Education in Japan

For the past few decades, worldwide interest in Japanese education has grown steadily and in the light of such surge of attention, Japan is often referred to as a “qualification society”. Japan’s greatest educational achievement is the high-quality basic education most young people receive by the time they complete high school. Evidence is the international mathematics tests where they rank either at or near the top, year after year, The Japanese associate education achievement with career, in that a good education would open their doors to better jobs. Hence the students are always engaged in a competitive academic environment.

However, a piece of very recent news in Yomiuri newspaper has it that the Education Minister plans to change the current ‘pressure-free’ education systems to one that attaches more importance to the academic ability by increasing class hours for major subjects. The news seems to indicate that on contrary to the reputation of the education system, the Japanese themselves believe it is not stressful and pressurizing enough.

Hence, in order to understand the education system and the rationale behind its reputation better, a deeper understanding of the basic institutions will be covered in the first half of this report. It would be followed by several social phenomena that arose out of the system, and the whole system in social context would highlight the significance of education in the various perspectives of the society.

The education system in Japan

The education system in Japan consists of the Elementary, Middle, High schools and University. With modernization over the years, the objective of Japanese schools has remained unchanged—that is to foster a national identity, and today’s school system continues to encourage a public-minded spirit.

Elementary School

The elementary school is a compulsory 6-year education for both boys and girls. Every child is being treated equally and singling out of pupils is discouraged.4 Teachers often engage in the following teaching methods5 such as the formation of Han, discovery learning, buddy system, physical teaching methods, and motivation techniques.

The formation of groups is an opportunity for the children to socialize among themselves as well as to see the value of cooperative teamwork. In addition, it also stimulates the underachievers to perform better and ‘be included’ in the discussions going on. Contrary to that, the Americans believe that one to one peer tutoring, though not a way to ensure that everyone belongs, it is an approach that reduces the number of problems of student-teacher relationships. Instructions are also carried out in a more relaxed way.

Apart from Han, teachers also rearrange the furniture in the classroom to facilitate learning. For example, tables are arranged into a U-shape during general discussions with the teacher’s table at the open end.

Motivation techniques like donyu (“introduction”) encourage children to relate the events that they experienced in their lives to what they have learnt in school, and often they are being asked to talk about it in front of the class.


Comparison of elementary schools in Japan and America

These are some of the comparisons on the details and process of teaching in elementary schools in Japan and America.

Repetition of lessons is common in the Japanese schools, as the child is not expected to understand a method or principle thoroughly when introduced initially. Instead, the teacher is patient enough to repeat some parts of the task when necessary and only gives few overall explanations until the children come up with the concepts. On the other hand, the American teachers feel that verbal explanations are important in learning and there is more value in understanding the relationship between abstract principles and concrete examples at hand. The American teachers are believed to be more impatient than their Japanese counterparts when it comes to teaching minute details and feel that rote learning will lead a pupil to become too dependent on the teacher.

In addition, the Western child is given more space for creativity when tasks are assigned to him and there are no instructions for any guided actions while the Japanese child is taught to do them one at the time. A longer period of time is given for the child to learn them and the teacher will make sure that he has grasped the concept well before proceeding. The whole purpose of this is to train the child to be self-reliant in learning, as the Japanese teachers believe that self-reliance is a capacity for self-motivated effort.

Recent changes in Elementary schools

The elementary school system focuses on discovery learning, process, engagement and commitment (rather than discipline) on the whole. As Japan continues to move towards the future, new approaches are also being taken. Foreign languages are now being introduced at elementary school level and children are encouraged to use computers to access the Internet and create their own databases. School buildings are redesigned to offer greater freedom of movement and more space for students to enjoy themselves.

Middle School

The middle school is coeducation for both boys and girls for 3 years and it is centred on building a child’s character. Here, school work is to be treated as serious responsibility and often, good grades are a sign of maturity.

The core curricula include the eight subjects; Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, fine arts, health and physical education, industrial arts and homemaking are taught weekly. Elective and moral education classes are also offered to the students.

Students are also to participate in extra curricular activities after school everyday. The club activities such as baseball, origami, tennis, shogi and computer serve as primary opportunities for peer group socialization and moreover, they allow for establishment of relationships between seniors and juniors. Such relationships are useful when one is looking for a job in the future.

High School

The education span for high school is 3 years long. Each school week consists of 34 hours, with no free periods and no use of class time for independent projects or library work. All students are to attend scheduled classes with a teacher for each of the 34 hours.

The convention teaching method is having large classes of 40-45 students to one teacher, and which most of the time students are engaged in note taking for the purpose of passing exams. Team teaching or independent projects are rarely employed.

University Entrance Exam

The university entrance exam is of great importance in Japan’s high school’s education. The exams are taken at the end of the three years and usually take place in February or March for 2 days. The exam comprises of two parts, compulsory and elective.

Compulsory subjects include Mathematics, English and Japanese. Science, medicine and engineering students must elect one social science topic for testing and required to be tested heavily in mathematics and science. Humanities, social sciences and law applicants have to take the full battery of tests in social studies but are allowed to skip the most difficult mathematics section.

The types of exam questions are mostly multiple-choice questions, some short answer questions and few interpretative questions. Questions are being set yearly.

The exam serves as a gauge to know how much students have learnt and how well they can apply the information and theory to problem solving. Hence the emphasis is on the mastery of facts, control over details and practiced skill in the application of mathematical and scientific principles.


The opportunity to enter the top universities is much sought after in Japan, not for the quality of education acquired but the quality of employment prospects awaiting these graduates. This is evident in that companies even rank universities and high schools when hiring new employees and some top companies would only interview graduates from the top universities. Tokyo University, now at the top of the education hierarchy, is the major gateway to elite jobs.

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The rewards are worth all the time and effort in getting into the prestigious universities since the graduate would expect his career to remain with his company till retirement. Graduates are in fact choosing lifelong institutional affiliations, not just specific jobs.

Mizuki Kumagai, far left, and other students put on school badges on the collar of their uniforms at a classroom before attending a ceremony for the first day of the new school year in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Thursday, April 21, 2011. Students in the area went back to their schools for the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

Social phenomena

Due to the unique system and characteristics of the Japanese society, there are several social phenomena that arose out of the system. These issues have been making news headlines for many decades and are still prevalent in the Japanese society. They include the juku, ijime and pressure for school dropouts.


Rise of Juku

Juku are after school tutoring establishments and cram schools in Japan. Their birth and growth may be attributed to the post-war reforms in the public educational system and the national obsession with the university entrance examination – the ever-persisting fierce competition to enter the nation’s best and most reputable universities. The post-war reforms in the public educational system saw an end of the special “inside track” to universities. In addition, classes are then arranged by age or school grades instead of individual academic abilities.15 These changes are perceived to be jeopardizing the opportunities of Japanese students to get ahead of their peers in terms of academic achievement. Seeing the teachings and instructions from the public schools as inadequate in preparing their children for the university entrance examination, parents turn to juku for help.

Characteristic of Juku

The juku phenomenon is uniquely Japanese because of its relation with the public school education system and the way they are run. While the post-war public schools are thought to be idealistic, the approach taken by juku are more pragmatic.16 Both are at binary poles opposite each other. There are basically two types of juku – the shingaku juku for better students, and the hoshu juku for students to catch up with their work. Juku also have classes arranged by academic abilities. This suggests that students are encouraged to move ahead of their peers as quickly as possible.

In addition, jukus employ teaching and learning by the ‘hard’ way. The language used in communication between the juku teachers and students involve words like ‘fight’, ‘battle’, and the like. They integrate contemporary social ambition, which states that success in education will equate to better employment and hence higher social status and more power, with pre-war philosophy which placed great importance on discipline and hard work.

Although much emphasis seems to be placed on individual success and advancement, this is done with a group-oriented morale and group motivation. The ultimate aim of juku is to ensure that their students do better than their counterparts in the university entrance examination.

Social Significance of the juku Phenomenon

The preoccupation with sending their children to juku signals social insecurity at large. Parents have a powerful need to do the best for their children, to ensure that their future is secured, and success in education is seen as the key factor to this. They do not want to be left behind, lest to say being left out. Hence, attending juku is seen as an added insurance to their children’s future.

The high attendance rate of juku might also suggest that failure is a taboo in the Japanese society. A label that came along with the national obsession with university entrance examination is the word ronin. It used to mean ‘the masterless samurai’ of the Tokugawa Period, which then evolved to refer to students who could not enter their desired university with their university entrance examination results. Instead of compromising and entering a less reputable institution, they would rather spend years cramming in juku for retakes until they finally manage to enter the best universities. The existence of such labels and the determination exhibited by these students clearly states the stigma attached to ‘failures’.

In addition, that juku exists resonate the belief of the larger Japanese society. Japanese believe that they are born equal and are equally qualified to attain good results, good employment, et cetera. Thus, there is the emphasis of perseverance, discipline and hard work. They believe that these qualities are critical to the spiritual development of a person and that it is through them that one becomes successful in life.

Students, having to attend juku on top of the public school curriculum, essentially have less leisure and play time. Juku became a place for socialization with peers. The effect of this on the psychological development of these children is currently unknown. Although Japan is probably enjoying increases in the competence of its work force since discipline entails greater social order, it may also be becoming a duller and less robust society.


Bullying or ijime has reportedly become more prevalent and life-threatening in Japanese schools since the 1980s. The media has in recent years drawn public attention to a number of youth suicides which are believed to have resulted from ijime. Bullying exists in other societies but it is considered to be a major social issue in contemporary Japan. It is therefore in our interest to examine the nature of ijime and how it is carried out among Japanese students.

Features of ijime

Firstly, there are certain features of bullying which are probably similar across various societies. For example the victimization of a child by another, usually by someone ‘stronger’ or ‘more powerful’, the helplessness of the victim and the likelihood of bullying to continue over a period of time. However, in Japan, ijime is mostly carried out in groups, otherwise known as collective bullying.

More often than not, it is the victimization of an individual by a group of bullies. This is not to say that group bullying does not occur in other societies-it happens. However, ijime differs from bullying in other cultures because it almost always occurs in a group whereas bullying in other cultures, such as the America or Australia, can be committed singly or in groups.

Examples of ijime

Some examples of ijime jargon and practices among Japanese students include, ‘bokoboko’and ‘fukuro’ which means collective violence against a victim with bashing, hitting and kicking. ‘Kagome rinchi’ or ‘lynch’ is when a victim is made to kneel on the floor to be hit and kicked by bullies as they form a circle around the victim. Another type, ‘konjoyaki’, means to put a burning cigarette onto the skin of the victim and ‘katsuage’ is extorting money from the victim. One of the most commonly used methods of ijime is ‘shikato’, that is to ignore the victim completely. This can escalate to ‘zen’in shikato’, whereby the whole class behaves as if the victim does not exist.

In view of the fact that these assaults are usually carried out by a group of students against one victim, it becomes an extremely traumatizing experience for the victim. Many students who have experienced ijime suffer from school phobia. However, the situation is such that if a victim stays away from school for a few days, he will have a harder time fitting in when he returns and will eventually experience more ijime from his classmates.

Comparison of bullying in Japan and America

In a comparative study of ijime in Japan and bullying in Western countries, for example in America, it is found that bullying among Japanese students has certain unique characteristics. First of all, Japanese students are less likely to intervene in bullying than their American counterparts. Secondly, bullied students develop a hatred for school and eventually refuse to attend, while such cases are rare in America. Third, Japanese youths are more ambivalent about the essentially vicious nature of bullying than are American students. [Tsuchiya Okano 1999]

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Victims of ijime

Victims of ijime are described by bullies as mukatsuku, irritating or annoying. Students who are targets of ijime are weak, marginalized and often non-conformist. There are perhaps many reasons for being bullied which include physical handicap, slow pace in learning, incapability and perceived characteristic of some students such as timidity, In essence, as long as one stands out from the rest, he is a possible candidate for ijime. In Japan, bullying is condoned by group society. Bullying in Japan is essentially a tool for forcing an individual to accept the logic of a group. [Starr Peter 1994]

Ijime as over-conformity

Despite the unsocial nature of ijime, it may have ironically, arisen out of over-conformity in Japanese society. Japanese society has been likened to a ‘bed of nails’ and education in Japan, ‘like mathematics’ whereby there are rules one has to follow to function well. Society is built on the assumption that everything is smooth and perfect. Uniformity is necessary and prized. Therefore what is considered to be ‘deviant’ has to be eradicated.

A question arises now, is ijime a way of punishing deviant students? In effect, ijime may be understood as a collective means to penalize those who disturb the conformity fostered in Japanese schools. Also, within the school territories it means the enforcement of conformity to the standards set by teachers. It may be useful to examine the hidden social functions of ijime with reference to the roles teachers play in Japanese schools.

Incidences of corporal punishments inflicted upon students by teachers have also surfaced with the attention the media has given to youth suicides. There have been reports of teachers slapping, kicking and punching students. In severe cases, students have committed suicide because they could no longer endure such abuses. The insidious nature of corporal punishment may be reflected in students’ behavior towards one another.

This is not to imply that all Japanese teachers use corporal punishment to discipline their students. However, this is a society which stamps out individuality. Non-conformists are dealt with harshly. The mentality of the Japanese seeks to get rid of those who are different to preserve the harmony of the group. Thus, ijime may be more of a product of a system promoted in schools or, for that matter, in Japanese society.

Youth Suicides

Youth suicides occur in every society and only two possible and most publicized reasons will be focused in this report. The first is ijime and the second is examination pressure.

Ijime and youth suicides:

It is difficult to define a suicide as an ‘ijime suicide’ but in recent years there are many instances of students who end their lives because of ijime. One illustrative example of a student’s experience with ijime is a thirteen year old student who killed himself by hanging from the coat hook on a toilet door of a railway station in Tokyo.

His suicide note read, “I don’t want to die, but it’s like living hell to go on like this.” He referred to his experience of ijime and disclosed the names of two leaders of an ijime group consisting of several boys.” [Yoneyama, Shoko 1999]

Ijime is very much surrounded by layers of silence by all parties — students, teachers and parents — concerned. It is difficult for victims to speak up and most of them felt that there is nothing much teachers or school authorities can do about ijime. Victims could only ‘endure and persevere’ but many of them were eventually driven into desperation.

Examination and youth suicides:

The general image the public receives is that causal relation between exams and juvenile suicides in Japan is strong. Every year as the examination period draws near, newspapers and magazines in Japan would carry reports of student suicides. Typically, the suicide publicized is of a middle-class boy who has worked hard but failed the University Entrance Exam. Images are powerful and this tragic illustration elicits much sympathy and compassion for these students. From earlier discussions, Japan’s highly pressuring environment has been established. However, upon closer examination, there are perhaps other reasons for youth suicide than simply failure.24

Suicides are more common among those who have a hard time keeping up than among high achievers who focus on entrance exams. There exist a proportion of students who do commit suicides because of exams. However most of the youths who committed suicides are actually those who do least well in school; those who are unable to keep up with the curriculum and those who tend to drop out early from school. The accelerated pace of Japanese public education, the preoccupation with exam preparation and the great significance of educational achievement to adult careers and status elevates education to great importance.

For example, school dropouts encounter problems which are far more severe than those who stayed to face the exam competition. Their future is uncertain and it appears that they are destined to a life at the bottom of society. These people are falling behind in a society that glorifies academic excellence. Thus the inability of the educational system to accommodate such students may be a more pertinent reason for suicides among Japanese youths.

Pressure for school dropouts

The rate for upper middle school dropouts in Japan has been rising from 2.0% in 1992 to 2.3% in 2002.

In the past, students may well have dropped out of school because of poverty. However, students now leave their schools for a variety of reasons, including a change in the educational goals, followed by an inability to adapt to school life and studies, while financial reasons constitutes only a small fraction.

Normally, it all starts with the students refusing to go to school. The futoko or “refuser” dreads school most probably due to ijime, and the rigid education system that stifles the students’ creativity and individualism. This can be seen by the fact that the Ministry of Education controls not only the school syllabus, but also the minor details of the school environment. According to the official accounts, there are 26,000 elementary and 106,000 junior high students who refuse to go to school across Japan.

According to the mother of one of the refuser, everyone in their family felt embarrassed and ashamed to have a futoko in the family. In addition, her son too felt the same way, shown by the fact that he would rather stay in the car than follow his mother into the store, to avoid bumping into former classmates Error: Reference source not found.

In fact, the Board of Education does offer a special school to help the refusers return. However, according to the refusers, the structure of this school is so similar to the regular schools which they had attended initially, that they loath to return to study.

Other than attending the special school, some of the refusers may choose to seek help at self-help groups. One of the examples includes ‘Nagasaki Free Space’, which holds weekly meetings for the children to interact with each other freely. Other activities of the self-help groups include attending night schools, which teach the exact same curriculum as the traditional three-year high school but in four years for the slower-paced students. Students are also encouraged to study at home through correspondence programs for those who like to do things their own way or even take Japanese high-school equivalency exam to get reintegrated into the traditional education system.

However, despite these second opportunity channels being open to the refusers, a large number of them, being impeded by their own sense of shame, refused to neither seek help nor get reintegrated into the systemError: Reference source not found. They usually end up dropping out of school after a period of time. Once they leave the schools totally, statistics have shown that it is virtually impossible to get them back into the system again.

These dropouts will then either land themselves in low-paying jobs, or become reclusive and live out their whole lives at home with their parents. It is known that around one million adults suffer from this affliction, called hikikomori (“social withdrawal”) and the number has been stealthily increasing in recent years.

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Japanese Culture and its relation to education

After much discussion in the details of social phenomena in Japanese education, it is also important to see how the dynamics in society and its social institutions work to culminate in such a “unique” Japanese education. The culture entrenched is imperative in understanding Japanese society and that would provide a bigger picture of the education system. Firstly, some crucial points of Japanese society as a whole and their link to the education would be examined. Other social institutions such as schools, families and companies would be touched on to bring about a more holistic approach to this understanding.

Education in the Society

Education has become the centrality of Japan because of an interesting background known as the scarcity syndrome. There is a self conscious mentality held by the general masses that Japan is a narrow island country, low in natural resources and vulnerable to enemies, earthquakes and fires.31 People in Japan believed that they are living on the edge and therefore must live by their wits.32 This mentality has also led to the thinking that children are scarce too.33 Children are important in supporting the family in old age and promising a better future for Japan. That is the underlying reason why the entire nation is mobilized behind educating their young and has since turned it into a national obsession.

Cultural attitudes held about gender have also affected the way Japanese view education. This is evident through the fact that the percentage of women applying to university is significantly lower than men. Japanese gender domains are usually distinct, where women are expected to focus on family and men to support family by working. Universities hence became unattractive to the women of Japan. In addition, females would also be discouraged by their parents who are worried about their marriage prospects.

In Japan, the culture of developing virtuous characteristics is directly associated with one’s eventual success.34 These virtues are Confucian-based and focused on a person’s character building. Some examples of these virtues are diligence, perseverance and sincerity. In the context of education, although success is not measured by results, hard work and perseverance are seen as essential to having good results. Therefore, performance in exams is still considered as crucial.

Education in Schools

Schools are mainly based on the principle of meritocracy which meant that all children are regarded as equal, having the same potential and ability to excel. As opposed to Americans, who see individuals as born with different abilities and levels of potential, Japanese feel that the only difference between different students is the amount of effort needed to achieve a certain level of performance. Intense pressure is thus forced upon Japanese parents and teachers. Together with the students’ sincerity to learn and persevere, the society head towards a kind of “success” that can theoretically be achieved by everyone.

Also, in school, the emphasis is on building human relationships ­­— something known as “Japanese common sense”. There is this careful honing of individual ability which blends in well with the harmony of a group. All students are to learn how to work as a team and cooperate with one another, starting from elementary schools. There is, in fact, an emphasis on building these social skills (rather than academic discipline) starting from the early years of education. Japan believed that social skills are necessary in building their economy and maintaining harmony, while team work and cooperation helps in creating higher levels of efficiency, so to speak. Conflict and irresponsibility are strongly viewed as undesirable although usually, the society (and not the individual) would be blamed for it.

Education in Families

An interesting feature of family life pertaining to education is amae. Amae is a term to describe the desire to be passively loved. Accordingly, the central human relationship in Japanese culture is between mother and child. Amae helps in motivating people at work and some claim that they are able to deal with pressure much better. Perhaps, amae is one main reason why mothers are very involved in the schoolwork of their children. Interdependence or even indulgence is thus inculcated though this mother-child relationship.

This relationship is contrasted with their American counterpart where individuation and separation is desirable. Besides, Japanese education reflects the need to maintain cultural homogeneity and mothers, as devoted players, contribute a lot to prevent deviance and non-conformity. Among the Japanese, a conviction that they are living on the edge is a driving cultural force that shapes not only the industrial process but also lies at the core of household management and parent-child relationships.

Education and Companies

Companies’ perspectives on a whole also influenced how education is perceived by the society. This is especially so when employment in Japan usually lasts for a lifetime. Companies in Japan hire those who possess the good virtues. These include the ability to possess genuine knowledge and achieve high level of performances. In this case, the education system would be useful as a universal intelligence testing device. Education system thus has to be routinized and formalized based on examinations. As mentioned earlier, employers are more concerned about the University one graduated from, rather than what one will be acheiving in the company. This is precisely the reason why students are so committed to achieving good results and entering top universities.


Above is the overview of how education and Japanese culture are mutually related. Japanese society together with schools, family and companies “work” to create such a reputable education system which aims toward building human character and achieving personal maximum success. Japan also stressed on cultural homogeneity and uniformity, in which they see as crucial to their survival and national identity.

Cultural homogeneity, although not explicitly apostrophized is Japan’s main concern, as is racial purity. Marginality is greatly undesirable because they are regarded as destructive to social order. “Education may be seen as a force for reducing cultural variety, and thereby patrolling the predictable conformity on which Japanese society depends.”

Spiritualism and perseverance is also vital in Japan.44 They are achieved through diligence, suffering and hard work. They believe that by training one’s character, one can achieve high levels of team work, cooperation and work performance. Personal discipline is thus emphasized in the education system.

In a nutshell, education is seen as an important means to create a harmonious and highly skilful society but more importantly it is by which individuals are recruited and molded to be members of a “unique” Japanese culture.


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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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