Education is without a doubt a fundamental pillar of growth for human beings all around the world. Every country has its own methods in teaching and raising children in order to become part of the unique culture that is their own, and the Japanese education system is no different.

I spent four years working in Nishinoomote City’s Board of Education, allowing me the opportunity to see and be a part of an education system very different than that of my USA schooling. It was an eye opening glimpse into a very different—and equally admirable—way of fostering child growth and guiding them as they grew into young adults. I’d like to note here that I worked primarily with elementary and junior high school students, and so my experiences come from the period where Japanese kids are faced less with the difficult testing system that comes about in high school into university. That being said, let’s take a closer look at what students are up to in Japan.

Children cleaning their classroom

The education system in Japan

School is typically divided into five cycles:

  • Yōchien (幼稚園, Nursery school) from 3 to 6 years old.
  • Shōgakkō (小学, Elementary school) from 6 to 12.
  • Chūgakkō (中学, Middle School) from 12 to 15.
  • Kōkō (高校, High school) from 15 to 18.
  • Daigaku (大学, University) or Senmongakkō (専 門 学校, Vocational school) in general with a duration of 2 to 4 years.

The United States typically (though this can differ depending on state and school district) divides education into Pre-school (3-5 years old), Kindergarten (5-6), Elementary school, Middle/Junior High School, High School, and on to College/University/Vocational School; with middle school being 2 years and high school being 4.

The main difference I found interesting between Japanese and American elementary schools was the heavier emphasis on morals and ethics education in Japan. Standard subjects such as mathematics, science, music, and physical education are of course taught, but morals is a separate subject complete with textbook and allocated time. It’s less of a time to state what kids should or shouldn’t do, but rather more of a period to facilitate discussion on moral dilemmas; how students would react to a given situation. There were never wrong or right answers, just time to talk about the black, white, and grey areas—just like real life.

School is compulsory until 15 years of age; however 99% of chūgakkō graduates enroll in high school to continue their studies. Those enrolled in public schools (until chūgakkō) do not pay registration or school material fees. Families pay secondary costs such as meals and school trips. Whereas in the US there has been a heavy emphasis on graduating high school and moving on to an academic University, in Japan it’s less taboo to enroll in institutes specializing in agricultural, industrial, or technical training.

Japanese students in school uniforms in front of a temple

Exams

Testing—specifically entrance exams—is its own world in Japan. Students wishing to move up into junior high schools, high schools, or universities, must pass grueling entrance exams. So grueling, in fact, that they’re dubbed exam hell (shiken jigoku, 試験地獄). These tests take an endless number of sleepless nights to study for, with students often sitting in cram schools after regular classes in order to try and get a leg up on the test.

I remember seeing my junior high school students studying for high school entrance exams, and they absolutely disappeared during these times. Many students began studying for these exams during their second year of junior high school, which meant about two years of studying just to get into the high school they sought after.

University is just as difficult. Selection requirements are often so difficult that only about 56% of students pass on their first try. Those who fail become ronin (samurai without a master, 浪人), and must study for an entire year on their own in order to try for next year’s test.

Times, however, have been changing. As foreign companies enter Japan and bring in their own work cultures, the strict test-results-only standard is slowly morphing. Western culture, for example, looks at skills, experience, and personality on top of good schools. As these businesses enter Japanese society, the Japanese education system evolves.

Life at school

School life is packed. Students attend classes from Monday to Friday, with additional half days every two Saturdays. On top of that, many students choose (probably sometimes involuntarily) to attend juku (cram school/after school classes, 塾) in order to study for entrance exams or get a better handle on specific subjects like English. Those who don’t attend juku participate in after school clubs and activities, such as baseball, volleyball, kendo, or any number of sports.

There are no janitors in Japanese schools. Students divide into teams to tackle all manners of keeping their school clean. Some mop the floors (or team up with rags and run across the floor in lines), some wipe the chalkboards, some sweep, and others weed the gardens. It’s an amazing team building activity, having the kids keep each other accountable for their own school and all working together to get it done. I found it an especially rewarding activity in my schools, running across floors pushing rags and sweating through my work clothes. It helped me build a bond with my kids and let me see a less serious side of how they interacted with each other.

Then there are huge festivals! On top of all this, kids prepare for sports festivals, culture festivals, exhibitions, plays, and song celebrations. All of these practice times are usually done on the students’ own time after school, so you can see how this all comes together to make a packed schedule.

Japanese students studying in class

Gakureki shakai

It’s no wonder that around the world the Japanese education system is recognized as one of the best. In addition to academics, schools also seek to teach morals to the young in an effort to raise well rounded, good human beings. While working in the school system, I saw many things that I wished could be implemented into the American school system.

Not everything is perfect, and though Japan boasts a solid educational system, it can revolve too narrowly around school and tests. This is known as gakureki shakai (学 歴 社会). Competition between students to enter high schools and universities is so high that kids sometimes spend a majority of their time studying in order to get on the right track for the right school. Sometimes students break down, burn out and drop out. Some face bullying for not getting into good schools. Some even withdraw from society, too taxed mentally to face the hurdles of life and education. Nowadays, though, much is being done in the way of reshaping a school system that puts less pressure on students.

In any case, the system must be doing something right. Japanese society has strong educational values that have created a very beautiful, intelligent society. Come check it out if you don’t believe me!

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