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
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.
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.
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-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
In general, the Japanese education system has been slow to adopt digital technology and online learning. The 2020 coronavirus pandemic accelerated plans to expand online learning in schools, after only 5 percent of municipal education authorities were prepared to use online learning when schools closed. MEXT has released a new plan, Education in Japan Beyond the Crisis of COVID-19, laying out plans to support a Global and Innovative Gateway for All Schools Program. This program aims to provide a device for every student; provide equipment to ensure that every child can work from home; and build an ICT infrastructure for schools including prototypes of online learning systems and systems to standardize educational data collection. MEXT also has created a Children’s Learning Support Website to host online learning materials.