Primary and Secondary Education

Japan Table of Contents

Education is compulsory and free for all schoolchildren from the first through the ninth grades. The school year begins on April 1 and ends on March 31 of the following year. Schools use a trimester system demarcated by vacation breaks. Japanese children attend school five full weekdays and one-half day on Saturdays. The school year has a legal minimum of 210 days, but most local school boards add about thirty more days for school festivals, athletic meets, and ceremonies with nonacademic educational objectives, especially those encouraging cooperation and school spirit. With allowance made for the time devoted to such activities and the half-day of school on Saturday, the number of days devoted to instruction is about 195 per year.

The Japanese hold several important beliefs about education, especially compulsory schooling: that all children have the ability to learn the material; that effort, perseverance, and selfdiscipline , not academic ability, determine academic success; and that these study and behavioral habits can be taught. Thus, students in elementary and lower-secondary schools are not grouped or taught on the basis of their ability, nor is instruction geared to individual differences.

The nationally designed curricula exposes students to balanced, basic education, and compulsory schooling is known for its equal educational treatment of students and for its relatively equal distribution of financial resources among schools. However, the demands made by the uniform curricula and approach extracts a price in lack of flexibility, including expected conformity of behavior. Little effort is made to address children with special needs and interests. Much of the reform proposed in the late 1980s, particularly that part emphasizing greater flexibility, creativity, and opportunities for greater individual expression, was aimed at changing these approaches.

Textbooks are free to students at compulsory school levels. New texts are selected by school boards or principals once every three years from the Ministry of Education's list of approved textbooks or from a small list of texts that the ministry itself publishes. The ministry bears the cost of distributing these books, in both public and private schools. Textbooks are small, paperbound volumes that can easily be carried by the students and that became their property.

Almost all schools have a system of access to health professionals. Educational and athletic facilities are good; almost all elementary schools had an outdoor playground, roughly 90 percent have a gymnasium, and 75 percent have an outdoor swimming pool.

Preschool and Day Care

Early childhood education begins at home, and there are numerous books and television shows aimed at helping mothers of preschool children to educate their children and to "parent" more effectively. Much of the home training is devoted to teaching manners, proper social behavior, and structured play, although verbal and number skills are also popular themes. Parents are strongly committed to early education and frequently enroll their children in preschools.

Preschool education provides the transition from home to formal school for most children. Children's lives at home are characterized by indulgence, and the largely nonacademic preschool experience helps children make the adjustment to the group-oriented life of school and, in turn, to life in society itself.

Preschools (yochien), predominantly staffed by young female junior college graduates, are supervised by the Ministry of Education, but are not part of the official education system. The 58 percent of preschools that are private accounted for 77 percent of all children enrolled. In addition to preschools, a well-developed system of government-supervised day-care centers (hoikuen), supervised by the Ministry of Labor, is an important provider of preschool education. Together, these two kinds of institutions enroll well over 90 percent of all preschoolage children prior to their entrance into the formal system at first grade. The Ministry of Education's 1990 Course of Study for Preschools, which applies to both kinds of institutions, covers such areas as human relationships, environment, words (language), and expression.

Elementary School

More than 99 percent of elementary school-age children are enrolled in school. All children enter first grade at age six, and starting school is considered a very important event in a child's life.

Virtually all elementary education takes place in public schools; less than 1 percent of the schools are private. Private schools tended to be costly, although the rate of cost increases in tuition for these schools had slowed in the 1980s. Some private elementary schools are prestigious, and they serve as a first step to higher-level private schools with which they are affiliated, and thence to a university. Competition to enter some of these "ladder schools" is quite intense.

Although public elementary education is free, some school expenses are borne by parents, for example, school lunches and supplies. For many families, there are also nonschool educational expenses, for extra books, or private lessons, or juku. Such expenses rose throughout the 1980s, reaching an average of 184,000 (US$1,314) in FY 1987 for each child. Costs for private elementary schools are substantially higher.

Elementary school classes are large, about thirty-one students per class on average, but higher numbers are permitted. Students are usually organized into small work groups, which have both academic and disciplinary functions. Discipline also is maintained, and a sense of responsibility encouraged, by the use of student monitors and by having the students assume responsibility for the physical appearance of their classroom and school.

The ministry's Course of Study for Elementary Schools is composed of a wide variety of subjects, both academic and nonacademic, including moral education and "special activities." "Special activities" refer to scheduled weekly time given over to class affairs and to preparing for the school activities and ceremonies that are used to emphasize character development and the importance of group effort and cooperation. The standard academic curriculum include Japanese language, social studies, arithmetic, and science. Nonacademic subjects taught include art and handicrafts, music, homemaking, physical education, and moral education. Japanese language is the most emphasized subject. The complexity of the written language and the diversity of its spoken forms in educated speech require this early attention.

A new course of study was established in 1989, partly as a result of the education reform movement of the 1980s and partly because of ongoing curriculum review. Important changes scheduled were an increased number of hours devoted to Japanese language, the replacement of the social sciences course with a daily life course- -instruction for children on proper interaction with the society and environment around them--and an increased emphasis on moral education. While evidence is still inconclusive, it appears that at least some children are having difficulties with the Japanese language. New emphasis also was to be given in the curriculum to the national flag and the national anthem. The ministry suggested that the flag be flown and the national anthem sung at important school ceremonies. Because neither the flag nor the anthem had been legally designated as national symbols, and because of the nationalistic wartime associations the two had in the minds of some citizens, this suggestion was greeted with some opposition. The revised history curriculum emphasized cultural legacies and events and the biographies of key figures. The ministry provided a proposed list of biographies, and there was some criticism surrounding particular suggestions.

Elementary teachers are generally responsible for all subjects, and classes remain in one room for most activities. Teachers are well prepared. Most teachers, about 60 percent of the total, are women; but most principals and head teachers in elementary schools are men.

Teachers have ample teaching materials and audiovisual equipment. There is an excellent system of educational television and radio, and almost all elementary schools use programs prepared by the School Education Division of Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai--NHK). In addition to broadcast media, schools increasingly are equipped with computers. Although only 6.5 percent of public elementary schools had personal computers in 1986, by 1989 the number had passed 20 percent. The ministry is greatly concerned with this issue and planned much greater use of such equipment.

Virtually all elementary schoolchildren receive a full lunch at school. Although heavily subsidized by the government, both directly and indirectly, the program is not altogether free. Full meals usually consist of bread (or increasingly, of rice), a main dish, and milk. Although the program grew out of concern in the immediate postwar period for adequate nutrition, the school lunch is also important as a teaching device. Because there are relatively few cafeterias in elementary schools, meals are taken in the classroom with the teacher, providing another informal opportunity for teaching nutrition and health and good eating habits and social behavior. Frequently, students also are responsible for serving the lunch and cleaning up.

Japanese elementary schooling is acknowledged both in Japan and abroad to be excellent, but not without some problems, notably increasing absenteeism and a declining but troublesome number of cases of bullying. In addition, special provision for the many young children returning to Japan from long absences overseas is an issue of major interest. The government also is concerned with the education of Japanese children residing abroad, and it sends teachers overseas to teach in Japanese schools.

Elementary school education is seen in Japan as fundamental in shaping a positive attitude toward lifelong education. Regardless of academic achievement, almost all children in elementary school are advanced to lower-secondary schools, the second of the two compulsory levels of education.

Lower-Secondary School

Lower-secondary school covers grades seven, eight, and nine-- children between the ages of roughly twelve and fifteen--with increased focus on academic studies. Although it is still possible to leave the formal education system after completing lowersecondary school and find employment, fewer than 4 percent did so by the late 1980s.

Like elementary schools, most lower-secondary schools in the 1980s were public, but 5 percent were private. Private schools were costly, averaging 558,592 (US$3,989) per student in 1988, about four times more than the 130,828 (US$934) that the ministry estimated as the cost for students enrolled in public lowersecondary schools.

The teaching force in lower-secondary schools is two-thirds male. Schools are headed by principals, 99 percent of whom were men in 1988. Teachers often majored in the subjects they taught, and more than 80 percent 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 elementary students, lower-secondary school students have different teachers for different subjects. The teacher, however, rather than the students, moves to a new room for each fifty-minute period.

Instruction in lower-secondary 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 percent of all public lower-secondary schools had computers, including schools that used them only for administrative purposes. Classroom organization is still based on small work groups, although no longer for reasons of discipline. By lower-secondary school, students are expected to have mastered daily routines and acceptable behavior.

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, usually English, begin at this level. The curriculum covers Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health, and physical education. All students also are exposed to either industrial arts or homemaking. Moral education and special activities continue to receive attention.

Students also attend mandatory club meetings during school hours, and many also participate in after-school clubs. Most lowersecondary students say they liked school, although it is the chance to meet their friends daily--not the lessons--that is particularly attractive to them.

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. By 1988 participants numbered over 1,000.

As part of the movement to develop an integrated curriculum and the education reform movement of the late 1980s, the entire Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools was revised in 1989 and took effect in the 1992-93 school year. A main aim of the reform is to equip students with the basic knowledge needed for citizenship. In some measure, this means increased emphasis on Japanese history and culture, as well as understanding Japan as a nation and its relationships with other nations of the world. The course of study also increased elective hours, recommending that electives be chosen in light of individual student differences and with an eye toward diversification.

Two problems of great concern to educators and citizens began to appear at the lower-secondary level in the 1980s: bullying, which seemed rampant in the mid-1980s but had abated somewhat by the end of the decade, and the school-refusal syndrome (toko kyohi--manifested by a student's excessive absenteeism), which was on the rise. Experts disagreed over the specific causes of these phenomena, but there is general agreement that the system offers little individualized or specialized assistance, thus contributing to disaffection among those who can not conform to its demands or who are otherwise experiencing difficulties. Another problem concerns Japanese children returning from abroad. These students, particularly if they have been overseas for extended periods, often need help not only in reading and writing but also in adjusting to rigid classroom demands. Even making the adjustment does not guarantee acceptance: besides having acquired a foreign language, many of these students have also acquired foreign customs of speech, dress, and behavior that mark them as different.

Special Education

Japanese special education at the compulsory level is highly organized in the late 1980s, even though it had been nationally mandated and implemented only in 1979. There is still controversy over whether children with special needs can or should be "mainstreamed." In a society that stresses the group, many parents desire to have their children attend regular schools. Mainstreaming in Japan, however, does not necessarily mean attending regular classes; it often means attending a regular school that has special classes for handicapped students. There are also special public schools for the handicapped, which have departments equivalent to the various levels of elementary and secondary schools, including kindergarten and upper-secondary departments in some cases. There are few private institutions for special education. Some students attend regular classes and also special classes for training for their particular needs. Some teachers are also dispatched to children who can not attend schools.

Upper-Secondary School

Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, 94 percent of all lower-secondary school graduates entered uppersecondary schools in 1989. Private upper-secondary schools account for about 24 percent 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 (US$2,142) in both 1986 and 1987 and that private upper-secondary schools were about twice as expensive.

All upper-secondary schools, public and private, are informally ranked, based on their success in placing graduates in freshman classes of the most prestigious universities. In the 1980s, private upper-secondary schools occupied the highest levels of this hierarchy, and there was substantial pressure to do well in the examinations that determined the upper-secondary school a child entered. Admission also depends on the scholastic record and performance evaluation from lower-secondary school, but the examination results largely determine school entrance. Students are closely counseled in lower-secondary school, so that they will be relatively assured of a place in the schools to which they apply.

The most common type of upper-secondary schools has a fulltime , general program that offered academic courses for students preparing for higher education and also technical and vocational courses for students expecting to find employment after graduation. More than 70 percent of upper-secondary school students were enrolled in the general academic program in the late 1980s. A small number of schools offer part-time or 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 percent of all students in full-time vocational programs in 1989.

The upper-secondary curriculum also underwent thorough revision; in 1989 a new Course of Study for Upper-Secondary Schools was announced that was to be phased in beginning with the tenth grade in 1994, followed by the eleventh grade in 1995 and the twelfth grade in 1996. Among noteworthy changes is the requirement that both male and female students take a course in home economics. The government is concerned with instilling in all students an awareness of the importance of family life, the various roles and responsibilities of family members, the concept of cooperation within the family, and the role of the family in society. The family continues to be an extremely important part of the social infrastructure, and the ministry clearly is interested in maintaining family stability within a changing society. Another change of note was the division of the old social studies course into history, geography, and civics courses.

Most upper-secondary teachers are university graduates. Uppersecondary schools are organized into departments, and teachers specialize in their major fields although they teach a variety of courses within their disciplines. Although women compose about 20 percent of the teaching force, only 2.5 percent of principals are women.

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. As in lower-secondary school, the teachers, not the students, move from room to room after each fifty-minute class period.

Upper-secondary students are subject to a great deal of supervision by school authorities and school rules even outside of school. Students' behavior and some activities are regulated by school codes that are known and obeyed by most children. School regulations often set curfews and govern dress codes, hairstyles, student employment, and even leisure activities. The school frequently is responsible for student discipline when a student ran afoul of the regulations or, occasionally, of the law.

Delinquency generally, and school violence in particular, are troubling to Japanese authorities. Violations by upper-secondary school students include smoking and some substance abuse (predominantly of amphetamines). Use of drugs, although not a serious problem by international standards, is of concern to the police and civil authorities. Bullying and the drop-out rate are also subjects of attention. Upper-secondary students drop out at a rate of between 2.0 and 2.5 percent per year. The graduation rates for upper-secondary schools stood at 87.5 percent in 1987.

Discrimination in education is prohibited, but the hisabetsu buraku discriminated communities, a group of people racially and culturally Japanese who have been discriminated against historically, are still disadvantaged in education to some degree. Their relatively poor educational attainment through the upper-secondary level in the 1960s was said to have been largely corrected by the 1980s, but reliable evidence is lacking.

There are some private schools for the children of the foreign community in Japan, and there are some Korean schools for children of Japan's Korean minority population, many of whom are secondgeneration or third-generation residents in Japan. Graduates of Korean schools face some discrimination, particularly in entering higher education. Observers estimated that 75 percent of Korean children were attending Japanese schools in the early 1980s.

Training of handicapped students, particularly at the uppersecondary level, emphasizes vocational education to enable students to be as independent as possible within society. Vocational training varies considerably depending on the student's handicap, 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 handicapped students.

Upper-secondary school students returning to Japan after living overseas present another problem. The ministry was trying to get upper-secondary schools to accept these students more readily and in the late 1980s had decided to allow credit for one uppersecondary school year spent abroad.

Upper-secondary school graduates choosing to enter the labor force are supported by a very effective system of job placement, which, combined with favorable economic conditions, keeps the unemployment rate among new graduates quite low. For those students going on to college, the final phases of school life becomes increasingly dedicated to preparing for examinations, particularly in some of the elite private schools. About 31 percent of upper-secondary graduates advance to some form of higher education directly after graduation.

After-school clubs provide an important upper-secondary school activity. Sports, recreational reading, and watching television are popular daily leisure activities, but schoolwork and other studies remain the focus of the daily lives of most children. The college entrance examinations greatly influence school life and study habits, not only for college-bound students but also indirectly for all; the prospect of the examinations often imparts a seriousness to the tone of school life at the upper-secondary level.

After-School Education

Much debated, and often criticized in the late twentieth century, juku are special private schools that offer highly organized lessons conducted after regular school hours and on the weekends. Although best known and most widely publicized for their role as "cram schools," where children (sent by concerned parents) can study to improve scores on upper-secondary school entrance examinations, academic juku actually perform several educational functions. They provide supplementary education that many children need just to keep up with the regular school curriculum, remedial education for the increasing numbers of children who fall behind in their work, and preparation for students striving to improve test scores and preparing for the all-important upper-secondary and university entrance examinations. In many ways, juku compensate for the formal education system's inability or unwillingness to address particular individual problems. Half of all compulsory school-age children attend academic juku, which offers instruction in mathematics, Japanese language, science, English, and social studies. Many other children, particularly younger children, attend nonacademic juku for piano lessons, art instruction, swimming, and abacus lessons. To some observers, juku represent an attempt by parents to exercise a meaningful measure of choice in Japanese education, particularly for children attending public schools. Some juku offer subject matter not available in the public school curricula, while others emphasize a special philosophical or ethical approach.

Juku also play a social role, and children in Japan say they liked going to juku because they are able to make new friends; many children ask to be sent because their friends attend. Some children seem to like juku because of the closer personal contact they have with their teachers.

Juku attendance rose from the 1970s through the mid1980s ; participation rates increases at every grade level throughout the compulsory education years. This phenomenon is a source of great concern to the ministry, which issued directives to the regular schools that it hoped would reduce the need for afterschool lessons, but these directives have had little practical effect. Some juku even have branches in the United States and other countries to help children living abroad catch up with students in Japan.

Because of the commercial nature of most juku, some critics argue that they have profit rather than education at heart. Not all students can afford to attend juku. Therefore juku introduce some inequality into what had been a relatively egalitarian approach to education, at least in public schools through ninth grade. Yet, while some juku are expensive, the majority are affordable for most families; juku can not price themselves beyond the reach of their potential clientele. If rising enrollments in juku are any indication, costs are not yet a limiting factor for most parents, and juku clearly are given some priority in family budgeting.

If a student does not attend juku, it dies not mean that he or she is necessarily at a disadvantage in school. Other avenues of assistance are available. For example, self-help literature and supplemental texts and study guides, some produced by publishing houses associated with juku, are widely available commercially. Most of these items are moderately priced. A correspondence course of the Upper-Secondary School of the Air is broadcast almost daily on the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai--NHK) educational radio and television channels. These programs are free, and costs for accompanying textbooks are nominal. In addition, about 1 percent of elementary school students and 7.3 percent of lower-secondary school students take extra lessons at home with tutors.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress