A couple of years ago, I was watching the Super Bowl with my father, and around halftime a commercial came on. It opened with a dilapidated old cheese bus rumbling through the countryside with a load of dejected-looking American kids looking out the windows. Then, a shiny, totally kawaii Japanese school bus pulls up next to the American bus: the American bus slows down and stops, while the Japanese bus drives on. The commercial was funded by the National Education Association, which represents American teachers in Washington, DC.

The point of that anecdote was to reveal how much Americans seem to revere and scorn the apparent superiority of Japanese education. It also reveals how little most Americans know about the Japanese way of teaching: after all, aside from a handful of JET Programme alumni (yo, pi, liontamer, and Starrynight!) out there, very few honkies have seen or experienced Japanese schooling.

The Pre-Modern Era

The history of Japanese education dates back as far as kanji literacy does, at least to the 600's CE. Nobility had their own schools after the Taiho Code of 701, which eventually became schools for samurai children during Japan's Middle Ages. Education at this time followed the precepts of Confucianism, and mostly consisted of studying and memorizing Chinese classics such as the Analects of Confucius and Art of War.

During the Edo era, starting in the middle of the 17th century, two new forms of schooling appeared. The first was the 寺子屋 terakoya, or temple school, which was the first type of common school in Japan. As the terakoya spread across the country in the 1700's and 1800's, Japan's early bourgeoisie began to develop, who would eventually be key in challenging the bakufu as soon as the opening of Japan gave them a good excuse.

The other new schools were the schools of Dutch studies, or 蘭学 rangaku, which were essentially an early form of university to teach young samurai about combined arms, medicine, and other European sciences. They got their name, and their unique standing, because of Japan's closed status at the time: outside knowledge was only allowed to trickle in through the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki.

The Japanese educational system was one of the most advanced in the world at this time, despite its isolation and its concentration on ancient texts: at the time of the Meiji Restoration, the literacy rate in Japan was around forty percent, well ahead of many powers in Europe.

The Prewar Era

After the arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853, Japan's leaders and eminent scholars began to slowly warm to Western science, and a few began to ponder the potential for education reform. The most important figure during this period was Fukuzawa Yukichi, who had travelled extensively around America and Europe, and had come to the conclusion that the most effective school system in the world at that time was in Prussia.

Japan settled on a 6-3-5 system similar to the Prussian/German system. The lower level of education was called 小学校 shôgakkô "primary school," and was followed by 中学校 chûgakkô "middle school" and 高等学校 kôtôgakkô "high school," the latter of which was more similar to the German gymnasium than the American high school. Only primary school was compulsory.

Japan's first true universities developed around this time as well. The first university was the Imperial University in Tokyo, which later changed its name to Tokyo Imperial University after other Imperial Universities were established in major cities. There were also many private universities: some, like Fukuzawa's Keio University and its rival Waseda University, were founded and operated by Japanese, while others, like Sophia University and Rikkyo University, were run by gaijin missionaries, predominantly Jesuit.

Schools at this time were under very rigid control from the state: the cabinet's Ministry of Education dictated almost all aspects of their curriculum. This state control increased after Emperor Meiji sent out the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, which marked the beginning of a wave of indoctrination that would reach its peak before and during World War II. As the Japanese Empire spread, its school system spread as well, finding its way into China and Southeast Asia, where vestiges of its influence can still be seen today. Korea and Taiwan's systems are particularly remniscient of Japan's.

The Postwar Era

The Allied Occupation of Japan changed all of this, passing the Fundamental Law on Education in 1947. Kôtôgakkô were shortened to three years, in an attempt to better replicate American high schools, and the three levels of schooling became known as elementary school, junior high school, and senior high school respectively, although their Japanese names stayed the same. Junior high school became compulsory. The imperial universities were shut down, restructured, and reopened, and kindergartens (幼稚園 yôchien) were implemented for the first time.

Still, many tidbits of the old system remain. There is still a great deal of centralized control: for instance, the Ministry of Education has to put its rubber stamp on every textbook used in the curriculum (which is why the government gets blamed for its one-sided history textbooks). School uniforms are still the norm, rather than the exception, and the senior high curriculum is more fitting of a preparatory school, serving mainly as a segue to university.


In addition to their academic curriculum, Japanese schools have a strong social and cultural curriculum that is taught outside of the classroom. Students have to clean the school themselves every day, which teaches them about work at a young age. In addition, virtually all Japanese students are involved in some form of extracurricular activity: often martial arts, tea ceremony, calligraphy, or another Japanese tradition, which gets them acquainted to the "working clique" idea that pervades Japanese society up until the point when the salarymen retire.

The strongest elements of the academic curriculum, seemingly since the beginning of time, have been language arts and mathematics. Japan's functional literacy rate hovers around 95 percent, which is an amazing achievement considering that a high school proficiency in written Japanese requires the memorization of over 2,000 characters. While Americans would be considered advanced if they finished trigonometry in high school, most Japanese are doing trig in the tenth grade, and working their way through basic calculus by the twelfth.

Since the three R's are the general basis of comparing school systems worldwide, it is unsurprising that the Japanese school system seems to be light years ahead of the American school system. There are reasons for this, however: Japanese kids don't become geniuses in a void.

For one, teachers (教師 kyôshi in the neutral sense, 先生 sensei in the honorific sense) have always been more respected and higher salaried than their counterparts in other countries... especially the United States, where teachers have been commonly perceived as worthless vagabonds since the beginning, and given pithy salaries. This means that Japan's teachers tend to be among the best-educated workers in the country: it's easy for a Japanese person to turn down a company job in favor of a teaching career.

There's also a more insidious skew at play here. Social studies education, which is rarely used in standardized testing as a benchmark for schools, is scant in Japan, and mostly consists of learning by rote. Students are taught what happened in history, what country is located where, and that's as far as the curriculum goes. There is very little questioning of history (which is perhaps understandable in Japan), and only a perfunctory glance at civics.

Unlike America, too, Japan is dealing with an essentially homogeneous population. They don't have immigration and ethnic minorities to farg up their standardized testing methods, and so they can form their curriculum without worrying about offending or excluding politically active groups (Koreans and Chinese who protest history textbooks don't get much say in the matter).

There's one more factor behind this accelerated curriculum, which warrants a heading of its own. So here we go:

Tracking in Japan

America has had a simple system of tracking in its schools for decades: in other words, a way of separating students based on their perceived potential, and putting them into advanced placement, honors, and vocational education courses. As far as tracking goes, the Japanese system has one-upped America's in every way, and then some.

First of all, it is important to understand that universities in Japan are highly stratified. The former imperial universities (mainly the University of Tokyo, but also Kyoto University and Osaka University), as well as the private schools of the rokudai, are where 95% of Japan's political, commercial, and intellectual elite graduate from. Each university has its own entrance examination, which, for these schools, consists of feats of memorization might comparable to hand-to-hand combat on the rim of a vat of boiling oil.

The senior high curriculum is essentially tailored to prepare students for these examinations, but there is no single curriculum for high schools. This means that every high school has a different curriculum, tailored for students planning to go into different levels of the university structure. And that means that a handful of high schools graduate the students at the top universities, which means that getting into the top high schools is often a difficult proposition in itself, requiring a good junior high education.

Can you see the pattern developing here? In America, what high school you go to is basically determined by where you live (unless you go to a magnet school). In Japan, however, students have to compete viciously to get into high schools hours away from their homes, just so they have an advantage in getting into college. This means that there is a level of stratification in junior high schools, and elementary schools, and even preschools!

The funny part about this entire system is that once students get into college (after exhausting themselves with an advanced school curriculum and an after-school 塾 juku or 予備校 yobikô), they are almost guaranteed to graduate. Universities in Japan are famously lax: as "Yatta!" put it, "Snore! Snore! Snore! Snore! Pass! Pass! Pass! Pass!"

Today's Reforms

Since the administration of PM Obuchi Keizo, the Ministry of Education has been slowly revamping the Japanese educational system. Public schools are slowly being de-stratified and brought closer to an Americanized system, while university curricula are being improved to stack up with their American counterparts.

In some primary and secondary schools, a new integrated studies program is being implemented that will allow schools more leeway in developing curriculums independent of the Ministry. Teachers' unions in Japan have been lobbying for this for some time, but its implementation has been very slow and sporadic at best. While the school week in Japan was six days just a few years ago, it was gradually pruned down, and early in 2002 all schools in Japan went to a Monday-Friday schedule.

Universities are slowly (VERY slowly) dropping their examination systems in favor of an American-style application system, and there has been some idle speculation that advanced junior high graduates may be allowed to go straight into university. The highly Americanized University of Tsukuba, which has been a hub of Japanese scientific research for some time, is helping to define what Japan's higher education will look like in the future.


Japan's education system is no better than America's, dagnab it.

Personal experience as a student in Japan's public schools and as an education minor Stateside
Research for the Fukuzawa Yukichi writeup and others
I recently used this node for a presentation in one of my classes, so it is now officially a Homework Your Node production.

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