Things I don’t Understand about Japan: the Structure of College Classes

At the risk of sounding like every single other American student doing study abroad, I love it. I’m at International Christian University in Tokyo. I’ve written about the things I wish I had known before I studied abroad as well as the things I love about ICU.

Sashimi sushi and raw horse meat

And now I’m going to tell you about one of the main things that confuses me about Japan: the college classes. I used to just think my university was weird. Then I sat in on other friends classes at nearby colleges. It is the exact same.

I don’t understand it. At all.

Things I don’t Understand about Japan: the Structure of College Classes

1. Attendance is mandatory, but not required. Bear with me here, I know that was a contradiction. No matter where you go, regardless of the country, classroom attendance is mandatory. Attendance is always mandatory. Japan is no different. In every class syllabus, they say “attendance is mandatory” and “students who fail to attend class regularly will be penalized.”

But it isn’t, and skippers don’t get penalized. At least not that much.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that somewhere around 30% – 50% of the students in a class skip on any given day. I’m not trying to look down on anyone; if you want to skip, that’s your business, not mine.

I didn’t actually realize how many students skipped until mid-terms. Then, the class where only about a third of the seats were occupied on any given day suddenly didn’t have enough room. They actually had to pull extra desks from across the hall and squish them into the classroom.

I was shocked.

I later learned that over 80% of the students at International Christian University live off-campus and commute to class every day, with an “average commute” of about 45 minutes. I have friends who commute 2 hours every morning.

Chuo line in Shinjuku with high suicide rates

Imagine doing this every morning to get to class

[They live with their parents to save money. It’s pretty common to live with your parents throughout college and until you get a steady job in Japan. It’s not weird at all.]

I don’t blame them. I live a five minute bike ride away and it’s really hard to get out of bed. If I had to commute nearly an hour ever morning, I would probably skip too.

2. A vast majority of students live off-campus. At International Christian University, over 80% of students live off-campus.

I’m one of them, I live in a gorgeous two-room apartment off-campus. I didn’t even bother applying for the dorms; they are too strict and I didn’t want to have a roommate.

Tiny apartment in Japan

My tiny apartment

I have several other friends who live in my neighborhood who didn’t get into the dorms. They are also exchange students, so they don’t have the option of living with their parents. Just like me, they had to figure out the horrors of living in a Japanese apartment all on their own.

Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that a lot of students live off-campus. As a result, campus “life” is heavily tilted towards the commuters. All the buildings on campus shut down before 9pm (most earlier), parties are organized, advertised, and scheduled in advance, and most people meet friends through clubs, rather than the typical “American campus life.”

3. Of the students who actually go to class, about half are “distracted.” And by distracted, I mean “are physically in class but are mentally somewhere far, far away.”

But when I first got to Japan, I had anxiety issues. I had a very strict high school which left me with a fear and an inability to function in high-stress classroom environments. I was terrified that my classes would look like a nightmarish prep school where everyone was taking heavy notes.

Tokyo Japan Sakura cherry blossom

Sakura blossoms on campus (to help ease the anxiety)

Then I got to class. And the girl next to me was… painting her nails? And on the other side, a guy sitting next to me didn’t even have any notes, instead he had his iPhone in the center of his desk, playing Angry Birds all class long (apparently people still play that game).

Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of people taking notes in class. They were taking really extensive and detailed notes. I just made the mistake of sitting in the middle with the rest of the slackers.

Now I sit up at the front because I tend to like the “quality” of people I sit next to a little bit better. And if the person next to me is taking detailed notes, my pride keeps me invested in the lecture and taking equally awesome notes.

In the end, it didn’t matter where I sat or whether I took notes because…

4. There is no busy work. Or homework, for that matter. I could physically show up to class with nothing but a Gameboy for an entire semester without a problem.

The teachers don’t care if I learn the materials or not, they won’t call on me to answer questions in class, there aren’t any pop-quizzes, and without homework, there is no forceful incentive for me to learn the material.

I mean, aside from my own personal incentive.

I found without the pressure to cram the material for homework, quizzes, or reports, I learned a lot more. Without those pressures, I had more fun learning. At least until finals.

People pushing to get on a train in Japan

This is what my mind looks like during finals

5. Somewhere between 60% – 90% of your grade comes from a single, final exam or paper. Students can skip and slack off all semester because attendance counts for what, 10% of your grade? And that is attendance AND class participation, combined.

Theoretically, you could just show up once a month, ask some questions, participate, and still walk away with a 70% – 90% on class participation/attendance. There is a serious flaw in this idea, though. Even if classroom attendance doesn’t count for your grade, the classroom is where the learning happens.

One of my classes last semester was 10% attendance and 90% one 6-page research paper. One of my friends was confident in his writing style, so he skipped a lot of class. In the end, he got a D in the class. I read his final paper, it was very well written. But it didn’t relate to anything we learned in class. It showed that he hadn’t learned anything all semester. So he got a D.

Even if class is boring, time in class technically counts towards studying for a final. Professors subconsciously emphasis what they think is important. And what they think is important usually ends up on the final.

I fell into a rut skipping class my first semester. Being at ICU taught me that even if I can skip (with absolutely no penalty), I shouldn’t. That was a hard lesson to learn. The “quality” of lectures at ICU didn’t help, either.

Honkan, the building where most the classes at ICU are held

Honkan, the building where most the classes at ICU are held

6. Classes are long and “dry.” Most classes I’ve taken in Japan are either three and a half hour blocks, once a week, or two hour blocks, twice a week.

If the professor prepares a slide-show, it’s usually only a couple slides long. A three and a half hour class might use 10 slides. Other than that, the professor just talks.

They talk about a lot of things, sometimes on topic, but often not. I don’t know about you, but I have difficulties paying attention to long, continuous class lectures. I prefer the American system: 50 minute classes a couple times a week.

To make matters worse, the professor usually just repeats or explains the suggested assigned reading. So if you decide to be a good student and read, it’s all repetitive. On the bright side, if you’re a freshman and this is your first time learning about some of these topics, lectures are helpful. If you’re not a freshman, it’s not.

This only adds to the desire to skip.

Cherry blossoms at ICU campus in Japan

If they wanted their students to stay in class, ICU shouldn’t have made their campus so pretty

7. There is next to no student participation in class. The professor is talking. They understand the material and they probably assume they can explain it perfectly. Students aren’t given many chances to ask questions or give comments. That’s just not something you do in Japan.

On the bright side, that means you don’t have to waste time listing to a narrow-minded, offensive classmates uneducated observations or offensive opinions. Class is refreshingly not annoying.

On the other hand, when students aren’t engaged or invested in class, it is difficult to pay attention or care about what the teacher is explaining.

8. Foreigner professors break all these rules. They call on students in class. They encourage discussion. They let students ask questions. They assign reading, and then randomly ask students about what they read. They penalize for skipping class.

They still take a majority of the grade from the final, don’t assign homework, don’t give pop-quizzes, and give three and a half hour lectures, but I tend to prefer them. I think I’m weird. I prefer when my professors are imperfect and I like it when they care about their students.

Foreigner in shibuya corssing

If you leave me alone, I would probably learn the material own my own. I only take classes I am interested in. But I would prefer to see my professor get passionate about the subject, so some of that excitement rubs off on me.

For other “Things I don’t Understand About Japan” posts, check out:

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

10 Comments on Things I don’t Understand about Japan: the Structure of College Classes

  1. This sounds a lot like California schools, where the student’s don’t care and the professors are disconnected from their students. Do you think this is because it is an international college, or a Japanese thing, or something else?

    • From what I’ve heard talking to other Japanese friends, this is pretty common in Japanese schools.
      I think only professors at small liberal arts schools in America are so engaged, to be honest.

  2. My mother wants me to attend ICU starting this year. But judging by your blogs I’m wondering if that would be a good idea. In your opinion, would someone be better off if they attended a university in US instead? I understand that Tokyo is a really lovely place to be in but the education you describe seems a little lacking. What do you think? :/

    • It really depends.
      I wasn’t thrilled by the lax education system in Tokyo. I thought the classes were too easy and not engaging enough… but it turns out that is exactly what I needed. I was always up to my neck in work and classes in America – any free time I did have went to partying/intense socializing (because we all felt like we had to work hard/play hard).

      At ICU, I didn’t feel motivated to work hard. Oddly enough, I started picking up hobbies and stuff that helped me SO much more than any “class” I took in college in the US. I started this blog. I joined the boxing club. I taught on the side. I volunteered. Because the classes were less intense, I was able to actually devote time to personal growth… and oddly enough, I feel like I learned more in Japan during my 3 semesters at ICU than I did the other 3 YEARS at college in America.

      I think it depends on what kind of person you are. Does that make sense?

  3. The attendance (lack of) thing is maybe comes from the UK … it is pretty much the same there. All in all I think Japanese universities are a waste of time and money which is why I won’t let my daughter attend one when she finishes high school.

    • I could see that. I suppose I felt I learned a lot at my university in Texas, from both the classes and outside them. There were stressful times (like when I got the flu the week of finals and had to take both a Physics final and an Organic Chemistry II exam while propped up on strong medicine). I don’t even remember taking my OC II exam.

      And there were all nighters. And the following morning after those where I blacked out in my world literature and woke at the end of the class.

      But I still remember so much from that time. I grew a lot.

      On the other hand, I hardly remember my years before college.

      • I remember really learning how to deal with stress/goals/planning/building my own hobbies in college. I really liked that.
        It was also nice living in dorms of highly concentrated, like-minded people :)

  4. There is also a high school affiliated with ICU that is co-located on the same campus. Have you noticed whether any of the high school students take advantage of the college facilities or classes, or do they pretty much keep to themselves?

    When I lived on the edge of a US college campus, we (as kids) ended up knowing it inside out. Gyms, classrooms, libraries, parties and even the steam tunnels underground. We’d even sit in on classes.

    • They pretty much keep to themselves. I knew a teacher (and some of his students) at ICU, so I would sometimes eat lunch with them in the cafeteria, but they never sat in on college classes (or at least not that I heard of). I always thought it was a bit of a shame. They rode a separate bus and everything…

      My mother is a college professor – so I grew up going to her classes, eating at the cafeteria, and being babysat by her students. I loved it. I don’t know if the same atmosphere exists in Japan (since ICU isn’t a typical Japanese college). Do you know?

  5. Your Grandfather used to say “A College Education is the one thing people will pay good money for… and not get.”

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