The school system in Japan consists of three years of optional kindergarten, six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school and three years of upper secondary school. Children are required to attend school for a minimum of nine years – six years of primary and three years of lower secondary education. Students who have completed lower secondary school, at about age sixteen, may choose to apply to upper secondary school. Roughly 98 percent of Japanese students elect to continue on to upper secondary schools, and each type of school has its own admissions processes and requirements.There are three types of upper secondary schools in Japan: senior high schools, colleges of technology and specialized training colleges. The graduation rate from upper secondary school is 94 percent.
Of the students continuing into upper secondary, the vast majority (over 97 percent) enroll in senior high schools which provide general, specialized and integrated courses. General courses are intended for students who hope to attend university, or for students who wish to seek employment after high school but have no particular vocational preference. Seventy-five percent of senior high school students enroll in general courses. Specialized courses are for students who have selected a particular vocational area of interest; about 19 percent of senior high school students choose this path. Integrated courses allow a student to choose electives from both the general and specialized tracks, and roughly 6 percent of senior high school students choose this option.
The small percent of students who do not attend senior high schools go to either colleges of technology or specialized training colleges. Colleges of technology require their own set of entrance exams. They provide five-year programs in engineering, culminating in an associate’s degree. Some colleges also offer additional two-year “advanced courses” for students wishing to earn bachelor’s degrees. Most students go on to full employment after graduation, though a portion elect to continue on to university.
Specialized training colleges provide vocational education in eight fields: technology, agriculture, medical care, personal care and nutrition, education and welfare, business, fashion and general education. These colleges are open-entry and do not require a specific entry exam. Graduates receive a diploma after completing the high school portion and can continue into post-secondary courses to earn advanced diplomas.
Many primary and secondary schools are open six days a week and many students spend additional hours in “cram school,” or juku, to prepare for exams and to drill on the concepts they learned in the classroom. Juku are essentially a shadow school system in which students may spend up to 12 hours a week, particularly in the months leading up to upper secondary and university entrance exams. MEXT has tried many different strategies to try to reduce the number of hours students spend in juku schools over the past decade but they have not been particularly effective. Students also continue to be assigned several hours of homework a day and summer vacation remains short. The cumulative effect of these additional hours spent learning is that Japanese students complete the equivalent of several more years of schooling than students in other nations.
Standards and Curriculum
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), in conjunction with university professors and the Central Council for Education, establishes broad guidelines for the content of each school subject from preschool education through senior high school. The curriculum for each grade level is carefully calibrated to pick up each year where the previous grade left off, and to ensure preparation for the following grade. Ministry specialists prepare teacher guidebooks in each subject with input from experienced teachers. While teachers may make adaptations, they are expected to follow the national curriculum.
This national curriculum is revised about once every decade. It is currently being revised and a new curriculum will be rolled out in stages starting in 2020. The current curriculum was revised in 2008 and was fully implemented in 2013. That revision represented a shift from the previous decade when curriculum was “loosened” and requirements reduced to allow more flexibility for schools and to reduce the “burdens” on students. After a dip in both PISA and TIMMS scores following those changes, the 2008 revisions reversed direction and added more instructional time and increased the content and complexity of subject matter. It also required students to begin English in primary school. While the reform did move Japan back towards its more traditional curriculum, it also maintained teaching of integrated subjects and a focus on applying knowledge. The latest proposals for revision include adding history, geography and public affairs as compulsory subjects in senior high schools and adding an optional course for high school students that allows students to choose themes from mathematics and science for independent research.
Textbook publishers produce books that adhere very closely to the national curriculum, and MEXT must examine and approve each book before it is made available for schools. Local boards of education then select which Ministry-approved texts will be used in schools.
Currently, Japan’s primary school curriculum is divided into three main categories: compulsory subjects, moral education and special activites. Compulsory subjects are Japanese language, Japanese literature, arithmetic, social studies, science, music, arts and handicrafts, programming and PE. English is currently required in fifth and sixth grade, but it is taught through informal activities rather than as a graded subject. Beginning in 2020, English will be a graded subject for fifth and sixth graders, with informal activities starting earlier in third and fourth grade. Moral education is intended to teach students to respect one another and the environment, to understand the importance of life, to respect the rules of society and to learn general self-control. Special activities refer to activities and ceremonies that emphasize teamwork and cooperation such as graduations, field trips or school concerts. The compulsory subjects are continued in lower secondary school, with the addition of fine arts, foreign languages and a greater array of electives.
Assessment and Qualifications
The first major gateway in Japanese schools is the entrance to upper secondary school, when they take entrance exams for admission. Admission into senior high schools is extremely competitive, and in addition to entrance examinations, the student’s academic work, behavior and attitude, and record of participation in the community are also taken into account. Senior high schools are ranked in each locality, and Japanese students consider the senior high school where they matriculate to be a determining factor in later success. Japanese students are admitted to university based on their scores on the National Center Test for University Admissions, known as the “Center Test,” as well as their performance on the individual exams administered by each university. The Center Test assesses candidates in five fields: Japanese language, foreign language, math, science and social studies. The entrance exams for upper secondary school and university are so important in determining placement that they often are the sole educational concern of students in the years leading up to the exams.
MEXT is planning an overhaul of the Center Test, amidst concerns that the test emphasizes rote memorization and is not well suited to the changing economy. The new Center Test (which has been rebranded as Daigaku Nyugaku Kyotsu) will be designed to assess critical thinking, judgment and expression. This is part of a larger effort to restructure higher education at a time when the population is shrinking — a decline of 35 percent by 2065 is predicted — and the country needs to ensure that its students are well trained and equipped for the job market. The new test is expected to be rolled out by the 2020 academic year. Some junior colleges and universities have also begun accepting students based on recommendation from upper secondary schools, instead of requiring an entrance examination.
Teachers at all levels of schooling consistently assess their students through teacher-developed tests and other forms of student work. Homeroom teachers often spend many years with the same group of students and are involved with their lives outside the classroom, making the assessment process more consistent, more precise and more accessible to parents.
Japan has national assessments — the National Assessment of Academic Ability (NAAA) — in grades six and nine. These assessments are in mathematics, Japanese and science. NAAA was first administered in 2007 to a sample of students at the two grade levels for the purpose of informing curriculum and policy planning. Since 2013, the assessments have been administered annually to all sixth and ninth grade students, with the goal of providing more data to districts and schools to improve performance. The same items are administered to all students simultaneously and are made available after the test has been administered. Mean NAAA subject scores for each region are announced annually and municipal boards of education and schools use the scores to identify areas where teaching and learning could be improved.
Sarkar Arani, Mohammad, Fukaya Keisuke, and James P. Lassegard. (2010). “Lesson Study as Professional Culture in Japanese Schools: An Historical Perspective on Classroom Practice.” Japan Review, 22 (PDF)
The Structure of Japan’s Education System