Summer Vacation, Two Ways

Japanese school yeard

When I arrived at my desk at school this morning,  I was greeted by a stack of papers detailing several of next week's events leading up to the end of term and the start of summer vacation. And while I'm not assigned to this school next week (and won't be in the country either way), it still got me thinking about this quintessential childhood experience and how it's actually very different here in Japan than what I'm familiar with. 

To begin with, summer vacation falls right in the middle of the school year for Japanese students, which means it inherently lacks the sense of freedom that American children associate it with. Their end-of-term exams are actually several weeks before break starts, so after their tests they go back to learning new material and continue to do so until the last day. They have a significant amount of real homework (for example, one of their English assignments is to write forty (40!) pages in their notebooks) and are required to continue to come to school a few times a week for their mandatory club activities and remedial classes (if necessary). Their break is also a lot shorter, running only from the last week of July through August - about six weeks total. 

In contrast, the summer vacation that I knew separated school years, came with almost no homework other than to read an assigned book or two (at the middle school level anyways), and definitely did not require us to come into school at any point before the first day back in the fall. Our last days of school were spent in exams, meaning real learning stopped about a week before so that we could devote class time to review (or in the case of classes without tests, having end-of-year parties). Break ran from the beginning of June until almost the end of August, spanning eleven or twelve weeks during which most of the kids I knew would attend summer school or participate in day camp-like programs for maybe six of those weeks. I myself went to summer school basically every year. And while the classes I did during my high school summers were for credit, during middle school they were basically just to keep us occupied, which allowed me to do more fun programs in things marine biology, website design, and drama. 

I almost feel bad for the students here. For me, as much as summer vacation was a step away from academic responsibilities, it also provided a number of other benefits that made schooling during this emotionally volatile time (remember being 12-14 years old?) more bearable. Summer was a break from seeing the same people at my tiny school every single day. Summer was for meeting new people from other schools through the various different programs I participated in. Summer was for getting so bored of doing nothing after summer school ended in July that by the time mid-August rolled around I was ready to go back to school, see my friends, and start learning again. It was a time to destress and reset, and knowing that I'd get this every year definitely helped to make school not completely intolerable. And because these kids have to continue to come in regularly and are assigned so much work, I don't think they get quite the same benefits. 

And yet, despite these differences, at the end of the day, I suppose a long break is still a long break. When I ask the students what their plans are, they grin and say that they're going to sleep or play games or watch Youtube. And who am I to say that that's worth anything less than my experience.