Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 26 mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Photo by Toku Ninomiya
Until two days ago, I don't think I'd been inside a high school since having graduated from my own back in Rootstown, Ohio (class of 1984... yikes!). I'd certainly never been inside a Japanese high school, but had seen enough of them from the outside to have the impression that they were somewhat like prisons... dark, dirty, bleak.
One of the dads at Anthony's kindergarten, Yoko-chan's daddy, teaches at a high school, and invited me to visit his class. I'd mentioned that it'd be interesting to do a series of blog posts on kindergarten daddies, having recently featured another such daddy in a post on noh theater, so that's what started the idea.
I thought I'd snap a few pictures and be done, but it turns out that he had a full, wonderful day in store for me. He secured permissions for me (and my camera) to enter the school, and to visit classes in progress. I got a full tour, got to meet the principal and seemingly most of the 515 students, and participated in one of his classes.
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/320 sec, f/11, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nishi-Uji High School was built in the mid 1970s, and is currently one of five public high schools serving Uji, a sweeping city south of Kyoto. It consists of two main buildings connected by walkways (creating a tree-filled center court that would be really nice if it weren't for the earthquake retrofitting being done at the moment). There are also two gymnasiums and a huge sports ground. It's all clear on the satellite photo of the area.
There are 515 students in the three grades that make up a Japanese high school, and 42 teachers (not counting the teachers that fill administrative positions, such as the former science teacher who is now the principal). That's an impressive 1:12 teacher/student ratio that is perhaps better than the average Japanese public school.
Like pretty much all Japanese schools, the kids wear uniforms...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 20 mm — 1/90 sec, f/5, ISO 320 — map & image data — nearby photos
I arrived at 1pm. It was still lunch break, so the kids were eating, or taking a break...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 38 mm — 1/160 sec, f/4, ISO 320 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 48 mm — 1/750 sec, f/5, ISO 320 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 20 mm — 1/80 sec, f/4, ISO 320 — map & image data — nearby photos
At first I thought that it was a girls' school because I didn't see any boys, but it turns out that it's just the ratio... three fourths of the students are girls (which seems lucky for the 26% that are boys!).
When I found some boys and they spotted my big camera pointing their way, they were more than happy to ham it up for the camera...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55 mm — 1/80 sec, f/5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
moments before obscene pelvic gestures were thrown into the mix
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 31 mm — 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
One thing very different from an American high school is that the kids belong to a particular room and they generally stay in it for all classroom instruction, and it's the teachers who move from room to room. It really makes a lot of sense... there's less commotion between classes (40 teachers moving instead of 500 kids), and the kids develop a sense of ownership/responsibility for their room and desk.
This means that the teachers don't have their own room, so they have a desk in a teachers' office area. After meeting the principal and thanking him for allowing me to visit his school, we walked around a bit, then went to the teacher's area to wait for classes to start. I really didn't know what the plan was, so just went with the flow.
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55 mm — 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
my host for the day
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 48 mm — 1/50 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Once classes were in session, he gave me a tour for an hour, until he had a class. First we went outside...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 44 mm — 1/640 sec, f/3.2, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Most students come by bicycle, or by train + bicycle. Surprisingly, only 21 kids live close enough to walk, and 57 kids spend more than an hour each way.
I don't understand the details, but this school is apparently special in that they've tried some alternative education techniques here, such as allowing the kids more latitude to choose for themselves what to study and how to do it. In many respects, this makes it closer to American schools, but they're starting to retreat from this idea because in the 10 years they've been trying it, test scores have gone down and they've seen their graduates disadvantaged by it. I suppose it's a valid question as to whether the approach is bad, or simply that it doesn't fit it into the larger context of the country's already-established education system.
In any case, I believe that this is a school that kids elect to attend, which would explain the long commutes that some face, as well as a decidedly bright and cheerful mood to the place – a far cry from the “prison” I half expected.
We walked around to the back, where you could see one building shrouded in earthquake-retrofit construction. The covered scaffolding made it seem sort of castle-like...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/125 sec, f/11, ISO 100 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/125 sec, f/18, ISO 100 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/100 sec, f/18, ISO 100 — map & image data — nearby photos
Kids can pick one of several sports, and work on it for a quarter of the year until they switch to another. These kids were just starting tennis. It was hot.
Cooler heads prevailed in one of the gyms, where badminton practice was under way...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/125 sec, f/3.2, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
The tour then continued inside, where I got to visit an economics class in progress....
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 — 1/180 sec, f/3.2, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
( My thought: just wait until you start earning money, kids, and you'll learn all about it )
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/80 sec, f/3.5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55 mm — 1/350 sec, f/3.2, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Then it was off to a first-year (equivalent to grade 10 in the US) math class...
I was a math major, and this is simple stuff, but nevertheless, my brain hurts just looking at it.
Then it was time for Ninomiya-sensei's next class, a small once-a-week group discussion on ethics. This is what I thought I'd originally just take a few snapshots of, but it turns out that I was a guest member of the discussion. We talked for two hours, using my foreign perspective to spur discussion (and, hopefully, stimulate thought) on all kinds of issues ranging from Japanese culture, to gender equality, to school bullying, to differing approaches to education, to religion.
Just before a break we took halfway through, I asked them to envision their life at 36 years old (they were now mostly 18). Career? Kids? Both? They were to think about it during the break, and then we'd discuss (with my intention to then ask "does what you do in your life now have any impact on getting there?").
So, we come back from break and Ninomiya-sensei asks “Life at 36... okay, who's first?” at which point the five students exploded into a rock-paper-scissors competition that was almost violent in its sudden fury.
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Natsuki, at left, lost, so had to go first
Unless you have actually seen it, you can't possibly imagine how fast a group of Japanese can decide the most complex selection processes with paper-rock-scissors. Whether it's picking one out of five, or 7 out of 32, or whatever... they apparently can communicate on some kind of ESP level at nano-speeds, resolving ties and moving on to subsequent rounds until the final winner or winners have been selected. I don't exaggerate a bit when I report that they can perform two entire rounds each second. I can't even begin to follow along that fast, much less participate. I'm merely left in awe, with a puzzled “who won?” look on my face.
Even at five years old, Anthony is getting good at this, although his age isn't at the two-levels-per-second stage..... yet.
Classroom instruction ends at about 4pm, after which kids not already in their home room return for a few minutes for announcements, and then to tidy up their room.
The colors of this hallway shot seemed wonky with the mix of sunlight, shade, and fluorescent, so I'm trying a B&W version...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55 mm — 1/640 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 17 mm — 1/100 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
I was one of the announcements
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 48 mm — 1/50 sec, f/5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
it's the thought that counts
Then came time for the various school clubs. There are a dozen different sports clubs, including three different tennis clubs, soccer, softball, baseball, kendo (Japanese fencing), weight training, volleyball, handball, basketball, and badminton.
Non-sports clubs include singing, band, homemaking, volunteerism, folk music, broadcasting, art, theater, and tea ceremony.
Ninomiya-sensei had office hours to counsel students, so I wandered around to check out the clubs. Indoors, the music-related clubs seemed pretty popular, and I could hear some of the kids practicing, and some were really good.
On the way out, we stopped by the other gym to see kendo, Japanese fencing (which I understand as well as western fencing, which is to say not at all). The uniforms certainly looked impressive...
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 32 mm — 1/60 sec, f/3.5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 — 1/320 sec, f/2.5, ISO 400 — map & image data — nearby photos
( as far as I could tell, the tall kid in the background, being attacked, was the only guy )
What a treat. All and all, it was a day of wonderful surprises, both because I got to actively participate, and because my stereotypes were wholly broken. I'm sure that this school is nicer than average, but even so, it was much nicer than I would have expected.
Thanks Yoko-chan's daddy, for a wonderful experience!