Japan has consistently performed well on major education surveys including PISA and TIMSS. On PISA 2015, Japan ranked second in science and fifth in math among 72 participating countries and regions, scoring highest among the 35 OECD member countries in both fields. Japan’s reading scores, while still among the top ten overall, slipped from fourth in 2012 to eighth in 2015. On TIMSS 2015, out of 60 participating countries, Japanese 4th graders placed 3rd in science and 5th in math, with 8th graders placing 2nd in science and 5th in math.
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, but it also demands a good deal of problem-solving ability and emphasizes student mastery of the concepts underlying the disciplines. Hence the ability of Japanese students to do very well both on curriculum-based tests like TIMSS and applications-based tests like PISA.
But it is more than the curriculum that has led to Japan’s success. Education has always been highly regarded in Japan and the country has prided itself on being highly egalitarian. Japan has promoted the idea of an “all middle class society” where access to opportunity is a function of merit, and merit is determined by achievement in school as recorded by performance on exams. That achievement is viewed by the Japanese not as the result of inherited and unalterable intelligence, but rather as the result of effort.
While primary school has been universal in Japan since the early 20th century, access to education at higher levels was highly selective and reserved for the elites. After World War II, the Japanese 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. All Japanese students are funded equitably, have the same curriculum and face the same expectations. Students in Japanese schools do not skip grades nor are they held back. There is no tracking or streaming during compulsory education. As a result of these policies, Japan has had success in providing students from low-income backgrounds with equal educational opportunities. On PISA 2015, only about 10 percent of the variation in student science performance in Japan was explained by students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. The OECD average was 13 percent.
However, outside the public schools there is a very active after-school private tutoring and schooling business, propelled by the ambitions of parents for their children. Known as “juku,” these private “cram schools” offer one-on-one tutoring, remedial classes, and preparation for the exams that will determine a student’s progression from lower to upper secondary school and on to higher education. Juku are both expensive for families and time-consuming for students, and the Japanese have been trying to decrease the role of juku in Japanese society for much of the last decade.
Looking ahead, in 2017 Japan outlined its Third Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education, to guide education policy from 2018 through 2022. The plan includes five major education priorities: supporting the development of emotional intelligence and physical health in addition to academic abilities; preparing students to participate and innovate in the global economy; promoting lifelong learning; creating “safety nets” of supports for students, such as through free access to early childhood education and care; and establishing the necessary conditions, such as increased access to classroom technology, to implement policies in these priority areas.
PISA 2015 Mean Scores by Country for Reading, Mathematics, and Science
Japanese 98.5%, Koreans 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, other 0.6%
$5.238 trillion; $41,300 per Capita
Services: 71.1%; Industry: 27.7%; Agriculture: 1.2%
Unemployment: 3.2% ; Youth Unemployment: 4.9%
Upper Secondary Graduation Rate: 98%
National Institute for Educational Policy Research – NIER is an academic research organization serving in an advisory capacity to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and to other Japanese organizations related to education.