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Rules and Regulations

School rules are every bit as strict as people think they are and more lax than most can imagine. There are a lot of things in Japanese junior high schools that you're not supposed to have. Students are not allowed to consume or even possess any kind of candy, cookie, or snacky treat. That includes soft drinks, fruit punch, potato chips, popcorn, bubble gum and similarly related items that American students probably wouldn't want to live without. Even if a student doesn't have these things on him, there are plenty of other things that all students carry that are on the banned list. Things like personal stereos, mp3 players, pagers, manga (comic books), and cell phones.

Tile/board games at lunch. Big no-no.
High school students gambling at a train station after class

Aside from having something from the contraband list in your backpack there are plenty of other very easy ways to get into trouble. One is to have your uniform out of order. All students wear uniforms and the public school system has a very strict set of guidelines of how the uniform is to be kept and worn. Each student has a very small book that they must carry in their pocket at all times. Printed inside the book are the school rules, as well as very accurate diagrams, including measurements, detailing how the uniforms should be worn and what length the skirts, trousers and hair must be. Despite this, each school has their own level of laxness; how far they are willing to let these rules slide. If a student's uniform goes beyond this, the teachers will take action. A skirt length is supposed to be touching the bottom of the knee, but some schools let their girl students roll up the skirts so that the hem is halfway up their thigh. At some schools baggy trousers are popular, at some ratty shoes are hip. Depends on the school.

If a student breaks a school rule, the penalty is usually some form of lecture. Depending on the severity of the infraction, this could involve yelling and shouting by one or more teachers. Most times, this is done in the teachers' room. Very occasionally, teachers will strike students. This is, technically, illegal, but it's done anyway. (After one particularly bad lesson, a teacher told me that if I wanted to hit any of those students, I could.) Sometimes a parent is called and told about the misbehavior, but the parents usually don't care. Many parents these days are indifferent about how their students behave at school. They believe it is up to the teachers to regulate their behavior and don't feel any responsibility to chastise their naughty children for what goes on during school hours.
"You'd better put that manga away!"

At most of my schools, if a student dyed their hair a dark brown, the teachers probably wouldn't do anything. But if they dyed it light brown or red (a popular color), the teachers would take the student/s (occasionally they would round them up like cattle) to the teachers room where they would have their hair spray-dyed black. Then they'd probably be yelled at and then sent back to class. Legwarmer type socks are very popular with the girls, but usually wouldn't be allowed at my schools. At three of my schools if a girl came to school wearing them, she'd be immediately taken to the teachers' room to change her socks with school regulation socks. At one of my schools they would let it go for a while, then without warning, round them up and confiscate the offensive socks.

A JET-sanctioned taboo,
Natsuko tastes American
root beer for the very first time
Machiko tries to get a way with a
lighter shade of brown, but fails to
escape the watchful eye of
her homeroom teacher

Historically, shouting at and berating the students would be enough. The Japanese were so culturally socialized to fear disapproval and shame that that would be sufficient. But recently a great wave of indifference and arrogance has passed over many of the students. Now, with a large number of the students, the old methods just don't do the trick anymore.

In the West, aside from disapproval and shame, teachers have two means of assuring students' general obedience: grades and a disciplinary system (detention / suspension / expulsion). Students need good marks to move onto the next level of education. They need to behave so they can stay in school.

The rules in schools are fairly strict, but the teachers have very little real authority. In Japanese schools, a formal disciplinary system was never introduced. In the past, and with those students who still respect the teachers, this is not a problem; the students pay heed to the teachers to win their approval and assistance in passing entrance examinations.

with other students in Japan, it is a problem. Students do not need good marks to pass on to the next level of education (a higher grade level or even high school). If the student fails every single class, the student is simply passed onto the next grade. So, if a student is not interested in passing high school entrance exams and doesn't care about being yelled at or cannot be shamed into obedience, the teacher has no tool to motivate good behavior.
Poker, anyone?

Gakkyu hokai is a new Japanese phrase which means "classroom chaos" and is a condition that many public schools are struggling to cope with these days. This lack of control has given way to some really awful JET stories out there, many of which are true.

I knew a JET at a technical high school (towards the low end of the spectrum) whose school had the problem of trying to stop students from throwing their desks out the windows. I knew another JET from Osaka whose school was trying to stop its junior high school students (aged 13 -15 years old) from having sex in the bathrooms during class time. My next door neighbor's students would spit at his feet as he walked down the aisles and he would walk home to the sound of them shouting, "F**k you!" In Hiroshima, one JET's belongings were destroyed when the entire teachers' room was set ablaze by angry students. Just before I left Japan, a Japanese teacher I knew was hospitalized after being beaten by two students and thrown down the stairs. I, myself, had a chair thrown at me by a student during class.

All these anecdotes are 100% true. These things do happen. Yes, the Japanese school stereotype is false and there's no use denying it. The best thing I can say in the JET Program's defense is that they don't happen all the time, or at every school. Kids weren't always throwing chairs at me (just the once) and they weren't always spitting at my friend or having sex in the bathrooms. There are some really terrific schools in Japan, but there are some bad ones, too. And even the "good" schools have their bad days.

There are plenty of school horror stories in the West. Usually we just read about them in the paper or hear them on the news. If you are a prospective JET, though, the difference is that you may actually be dealing with these problems. They won't happen every day, but they could happen. But don't let the fact that they cold happen deter you from applying for a program that could give you a fantastic life experience. In the end, even my neighbor was sad to be leaving Japan. If any of you would like to ask me any more questions about this, don't hesitate to email me.



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