If only the Japanese school year started in September! Then students taking entrance exams wouldn’t need to worry about getting the flu on exam day or winter weather keeping them from getting to the exam centers. It would also put Japan in line with other school systems around the world, making things easier for exchange students, both those going to study overseas and those coming to Japan.
A while ago, I had the idea, “What if Japan used the final trimester prior to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 as a ‘special transition period,’ where non-traditional classes could be held, and, after the Olympics, move the start of the school year at all school levels to September?” At the end of the year last year, I sent my idea to two government ministers and the president of Tokyo University. I have yet to receive a response, but I am curious what others think about this idea.
＊ ＊ ＊
A Suggestion for Moving the Start of the Japanese School Year to September
A few years ago, Tokyo University and several other universities in Japan were discussing whether to move the start of their academic year to September. The idea was eventually set aside, but I have been thinking lately that it would be possible to use the year 2020, with its lead-up to the Olympics and the fact that the university entrance exam system itself will be changing, to move the start of the academic year from April to September – at every level. I have written this piece with the desire that it will perhaps reignite the discussion on this topic.
[About the current April start: When mandatory education was established formally on a national level at the beginning of the Meiji Era, there was no set time when students started school. However, many parents chose to send their children to school in the spring, since it was before things became busy with rice farming. The deadline for military conscription was also April 1st, so higher-level institutions eventually moved their school start to April so they could recruit capable students before they registered for compulsory military service. In addition, new things starting in tandem with the blooming of the cherry blossoms is an analogical concept that fills the Japanese heart with affection. So, even though most of the rest of the northern hemisphere now begins its school year in September, Japan has never switched over to an August/September start.]
While there is certainly a romanticism attached to things beginning in the spring, in terms of practicality, I believe that the modern Japanese school system, with its accompanying entrance-exam system/business, is not suited to an April start.
First and foremost, the exams for the upcoming school year take place in January to March, when the spread of influenza and other contagious diseases is at its peak. Second, every year there are massive disruptions in public transportation systems due to severe winter weather right around the dates that the tests are to be held [resulting in students either facing great difficulty in traveling to or being unable to reach the exam centers]. If the start of the school year were moved to September, the entrance exams for not only university, but also for high schools and private junior high schools would be held in early to mid-summer, and the only chance of a disruption would be a rare early typhoon [for which there is usually a 2-3 day warning].
In addition, as has been the thrust of the general argument offered up until now, beginning the school year in September would bring Japan in line with the start of the school year in most countries in the northern hemisphere, and the start of a new semester for most countries in the southern hemisphere, making it easier not only for exchange students to come to Japan, but for students to go on exchange to other countries, too.
Why do I think the year 2020 is an ideal year to make this move? It is because Japan can use the fervor that will certainly come about in the build-up to the Olympics and the heightened interest in things international and things sports-related to establish a “special transition period” for moving the start of the school year to September. Especially with the examination system itself changing in 2020, it would be an ideal time to change the start of the school year also.
With this special transition period, the school year start could be moved to September not only at the university level, but all throughout Japan, at every academic level. This special transition period would be a time for students to focus on a special, particular area of study. There would be specially-planned, hands-on classes that would be established, things that can’t be done or can’t be focused on during a regular trimester of the school year, and perhaps wouldn’t even need to be graded in the traditional way. To give a few examples of ideas:
For elementary and junior high school students:
Special language/international relations training: Intensive lessons and/or immersion classes in English, Chinese, Korean, or other languages would not only give the students better understanding of other countries and cultures, but would stimulate their brains at a young age to further aid their foreign language studies in the future.
Special sports-related training: Studies would focus on sports (including playing/training in sports) but at a level that surpasses that of a regular physical education class. For example, anatomy and nutrition would be studied in detail. Classes would also be offered on the history of the Olympics, the sports that are played at the Olympics, and the history and rules of each sport.
Special health and welfare-related education: Building on the public interest in the Paralympics, studies would focus on the lifestyles and social welfare needs of those with disabilities, the medical field, nursing, and elderly care. Field trips for observation, interaction, and other experiential activities would be planned.
Special agricultural and food-related education: Studies would focus on agriculture, with students cultivating, planting, and tending to their own rice paddies and vegetable fields hands-on. Nutrition and cooking classes would also be offered.
Special local history/specialty classes: Studies would focus on the local history or special products of the area where the students live, bringing about a sense of appreciation for their local area. [Projects would include tours and field trips, interviews with local seniors, and perhaps even brain-storming or production sessions on ideas for new local-purchase products that could be developed or concepts to promote tourism in the area.]
Special technology and programming classes: By students learning about coding from the time they are in elementary or junior high school, it will help to fill the gap in the demand for high-tech jobs.
Special vocation-centered training: Students would learn from experts in their fields about woodworking, electronics, car repair or other areas that they might be interested in pursuing in the future.
Junior high school students and high school students could, in addition to the above ideas:
Have long-term job-shadowing experiences.
Serve as classroom assistants for the above-listed elementary school classes. (Some merit-based system could be available in terms of recommendation-based high school/university entrance exams for the students who served as volunteers.)
High school students (especially second and third year students) could use this time to prepare for the new entrance exam system.
University students could use these 3-4 months to:
Go overseas for an intensive language-study period.
After sufficient orientation and training, they could serve as volunteers before and during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Volunteer in the restoration efforts in disaster areas, which will most likely still be in need of assistance.
If such high school students’ efforts are deemed as being for the public good, there could also be a merit-based system involved for recommendation-based university entrance systems.
When students from elementary school up to university have even just one quarter of such special, intensive studying, it will be certain to have a large impact on their futures. I would therefore like to submit this idea of using a special transition period from April to July of 2020 to move the cycle of the Japanese academic year to start in September instead of in April (see the attached chart).
I am aware that there will be many issues that will need to be discussed and many topics to cover, but I would like to reignite the discussion about moving the beginning of the school year to September, not only at the university level, but on all levels nationwide, in tandem with the national preparation that is going to take place prior to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
You might be thinking , “Well, there are only four more years. There’s no way Japan can pull this off in four more years.” However, the Japanese are extremely sharp, and once they put their minds to something, they can get it done very quickly if they want to. The Japanese place great importance on consensus, however, so it takes a long time to decide if and/or how something is going to get done. Once they do decide to do something, they can get it done very quickly and efficiently. If this does reignite the discussion about moving the start of the school year to September and Japan does decide to do something as a result, I have no doubt in my mind that it will be accomplished.
I have also attached, as an addendum, some other ideas I have for putting this plan into action.
Thank you for your time.
Other ideas and options for doing things during this special transition period:
Depending on the needs and resources (both financial and human) of the local municipalities/school boards, one class or school grade could focus their studies on multiple areas of those listed above, concentrating on one certain area for a week or two and then rotating their studies, having the teachers come to different grades on a rotating basis or having specialist teachers move between schools as necessary.
Or, one school could be the “magnet school” for a certain subject in that city. For example, Elementary School A would be the English immersion school, School B would be the vocational training school, School C would be the agricultural school, School D would be the sports/Olympic-focus school. Then, only for this special transition period, students would sign up to be able to commute to schools other than their regular school, either using public transportation or at first gathering at their own school and then being bused to the neighboring school.
Schools could share/rotate instructors on a monthly basis with neighboring schools. Or, schools could share different instructors in the morning and in the afternoon. If it were for a limited time, from April to mid-July, it is possible that many of the people in the local area would be willing to volunteer their time and abilities to teach and/or supervise the children.
Students could also be bused to schools in neighboring towns after first gathering at their own schools to focus on studies that they are interested in or that might not be available in their own cities (such as agriculture).
Students who want to focus more on academic studies (students who have upcoming entrance exams) could do a half day of special studies (such as English immersion) and a half day of entrance exam studies.
At the preschool and kindergarten levels, parents would still be able to drop their children off for childcare or kindergarten every day, but the new school year in 2020 would start in September, and entrance ceremonies would be held then, too.
Topics that would need to be covered in any discussion regarding moving the start of the school year to September (per a discussion with a high-level local educator whom I trust):
Needing to come to grips with saying goodbye to the romanticism of the school year starting in tandem with the blooming of the cherry blossoms.
When the new school year starts in spring, when it is not all that hot outside yet, it is especially easy for the younger children to maintain their physical health easily. However, if the school year were to start at a hotter time of the year, this would not be possible. (Although, actually, the children usually don’t have as difficult a time adjusting to the heat. It’s the adults that have a hard time!)
The science textbooks are currently set up so that things that are planted can grow and be observed from the first part of the school year, so the science curriculum would need to be re-written on a national level.
If the new school year starts after the end of a long (six-week) summer vacation, there would need to be some adjustment to how summer vacation homework and studying is done so the students won’t forget everything they learned in the previous school year.
Even now there is a lot of discussion about whether to hold the major sporting event of the year in the fall or in the spring, so there would need to be discussion about when to hold the different sporting events and other school activities, such as the annual school play and multi-day school trips.