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In many ways, Japanese education can be considered an overall success story, though certainly not without its problems in the early part of the twenty-first century. Highlights of what has worked well in Japanese education follow:

  1. The nation is almost universally literate, with a high level of fluency and with a large amount of shared cultural knowledge among the populace.
  2. About 96 percent of students who complete the nine years of compulsory education proceed on to the optional three years of upper secondary school.
  3. Students completing high school enjoy a wide range of education options that include universities, junior colleges, technical colleges, and special training schools.
  4. The organization overseeing the system, the Ministry of Education, has helped to promote a fairly high level of student standards and achievement, teacher training, and educational funding over the years.
  5. The nation has remained reflective enough to recognize the problems in its education system and thus to initiate reform movements at critical periods in its history.

There are many nations throughout the world that are envious of the educational achievements in Japan. Japan's success seems especially remarkable in light of the huge efforts that had to be mounted at two particularly significant historical junctures: after the "opening" of Japan in 1853, when the country raced to modernize following over 200 years of virtual cultural isolation; and after World War II, when much of the countries' infrastructure lay in ruins.

Its overall success in education notwithstanding, Japan now confronts a number of heady challenges that will once again require the nation to overcome major obstacles. Here are five needs that are most prominent:

  1. Need to Reduce Regimentation: The very quality that helped Japan's educational system take its part in the technological success of the country has come under criticism. One main result of recent reform movements has been to introduce more creativity and critical thinking skills into the curriculum. But the nation still has challenges ahead in reducing the emphasis on memorized learning, entrance exams, and outside "cram" schools.
  2. Need to Reduce Rebelliousness and Related Problems: Figures from 1999 show some downturn in the bullying cases that were a large problem in the 1980s. However, statistics from 1999 also reveal troubling numbers of cases that involve problems such as general acts of violence, truancy, and violence against teachers—at least when compared with early data. Violence against teachers increased markedly in the last 15 years of the 1900s, a fact of particular concern in a culture with a history of Confucian respect for teachers and others in authority.
  3. Need to Respond to Issues of Minority Communities: Some minority communities feel that the overwhelming sense of homogeneity in the Japanese culture affects the culture of the classroom as well. More sensitivity to the linguistic, social and intellectual needs of minority children is needed.
  4. Need to Enhance the Intellectual Atmosphere in Universities: Although there have been some positive changes in the academic and social structure of universities, many of them still fail to challenge students intellectually. The system needs to rid itself of the perception, and in some cases reality, that a university education is more a reward for the hard work of completing high school and scoring well on entrance exams than it is a chance to take advantage of a stimulating intellectual environment.
  5. Need to Increase Opportunities for Women Students: There have been significant advances in Japanese culture in general, and education in particular, with regard to gender equity. But work remains in ensuring that women are not expected, by their families or by the culture, to attend a certain type of postsecondary school or to enter a certain type of profession.

These needs notwithstanding, Japan has an enviable education system that has served the culture and its people quite well. If its history and the industry of its people are any indication, then one should expect that Japan will continue to reform its educational system to meet the needs of the future.


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—Minoru Moriguchi and William Sanborn Pfeiffer

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