January Meet Up: Education in Japan

Been awhile since I’ve updated this blog, my apologies.  Just got back from a great vacation, but now it’s time to think critically again!

Every month we center on a particular theme which we discuss twice a month, once in an open group where anyone and everyone can join, and once in a closed group, which allows for a limited number of participants and is for group members only.  This month’s topic was education, particularly at the primary and secondary levels in Japan.  We focused on cram schools, differences between Japanese and Western education and bullying.  We also talked a bit about the history of education in Japan, philosophy of education and people’s personal experiences either attending or working at Japanese schools.

 What is education?

Education is passing knowledge, or skills from one generation to the next through some form of instruction (generally teaching or training). Education usually takes place under the guidance of others, but may also be autodidactic. Education can take place in formal or informal educational settings.

What is the history of education in Japan?

When the Tokugawa period began, few common people in Japan could read or write but by the period’s end, learning had become widespread.   This started around 1600 and ended around the middle of the century.  During the Tokugawa period, the role of many of the samurai, changed from warrior to government bureaucrat, and as a consequence, their formal education and their literacy increased proportionally. Traditional Samurai curricula for elites stressed morality and the martial arts and Confucian classics. Arithmetic and calligraphy were also studied. Education of commoners was generally practically oriented, providing basic 3-Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), calligraphy and use of the abacus. By the 1860s, 40-50% of Japanese boys, and 15% of the girls, had some schooling outside the home. These rates were comparable to major European nations at the time. The Meiji period facilitated Japan’s transition from feudal society to modern nation paying close attention to Western science, technology and educational methods. Reformers set Japan on a rapid course of modernization, with a public education system. The Iwakura mission were sent abroad to study the education systems of leading Western countries. Elementary school enrollment climbed from about 40 or 50 percent of the school-age population in the 1870s to more than 90 percent by 1900, despite strong public protest, especially against school fees. After 1870 school textbooks based on Confucianism were replaced by westernized texts. However by the 1890s, a reaction set in and a more authoritarian approach was imposed. Traditional Confucian and Shinto precepts were again stressed, especially those concerning the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the new state, the pursuit of learning, and morality. In the early 20th century, education at the primary level was egalitarian and virtually universal, but at higher levels it was highly selective and elitist. Occupation policy makers and the United States Education Mission, set up in 1946, made a number of changes aimed at democratizing Japanese education: instituting the six-three-three grade structure (six years of elementary school, three of lower-secondary school, and three of upper-secondary school) and extending compulsory schooling to nine years. They replaced the prewar system of higher-secondary schools with comprehensive upper-secondary schools (high schools). Curricula and textbooks were revised, the nationalistic morals course was abolished and replaced with social studies, locally elected school boards were introduced, and teachers unions established. After the restoration of full national sovereignty in 1952, Japan immediately began to modify some of the changes in education, to reflect Japanese ideas about education and educational administration. The postwar Ministry of Education regained a great deal of power. A course in moral education was reinstituted in modified form, despite substantial initial concern that it would lead to a renewal of heightened nationalism.

What is the Japanese education system like now?

Japanese education has been run as a nation-wide standardized system under the full control of the Ministry of Education. The only alternative option is private schools that have more freedom to offer different curriculum including the choice of textbooks (public schools can use only the government approved textbooks) and foreign languages. However, almost all of these private schools require students to take an entrance examination and pay a high tuition. Japan has a 100% enrollment in compulsory grades and near zero illiteracy. High school enrollment is over 96% nationwide and nearly 100% in the cities even though it is not compulsory. The high school drop-out rate is about 2% but has been increasing. Almost half of high school graduates go on to university or junior college. The average school day on weekdays is 6 hours, one of the longest school days in the world and vacations are 6 weeks in the summer and about 2 weeks each for winter and spring breaks. There is often homework over these vacations.

According to the material I encountered, in elementary school students spend a lot of time on music, art and physical education. In 1959 students started taking moral lessons again, as part of holistic education which is seen as the main task of the elementary school. However, a number of Japanese students said that their personal experiences were different.  For example, they recalled spending more time on academic subjects and not an especially distinct amount of time on physical education, or they didn’t recall taking any classes on morals.

Also, even though the sources I read said that the middle school and high school curriculums still have music, art, physical education, field trips, clubs and home room time, the Japanese who attended the meet up said these things had diminished significantly and were replaced with more academic subjects and learning: Japanese, mathematics, social studies, science, and English. The pace is quick and intense and instruction is structured, fact-heavy and routine-based because teachers have to cover a lot of ground in preparation for high-school entrance examinations. Hierarchical teacher-peer and senior-to-junior relationships as well as highly organized, disciplined and hierarchical work environments such as various established student committees, are observed at middle schools.

There is some evidence that teachers feel it is their duty to develop children “holistically”,  focusing on health, nutrition, sleep, manners and so on.  Again, however, a number of the Japanese people who attended stated that not all of their teachers focused on these things. Students are also taught how to speak politely and how to talk to their teachers and peers appropriately (it differs in Japan).

Is it a good system?  Some critics say very that since creativity and critical thinking are not developed, little learning actually occurs. The education system was designed in an era when most people would finish up high school and work in factories, either in management or labor, which was fine when Japan was industrialized and mass production and consumption drove the economy. But these critics say the world is becoming a post-consumerist, global society where creative ideas and solutions are becoming increasingly important. Japan seems does not seem to be adapting to or possibly even understanding this.

As I perused the internet for critical insights into possible problems in the Japanese education system, I came across the following examples:
1. Lack of competition
Japanese education is often rigid and uniform. In order to be applicable at a public school, approval from the Ministry of Education must be met.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that while this may be the case in theory, in reality a lot of teachers are actually applying diverse methods unbeknownst to the government in practice.  In any case, the diversity of school books and other materials is limited, and there is little room for developing new educational materials and methods.

2. Exam wars

High school, junior high school and increasingly nowadays even elementary school students are spending more time at cram schools and coming home later. A survey has shown that 27% of elementary school students and 64% of junior high school children feel fatigue in their daily lives. Examination wars prevent children from growing up with sound minds, which makes their future of Japan gloomy.  Many people worry that students are thereby forfeiting time needed for play, leisure and the natural development of social skills.
3. The risk of the nationally unified education

Since a government agency decides educational content, if the agency makes a mistake, all schools are forced to go along with it.  On top of this, a system like this is more susceptible to national indoctrination than one which is more diversified.
4. Japanese education rejects individual differences

The students who achieved excellent results in a subject can frequently progress faster or proceed to the next grade in the United States. The absence of a national curriculum allows such flexibility. No educational theory nor educational psychology argues that every child at each grade develops at the same speed.  For instance, none of the Japanese students had heard anything like AP classes or jumping ahead grades like we have in the U.S.
5. Educational system disturbing freedom of thought and education

The description and interpretation of school books on history have been variously argued in Japan. Strictly speaking, there are about 1,200 million Japanese nationals, and accordingly, there must be the same number of historical views since all of them were born at different times in different environments. Today, Japanese schools nationwide teach a unified historical view.  However, one of the Japanese people who attended claimed that she was taught to feel guilty for what Japanese had done in history, while another claimed she was not taught to feel this way about it.

So what are these “cram schools”?

A lot of students nowadays go to cram school, called “juku”. These are specialized schools whose ostensible purpose is to help students prepare for special entrance exams to get into either preferred or more prestigious schools.  According to the Japanese members of our group, these tests are quite strict: students may only select one school and only have one chance to pass the entrance exam, otherwise the next school they will attend will be decided for them.  Japan even has them for entering prestigious private kindergartens.  Some Japanese parents are eager to send their children to such kindergartens, which are also associated with prestigious university, and in most cases guarantee that the students can go on all the way to university. There was a time in Japan, when people relied on private tutors, but private tutors could not cope with the intensifying entrance examination competition. Many students go to juku to prepare themselves to successfully pass entrance examinations. These exams weed out applicants by a rote-learning type of written test and special training is required. The standard education received at school alone is not enough to survive examination war and juku makes the difference. It is not unusual to see children going to juku 2-3 hours a day after school, 3-4 days a week. A fiscal 1993 Ministry of education study found 24% of elementary school children, 50% of junior high school students and 60% of high school students are going to juku. The diploma from first-rated universities is one of the important requirements to get quickly promoted in a job, which is behind this entire obsession. While cram schools are ostensibly for passing these exams, the Japanese people who attended the meeting claimed that they had attended cram school either as an opportunity for making friends, or because they felt pressured to do so because their friends were also doing it.  It has, apparently, become quite the norm to attend at least some cram school, which is not surprising, considering more than half of high schools students do so.

Are cram schools good or bad?

Anne Conduit, author of “Educating Andy. The Experience of a Foreign Family in the Japanese Elementary School System” seems to think it’s a combination of the primary school and the cram school which produces such high achievements in mathematics for the Japanese. Monbusho (Education Ministry), however, seems to think differently. For many parents and students, it seems, they are a necessary part of life. There is disagreement as to whether cram schools are serving an educational needs, or they are responsible for manufacturing such a need.  Whichever the case may be, cram school attendance is on the rise, despite the Ministry of Education’s best efforts.

There are ambivalent attitudes towards the commercial nature of cram schools, as well.  Many feel that their profit-driven motives are detrimental to any actual educational directives.  The necessarily high costs also driven a wedge between have’s and have not’s.  Proponents of cram schools, however, counter by stating that if they did not produce results that parents and students are happy with, they would lose profits, and by virtue of that they must educationally beneficial results or their profits would inevitably drop. The results are easy to measure since they depend on how many graduates pass the examinations for private school. The profit motive, in other words, provides an incentive to create an atmosphere in which students want to learn.  Proponents also point to the rise of jukus as an example of Japanese success, a reflection of a system of meritocratic advancement.

Critics, however, also point out that it is forcing children to surrender their childhood to an adult-like obsession with status and achievement. Others say jukus are hampering a child’s free time to play and develop social skills. It is not healthy to become completely caught up in competition and status at such a young age.  The exam war and intense preparation leading up to entrance exams is said to be the chief cause of stress for most middle class children. Children suffer from study stress, from bullying at school, from the effects of kireru (a sudden, unexpected explosion of hostility or even violence), as well as social withdrawal; “acting in” rather than acting out.

Ijime (Bullying)

Ijime, or bullying has been the most publicly discussed educational problem of the century since a recent wave of suicides beginning in 1994: 11 cases over an 18 month-period. Nationwide, 60,096 incidents of bullying were reported in 1995. Legal affairs bureaus made cases out nearly 4,000 cases of bullying in 2012. The national police agency fully investigated 260 cases of school bullying that year, double that in 2011, the highest in 25 years. The report said 511 students were arrested or taken into custody for bullying, more than twice the year before. The 2004 results of survey showed that about 55% of both girls and boys replied that whenever they witnessed bullying, they pretended not to notice.

According to investigations by MOE’s specialist research group on bullying, 12% of the students were bullied and that 17% inflicted bullying on others. According to this study, any student could be a target of bullying and that bullying occurs among friends and ordinary classmates.  Around half of home room teachers incorrectly thought that their classes had no incidence of bullying. Bullied children were very unlikely to reveal the happenings to their teachers. Only 40% of the bullied thought their teachers knew about the happenings, and 30-50% thought their parents were unaware of the happenings. About 80% of the parents were actually unaware that their children were bullies.

Japanese students are two times less likely to intervene in bullying than their counterparts in other countries (only 1 in 5 said they would). Japanese youth are more ambivalent about the nature of bullying, only 2 out of 3 said you shouldn’t bully. 10.7% of Japanese boys and 3.8% of girls surveyed say they would join in the bullying compared to 5.2% and 2.6% of their respective counterparts in the US. Moving up the grades, bullying tends to change from exclusion to violence. Bullying escalates at middle schools showing up more incidents than at elementary schools, while the opposite trend is observed in other countries.

Some 80% of bullying among school students in Japan qualifies as “collective” violence, meaning entire classrooms vs. a single victim, and 90% of the cases are considered ongoing, lasting more than a week.  Some examples are pretty horrific. One student was taunted, then beaten, then forced to shoplift items for the bullies, and eventually forced to eat dead bees over a period of months. That student sparked a recent national outcry on bullying when he committed suicide at the age of 13. Teachers at the school were aware of the problem, but had only responded with a verbal warning.


  • While Japanese education appears to be superior in its quantitive surface, is it really?  Are the statistics that unusual for education in any developed country?  In addition, are they sufficient for pointing to the Japanese education system for a model of superior education?  What about qualitative measurements?
  • To what extent does Japan’s collectivism influence its educational system and vice versa?  Is holistic education more common in collectivist country than in individualist?  Most of the members who joined this discussion were Western; are we simply biased into thinking that our more progressive educational systems are “superior”?
  • In relation to that, what exactly should a teacher’s roles be?  Students at the primary and secondary level spend arguably most of their time at school, should teachers be responsible for teaching more than just academic knowledge?  Should they be responsible for educating a child holistically?  Isn’t it almost inevitable, given how much time teachers spend with children, that these lessons will be taught, inadvertently or otherwise?
  • Are cram schools really to “blame” for any educational problems, or are the problems more central to educational systems in Japan or even societal issues?
  • While the data seems to indicate that Japanese children’s proposed attitudes towards bullying are not as enlightened as attitudes of children in other societies, does this necessarily point to anything in real life?  Is actual bullying any worse than it is in other countries?  Or is it that educational problems in other countries are much more serious (school shootings, lack of attendance, teen pregnancy, drop-out rate, etc.) so they do not have the resources to focus on bullying like Japan – a country which does not suffer from these more severe issues – does?

Further reading:






Problems with Japanese education:


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