The Japanese Education System

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
29 Apr 2015

If you want to learn about Japanese language and culture, and perhaps even travel to Japan to teach English, get ready for life-changing experiences. My husband and I lived in Japan for ten amazing years, during which I worked for the Department of Defense as a teacher and curriculum coordinator and he taught Japanese nationals in his college classes. It will be my honor to share some of what we discovered about Japanese culture and their educational system.

Our first impression was that the Japanese are focused on education and value it highly. As American teachers, we were pleasantly surprised at the respect and even deference we were shown as teachers and Ph.D.'s just because of our titles and positions. Their focus on education may be a double-edged sword however, pushing some young people to a breaking point and even suicide as the pressure mounts to get into the right schools and to perform in a way that will bring honor to their families.

The Japanese educational system was modeled after the U.S. system after WWII. Students can attend kindergarten or daycare even before they turn one. Elementary school consumes the next six years. There are three years of junior high, followed by three years of upper high school and two to four years of university. Most students complete high school and further their education.

Schools operate long hours five or six days a week, often until 6 p.m. Even if the school doesn't include Saturday classes, there are separate juku schools to accommodate the truly driven students, whether they are driven by their own desires for success or by their families. Before and after school activities keep students very busy. They have very little unstructured free time by design, as the government wants to reduce opportunities for juvenile delinquency and families want their children to get into good schools and have successful careers.

High school begins at the third year of junior high and continues with three years of upper secondary school, encompassing ages 14-18. Although compulsory education stops at grade 9, most students graduate from high school. That's surprising, not only because it contrasts with the U.S., but because public high schools cost around $2,000 per year or more per student and private ones cost at least double that. In contrast, could you imagine the outcry if U.S. parents were asked to directly pay for public secondary education?

In addition to being costly, high school classes are packed with nearly 40 students per classroom, and most classes are conducted using the lecture method. I'm not the only educator to believe that, while the lecture method can be an efficient way to cover subject matter, it's arguably the worst method to learn. The emphasis in Japanese high schools is to cover the subject matter, so they are rather like a train on a track that has a schedule to meet and only one way to get there. The teachers are obligated to cover the curriculum, but the onus is on students to "catch" the knowledge that's thrown their way. This responsibility, placed squarely on the students' shoulders, surely adds to their stress.

The curriculum is standardized for students in the first two years of high school, and all students take the same core courses. The last two years, students following commercial programs are split from those taking general academics, and the courses vary. About 70% of students follow the general academic program for four years where they study English, history and other academic courses. There's some controversy about whether their history books whitewash Japanese actions such as war crimes and imperialism. However, that isn't surprising, as U.S. history textbook authors also have received criticism for not acknowledging contributions by minorities.

Commercial students study fishing, business, English and other subjects for the last two years of high school, which are designed to prepare them to enter the workforce after high school graduation. Many high school academic students go on for two to four years at universities. They face stiff competition to matriculate at the best ones, such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. Additional study for professional degrees totals six years.

Probably the most interesting way to learn the Japanese language and culture is by actually living there. Getting to Japan, however, involves a challenging plane trip. One trip, after many hours in the air, I was extremely tired and disoriented. Getting out of my aisle seat to get to a rest room would have been easy, except for the precariously perched meal tray. To my horror, when I stood up, my tray slid off, flipping food and drink all over the young Japanese businessman next to me. I was mortified and apologized verbally and non-verbally. He appeared nonplussed, carefully cleaning his formerly immaculate suit. All the while, he was calming me, politely bowing and literally and figuratively brushing off the incident as though it had never happened. For me, it was an unforgettable lesson about the Japanese culture.

The Japanese you encounter may well be as almost painfully polite as the one beside me on that plane. That politeness permeates their culture and is very much a part of who they are and everything they do. It's actually another aspect of the all-important issues of saving face and honoring their family. There is an ancient Japanese saying that roughly translates thus: The nail that sticks up gets pounded down. That goes a long way in explaining that the Japanese, a largely homogenous society, strive to blend in with their groups. Slowly the Japanese culture is changing, and younger generations choose to stand out as individuals and be different, but it's unclear how well they are accepted.

What happens with those who are educationally different? Traditionally, special needs students, those who are physically or learning disabled or behaviorally challenged, can attend special schools through age 20. Now special needs students are being "mainstreamed," but are still in self-contained classrooms.

Living in Japan means that you're on the opposite side of the globe, so you'll be sleeping—or trying to—when your friends and family in the U.S. are awake, and vice versa. That's a very good thing to remember when making phone calls, by the way! The radical change in sleeping hours can take a body about two weeks to acclimate. Until then, you may feel a bit foggy and disoriented, which is tough when you want to be immediately at the top of your game. What helped us a lot was stopping over in Hawaii, which is about half way to Japan. A couple of days there drastically reduced our adjustment to time zone changes.

Japan's seasons align with those in the U.S. However, schools in Japan begin in April rather than August or September. An exception is the American schools on bases in Japan, which follow the U.S. schedules, as do some of the more than 200 international schools.

Whether you study about Japan in the U.S. or in Japan, you're in for an adventure. Keep your mind open with respect to the Japanese and enjoy the intellectual excursion.

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