A Guide To The Japanese School System And Education

by Nicola Spendlove
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Growing up in Japan is unlike growing up anywhere else in the world, and this truth certainly extends to the classroom. The experience of a school child in Japan is vastly different from their American or Western European counterpart.

Like most aspects of life in Japan, the school system is equal parts strictly regimented and delightfully unique. It teaches students the values of Japanese society in a very practical way from a young age, preserving the core culture that makes Japan what it is in a seamless manner. That’s not to say that the Japanese school system doesn’t have its critics – many argue that it puts too much pressure on young shoulders, and the consequences of this can be serious.

Let’s examine some of the commonly asked questions about what it’s like to go to school in Japan.

Japanese Grade Levels

The Japanese school system is split into grade levels similar to what one would expect in America.

Kindergarten and Nurseries

First comes preschool. Children in Japan attend either youchien (kindergarten) or hoikujo (nursery) before making the transition to school. A nursery is essentially childcare, and children can be enrolled from as young as two months. Kindergarten is a more structured educational environment, which welcomes children from three years and up. Both public and private options are available – however, the low birth rate in Japan has posed major challenges to the survival of private preschools, who rely on fees to stay open. International preschools are operated on a private basis and are a popular choice for the children of expats in Japan – tuition here is generally bilingual. Attendance at kindergarten is not mandatory in Japan, but is extremely popular.

Elementary School

Elementary school comes next, and children will commence this the first April after they turn six years old. Elementary school lasts for six years, and attendance is compulsory. Like preschool, both public and private options are available for elementary – though only 1% of elementary schools are private. In some cases, well-performing elementary schools can be difficult to secure a place in. Many have entrance examinations in place ensuring that only the highest performing children make it into the classroom.

Junior High School and Senior High School

Junior high school is also compulsory in Japan and takes place between the ages of 13 and 15. Entrance examinations are a requirement at this level and will dictate which school a student secures a place in. This is followed by senior high school (ages 16 to 18). Senior high school is not compulsory, but 98% of students continue onto this level.

Figures from April 2019 indicated that 53.7% of Japanese students continue onto university-level education. There are numerous different university options – from private, to public, to national, to vocational colleges. Competition for university places in Japan is famously stiff – but more detail on that later.

Japanese School Facts

Statistics indicate that Japan has a literacy rate of 100% – if true, this is staggering and a testament to the Japanese school system. It is also thought that the attendance rate in Japanese schools comes in at close to 100% – bunking off school or coming in late is far from a common occurrence in Japan.

Japan has achieved international recognition for its innovative school cleaning policies. Students are responsible for cleaning up their classrooms and the school facilities as a whole – there is no cleaning staff. Time is set aside each day for these duties, in order to foster a sense of independence and responsibility in students. This policy has received worldwide praise.

Most schools share a hot lunch as a class group (including the teacher) – this is generally a healthy and nutritious lunch prepared by staff onsite, but served by a rotating roster of students. This is intended to teach students about the importance of both nutrition and service to others.

School Uniforms And Rules

Schools in Japan have strict uniform policies. The style of uniform is at the discretion of the individual school, but the most commonly seen uniform is a military-style for boys, and sailor-style for girls. Traditional British style uniforms of blazers and ties are becoming increasingly popular amongst Japanese schools. Students keep their clean school shoes in lockers on the school grounds to change into upon their arrival – they are only worn indoors. This ensures that the school floors are kept clean, and the shoes themselves remain in immaculate condition. Strict grooming policies are also in operation – with natural hair colors and no obvious make-up amongst the most common rules. This is good preparation for the Japanese workforce, where neat and conservative dress is important.

Japanese schools tend to also have strict policies on personal technology in the classroom. As one of the most technologically developed nations in the world, a lot of Japanese youngsters have a large arsenal of pocket gadgets at their disposal. Generally, phones are completely banned on school premises – while there might be some leeway in individual schools to use phones during break times. If a Japanese student is caught using a phone during class time, they can be certain that it will be swiftly confiscated by their teacher. No classroom TikToks in Japan!

The practice of respecting one’s elders is important in Japanese culture, and this is definitely reflected in Japanese schools. First-year students are expected to bow to older students as a mark of respect. Students rise as the teacher enters the classroom, and greet them with a formal bow.

Progression through school grades in Japan is not dependent on academic performance – you will never be asked to repeat a year. Children will graduate school regardless of their results on end of year tests. Academic ability does have a large impact on the students’ futures however, as entrance tests dictate what schools and colleges students are eligible to attend.

Student Commute

Private school transport systems such as school buses are not common in Japan. Most children will navigate their route to school using public transport if available, or by cycling or walking. Again, this level of independence is good preparation for the working world.

Because entrance exams, rather than catchment areas, dictate student placement in schools, many students have a long commute each morning. It’s not uncommon for students to travel 2 hours on public transport each morning just to get to school.

Rather than moving from classroom to classroom, students generally have one main homeroom where they stay throughout the school day. Teachers for various subjects will come to them, rather than vice versa. Homeroom groups are therefore very tight-knit – these students will spend every hour of the school day together.

Because of their demanding schedule, it’s not uncommon for Japanese students to fall asleep during class. This is not a punishable offense in Japanese schools, as sleeping during the day is viewed very differently in Japanese society. Rather than being indicative of laziness or disinterest, sleeping during class or work time is viewed as a sign of dedication – showing that the person is so committed to their studies that they don’t get a full night’s sleep.

Hensachi Controversy

One controversial aspect of the Japanese school system is hensachi. This is a statistical rating of a person’s academic intelligence that dictates much of their educational career in Japan. This score is obtained almost entirely through the completion of fact-based exams. Students are sorted into high schools based on hensachi via their entrance exams.

Career guidance staff in Japanese high schools must encourage students to apply for universities that they would consider suited to their academic ability based on hensachi. There can be consequences for staff if they over-estimate a student’s ability in this area, so estimates are often conservative.

One could argue that this system limits students’ future prospects, and emphasizes existing economic inequalities. For example, students whose parents can afford intensive cram school courses will naturally learn better exam techniques, ensuring passage into academically performing universities – while students without these supports will be left behind.

Statistics from WHO show the Japanese teenage suicide rate to be the highest in the world – with many commentators pointing to a potential correlation between this and the extreme pressures of hensachi. The standardized national entrance exams for universities are in the process of being revamped largely due to these criticisms – more detail on this later in the article.

Japanese School Year

The Japanese school year is divided into three terms. The first term commences in April, and lasts until approximately late July. Students then enjoy their summer vacation. The second term commences in April, and lasts until approximately late December, when a winter vacation is marked. The final term lasts from early January until late March.

The mandatory minimum number of school days in Japan is 210. This is higher than the US, where the mandatory minimum is 180.

What do Japanese Children Learn in School?

The Japanese curriculum is dictated by the government – every school has minimum hours in each mandatory subject that must be met. The curriculum is revised every ten years, and a new curriculum is currently being rolled out on a phased basis for 2020.

Kindergarten focuses primarily on developing positive behaviors and manners. Concepts such as respecting other people and self-control are large components of the teaching. These are hallmarks of Japanese social culture.

As young students progress to elementary school, they divide their time between compulsory subjects, moral education, and special activities. The current compulsory subjects are mathematics, Japanese, social sciences, craft, music, science, programming, and physical education. English is currently taught as a compulsory but non-graded subject in elementary school – but beginning in 2020 it will become graded. Japanese culture is preserved through the teaching of traditional Japanese art forms, such as calligraphy and the composition of haikus. Moral education teaches Japanese societal rules and the importance of observing them. Special activities include field trips and ceremonies.

Upon moving into lower high school, students retain all compulsory subjects with the addition of fine arts and foreign languages. At this point, students can begin to direct their education in line with their interests by selecting various electives. This path continues during upper high school.

Japanese School Schedule

Strictly speaking, Japanese school only happens five days a week – Monday to Friday. It was previously Monday to Saturday, but Saturday classes across Japan were gradually phased out between 1992 and 2002. In practice, most schools offer “optional” Saturday classes which students are very much expected to attend. There is talk of reintroducing the six-day school week on a more formal basis in the coming years.

The Japanese school day is generally split into six class periods. For elementary school students, class periods last 45 minutes. From high school level onwards, each class period lasts 50 minutes.

Lunch is generally served after the fourth class period of the day, and this lasts approximately 45 minutes. Students have time to play outside during this lunchbreak if they so wish, but there is no set “recess” in a Japanese school day. Children generally get their formal exercise during after-school activities.

Following lunch, there will be 10-20 minutes set aside for the famous “cleaning time” (soji), before commencing the final two class periods of the day.

At the end of formal classes, many students stay back for extra-curricular activities – this may add an extra 2-3 hours onto their school day. These extra-curricular activities range from sports practice to tea ceremony, depending on the student’s interests. Following these, the student may go onto their extra lessons in a “cram school” before finally making the commute home.

How Long is the Japanese School Day?

The Japanese school day typically begins at 8:45 am, when the bell rings for first class. Students may be expected to be in school a bit earlier than this for homeroom. School finishes at approximately 4 pm, but the work is far from over at this point.

Most Japanese students have a long list of extra-curricular activities that they attend after school hours, and many also go to “cram schools” (juku) after school hours to aid with exam prep. While neither of these are compulsory strictly speaking, it would be very unusual for a Japanese school child not to participate in some sort of after school activity. Factoring in all these obligations on top of the daily commute, it’s not unusual for Japanese students to be out of the house from 6.30 am – 10 pm on school days.

Some schools in Japan give students a reduced timetable one day per week – Wednesday is a common half day.

Japanese High School Final Exams

Many countries have a standardized school-leaving exam system – take, for example, the American SATs, or the Irish Leaving Certificate. There is no system of standardized final exams when leaving the school system in Japan. As previously mentioned, students can graduate regardless of their academic performance.

You might look at this fact and think there is less pressure on Japanese students to perform academically – when in fact, the reverse is true. While the high school may not administer an end of year exam, university entrance examinations are held at the end of the school year and are a major cause of anxiety amongst students.

Entrance exams for universities are extremely competitive – especially for the seven major national universities (the Japanese equivalent of Ivy League colleges). Standardized national entrance exams determine which colleges students can then go onto apply to take further entrance tests.

Up until 2020, national entrance exams were multiple choice in nature. The system is currently being reformed for January 2021. While the exact format of the new tests remains to be seen, it is intended to be inclusive of different forms of intelligence – with a discussion of open-ended written questions being included on the test paper.

While this change is certainly a step in the right direction, the uncertainty of the new testing format will likely wreak havoc on the curricula of cram schools in the short-term. Cram schools in Japan are so well-versed in preparing students for a particular form of entrance exam that these changes will likely provoke some anxiety for the graduating class of 2021. However, the inability to learn off answers for the new entrance exams might provide a more level playing field for students who are not in a position to pay for extra evening classes.

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Individual universities can still set entrance requirements at their own discretion – giving students written exams and interviews of their choosing.

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