Sitting at a long table, a woman in her fifties is checking children’s answers. Her hand draws a lot of red circles quickly on student’s papers. Elementary school pupils are studying at a few tables in a small room.
“There’s no room for me to be senile,” says Naoko Machida, a teacher at the Gakken Kyoshitsu juku, “I have to study hard to teach children, you know?”
Japan has thousands of private cram schools called juku, where children study after regular school hours or on weekends. They are a distinctive feature of life in Japan, and have existed, in one form or another, for about 1,000 years.
In fact, the number of juku is about 49,000, while the total number of elementary schools and junior and senior high schools is roughly 39,000. There are different types of jukus. Juken-jukus are for the people who study for the entrance examinations of high schools, colleges, or universities. Hoshu-jukus are for the students who need to study more and do not do well in school.
The word, juku originally meant “rooms built on the both sides of a gate”, where people taught family or employees. Then in the Edo period (1603-1867), terako-ya developed, where local children studied the basics of reading, calligraphy, and counting. In the middle ages, Japanese temples played the role of education as well, and 6- and 7-year-old children stayed in a temple to study. The word terako literary means “temple child”. In early-modern ages, education took place in towns, but people still called buildings where children studied terako-ya. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan imported many ideas from Europe, and terako-ya gave way to European style elementary schools. 
“I’m really exhausted on Saturdays,” says Naoko. Every Saturday, she works from morning to evening, while on weekdays she starts her work at around three in the afternoon after schools let out. Students can come to Gakken Kyoshitsus when they want or when they are free, and each student studies for about two hours on average, so she has to work for a long time.
Naoko runs two Gakken Kyoshitsus in Hakawa-cho and Sakawa-cho, small towns in Kochi prefecture. She works with her husband, Yukinobu Machida, and they teach arithmetic, mathematics, English, Japanese, science, and social studies to nursery school children, elementary school pupils, and junior high school students.
She started a Gakken Kyoshitsu in Hakawa-cho about three years ago though she had worked for a vocational school before, and she opened the second juku in Sakawa-cho after a year because the number of students who study at Hakawa Kyoshitsu was not enough for her to make a profit. She had run the two jukus by herself for a period of time, but these days her husband, who usually works for another juku, helps her.
Gakken Kyoshitsus are such jukus where children study after school or nursery school. It is a new sort of juku, and it is mainly for young children. It has courses for babes and toddlers as well. For example, even an infant can attend Gakken Kyoshitsu with a parent.
Gakken Kyoshitsu is an international juku chain, and its total number is approximately 15,000 in the world. It is called Gakken Classroom in foreign countries.
Some Japanese parents want their children to study when they still are young because those parents believe that children who take good education in their young ages will be clever. Focusing on the belief that some parents have, Gakken Kyoshitsus made a service to those parents. In fact, most children in Gakken Kyoshitsus study something advanced. For instance, first grade pupils study what second grade pupils usually study.
Gakken Kyoshitsus have good teaching materials, and there are several sorts of the teaching materials. In Japan, some schools, private schools in particular, have different sort of textbooks than others have. Gakken Kyoshitsus have special teaching materials that suit each textbook of each school.
Some students in Japan do not go to school because of bullying, and some of them study at Gakken Kyoshitsu. In Japanese elementary and junior high schools, you do not stay in the same class for another year even if you do not go to school for a period of time. Supporting those children, Gakken Kyoshitsus play an important role in Japanese society.
“These days, I study English the hardest in my life.” Naoko was not good at English when she was a student, and she had never thought that she would have to study English in future in those days. Not only young children but also a lot of junior high school students study at Gakken Kyoshitsu. It is hard for her to teach ninth-grade English.
Even though her job is pretty hard, she is happy to work at Gakken Kyoshitsu. When children have developed as a person, she takes pleasure. There is a boy who was always crying in the first year when he studied at Gakken Kyoshitsu. He now hardly ever cries. There is a girl who was bad at English, but she does well in English class at school now. She came to study not only English but also other subjects much more than before. Her attitude towards study got much better.
“I teach my children not only study but also attitude for life,” Naoko says with a gentle smile.
–by Ryu Matsuo