Education system in Japan

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Prior to World War II the Japanese education system was based on that of Germany and France but following the war the Americans changed it to follow their system. The curriculum is strictly set by the state which lays down the time and content for each subject. Although the method of delivery is left to individual teachers many lessons are rigid and unchanging. The government is currently introducing reforms aimed at raising the standards of teaching. School starts at 8.30am and children are normally taught in classrooms of 40-45 students. School is open for 240 days a year and up to five and a half days a week – although the number of Saturdays is declining. The school day normally starts with administrative tasks, carried out in rotation by the students, and ends with “o soji, the cleaning of the school” (Johnson & Johnson 1996) in which all children participate. Subjects taught are primarily mathematics, social studies, Japanese, science, and English. Other subjects include physical education, music, art, and moral studies.

Main stages in Japanese education

Age in years Phase
0-6 Kindergarten (Yochien) Optional but taken up by 63% of entrants to Elementary School in 2000. However this is down 25% over the last ten years. Japanese Government wants to increase availability, particularly to help working mothers. Some kindergarten’s specialize in subjects including English.
6-12 Elementary School (Shogakkou) First stage of compulsory education, many wear a standard uniform with yellow raincoats, baseball caps, umbrellas etc. Nearly all schools are state run – less than 5% are private.
12-15 Junior High School (Chugakkou) Seen as a very important phase in child’s life, preparing them for a good Senior High School. Children often stay late at school for clubs, activities and studies.
15-18 Senior High School (Koukou; koutougakkou) Admittance by entrance exam and is not compulsory for all. Over 25% of Senior Highs are private. “To get a place at the best university means that a student really needs to go to the right senior high school, so the entrance exam can have a major impact on the future career of Japanese students.” (Education Japan website). Some children go to work at 15 and attend part time Senior High School in the evening for 4 years.
18–20 or 22 University or Junior College The reputation of Japanese universities is regarded as being more important than the standard of education received. “A system where firms employ people simply on the basis of what university or school they went to -- Japan's so-called "gakureki" system - and what clubs they joined guarantees weak university education.” (Clark 1996).

Educational alternatives

Juku (Cram Schools)

Around 60% of children attend these, some starting at under 10 years of age. These are extra lessons to push the brighter children and help the poorer ones to catch up. They may result in days of more than 12 hours for some children.

“While this system has produced one of the most impressive levels of literacy and highest standards education in the world, there are those who now question the impact of such pressure on students from such a young age. There are stories of increasing numbers of young adults and children with stress-related disorders, and tales of children withdrawing from society and school are common in the press and as subject-matter for dramas.” (Education Japan website).


Johnson, M.L. & Johnson, J.R. (1996) Daily life in Japanese High School, (Visited 14-July-05) Education Japan website, (Visited 14-July-05) Clark, G. (1996) Changing the education system: Japan needs individualism, initiative and creativity, The Japan Times. (Visited 14-July-05)

Useful links

Battle over morality lessons
A 2001 article from the BBC website suggesting that the traditional education system in Japan is starting to break down. It also contains links to other sites. (Visited 14-July-05)

Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies
A summary of a book Unpacking the Japanese Educational Reform Debate by Bruce Burnett. (Visited 14-July-05)

Japan Guide: Education
A basic summary of Japan’s education system (Visited 14-July-05)