Japan Table of Contents

Many of the historical and cultural characteristics that shape Japanese arts shape its education as well. Japanese tradition stresses respect for society and the established order and prizes group goals above individual interests. Sschooling also emphasize diligence, self-criticism, and well-organized study habits. More generally, the belief is ingrained that hard work and perseverance will yield success in life. Much of official school life is devoted directly or indirectly to teaching correct attitudes and moral values and to developing character, with the aim of creating a citizenry that is both literate and attuned to the basic values of culture and society.

At the same time, the academic achievement of Japanese students is extremely high by international standards. Japanese children consistently rank at or near the top in successive international tests of mathematics. The system is characterized by high enrollment and retention rates throughout. An entrance examination system, particularly important at the college level, exerts strong influences throughout the entire system. The structure does not consist exclusively of government-sponsored, formal official education institutions. Private education also forms an important part of the educational landscape, and the role of schools outside the official school system can not be ignored.

A majority of children begin their education by attending preschool, although it is not part of the official system. The official structure provides compulsory free schooling and a sound and balanced education to virtually all children from grade one through grade nine. Upper-secondary school, from grades ten through twelve, although also not compulsory, attracts about 94 percent of those who complet lower-secondary school. About one-third of all Japanese upper-secondary school graduates advance to postsecondary education--to full four-year universities, two-year junior colleges, or to other institutions.

Japan is a highly education-minded society. Education is esteemed, and educational achievement is often the prerequisite for success in work and in society at large.

Historical Background

Japan has had relations with other cultures since the dawn of its history. Foreign civilizations have often provided new ideas for the development of Japan's own culture. Chinese teachings and ideas, for example, flowed into Japan from the sixth to the ninth century. Along with the introduction of Buddhism came the Chinese system of writing and its literary tradition, and Confucianism.

By the ninth century, Kyoto, the imperial capital, had five institutions of higher learning, and during the remainder of the Heian period, other schools were established by the nobility and the imperial court. During the medieval period (1185-1600), Zen Buddhist monasteries were especially important centers of learning, and the Ashikaga School (Ashikaga Gakko) flourished in the fifteenth century as a center of higher learning.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Japan experienced intense contact with the major European powers. Jesuit missionaries, who accompanied Portuguese traders, proselytized Christianity and opened a number of religious schools. Japanese students thus began to study Latin and Western music, as well as their own language.

By 1603 Japan had been reunified by the Tokugawa regime (1600- 1867), and by 1640 foreigners had been ordered out of Japan, Christianity banned, and virtually all foreign contact prohibited. The nation then entered a period of isolation and relative domestic tranquillity, which was to last 200 years. When the Tokugawa period began, few common people in Japan could read or write. By the period's end, learning had become widespread. Tokugawa education left a valuable legacy: an increasingly literate populace, a meritocratic ideology, and an emphasis on discipline and competent performance. Under subsequent Meiji leadership, this foundation would facilitate Japan's rapid transition from feudal country to modern nation.

During the Tokugawa period, the role of many of the bushi, or samurai, changed from warrior to administrator, and as a consequence, their formal education and their literacy increased proportionally. Samurai curricula stressed morality and included both military and literary studies. Confucian classics were memorized, and reading and recitating them were common methods of study. Arithmetic and calligraphy were also studied. Most samurai attended schools sponsored by their han (domains), and by the time of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, more than 200 of the 276 han had established schools. Some samurai and even commoners also attended private academies, which often specialized in particular Japanese subjects or in Western medicine, modern military science, gunnery, or Rangaku (Dutch studies), as European studies were called.

Education of commoners was generally practically oriented, providing basic training in reading, writing, and arithmetic, emphasizing calligraphy and use of the abacus. Much of this education was conducted in so-called temple schools (terakoya), derived from earlier Buddhist schools. These schools were no longer religious institutions, nor were they, by 1867, predominantly located in temples. By the end of the Tokugawa period, there may have been more than 14,000 such schools. Teaching techniques included reading from various textbooks, memorizing, and repeatedly copying Chinese characters and Japanese script.

After 1868 new leadership set Japan on a rapid course of modernization. Realizing from the outset that education was fundamental to nation building and modernization, the Meiji leaders established a public education system to help Japan catch up with the West. Missions were sent abroad to study the education systems of leading Western countries. These missions and other observers returned with the ideas of decentralization, local school boards, and teacher autonomy. Such ideas and ambitious initial plans, however, proved very difficult to carry out. After some trial and error, a new national education system emerged. As an indication of its success, elementary school enrollments climbed from about 40 or 50 percent of the school-age population in the 1870s to more than 90 percent by 1900.

By the 1890s, after earlier intensive preoccupation with Western, particularly United States, educational ideas, a much more conservative and traditional orientation evolved: the education system became more reflective of Japanese values. Confucian precepts were stressed, especially those concerning the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the new state, the pursuit of learning, and morality. These ideals, embodied in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, along with highly centralized government control over education, largely guided Japanese education until the end of World War II.

In the early twentieth century, education at the primary level was egalitarian and virtually universal, but at higher levels it was multitracked, highly selective, and elitist. College education was largely limited to the few national universities, where German influences were strong. Three of the imperial universities admitted women, and there were a number of women's colleges, some quite prestigious, but women had relatively few opportunities to enter higher education. During this period, a number of universities were founded by Christian missionaries, who also took an active role in expanding educational opportunities for women, particularly at the secondary level.

After 1919 several of the private universities received official status and were granted government recognition for programs they had conducted, in many cases, since the 1880s. In the 1920s, the tradition of liberal education briefly reappeared, particularly at the kindergarten level, where the Montessori method attracted a following. In the 1930s, education was subject to strong military and nationalistic influences.

By 1945 the Japanese education system had been devastated, and with the defeat came the discredit of much prewar thought. A new wave of foreign ideas was introduced during the postwar period of military occupation .

Occupation policy makers and the United States Education Mission, set up in 1946, made a number of changes aimed at democratizing Japanese education: instituting the six-three-three grade structure (six years of elementary school, three of lower- secondary school, and three of upper-secondary school) and extending compulsory schooling to nine years. They replaced the prewar system of higher-secondary schools with comprehensive upper- secondary schools (high schools). Curricula and textbooks were revised, the nationalistic morals course was abolished and replaced with social studies, locally elected school boards were introduced, and teachers unions established.

With the abolition of the elitist higher education system and an increase in the number of higher education institutions, the opportunities for higher learning grew. Expansion was accomplished initially by granting university or junior college status to a number of technical institutes, normal schools, and advanced secondary schools.

After the restoration of full national sovereignty in 1952, Japan immediately began to modify some of the changes in education, to reflect Japanese ideas about education and educational administration. The postwar Ministry of Education regained a great deal of power. School boards were appointed, instead of elected. A course in moral education was reinstituted in modified form, despite substantial initial concern that it would lead to a renewal of heightened nationalism.

By the 1960s, postwar recovery and accelerating economic growth brought new demands to expand higher education. But as the expectations grew that the quality of higher education would improve, the costs of higher education also increased. In general, the 1960s was a time of great turbulence in higher education. Late in the decade especially, universities in Japan were rocked by violent student riots that disrupted many campuses. Campus unrest was the confluence of a number of factors, including the anti- Vietnam War movement in Japan, ideological differences between various Japanese student groups, disputes over campus issues, such as discipline; student strikes, and even general dissatisfaction with the university system itself.

The government responded with the University Control Law in 1969 and, in the early 1970s, with further education reforms. New laws governed the founding of new universities and teachers' compensation, and public school curricula were revised. Private education institutions began to receive public aid, and a nationwide standardized university entrance examination was added for the national universities. Also during this period, strong disagreement developed between the government and teachers groups.

Despite the numerous educational changes that have occurred in Japan since 1868, and especially since 1945, the education system still reflects long-standing cultural and philosophical ideas: that learning and education are esteemed and to be pursued seriously, and that moral and character development are integral to education. The meritocratic legacy of the Meiji period has endured, as has the centralized education structure. Interest remains in adapting foreign ideas and methods to Japanese traditions and in improving the system generally.

Education Reform

In spite of the admirable success of the education system since World War II, problems remained through the 1980s. Some of these difficulties as perceived by domestic and foreign observers included rigidity, excessive uniformity, lack of choices, undesirable influences of the university examinations, and overriding emphasis on formal educational credentials. There was also a belief that education was responsible for some social problems and for the general academic, behavioral, and adjustment problems of some students. There was great concern too that Japanese education be responsive to the new requirements caused by international challenges of the changing world in the twenty-first century.

Flexibility, creativity, internationalization (kokusaika), individuality, and diversity thus became the watchwords of Japan's momentous education reform movement of the 1980s, although they echoed themes heard earlier, particularly in the 1970s. The proposals and potential changes of the 1980s were so significant that some compared them to the educational changes that occurred when Japan opened to the West in the nineteenth century and to those of the occupation.

Concerns of the new reform movement were captured in a series of reports issued between 1985 and 1987 by the National Council on Educational Reform. The final report outlined basic emphases in response to the internationalization of education, new information technologies, and the media and emphases on individuality, lifelong learning, and adjustment to social change. To explore these new directions, the council suggested that eight specific subjects be considered: designing education for the twenty-first century; organizing a system of lifelong learning and reducing the emphasis on the educational background of individuals; improving and diversifying higher education; enriching and diversifying elementary and secondary education; improving the quality of teachers; adapting to internationalization; adapting to the information age; and conducting a review of the administration and finance of education. These subjects reflected both educational and social aspects of the reform, in keeping with the Japanese view about the relationship of education to society. Even as debate over reform took place, the government quickly moved to begin implementing changes in most of these eight areas.

Contemporary Setting

The late twentieth-century Japanese education system has a strong legal foundation. Three documents in particular, the Fundamental Law of Education, the School Education Law, and the new Constitution, all adopted in 1947, provide this legal basis. The system is highly centralized, although three levels of government administration--national, prefectural, and municipal--have various responsibilities for providing, financing, and supervising educational services for the nation's more than 62,000 schools and more than 25 million students in 1991. At the top of the system stands the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (hereafter, the Ministry of Education, or Monbusho ), which has significant responsibility for funding, curricula, textbooks, and national education standards.

More general responsibilities of the Ministry of Education are the promotion and dissemination of education, scientific knowledge, academic research, culture, and sports. The ministry is supported by advisory bodies and standing councils, such as the Central Council on Education, and by ad hoc councils, such as the National Council on Educational Reform.

The ministry's authority and responsibilities are not limited to public institutions. Most of its regulations, particularly concerning compulsory education, also apply to private institutions. The ministry has power to approve the founding of universities and supervises the national universities. In addition, it provides financial assistance and guidance to lower levels of government on educational matters and is empowered to mandate changes in local policies.

The ministry drafts its annual budget and education-related legislation and submits them to the National Diet. Monbusho administers the disbursement of funds and cooperated with other agencies concerned with education and its finance. In 1990 a main ministry activity was implementing reforms based on the reports and recommendations of the National Council on Educational Reform, whose final report was submitted to the prime minister in 1987.

Each of the forty-seven prefectures has a five-member board of education appointed by the governor with the consent of the prefectural assembly. The prefectural boards administer and operate public schools under their supervision, including most of the public upper-secondary schools, special schools for the handicapped, and some other public institutions in the prefecture. Prefectural boards are the teacher- licensing bodies; with the advice of municipal governments, they appoint teachers to public elementary and lower-secondary schools; they also license preschools and other schools in their municipalities and promote social education.

Municipal-level governments operate the public elementary and lower-secondary schools in their jurisdictions. Supervision is conducted by the local board of education, usually a five-member organization appointed by the mayor with the consent of the local assembly. The board also makes recommendations to the prefectures about the appointment or dismissal of teachers and adopts textbooks from the list certified by the Ministry of Education. Mayors also are charged with some responsibilities for municipal universities and budget coordination.

All three levels of government--national, prefectural, and municipal--provid financial support for education. The national government is the largest source of direct funding, through the budget of the Ministry of Education, and is a significant source of indirect funding of local education through a tax rebate to local government, in a tax allocation grant. The national government bears from one-third to one-half of the cost of education in the form of teachers' salaries, school construction, the school lunch program, and vocational education and equipment.

The ministry's budget between fiscal year (FY) 1980 and FY 1988 increased a total of about 7 percent. But as a percentage of the total national budget (before the deduction of mandated expenses and debt service), the ministry's share actually declined steadily during the 1980s, from about 10 percent in 1980 to about 7.7 percent in 1989. A slight increase was seen in the early 1990s. For example, the FY 1992 budget provided 5.319 trillion, or 7.9 percent of the national budget.

Teaching remains an honored profession, and teachers have high social status, stemming from the Japanese cultural legacy and public recognition of their important social responsibilities. Society expects teachers to embody the ideals they are to instill, particularly because teaching duties extend to the moral instruction and character development of children. Formal classroom moral education, informal instruction, and even academic classes are all viewed as legitimate venues for this kind of teaching. Teachers' responsibilities to their schools and students frequently extend beyond the classroom, off school grounds and after school hours.

Teachers are well paid, and periodic improvements also are made in teachers' salaries and compensation. Starting salaries compare favorably with those of other white-collar professionals and in some cases are higher. In addition to their salaries, teachers are eligible for many types of special allowances and a bonus (paid in three installments), which amount to about five months' salary. Teachers also receive the standard health and retirement benefits available to most salaried workers.

Whether for economic reward, social status, or the desire to teach, the number of people wishing to enter teaching exceeds the number of new openings by as many as five or six applicants to every one position. Prefectural boards and other public bodies are able to select the best qualified from a large pool of applicants.

By the late 1980s, the great majority of new teachers were entering the profession with a bachelor's degree, although about 25 percent of the total teaching force at the elementary school level did not have a bachelor's degree. The program for prospective teachers at the undergraduate level included study in education as well as concentration in academic areas. Most new teachers majored in a subject other than education, and graduates of colleges of education were still in the minority. After graduation, a teacher had to pass a prefectural-level examination to be licensed by a prefectural board of education.

Changes also occurred during the 1980s in in-service training and supervision of new teachers. In-service training, particularly that conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, had been questioned for many years. After considerable debate, and some opposition from the Japan Teachers Union (Nihon Kyoshokuin Kumiai-- Nikkyoso), a new system of teacher training was introduced in 1989. The new system established a one-year training program, required new teachers to work under the direction of a master teacher, and increased the required number of both in-school and out-of-school training days and the length of time new teachers were under probationary status.

The Japan Teachers Union, established in 1947, was the largest teachers union in the late 1980s. The union functioned as a national federation of prefectural teachers unions, although each of these unions had considerable autonomy and its own strengths and political orientation. Historically, there had been considerable antagonism between the union and the Ministry of Education, owing to a variety of factors. Some were political, because the stance of the union had been strongly leftist and it often opposed the more conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Another factor was the trade union perspective that the teachers union had on the profession of teaching. Additional differences on education issues concerned training requirements for new teachers, decentralization in education, school autonomy, curricula, textbook censorship, and, in the late 1980s, the reform movement.

The union tended to support the Japan Socialist Party, while a minority faction supported the Japan Communist Party. In the late 1980s, internal disagreements in the Japan Teachers Union on political orientation and on the union's relationships to other national labor organizations finally caused a rupture. The union thus became less effective than in previous years at a time when the national government and the ministry were moving ahead on reform issues. The union had opposed many reforms proposed or instituted by the ministry, but it failed to forestall changes in certification and teacher training, two issues on which it was often at odds with the government. The new union leadership that emerged after several years of internal discord seemed to take a more conciliatory approach to the ministry and reform issues, but the union's future directions were not clear.

Primary and Secondary Education
Higher Education
Social Education

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress