Center on International Education Benchmarking

As long as there have been international comparisons of national student achievement, Japan has placed at or near the top.  The roots of this accomplishment run deep.  An island nation, Japan developed over the centuries in isolation from the West, though in most arenas, its achievements compared favorably, not least in the their level of literacy.  But that did not include technology and finance.  The result was what the West came to call the “opening of Japan” to Western commerce by Admiral Perry’s “black ships” in 1853, followed by the imposition on Japan of trade treaties heavily favoring the Western nations.

Perry arrived toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a period of peace overseen by the Samurai, former warriors who had put away their weapons to become administrators.  In 1868, lower level officials rebelled against what they saw as a tired and corrupt government and returned the emperor to the throne in what came to be called the Meiji Restoration.  The young revolutionaries then sent delegations of senior officials to the Western capitals to rewrite the treaties they so resented.

What they saw astounded them, and they came away determined to compete with the West on its own terms in both technology and finance.  They were also determined to eradicate the corruption they saw in the dying Tokugawa Shogunate by instituting a new era in which merit, and merit alone, would determine who advanced in government, at work and in society generally.  And they recognized that they would fail unless they created an education system that could play a vital role in achieving both of these goals.

The teams of Japanese administrators who went to the Western capitals may have been the first global educational benchmarkers.  They borrowed ideas from England, Germany, France and the United States and fused them into the design of a whole new education system for Japan, heavily influenced by Japanese values.  They had a lot to build on.  The level of literacy in Japan was already world class.  Perhaps most important, most teachers in Japan were from the Samurai class, which meant that being a teacher in Japan carried very high status.  That has remained true from that day to this.

Japan is one of the most aggressively meritocratic countries in the world.  Access to opportunity is a function of merit, and, for much of what is on offer, merit is determined by one’s achievement in school as recorded by performance on exams.  That achievement is viewed by Japanese not as the result of inherited and unalterable intelligence, but rather as the result of effort.  If a student fails, that failure is perceived as not only the failure of the student but also of that students’ parents (especially the mother) and teachers. The Japanese place a high value on acceptance and support from the group of which one is a part, including one’s family and one’s school, so young Japanese work very hard to win the approval of their families and their teachers.  They take tough courses and work hard in school, partly to win the approval of the people closest to them and partly because they know that that is the only way they will get ahead at work and in society.

The Japanese curriculum is world famous.  Young Japanese are often expected to know more about another country’s history, economy and geography than the students in that country know.  The curriculum in mathematics and science is among the world’s most demanding.  Although the system is changing, it is still largely true that most employees can expect to spend their entire careers at one firm.  Because that is true, employers expect to provide continuing education and training to their employees through their entire career as they change jobs.  So they are less interested in how qualified the young applicant is for their first job than they are in that applicant’s “general intelligence,” roughly meaning their capacity to learn and to apply what they learn to real world problems as they arise.  Because of the meritocratic nature of the system, they judge that based on how the student has performed on his or her exams and the exams are based on the Japanese curriculum, highly detailed documents that are provided by way of closely followed guidance to the schools.  Many observers credit the quality of Japanese education to the quality of the Japanese curriculum, set by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), advised by the Central Council for Education.  The curriculum demands mastery of a great deal of information about the discipline (often acquired by rote learning) but it also demands a good deal of problem-solving ability (acquired by very different instructional methods).  Hence the ability of Japanese students to do very well both on curriculum-based tests like TIMSS and applications-based tests like PISA. The Japanese curriculum and Japanese instruction put a lot of emphasis on student mastery of the concepts underlying the disciplines.  They want the students to understand why something works the way it does, not just what procedure to follow, so that they can apply what they have learned in unfamiliar contexts.  Instruction focuses not on getting the right answer but on understanding why the answer is right.

Students in Japanese schools do not skip grades nor are they held back. All students are expected to master the demanding curriculum, going forward. There is no tracking or streaming in Japanese schools. Homeroom teachers often follow their students through the grades.

From the Meiji Restoration forward, teaching has been a desirable occupation in Japan.  But this is not just a matter of culture.  By law, teachers are the highest paid civil servants in Japan.  Beginning teachers are paid about the same as beginning engineers.  The result is that there are seven applicants for every open teaching position. Pay alone does not account for this.  As in other top-performing countries, there is a virtuous circle at work here.  High pay helps attract highly-qualified applicants, and highly-qualified applicants produce very accomplished students, which induces a grateful nation to pay its teachers well.

Japanese teachers are expected to master the subjects they will teach and to get instruction in their craft while preparing to teach.  But, once hired, they typically get a full year of what amounts to apprenticeship under the supervision of master teachers who are released from all other duties for this purpose.

The Japanese spend less than many other nations on their schools, but they get more for their money.  Their texts are small and published in a very simple and inexpensive format.  Their school buildings are very functional but without frills.  School administration is kept to a minimum.  There are no cafeterias: Japanese students take the meals from the kitchens and serve them to their classmates in their classrooms, and Japanese students are expected to clean both their classrooms and their hallways.

Because, in this meritocratic culture, all Japanese students are funded equitably, have the same curriculum, and face the same expectations, their accomplishments are remarkably similar.  In Japanese schoolrooms, students who are ahead are expected to help those who are behind.  One might expect that this would hold the best students back, but the research shows that those who teach learn at least as much as those who are taught in this peer tutoring scheme.

Outside the public schools, it is another matter.  There is a very active after-school private tutoring and schooling business, propelled by the ambitions of parents for their children.

In November 2004, MEXT announced a new reform plan titled “Japan! Rise again!” Among the major proposals included in this plan are the development of a new national assessment system; improving teacher quality through the establishment of professional graduate schools and a teacher qualification renewal system; board of education and school reform; and an overhaul of the funding system for compulsory education, so that local governments will be able to enact necessary educational initiatives without major budgetary concerns.

Since this plan was announced, MEXT has introduced one of its planned initiatives almost every year.  In 2007, Japan piloted a National Assessment of Academic Ability in mathematics and Japanese for students in grades 6 and 9. In 2008 and 2009, MEXT published a revised version of the national curriculum for primary through upper secondary school, including special education. This new curriculum places increased emphasis on Japanese, social studies, mathematics, science and foreign languages, with the hope that students will develop “thinking capacity, decisiveness and expressiveness” alongside content knowledge. In 2009, MEXT implemented a new system requiring educators to renew education personnel certificates every ten years, contingent on up-to-date professional development and skills. This complemented a 2008 initiative that required prefectural boards of education to provide extra training to struggling teachers. Currently, MEXT is working on revising standards in university teacher training programs, promoting career education and enhancing counseling in schools, and using school evaluations to target areas for improvement in school management.

Japan’s Education System at a Glance


The World Economic
Forum Global Competitiveness
Rank 2014
Innovation Rank 2014
Population 127,103,388
Languages Japanese
Ethnic Makeup Japanese 98.5%
Korean 0.5%
Chinese 0.4%
Other 0.6%
GDP (PPP) $4.729 trillion
GDP Per Capita $37,100
Origin of GDP Agriculture: 1.1%
Industry: 25.6%
Services: 73.2%
Unemployment 4.1%
Youth Unemployment 7.9%
Secondary School Completion 93.83%
Adults with Tertiary Education 47%

Source: CIA World Factbook (September 2014)
World Bank Data (September 2014)
and OECD Education at a Glance 2014

PISA 2012 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science

Japan Mean Scores 2012

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