It’s their culture and they just think ‘ah, they probably spent a good time with their co-workers’. 
I have to say that often police has to run around picking up these lifeless bodies all night and bring them home and I’d say not every wife loves to see their husband come home stoned and covered in vomit but hey.

School activities and Festivals

If you read manga or watch anime that are set in school, you would often see these ‘school festivals’ and ‘activities’ that are integral part of Japanese school live. Let’s see what they are. 

  • Cultural Festival (文化祭い)

The cultural festival is one of the most important days in the school year, because it’s when students can often show the results of their artistic and cultural achievements and often former students get to visit their old school again. The activities done during the cultural festival are planned at least one month before and the students work on it usually during their club hours and sometimes during lesson hours. There are usually concerts, dance sessions, plays, art displays etc. and most classes get turned into cafes and themed cafes, little restaurants and other little activities (such as horror houses and such) where the students can display their creativity and management skills. 
Usually the culture festival is held on Culture day (November the 3rd) which his a national holiday in Japan. It might also be held in the Saturday and Sunday close to this day. Often students use this opportunity to visit other schools, especially if they are planning to get into them.

  • Sports Day (運動会 or 体育の日)

Sports Day is on the second monday of October and it’s a great chance to polish the students’ cooperativeness and enhance their physical and mental health through exercise. Generally they are divided by class and do a various range of physical activities such as baton-pass races, three-legged race, soccer, volleyball and such. This day was established to commemorate the olympic games of 1964, that were held in october because summer is the heavy rainy season (梅雨) in Japan.

  • School Trips

While they often are done mostly during elementary and middle school, there are a lot of high schools who also plan school trips. They are part of the school’s activities and are usually one twice a year, in spring and fall. Usually in their last year of school in every grade they experience overnight school trips. They visit naturally and culturally important place such as Nara, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Okinawa, all depending where the school is, or often they take one-day trip to visit factories and show kids how the adults work. 

  • Overnight Camp

Often during summer the school organizes a overnight camp over the sea or on the mountains. This is generally something that mostly elementary and middle schoolers do. They are in contact with nature and learn various things about the species living in the surrounding area.

  • Appendix: Sports club training camp 

Often sports club organize overnight camps or summer camps especially close or during tournaments. These are a chance to make the members get close with their teammates, concentrating only on training and work on special-menu training to enhance their physical and mental health in view of the upcoming tournaments. Overnight camps are a 1-to-3 days full immersion where the members sleep all together in the school’s gym/facility while summer camps are either done over the sea or in the mountains or joined with other schools’ same sports club, to give a chance to the members to experience training with different students and enhance their sportsmanship.

Schools dormitories

There are some schools that give their students a chance to live in dormitories if they have. Generally it’s either if they are part of a (school with a famous) sports club or if the school is rich and private and difficult to get to with transportation. There are also a good number of universities that give their students the chance of stay in dormitories, this applies often to foreigner and exchange students.
Dormitories are often cleaned by the students themselves (though it depends from school to school) and they have a communal area where often they have a canteen and a relax area. Sneaking into a school dorm at night is almost impossible as there are guards but generally since most dormitories don’t have single rooms and in japan the act of ‘bothering others’ is seen as one of the most rude things that can ever be done, almost no one tries to break the rules. 
Generally if someone disrupts the dormitory life gets immediately chased out after a few warnings. 

I probably forgot something so if you have any questions about a specific theme, you can message me!! 
Thank you for reading until the end! (*´ω`)

Source: I live in japan and I teach English to high schoolers and college students.

I knew most of this already but it’s really essential info if you ever write fanfic for anime/manga series.  

A fact I happen to know that I’d add: driving cars is VERY rare for high schoolers in Japan.  When you think about it, it makes sense: especially in Tokyo/Tokyo-adjacent areas, public transportation is pretty amazing, making car ownership unnecessary to begin with, and also it’s very expensive/difficult/impractical for many working adults to own and operate cars, let alone teenagers, and so it’s nearly unheard of for high schoolers to be allowed to drive them.  Some schools actually don’t allow their students to drive at all, and the students can get in trouble if they are discovered to have driver’s licenses/are reported to have been seen out driving in the world.  

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for high schoolers in Japan to drive.  But the reasons for it tend to come from something exceptional about the student/their circumstances, such as if they come from great wealth or live in the country/in a farming community, where their ability to drive might be important to helping out with the family business.  Even if you don’t spell out your reasoning directly in the fic, if you’ve been thoughtful about why your character is an exception, and having that reason in mind as you write, it can cause the story to feel a lot more grounded/realistic than it might otherwise.

In general, I’ve come to expect a lot of fanfic for anime/manga series written in English to be written by westerners who tend to write high school AUs which are basically an exploration of the writer’s own school experiences, and so reflect Western school traditions which are HORRIBLY misplaced for a series with a Japanese setting.  And as a westerner myself, I don’t have a lot of room to complain, and honestly, have mostly resigned myself to expecting this in a lot of stories… I can’t tell you how many high school stories I’ve read for Haikyuu where the students go to house parties and get drunk, and honestly?  THOSE BOYS WOULD NEVER.  Not for moral reasons especially, but because it’s Just Not Done. 

But still, I understand that people will always be inclined to “write what they know,” and fanfic itself is a hobby and a lot of the people who write it are very young, and it would be unfair for me to expect super well researched facts/settings when reading fic for my favorite series.  If the characterizations and/or plotting are good, that’s usually enough to satisfy me and make me like a story. 

But!  If a story has good characterization/plotting AND shows some sensitivity to the differences in high school experience?  Or cultural differences in general?  Those stories are truly TOP TIER and often clock in amongst my absolute favoritest of favorite stories.  Even if some of the details are a little off, any attempt to adhere to standards such as those set out by the OP, and show off a culture that would be more natural to the actual setting in question, is something I think a lot of fans really appreciate and want to see more of.  

Thank you so much for these add-on!!♥

But I’d say it’s impossible for high schoolers to drive because like in Italy, they can get their driving license at 18 and by that time 90% of them has already graduated from high school (unless they are born from January to March but even with that it takes at least three months to get a driver license and by that time, they’re gonna be graduated anyway).

I quote the rest! Thank you!!

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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