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A typical Japanese classroom

Education is an important issue in Japanese society. These are the three ways that a child is educated in Japan: by attending a public school for a compulsory education, by attending a private school for a compulsory education, or by attending a private school that does not adhere to standards set by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

While high school ("upper secondary education") is not compulsory, more than 90% of the population attends high school. More than 2.5 million students advance to universities and colleges. In the past, the selection process for advancing to higher education had been described as "hellish" and "war-like". But with the number of Japanese children being born declining, the tide has turned the other way. Now schools are having to compete amongst themselves to gather students. However, many children continue to be sent to Juku (cram schools) in addition to state schools.

Education in Japanese society


Japanese tradition stresses respect for society and the established order and prizes group goals above individual interests. Schooling also emphasizes diligence, self-criticism, and well-organized study habits. More generally, the belief is ingrained that hard work and perseverance will yield success in life. Much of official school life is devoted directly or indirectly to teaching correct attitudes and moral values and to developing character, with the aim of creating a citizenry that is both literate and attuned to the basic values of culture and society (see Japanese values).

At the same time, the academic achievement of Japanese students is high by international standards. Japanese children consistently rank at or near the top in successive international tests of most mathematics (see TIMSS). PISA scores for 15 year olds in Japan, 2005: The system is characterized by high enrollment and retention rates throughout. An entrance examination system, particularly important at the university level, exerts strong influences throughout the entire system. The structure does not consist exclusively of government-sponsored, formal official education institutions. Private education also forms an important part of the educational landscape, and the role of schools outside the official school system cannot be ignored, indeed private universities, often with very little emphasis on academics, constitute the majority.

Most children begin their education by attending preschool, although it is not part of the official system. The official structure provides compulsory, free schooling and a sound and balanced education to virtually all children from ages 6 to 15. Upper-secondary school, from grades ages 15 to 18, although not compulsory, attracts about 94 percent of those who complete lower-secondary school. About one-third of all Japanese upper-secondary school graduates advance to tertiary education—to full four-year universities, two-year junior colleges, or to other institutions.

Traditionally, Japan has been a highly education-minded, regimented society. Education was esteemed, and achievement was often the prerequisite for success in work and in society at large. Today's landscape illustrates a different view. With schools competing for enrollment, entrance examinations have become stolid in an attempt to maintain operations. Today, schools often function with enrollment rates far below full capacity. At the public level, this translates into severe funding issues. Schools which were constructed to house 1,000 students sometimes contain less than one-third of that number. Unfortunately, this does not equate to small class sizes. Classrooms commonly accommodate between 35 to 45 students.


Main article: History of Education in Japan

Formal education in Japan began with the adoption of Chinese culture in the 6th century. Buddhist and Confucian teachings as well as sciences, calligraphy, divination and literature were taught at the courts of Asuka, Nara and Heian. Scholar officials were chosen through an Imperial examination system. But contrary to China, the system never fully took hold and titles and posts at the court remained hereditary family possessions. The rise of the bushi, the military class, during the Kamakura period ended the influence of scholar officials, but Buddhist monasteries remained influential centers of learning.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), the daimyō vied for power in the secluded and largely pacified country. Since their influence could not be raised through war, they competed on the economic field. Their warrior-turned-bureaucrat Samurai elite had to be educated not only in military strategy and the martial arts, but also agriculture and accounting. Likewise, the wealthy merchant class needed education for their daily business, and their wealth allowed them to be patrons of arts and science. But temple schools (terakoya) educated peasants too, and it is estimated that at the end of the Edo period 50% of the male and 20% of the female population possessed some degree of literacy. And even though Japan was isolated from foreign contact, the shogunate still imported books from China and Europe, to allow rangaku ("Dutch studies") for a select few.

When Japan was opened during the Meiji Restoration, the adoption of western learning was seen as a way to make Japan a strong, modern nation. Students and even high-ranking government officials were sent abroad to study, such as the Iwakura mission. Foreign scholars, so-called o-yatoi gaikokujin, were invited to teach at newly founded universities and military academies. Compulsory education was introduced, mainly after the Prussian model. Around 1890, only 20 years after the country was opened, Japan had already enough western-educated academics to send most of the foreigners home. At the same time, conservatives called for "Western technology, Japanese soul", to reduce the western influence on Japanese society and to strengthen "Japanese values".

The rise of militarism led to a misuse of the education system to prepare the nation for war. The military even sent its own teachers to schools. After the defeat in World War II, the allied occupation government set an education reform as one of its primary goals, to eradicate militarist teachings and "democratize" Japan. The education system was rebuilt after the American model.

The end of the 1960s were a time of student protests around the world, and also in Japan. The main subject of protest was the Japan-U.S. security treaty. A number of reforms were carried out in the post-war period until today. They aimed at easing the burden of entrance examinations, promoting internationalization and information technologies, diversifying education and supporting lifelong learning.

Formal education in Japan started during the 6th century when they adopted the Chinese culture. They taught sciences, calligraphy divination, literature and religion. An Imperial Examinations system is used to choose the Scholar Officials. However unlike in China posts at the courts were passed down as family possessions. From 1603-1876 the daimyo tried to get power in Japan. They couldn’t do this through power of war so they decided to try through the economic field. The Samurai elite had to also be taught agriculture and accounting on top of military strategies and martial arts. Wealthy merchants also get educated in science and arts. Temple schools also educated peasants. During the Meji restoration western education was adopted to make Japan a strong modern nation. Students and high ranking government officials were sent abroad to study. Foreign scholars were also invited to teach in new universities and military academies. After world war 2 the government set an education reform. During the 1960s there were protests and more reforms and they aimed to make exams easier, diversify education and supporting lifelong learning.

  • Boards of education in Japan
  • Education law of Japan
  • Assistant Language Teacher
  • Eikaiwa
  • Elementary school in Japan
  • Higher education in Japan
  • Imperial universities
  • Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform
  • Juku
  • Language minority students in Japanese classrooms
  • List of schools in Japan
  • List of universities in Japan
  • Preschool and daycare in Japan
  • Saburo Ienaga
  • Scout Association of Japan
  • Secondary education in Japan
  • Education in Vietnam

Further reading

  • Christopher P. Hood, Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone's Legacy, 2001, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-23283-X.

  • David G. Hebert (2005). Music Competition, Cooperation, and Community: An Ethnography of a Japanese School Band. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington. Ann Arbor: Proquest/UMI.
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