Insider's Guide to High School Reporter's Notebook Top Travel

Finding differences and similarities in American and Japanese high schools

A computer lab at the Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School in Yokohama. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Yokohama, JAPAN –  As each new school year begins, students worldwide likely wonder what school is like on the other side of the globe.

Familiar classroom settings and routines can feel like just a small piece of the puzzle, a microcosm of the vast and diverse educational landscapes that span continents. 

Stepping into Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School in Japan offered me a rare glimpse into a system that held both similarities and striking differences to what I knew back home in the United States.

It reminded me that education isn’t just about textbooks and exams; it’s a reflection of cultures, values and societies. It’s a reminder that while we may be separated by geography and customs, students across the globe are united by a shared desire for connection and curiosity about the world around us. 

During a day in Kanagawa, a prefecture of Yokohama, I got the chance to spend a morning at a local public senior high school.

Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School in Yokohama, Japan (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School is shaped like a rectangle, with a large outdoor open space in its center.

As I navigated the corridors, my first observation was the abundance of common spaces. Both in the outdoor square and the hallways bisecting the building, I saw students talking, sitting to write in notebooks, and huddling in front of fans against the June humidity. 

Living in the United States formed my perception of what a public school looks like. As a result, the building’s modern architecture with its large open windows in the hallways surprised me most, along with the school’s relative cleanliness compared to my own.

The school year for students at Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School began in April.

Mina Yamanaka, a first-year student who guided me to her first class of the day in the school’s computer lab, laughed as we talked about how many stories her school has. She says she travels up and down the four flights of stairs up to five times a day. 

The author, at left, with Mina Yamanaka in the center. (Photo provided)

In her computer information class, students were learning how to convert between bytes and other units. 

“This is a class where everyone is the same grade level,” said Yuzuna Hori who is also a first-year student. “After the bell rings, [they] collaborate and help each other to grasp the concepts better.” 

In Japan, students typically attend high school for three years. “First-year” students correspond to “sophomores” or those in 10th grade in the United States.

On our walk down the staircase to her second class, Yamanaka and a group of her friends tried to teach me a new phrase: “Ichi go ichi e.”

Pulling out their Google Translate screens after seeing my confused face at the unfamiliar explanation, they helped me to piece together the meaning. 

Though the language barrier had diminished after being in Japan for a couple of weeks, it was still there: a gentle reminder of everything I have yet to learn.

The phrase basically means “One time, one meeting.” They explained how this concept encapsulates the idea that each moment is unique and fleeting, never to be replicated.

It’s a reminder to fully embrace the present moment and make the most of the interactions and experiences we encounter. 

Walking through the hallways and down staircases with Yamanaka, I caught occasional pieces of conversations among students. They were talking about what to do after school, the events of their last class, and fashion predictions for the fall – just like my own school at home.

A whiteboard in the hallway at Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School. (Annamika Konkola/YJI)

While educational approaches may differ, the essence of youth remains remarkably similar around the world – a tapestry woven with friendships, shared memories, and the anticipation of a future yet to unfold.

Other common classes for first-year students at this Japanese high school seemed to include English, mathematics, and a seminar-style period where students took notes on a documentary shown in the large auditorium. 

But for me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Japanese high schools as an American student was the concept of club activities, or “bukatsu.”

In U.S. schools, extracurriculars are often seen as optional, but in Japan, they are an integral part of the school experience for most. Students dedicate hours after regular school hours to activities such as sports, arts, and specialized interests like tea ceremony or calligraphy.

Yamanaka explained how Japanese students usually get a five-week summer vacation beginning in late July. Unlike in America, the Japanese summer break is placed in the middle of the school year, and even though school is technically out, students and teachers will still come to school “almost daily for club activities,” she said.

Between classes and at lunch, students waved to friends across hallways. I found familiarity in walls with whiteboards decorated with weekly schedules and reminders. The whir of electric fans filtered through the fourth floor while footsteps echoed on the level below. 

I’m not sure if I will ever see Kanagawa Sogo Sangyo High School again. But as I return to my own school this fall, I will remember the moments of connection I found with the students there.

Even after only a morning, saying goodbye to the students who guided me through their school was difficult. We promised to stay in touch. One time, one meeting.

Ichi go ichi e.

Annimika Konkola is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

More from the author on Discovering Japan:

A little lost, but finding myself in Tokyo

Discovering the beauty of Japan

Views of beautiful Mt. Fuji

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