While in the lobby at work making small talk before class today, one of my high school students told me that he had not slept at all the night before. Why? Not because he was up playing online video games. And not because he has a new girlfriend and on the phone saying “no, you hang up first….nooooo, YOU hang up first!” until dawn. He was up studying ALL NIGHT. I was floored by this. True, the Japanese work ethic is legendary, but it still blows my mind when I am confronted with it face to face. When I was in high school, I barely spent an hour looking at a textbook on any given night, and I most certainly, definitely, neeeever ever ever ever stayed up all night studying. I’m pretty sure studyingnever even kept me up LATE. Of course, my school was not what you would call “hard” and therefore also not what you would call “prestigious” either. But I don’t regret that. All that time that i could have been studying was instead spent doing other, more creative or productive things. Actually, that is a complete and utter lie. I spent the bulk of my afternoons watching Little House on the Prairie and being bored and wishing that something better were on tv besides Little House on the Prairie. (I hated Nellie sooooo much!) But still, I don’t look back and wish I had done more studying. Not at all. I don’t really see how it would have improved my life in any great way, or what achievements I would have that I currently don’t.
In an advanced class today the topic happened to be a debate about public schools vs. private schools, so I took the opportunity to find out more about school and study practices in Japan. My student, a businessman in his 40s, told me that when he was in Jr. High, he used to attend a cram school for about 3 hours every night – from about 6pm to 9pm each day. The cram school was so intense and fast paced that he found he could stop paying attention at all in school and still get perfect marks on his school work. Which confuses me a bit, because it seems to make regular school redundant and sort of pointless. Why not just attend cram school for 3 hours and call it a day? Apparently entrance exams to get into high school and college are really, really brutal. Another student of mine actually did not pass his university entrance exams, so for the last year he has done nothing but attend cram school every day to prepare to take them again. There are some exceptions though – a couple of our students attend elite prep schools that feed into particular universities, so their path is already set. They may have to do an interview and demonstrate an impressive CV of activities, but will not have to take a test. This seems to be the exception, though, rather than the rule. After all, these same students are attending an English conversation school in addition to whatever other coursework and activities they have to do in, an effort to improve their chances for future schools or job prospects.
I have yet another student who is currently in college, but also working. I am not sure exactly why she needs so much money, but she is working 3 part time jobs in addition to her regular school work and English classes. One of her jobs goes from midnight to around 6 am, so on many nights she will simply go home, change, and go straight to class without having slept! I’ve also talked with a bartender here who works 2 FULL time jobs. He just opened his own bar in March, so I gather that it is not quite self supporting yet. So, he opens the bar around 7 or 8 EVERY night, stays there until 5 am, THEN goes off to work as a waiter in another bar-type establishment, where he stays until about 5 in the afternoon, goes home, takes a nap for about 2 hours, and comes back to his bar to open again. “Ikaga?!?!?” I said to him when he told me this. (That means ‘how’ in Japanese). He cocked his head to the side as though that was not a question he had ever considered before. He acknowledged taking naps on the train, or at the bar when there are no customers, but I am still completely baffled that anyone could actually stand upright, be capable of speech, and be okay to handle glassware and cutlery and so forth on roughly 2 hours of sleep a night. I find it really difficult to function without a proper nights’ sleep…and by proper nights sleep, I mean approximately 8 to 9 hours. If I get only 7 hours, I am likely to be cranky. 6 hours and my back and shoulders will be stiff, and I’ll start making dumb mistakes for lack of concentrating. Any less than that and I am a space cadet, and I don’t feel like my brain is actually capable of intelligent thought. I have worked on less many, many times, of course but in general, I find that I am extremely inefficient when I do. So how does someone staying up all night manage to cram anything of value into their brain? In college I studied a bit, and ran a lot of miles for track and cross country practice, so I was generally always tired and pretty annoyed about it. I never felt well rested, and that kind of bothered me. I cannot comprehend how students here get used to the idea of a lifetime of such soul crushing work.