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Educational System—overview

Since the end of World War II education has been compulsory for all children in Japan for nine years, which includes six years of primary school (also called elementary school) and three years of lower secondary school (also called middle school or junior high school). Children start their schooling at the age of six. After graduating from primary school six years later, and then lower secondary school three years after that, they have completed their compulsory educational period by the age of 15. At that point, most students move along to upper secondary school (high school) for three additional years, followed by four years of university education for an even more select group. Because of changes in the population patterns of Japan, the number of students in primary school has declined steadily since 1980, though the number of students enrolled in universities has increased every year since the end of World War II.

Academic Year: The academic year in Japan begins in April and ends the following March. Students have a summer vacation of several weeks starting in July, as well as a two-week break at New Year's. The year is broken down into three main terms beginning in April, September, and January, respectively. School generally starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends about 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. There was a half day of additional schooling on Saturday morning, but schools have gradually been dropping the Saturday schedule and moving instead to a five-day school week.

Language of Instruction: The language used most predominantly in Japanese schools is, of course, the Japanese language. Dominant features of this language are the high dependence on context to determine meaning, the precise ordering of words in a sentence, and the use of three different types of character systems in the written language (kanji, hiragana, and katakana). The complexity of the written language means that Japanese students spend many years studying their own language.

Although Japanese is the dominant language of instruction, there is no law declaring it the official language of the country. In fact, a school could use other languages. There are now a few schools that use English to teach science and mathematics classes. Although English is usually not the language of instruction, it is now studied by almost all students in Japan—making it the most commonly used foreign language in the country. The entrance exams for high school and for universities test for English ability.

It appears that the question of the role of English in the school system—and, indeed, in the entire culture—will remain a controversial subject for some years to come. A report entitled "Japan's Vision for the 21st Century," submitted to the Japanese prime minister's office in early 2000, suggests that the government consider establishing English as Japan's official second language. Given the need to increase the "global literacy" of the population, the report went on to urge that all students should be able to speak English before they start working after their schooling. Although the reading and writing of English is taught in schools, speaking and listening skills lag behind. So the recommendation of the report would require a significant upgrading of English language training in Japan.

A final point about the language of instruction concerns the minority populations in Japan. Although Japanese remains the dominant language in the classroom, there are significant numbers of Japanese residents whose native language is not Japanese. The native Ainu population, located mainly in the northern island of Hokkaido, is not permitted to receive courses in the Ainu language and culture in the public schools. Other linguistic minorities include Chinese and Ryukyuan (Okinawa). The teaching of ethnic languages and cultures remains a politically charged subject in Japan, though the debate has not yet presented any significant challenge to the dominance of Japanese as the language of instruction in the school system.

Use of Technology: Japan continues to emphasize the use of technology in education at all levels. In 1998 the Curriculum Council submitted a major recommendation report to the Ministry of Education, in which it advocated the use of computers throughout the educational system. Apparently that report has brought even more attention to the need to increase the exposure of Japanese students to instructional technology.

Statistics from 1999 suggest that although almost all public schools have computers, many teachers have not yet learned to use them in their teaching. As of March 1999, computers were used in 97.7 percent of primary schools, 99.9 percent of lower secondary schools, and 100 percent of upper secondary schools. The average number per school was 12.9, 32.1, and 76.4, respectively. Contrasted to these figures are the relatively low percentages of teachers who can use the technology effectively: 28.7 percent in primary schools, 26.1 percent in lower secondary, and 26.0 percent for upper secondary.

More traditional audiovisual media are widely used in Japan, especially in the primary schools. Television, audiotapes, and videotapes are common support for teaching. Especially popular is the use of broadcasts of educational programming produced by NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Also, in July 1999 the Ministry of Education started a television station devoted exclusively to the education of Japan's children. Called the Children's Broadcasting Station, the channel beams programs by communications satellite to receiving stations that have telephone links. When the station broadcasts programs on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month (school holidays), children can send faxes back to the television guests and take part in videoconferences.

Another technology Japan has started to use is distance education. Although the country is probably behind the United States in the development of distance education, some educational institutions are now becoming quite active in the field. One prestigious institution, Waseda University, has linked up with five universities around the country to offer real-time online classes, as part of a trial program. What has enabled universities like Waseda to begin such programs is the relaxing of previously strict standards for transferring credit from one institution to another. As of 1998 college and junior college students have been allowed to earn up to almost half the credits for a degree from institutions other than their home institution. That change, as well as the spread of Internet and related technology, suggests that Japan will be a major player in distance education in years to come.

Entrance Exams: The Japanese system places great emphasis on the use of exams as qualifiers for all levels of schooling. Exams exist for students entering preschool, primary, lower secondary, upper secondary, and universities. Yet clearly the most crucial tests are those given for entrance to the upper secondary schools (high school) and universities. The high school entrance tests are mainly for determining what type of school students will attend—not if they will attend, because well over 90 percent of middle school students go on to high school. Both private and public high schools require such tests and usually test students in five main fields: English, mathematics, Japanese, social studies, and science.

For admission to most public universities and some private ones, students are required to take the University Entrance Examination Center Tests. These standardized tests comprise mostly objective questions in the Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, and foreign languages. When students receive the test results, they then have a much better idea of the range of colleges and universities to which they would likely be admitted. The final decision for admission to a particular institution may depend on the standardized test results, the test given by the individual college or university, and the student's high school record.

International Issues: A major international issue related to education in Japan concerns Japanese who are living, or used to live, abroad. The number of children of Japanese who have lived overseas has grown considerably in recent decades because of the large number of government and industry employees who have been assigned to positions outside Japan.

In the 1998 school year, for example, the following number of students lived overseas for at least one year and returned to Japan: 7,700 at the primary school level, 2,908 at middle school level, and 7,700 at the high school level. Returning elementary and middle school students do not have to take entrance exams, but returning high school students do. Often students are given special consideration in testing, but they also may need to take additional course work—especially in reading and writing Japanese. Language proficiency can be a problem if students did not regularly attend Japanese schools overseas.

Curriculum Reform: It is important to observe that there are serious efforts taking place to analyze and respond to problems with the curriculum in Japanese schools. Of particular note is a recommendation report submitted in 1998 by the Curriculum Council to the Minister of Education. The report suggests that the public school system should do a better job of emphasizing problem-solving activities, independent thinking, the use of computers in all subjects at all levels, and interdisciplinary courses that integrate content from diverse content areas. It also suggests that the school day be reduced to weekdays only. Some of these recommendations, such as the shorter school week, are being implemented. The report reflects the interest of the Japanese to improve an educational system that, overall, has worked well for them.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceJapan - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education