No more Saturdays, no more cappuccino


When the new school year begins on April 8, all Japanese public schools will be on a five-day school week for the first time ever. For my kids, that means no more school on Saturdays. For me, it means no more cappuccino.

When we were planning our move to Japan two years ago, we knew we’d enroll our children in a regular Japanese elementary school. But I didn’t like the idea that they would have to go to school every other Saturday. I thought it would interfere with family time. I thought it would prevent us from taking weekend trips together.

Then we got here, and I learned how expensive it is to travel in Japan. It’s easy to drop more than 100,000 yen for an overnight trip for a family of four. Suddenly, the idea of staying at home on weekends didn’t seem so terrible. And if we were going to be in Tokyo, it didn’t seem so bad for the kids to go to school for a few hours on Saturday.

I remember that first Saturday well. It was the usual hectic morning, trying to get two kids out the door, on time, with all the right school gear. But once the door closed behind them at 8 a.m. all was quiet.

My husband and I looked at each other. Like most married couples with young children, we are almost never in the apartment alone. Without the kids. Just the two of us. We looked at each other again and smiled shyly. Then we did the obvious thing . . . we fired up the cappuccino maker.

Since then, the first and third Saturdays of the month have been our mini-vacation from child-rearing. We did what we had always done before we had kids. We put on classical music. We read the newspapers. We sipped our cappuccino.

But now the public schools have adopted the itsukasei, a five-day school week. There is a lot of uneasiness in Japan about itsukasei, and for better reasons than not being able to enjoy that quiet cup of cappuccino.

For one thing, it’s unfamiliar. When today’s parents were young, everybody went to school six days a week, every week. It was only about 20 years ago that the plan for a five-day school week was hatched.

Through most of the postwar period, it seemed natural that kids attend school six days a week. After all, their parents were probably working on Saturday, too. But by the 1980s, most Japanese companies had adopted a five-day work week. If dad got a two-day weekend, shouldn’t the kids have Saturday off, too?

This feeling gained favor during the “bubble” years. “We Japanese work too hard,” people said. “We want more leisure time. We need to enjoy life more.” There was also widespread dissatisfaction with the national education system, which people felt stifled creativity and independent thinking. Schools make children study too hard, critics said. Kids need more time to experience life and pursue their own interests.

So, as part of the overall reform program, the Education Ministry made a plan to phase out Saturday instruction. Starting in 1992, students got the second Saturday of each month off. The stated purpose was to give kids time for family and community activities. A few years later, the fourth Saturday of every month was also made a vacation day. The gradual phase-out was intended to give everyone time to adjust to the idea of a five-day school week.

As it turns out, a 10-year phase-out may have been too long. In the interval, the pendulum of public opinion has swung back in favor of longer school hours. These days, the concern is not hatarakisugi (overwork) but gakuryoku teika (declining academic ability). Parents are particularly upset because the curriculum has been cut, in part to accommodate the shorter week.

Private schools, which are not required to adopt the five-day week, are benefiting from parental anxiety. The curriculum cuts, widely perceived as a “dumbing down” of the public-education system, helped fuel a rise this year in private-school applications. Many parents now prefer schools with Saturday instruction.

In a recent survey, only 55 percent of the nation’s private schools said they intend to adopt the five-day school week. In large cities such as Tokyo, just 20 to 30 percent of private schools said they would give their students Saturday off. Most, particularly the prestigious ones, will stay open every Saturday.

I understand parents’ concerns, especially given the increasing competitiveness of the entrance exams for private middle schools, high schools and universities. But I do think some of the worries are overblown.

For one thing, the total hours of instruction in the public schools have hardly changed. Kids will have longer days during the week to make up for the Saturdays lost. My older son, who is starting fifth grade, will have 27 periods a week, the same as before. The reduction in the lower grades is just a period or two, not as much as you’d think given that two days of instruction per month have been cut.

I do have some reservations about the new schedule. My older son won’t have much time to play outside after school, especially in the winter, when it gets dark early. His younger brother, who already wilts before the end of the school day, may have trouble concentrating in the last periods.

But I want to take the new Saturday vacation days in the spirit in which they were offered. My kids won’t laze around watching TV. We’ll go on family outings. We’ll try some new experiences. Maybe we’ll even drain our savings and take an overnight trip.

And the cappuccino maker? Well, it’ll just have to wait until the kids are in college.