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The Japanese Education System

The schooling years in the Japanese education system are segmented along the lines of 6-3-3-4: 6 years
of primary or elementary school; 3 years of middle or junior high school; 3 years of high school; and 4 years of
university. However, the government announced (October 2005, Daily Yomiuri) that it intended to make
changes in the Education Law to allow schools to merge the 6-3 division between elementary and middle
schools and to create an integrated curriculum. The key purpose for this change is to allow elementary and
middle schools to pool or share their resources, with special regard to making available specialist teachers of
middle schools to elementary schools.
Japan has 23,633 elementary schools, 11,134 junior high schools, 5,450 senior high schools, 995 schools
for the handicapped, 702 universities, 525 junior colleges, and 14,174 kindergartens (May 2003 figures). School
attendance rate for the nine years of compulsory education is 99.98%.
About 19.2 million students (MEXT 2012 figures) were enrolled in educational institutions in Japan
from the kindergarten to university levels.
The elementary school curriculum covers Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science, music, arts and
handicrafts, homemaking and physical education. At this stage, much time and emphasis are given to music,
fine arts and physical education.
The Japanese education system is unique and education is the foundation of Japanese society. The
Japanese school system has exclusive and special features and is neither influenced by the American or British
educational system. It is also different from the other Asian systems. It is purely Japanese in essence and nature
and philosophy. The basic purpose is to spread of education so that an educational-based and knowledge society
emerges. Competition comes much later.
Japan introduced universal education for all by 1868. All parents were ordered to send their school age
children to schools. This age group cannot be seen roaming around in streets, markets, parks, and work places.
Police was deployed to arrest any such children along with their parents and send them to prisons.
Japanese school children lead the world in numerical and literacy skills. What mattered was the quality
of lessons given to Japanese children instead of quantity of lessons. The Japanese alphabetic has 46 characters
each of Hiragana and Katagana, making them a total 92 characters. These characters are pictographic and
children need to learn them by heart. School children also learn around 1006 Chinese language characters
known as Kanji. The learning of these characters is the essence of school children’s intelligence.
Children who have their 6th birthday on or before April 1 enter the first grade of elementary school of
that year.
School year starts in April and ends in March.
For Japanese nationals, six years at elementary school and three years at junior high school (total nine years) are
Although foreign nationals are not subject to Japanese compulsory education, they may enter local
elementary/junior high schools if they wish.
Some public elementary, junior high or high schools have developed an environment to accept foreign nationals
and/or Japanese children returning from abroad. Contact the municipal office in the ward (or city, town or
village) where you reside for more information.
After graduating from junior high school, children may choose to continue their education to high school and
then to university or to find employment.
Elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, technology colleges, junior colleges, universities and
graduate schools in Japan are national, public or private institutes.
Special schools are available for physically/mentally-challenged children who may have difficulty in studying
at general schools.
Japan has one of the world's best-educated populations, with 100% enrollment in compulsory grades and
zero illiteracy. While not compulsory, high school (koukou 高校) enrollment is over 96% nationwide and
nearly 100% in the cities. The high school drop out rate is about 2% and has been increasing. About 46% of all
high school graduates go on to university or junior college.
The Ministry of Education closely supervises curriculum, textbooks, and classes and maintains a
uniform level of education throughout the country. As a result, a high standard of education is possible.
A big difference between the Japanese school system and the American School system is that Americans
respect individuality while the Japanese control the individual by observing group rules.
This helps to explain the Japanese characteristic of group behavior.
Did you know that, according to the newest study, children from Japan lead the world in numeracy and
literacy skills? So, what makes the approach of Japanese school system so unique and different from the rest of
the world, and more importantly, what can we learn from it?
How fast can you multiply 21 times 13? One minute, probably. And, what about 123 times 321? More
than one, for sure. Well, Japanese children do it in no time, with a help of several lines. Any kid can do that,
even a five-year-old. They don’t learn numbers by heart. Instead, they draw and play.
You wonder how can it be?
This is because teaching in this country is about the quality of lessons, not quantity.
The class starts with the customary aisatsu (greetings) to the teacher and is followed by his question if
students know how to solve a problem he had previously put up on the board. That day his class is supposed to
learn how to solve equations with multiple fractions and he instructs his fifth-graders how to approach these
math problems.
The first student to finish shots a hand up. The teacher walks over, glances at the problem and circles it
to signal it was correct. The student then gets up and away from his seat. Another hand shot up. But, this time
the first student takes the role of the teacher, or the corrector.
Math is also a type of a language, so why wouldn’t we approach it as if we were learning English,
Japanese or social studies?
The Japanese say that if you teach what you learn, you will remember about 90 percent. If teachers stand
at the board and just lecture, through mere listening, the students will retain far less — say, 40 percent — so it’s
far more effective to have them discussing problems and teaching each other. Also, it’s important to have very
little downtime or rest time and to constantly keep them motivated.
What Do Children Learn in Japanese Schools?
The subjects they study include Japanese, mathematics, science, social studies, music, crafts, physical
education, and home economics (to learn simple cooking and sewing skills). An increasing number of
elementary schools have started teaching English as well. Information technology has been used to further
enhance education, and most schools have internet access.
Students also learn traditional Japanese arts like shodo (calligraphy) and haiku. Shodo involves dipping
a brush in ink and using it to write kanji (characters that are used in several East Asian countries and have their
own meanings) and kana (phonetic characters derived from kanji) in an artistic style.
Haiku, on the other hand, is a form of poetry developed in Japan about 400 years ago that has 17
syllables verse form, consisting of three metrical units of five, seven, and five syllables. It uses simple
expressions to convey deep emotions to readers.
In Japanese schools, the students don’t take any exams until they reach grade four (the age of 10). They
just take small tests. It is believed that the goal for the first 3 years of school is not to judge the child’s
knowledge or learning, but to establish good manners and to develop their character. Children are taught to
respect other people and to be gentle to animals and nature. They also learn how to be generous, compassionate,
and empathetic. Besides this, the kids are taught qualities like grit, self-control, and justice.
While most schools and universities in the world begin their academic year in September or October, in
Japan it is April that marks the start of the academic and business calendar. The first day of school often
coincides with one of the most beautiful natural phenomena — the time of cherry blossom. The academic year
is divided into 3 trimesters: April 1 — July 20, September 1 — December 26, and January 7 — March 25.
Japanese students get 6 weeks of holidays during the summer. They also have two-week breaks in winter and
In Japanese schools, students have to clean the classrooms, cafeterias, and even toilets all by themselves.
When cleaning, students are divided into small groups and assigned tasks that rotate throughout the year. The
Japanese education system believes that requiring students to clean up after themselves teaches them to work in
a team and help each other. Besides, spending their own time and effort sweeping, mopping, and wiping makes
kids respect their own work and the work of others.
The Japanese education system does its best to ensure that the students eat healthy and balanced meals.
In public elementary and junior high schools, the lunch for students is cooked according to a standardized menu
developed not only by qualified chefs but also by health care professionals. All classmates eat in their classroom
together with the teacher. This helps build positive teacher-student relationships.
Almost all junior high schools require their students to wear school uniforms. While some schools have
their own attire, traditional Japanese school uniform consists of a military style for boys and a sailor outfit for
girls. The uniform policy is intended to remove social barriers among students and get them into a working
mood. Besides, wearing school uniform helps to promote a sense of community among the children.
Probably all of us have played truant at least once in our life. However, Japanese students don’t skip
classes, nor do they arrive late for school. Moreover, around 91% of pupils in Japan reported that they never, or
only in some classes, ignored what the teacher lectured. How many other countries can boast such statistics?
At the end of high school, Japanese students have to take a very important exam that decides their
future. A student can choose one college they would like to go to, and that college has a certain score
requirement. If a student doesn’t reach that score they probably don’t go to college. The competition is very
high — only 76% of school graduates continue their education after high school. It’s no wonder that the period
of preparation for entrance to higher education institutions is nicknamed ’examination hell.’
Having gone through ’examination hell,’ Japanese students usually take a little break. In this country,
college is often considered the best years of a person’s life. Sometimes, Japanese people call this period a
’vacation’ before work.
The Education System in Japan
The percentage of students who go on to universities (undergraduate level) and junior colleges (regular
courses) is also very high in Japan at 48.6%. This figure is indicative of the high standard of education in Japan.
Many universities and junior colleges are well equipped with fine research, computer, and library facilities and
enable students to carry out their research in an excellent environment. Many leading figures that are playing an
active role in the world today have the experience of studying in Japan. The network of course mates that you
can build in Japan will undoubtedly become an invaluable asset for your future career.