Time to Reform Japan’s Education System

January 24th, 2011By Category: Teaching in Japan

A nation that places traditional emphasis on the value of education, Japan is home to one of the most stressful and unyielding secondary educations systems in the world. Even after phasing out the six day school week, the country boasts one of the longest, if not the longest school year of any developed country.

Participation in clubs and activities is mandatory, and many students attend cram schools after school in preparation for either upper secondary or university entrance exams. Mountains of homework are oftentimes assigned and completed over holidays, while the curriculum is leaps and bounds ahead of their American or European equivalent taught the same year (especially so in the maths and sciences). A typical student from North America would be traumatized past the point of no return under the pressure to perform, let alone function, in the secondary school system in the Land of the Rising Sun.

For the Japanese and outsiders alike, the years spent in high school in Japan can be likened to sticking one’s head in a pressure cooker. You’d be surprised to find out that the current incarnation of secondary education in Japan is a watered – down form of the system that preceded it.

In response to the extraordinary amount of stress experienced by students (and the burden of stress – related suicides that the system itself carried), Japan changed the rules ten years ago and toyed with the idea of an American – style system that favoured independent thought. Thoughts eventually translated into action, and the pressure-free system was born. Textbooks were slashed. School hours were cut.  The amount of homework, though still considerable, was reduced. Creativity and application of knowledge, not rote memorization, became the increasing focus in many schools.

The results have been nothing short of a disaster. Following the implementation of the new, more carefree system, Japan’s ranking in education dropped like a rock. In 1995, junior high students participated in a test conducted by the OECD. In that study, Japan placed third in mathematics and science – all very impressive. Since then, however, Japan’s ranking in the two fields fell to 8th and 5th place respectively after the same test was conducted in 2009, and the country was beaten in overall ranking by the likes of South Korea, Hong Kong, China and Singapore, among several others.

Shocked by its education system’s fall from grace, Japan is looking to make a return to prominence in education through the resurrection of the old. The Ministry of Education recently approved a move that would see textbooks fattened, school hours lengthened and English as a subject introduced earlier on. It is difficult to see, however, how better results can be achieved through such measures, all while avoiding students’ stress – related issues that led to reform to start with. How, then, can Japan achieve independent thought, a lower level of stress and a high quality of education all in the same system?

Ask the Finnish.

Though its education system is paradoxical to Japan’s in every conceivable way, Finland beat the East Asian nation in ranking third overall in the OECD’s test of junior high school students. It would be difficult for the average Japanese (or average East Asian, for that matter) to understand why. According to the OECD, the Finnish spend the least amount of time in school and begin their schooling a full two years later than their peers in the rest of the world. Mention cram schools to the average Finn and he will look at you in utter bewilderment. There is only one (yes, one) mandatory exam, taken at the end of one’s secondary schooling. In contrast to many of the equally high ranking countries in East Asia (Japan included), Finland’s education system seems to be too relaxed and too unorthodox to perform well on any standardized test – yet it does.

The key, the Finns say, lies in balance and support from all parts of the community. Streaming, or sorting students into classes according to academic ability, for instance, is practically unheard of. Additional teachers are hired as needed to help students struggling in various subjects. To reduce the amount of stress experienced by students, the Finnish education system combines both the primary and secondary education systems into one, in turn forging stronger bonds between teacher and student. The Finnish government invests heavily in ensuring the quality of its teachers, and doles out large amounts of state support for teachers seeking a postgraduate education. These factors, among many others, have nurtured an environment inclined towards excellence in learning, one that has proven to be more effective than the heavy handed approach taken by the Japanese and others in the Asia – Pacific region.

Though fattening its textbooks and lengthening the school day may lead to an incremental increase in Japan’s overall score, the system as a whole needs to be overhauled if Japan wishes to resolve the problems its students continue to face. Imitating the Finns, perhaps, may be a good place to start.

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • Tzouni says:

    Having had the pleasure of attending both Japanese high school (for year and a half) and finishing in Finnish high school (no pun intended), I can agree with this article almost completely. The only thing that strikes me weird is saying that Finnish system has only one mandatory test, which is incorrect. You do have course based tests all along, but it all culminates in the Matriculation exam in the end. And as far as I know, the OECD test (like the PISA one) doesn’t measure capabilities in high school, but during the 9 years of mandatory education before it.

    Also, I don’t remember clubs and activities being mandatory in my high school in Japan, but I did attend one. And liked it, it was a great way to relax after school and do something productive, as opposed to going home and then drinking with your mates as in Finland…

    I do hope that they would reform the system.

  • Eversince1969 says:

    percent of Japanese know how to speak english???

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  • Petitorenji says:

    OECD in itself is already an organization like 1984’s Big Brother or Ministry of Truth. Its testing is obviously adjusted to bringing high results to those who not know or think the most creatively, but dodge the balls the best. Japan shouldn’t be testing itself against those standards anyway. Besides, China and Korea are only bringing their best students forward for testing, so it’s already biased. (just think population) Many in China and Korea still don’t have the privilege to go past 6th grade.

    Do what you think is best for your kids, Japan. And instead of competing w/ China, Korea, India, and whatnot (an unfair race to begin with), compete with the Finnish.

  • Persilsoap says:

    As a university teacher in Japan I am interested to see this addition to the seemingly endless debate about Japan’s educational system.

    After living and working in Japan for eight years I’m coming to see this problem more as more as one of mental abuse by the controlling systems of Japan toward learners.

    The whole system, from high school on, is in fact devoted to stamping out learners’ individuality, their ability to formulate ideas and think creatively. It actively imposes a submissive mindset in favor of a controlling culture which bans the adventure of ideas so as to preserve the ‘wa’ of ‘correct’ relationships.

    Why? Because the very mission of higher education is not to open young minds and create a nation of independent, critical thinkers. Quite the contrary. Rather it is dedicated to preparing students for a lifetime of servitude to corporate statism in a vertically ranked society.

    So, if the Japanese may have toned down their “stressful and unyielding” methods tad, this doesn’t seem to have translated to more independent, critically thinking students.

    Why? Surely it’s to do with national character, which is characterized by outdated formality, insularity, a resistance to change and group think. Tinker with education as much as you want, but national character will always win out.å


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