Before WWII, the Japanese secondary schools offered two choices to students, a path leading to university education and another leading to vocational training. Under this system, private universities received no government funding, but vocational institutions of higher education were fully funded. After the war, Japan moved to a one-track education system, with vocational education suddenly losing status as all students could now compete for spots at academic universities. Today, about 25% of 15- to 18-year-olds attend senior high schools with a focus on vocational education. These schools provide educational opportunities for students who know that they want to work in a particular occupational area. In these schools, 50-70% of class time is spent on vocational and technical subjects, with the remaining class time devoted to math, Japanese and foreign languages. Students who graduate may apply to universities, though the majority of them go on to two-year vocational institutions if they pursue higher education.
In December 2008, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) noted numerous social problems – lack of youth enthusiasm for work and career development, high turnover rates and growing numbers of un- and underemployed youth – and brought these issues before the Central Council of Education, which is currently examining the issue. MEXT has stated that it will take the Council’s recommendations into account as it reforms career education in the coming years. One major initiative is enhancing student career counseling at university, with an eye toward directing students into highly-skilled trades. This counseling will be carried out in conjunction with advice from industry leaders, who will identify growth areas and worker shortages. One area that has been particularly successful in adapting to the changing economy is the system of Kosen colleges, Japan’s 57 national colleges of technology. Though this system of institutions was founded in 1961, they have enjoyed increased popularity in recent years as their graduates have been swamped with job offers in an otherwise difficult economy. Kosen colleges were established in response to industry needs, and remain closely connected to industries now, though the industries have shifted from manufacturing to computer science and applied chemistry. Students can enter these colleges at the age of fifteen, and after five years of study, leave with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. While the number of students entering Kosen colleges is just 1% of all Japanese students leaving lower secondary school each year, the program is growing, and now 1.7 students compete for each spot.
Outside of their employers, adults may seek self-improvement through several institutions and organizations. The Open University of Japan, which is run in collaboration with MEXT, offers bachelor’s degrees through home study; MEXT also administers secondary school equivalency examinations for adults who return to secondary education later in life, and provides varying degrees of support to libraries, museums and community learning centers for informal educational programs and events.