Japan is unique in how it assigns teachers to schools. Teachers are hired at the prefecture level, not at the school level. Prefectures are analogous to states in the United States; there are 47 of them in Japan. There are multiple municipalities in each prefecture, each with its own school board. Teacher school assignments change every three years or so when they first start out teaching, with fewer changes later in their careers. This allows the prefecture to assign the strongest teachers to the schools and students that need them the most. This not only ensures that the most disadvantaged students have access to the most capable teachers but it also helps to build capacity within the profession. Young teachers are exposed to experienced teachers in a number of different environments with the expectation that they will learn from and interact with their peers.
Japanese teachers work some of the longest hours among OECD member countries, but the time they spend directly teaching students is below average. According to the OECD, statutory working hours for teachers at public schools in Japan in 2015 were 1,891 per year, which was 200 hours more than the OECD average. Japanese teachers spend substantially more time on other tasks such as planning lessons, working with peers, counseling students and leading extracurricular activities, such as sports and cultural club activities.
Teacher Recruitment and Compensation
Teaching is a popular profession in Japan and the system has an oversupply of qualified candidates. An individual can become certified to be a teacher after graduating from one of many teacher education programs in Japan. These programs are based in either junior colleges or universities; a teacher’s level of certification is based on the amount of education an individual receives prior to becoming a teacher. The lowest level of certification is temporary, valid for 15 years, and available to graduates of a junior college teaching program. The highest, or “advanced level,” certification is available to teacher candidates who hold master’s degrees. The vast majority of Japanese teachers hold at least a bachelor’s degree. In addition to the three levels of certification available to teachers, there are three types of certificates available at each level – a general, or non-subject-specific certificate; a subject-specific certificate; and a special subject certificate for non-academic fields such as music or the arts.
In Japan, teaching is a respected profession, and teachers have traditionally been paid better than other civil servants. Japan’s average teacher salary for a lower secondary school teacher after 15 years of service (the number that the OECD typically uses for international comparison) is US$47,561, as compared to the OECD average of US$40,569. Following WWII, over concerns about teacher shortages, the Prime Minister decreed that teachers would be paid 30 percent more than other civil servants. Although this gap has decreased over the last 50 years, by law teachers remain relatively highly paid among civil servants. A lower secondary school teacher with minimum education made a starting salary of US$29,009 in 2015. At the top of the scale, in 2015, the same teacher could expect to make US$63,215. Teachers’ salaries are lower than the OECD average (US$32,202) at the bottom of the scale, and higher at both the mid-point and at the top, where the OECD average is US$55,122.
Teacher salaries do not vary much across the country because teachers are paid from both the national government and the prefecture government so they are relatively consistent regardless of an area’s income levels or property values.
Teacher Initial Education and Training
The teaching profession in Japan is highly selective, particularly at the hiring phase. Those who do make the cut only do so after a rigorous set of school board exams and evaluations.
Teachers must hold a degree from an institution of higher education. Any higher education institution, including junior colleges, can provide teacher training as long as their courses satisfy the requirements of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and MEXT has approved the syllabus. Prospective teachers must take the National Center Test for University Admissions in order to be considered for admission into an undergraduate teacher education program. National universities also often administer their own examinations alongside the national exam. While in training, prospective teachers must take courses in both subject areas and pedagogy, and are evaluated by an experienced teacher under the supervision of a principal. After graduation from a teacher education program, teachers must undergo a teaching practicum for at least three weeks.
Teacher supply exceeds demand. Once teacher preparation is completed, candidates must pass a hiring exam overseen by the prefectural board of education. In addition, prefectural boards of education also typically require a prospective teacher to pass several tests before being hired. These often take the form of proficiency tests, interviews or essays, and examine a candidate’s pedagogical and subject area knowledge; the interview also usually includes a demonstration lesson. The requirements vary in each prefecture. Teachers are not automatically hired after passing the exam; they are added to the registration list in order of exam score. Those at the top of the list are hired first. Candidates who are not hired are required to retake the exam the following year. In 2013 only about one in five new-teacher candidates who took the Public School Teacher Employment Exam were hired as teachers so being hired as a teacher is very competitive. There are virtually no classes taught by teachers who do not hold a certificate in the field or subject they teach. There are also no alternative routes into teaching.
Once teachers have been hired, they undergo a one-year induction period. During this period, they are supervised by a senior teacher who acts as a mentor. Both the new teacher and the mentor are given reduced teaching responsibilities to allow them to work together on classroom management, subject guidance, planning and analyzing classroom teaching. Mentor selection varies across prefectures and even individual schools. Mentors are not given special training nor additional compensation. New teachers are hired on a probationary basis. At the end of the first year, a teacher can be hired as a fully employed regular teacher and have access to all teacher benefits, including membership in the teachers’ union. The majority of Japanese teachers remain in the profession until retirement age.
Teacher Career Ladders
Japanese teachers are able to move up within schools over the course of their careers, with the most straightforward path being teacher, head teacher and then principal. Within each of these steps, there are multiple salary grades based on performance and experience. There are 36 steps within the teacher level, 20 within the head teacher level and 15 within the principal level. Some teachers may never be promoted to head teacher, but they are able to see their salary climb from about US$29,000 to more than US$60,000 over a lifetime. Specific requirements for promotion to the principal level are set at the prefecture level.
Teacher Professional Development
Continuing professional development is required in the teaching profession. Professional development programs are available at the national through the school level, and each local board of education determines the minimum hours a teacher must spend on professional development each year.
At the local level, prefectural boards of education plan daily in-service training and also provide specific training programs for teachers five, ten and twenty years into their careers. At the national level, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) holds central workshops for head teachers and administrators. Under a new system implemented by MEXT in 2009, Japanese teachers must prove that they are up-to-date on skills and practices every ten years in order to renew their teaching certificates, and this includes participating in at least 30 hours of formal professional development.
In addition to formal professional development programs, Japanese teachers use “lesson study” to learn from colleagues informally. Principals organize meetings during which teachers with varying levels of experience identify an area of need in the classroom, research intervention options and create a lesson plan. One teacher then uses this sample lesson in the classroom, with the other teachers observing. Following the sample lesson, the group meets again to discuss, reflect, and make adjustments to refine the lesson plan. This method of teacher led-research is well regarded, has shown effectiveness in improving student and teacher learning and has been adopted in other countries.
School Leader Development
In Japan, specific qualifications for becoming a school leader are detailed at the prefecture level. Most prefectures require a combination of age and teaching experience. Prefectures are also responsible for developing competent school leaders and fostering their leadership skills. Leadership development programs are often embedded in prefecture-wide teacher training systems.
Japan’s system of personnel relocations also plays a part in developing school leaders. Rather than being transferred to new schools, high-performing teachers in middle to late-career stages are sometimes transferred to administrative offices, including local boards of education, and expected to contribute to the prefecture’s educational planning with their practical experience. After several years in such an assignment, they are transferred back to leadership positions within schools. Such opportunities enable education leaders in administrative offices and schools to build shared visions for planning and implementing educational policies and practices.
At the national level, MEXT developed a training curriculum for effective school management. The curriculum is available to local boards of education, schools and other public training institutions. This curriculum is for principals as well as “mid-level” leaders, such as vice principals and lead teachers.
Additionally, the National Center for Teachers’ Development (NCTD) provides national-level leadership training programs in cooperation with MEXT. The programs by NCTD are available to selected school leaders who are nominated by their board of education. After completing the program, participants are expected to play a leading role in developing school organizational management skills throughout their region.
Arani, Mohammad, Reza Sarkar, Fukaya Keisuke and James P. Lassegard, “‘Lesson Study’ as Professional Culture in Japanese Schools: An Historical Perspective on Elementary Classroom Practices,” Japan Review 22 (2010). (PDF)
Consortium for Policy Research in Education. (2007). A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications in Six Nations. – Ingersoll provides an indepth analysis of teacher training and teacher demographics in six Asian economies, including Japan (page 41). (PDF)
Ratio of Lower Secondary Teachers’ Salary to GDP per Capita (2015)Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2017 (salary) OECD (GDP per Capita)