Japan—Education System

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Editors: Karen Christensen and David Levinson
Date: 2002
Encyclopedia of Modern Asia
From: Encyclopedia of Modern Asia(Vol. 3. )
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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In the 1980s and 1990s, the Japanese education system received widespread international attention and praise for its accomplishments. Modern schooling was credited with contributing significantly to the country's modernization and economic development. Almost 90 percent of students graduated from high school, and the average level of student achievement was high by international standards.

While still impressive, Japan's education system is now undergoing significant changes. Underlying these changes is a shift in thinking about the purposes of education. Whereas the school system previously functioned to produce and differentiate human resources for the industrial and economic needs of postwar society, there is a growing consensus that the education system has many problems and shortcomings. The call for educational reform and the reports issued by advisory groups to the prime minister are not new to postwar Japan. There have been several series of reform debates and policy changes. The difference this time, however, is that reform debates are motivated by far-reaching social changes and a prolonged economic recession. Education for the twenty-first century must address issues such as globalization, aging and the low birth rate, technological innovations and the "information society," and the increasing diversification and internationalization of Japanese society.

Historical Background

Before a modern education system was introduced into Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century, an extensive infrastructure of schools and private academies already existed during the feudal TokugawaPage 218  |  Top of Article period (1600/1603–1868). Children of aristocrats, the samurai warrior class, and urban merchants attended schools operated by and for their own respective classes. Regional government-operated fief schools prepared sons of samurai families for administrative work by training them in both military arts and Confucian studies. Commoners and farmers voluntarily attended so-called temple schools where they learned the three "Rs" and other basic skills under teachers who were not necessarily monks. Among these various schools, only the temple schools accepted females. By 1850, it was estimated that in Japan, as in leading European countries at this time, 25 percent of the population was literate.

In enacting the Education Law of 1872, the new Meiji government (1868–1912) began the task of creating a modern public-education system for all children, regardless of class. The aims of this new system were to help Japan catch up industrially with the West and to instill a sense of national, albeit emperor-centered, identity. After studying various Western school systems, the Meiji-era leaders adapted and combined aspects of several systems—the United States, France, Germany—for Japanese use and established a centralized Ministry of Education.

By 1890, the government had codified a nationalist educational philosophy in the Imperial Rescript on Education. This Rescript emphasized the Confucian values of hierarchical relationships and the pursuit of learning and morality. This philosophy persisted until Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, in 1945. During the time of the Rescript, a new Elementary School Law of 1900 established tuition-free compulsory education for four years, which was extended to six years in 1908.

Prior to and during World War II, the content of education became increasingly nationalistic and militaristic, and, therefore, reform of the education system was a priority for the U.S. Occupation authorities. The 1946 Report of the U.S. Education Mission to Japan, commissioned by the General Headquarters of the Occupation, recommended educational changes aimed at the production of citizens rather than subjects. Most of the Mission's recommendations were incorporated into the 1947 Fundamental Education Law (whose principles for education replaced those of the prewar Imperial Rescript) and into the 1947 School Education Law, which established a new school system. Respect for individual human rights, pacifism, and democracy replaced Confucian values as the guiding principles for education. The first article states: "Education shall aim at full development of personality, at rearing a people, sound in mind and body, who love truth and justice, esteem individual values, respect labor, have a deep sense of responsibility, and are imbued with an independent spirit as the builders of a peaceful state and society" (Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture 1999: 9). The new School Education Law subsequently formed a 6-3-3 school system (that is, six elementary, three lower secondary, and three upper secondary years), with coeducational nine-year compulsory schooling organized by the local boards of education under the supervision and control of the Ministry of Education.

The Formal School System

Since the peak in the population of school-age children in the mid-1980s, there has been a steady decrease in enrollment rates due to a declining birth rate. This demographic phenomenon is having a lasting effect at all levels of the school system. For example, as average class size shrinks from forty-five students to thirty-eight to thirty, classroom management and teaching methods change. Another example is the effect on educational competition, discussed below in the section on postsecondary schools.

Pre-Elementary Education Pre-elementary education is not compulsory, but a high percentage of Japanese children are enrolled. Sixty percent of all three-year-olds, 90 percent of four-year-olds, and 95 percent of five-year-olds attended either kindergarten (yochien) or nursery/day care centers (hoikuen) in 1996. Kindergartens operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Education and are usually open for about five hours a day. Day care centers are licensed by the Ministry of Welfare and are run for eight hours a day. Tuition at day care centers is adjusted to family income. Facilities, curriculum, teaching style, and activities at day care centers and kindergartens are similar. In both types of early education, the curriculum tends to be nonacademic, although pressure to become more academic is increasing among some groups. Recently, the declining population of children has forced many kindergartens to extend their hours and offer additional afternoon programs in an effort to compete with day care centers for enrollment.

Compulsory Education: Elementary and Junior High School Compulsory education in Japan begins at the age of six years, when students enter elementary school, and ends upon completion of the third year of junior high school. Less than 1 percent of primary school children and a little over 5 percent of junior high school students attend private schools. Most students, in other words, receive their nine years ofPage 219  |  Top of Article schooling in the mainstream public school system. Since the Ministry of Education determines curriculum standards, pace, and textbook content for all schools, both public and private, the degree of uniformity in educational experience is remarkable. In addition, students are not tracked by ability, and as long as they are attending classes, they are virtually assured of advancement to the next grade.

The school year begins with an opening ceremony in April and finishes with a closing ceremony in March. There is a forty-day summer vacation from mid-July to the end of August. Winter and spring vacations are fourteen days in December and March, respectively. Until recently, Japanese children attended sixty more days of school per year than American children. Half-day attendance on Saturdays is being slowly phased out by alternating six-day weeks and five-day weeks. By the year 2003, all public elementary and junior high schools will have completed the transition to a five-day school week.

The curriculum for elementary and junior high schools is also undergoing revision. By 2002, the required number of class hours for many subjects— Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, art, physical education, and special activities (assemblies, events, clubs)—was to be reduced. The thirty-five hours devoted to moral education will remain the same. Finally, integrated learning and information studies will be introduced.

With regard to cultural practices and implicit curriculum common to public schooling, coming-to-order procedures, small-group work structures, daily monitors who handle administrative tasks, and assignment of school clean-up duties are a few examples of classroom management and discipline strategies. These daily rituals are introduced to first graders and subsequently continued throughout a child's school career. Other examples are the custom of an annual visit to the home of every child by the homeroom teacher and, more generally, the cooperative relationship among home, school, and the community (including the police department). Activities such as after-school clubs or the sixth and ninth graders' three-day study trips by bus caravans to places of historical significance exemplify the emphasis on shared experiences that instill values of cooperation and awareness of group membership. What really distinguishes Japanese schooling from its Western counterparts is conventions such as these.

Upper Secondary Schools Ninety-six percent of graduates of compulsory education continue on to upper secondary schools that require tuition and textbook fees. At this point, however, schools and curricula are no longer uniform. Through guided placement by junior high school advisers, students are directed to a school appropriate to their level, and they sit for that school's entrance examination. Since high schools tend to be ranked, the process of educational stratification begins at this stage. Entry into a particular high school is directly related to a person's future career path.

There are six types of high schools: elite academic, nonelite academic, vocational, evening, correspondence, and special education. Elite academic high schools, public and private, specialize in sending a high percentage of their graduates to the highest-ranking national and private universities. A majority of students attend nonelite academic high schools, and there is considerable diversity in terms of the percentage of graduates who proceed to universities, junior colleges, or special training schools.

There are several ways to obtain vocational or specialized training beginning at the high school level and, in some cases, continuing into postsecondary schooling. Vocational high schools, a part of the secondary school curriculum since 1893, are grouped by the Ministry of Education into the following categories: commercial, technology, domestic sciences, agriculture, medical, educational/social welfare, public health, arts and culture, and fisheries. Twenty-three percent of high school students attend specialized vocational high schools. In addition, about 31 percent of the nonelite academic high schools offer both vocational and general courses. In 1995, 4.3 percent of vocational graduates entered a four-year university, 6.6 percent joined a two-year college, and another 22.5 percent chose further education at a special training school. Approximately 60 percent obtained full-time employment.

Finally, evening and correspondence high schools, whose combined enrollment is about 4 percent of high school students, serve the needs of students who must work or, for reasons of health, cannot attend the day high schools.

Postsecondary Schooling Postsecondary institutions include 604 universities with 438 graduate programs, 588 junior colleges, 62 technical colleges, and numerous other special training and miscellaneous schools. Junior-college programs are usually two to three years in length. Technical colleges, which include courses of study corresponding to upper secondary school, have five-year programs. Depending on the course of study, special-training and miscellaneous schools' programs range in length from a few months to five years. University undergraduate-degree programs arePage 220  |  Top of Article normally four years in length, two semesters per year. In addition, there are six-year programs in medicine, dentistry, and veterinary science. Postgraduate programs consist of two-year master's degree courses or five-year doctoral programs.

College admission rates have increased steadily throughout the postwar period, and in 1998, 55 percent of high school graduates matriculated to a university (41.6 percent) or junior college (13.4 percent). Seventy-five percent of these universities are private and educate about 73 percent of all university students. Among these, 34.9 percent of university students and 90.1 percent of junior-college students were female. Female students accounted for 24.8 percent of graduate program enrollment.

Universities are currently undergoing significant changes related to the economic recession and the declining birth rate. In the past, elite public and private universities maintained close connections to private companies, virtually ensuring the placement of their graduates. The name and reputation of the university mattered more than a student's actual skills and talents. Today, as many Japanese companies restructure and struggle to regain a competitive edge internationally, these firms have reconsidered their ties with universities. Increasingly, job candidates must demonstrate their abilities and assets to the prospective company.

By the year 2005, there is to be a place at a university for every student who wishes to attend. This means that, except for the most prestigious schools, it is the universities that are competing to recruit students rather than the students who are competing for admittance. This trend has stimulated many universities to redesign their programs to appeal to contemporary students. Faculty members, too, are under pressure to improve the educational environment through a better understanding of their students and the ways that students learn. The Central Council for Education, moreover, recently proposed a reform of the examination system that would give students choices about applying to public universities, based on the content of their future plans rather than on test scores. In addition, concerns about the financial survival of universities are inspiring many new opportunities for adult education, in the form of degree and nondegree programs.

Educational Problems and Current Educational Reforms In addition to the changes occurring at the level of postsecondary schools, cultural values about the means and goals of education are shifting away from those of the previous fifty years. Schools are said to be too rigid, curricula too uniform, organizations too centralized, and children too stressed.

Criticisms such as these are buoyed by an intensification of problem behaviors and an increase in violent juvenile crime at younger ages. At the beginning of the 1980s, a fluctuation in school violence was followed by the identification of two new educational problems: bullying (ijime) and school-refusal syndrome (tokokyohi, a psychiatric category). While all three problems remain significant sources of research and public discussion, the more recent phenomena of collapse of order in classrooms (gakkyu hokai) and school nonattendance (a broad category that includes truancy) are also concerns. While statistics for school violence, bullying, and truancy have gradually risen over the last twenty years, the percentages are still low in comparison with schools in the United States.

To address these problems and other changes happening in education, such as the introduction of computers in schools, there is a growing consensus that local communities should control their own educational needs and decisions. It is also thought that more choices should be given to students, including earlygraduation options. Current discussions emphasize helping all children to find and utilize their strengths in combination with teaching them how to serve the needs of their own communities and societies. Schools in the near future will have fewer children per classroom, and children will be partners in and responsible for their own learning.

Special Education Compulsory special education for blind and deaf children began in 1948. In the late 1960s, various educators and parents set up special groups to study the problems and education of children with various disabilities. The range of schools was broadened to include other disabilities with the legal enactment in 1979 of compulsory education for developmentally disabled children. There are currently 71 schools for the blind, 107 schools for the deaf, and 810 schools for students with other significant disabilities, ranging in level from preschool to upper secondary education. In addition, 43 percent of public primary schools include special-education homeroom classes for children with intellectual or physical handicaps, speech problems, or emotional disturbances.

The Teaching Profession

In the prewar period, teacher certification for primary education was controlled by normal schools that were established by the government and that had been given the mandate of training imperial servants. The postwar Fundamental Education Law, in contrast, includedPage 221  |  Top of Article the notion that teachers were servants of the whole community. To ensure diversity among those in the teaching profession, various postsecondary schools were entitled to have a teacher-education course, making their graduates eligible to apply for certification. Consequently, although still authorized by the Ministry of Education, certificates for kindergarten, elementary, and junior high schools are obtainable at teacher-training universities and teaching-certificate courses in universities and junior colleges. Teachers for upper-secondary schools must receive training at universities or graduate schools or both. In addition to graduation from a two- or four-year institute and completion of professional training courses, a four-week and two-week minimum of student teaching for elementary and secondary levels, respectively, is required.

Upon graduation, a student automatically receives a teacher's certificate from the board of education in his or her university's prefecture. Although the certificate is valid throughout Japan, the holder must also pass an examination given by the board of education in the prefecture of his or her choice. Successful applicants are hired if there is a vacancy, and since the selection examination expires after one year, unemployed applicants must reapply and repeat the examination the following year.

According to the data supplied by the Ministry of Education in 1997, 80.7 percent of primary, 88.3 percent of junior high, and 89.3 percent of high school teachers have a four-year undergraduate degree. In addition, 1 percent of elementary, 2.5 percent of junior high, and 7.8 percent of senior high school teachers have completed a master's degree. Full-time female teachers made up 61.2 percent of elementary, 40 percent of junior high, and 23 percent of high school teachers in 1997.

International Education

Internationalization and international education became serious issues in the 1980s, when economic success provoked demands for Japan to take a more active role in international affairs. One outcome was the creation in 1987 of a $400 million annual budget for the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. The JET program recruits college graduates from primarily Western countries and places them in Japanese public secondary schools and local government offices in a top-down bureaucratic effort to create mass internationalization.

There are currently a number of other programs that address international educational issues. The need for teaching the Japanese language to foreign children living in Japan and attending public schools increased by 50 percent between 1995 and 1998. Among these 17,000 children, 43.1 percent speak Portuguese as their native tongue, followed by 30.8 percent for Chinese and 10.1 percent for Spanish. The Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking children are mostly children of Japanese ancestry from Brazil and other South American countries. This influx of foreign children into the school system inspired NHK, Japan's public television station, to create a drama about the adjustment experiences of a Japanese-Brazilian girl and her classmates, and at least one public school is using this program in its moral-education classes to promote understanding of foreigners.

Aside from foreign children, Japanese children who have lived abroad with their families for a year or more experience varying degrees of difficulty when they return home. These children, known as kikokushijo, numbered 12,884 in 1998; 61 percent of kikokushijo were elementary school students. Most prefectures now have special programs to ease the reentry of these students into the Japanese cultural and educational environment.

Another aspect of international education is the variety of exchange and study-tour programs available to high school students. For example, in 1996 a total of 688 public and private high schools, with 130,669 students participating, took school trips abroad. The most popular destinations were Korea, China, the United States, and Australia. That same year, a total of 972 schools accepted a total of 1,280 foreign students for three months or more.

Adult Education and Training

Systematic educational activities outside schools, also known as social education, have been practiced and promoted in Japan since the prewar period. The idea of lifelong learning became a major campaign of the Central Council for Education in the early 1980s. While social education had been defined by and organized under the Ministry of Education at national and local levels, universities and private educational establishments also began to expand their adult-education programs independently. Adult-education programs are offered in a variety of settings, including public halls and community centers, women's education centers, museums, libraries, and for-profit institutions of adult education. There are also institutions specializing in adult education, such as the Lifelong Learning Centers operated by local boards of education and the National Training Institute of Social Education. In Page 222  |  Top of Article addition, there are high school, university, and college extension courses, correspondence courses, and adult enrollment in higher education. Finally, the 1983 establishment of The University of the Air, which uses televised and radio-broadcast classes along with printed materials, offers anyone the opportunity to enroll in an institution of higher education.

The Japanese place a high value on education. They have referred to themselves as the society of educational credentialism. While educational achievement will remain a source of prestige in Japan, societal expectations for education are changing. Education should enhance personal fulfillment in a society that has more leisure time and an aging population. Schools should cultivate individual talents and creativity in each and every student, while also instilling in them a sense of responsibility to the larger society. It remains to be seen how Japanese educators will actually put these ideals into practice. It is clear, however, that all forms of education in Japan are undergoing diversification and localization, as well as increasing accountability and personal choice.

Tetsuya Kobayashi and Diane Musselwhite

Further Reading

Cutts, Robert L. (1997) An Empire of Schools: Japan's Universities and the Molding of a National Power Elite. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Leestma, Robert, Robert L. August, Betty George, Lois Peak, and Cynthia Hearn Dorfman. (1987) Japanese Education Today. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Lewis, Catherine C. (1995) Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall, Byron K. (1994) Learning to Be Modern: Japanese Political Discourse on Education. San Francisco, CA: Westview Press.

McConnell, David L. (2000) Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture—Government of Japan (Monbusho). (1999) Education in Japan: A Graphic Presentation. Tokyo: Gyosei.

——. (1998) Monbu tokei yoran (Heisei 10 nendo) (Ministry of Education Statistical Handbook). Tokyo: Monbusho.

Okano, Kaori, and Tsuchiya Motonori. (1999) Education in Contemporary Japan: Inequality and Diversity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peak, Lois. (1991) Learning to Go to School in Japan: The Transition from Home to Preschool Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rohlen, Thomas P. (1983) Japan's High Schools. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Shimahara, Nobuo K., and Sakai Akira. (1995) Learning to Teach in Two Cultures, Japan and the United States. New York: Garland.

Shimizu, Kazuhiko, ed. (2000) Kyoiku Data Land. Tokyo: Jijitsushinsha.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403701419