Education in Japan

Education in Japan
Ministry of Education (Japan)
General details
Primary languages Japanese
Total 99.9%[1]
Male 99.9%[1]
Female 99.9%[1]
Primary 10.9 million[2]
Secondary 3.8 million [2]
Post secondary 3.7 million[2]
Secondary diploma 94.3%[3]
Post-secondary diploma 59%[4]

In Japan, education is compulsory at the elementary and lower secondary levels.[5] Most students attend public schools through the lower secondary level, but private education is popular at the upper secondary and university levels.

Education prior to elementary school is provided at kindergartens and day-care centers. Public and private day-care centers take children from under age 1 on up to 5 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. The academic year starts from April and ends in March, having summer vacation in August and winter vacation in the end of December to the beginning of January. Also, there are few days of holidays between academic years. The period of academic year is same all through elementary level to higher educations nationwide.

Japan is one of the top-performing OECD countries in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 540 and has one of the worlds highest-educated labour forces among OECD countries.[3] Its populace is well educated and its society highly values education as a platform for social mobility and for gaining employment in the country's high-tech economy. The country's large pool of highly educated and skilled individuals is largely responsible for ushering Japan’s post-war economic growth. Tertiary-educated adults in Japan, particularly graduates in sciences and engineering benefit economically and socially from their education and skills in the country's high tech economy.[6] Spending on education as a proportion of GDP is below the OECD average. Although expenditure per student is comparatively high in Japan, total expenditure relative to GDP remains small.[7] In 2015, Japan’s public spending on education amounted to just 3.5 percent of its GDP, below the OECD average of 4.7%.[8] In 2014, the country ranked fourth for the percentage of 25- to 64-year-olds that have attained tertiary education with 48 percent. In addition, bachelor's degrees are held by 59 percent of South Koreans aged 25–34, the second most in the OECD after South Korea.[4] As the Japanese economy is largely scientific and technological based, the labor market demands people who have achieved some form of higher education, particularly related to science and engineering in order to gain a competitive edge when searching for employment opportunities. About 75.9 percent of high school graduates attended a university, junior college, trade school, or other higher education institution.[9]

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. The latter law defined the school system that would be in effect for many decades: six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, and two or four years of university. Starting in April 2016, various schools began the academic year with elementary school and junior high school integrated into one nine-year compulsory schooling program, in hopes to mitigate bullying and truancy; MEXT plans for this approach to be adopted nationwide in the coming years.[10]

Although Japan ranks highly on the PISA tests, its educational system has been criticized for its focus on standardized testing and conformity;[11][12] its aforementioned bullying problem;[11][13][14] and its strong academic pressure on students.[15]


Terakoya for girls in the 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18][19]


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.

A number of reforms were carried out in the post-war period. They aimed at easing the burden of entrance examinations, promoting internationalisation and information technologies, diversifying education and supporting lifelong learning.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for educational administration.

In successive international assessment tests, Japan's fourth- and eighth-grade students have consistently ranked in the top five globally in both mathematics and science (see TIMSS).[20][21][22] [23] [24][25][26][27][28][29]

Despite concerns that academic skills for Japanese students may have declined since the mid-1990s,[30] Japan's students showed a significant improvement in math and science scores in the 2011 TIMSS survey, compared to the 2007 scores.[31]

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.[32]

The year structure is summarized in the table below.

Age Grade Educational establishments
6–7 1 Elementary school
(小学校 shōgakkō)
Compulsory Education
Special school
(特別支援学校 Tokubetsu-shien gakkō)
7–8 2
8–9 3
9–10 4
10–11 5
11–12 6
12–13 1 (7th) Junior high school / Lower secondary school
(中学校 chūgakkō)
Compulsory Education
13–14 2 (8th)
14–15 3 (9th)
15–16 1 (10th) 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 (11th)
17–18 3 (12th)
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

(学士 Gakushi)

22–23 Graduate School: Master
(大学院博士課程前期 Daigaku-in Hakushi Katei Zenki)
National Academy: Master
(大学校修士課程 Daigakkō Shūshi katei)
23–24 Master

(修士 Shūshi)

24–25 Graduate School: Ph.D
(大学院博士課程後期 Daigaku-in Hakushi Katei Kōki)
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

(博士 Hakushi)

27– Ph.D

(博士 Hakushi)

Primary 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

Primary education in Japan covers grades seven, eight, and nine; children are generally between the ages of 13 and 15. The number of primary school students in Japan stood at 3.5 million as of 2012, down from over 5.3 million as recently as 1990.[33] The number of junior high schools, meanwhile, has stayed relatively static, falling from 11,275 in 1990 to 10,699 as of 2012, while the number of junior high school teachers has barely budged at all (257,605 junior high school teachers in 1990, 253,753 in 2012). Around 8% of junior high students attend a private junior high, which account for around 7% of all junior high schools. Private schools are considerably more expensive: As of 2012, the average annual cost to attend a private primary school in Japan was 1,295,156 yen (approx. US$10,000 @ Y120.79/$) per student, roughly three times the 450,340 yen ($3728) cost for a public school.[34] Japan's compulsory education ends with grade nine, but less than 2% drop out; the percentage of students advancing to senior high stood at under 60% as of 1960, but rose rapidly to over 90% by 1980, and has continued to rise each year, reaching 98.3% as of 2012.[35]

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 kindergarten students, primary 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 primary 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 primary 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 primary 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.[36] 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.[37]

High school

A typical Japanese high school classroom

Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, 94% of all junior high school graduates entered high schools as of 2005.[38] 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

Higher education in Japan is provided at universities (daigaku), junior colleges (tanki daigaku), colleges of technology (koto senmon gakko) and special training schools and community colleges (senshu gakko). Of these four types of institutions, only universities and junior colleges are strictly considered postsecondary education providers.[39]

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. With a wealth of opportunities for students wishing to pursue tertiary education, the nation’s prestigious schools are the most appealing for students seeking to gain top employment prospects.[39]

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.[40][41]

The QS Asia University Rankings Top 20 included the 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 the University of Tsukuba at 20th.[42]

Based on the 2011 Times Higher Education–QS World University Rankings, there are 33 Japanese universities in the top 100 Asian university rankings.[43]

School violence

A survey by the Education Ministry showed that students at public schools were involved in a record number of violent incidents in 2007: 52,756 cases, an increase of some 8,000 on the previous year. In almost 7,000 of these incidents, teachers were the target of assault.[44]

International education

As of 2016, Japan has 30-40 international schools.[45] There are many Kindergarten type schools that use the word "international" in their names but this is not an indicator that they are Japanese schools in the traditional sense. These types of kindergartens are usually immersion programs for Japanese students and the schools hire mostly unqualified foreigners to act as the main class "teacher" or as an assistant to the Japanese teacher.

See also


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  2. 1 2 3 "Education In Japan". World Education News and Reviews. 1 May 2005. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  3. 1 2 "Education OECD Better Life". OECD. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
  4. 1 2 "OECD.Stat Education and Training > Education at a Glance > Educational attainment and labor-force status > Educational attainment of 25-64 year-olds". OECD.
  5. "Foreign Press Club of Japan Fact Book". Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  6. "Japan" (PDF). OECD. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  7. "Japan" (PDF). OECD. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
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  9. "School Education" (PDF). MEXT. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 2, 2008. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
  10. Jiji Press Staff (June 10, 2016). "Compulsory nine-year school system kicks off in Japan". The Japan Times. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  11. 1 2 Wright, Rebecca (September 1, 2015). "Japan's worst day for teen suicides". CNN. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  12. Harney, Alexandra (January 24, 2013). "Bad Education". The New York Times. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  13. Berlatsky, Noah (November 22, 2013). "Japan's Cutthroat School System: A Cautionary Tale for the U.S.". The Atlantic. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  14. Braunschweiger, Army (May 6, 2016). "Interview: The Bullying of LGBT Kids in Japan's Schools". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved August 30, 2016. "School bullying is notorious in Japan and has been for decades. [...] School policies don't adequately protect these students."
  15. Winner, Rhiannon (December 2, 2015). "Japan's Education Disaster". The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  16. Kelly, Boyd. (1999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Vol. 1, p. 522; De Bary, William et al. (2005). Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol. 2, p. 69.
  17. 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
  18. Kathleen S. Uno, Passages to Modernity: Motherhood, Childhood, and Social Reform in Early Twentieth Century Japan (1999)
  19. Mark Jones, Children as Treasures: Childhood and the Middle Class in Early Twentieth Century Japan (2010)
  20. "TIMSS 2003: 4th grade".
  21. "TIMSS 2003: 4th grade".
  22. "TIMSS 2003: 8th grade". TIMSS.
  23. "TIMSS 2003: 8th grade". TIMSS.
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  26. "TIMSS 2011: 4th grade". TIMSS.
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  28. "TIMSS 2011: 8th grade". TIMSS.
  29. "TIMSS 2011: 8th grade". TIMSS.
  30. Matsutani, Minoru, "Student count, knowledge sliding", Japan Times, 10 January 2012, p. 3.
  31. "Japanese students improve test scores in math, science". Japan Times. Retrieved 19 March 2015.
  32. "Japanese education system". 2002-06-09. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  33. "Education Statistics". Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
  34. "統計表一覧 政府統計の総合窓口 GL08020103". Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
  35. "MEXT : Statistics". Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
  36. Archived February 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  37. "Times get tough for teachers | The Japan Times Online". 2006-03-28. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  38. STATISTICAL ABSTRACT 2006 edition<>
  39. 1 2 Clark, Nick (1 May 2005). "Education in Japan". Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  40. "The Times Higher Education Supplement World University Rankings" (PDF). TSL Education Ltd. 2005-10-28. Retrieved 2007-03-27.
  41. World University Rankings
  42. "Asian University Rankings 2010 - Top 200". Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  43. "China universities dominate top 10 spots in Asian univ rankings". 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2013-01-19.
  44. Getting children to get along. (2008, December 2). The Japan Times, Tokyo.

Further reading

Journal articles, conference papers, and other papers like The Times Colonist:

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