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TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007
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JOURNALS FROM JAPAN
Change is part of exchange at new school

Editor's note: Hartselle High School student Amanda Elliott, 17, is spending seven weeks in Akita, Japan, this summer on a scholarship through Youth for Understanding, a nonprofit educational organization. This is part of an occasional series Amanda will write for The Daily while she attends school and lives with a host family in Japan.

I was almost attacked on my first day of school in Japan. When I arrived at homeroom, after getting lost several times in the massive school, all the girls leapt from their seats and engulfed me, screeching and talking excitedly in Japanese to one another. A few even ran their hands through my hair. It was one of the scariest moments of my life.

I learned later, from some of the English-speaking students, that almost no one at the school has seen an American girl before. I feel like I live in a petting zoo. I would be lying if I said it isn't fun. I've never received so much attention.

My classmates' favorite question to ask me is whether I have a boyfriend. It never fails, every class, I'm asked by someone, and they always make a huge fuss and want pictures.

One of the first things I noticed about the students is the lack of public displays of affection. In fact, boys and girls rarely hang out together, in class or anywhere else. The guys are very quiet and shy around girls as a general rule, and usually won't speak around them unless addressed. There are exceptions, of course, but it's nothing like the way American students go about dating.

Strict rules

The rules are very strict in Japanese schools. I wear a uniform: a navy pleated skirt, collared white shirt, long navy socks and white flat shoes. In my school, makeup, jewelry and piercings are prohibited, long hair must be worn tied back, and your appearance must be neat and tidy. Because I am a "gaigin" (foreigner) the rules are somewhat lenient, but I try to follow the same code as my Japanese classmates.

Many students like to practice their English with me in or between classes, which helps with my communication.

I receive help learning the Japanese language, as well. My class schedule is unique. I take two English classes a day, acting as somewhat of a model or assistant teacher. I have two free periods, when I study my Japanese reading and writing. The schedule changes from day to day. Some days I'll have gym or art and others I'll take music or a crash course in Japanese with two male exchange students. One is from Indiana and the other is from Holland.

Pressure to study

A normal student's schedule is much more difficult. I thought it was an exaggeration when I first heard how much Japanese students devote to studying each night. An average day of classes lasts from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., then almost all students attend a club every day, which can last from two to four hours. (I was excited to learn they have a brass band club ... which I have joined!) Then they go home, eat dinner and study like it is the most important thing in the world.

For most of them, it really is. There is major pressure on many children to achieve what we would describe as impossible test scores. Homework is not required; it's only used as a bonus. Testing determines everything, including what class, school and university you attend and what class title you have.

Another big difference between Japanese and U.S. schools is class rotation. The teachers rotate through the rooms instead of the students. Even lunch is taken in homeroom, unless you need to purchase a bowl of ramen from the school cafeteria. The only time you leave homeroom is to attend electives, such as gym, art, music or computer.

Sports are huge at my school, especially basketball and Japan's favorite pastime, baseball. Even for those not interested in sports, it's hard to avoid. The baseball players are easy to spot. They're the only ones who have shaved heads.

I love every minute of the school day, because it is such a dramatic change from the norm.

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