The apparent superiority of Japanese schools is one of the factors that has made Japan a powerhouse in the world economy. Japan educates two times the number of engineers per capita than does the United States. Even more significantly, the average factory worker in Japan tends to be more skilled and disciplined, knows more math and science, and understands more about technology than the average American factory worker.
How does Japan do it? One driving force in the lives of school children in Japan is a series of school entrance examinations starting at the junior high level. These tests literally make or break a young person's future in Japan. From preschool onward through high school, most Japanese young people go to school focused on one single-minded purpose: to pass the entrance tests which will enable them eventually to end up with a good job in business or government. Diane Ravitch, an American educator who has observed Japanese schools, puts it this way: "The Japanese succeed in schooling their population because they take education seriously."
Teaching to the Test
Following World War II, both private employers and the Japanese government began to rely heavily on college graduates to rebuild the country. Japanese families soon realized that for their sons and (to a much lesser degree) their daughters to land high-status and high-paying jobs, they would have to get into college, preferably one of the handful of top-rated universities. Today, the competition for admission into four-year colleges in Japan is intense. Over a million high school graduates each year apply for about half that many university spaces.
The system works like this. Parents put their children in school as soon as possible. Almost all Japanese children are enrolled in preschool by age five. After that, the first six elementary grades are geared toward preparing the student for the junior high school entrance examination. Japanese parents know that the junior and senior high schools, as well as the universities, are informally ranked from superior to mediocre. A high score on the junior high entrance test for students in their final year of elementary school will help a student be admitted into a top-ranked junior high school. This, in turn, will increase the student's chances for doing well on the high school entrance exam three years later. Getting into a highly rated, academic high school places the student in position for mastering the all-important entrance test of one of Japan's prestigious universities. To have a child attend a first-rate university is the prime goal of many parents.
If the student makes it into a top school like the University of Tokyo, his or her future is virtually guaranteed. Japan's corporate and government employers traditionally look only at the name of an individual's university when hiring college graduates. Everything depends on the university entrance tests and the schooling that leads up to them.
Japanese elementary and secondary students go to school for 240 days a year, including Saturday mornings. There is no ability grouping or tracking through the ninth grade. The emphasis on equal treatment changes dramatically after the high school entrance exam. The top two-thirds of the ninth grade graduates are admitted (according to their test scores) to public and private academic high schools. Junior high graduates from the bottom third of their class either go to vocational high schools or, in a small number of cases, directly to work.
In Japan, there is a single national public school system. (In the United States public schools are operated by thousands of separate school districts.) The Japanese Ministry of Education decides what will be taught to all students, selects textbooks, and sees to it that schools are properly funded. Public education is free through the ninth grade. Public high schools charge a tuition of about $550 per year. All teachers are paid by the national government and earn higher average salaries than American instructors. Moreover, teachers themselves are drawn from the upper third of university graduates and have high status in Japan.
All Japanese students study the same carefully sequenced subjects, leaving little time for electives or teacher creativity. The subject matter must be covered thoroughly if students are going to be ready for the difficult school entrance tests. Students spend a quarter of their class time studying the Japanese language, which includes three separate writing systems. They devote another quarter of their time to concentrating on math and science.
Japanese students are generally well-disciplined. In most cases, they wear school uniforms and stand and bow when their teacher enters the classroom.
The textbook, teacher lecture, and student memorization dominate classroom instruction in academic high schools. There is little time for class discussions or innovative teaching methods. Instead, students focus on mastering the factual information that they will have to know for the university entrance exams. This includes basic knowledge of a foreign language, usually English.
Most Japanese teenagers going to academic high schools do not date, drive cars, or hold part-time jobs. Pressured by parents and the approaching university exams, they usually spend their time after school studying. When test time arrives during February and March of their senior year, high schoolers become consumed with exam preparation. They even have a saying: "Sleep four hours, pass; sleep five hours, fail."
Japanese parents typically believe that regular schools cannot adequately prepare their children for the crucial school entrance tests. Consequently, many parents send their sons and daughters to juku, the 40,000 privately operated Japanese "cram schools." About 70 percent of elementary and junior high children attend juku, often for two or more hours after regular school.
Parents spend $2,000 to $4,000 a year on juku trying to give their children an edge when test time comes. The great majority of the students attending juku are boys. Japan is still a male-dominated society where women are expected to be wives and mothers rather than corporate executives or government bureaucrats.
There are also juku for university entrance examination preparation. About 10 percent of the high school students attend. These students are joined by thousands of youths who failed the previous year's exams and are preparing for a second or even a third try. They are known as ronin, after the masterless samurai (warriors) who once roamed feudal Japan.
The guiding spirits behind schooling and cramming are typically the students' mothers. Called kyoiku mamas ("education mothers"), they go to great lengths to help their children pass the entrance tests. Kyoiku mamas pack exquisite school lunches, meet regularly with teachers, sometimes work part-time to get money to pay for a cram school, and even sit in on classes missed by a sick child.
Japanese Critical of School System
Despite the obvious successes of the Japanese school system, there are criticisms. Parents and teachers complain that too much pressure is put on Japanese children and teenagers. Also, the emphasis on memorizing masses of often meaningless facts prevents Japanese youngsters from developing their creative talents, learning to think on their own, or expressing themselves.
Ironically, after all the effort focusing on school and test preparation, only about a third of all Japanese high school graduates actually end up going to college (contrasted with 60 percent in the United States). Of even greater concern is what happens once a young person reaches the university level. Others voice concern about the overly rigid discipline of the Japanese system. Detailed rules—formal and informal—govern every aspect of school life including dress, hair style, behavior, and even outside activities. The rules and standards are often enforced by teachers humiliating and brow beating students. Corporal punishment is also widespread. Traditionalists defend these practices as a necessary part of schooling. Critics worry that the system brutalizes students into stagnant conformity. Of even greater concern is what happens once a young person reaches the university level. Tests are few, term papers are rare, and hardly anyone flunks. Most students view college as a time of leisure and for catching up on dating and other youthful activities they missed while struggling to get into a university. After all, it is the university diploma itself, not what a student learned, that is the ticket to success in Japan. As a result, university education is often noted as the weak link in the whole system.
In 1984, a major Japanese newspaper opinion poll revealed that over 80 percent of the people wanted significant changes or the outright abolition of the school entrance-exam system. Although the government has been slow to respond, education reforms are beginning to take place. Until they are in place, most parents still continue to push their children in school and send them to juku. To do otherwise, they say, would jeopardize their children's future.
The Reform Movement
As a result of such criticism, a movement calling for the reform of the Japanese school system has gained great momentum in Japan. As early as 1960, the Central Council for Education in Japan called for the creation of a school system promoting greater diversity and independent thinking. Since then, the Japanese school system has been under constant attack for its emphasis on standardization, conformity, and testing. Some have argued that the rigidity of the system explains the fact that the Japanese drop-out rate increased during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Nakasone created the National Council on Educational Reform in order to address some of these criticisms. The council conducted several studies and supported a policy nurturing creativity, decentralization, and moral education in schools. The council reasoned that the increasing complexity of the economic and technological fields will require workers to possess greater flexibility, responsiveness, and creativity in the future.
While these reforms are yet to be enacted, the pendulum is swinging toward more freedom and flexibility in Japanese education. At the same time, the U.S. educational system, which has historically comprised a greater degree of freedom and flexibility than the Japanese system, is responding to criticisms calling for more standardized curriculum and testing.
For Discussion and Writing
- In what ways are the Japanese and American school systems different from one another?
- Are you convinced that the Japanese school system is better than the one in the United States? Give reasons for your answer.
- Thomas Rohlen, an American anthropologist who has studied Japanese high schools, makes this observation: "If the Japanese suffer from too much standardization and routine, American high schools suffer from lack of focus." Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain.
For Further Information
Education in Japan An illustrated report from Fulbright scholar Peggy Steffens from a trip to Japan in November 2000.
Education in Japan Another report from an educator visiting Japan.
Experience a Day in a Student's Life in Higashiharima A dialog and photo essay.
Links From the National Clearinghouse for Japan-U.S. Studies. Highlights include:
Japan: A Web Guide: Education A quick breakdown of the educational system, teachers, and curriculum.
To Sum It Up: Case Studies in Education in Germany, Japan, and the United States From the U.S. Department of Education.
Japanese Education Today: This U.S. department of Education web page describes in great detail the nature of the Japanese educational system throughout history.
Japan Echo An Interactive Journal of Informed Opinion
Exam Wars, Prepping and Other Nursery Crimes From the New York Times.
Japanese Government Policies in Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology 2001: Educational Reform for the 21st Century A report from the Japanese Ministry of Education.
Education System An in-depth look from Japan Insight.
Japan Education Guide A complete listing of all the colleges and universities in Japan.
English Education in Japan An account of some of the problems with how Japan teaches English.
Foreign Press Center: Japan Good source of current information on Japan.
A C T I V I T Y
Should We Adopt Japanese Educational Ideas?
Below is a list of ideas from the Japanese education system. Which of them do you think we should adopt to improve education in the United States? Meet in small groups. Discuss each Japanese educational idea and decide whether the United States should adopt it. Prepare to report your group's conclusions to the rest of the class.
Japanese Educational Ideas
- Preschool for all children
- Compulsory education through ninth grade
- Free public school education through ninth grade; tuition required for public high school
- 240-day school year
- Half-day of school on Saturdays
- One national education system requiring a standardized curriculum and the same textbooks in all public schools
- Higher pay for teachers who must graduate from upper third of their college class
- No ability grouping through ninth grade
- More required courses and fewer electives
- More emphasis on English, math, and science
- All high school students must study a foreign language
- More emphasis on textbook reading, teacher lectures, and student memorization
- All students must wear school uniforms
- Informal ranking from superior to mediocre of all junior highs, senior highs, and universities.
- Admission to junior high, senior high, and college based entirely on entrance examination scores
- Top two-thirds of junior high graduates go to academic high schools; bottom third go to vocational high schools or work
- Private cram schools (tuition paid by parents)
- University studies relatively easy