By Graham Shelby

Graham Shelby with Japanese students in 1996

Twenty years ago, I spent my days standing at the front of junior high classrooms in a small town in the foothills of central Fukushima. It was my first year as an assistant language teacher in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, and what struck me most was that the experience felt strange and familiar at the same time.

The first thing I noticed was what the students were wearing: dark, high-collared uniforms for the boys and sailor outfits for the girls. I was also surprised to hear about the students’ busy schedules, which featured school on Saturdays, year-round after-school sports and club practices, and many hours of study for high school and university entrance exams.

During the three years I was in Japan, I learned a great deal about Japanese culture by experiencing school life there. At the same time, I tried to use the school experience as a way to teach my students English as well as American culture. I showed them pictures, organized letter exchanges with American schools, and even brought out my own junior high and high school yearbooks. These are some of the things we talked about:

School Uniforms

Growing up in the U.S., none of the schools I attended ever required uniforms. I don’t even recall any serious restrictions of student dress other than some vague and loosely enforced guidelines prohibiting T-shirts with inappropriate language. In junior high, I relished wearing shirts with logos that turned me into a walking billboard for my favorite teams and icons.

Since then, uniforms have become more common in the U.S. in part because restricting what students wear helps to minimize the difference in economic class among them. However, the dress codes are generally much less strict than in Japan. Many schools simply require students to wear polo shirts and khakis in certain colors, though they can also wear T-shirts in school colors and with school logos.

Extracurricular activities

In American schools, joining a sports team or other afterschool club is purely optional. In fact, school sports teams often have tryouts, meaning only the best players are even allowed to join the team for some sports. Each sport also has a designated place on the calendar. Football at my high school was August through late November. Basketball was October to March. The rest of the year was the off-season and players generally had no formal practice sessions with their coaches.


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While high school baseball is popular in Japan, the signature events on Friday nights in communities all over America are often high school football or basketball games.

I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, a mid-size city with four public high schools. Sometimes, when my school’s basketball team played one of our crosstown rivals, the gym would be crowded with more than 2,000 people who bought tickets and filled the room with shouts, cheers, and sometimes boos, often directed at the referees.

Most schools have cheerleaders and a band that performs during breaks in the game and at halftime to energize and entertain the crowd. The cheerleaders and musicians in the band usually practice year-round and participate in state championships and other competitions.

Most school sports teams in America have nicknames and mascots. A few schools even have a student who dresses in a mascot costume during games. My school was built near the site of a frontier fort. We were called the Defenders and our mascot looked like a pioneer, complete with a coonskin cap.

Festivals and Dances

In the fall, many schools stage what we call Homecoming, and its closest equivalent in Japan is the “bunkasai” festivals that I enjoyed taking part in when I was living in Japan. Just as no two Japanese schools do “bunkasai” in exactly the same way, individual American schools approach Homecoming in different ways. Homecoming generally takes place in the early fall and is centered around a home football game. Alumni are invited to “come home” and participate in the festivities. The student body elects one boy and girl from the senior class to serve as ceremonial Homecoming king and queen.

Some school communities also have a Homecoming parade. In the days leading up to Homecoming, the schools organize “Spirit Week,” with a series of activities designed to cultivate a greater sense of community connection among students. One day, students and teachers might be encouraged to wear funny hats, for example. In fact, I remember once trying to have a serious conversation with my Spanish teacher when he was wearing a huge sombrero on “Crazy Hat Day.”

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After the Homecoming game, there is usually a Homecoming dance. In contrast to prom, which is a formal dance held in the spring, the Homecoming dance is more casual, often taking place in the school gym. Lights are dimmed. A DJ or band might play. Teachers and parents attend as chaperones. Some boys ask girls to dance. A few girls will ask boys to dance. Many boys and girls stand around and wish someone would ask them to dance, especially during the slow songs. It’s also completely acceptable to dance with a group of friends or even alone.

American schools differ from Japanese schools in so many other ways, such as the general lack of a public high school entrance exam and the long summer vacations.

I tried my best to explain these differences to my students in Fukushima through the overlap of our common words in English and Japanese. When class ended, they would bow and thank me for the lesson. Then they would act goofy, running around the room and spilling into the hallway, talking and laughing with each other – a heartwarming and familiar sight to teachers everywhere.

Graham ShelbyGraham Shelby is a writer and speaker based in Kentucky. He spent three years teaching English in Fukushima Prefecture in the 1990s with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Since then, he has written numerous essays about his experience in Japan, taught Japanese, led corporate workshops on cross-cultural communication, and performed English versions of “mukashi banashi” (folk tales) and “kaidan” (ghost stories) for thousands of students in schools across the U.S. His website is