Education in Japan

Education in Japan

Education in Japan
General details
Primary languages Japanese
Total 99.0% [d]
Male 99.9%
Female 99.7%

In Japan, education is compulsory at the elementary and lower secondary levels.[1] Most students attend public schools through the lower secondary level, but private education is popular at the upper secondary and university levels. Japan's education system played a central part in Japan's recovery and rapid economic growth in the decades following the end of World War II.

After World War II, the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law were enacted in 1947 under the direction of the occupation forces. The latter law defined the school system that is still in effect today: six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, two or four years of university.

Education prior to elementary school is provided at kindergartens and day-care centers. Public and private day-care centers take children from under age one on up to five years old. The programmes for those children aged 3–5 resemble those at kindergartens. The educational approach at kindergartens varies greatly from unstructured environments that emphasize play to highly structured environments that are focused on having the child pass the entrance exam at a private elementary school.


  • History 1
    • Meiji Restoration 1.1
    • Post-WWII 1.2
  • School grades 2
    • Junior high school 2.1
    • High school 2.2
    • Universities and Colleges 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Terakoya for girls in Edo period

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.

In the Edo period, the Yushima Seidō in Edo was the chief educational institution of the state; and at its head was the Daigaku-no-kami, a title which identified the leader of the Tokugawa training school for shogunate bureaucrats.[2]

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the daimyō vied for power in the 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. Even though contact with foreign countries was restricted, books from China and Europe were eagerly imported and Rangaku ("Dutch studies") became a popular area of scholarly interest.

Meiji Restoration

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the methods and structures of Western learning were adopted as a means 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, the 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. By 1890, only 20 years after the resumption of full international relations, Japan discontinued employment of the foreign consultants.

A modern concept of childhood emerged in Japan after 1850 as part of its engagement with the West. Meiji period leaders decided the nation-state had the primary role in mobilizing individuals - and children - in service of the state. The Western-style school was introduced as the agent to reach that goal. By the 1890s, schools were generating new sensibilities regarding childhood.[3] After 1890 Japan had numerous reformers, child experts, magazine editors, and well-educated mothers who bought into the new sensibility. They taught the upper middle class a model of childhood that included children having their own space where they read children's books, played with educational toys and, especially, devoted enormous time to school homework. These ideas rapidly disseminated through all social classes.[4][5]


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 was 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 internationalisation and information technologies, diversifying education and supporting lifelong learning.

In successive international tests of mathematics, Japanese children consistently rank at or near the top (see TIMSS).[6] The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for educational administration. Students' academic skills, however, may have declined since the mid-1990s.[7]

School grades

The school year in Japan begins in April and classes are held from Monday to either Friday or Saturday, depending on the school. The school year consists of two or three terms, which are separated by short holidays in spring and winter, and a six week long summer break.[8]

The year structure is summarized in the table below.
Age Grade Educational establishments
6–7 1 Special school
(特別支援学校 Tokubetsu-shien gakkō)
Elementary school
(小学校 shōgakkō)
Compulsory Education
7–8 2
8–9 3
9–10 4
10–11 5
11–12 6
12–13 1 Junior high school / Lower secondary school
(中学校 chūgakkō)
Compulsory Education
13–14 2
14–15 3
15–16 1 High school / Upper secondary school
(高等学校 kōtōgakkō, abbr. 高校 kōkō)
College of technology
(高等専門学校 kōtō senmon gakkō, abbr. 高専 kōsen)
16–17 2
17–18 3
18–19 University: Undergraduate
(大学 daigaku; 学士課程 gakushi-katei)
National Academy
(大学校 daigakkō)
Medical School
(医学部 Igaku-bu)
Veterinary school
(獣医学部 Jūigaku-bu)
Dentistry School
(歯学部 Shigaku-bu)
Pharmaceutical School
(薬学部 Yakugaku-bu)
National Defense Medical College
(防衛医科大学校, Bōei Ika Daigakkō)
Community College
(短期大学 Tanki-daigaku, abbr. 短大 tandai)
Vocational School
(専門学校 Senmon-gakkō)
19–20 Associate
21–22 Bachelor
22–23 Graduate School: Master
(大学院修士課程 Daigaku-in Shūshi Katei)
National Academy: Master
(大学校修士課程 Daigakkō Shūshi katei)
23–24 Master
24–25 Graduate School: Ph.D
(大学院博士課程 Daigaku-in Hakushi Katei)
National Defense Academy: Ph.D
(防衛大学校博士課程 Bōei Daigakkō Hakushi katei)
Medical School: Ph.D
(医学博士 Igaku Hakushi)
Veterinary School: Ph.D
(獣医学博士 Jūigaku Hakushi)
Dentistry School: Ph.D
(歯学博士 Shigaku Hakushi)
Pharmaceutical School: Ph.D
(薬学博士 Yakugaku Hakushi)
26–27 Ph.D
27–28 Ph.D

Junior high school

International educational scores (latest, 2007)
(8th graders average score, TIMSS
International Math and Science Study, 2007)
Maths Science
Rank Score Rank Score
 Singapore 1 3 593 1 567
 Taiwan 2 1 598 2 561
 South Korea 3 2 597 4 553
 Japan 4 5 570 3 554
 Hong Kong 5 4 572 9 530
 Hungary 6 6 517 6 539
 England 7 7 513 5 542
 Czech Republic 8 11 504 7 539
 Russia 9 8 512 10 530
 Slovenia 10 12 501 8 538
 United States 11 9 508 11 520
 Lithuania 12 10 506 12 519
 Australia 13 14 496 13 515
 Sweden 14 15 491 14 511
 Armenia 15 13 499 17 488
 Italy 18 19 480 16 495

Maths Highlights from TIMSS 2007
Science Highlights from TIMSS 2007

A typical classroom in a Japanese junior high school

The lower secondary school covers grades seven, eight, and nine, and children between the ages of roughly 12 and 15, with increased focus on academic studies. Although it is still possible to leave the formal education system after completing junior high school and find employment, fewer than 4% did so by the late 1980s.

Like elementary schools, most junior high schools in the 1980s were public, but 5% were private. Private schools were costly, averaging 558,592 yen (US$3,989) per student in 1988, about four times more than the 130,828 yen (US$934) that the ministry estimated as the cost for students enrolled in public junior high school.

Teachers often majored in the subjects they taught, and more than 80% graduated from a four-year college. Classes are large, with thirty-eight students per class on average, and each class is assigned a homeroom teacher who doubles as counselor. Unlike elementary students, junior high school students have different teachers for different subjects. The teacher, however, rather than the students, moves to a new room for each fifty or forty-five minute period.

Instruction in junior high schools tends to rely on the lecture method. Teachers also use other media, such as television and radio, and there is some laboratory work. By 1989 about 45% of all public junior high schools had computers, including schools that used them only for administrative purposes. All course contents are specified in the Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools. Some subjects, such as Japanese language and mathematics, are coordinated with the elementary curriculum. Others, such as foreign-language study, begin at this level, though from April 2011 English became a compulsory part of the elementary school curriculum. The junior school curriculum covers Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health, and physical education. All students are also exposed to industrial arts and homemaking. Moral education and special activities continue to receive attention. Most students also participate in one of a range of school clubs that occupy them until around 6pm most weekdays (including weekends and often before school as well), as part of an effort to address juvenile delinquency.

A growing number of junior high school students also attend juku, private extracurricular study schools, in the evenings and on weekends. A focus by students upon these other studies and the increasingly structured demands upon students' time have been criticized by teachers and in the media for contributing to a decline in classroom standards and student performance in recent years.

The ministry recognizes a need to improve the teaching of all foreign languages, especially English. To improve instruction in spoken English, the government invites many young native speakers of English to Japan to serve as assistants to school boards and prefectures under its Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Beginning with 848 participants in 1987, the program grew to a high of 6,273 participants in 2002.[9] The program was in a decline in recent years due to several factors, including shrinking local school budgets funding the program, as well as an increasing number of school boards hiring their foreign native speakers directly or through lower-paying, private agencies. Today, the program is again growing due to English becoming a compulsory part of the elementary school curriculum in 2011.[10]

High school

A high school class in 1963

Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, 94% of all junior high school graduates entered high schools as of 2005.[11] Private upper-secondary schools account for about 55% of all upper-secondary schools, and neither public nor private schools are free. The Ministry of Education estimated that annual family expenses for the education of a child in a public upper-secondary school were about 300,000 yen (US$2,142) in the 1980s and that private upper-secondary schools were about twice as expensive.

The most common type of upper-secondary school has a full-time, general program that offered academic courses for students preparing for higher education as well as technical and vocational courses for students expecting to find employment after graduation. More than 70% of upper-secondary school students were enrolled in the general academic program in the late 1980s. A small number of schools offer part-time programs, evening courses, or correspondence education.

The first-year programs for students in both academic and commercial courses are similar. They include basic academic courses, such as Japanese language, English, mathematics, and science. In upper-secondary school, differences in ability are first publicly acknowledged, and course content and course selection are far more individualized in the second year. However, there is a core of academic material throughout all programs.

Vocational-technical programs includes several hundred specialized courses, such as information processing, navigation, fish farming, business, English, and ceramics. Business and industrial courses are the most popular, accounting for 72% of all students in full-time vocational programs in 1989.

Most upper-secondary teachers are university graduates. Upper-secondary schools are organized into departments, and teachers specialize in their major fields although they teach a variety of courses within their disciplines. Teaching depends largely on the lecture system, with the main goal of covering the very demanding curriculum in the time allotted. Approach and subject coverage tends to be uniform, at least in the public schools.

Training of disabled students, particularly at the upper-secondary level, emphasizes vocational education to enable students to be as independent as possible within society. Vocational training varies considerably depending on the student's disability, but the options are limited for some. It is clear that the government is aware of the necessity of broadening the range of possibilities for these students. Advancement to higher education is also a goal of the government, and it struggles to have institutions of higher learning accept more students with disabilities.

Universities and Colleges

As of 2010, more than 2.8 million students were enrolled in 778 universities. At the top of the higher education structure, these institutions provide a four-year training leading to a bachelor's degree, and some offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree. There are two types of public four-year colleges: the 86 national universities (including the Open University of Japan) and the 95 local public universities, founded by prefectures and municipalities. The 597 remaining four-year colleges in 2010 were private.

The overwhelming majority of college students attend full-time day programs. In 1990 the most popular courses, enrolling almost 40 percent of all undergraduate students, were in the social sciences, including business, law, and accounting. Other popular subjects were engineering (19 percent), the humanities (15 percent), and education (7 percent).

The average costs (tuition, fees, and living expenses) for a year of higher education in 1986 were 1.4 million yen (US$10,000). To help defray expenses, students frequently work part-time or borrow money through the government-supported Japan Scholarship Association. Assistance is also offered by local governments, nonprofit corporations, and other institutions.

According to The Times Higher Education Supplement and École des Mines de Paris, the top-ranking universities in Japan are the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University.[12][13]

The QS Asia University Rankings Top 20 included University of Tokyo at 5th position, Osaka University at 7th, Kyoto University at 8th, Tohoku University at 9th, Nagoya University at 10th, Tokyo Institute of Technology at 11th, Kyushu University at 17th and University of Tsukuba at 20th.[14]

Based on 2011 Times Higher Education - QS World University Rankings, there are 33 Japanese Universities in the top 100 Asian University Rankings.[15]

See also


  1. ^ "Foreign Press Club of Japan Fact Book". Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  2. ^ Kelly, Boyd. (1999). Vol. 1, p. 522;Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, De Bary, William et al. (2005). Vol. 2, p. 69.Sources of Japanese Tradition,
  3. ^ Brian Platt, "Japanese Childhood, Modern Childhood: The Nation-State, the School, and 19th-Century Globalization," Journal of Social History, Summer 2005, Vol. 38 Issue 4, pp 965-985
  4. ^ Kathleen S. Uno, Passages to Modernity: Motherhood, Childhood, and Social Reform in Early Twentieth Century Japan (1999)
  5. ^ Mark Jones, Children as Treasures: Childhood and the Middle Class in Early Twentieth Century Japan (2010)
  6. ^ "PISA scores for 15 year olds in Japan, 2005:". Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  7. ^ Matsutani, Minoru, "Student count, knowledge sliding", Japan Times, 10 January 2012, p. 3.
  8. ^ "Japanese education system". 2002-06-09. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  9. ^ [1]
  10. ^ "Times get tough for teachers | The Japan Times Online". 2006-03-28. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  11. ^ STATISTICAL ABSTRACT 2006 edition
  12. ^ "The Times Higher Education Supplement World University Rankings" (PDF). TSL Education Ltd. 2005-10-28. Retrieved 2007-03-27. 
  13. ^ World University Rankings
  14. ^ "Asian University Rankings 2010 - Top 200". Retrieved 2013-01-19. 
  15. ^ "Japanese universities dominate top 10 spots in Asian univ rankings". 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2013-01-19. 

Further reading

  • De Bary, William Theodore, Carol Gluck, Arthur E. Tiedemann. (2005). Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press. 10-ISBN 0-231-12984-X/13-ISBN 978-0-231-12984-8; OCLC 255020415
  • Hebert, David G. (2011). Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools. Springer press, 2011.
  • Hood, Christopher P. Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone's Legacy, 2001, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-23283-X.
  • Kelly, Boyd. (1999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Vol. 1. London: Taylor & Francis. 10-ISBN 1-884964-33-8/13-ISBN 978-1-884964-33-6
  • Uno, Kathleen S. (1999). Passages to Modernity: Motherhood, Childhood, and Social Reform in Early Twentieth Century Japan. Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-1619-3, ISBN 978-0-8248-2137-1.

External links

  • Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
  • Information on education in Japan, OECD - Contains indicators and information about Japan and how it compares to other OECD and non-OECD countries
  • Diagram of Japanese education system, OECD - Using 1997 ISCED classification of programmes and typical ages. Also in country language