In Japan Middle School lasts for three years from 7th-9th grade. For many, middle school is a time of awkwardness, in Japan these three years will almost indefinatly determine the rest of their lives. Gone are the leisure days of middle school, and instead students begin preparing for exams that they'll take in 9th grade that will determine which schools they can go to.
In Japan, after middle school, students have to take exams to get into high school. The only way to attend a certain high school is by taking a passing an exam specific to certain high schools. The better the school, the harder the exam but at the same time it means more and greater opportunites when it comes time for college and later when employement is necessary.
First, lets focus on the exam process. Most students will begin attending schools known as Juku in 8th grade. Juku literally translates to 'Cram School'. Aside from having classes during the day, students attend night classes at Juku schools that don't let out until late. When students go home its off to do homework not only from day school but also Juku homework. Things get even more intense during 9th grade when the majority of students prepare to take high school entrance exams. In Japan, students go to school either every sautrday or every other saturday. With juku schools, saturdays are often taken over. Japanese schools also go year roun except for a few holidays, golden week and a month for summer vacation (and the transition month between march-april).
Exams and education are the sole focus and a coined term for the middle school years and examination process in general is known as 'Examination Hell'. Once students take their entrance exams in March they'll find out through numbers given to them if they made it into their school of choice. It's a very stressful period for both parents and students with many students only getting five hours of sleep during the week per night.
However, not all students will take the exams (althought the majority do). In Japan, compulsory education ends in 9th grade. Once you graduate middle school you can simply go into the work force. Students also can attend technical or vocational schools instead of normal high school which the majority of students seek. In Japan students can also get married at the age of 16.
For those who do take exams, they strive to get into the best high school possible. Why? Because it prepares students for better colleges and better jobs. Only the best colleges choose from the best high schools and only the best employeers choose from the best universites. As a result many students get added pressure to attend certain high schools and must choose between listening to their parents about which school to attend and which one they want to attend.
Luckily, not all of middle school revolves around Exams and determining the rest of their lives. Students still help to clean the school and cook their own meals or bring bento boxes (lunch boxes) to school with them. Students are also encouraged to be in at least one club be it in a sports club such as the Tennis Club or cultural clubs such as Tea Ceremony or flower arrangement. Students are however, expected to stick with the club or clubs of their choosing.
Study-wise, students still engage in a variety of subjects including P.E, music, History, Science, Math, Japanese and English (yes, in Japan students study it for at least 7 years). Students are tested with exams in all their areas of studies in addition to entrance exams to high school. Also, starting in middle school students are requiered to wear uniforms. Although they are not pivotal, in high school they'll serve a second purpose.
Middle school is a very stressful time for students as they must decide at the age of 15-16 what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It's a hard decision and a deeply embedded one. Once a decision is made, it often cannot be undone. Luckily, high school does bring some relief to many students but there's still entrance exams to college.
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That concludes my brief overview of middle school in Japan. Next, I'll be taking a look at high school and then go into cultural and societal looks at the baisc years with the college years thrown in. If there's one part of Japanese schools I don't agree with its the tremendous pressure put on students during the middle school years and how much they determine a students life.