Over the years, the educational system has gone through major changes and reformations. The beginning of formal education dates back to the 6th century and the adoption of the Chinese culture. The Meiji Restoration and World War II were important highlights in the restructure of the system.
In the present day, education in Japan is structured into 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of junior high and 3 years of senior high. Classes begin in April, around the time Cherry Blossoms are in bloom, and are held from Monday to Friday or Saturday.
- Kindergarten (幼稚園 Yōchien): Children from 3-6 may enter kindergarten or day-care facilities. The educational approach in these ages varies, with some only functioning as playing facilities, while others are specifically equipped to prepare the child to pass tests in order to enter a private elementary school. Kindergarten is optional.
- Elementary school (小学校 Shōgakkō): At age 6, children are obligated to enter elementary school, which is composed of 6 grades. Classes begin early in the morning and last approximately 6 hours. Entering elementary school is seen as an event of great importance, a stepping stone that shapes the child's life. While most of the population enrolls in public schools, there is a great amount of competition for some of the more prestigious private schools.
- Junior high school (中学校 chūgakkō): Ages 12-15 attend Junior high.
- High School (高校 kōkō): Ages 15-18 attend high school, in preparation for university. High school is not compulsory, but very few stop their education at Junior high. Japanese, English, mathematics and science are important subjects to graduates. The percentage who stopped at Junior high was considerably higher in the 1950s though early 1980s, when you could walk into a factory job at 16, which is why some older anime are set in Junior High instead of High School.
- Japanese Universities have their own page.
Japanese schools' extra-curricular activities are centered on "club activities" organized by the students themselves. Each club is generally assigned its own room or other facilities, will have a faculty advisor (komon no sensei 顧問の先生), and has a president (kaichō 会長). More details at our Japanese School Club page.
The most common clubs include the student council, the school newspaper, and the Kendo team. Other clubs range from normal sport clubs (baseball, soccer, swimming etc.) over cultural clubs (art, tea ceremony, music etc.) and a mixed bunch (library, computer, home economy etc.) to the more unusually (railways, astronomy, occult research etc.)
It's rare for a student to be a member of more than one club — club activities are generally too time-consuming to allow for it. Students who aren't members of any club are derisively said to be members of the "Go Home Club."
The Sailor Fuku often seen in Japanese Media is well-recognised as a symbol of Japanese school life and youth. The girls' uniform is based on European-style naval uniforms and came into use sometime during the 19th century. Schools have two versions of the uniform—the regular one for all seasons, and a lighter one for summer. It may depend on the region, but recently the sailor suit (and the traditional male counterpart, the gakurana black ensemble with a high collar, based on Prussian officer uniforms) has become largely the domain of middle/junior high schools, whereas high schools have shifted towards more fashionable or professional-looking styles of uniform, often with tailored blazers, vests, neckties, and plaid skirts. Elementary schools, if they have a uniform, tend towards collarless jackets and skirts with suspenders and sometimes, students wear their gym uniforms during class and change into their formal uniforms when outside of the school or attending ceremonies.
Bunkasai, the "Japanese Cultural Festival," is an important annual event at nearly every school in Japan from junior high to university (the dates are different from school to school, to allow observers to attend multiple events). It's a day to show off the students' talents and the school itself to parents and prospective students. Instead of a shrine-based matsuri, a Festival Episode may well be based at a school's Bunkasai.
Each homeroom class will put on some sort of event (justified from the educational standpoint as teaching the students how to run a business); the two most common involve turning a classroom either into a small cafe (kissaten), or a Haunted House (obakeyashiki, from obake, meaning monster or ghost, and yashiki, mansion). This itself has become such an ingrained part of the trope that it is rare to see any other possibilities discussed when a class is trying to decide what to do for their participation in the festival (this is lampshaded in Azumanga Daioh), but carnival games and student-crafts shops crop up from time to time. Student clubs will also participate, generally creating club-theme-related attractions in hopes of attracting future recruits. Theme costumes will be commonplace.
In addition to events held within the school proper, with classrooms temporarily transformed into shops, the school grounds will be used for outdoor stalls like those of a shrine matsuri.