TOKYO -- Yuki Uchida, an 11-year-old girl who lives in the heart of Tokyo, thinks nothing of riding a packed train by herself to school. After all, like most Japanese children, she has been riding buses and trains by herself since she was 6 years old.
Tokyo, the capital of Japan, has 8 million people. And one of the most surprising sights to visitors is all the children in the city traveling either alone or in groups of two or three.
Yuki's trip takes about 40 minutes, including a change of trains and a 15-minute walk from the station. She said she likes meeting up with friends on the train. And on the way home they try to travel together as far as possible. "Sometimes when I'm tired I wish I could be picked up by car, but on the train I get to talk with my friends, so that's fun."
Asked if she thought it was dangerous, Yuki said, "If I see someone acting strange, I just move to another car."
Her one-way ticket costs 150 yen, about $1.40, which is half price because she is still in elementary school. When she enters seventh grade next year she will pay the full fare of 300 yen each way.
During the school year, which starts in April, Yuki gets up at 6:40 a.m., has a breakfast of rice, miso soup and fish, and leaves for school at 7:30. She walks to the train station with her father. He takes a subway to his job with a company that makes sure buildings can withstand earthquakes. (Japan has many earthquakes, although most are very small.) Yuki travels in the opposite direction.
Her school day starts at 8:45 and ends at 2:50. Lunch is from 12:15 to 1. Yuki's mom makes her lunch. Her favorite meal includes fried chicken, rice, a fried egg, a small tomato, spinach, a slice of fish paste and fruit. (Kids in Japan pack far more elaborate lunches than PBJ!)
From 1 until 1:20 every day, the students clean the school. Even though the students all change into "indoor" shoes at the entrance to the school, the classrooms get dirty.
The student cleaners work in teams of one boy and one girl. They do paper-scissors-rock to decide which teams will clean which rooms. Yuki's favorite room to clean is the art room, because the teacher gives out candy.
Yuki goes to a private school, which she entered in first grade after passing an examination. Her school activities -- including cleaning -- are similar to those of public schools, but her life differs from public school students' in one important way. As long as she doesn't want to switch schools, she doesn't have to take another school entrance examination.
The interest in private schools is great in Japan, particularly in Tokyo. And as more families have only one child, they spend a lot of money and effort to prepare children to take the entrance exams for elementary school, junior high and senior high. The biggest jump in private school attendance is for junior high, and about 25 percent of Tokyo junior-high-age students go to private school.
So the pressure is off Yuki, who is an only child. She goes to cram school (where students study just for the exams) one night a week to keep her skills up. Her regular homework usually takes less than an hour. She studies English at school once a week for one hour.
-- Kathryn Tolbert