If you intend to spend any time in a Japanese school, as a friend, visitor, cultural exchange student or teacher, there’s a lot more advanced Japanese vocabulary you’ll need to navigate the campus.
Some of these will appear on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and your JLPT books, but you need context in order to understand them.
Let’s first get some perspective before we dive into the full list of vocabulary that you’ll need…
- A Day at School – 学校での一日 (がっこうでの いちにち)
- Japanese Vocabulary for School Staff – 職員 (しょくいん)
- Japanese Vocabulary for Events – 行事 (ぎょうじ)
- Classes and Clubs
- School Objects – 学用品 (がくようひん)
- Daily Life – 日常生活 (にちじょう せいかつ)
- Miscellaneous – その他 (そのた)
A Day at School – 学校での一日 (がっこうでの いちにち)
Meet Motohiro Fujimura. He’s a second grade student in junior high school (the equivalent of American 8th grade) at a small school in Takamatsu, Kagawa, Japan.
Every morning, he wakes up at 6:00 in the morning, eats a breakfast of toast, cereal and scrambled eggs, puts on his uniform (制服, せいふく), grabs his duffel bag and helmet, and rides his bike to school. At 7:00 he has his club activity (部活動, ぶかつ), soccer/football, on the field.
After a grueling half hour of drills, he changes out of his gym clothes and back into his uniform, takes off his outdoor shoes (運動靴, うんどうぐつ), puts on his indoor shoes (上靴, うわぐつ), greets his homeroom teacher (担任, たんにん) and her assistant (副担任, ふくたんにん), puts his belongings into a cubby/locker and sits down to read a book.
His grade level doesn’t have a morning meeting (朝礼, ちょうれい) today, so they immediately get started on homeroom activities. He did his homework for Japanese (国語, こくご) and Industrial Arts (技術, ぎじゅつ) but left his math notebook at school.
Oh no! He’ll turn in that homework tomorrow.
At 11:50, the students clean up the room and put on their aprons, cook’s hats and face masks to get ready for school lunch (給食, きゅうしょく). Excited for a break, the students race each other to the lunch room to grab the metal containers of food. Skidding down the hallways, they sprint back to the classroom, where they start dividing out equal portions of udon, curry, seaweed salad and deep-fried bread (why are they having wheat noodles and deep-fried wheat bread in one meal?! Because they’re growing children and need a lot of carbs, perhaps.)
The lunch leader greets the students, “We humbly receive this meal. Eat up!“ (いただきます！). When it’s time to clean up the greeter says the closing words, “Put your hands together and look at me. Thank you for the meal!” (ごちそうさまでした！).
Finally, recess time (昼休み, ひるやすみ). The students find ways to release steam and entertain themselves on campus. When recess ends, they file back into their homerooms for the last two classes of the day. Motohiro’s class has physical education today, so they all change in the classroom and jog out to the field for track day. When the bell rings, they return for science class, but they have to change back into uniform so class starts a few minutes late. By the time their teacher gets to plant biology, half of the class is asleep, either deep into their food comas or from the running long jumps they were learning in the previous class. The drool coming from the kid sitting next to Moto-kun will still be on his desk tomorrow morning, most likely, as the students stay in the same room for each class while the teachers rotate.
Cleaning time (掃除, そうじ)! The students help clean the school, focusing on the tasks assigned to them at the beginning of each semester, whether it’s mopping that one spot in front of the staff room that’s always inexplicably dirty or “sweeping” the school grounds (chasing each other with the brooms).
The clock hits 3:30 and it’s time for club activities and student council (生徒会, せいとかい) meetings until as late as 6:30 in the evening.
The rest of the evening is an exhausted blur.
And now, the main course…
Japanese Vocabulary for School Staff – 職員 (しょくいん)
Here’s a joke:
Where do the staff eat and drink? In the staff room.
Now in Japanese:
Get it? The pronunciation for “staff” and “eating and drinking” is identical: しょくいん。Tell this to students or teachers, with gestures added, and you’ll instantly become belle of the ball.
- Assistant language teacher (ALT) – 外国語指導助手 (がいこくご しどう じょしゅ), エーエルティー (えー える てぃー)
If you go overseas to teach English, this is most likely going to be your job title. You’ll either be the English teacher or the assistant to the English teacher.
- Grade leader – 学年団長 (がくねん だんちょう), 団長 (だんちょう)
In many schools, there will be one principal, at least one vice principal, subject heads (Head of English, etc.) and grade leaders. The grade leader essentially acts as the principal for grade-specific things. The grade level is called 学年団 (がくねんだん) and 団 (だん – group) is often used to refer to grade-specific terms (grade level morning meetings 学年団朝礼 [だんちょうれい], and so on.)
- On-duty – 当番 (とうばん) / Day-duty – 日直 (にっちょく)
Now this seems like a weird one to include but it’s a common thing in some, if not all, Japanese schools. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and in Japan all the teachers run the school, essentially (with the heads of the school making executive decisions).
Teachers coach sports and run clubs, clean the school, eat lunch with the students and, in many schools, take turns being “on duty” or “on day duty,” meaning unlocking the buildings in the morning, locking up at night and assisting the main office staff. The two common words for this position are 当番 (とうばん) and 日直 (にっちょく), which can also be used for the roles some students play in their homerooms, like the students who start the class greetings, or write the class’s homework on the board. “Duty” is the word of the day.
- Lecturer – 教師 (きょうし)
In order to become a teacher, students in schools of education must take tests at their Board of Education to receive a variety of licenses. If a graduate or student fails their test, they may be assigned as a lecturer on a one-year contract, meaning the Board of Education moves them to a new school every year until they pass their exams. They’re still considered a teacher, meaning they can teach on their own and have homeroom classes, but their contract will only last for one year at a time.
- Homeroom teacher (supervisor) – 担任 (たんにん)
Each year, a group of teachers will be assigned homeroom classes for the year and, depending on the school and the size of the staff, they may have an assistant 副担任 (ふくたんにん) who acts as the homeroom teacher when the main teacher is absent.
- Vice principal – 教頭先生 (きょうとうせんせい)
- Principal – 校長先生 (こうちょうせんせい)
- Social worker – ソーシャルワーカー
- Nurse – 看護師 (かんごし)
Japanese Vocabulary for Events – 行事 (ぎょうじ)
A ceremony to start the day, a ceremony to start the semester, a ceremony to open the ceremony. Japan has a lot of ceremonies. You could say it’s a…ceremonious country.
- Ceremonies – 式 (しき)
The opening ceremony 始業式 (しぎょうしき) serves to welcome students back to school after break, while the closing ceremony 終業式 (しゅうぎょうしき) sends them off after the semester ends.
Each year ends with a staff farewell ceremony 離任式 (りにんしき) to…say farewell to staff members who are leaving, while the beginning of the school year in April is marked by a new staff welcome ceremony 着任式 (ちゃくにんしき) for…welcoming new staff members.
Students have graduation ceremonies 卒業式 (そつぎょうしき) in March and matriculation (school entrance) ceremonies 入学式 (にゅうがくしき) a few weeks later, when they start elementary, middle or high school for the first time.
- Culture festival – 文化祭 (ぶんかさい)
- Sports festival – 体育祭 (たいいくさい), 運動会 (うんどうかい)
- Field trip – 見学 (けんがく), 修学旅行 (しゅうがく りょこう), 遠足 (えんそく)
Classes and Clubs
Both classes 授業 (じゅぎょう), 科目 (かもく) and clubs 部活動 (ぶかつどう), 部活 (ぶかつ), サークル (さーくる) are a big part of Japanese school life.
- Language arts, Japanese – 国語 (こくご)
Like many schools in the States, which often call English classes for native speakers “Language Arts,” in Japanese schools, Japanese language classes are called “Language” (“National Language,”) and they consist not only of grammar and literature, but also learning Chinese characters and traditional calligraphy.
My own calligraphy is reprehensible but when she had free time, the 8th grade Japanese teacher would delightedly try and teach me calligraphy. Like a typical Japanese person, she always complimented me on it, but I could tell she thought I was a lost cause.
- Moral education – 道徳 (どうとく)
Teaching about morals and real-life experiences is a big feature in Japanese schools. My own base school was focused on learning about disabilities, so one of the biggest moral education lessons each year was a disabilities experience.
The students were challenged to lead each other around the campus, but the students being led had to choose either wheelchairs or blindfolds, so they could feel what it was like to be handicapped. Now imagine a hyperactive 13-year-old wheelchairing at you at top speed screaming “Let’s get the teacher!”
- Class activities – 学活 (がっかつ)
The activities of the class activities class are pretty basic. This is meant to be a time for the homeroom to prepare their classrooms, make materials for events (banners, class photos and so on) and get through some general non-subject-specific tasks.
- Calligraphy – 書道 (しょどう), 習字 (しゅうじ)
- Swimming club – 水泳部 (すいえいぶ)
- Track and field club – 陸上部 (りくじょうぶ)
- Tea ceremony club – 茶道部 (さどうぶ)
- Student council – 生徒会 (せいとかい)
- Brass band club – 吹奏楽部 (すいそうがくぶ)
- Industrial arts – 技術 (ぎじゅつ)
School Objects – 学用品 (がくようひん)
- Ransel – ランドセル
This is one you may never even hear in English. A ransel is a style of backpack that originated in the Netherlands and is used by Japanese elementary school students. The backpack is firm-sided and made of leather, unlike the more bag-like backpacks common in higher grades or other countries.
- Indoor shoes – 上靴 (うわぐつ), outdoor shoes – 運動靴 (うんどうぐつ)
It’s commonly known that in Japan, you remove your shoes before entering a building or stepping up into a room. Different people, different buildings, different schools and different cities will have different policies (some let you keep your outdoor shoes on, some ask you to walk around with no shoes, some give you slippers and some have a different set for every single room in the building.)
At school, students have “outdoor shoes,” “indoor shoes” and “gym shoes.” Outdoor shoes are what the students outside of school, at home, etc. Indoor shoes are worn during the school day, and gym shoes are worn in the gymnasium.
There are slight variations on these policies at different schools. For example, my school was one of the most laid-back in the city: the buildings were separated so “outdoor” and “indoor” became “not at school” and “at school,” and sometimes people would wear outdoor shoes into the gym.
- Unicycle – 輪車 (いちりんしゃ)
Raise your hand if you did a triple take when you saw this on the list. At many Japanese elementary schools, unicycles are every bit a part of student life. Students learn to ride them, and somehow most students manage to avoid faceplanting while doing so.
- Pencil case – 筆箱 (ふでばこ)
- Sticky note/memo – 付箋 (ふせん)、メモ (めも)
- Namebadge – 名札 (なふだ)
- Uniform – 制服 (せいふく)
- Blackboard – 黒板 (こくばん)
- Ruler – 定規 (じょうぎ)、物差し (ものさし)
- Shoe box/locker – 靴箱 (くつばこ)
Daily Life – 日常生活 (にちじょう せいかつ)
- School lunch – 給食 (きゅうしょく)
Unlike in the United States and perhaps other countries, at most schools in Japan students eat together in their classroom and they all share the same food (divided evenly amongst themselves, of course.) The teachers eat with their classes. A few schools have cafeterias and some choice over food, but those are generally small schools or senior high schools. In small towns, the lunch may be prepared by community members or school staff, while in larger areas, it’ll be distributed by a central company.
- Student number – 出席番号 (しゅっせき ばんごう)
Within homerooms, students are assigned numbers, usually based on where their last name falls alphabetically. Students put their numbers on tests and assignments to help teachers keep track of them. Of course teachers get to know all of their students, but the numbers are still useful. Sometimes teachers use student numbers to determine which student will do a demonstration or answer a question (“Today is the 15th…so who is number 15?”).
- Cram school – 塾 (じゅく)
Students may go to a cram school after school to study for exams or further their knowledge in certain subjects. Testing is very highly valued in Japan, as are cram schools, night schools and so on. For many students, cram school is in addition to club activities (maybe on different days, one after the other or overlapping on the same day).
- Exams – 試験 (しけん), テスト (てすと)
- Midterm exam – 中間試験 (ちゅうかん しけん)
- End-of-semester exam – 期末試験 (きまつ しけん)
- Grade – 成績 (せいせき)
- Cleaning time – 掃除 (そうじ)
- Recess – 昼休み (ひるやすみ)
Miscellaneous – その他 (そのた)
- Vacations – 休み (やすみ), 休暇 (きゅうか)
Teachers get different types of vacations, much like other people who work full-time jobs.
There are national holidays and mandatory vacations (special holidays 特別休暇 [とくべつ きゅうか]) like o-bon or Christmas.
There is also paid vacation 有給休暇 (ゆうきゅう きゅうか) that teachers can use as they please (though most Japanese teachers use their paid vacation as sick leave and never touch their sick leave days), compensatory holidays that they receive in exchange for working extra days and sick leave 病気休暇 (びょうき きゅうか) for going to the hospital or recovering in bed.
Teachers generally work every day to varying degrees, though most assistant language teacher contracts are no more than 40 hours a week, a normal full-time work week. In return for coming to school on the weekend, for example, a teacher will receive a compensatory holiday 代休 (だいきゅう).
When the entire school comes on the weekend, for culture festivals, sports days or other reasons, the staff and students get a day off 振り替え休日 (ふりかえ きゅうじつ) during the week, when the school is closed entirely.
- Staff shifting – 職員異動 (しょくいん いどう)
The Japanese school year ends in March, at which point the city governments do a massive trading of staff from one department, town, city, prefecture or level to another. A math teacher from one school may be moved to a remote island somewhere else in the prefecture, while another math teacher from a faraway rural school will come to take their place.
Some schools lose as few as three staff members, while some may lose multiple dozens of teachers (of course in exchange for others.) Additionally, fully-licensed teachers, as an unspoken rule, must complete a certain number of years at a school (three years, for example) before they’re allowed to be moved, and the tacitly-understood full possible tenure of a teacher in one location may be ten years.
It’s a way of exposing students and teachers to multiple lifestyles, teaching styles and people and, as a result, you may find that every single English teacher in the prefecture is close friends with the others.
- Morning assembly – 朝礼 (ちょうれい)
- Board of education – 教育委員会 (きょういく いいんかい)
The next time you want to gossip with the teens about how square the principal is, or complain about how hungry you are, don’t worry about having to spit out “the guy who owns the school and is the head of all of us” or “that thing we do when we are hungry, which involves putting food into our mouths at the same time, in the same place, every single day.”
And if you want to maintain your status as the cool kid in school, take after the students in Japanese dramas. Watch school-related movies and series to your heart’s content on streaming platforms like Netflix to make sure you’re saying everything above correctly. To really hone in on your pronunciation and usage, FluentU’s Japanese drama scenes and other media clips come with interactive subtitles that contain contextual examples and options for flashcard practice.
So no need to dance around unknown vocabulary.
You’ve got all the cool words you need to rule the school.