Japan consistently performs well on major education surveys, including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Japan has ranked among the top performers on PISA since 2000, particularly in mathematics.  Japan’s results also show greater equity than in many other OECD jurisdictions, with the impact of socio-economic status on student performance well below the OECD average, with nine percent of variation in mathematics scores explained by socioeconomic status in 2018 compared to an average of 14 percent.

Japan has long held education and teachers in high regard and prided itself as being highly egalitarian.  Since the end of WWII, Japan has promoted the idea of an “all middle-class society” where access to opportunity is a function of effort and merit determined by school achievement.  Japan has offered universal primary school since the early 20th century, but until the 1940s access to higher education was extremely selective. After World War II, the education system became more democratized, with compulsory school extended to nine years (six years of primary plus three years of lower secondary school) and higher education expanded, with the addition of nearly 150 new universities. Japan aims to equalize funding for its schools by paying for teachers and capital expenses centrally and has a common curriculum with common expectations for all students. There is no tracking during compulsory education. As a result of these policies, Japan has had success in providing students from low-income backgrounds with relatively equal educational opportunities. On PISA 2018, only about 8 percent of the variation in student reading performance in Japan was explained by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, markedly lower than the OECD average of 13 percent.

Japan’s faith in the idea of achievement through hard work, combined with its reliance on test results for admission to secondary schools and higher education, have led to a thriving after-school tutoring culture, propelled by ambitious parents.  Known as juku, these tutoring schools are attended by more than half of all Japanese students.  They have raised concerns about equity, as they are expensive. The Japanese government has tried a variety of policy responses to limit attendance at juku but has not succeeded in significantly decreasing their influence.

Japan’s current Plan for the Promotion of Education outlines its policy priorities through 2022. The five major education priorities are to support the development of emotional intelligence and physical health in addition to academic abilities; prepare students to participate and innovate in the global economy; promote lifelong learning; expand safety nets for students, such as free access to early childhood education and care; and support the implementation of education policies through increased access to classroom technology, strengthened guidance systems, higher qualifications for teachers, and other factors. Japan has also accelerated its plans to integrate technology into classrooms, after schools were not fully prepared for the transition to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.  Japan also faces challenges related to its declining birthrate — a 35 percent decline in population is predicted by 2065 — and falling enrollment in both primary and secondary school as well as higher education. 

Quick Facts

Population: 123.72
Population growth rate: -0.41%
Demographic makeup: 98% Japanese, 0.5% Chinese, 0.4% Korean, 1% Other
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023

GDP: $5.126 trillion
GDP per capita: $40,800 (2021 estimate in 2017 dollars)
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023

Unemployment rate: 2.80% (2021 est.)
Youth unemployment rate: 4.40% (2021 est.)
Sources: OECD (2020) CIA World Factbook (2020)

Services-dominated economy
Key industries:among world’s largest and most technologically advanced producers of motor vehicles, electronic equipment, machine tools, steel and nonferrous metals, ships, chemicals, textiles, processed foods
Sources: CIA World Factbook 2023

Postsecondary attainment
Ages 25-34: 66%
Ages 25-64: 56.13%%
Sources: OECD Education at a Glance, 2023


Governance Structure

Japan’s three levels of government are national, prefectural, and municipal. Each of the 47 prefectures has its own smaller municipalities, which can be cities, towns, and villages. At the national level, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for the education system from early childhood to higher education, including establishing the national curriculum, operating teacher and administrator certification programs and pay scales, and developing requirements for setting up schools. MEXT also allocates funding to prefectural and municipal authorities for schools. Prefectures play a significant role in resource and personnel management. Municipalities are responsible for the supervision and day-to-day operation of schools.

At the prefectural level, there is a board of education composed of five members appointed by the governor. This board is responsible for appointing teachers to primary and lower secondary schools and funding municipalities. Until 2015, these boards appointed the superintendent of education at the prefectural level, but they now advise the governor of the prefect on the choice of superintendent. The governor makes the appointment.

Within municipalities there are boards of education appointed by the mayor. These boards are responsible for making recommendations to the prefectural board of education on teacher appointments, choosing textbooks from the MEXT-approved list, conducting in-service teacher and staff professional development, and overseeing the day-to-day operations of primary and lower secondary schools.  In the schools, principals are responsible for planning the school curriculum, based on the national curriculum, and for managing the schools’ day-to-day activities. Teachers are responsible for determining how to teach the curriculum and for creating lesson plans, as well as being in contact with parents.

In 2023, Japan’s government created a new children’s agency to coordinate policy across several ministries (including MEXT) to better serve children—especially those in poverty or suffering from abuse. The agency also aims to make it more affordable for families to raise children.

Planning and Goal Setting

The 2006 Basic Act on Education, the first revision of Japan’s foundational education law since the establishment of the education system after World War II, mandated that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) develop periodic plans for the “promotion” of education. The plans outline objectives for improvement as well as indicators of progress toward those objectives.


Japan issued its first Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education in 2008. It called for a society-wide commitment to improve education; development of a strong and independent citizenry; development of human resources to support social development; safety and security for children; and a high-quality education environment. The second Basic Plan followed in 2013, and the third in 2018. 

Education Finance

Japan funds its public schools through a combination of support from the national, prefectural and municipal governments. In public compulsory education, prefectures pay two-thirds of teachers’ salaries, and the national government pays one-third. Public primary and lower secondary schools do not charge tuition, and government tuition support makes public upper secondary school essentially free for families making below an annual income threshold. Families earning above this threshold pay tuition at the upper secondary level.

The Japanese government also uses public funds to support private education, paying 50 percent of private school teachers’ salaries and providing capital grants to cover specific costs such as new buildings and equipment. Private schools can create specialized programs within a framework set by the prefecture; the governor of a prefecture must approve applications to establish private schools. While private schools are considered more competitive and prestigious than public schools, the vast majority of Japanese children are publicly educated; only about 1 percent of primary schools and 7 percent of lower secondary schools are private. However, private schools do compose a significant portion of upper secondary schools, with about one in four upper secondary schools classified as private.

In 2016, Japan spent 2.4 percent of its GDP on education—lower than any other OECD country and well below the OECD average of 3.1 percent. Japanese schools tend to have less administrative staff than schools in other countries and spend less on materials and building improvements.  There has been a significant decline in education spending since 2013, corresponding with a decline in the student population. 


School Accountability

The National Assessment of Academic Ability, a set of examinations in Japanese, science, and mathematics for all students in grades 6 and 9, are used to monitor progress across schools.  Average scores are shared with schools and prefectures in order to identify weak schools or problematic policy areas.


Schools are inspected by municipal and prefectural board of education supervisors, who evaluate schools based on a national framework and are expected to provide external guidance on school management, curriculum and teaching. Typically, these board of education supervisors are former teachers and administrators.  Schools are also required to conduct a self-evaluation each year.

The Japanese government relies on high-performing teachers and administrators to help low-performing schools improve. The nation has developed the innovative practice of circulating high-performing teachers and administrators among prefectural schools, with the goal of ensuring equitable access to the most capable staff for low-performing schools, while allowing staff from low-performing schools to get a sense of how higher-performing schools are run. Teachers and administrators who are asked to serve in low-performing schools are compensated with generous subsidies and given a formal introduction to the area in which the school is located, in addition to mentoring and professional development.  Conditions for periodic teacher rotation vary by prefecture. For example, Tokyo prefecture requires teachers to transfer every three to six years, and a teacher’s first four transfers must cover at least three of 12 geographic areas in the prefecture.

Teacher Accountability

Teacher evaluation is required by law and is part of the school self-evaluation process. Teachers set annual goals for themselves and at the end of the year evaluate their progress in consultation with principals. In addition, principals and vice-principals observe teachers twice a year and provide feedback on their findings. The observations are intended to improve practice by suggesting areas for professional learning.

Foundation of Support

Supports for Young Children and Their Families

Faced with a sharply declining birth rate beginning in the 1970s, Japan has increased benefits for working parents and children. The goal of these policies are to both increase the birthrate and increase the percent of women in the workforce, as Japan has one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce among industrialized countries. The government provides a one-time childbirth allowance to families for each child born. Japan also provides working parents of newborn children with 14 weeks of parental leave, plus an additional 44 weeks of childcare leave, at two-thirds of their salary. Few fathers take advantage of this policy, only 13 percent in 2020, compared to 82 percent of women. In 2021, Japan granted fathers four weeks of paternity leave at 80 percent of their salary in an effort to encourage fathers to take leave. 

The government also provides a universal monthly child allowance to parents of children up to age 15, regardless of income, as well as additional benefits for children of single parents and for children with disabilities.

Japan’s health insurance system pays for 70 percent of the cost of family health care; parents are responsible for the other 30 percent, although there are caps on out-of-pocket expenditures for low-income individuals and people with disabilities. Parents can add children to their policies, and treatments and medications for children are free. Since World War II, Japan has provided all parents with a mother and child handbook, which allows parents to track the mother’s and child’s health and growth. This handbook is used by almost all parents in Japan.

Prior to 2019, Japan covered less than half of childcare costs through public funds and only subsidized facilities with 20 or more children. This low level of support led to public protests outside the Diet (the national legislature), and in 2019, the government pledged to provide free childcare for all children ages 3 to 5, and for low-income children from birth to age 2. It has been a challenge to provide adequate spaces to meet the demand, however, and there is still a substantial waitlist despite the addition of more than 140,000 additional spaces since 2019.  

The Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare manages childcare centers in accordance with its guidelines, which cover the quality of facilities; child staff ratios (about 3:1, depending on age); teacher qualifications (generally two years of post-secondary education); and other factors. Centers must meet these guidelines in order to earn a license, which entitles them to government subsidies. The national government does not monitor compliance, which is left up to municipal and prefectural governments.  The Ministry has also developed curriculum guidelines for day care centers; these are not mandatory, but most centers follow them.  

Supports for School Aged Children

The government provides several forms of financial assistance for low-income students. Compulsory education students who meet income eligibility requirements can receive Education Assistance through the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, and Assistance to School Attendance through MEXT. Public schools do not charge tuition for compulsory education, so these programs cover other school expenses including meals, transportation, supplies and trips. For upper secondary students, the High School Enrollment Support Fund System provides tuition subsidies to families making below the annual income threshold. Upper secondary students can also choose to use the subsidy toward private school tuition; in this case, the subsidy is higher for lower-income students. The High School Supplemental Scholarship Fund was created to cover costs other than tuition. Japan provides a highly subsidized lunch for all students.

The government has also set up a network of about 1,300 Education Support Centers, alternative centers that provide support for young people who have left school for psychological or physical reasons. The centers, which are run by prefectural and municipal governments, offer academic instruction as well as counseling, recreation, and other activities. 

Japan has also focused on remote areas of the country.  The Law for the Promotion of Education in Remote and Isolated Areas, passed in 1954, prioritizes conducting research on education in these areas; providing state subsidies for school infrastructure; and improving access to initial teacher education, in-service training, instructional materials, housing and healthcare. Teachers receive an allowance that varies depending on the remoteness of the school, as determined by criteria such as Internet access.   

Learning System


There are two types of early childhood education and care in Japan: childcare centers (hoikuen), which are generally full-day programs and serve children from birth to age 6, and kindergartens (youchien), which are generally half-day and serve children aged 3 to 6. Enrollment is nearly as high or higher than the OECD average: as of 2018, 83 percent of three-year-olds, 96 percent of four-year-olds, and 97 percent of five-year-olds in Japan were enrolled in kindergartens, compared with the OECD averages of 69 percent, 85 percent, and 99 percent, respectively.

MEXT governs kindergartens, for which guidelines are similar to those for childcare centers. Kindergartens are considered more academically oriented than daycare centers, but both employ teachers with two-year degrees, share many curricular elements, and emphasize child-centered activities and play. 

Primary and Secondary Education

System Structure

The compulsory school system in Japan consists of 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 16, receive a school leaving certificate and apply to upper secondary school. Almost all Japanese students continue on to upper secondary schools.  In 2010, the government made upper secondary school essentially tuition-free by providing a subsidy to all except the highest income families. There is a small but growing set of secondary schools that combine lower and upper secondary education, which allows students to move directly to the upper grades without having to apply to upper secondary school.

Most students select an academic upper secondary school, but for those who want a vocational option, there are several choices:  specialized vocational high schools, colleges of technology, and specialized training colleges. Students in the three-year specialized vocational high school take core academic courses in addition to focusing on one of seven areas of specialization. In addition, there are integrated schools, which combine academic and vocational coursework. Admission to academic upper secondary school is competitive; the schools are ranked based on their success in sending graduates to prestigious universities. Each school has its own admissions process and requirements, but most require students to take a test.  The graduation rate from upper secondary school is about 98 percent.

Japan has created a set of “Super High School” programs, in Science (focus on STEM subjects), Global Studies (focus on international issues), and Professional Studies (focus on vocational areas). These programs are small, representing only about 2 percent of high schools in Japan, but they are intended to be prestigious and to provide enriched offerings, such as lectures by college professors. Schools must apply for the “super” designation by submitting a proposal to MEXT, which administers grants for the program.

About 3 percent of students do not attend upper secondary schools but instead attend colleges of technology (Kosen Colleges) which offer specialized training courses. Colleges of technology set their own entrance exams. They provide five-year programs in a variety of technical and engineering programs (electrical, mechanical, civil, material and biological) leading to an associate 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 two-year high school program and can continue into three- to four-year post-secondary courses to earn advanced diplomas.

Junior colleges are two-year programs that offer training in a specialized field. The vast majority of junior college students are women; the colleges have tended to focus on fields traditionally dominated by women such as preschool education and health care.

Students attended primary and secondary schools six days a week in Japan until 2002, when Saturday school was ended. However, in 2013, the Ministry allowed schools to reinstate Saturday schools if they chose, with the rationale that it was preferable to students attending private tutoring schools on that day. The Ministry’s current plan to recover from the pandemic encourages schools to use Saturdays if needed to provide additional learning time to students to address learning loss. Currently, about half of lower secondary students spend up to 12 hours a week in private tutoring schools, or juku, to prepare for exams and drill on classroom concepts. MEXT has tried many different strategies to reduce the number of hours students spend in juku, but they have not been particularly effective. Students also bring home several hours of homework a day and summer vacation remains short. The cumulative effect of these additional learning hours is that Japanese students complete several more “years” of schooling than students of other nations during an equivalent timeframe.

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 kindergarten through upper secondary school. 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.

MEXT revises the national curriculum about once every decade. Each new curriculum is rolled out in stages, with the most recent revision being implemented from 2020 to 2022. The previous curriculum was fully implemented in 2013. The curriculum that preceded that one had reduced requirements to allow more flexibility for schools to teach integrated subjects and reduced instructional time in core subjects. However, after a dip in both PISA and TIMMS scores following those changes, the 2013 curriculum reinstated some instructional time and increased the content and rigor of subject matter. 

The new revision maintains the subject-area focus of the 2013 curriculum but aims to further develop cross-curricular competencies such as problem-solving, creativity, and good learning habits by emphasizing active learning in all courses. It is organized around three themes: motivation to learn and apply learning to life; acquisition of knowledge and technical skills; and skills to think, make judgments, and express oneself. It also makes English a graded subject in grades 5 and 6, with informal English language instruction starting as early as third grade; introduces coding as a required subject beginning in fifth grade; and adds coursework in scientific exploration and geography.

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 activities. Compulsory subjects are Japanese language, Japanese literature, mathematics, social studies, science, music, arts and handicrafts, and physical education. English is currently required in fifth and sixth grade, but it is taught through informal activities rather than as a graded subject. Moral education is intended to teach students to respect one another and the environment, 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. Japan added computer programming as a compulsory subject in primary school in 2020.  The compulsory subjects are continued in lower secondary school, with the addition of fine arts, foreign languages (English, French, German, etc.), and a greater array of electives. Programming was added to the lower secondary curriculum in 2012. The upper secondary curriculum continues compulsory subjects but also includes science inquiry and social science inquiry courses. Computer programming will be added to the upper secondary curriculum in 2022.

In addition to these compulsory subjects, Japanese schools provide “food and nutrition education” as part of their school lunch programs, known as shokuiku. All students eat a school-provided lunch together in their classrooms, which they also prepare and serve. Teachers discuss nutrition and healthy eating with students as part of preparation for the meal.

Assessment and Qualifications

The first major gateway in Japanese schools is the entrance to upper secondary school, when students take entrance exams for admission.  These exams are required nationally but developed by localities and schools.  Admission into upper secondary schools is extremely competitive, with schools weighing each student’s performance on entrance examinations, academic history, extra-curricular activities, and volunteer work. Upper secondary schools are ranked in each locality, and the school a student attends is considered 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. 

MEXT began an update of the Center Test in 2017 amid concerns that the test’s emphasis on rote memorization was a bad match for the changing economy. The revised 2021 Center Test is designed to assess critical thinking, judgment, and expression, with constructed response items as well as multiple choice and an expanded English language writing and speaking skills section. Some junior colleges and universities have begun accepting students based on recommendations from upper secondary schools, instead of requiring the Center Test entrance examination.

Teachers at all levels of schooling assess their students through teacher-developed tests and other forms of student work. Since teachers often spend many years with the same group of students and are generally expected to conduct periodic home visits, build relationships with students’ families, and attend sporting events and other extracurriculars to support students, the assessment process for individual students is often more consistent and the information is often more accessible to parents who know teachers well.

Japan has national assessments—the National Assessment of Academic Ability (NAAA)—in grades 6 and 9. These assessments are in mathematics, Japanese, and science, and since 2019, in English. NAAA was first administered in 2007 to a sample of students 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 performance data to districts and schools. The test includes items assessing subject-matter knowledge as well as items assessing the ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations; in 2019, these sections were combined to reflect the revised curriculum. The same items are administered to all students simultaneously and are made public after the test has been administered. The government announces mean NAAA subject scores for each region annually and ranks prefectures accordingly. Municipal boards of education and schools have the option of releasing their results; generally, they use the scores to identify areas where teaching and learning could be improved.

The Ministry plans to introduce a similar assessment for the end of upper secondary school.

Learning Supports 

Struggling Students

Japanese schools are structured to help teachers address the needs of struggling students. Lower secondary teachers spend only 18 hours a week on classroom instruction; they are expected to spend some of their remaining time meeting regularly with one another to discuss how to help their struggling students and meeting with students to provide extra support. In addition, teachers communicate regularly with all students’ parents, and in particular provide information and advice to parents whose children are struggling. 

In 2015, Japan introduced a community-run tutoring program (Chiiki Mirai Juku) to provide support for secondary school students struggling academically. Although the program was designed as part of a government effort to combat child poverty, local municipalities choose how to structure the program, and some choose to serve all students who need academic support. Municipalities also choose the tutors, which can include teacher education program students. 

Special Education

Special-needs education, for students with disabilities or learning needs, is provided in four ways: in special schools, in special classes within regular schools, in special resource rooms (tsukyu) within regular schools, and within the mainstream classroom. The type of special education a child receives is based on his or her disability. As of 2015, 3.6 percent of the student population received special-needs services. All but the most severely disabled spend most of their time in regular classrooms. The new national curriculum, scheduled to be implemented in 2020-2022, places an emphasis on coherence between instruction for special-needs students in special schools and instruction in regular schools. 

Digital Platforms and Resources

Before 2020, the Japanese education system had been relatively slow to adopt digital technology and online learning. At that point, only five percent of municipal education authorities were prepared to use online learning when schools closed. Since the pandemic, however, there have been concerted efforts to accelerate digital learning. In 2021, MEXT released Education in Japan Beyond the Crisis of COVID-19 which lays out a Global and Innovative Gateway for All Schools Program. This program commits to provide a device for every student; equipment to ensure that every child can work from home; and an ICT infrastructure for schools to provide online learning and to standardize educational data collection. In addition, MEXT piloted digital textbooks in 2022 and is planning to roll this out system-wide. The first goal is for all elementary and junior high students to use digital English textbooks starting in the 2024 school year. MEXT also has created a Children’s Learning Support Website to host online learning materials. 

Japan also created a Digital Agency in September 2021. The new Agency is working with MEXT to create an online learning system that serves the needs of all students, including those in education, childcare, and medical care as well as adults. 

Career and Technical Education

Governance and System Structure

Career and technical education (CTE) in Japan takes place primarily at the post-secondary level. About 20 percent of 15- to 18-year-olds choose a secondary vocational program, a much smaller proportion than in other OECD countries. These programs are considered less prestigious than academic upper secondary programs, and they generally enroll students who score less well on admission tests. Similarly, students who score well on the Center Test for post-secondary admission tend to enroll in academic universities, rather than vocational colleges. But the government has taken steps to try to make career and technical education more appealing. MEXT oversees CTE at the secondary and postsecondary level.  In 2014, Japan began developing a national qualifications framework covering seven levels of qualifications, from entry to professional level, with corresponding assessments of knowledge and practical skills.  As of 2020, the government has developed prototypes for caregiving, environment/energy, and food and tourism but the framework is not yet fully developed.

CTE Programs

Most upper secondary CTE programs are three years in duration and offer both general education coursework in core subjects as well as specialization in one of seven industry areas.  As part of the effort to attract students to vocational programs, Japan recently created Super Professional High School programs, which are analogous to Super High School programs in Science and Global Studies. The Super Professional programs, launched in 2015, offer advanced coursework in agriculture, technology, commerce, fisheries, domestic science, nursing, and welfare. These programs partner with universities, colleges of technology, research institutes and industry to deliver practical training as part of the program.  These programs lead to the same secondary diploma as other vocational programs.

Students who graduate from secondary vocational programs can go on to universities, but relatively few do. About a quarter of these graduates transition directly into the workforce, and nearly all successfully, in large part because schools play an active role in placing students.

Most secondary vocational graduates who pursue higher education go to post-secondary CTE programs. One program that has been particularly successful in adapting to a changing economy is the system of Kosen colleges, Japan’s 57 national colleges of technology. These institutions were founded in 1961 in response to industry needs, which have shifted from manufacturing to computer science and applied chemistry. Students enter these colleges at age 15, and after five years of study leave with the equivalent of an associate’s degree. The Kosen Colleges offer applied learning experiences, including apprenticeships and internships, and while most graduates go on to well-paying jobs in the engineering industry, a portion elect to pursue bachelor or master’s degrees in university. While the number of students entering Kosen colleges is just 1 percent of all Japanese students, the program is growing, and admission is very competitive.  

Other small CTE programs for upper secondary school students are specialized training colleges. These colleges provide CTE in eight fields: technology, agriculture, medical care, personal care and nutrition, education and welfare, business, fashion, and general education. Graduates of these two-year programs receive a diploma and have a high rate of employment compared to graduates from universities or junior colleges. Specialized training colleges also offer four-year programs leading to advanced diplomas, and a portion of graduates from senior high schools go on to take these post-secondary courses at specialized training colleges.

Recent Reforms

In 2016, MEXT’s Central Council for Education recommended a new type of “professional and vocational university” for career and technical education, with a goal of training more specialists in information technology, agriculture, and tourism.  Professional and vocational universities were introduced in 2019, and they now offer four-year programs leading to professional bachelor’s degrees. Students must earn approximately one-third of their credits through practical training, including industry work placements. Teachers with industry work experience must make up at least 40 percent of full-time faculty members.  Japan also introduced professional and vocational junior colleges, which offer two to three year professional associate degree programs.

In 2022, Japan established a multi-billion dollar fund to promote STEM education and elevate it in the country’s universities. Funding will be distributed starting in 2024, though there are concerns about whether regional universities will benefit from the funding.

Teachers and Principals

Japan is unique in how it assigns teachers to schools. Teachers are hired at the prefectural level, not at the school level. Teachers’ school assignments change every three years or so when they first start 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 rotation not only ensures that the most disadvantaged students have access to the most capable teachers, but helps 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. Japanese teachers spend substantially more time on other tasks such as planning lessons, working with peers, counseling students, meeting with parents, and leading extracurricular activities such as sports and cultural club activities. As of 2022, all fifth and sixth grade public school teachers specialize in one of four areas (English, science, mathematics, and physical education). The goal of this reform is to reduce teachers’ workload and raise their content knowledge in areas they teach in as well as to increase students’ academic performance and ease their transition from primary to secondary school.

Japanese school leaders are generally experienced teachers. Recruitment and development of school leaders is left to the prefectures, although MEXT has developed training materials for prefectures to use as they choose.

Teacher Recruitment 

Teaching is a popular and well-remunerated profession in Japan and the system has an oversupply of qualified candidates. Japan’s average teacher salaries are higher than comparably trained professionals in other fields and higher than the OECD average.  Following World War II, the Prime Minister addressed concerns over teacher shortages by decreeing 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.  Teacher salaries do not vary much across the country because they are funded from both the national and prefectural governments; salaries are relatively consistent regardless of an area’s income levels or property values. The vast majority of teachers remain in teaching until retirement.

An individual can become certified as a teacher after graduating from one of many teacher education programs in Japan. These programs are based in either junior colleges or universities; teachers who graduate with an associate’s degree from a junior college receive a Class II certificate, while those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a university earn a higher-level Class I certificate. Class II is temporary, valid for 15 years. The highest, or “advanced level,” certification is available to teacher candidates who hold master’s degrees. The vast majority of Japanese teachers hold a Class I certificate. In addition to the three levels of certification, 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.

Teacher Preparation and Induction

The teaching profession in Japan is highly selective at the hiring phase. Those who do get hired must first pass a rigorous set of school board exams and evaluations.

All teachers must hold a degree from an institution of higher education. Any higher education institution, including junior colleges, can provide teacher preparation 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. National universities, which receive grants from the national government and are considered the most prestigious, offer certificates for teachers at all levels; public universities, which are run by prefectures and municipalities, and private universities offer certificates primarily at the secondary level. Upper secondary teachers are required to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree.  The largest number of teachers are certified at private universities. 

Prospective teachers, like all college students, must take the National Center Test for University Admissions in order to be considered for admission into an undergraduate teacher education program. However, each university sets its own minimum score for entry into the program. National universities also often administer their own entrance examinations alongside the national exam. During teacher preparation, prospective teachers must take courses in both subject areas and pedagogy. Prospective kindergarten teachers graduating from university must have six credits in subject matter, 35 credits in pedagogy and 10 in subject/content knowledge in areas they plan to teach. Primary teachers must have at least eight credits in subject matter, 41 credits in pedagogy, and 10 credits in the subject area or pedagogical content knowledge in which they intend to specialize. Prospective lower secondary teachers must have at least 20 credits in subject matter, 31 credits in pedagogy, and eight credits in the subject area or pedagogical content knowledge in which they intend to specialize. The prospective teachers are evaluated by an experienced teacher under the supervision of a principal. After graduation from a teacher education program, teachers undergo a teaching practicum for at least three weeks before earning a certificate and applying for a teaching position.

Once teacher preparation is completed, candidates must pass a hiring exam overseen by the prefectural board of education. These exams 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 by 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. Traditionally, teacher hiring has been competitive, and not all new-teacher candidates who pass the Public School Teacher Employment Exam are hired as teachers. However, in 2019, the ratio of applicants to available jobs hit a record low, due to the retirement of many older teachers.

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 an experienced 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 may 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 Progression

Japanese teachers are able to move up within schools over the course of their careers, with the most straightforward path being teacher, head teacher (a teacher who manages and recruits other teachers), and then principal. At every level there are multiple steps, each with salary grades based on performance and experience. The teacher level has 36 steps, the head teacher level 20 steps, and the principal level 15 steps. Some teachers may never be promoted to head teacher, but nonetheless still see significant pay increases over their careers. Specific requirements for promotion to the principal level are set by the prefecture.

Teachers are required to change schools every few years, and they must work at a small school in a rural area at least once in their career. However, 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 are 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. 

Teacher Development

Continuing professional development is required in the teaching profession, and each municipal board of education determines the minimum hours a teacher must spend on professional development each year. Under a system implemented by MEXT in 2009, Japanese teachers must remain current on skills and practices in order to renew their teaching certificates every 10 years. 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 targeting the need. One teacher then uses this sample lesson in the classroom, with the other teachers observing. Teachers from other schools may also attend to observe and learn from the lesson. Following the sample lesson, the group meets again to discuss, reflect, and make adjustments to refine the lesson plan. The process may also include an outside expert, such as a university representative, but all feedback is non-evaluative and focused on lesson design. This method of teacher-led research has been adopted in other countries.

Principal Recruitment, Preparation and Development 

In Japan, prefectures are responsible for establishing the qualifications to become a school leader, for developing school leaders, and for fostering leadership skills. Most prefectures require a combination of age and teaching experience in their principals; leadership development programs are often embedded in prefecture-wide teacher training systems.

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 designed for principals as well as “mid-level” leaders such as vice-principals and head teachers.

Additionally, the National Center for Teachers’ Development (NCTD) provides national-level leadership-training programs for experienced school leaders 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.