The Ideal Teacher in Anime

In this paper, I look at what children in Japan think is the ideal teacher – as reflected in popular anime. Looking at children’s ideal visions highlights some of the problems that children face today in getting educated, and by extension, some of the deficiencies in the education system, and some deficiencies in teaching.

I look at this from a number of different angles: first, I take into account some of the surveys that have been done by other researchers about student satisfaction with the classroom and with their teachers. I also draw upon my own experiences in teacher training in Japan. As far as I know, I was the first white person to have obtained the teaching diploma and teacher training in Japan that qualified me to be a high school teacher. I have been lecturing on the subject of Japanese popular culture and in particular anime, and I am now writing a book about themes in Japanese anime. In this paper, I look at the image of the ideal teacher in anime, concentrating on one highly popular anime, GTO, short for Great Teacher Onizuka.

Great Teacher Onizuka is about a former motorbike gang leader who decides to change his life and become a teacher. He scrapes through school and university teacher training courses. The drama starts with him doing the compulsory teacher training that all potential teachers must do as part of their university course.

Japanese Education

Japanese education has attracted interest from two sides: first as a model of good education and secondly, as a model of bad.

Firstly Japan is praised for achieving high quality education for most of its youth with almost 100 percent of students graduating from middle school, and
In some subjects, particularly mathematics they dominate in international competition.

On the other hand, the education system is known to be full of pressures on the students, with high youth suicide rates and a culture of bullying

In elementary school – 6 years of compulsory education – children are treated equally and there is strong encouragement to socialize within groups and discover the benefits of cooperative teamwork. Underachievers are included in the group and not allowed to fall behind. As in many other groups situations in Japan, furniture is arranged to facilitate the emphasis on groups, with children seated in small groups of inward facing arrangements, much like the ones arranged year by year for teachers commonly in staff rooms, and much the same as company seating arrangements they may meet in later life.

Repetition is very common and children are expected to learn by rote, rather than by independent discovery through projects although new approaches are being introduced now, including creative use of computers from primary school onwards.

Both primary and middle school education is focused on building children’s characters. “Introduction: Japanese theories of learning” by Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald Letendre from G.K. Letendre, Teaching & Learning in Japan
Eight subjects are taught including Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, fine arts, health and physical education, industrial arts and homemaking are taught weekly. Elective subjects may also be offered but the concentration is very much on obtaining an all round education equally for all who take part in the system.

The majority of students (and teachers) also take part in extracurricular activities.

“Introduction: Japanese theories of learning” by Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald Letendre from G.K. Letendre, Teaching & Learning in Japan
after school everyday including both sports (baseball, tennis etc), hobbies such as Japanese chess or computer, and interests such as English language. The clubs are a prime opportunity for peer group socialization and social education and form the main arena for students to learn the seniority relationships that are so important to Japanese society.

High School consists of 3 years, and the school week of 34 hours of lesson time; all of these scheduled classes with a teacher present and teaching. There are no independent study periods in general.

Classes are very large with 40-45 students to a teacher, and most of the time is devoted to study with the express purpose of passing exams, especially towards the all-important university entrance exams.

The university exam system sets an objective for students – to excel academically in competition with others – that is sharply at odds with the idealistic vision of high school education to educate all equally.

University entrance exams are comprised of two days of compulsory and elective subjects. Compulsory subjects include Mathematics, English and Japanese. Science, medicine and engineering students only take one social science topic, while humanities, social sciences and law students are allowed to escape the most difficult mathematics section. Exams are invariably multiple-choice questions, with only some short written answers and the emphasis in the education system is invariably towards rote learning.

Juku – or after school tutoring establishments – “cram schools” – are another result of the concentration on university entrance exams. These aim to cover the shortfall between the idealistic high school education and preparing students to actually pass the competitive high school exams. Because classes in public schools are organized according to age and not intellectual ability, students must go to cram school if they want to be taught in a stream lined system that advances them according to intellectual merit. Juku are used, therefore, for two purposes: to let students who have fallen behind in the classroom catch up to their peers, and to allow students who are working beyond their classes to push themselves further.

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Juku are more like an intellectual boot camp where public schools have more of an emphasis on providing an idealized education uniformly to all citizens. The high numbers of students who do attend juku testify to the pressures on students to excel and to pass the university exams.

In all, the Japanese education system reflects values common in Japanese society: that all people are born equal with equal chances to attain good results. Success is commonly seen as the result of effort, rather than innate talent or inborn IQ. There are resonances in the society as a whole of the Buddhist values of perseverance, discipline and hard work. Applying oneself to the task in hand with perseverance is believed to be an important ingredient in attaining social maturity and spiritual development and it is by mastering self-discipline that the individual attains success in life.

Problems with the Japanese Education system – Bullying

The reverse side of the concentration on the group,. Rote learning and discipline is how the group deals with individuality and non-conformtiy. The darker side of the Japanese education system is the persistence presence of bullying.

Bullying has been widely reported in the media especially from the 80s onwards and there has been especial attention drawn to a number of youth suicides that have been the direct result of bullying (ijime). Bullying is the victimization of a child by another, usually ‘stronger’ or ‘more powerful’ other, implies the helplessness of the victim and the likelihood that the bullying is carried out over a period of time.

In Japan, bullying is usually a group rather than an individual action. Collective violence exercised against a single victim is common. Bullies may form a circle around a victim and kick and punch them. Burning cigarettes (konjoyaki) may be extinguished against victim’s skin, or money may be extorted from victims (katsuage).

A particularly cruel treatment is one called shikato, or ignoring the victim completely. In particularly bad cases, the victim may be ignored by their entire class for extensive periods of time.

Bullying victims

Bullies claim that their victims are irritating and get on their nerves. The victims are often nothing more than different in some way and stand out from others. Often they are incapable of conforming, whether deliberate or not. They are often weak, and only on the margins of the social group. They may exhibit socially non-conformist behaviour or just be different, with a physical handicap or handicap such as learning ability. They may be naturally timid, or even of ethnic minority or mixed race. The Japanese class can be extremely unforgiving about very small differences. (Starr 1994). The role that teachers play in this bullying is also somewhat ambiguous. In some cases, teachers are not aware of the bullying; in other cases reported in the papers, teachers have actively contributed to it.

Some have suggested that bullying is a natural way in Japanese society to encourage the “nail that sticks out to be hammered down”, as one old Japanese saying goes.

Youth suicides

Youth suicides are often linked to exam pressure, and more often to bullying. (Yoneyama 1999).

Often suicide notes reveal that students have been bullied for extended periods of time with no real place to go for help. Bullying is surrounded by stigma on all sides. Parents feel unable to speak to the schools without making the situation worse by having their children stand out for complaining, teachers feel helpless to do much in large classes where they cannot always see what is going on and teachers, as I have said, are often ambiguous about how far bullying is normal pressure among students towards conformity, and where it turns into unacceptable behaviour.

Incidents where teachers have excercised corporal punishment have been widely reported by the papers. This is also an ambiguous situation where a tradition exists in Japanese society of “tough love” training, especially in sports clubs. Where the line is drawn between actively encouraging students to push themselves to their best potential, and actively bullying them into despair, is hard to tell.

It is further difficult to make cultural judgments about the exercise of group pressure on the individual in Japan when one recalls that in the traditional company the individual is likely to meet psychological bullying and needs to be able to cope with that. It is not an accident that the traditional white collar company preferred to take on graduates from traditional sports clubs or taiikukai because they were known to be able to take discipline and understand hierarchy.

We do at least need to raise the question, and consider it seriously, of to what degree bullying is a product not of Japanese schools, but of Japanese society.


It is also telling of recent changes in Japan that such graduates have fallen out of favor with large companies now who are looking for employees with specialist skills in business and value corporate behaviour less than skills that are more suited to flexible work patterns and newly evolving international styles of business.

It is true that the majority of youth suicides are those that have fallen behind in the competitive education system and are academically weaker students.

School Phobia

A particular issue in Japan recently is school phobia, hikikomori, or refusal to go to school. Often these students have been traumatized by bullying one way or another.
Other times, the students feel alienated by the rote, bureaucratic and sometimes impersonal Japanese education system where it can be easy for a troubled child to escape notice and help.

Okano (1999) compares bullying in America and Japan and concludes that although bullying is universal, bullying in Japan has uniquely Japanese characteristics. Bullying in Japan is more likely to be carried out by a group, and once bullying begins, other students are less likely to intervene to help the victim than in the US.

Bullied students commonly begin to hate school and are more likely to refuse to attend school. Thirdly, Japanese students seem to be more ambivalent about the right or wrong of bullying than American students. (Tsuchiya Okano 1999).

There are large numbers of school refusals in Japan with estimates of up to 26,000 elementary and 106,000 junior high students refusing to go to school.
There is some help to get these refusers back into school with government provided self-help groups or night schools that teach a slower-paced curriculum than regular schools allowing the students to complete in 4 years rather than the normal three.

Interestingly, from comments posted on the internet by these students ( ), many of them are quite clearly non-conformist personalities who have been hugely restricted in the Japanese rigid education system, even if they have not actively experienced bullying.

Complaints of these students against their teachers are very much focused on the failure of teachers to listen to their students.

Practically, though, it is very rare for such students to really get re-integrated back into the school system. And once they drop out they may not re-integrate at all, ending up in low-paying jobs, or as recluses who are parasites on their parents. Of course, the fear that once out of the system one can never get back in again is a substantial fear and pressure on students who feel they are slipping behind. Hikikomori or social withdrawal syndrome is common (some estimates say up to a million people (Japan’s Lost Generation, Ryu Murakami ( and there are no signs of it abating.

Japanese Values

In Japan, the development of a strong character and virtue as a person is seen as a prerequisite of success (Rohlen). Confucian-based virtues are held dear, and there is a strong emphasis on diligence and perseverance. In the sphere of education, hard work is seen as crucial to eventual success. The other side of the coin, for the unfortunates who do not do well in school, is that failure to succeed is seen as lack of effort, diligence and perseverance.

Education has a strong basis in meritocracy and regards all children as being fundamentally equal – blank slates – with equal potential to succeed. Innate ability and potential are rarely considered. This thinking puts great pressure onto both students and teachers who feel that they “should” be able to succeed, and have no explanation for the cases where they do not succeed beyond self-blame.

Secondly, success as a person and as an adult is very much tied in with the ability to work well in groups (Rohlen ). The ability to successfully negotiate the pitfalls of human relationships and to maintain harmony is very much valued. Much effort in the education system both formal and informal is put in towards these ends. And much informal interaction between students, especially in clubs, is crucial towards developing the ability of the individual student to be able to cope with societal demands later.

Even from primary school there is a strong emphasis on developing harmony in the classroom rather than developing individual skills at the risk of developing imbalance of abilities in the classroom. Conflict is shunned and failure to achieve harmony becomes a group problem.

In a society with a very high level of outward cohesion as Japan, any deviance is greatly feared for its potential to disrupt harmony and cohesiveness.


Much debate has happened around the concept amae, introduced by Doi, to describe a fundamental value in Japanese society. Amae describes the desire to be passively loved, and is the central human relationship in Japan, especially characterized by the relationship between mother and child.

In later life, amae is evident in the vertical relationships between the nurtured and the nurturing, between seniors and juniors, between teachers and students, between bosses and workers. Amae is a crucial motivating factor, in that people are much more likely to act for someones sake – for the sake of a senior – than for themselves.

We can see this very much in action in GTO. GTO is the role model who shows students how they should act, but then leaves it ultimately up to themselves to make the right decisions as maturing adults.
In the end, students don’t clean the classroom and participate in the education system because they necessarily have swallowed the values. But they participate because they are doing it out of respect for GTO and in gratitude for the sacrifices that he has made for them.

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The ideal teacher that students dream of is a non-conformist in one sense. They dream of someone who is strong enough to take on the school on their behalves. They dream of someone who is capable of making their own decisions about right or wrong, regardless of petty school rules or petty bureaucracy. They dream of someone who can step outside the square and do what is right.

This non-conformist character runs throughout Japanese drama, from school teachers, to wayward masterless samurai in period dramas.

However, in another sense, GTO is still a very traditional model.

Ironically, children today do not seem to be looking for something that is sharply different from the same model of mentor that their parents adored. As the classic Japanese mentor, GTO incorporates very traditional Japanese values of learning through role models, learning indirectly through experiencing, learning social values through doing something for one’s mentor, learning responsibility through having a mentor sacrifice for you.

Great Teacher Onizuka as educational mentor

GTO is not at all the Western model – if such a thing exists. He does not at all encourage a more Western style of learning. Students do not participate more in learning; nor has the style of education in the anime changed at all.

What is different about GTO is the relationship that he has managed to establish with his students. This is a traditional relationship of mentor and mentored. GTO does not explain his actions verbally; he acts out a situation and they learn from example.

Crucially, when the bullied student offers information to GTO that involves him informing on bullies in the classroom, GTO stops the student. “I would have no respect for someone who informs on his classmates,” he says. He teaches the bullied students a lesson in self-respect, a lesson in social behaviour, but also offers a practical solution to being bullied.

One by one, GTO takes on the students in the class and opens their eyes to their own problems. He directly intervenes but only to a certain extent. Choice is left to the students to manage their own dilemmas.

GTO breaks open a wall between a students non-communicating parents, but then leaves the next step up the child herself, to break down the emotional walls between her parents.

GTO obtains vengeance on the bullies of a bullied child by humiliating them, but then leaves the next step up to the child as to whether they keep the evidence of the bullying.

Why are GTOs solutions unworkable?

There is increasing bureaucracy in teaching in Japan – a trend that has continued since World War 2. Realistically, teachers great pressure to conform to the guidelines set down by the Ministry of Education who have steadily changed the education system set down by the Occupation Authorities towards a more traditional and conservative model.

In practical terms, teachers are rarely able to give children the attention they crave, with their large classes and very long hours. There are not incentives to engage in creative teaching and many incentives to maintain the status quo and particularly to refrain from any activity that might result in having to take responsibility for something having gone wrong.

Japanese society requires that a teacher take personal responsibility for accidents, student behaviour and this exerts a very heavy pressure on teachers to keep things under control rather than experimenting with new ways of doing things.


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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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