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Japan

Secondary Education

Secondary education in Japan comprises two main divisions: lower secondary (also called middle school or junior high school) and upper secondary (also called high school or senior high school). Included here is information on juku, the private schools that many students attend in addition to public school.


Junior High School: After completing their six years of elementary school, students shift to the last three years of compulsory education—called variously junior high school, middle school, or lower secondary school—usually when they are between the ages of 12 and 15. One significant change is that their curriculum is now divided by subject matter, creating a more regimented environment than elementary school. Classes last longer than in elementary school—50 minutes as opposed to 45 minutes. Unlike many U.S. schools, the Japanese junior high schools require the teachers to move from classroom to classroom instead of the students. Teachers generally teach only one of the three grade levels. Thus both students and teachers acquire a sense of community in their grade, and students view themselves as part of a home-room class.

The curriculum of middle school includes four main groupings: required subjects, elective subjects, moral education, and extracurricular activities. The eight required subjects are as follows: Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health and physical education, and industrial arts or homemaking. Students are exposed to courses that provide vocational and technical classes as well as academic subjects. This feature is especially important because classes at this level include a broad range of students, not just those who are likely to attend college or even high school.

Elective subjects include a foreign language or another special subject such as music or art. But almost all students in middle school choose to take English. Like primary school, the middle school schedule includes one hour of moral education each week, but there is no specific religious education in public schools. The final category of the curriculum—extracurricular activities—includes sports, clubs, assemblies, ceremonies, plays, musical events, field trips away from school, and educational guidance, such as instruction for using the library and safety advice for walking in traffic-congested streets. Such activities may take place on or off the school campus.

A curious phenomenon seen among both primary and middle school Japanese children—but more among the latter—is called "school allergy." This term describes an emotional condition whereby a child develops fever, headaches, nausea, or other medical symptoms that make him or her stay home from school. The numbers of affected students have risen sharply in recent decades. A Ministry of Education survey determined that in 1991, 54,112 middle school children missed 30 or more days of school in a year as a result of emotional problems. That was up from 7,310 students in 1974. The numbers for primary school students were 2,651 in 1974 and 12,637 in 1991. Reasons vary for this "allergy," but three notable ones are as follows: fear of being bullied by other students, which has been a growing problem in Japanese schools; anxiety about entrance examinations; and reaction to the strict administration of the schools. Though physical bullying is said to have decreased since the late 1980s, both physical and verbal bullying and other forms of violence continue to be a larger problem in middle schools that in any other component of the educational system.


Senior High School: The term upper secondary school, also called high school or senior high school, is used to indicate the noncompulsory education beyond middle school. High school provides general or specialized education in three main formats: full-time, part-time, or correspondence. Although the full-time option generally lasts three years, part-time or correspondence school usually takes additional time for completion. Over 95 percent of junior high school graduates enter some form of high school, and about 70 percent of these students attend a public high school.

Admission to high school is based on the results of a test, and competition for acceptance into the best schools is incredibly fierce. To prepare for the exams, many students attend what are called yobiko (cram schools) in the evening—to gain admission both to high school and also to the university. With a full school day and evening obligations such as yobiko, many secondary school students have little if any time remaining for personal activities beyond the routine of schooling. This phenomenon worries many Japanese leaders and has led to a reevaluation of the average number of hours students spend in school each year.

Most high school students follow an academic track that prepares them to apply for entrance to universities. Once in an academic high school, students discover that their school day resembles that of junior high in that class periods last 50 minutes, courses are given in essentially the same subjects, and the extracurricular activities are similar. However, students in vocational high schools have a different routine. They often take on part-time employment, and they almost always enter the workplace after graduation.

The curriculum of academic high schools commonly includes courses in the following subjects: Japanese language, geography and history, civics, mathematics, science, health and physical education, the arts, and home economics. The vast majority of students also take English, with a lesser number taking European languages such as French or German. As for the particular content level of the coursework, here is an overview:

  • Japanese language: The focus in high school is on classical Japanese. Students are expected to enter high school having learned the 1,945 kanji characters known as the joyo kanji.
  • Social Studies: Geography and history are taught as one course in high school, along with a civics course. Students at this level have gone beyond local and regional issues to study Japan and East Asia in an international context.
  • Mathematics: High school math courses include general math, algebra, geometry, basic analysis, differentiation and integration, and probability and statistics.
  • Science: High school students are required to take two from the following list of courses: comprehensive science, basic science, physics, chemistry, biology, or earth science.
  • Health and Physical Education: Options in physical education classes include gymnastics, track and field, swimming, ball games of different types, kendo, sumo, judo, and dancing. Health classes focus on the prevention of disease and on the cultivation of healthy habits as a young adult.
  • The Arts: High school students generally select two of the following courses: music, art, calligraphy, or crafts. Art course offerings may include painting, drawing, sculpture, or graphic design.
  • Home Economics: As in lower schools, high school home economics comprises courses for both boys and girls that stress skills such as cooking, sewing, consumer skills, and computer use. Courses for boys tend to be called "Industrial Arts."

As mentioned earlier, the Curriculum Council submitted a report to the Ministry of Education that included a number of substantive recommendations for changing the public school system. This 1998 report suggested that secondary schools should offer a new required course called "Information Study." Such a course would help students learn to think independently, to process and send information via computers, and to fully participate in an information-driven society. Recommendation reports like this one are commissioned by the Ministry of Education as part of its periodic review of the Japanese education system.


Juku: Japanese education includes a "shadow" system of private schooling that students use to supplement the conventional education they receive. In addition to the yobiko (cram schools), the umbrella term juku is often used by Japanese students and teachers to encompass the full range of academic options outside the school system. The two main types of juku, other than cram schools, are as follows: naraigato/okeikogoto, courses that provide personal enrichment such as calligraphy or piano; and gakushu, (academic) juku, courses and tutoring that are directly related to academics. Academic juku can be taken to gain remedial help in particular courses or to provide advanced learning in preparation for entrance exams. These courses are to be distinguished from the specific type of juku called yobiko, which exclusively prepares students for particular exams. Although ideally juku are taken while a student is still in school, students who fail to gain admission to colleges of their choice may spend a year or two after high school studying in yobiko in hopes of being admitted on their next try.

A very high percentage of students attend juku. In 1998 it amounted to 71.8 percent of public junior high students, 54.9 percent of private junior high students, 35.1 percent of public senior high students, and 40.9 percent or private senior high students. These schools have turned into a huge business in Japan. In the mid-1990s, the largest such school in the country, called Yoyogi Seminar, had 27 branches, 2,000 employees, and a gross revenue of tens of millions of dollars.

Opinions about juku vary widely in Japan. The public has generally accepted them as a "second" school system that complements the public system and fills the gap between what the conventional schools teach and what the next level of schooling and related exams require. Even many educators recognize the value of juku in this respect. Of course, the juku employees and owners would agree that they provide an essential service. Critics of juku use the same argument to point out that the popularity of juku reflects the absolute failure of the Japanese educational system to prepare students for an academically rigorous future. Others note that juku focus primarily on rote memory learning. The time devoted to the schooling on nights and weekends keeps youth from balancing both work and play in their lives. But there are others who claim that juku in fact create an environment for social interaction of children, much like high school clubs do. You can find almost as many opinions about juku as there are people ready to talk about them. The fact is that juku are a part of the educational landscape that provide a necessary service and are not about to disappear.


Additional topics

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