High School - Japan, High School Abroad

How to Break the Rules in Japan Without Really Breaking Them

by Colleen McCullom, Greenheart Travel High School Abroad Participant in Japan
Japanese high schools have uniforms. This is the case for almost every school. The styles, colors, and severity change by school, but the uniform is there. The interesting part is observing how Japanese students make the same uniform uniquely their own.

Take my classmates, for instance. Some girls wear colorful hair-ties to offset the plain colors of their uniform. Others quietly wear different socks. The school socks have the Suiryo emblem embroidered in green at the top, but some girls wear socks that are the same navy, but with an embroidered Snoopy or rabbit or other character instead. There are girls who fold their skirts at the waist to shorten them, and every girl unbuttons her top shirt button and lowers her ribbon. Loose sweaters are popular right now.

In addition, Japanese students love decorating their school bags with key chains. Giant plush pass cases, small teddy bears and Disney characters, plastic food, ribbons, pom poms… Anything cute and colorful and attachable is game. The same rules apply to their cell phones, which often bear charms larger than the phones themselves. Unfortunately, they have to show a bit of reserve or they get chided by the teachers. Their pencils, pencil bags, notebooks, folders, and lunchboxes all bear colorful characters, usually Disney. It’s as if all the individuality that’s oppressed by the uniform proves it’s existence through every gap and avenue it can find.

Every little detail left untouched by school code is filled by Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, Elmo. And from what I gather from my daily train commute, my school’s students are on the conservative side. I’m guessing that co-ed schools are a whole separate story. Add the pressure of attracting the opposite gender’s attention to the desperate need to express individuality, and you have Japanese high schoolers in a nutshell.

About Greenheart Travel

CCI Greenheart Travel is personally invested in providing cultural immersion programs that change lives, advance careers and create leaders. We achieve this by partnering with organizations and governments overseas that empower their local communities through experiential learning and practical development. We provide others with the same positive travel experiences in which we ourselves engage. Through travel and cultural exchange, we help individuals reach their full potential, leading to a more tolerant, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.


28 thoughts on “How to Break the Rules in Japan Without Really Breaking Them

  1. Hello😀 i want to go to japan to study as long as i can but i dont know how to do so? which schools are mostly recommended and all i really really wanna go!! like i watch japanese shows and all so i really want to expierence life in japan for a while!? can anyone tell me how i can do so please i would reall appreciate it😀

    Posted by Pamela Martinez | November 9, 2011, 4:06 pm
    • A good start is to visit the website of the Center for Cultural Interchange, the exchange program I used.
      I didn’t actually choose my school, the program arranged it for me, but that depends on the program you choose.

      Posted by Colleen | November 20, 2011, 9:35 pm
  2. I’d really love to spend one high school year in Japan. Is it alright if I spend only ONE year in a Japanese high school? And, also, do you know the best way to improve and learn more Japanese? (I’m having alot of trouble learning it)

    Posted by E.C. | October 21, 2011, 6:49 pm
    • Of course! Most exchange students only study abroad for one semester or one school year. In my case, I was supposed to be there for one school year (10 months).
      Outside of whatever classes you are taking, I would suggest watching Japanese TV shows. Hearing “real” Japanese at a normal pace will probably be overwhelming at first, but just try to pick up as much as you can, and you’ll start learning certain phrases. Also, it’ll help you get used to the pronunciation.
      Hope this helped!

      Posted by Colleen | October 23, 2011, 11:04 am
      • Thanks so much! I’ve pretty much memorized Hiragana and Katakana, but I am mostly having a hard time on Kanji. In Japanese high school, is it required to know lots and lots of Kanji? Also, is high school in Japan hard to adjust to?

        Posted by E.C. | October 23, 2011, 7:11 pm
      • Honestly, I hardly knew any Kanji when I went to Japan.😛 If you’re comfortable with Hiragana and Katakana, you should be able to manage. My school chose my classes according to my skill level (for example, they put me in middle-school level Japanese, and in World History instead of Japanese History because World is more Katakana, and Japanese is more Kanji), so though it was challenging it wasn’t scary.🙂
        Japanese high school is VERY different from American high school, but I think those drastic differences is what makes it interesting! If it weren’t really different, it wouldn’t be worth going, right?

        Posted by Colleen | October 24, 2011, 11:40 pm
  3. Sorry just wanted to know were the customs hard to get used to there?

    Posted by Megan | September 20, 2011, 7:36 pm
    • My mother is Japanese, so I grew up with many Japanese customs. I therefore had no trouble adapting. But I did know a few other exchange students from other countries while I was there. They sometimes found some customs strange and hard to get used to, but eventually they learned to take everything in stride. That’s one of the wonderful things about studying abroad: you gain so much tolerance for new and different ways to do things.

      Posted by Colleen | September 20, 2011, 9:15 pm
  4. Hello! Did your school offer Japanese, or how did you learn it? Also, how did it affect your school schedule, as I know you leave like in March or something for an academic year… I’m worried about that because my parents said I could only go my senior year, and I’m not sure how that would effect my college stuff. I’m only a freshman right now, but time goes by fast… So I’d like to know!

    Posted by Megan | September 20, 2011, 7:35 pm
    • My school did not offer Japanese. I learned it from my mother, but I know there are some good computer programs that can help you learn the language.
      Yes, the Japanese school year begins in April and ends in the next March. However, you can choose the option of going in the fall and joining your class partway through the year. In that case you stay until the next summer. Your courses get a little bit mixed up but it’s very manageable; that’s what I did!
      In other words, you could go over for a school year on America’s schedule. Or you might want to look into semester programs if you’re worried about college.
      Hope this helped!

      Posted by Colleen | September 20, 2011, 9:13 pm
      • hey colleen you said your mother taught you japanese right? would you be intersted in teaching anyone else japanese? i was going to go to japan this summer but i couldnt go do to inexperince of the language so instead im going to australia. But the whole point of this is to ask if you could teach me enough japanese to pass the exam🙂 i would realllyyyy appreciate it :))))

        Posted by Victoria Mak | November 20, 2011, 3:02 pm
      • Hi Victoria,
        My education in Japanese has been very informal. I can speak the language, and write and read to a point, but I’m honestly not sure if I’d make a very good teacher, since I never got any formal teaching myself.
        What kind of Japanese classes have you tried so far?

        Posted by Colleen | November 20, 2011, 9:33 pm
  5. Hello:
    I’m a junior at my school. I’m 16 and would be 17 this Dec the 29th.
    I would like to graduate a year early (this may).
    That’s what my mom told me to do if I want to go to Japan on exchange.
    The problem is that I haven’t found any programs that allows high school graduates to
    attend high school for a year in Japan.
    My question is:
    Does CCI allows high school graduates to join this program?
    If I go in August I would still be 17 which is in the range.
    So what do you think?

    Posted by Pia94 | September 4, 2011, 5:33 pm
    • Hey! I know that CCI doesn’t allow gap year programs, but I think that may be because they are normally 18 or over… Sorry I really don’t know that much so I guess I shouldn’t answer, but I’ve researched A LOT…. (:

      Posted by Megan | September 20, 2011, 7:39 pm
  6. Hello, I’ve recently found a love for the language and culture of Japan! It was grade 12 year in school, which i am not looking so forward to. I have mixed feeling about it. I decided that going to Japan for even a semester would really boost my energy towards learning. Though the whole year would be nice. The whole experience appeals to me more then anything. However, i have only just begun to learn the language a month ago. I am still learning to pronunce it, and am no where close to writing it. Can i still go? Or is writing Hiragana an absolute must?

    Posted by Hayley | September 1, 2011, 10:16 am
    • Studying abroad is definitely amazing, and it’s great that you’re showing an interest in another language!
      But if you don’t feel ready to go so soon, there’s always college. College studies abroad (from what I’ve heard) are equally fun or maybe even more so, because you tend to be granted a little more freedom.
      You could probably pick up on the hiragana pretty fast once you were immersed in it for a couple of weeks, but it won’t be easy. That’s not a reason to give this whole thing up; just consider your choices and choose what you think is best for you!

      Posted by Colleen | September 1, 2011, 10:15 pm
      • Thank you so much for your support! I’ve been so let down these past few days, because i finally found something that i was interested in doing; and then i couldn’t do it. I’m glad you replyed me. I will study hard for this coming year, and consider my options after highschool. Thanks again, for your help. =)

        Posted by Hayley | September 4, 2011, 10:33 am
  7. So…I really realllllly want to go to Japan my juinior year of high school, if I can I will leave in March 2012. I had no idea that all the $10,190 was due in November! So I’m let down because my parents have absoutly no money at this point in time, I just mailed my governor asking him but I don’t know yet. I even looked into grants and scholarships for me but all deadlines are after March so there out of the quuestion. Is there any I can still get that money by November this year? Or should I just give up and (hopefully) go my seinior year?

    Posted by Lenah | August 5, 2011, 12:18 pm
  8. Dear Colleen, My parents are on edge about letting me go to high school in Japan because its to far away and they dont think its very safe. I was woundering how safe you were while staying with a host family? When you got off your plane did your host family meet you there? Cost is another issue to is there any way that they could cut the cost wit the 300 off and i have 5000 saved up its still not enough and my parents wont give me anything. I was woundering if you have any tips that could help me get more more before the deadline would be awesome. Thank you so much.

    Posted by Ciara Weatherspoon | July 24, 2011, 11:58 pm
    • Hi Ciara,
      I found that Japan was a very safe country. It has a low crime rate and excellent police and security forces. Also, many families that are able to host exchange students are well-off, so they tend to live in better neighborhoods. I never had an instant where I felt my personal safety was at risk while I was in Japan. A JFIE representative (JFIE is the exchange program in Japan that takes care of all incoming exchange students) met me at the airport and brought be to orientation. They also escorted me to the station nearest to my host family’s home, where my host family was waiting to pick me up.
      As for cost, the best I can suggest for you is to apply early enough to receive the early bird offer, and also to try writing an essay for the scholarship CCI offers.
      Best of luck! I hope you’ll be able to go. Studying abroad is a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

      Posted by Colleen | July 25, 2011, 12:29 pm
  9. i know this doesn’t really pertain to your post, but could someone please tell me how they received two years of japanese classes? that’s not really something many high schools offer. could I possibly do independent study and then demonstrate my ability???

    Posted by Elizabeth | July 22, 2011, 10:33 pm
    • I know exactly what you mean; so many American high schools offer no Asian languages at all. I would suggest talking to your grade counselor about independent studies or online courses that could get you the required number of years.

      Posted by Colleen | July 25, 2011, 12:24 pm
    • I bought a couple Japanese books (to teech me writing), and I’m borrowing books from libraries. I also bought some Japanese speech learning iPod programs so I can listen also. CCI said it was ok as long as I know Japanese when I get there

      Posted by Lenah | August 5, 2011, 12:12 pm
  10. Which school did you attend? Did you have the oppertunity to move to Tokyo? I am thinking of moving to Tokyo via the very same exchange programme as you, and am just asking out of interest. Thank you,

    Posted by Willem Butler | May 26, 2011, 1:40 pm
    • Thanks for reading my blog post, Willem! I attended the International Yokohama Suiryo Girls’ Institute (which just changed this year to be co-educational, so I’m sure the official name has changed). JFIE, CCI’s partner in Japan, assigned me to Yokohama, so all of my host families were in Yokohama, fairly close to my school. So I couldn’t move to another city. However, if I had wished, I think I could have requested a location I wanted to be in, like Tokyo. That way I would have been placed in Tokyo in the first place.

      Posted by Colleen McCollum | May 29, 2011, 10:08 am
  11. Being an exchange student, I have a bit of a stronger obligation to follow the rules compared to the other students, so unfortunately my socks are just the boring school emblem. But my bag is decorated with a cute plush train pass case!🙂 I’m also starting to build up a mini collection of Disney folders and other such school supplies.
    Ah, the food! I could definitely write a long post on that subject. Everything here tastes so good!!

    Posted by Colleen | October 19, 2010, 10:16 pm
  12. Its a nice blog for getting information regarding travel, flights, airline and much more.for more information about london delhi flights

    Posted by Train from london to Paris. | October 13, 2010, 4:09 am
  13. Dear Colleen, How interesting — what symbol do you personally use? We are enjoying your posts very much. How about one on Japanese food.
    Love, Grandmother and Granddad

    Posted by Lois-Ann McCollum | October 6, 2010, 11:11 am

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