Three weeks ago, our youngest daughter went to nursery school for the last time.
The following Monday, she started gakudo (学童, short for 学童教育 gakudokyouiku, which is usually translated as “after school program”). Since both my wife and I work full time, we were anxious about finding a safe place for our daughters after the elementary school day ends. This is part of the “first year wall” (小１の壁, shouichi no kabe) that is a huge obstacle for working parents to overcome.
A large part of the First Year Wall is the incredible amount of paperwork and preparation needed by the first day of class. Hand-sewn separate bags for gym class uniforms, gym shoes (to be cleaned by hand once a week), and a change of clothes (in case they get dirty). Another pair of school shoes (Japanese students, teachers, and parents are not allowed to wear “dirty feet” inside schools; 土足 tsuchiashi means literally dirt legs/feet, but stands for normal outdoor shoes, hence the common sign at school and temple/shrine entrances, 土足禁止 tsuchiashi kinshi, no shoes).
Ah, also, a “school lunch outfit” (給食着, kyuushoku-gi) for distributing lunch inside the homeroom (more on that in a later post!). Lots and lots of pencils, a pair of scissors, tape, eraser in a special box designed for stationery. A special notebook for writing down homework every day.
And of course the infamous randoseru (ransel backpack). Which is HEAVY.
We also wanted to make sure our kids develop healthy social skills through interaction with others their own age. additionally, we were interested in having our daughters improve their English language skills. So in addition to signing them up for three days a week at the regular gakudo run by the city (and housed in one of the elementary school buildings) we enrolled them twice a week at an “international gakudo” right down the street from school. The regular gakudo has three sections of 100, 80, and 30 kids (luckily they’re in the smallest section!), and the international gakudo has about 25.
The problem is ensuring their safety as they go from school to gakudo and then back home. The regular gakudo is the same as coming home from school, since there are a lot of kids who all go to school and come home at the same time. They follow a “ban-sen” (番線) which is a predetermined route to and from school (yes, carefully drawn on maps and handed out to parents).
The “international” gakudo is a different issue. Kids from other schools go there, too, and it’s closer to a main intersection with lots of traffic on a four-lane road.
So we arranged for both our kids to go together with a few other kids from different homerooms, and then we pick them up around 6 o’clock on our way home.
But now another problem is that during certain times of the year, the 1st graders (our youngest) and 3rd graders (our oldest) have different class schedules. This is especially true during the first two weeks of April. So for instance, the 3rd graders had classes start up last Thursday, but the 1st graders didn’t have school until Wednesday.
Even then, much of the initial two to three weeks of school consists of half days. Kids go to school until 11:30 a.m. the first week and then they are expected to go home. School lunch starts only once school goes past 1:20 p.m. And this also differs among the grades.
It’s a logistical nightmare, to be entirely honest, and in my opinion a relic of the “post-war” 1950s Japanese educational system that assumed all men went to work and all women stayed home.
And also flies in the face of what we US kids, in the ‘80s, were always told about our Japanese counterparts. “They study for 220 to 240 days a year! But you kids only go to for 180 days! No wonder your test scores are lower!”
They never told us about all the half-days and three-quarters-shortened days at the beginning and end of the term, where you go to opening and closing ceremonies, or greet new students at entrance ceremonies, or get a medical exam and then go straight home. Or the sports days and school festivals on Saturdays, which then mean you get to stay home on the following Monday. Or the fact that there’s no lunch provided the first six to ten class days. Or the fact that different grades start on different days…
And I haven’t even got to the “open class viewing” and group-parent-teacher conference!
Next time…Part Two.