In the old day, young and old alike
were educated at Buddhist temples
Education in reading and writing has of course existed in some form since the introduction of Chinese writing and Buddhism in the 6th century. In 701, the Taiho Code established schools for the children of the nobility, in both the capital and the provinces.

In feudal Japan provincial lords set up special schools for samurai and rural communities operated schools for wealthier members of the merchant and farming class. Beginning in the Kamakura period (ca. 1185--1333), an increasing number of the children of the samurai received a formal education, but it was not until the 265 years of peace of the Edo period (1603--1868) that education became widespread among both the elite and the common people.

In the Edo period, children from age 7 to 15 attended neighborhoods temple schools run by Buddhist sects. They were taught to read, write and use an abacus. Most were taught by priests or monks but samurai, doctors and people in other professions also served as teachers. Generally there was no set tuition. Students paid what the could. The schools were so widespread that by some estimates the literacy rate in Tokyo was 80 percent. In the countryside there were not so many schools but rural people were motivated to learn to read and write so they wouldn’t be cheated by tax collectors.

Education in the Edo period was primarily based on Confucian concepts that emphasized rote learning and study of the Chinese classics. Two main types of schools developed. The first type was the domainal schools (“hanko”), which totaled around 270 by the end of the period and provided education primarily to children of the samurai class. The second type was the “terakoya” schools, which enrolled the children of commoners as well as samurai and concentrated on moral training and teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. “Terakoya” were usually run by a single teacher or a married couple, and there were tens of thousands of these schools in existence at the end of the Edo period. Japan’s literacy rate at the time of the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 was higher than that of many Western nations at the time.

History of Modern Education in Japan

Education played a central role in enabling the country to meet the challenges presented by the need to quickly absorb Western ideas, science, and technology in the Meiji period (1868--1912), and it was also a key factor in Japan’s recovery and rapid economic growth in the decades following the end of World War II. In the early years of the 21st century, however, Japanese society is facing many challenges as a result of changing cultural norms, advances in science and technology, economic globalization, and a difficult business environment. Nurturing young people who can meet these challenges is a critical task for Japanese education. The direction to be taken in this endeavor is the subject of much debate in the government, the education community, and Japanese society as a whole. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Japanese education was overhauled in the Meiji period (1868-1912) and modeled after European school systems. In 1886, every child was required to attend three or four years of school. In 1900 compulsory education was made free of charge, and in 1908 its duration was extended to six years and textbooks were standardized. Without this educational foundation, the rapid modernization achieved in the following years would not have been possible. Meiji leaders moved quickly to put a new educational system into place as a key part of their efforts to catch up with the West and promote national unity. A three-tier system of primary school, middle school, and university was established, with primary school being compulsory for both boys and girls.

Japanese education before World War II was characterized by hypernationalism. Students were brainwashed according to a nationalist agenda and taught other races were inferior and the Emperor was a god. After World War II, Japanese schools were modeled somewhat after American schools and came under control of a highly centralized Ministry of Education. “Following the end of World War II, the Fundamental Law on Education and the School Education Law were enacted in 1947 under the direction of the Occupation forces. The latter law defined the system that is still in use today:six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, and two or four years of university.

Japanese Education Timeline

1872The School Ordinance.

1890 The Imperial Rescript on Education.

1918 The College Ordinance and High School Ordinance.

1947 The Fundamental Law of Education. The Basic School Law. The 6-3-3-4 school system is established. The Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) is organized.

1956 The publicly elected board of education is replaced by the appointed board of education approved by the Ministry of Education (MOE).

1964 Legalization of junior colleges.

1969 The Special Measures Law for Do-wa Projects.

1976 Specialized training colleges are established.

1982 The Textbook Controversy over the “Invasion of China.”

1987 The National Council on Educational Reform’s (Rinkyo-shin) recommendation.

1989 The All Japan Teachers and Staffs Union (Zenkyo-) is created.

1990 The Lifelong Learning Promotion Law.

1993 Comprehensive high schools and comprehensive courses in high schools are regulated.

1995 School counselors are deployed at school. Cooperation between the JTU and the Ministry of Education.

1998 Deregulation of the Law for the Regulation of Teachers’ Certificates.

2000 The National Commission on the Educational Reform’s recommendation. The Law on the Promotion of Human Rights Education and Raising Human Rights Awareness.

2002 Introduction of the five-day school week.

Early History of Education in Japan

There are various opinions among the historians regarding the time of the establishment of Japan as a nation, but at least many agree that it was after the sixth century when the political system had gradually formed into a certain style, not in the modern sense, but in a way that was based on and facilitated by organized education run by Buddhist priests from their temples. With the coming of Buddhism in A.D. 538 or 552 (depending on the source cited), numbers of Buddhist priests came from Kudara on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, a likely larger number of Japanese priests went abroad to Korea and China to study. In these temples, education in Buddhist scripts and political administration was provided for the priests and the children of the national administrators. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ++]

It is commonly recognized that the first schools in Japan’s history were the Daigakuryo, or College Dormitories, established in the nation’s capital, and the Kokugaku or, National Schools, which were established in each major city, in accordance with the Taihorituryo, or Great Treasure Laws enacted in A.D. 701. Subsequently, various educational systems were established to provide education exclusively for the ruling class, i.e., aristocrats, Samurai, and priests. Even though the political systems and/or power structure changed from time to time, these educational systems persisted because the schools were established by the ruling Daimyo (feudal lords or landlords) or samurai families. Education for the townsfolk and commoners, though not yet institutionalized, was initiated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and continued afterwards in the Buddhist temples.

Development of School Education in the Edo Period

Japanese society, largely illiterate at the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867) had become one of the most literate societies in the world by the end of the Edo period.7 Local feudal lords established fief schools for samurai, “Japanese warriors” and thus every samurai was literate. Ordinary farmers, craftsmen, and merchants sent their children to the terakoya, “temple schools” for basic knowledge, writing, reading, and counting. By the end of the Edo period, the attendance was high in urban areas such as in Edo (86 percent), though it was much lower in isolated rural areas. The percentages of male and female attendance in terakoya were 79 percent and 21 percent, respectively (Passin 1965:44-47). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

During the Edo era private schools for elementary education became quite popular and were known as Terakoya or temple houses. While not all children may have been this busy, many foreign visitors to Japan toward the end of the Edo period expressed surprised in their diaries and journals at the high number of children who were able to read and write.

Education for women was not available in the rulers’ schools, but was available to some extent in the “commoners’ schools.” Then, in the early 1700s, in the middle of the Edo Era, a unique educational organization developed as a function of the village and town community, for the education of the immature youths for daily life, including education in sexual behavior. These organizations were known as the Wakamono-gumi, or young men’s activity group, and the Musume-gumi, or daughters’ activity group. This system of community education was disbanded in the middle of the Meiji Era around 1890 in favor of promoting newly established public school systems. ++

Temple Schools in Japan

Hidekazu Ishiyama, Curator of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, wrote: “The terakoya, or "temple schools" that became common in the Edo period, were organized much like the private, after-school cramming classes found today. Rather than follow the same curriculum as others in their grade, however, the students progressed at their own pace. The subjects they were taught were primarily reading, writing, and calculation using the abacus. They copied what the instructor wrote down, and practiced writing the same phrase over and over until they were able to approximate the teacher's handwriting. Most of the texts they read were Chinese and Japanese classics, which were repeatedly read aloud until they were practically memorized. [Source: Hidekazu Ishiyama, Curator, Edo-Tokyo Museum]

The terakoya were found throughout Edo (now Tokyo). According to one Edo-period source, some neighborhoods even had two schools, suggesting a high literacy rate of the townspeople. Enrollment in these schools was about 70 percent to 80 percent, much higher than the enrollment ratios found in Europe at the time. There was no fixed curriculum for each grade and subject, as is the case today. Each school operator adapted the subject matter to the aptitude and progress of each child. Instruction followed a general course order, however, with children first learning the syllabary and then common kanji (Sino-Japanese characters) before studying more complex kanji and phrases. Many different textbooks were used, depending on the children's family background.

In addition to academic subjects, children were also given lessons in some art, such as traditional dance and music. In the Ukiyo-buro (The Communal Bath), a late Edo-period novel by Shikitei Sanba depicting the life of townspeople and their children, a girl who is about to enter the bath describes a typical day to a friend: "After I get up, I go to the terakoya to prepare for the calligraphy lesson. Then I have a shamisen (a banjo-like three-stringed instrument) lesson before I come home for breakfast. I go to the terakoya again after my dance lesson, and it's already 3 o'clock by this time. I go to the bath and then go to my koto (zither) lesson. I come home to practice the shamisen and dance parts I learned that day. I play for a while, and after the sun sets I practice the koto."

History of Modern Education in Japan

In 1868, as the Shogunate political system collapsed, Japan made its first step into the modern world when Emperor Meiji transferred the capital from Kyoto - formerly Edo where the Shogunate was located - to Tokyo. In 1872, the new government announced a law known as Gakusei, or School System, based on the French school system, and launched a nationwide education-for-all. This educational law, intended to promote industrial development and the universal conscription system, was ultimately linked with the national policy of enriching the country and strengthening its armament. One may observe in this historic transition the germination of the Japan’s militarism in this century.[Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ++]

The Law of Education, enacted in 1879, took a liberal direction in using the American school system as its base. This was quickly amended the following year by the “Revised Law of Education,” which put the emphasis on Confucianism morals as the fundamental spirit. This traditional vision was obviously necessary because of strong opposition within the government against Western liberalism. “Catching up with the already modernized nations in the world” was indeed the priority motto of the Meiji government, but in terms of practical education, the goal of producing guns and battleships outranked the education of humans. In 1903, the government took over supervision and authorization of textbooks in order to develop uniformity in people’s thoughts and minds. As a result, Japan’s education was overwhelmed by the moral and behavior codes of Confucianism ethics based on the emperor system and nationalism. ++

A short-lived liberal trend developed between 1912 and 1926, when Emperor Taisho was on the throne. This liberal movement, however, was not strong enough to change the government’s educational policy, and in the long term, the militarists regained power. ++

Development of Education in the Meiji Period

The Meiji government (1868-1912) established a bilateral system of education: compulsory primary education for the masses, and secondary and higher education for the elite. The 1872 School Ordinance mandated a compulsory four-year elementary school system (expanded to six years in 1907) for all children from the ages of 6-14 in order to produce a “rich county with a strong army” that would equal the Western countries. By 1875, 25,000 elementary schools were open nationwide, and 35 percent of children between the ages of 6-14 (41 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls) were enrolled, at the attendance rate of 74 percent (Tokyo Shoseki 2000:197; Hamashima Shoten 2000:128).8 The enrollment rate of elementary students rose to 49.5 percent in 1885, 61.2 percent in 1895, and by 1910 it was 98.1 percent (Ko-dansha 1999:434). Poverty and gender affected the enrollment rates in elementary schools. By 1918, universal enrollment in elementary schools finally reached girls and the children from the urban lower classes (Okado 2000:234). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Only a small portion of elementary school graduates from the upper and middle class continued on to five-year academic secondary schools for boys or five-year secondary schools for girls; the majority entered the labor force or to two-year higher elementary schools. When the enrollment of elementary schools approached 100 percent in 1915, 11 percent of male students and 5 percent of female students entered secondary school (Aramaki 2000:16). ~

In 1925 in Fukui prefecture, 6.4 percent of male students and 10 percent of female students went on to five-year secondary schools, and 0.4 percent of male students and 0.7 percent of female students went to normal schools. More than half of all male students (52.4 percent) and one-third of all female students (33.6 percent) went on to a two-year higher elementary school, 3.6 percent of male students went on to part-time vocational schools, and 2.2 percent of male students and 4.8 percent of female students went to miscellaneous schools. ~

On the other hand, 22.5 percent of male students entered the family businesses, including agriculture and forestry (15.0 percent) and 11.8 percent went to work in manufacturing (2.1 percent), sales (5.9 percent) and apprenticeships (2.1 percent). One-third of female students (33.2 percent) worked in family businesses, such as agriculture and forestry (21.5 percent), while 16.5 percent went to work manufacturing (9.3 percent), sales (0.1 percent), apprenticeships (1.1 percent), domestic service (1.8 percent), and nursing or midwifery (0.6 percent) (Okado 2000:37). ~

After 1886, some elementary schools added six months to one year of supplementary night classes. In 1893-1894, supplementary vocational schools were established for graduates of elementary schools who did not go on to higher elementary schools or secondary schools. Supplementary vocational schools provided courses in reading, writing, accounting, and practical courses in agriculture, industry, and commerce. These schools had programs that ran for three years or less, and apprenticeships lasting six months to four years. By 1923, 1,024,774 students (72.9 percent boys) took courses from 8,299 teachers in 14,975 schools (Takano 1992:18, 38). ~

By the 1930s, approximately 20 percent of male students continued on to five-year secondary boys’ schools while 17 percent of female students continued on to five-year secondary girls’ schools to learn to become “good wives and wise mothers” (Aramaki 2000:16). The discrepancy between urban and rural educational norms is remarkable. As early as 1925, in Nagoya City, 57 percent of male students and 50 percent of female students went on to five-year secondary schools. Even among the graduates of one elementary school in Tokyo in 1936, students from the middle class were more likely to have better grades and go on to five-year secondary schools than students from the families of manufacturers, farmers, and small retailers, who were more likely to have lower grades and enroll in higher elementary schools or join the work force. Poverty forced many of these graduates to seek employment rather than further education (Okado 2000:42, 126-148). ~

Higher education in Japan during the prewar period was available only to the elite. In 1877, Tokyo University, the first Imperial University, was founded in order to catch up with European and American scholarship. By 1915, two percent of male students and 0.1 percent of female students went on to post-secondary education (Aramaki 2000:16). Then, under the College Ordinance of 1918, the status of “university” was granted to many other national, prefectural, municipal, and private professional schools. These schools were able to gain university status if they added preparatory courses for high school education (Osaki 1999:36-37). Options for higher education expanded and became available to more students. After graduating from five-year secondary schools, some students attended private three-year professional schools; others attended private three-year preparatory high schools and three-year colleges; and still others attended three-year preparatory high schools and three- to four-year imperial universities. By the 1930s, the enrollment rate in higher education had risen to about six percent for men and about one percent for women (Aramaki 2000:17). ~

Nationalism and Militarism in Japanese Education Before World War II

The militarism, and later fascism, grew stronger and matured in the Showa Era beginning in 1926 and climaxing in education’s dark period during World War II (1941-45). After the 1945 defeat, Japanese education was completely transfigured with the adoption of a 6-3-3-4 year sequence, the first 9 years being mandatory (6 years of elementary school and 3 years of junior high school). This newly implemented system also brought to Japan substantially equal opportunity of education for boys and girls and all social classes. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ++]

Since the late 1880s, public education had been based on patriotism and Confucianism. The first Minister of Education, Mori Arinori, replaced comparatively liberal western-style education with nationalistic and Confucian education in the late 1880s. The 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, the core of prewar education in Japan, emphasized Confucian principles, such as loyalty to the emperor, filial piety, and affection and trust among family and friends. In addition, three compulsory hours of ethics were taught to children each week in the 1890s (Gluck 1985:150). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

In the early 1890s, the Imperial Photograph, the photograph of the emperor and empress, as well as the Imperial Rescript on Education were distributed and enshrined in each school’s Altar of the Imperial Family. On national holidays, the principal read the Rescript in front of the Imperial Photograph during the school ceremonies, and the entire school would salute the Photograph of Emperor and Empress. They would then sing the kimigayo, the national anthem, and other holiday songs for the emperor. The children learned to be in awe of the emperor through school ceremonies and regular visits to the school’s Altar of the Imperial Family. Beginning in 1904, the Ministry of Education emphasized the imperial view of history through nationalized textbooks in all primary schools. Many of the teachers who taught the militaristic and ultra-nationalistic wartime curriculum to students during World War II had been students in this imperialistic educational system from the 1890s (Ienaga 1978). ~

Beginning in the 1910s, victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) reinforced the imperial and nationalistic ideology. During the “Taisho- Democracy” of the 1920s, progressive educators advocated child-centered education for middle class children in urban areas (Okado 2000:144-5). However, starting with the severe economic recession in the late 1920s, ultra-nationalists and military officers controlled the government. In the 1930s, militarist and ultra-nationalist ideologies pervaded the Japanese educational system. ~

Military training courses had been assigned to male students in five-year secondary schools since 1926, and in youth training centers since 1927. In 1926, youth training centers were established for working men between the ages of 16-20. The youth training centers provided 800 course hours for four years, including 400 hours of military training, 100 hours of ethics and civics, 200 hours of academic subjects, and 100 hours of vocational subjects. Public military training centers were annexed into elementary schools or supplementary vocational schools, and instructors for military training were elementary school teachers, supplementary vocational teachers, and military reservists. Those who completed the course in youth military training centers, like those who received military training in secondary male schools, were exempted from six months of military service. In 1926, 15,588 of these centers trained 891,555 students, and this number did not change substantially until 1934 (Takano 1992:76-77, 81, 83). ~

In 1935, youth military training centers and supplementary vocational schools were integrated into youth schools. After 1938, all young working men were required to enter youth schools. Youth schools had two-year general courses for those who did not attend higher elementary schools, and four- to five-year courses for those who graduated from higher elementary schools. The five-year courses for men included 350 hours of military training, 100 hours for ethics and civics, and 510 hours for general and vocational subjects. For female students, two-year general courses were offered to those who did not go to higher elementary schools, and two- or three-year courses were offered to those who graduated from higher elementary schools (Takano 1992:135, 138, 140, 162). ~

Education in Japan During World War II

In 1941, public elementary schools became “National People’s Schools” and took a central role in militaristic wartime education. All children were taught to be dedicated subjects of the emperor and to fight the war for the emperor. Nationalized textbooks, especially those on history and ethics, deified the emperor and glorified the Imperial Army and Navy. The 1940 National History for elementary school children referred to the Emperor Hirohito as a “Living God.” The 1934 History Textbook described the legend of the creation of the Japanese nation by the Sun Goddess, and the “first” Emperor Jinmu (Harada and Tokuyama 1988:111). This imperial “worship” continued until the end of World War II. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

The 1943 Nation’s History for Elementary School included the first chapter, “Country of Gods” and concluded, “We have to study hard … to become good subjects, and to do our best for the sake of the Emperor” (Ishikawa 2000:104). The ethics textbook for second graders stated, “Japan, the Good Country, the Beautiful Country. The only Country in the World, the Country of God” (Tokutake 1995:33-34). By 1944, boys in higher elementary schools had two hours of compulsory military training a week, and students in third through sixth grades took “special classes” for training. Ueda National School launched “must-win education” in 1944, and children memorized the “Declaration of War,” and “The Rescript on Imperial Soldiers,” took military training, and cooperated with community organizations to support the war. Children recited, “Do not take the humiliation of being prisoners of war. You should rather die to avoid the humiliation of being prisoners of war…” in the “Instruction on War” (Toda 1997:163-168, 170-173). From 1941 to 1945 these “Little Nationalists” were taught to believe that the Emperor was a Living God, and to die for the Emperor and the country. ~

Schools and local communities cooperated in training children and youths to dedicate their lives to the Emperor and to the war effort. All male students in the third grade or above, except for secondary school students, and all working youths belonged to the Great Japan Youth Organization under the MOE from 1941 to 1945, when it was absorbed into the Great Japan Youth Units. In June 1942, 54,604 organizations had 14,215,000 children and youths (Yamanaka 1989:304, 420; Toda 1997:104-106). Students wrote letters and sent packages to soldiers, cleaned shrines and temples, worshipped, and saved money for war effort through school events. ~

Most of the students in youth schools had been born in the Taisho- era (1912-1926), and were drafted for the Asia-Pacific War. In 1938, 17,743 public and private youth schools taught approximately 2,210,000 students. In 1942, 2,910,000 students were taught in 21,272 youth schools (Takano 1992:188, 215). As the war entered its devastating finale in 1945 and the country experienced labor shortages, all students from higher elementary schools through universities were required to work in factories and farms, under the 1944 Student Workers Ordinance. Many elementary school children in urban areas were relocated to rural areas with their teachers, far away from their families in bombed-out urban areas. ~

Education in Japan After World War II

Immediately after World War II, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces (SCAP) abolished the militaristic wartime education that had been based on the Imperial Rescript on Education. In 1945, the GHQ purged militaristic teachers, blackened out militaristic descriptions in textbooks, and suspended courses on ethics, history, and geography, which had taught ultra-nationalism and imperial-centered doctrine. The GHQ initiated a new “democratic” educational system, modeled on the American school system. The U.S. Education Mission, consisting of 27 “progressive” American educators, stayed in Japan for less than a month, and submitted a report, which became the blueprint for postwar educational reform in 1947 (Kawase 1999:193). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

The Civil Information and Education Section (CI&E) of the GHQ implemented a decentralized and democratic education system based on the report, in cooperation with the MOE. The GHQ entrusted the administration of education to local governments, as in the United States, and introduced elected boards of education in each prefecture in 1948 (Marshall 1994:149). ~

In 1947 the government enacted two laws: the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law, both of which emphasized egalitarianism and educational autonomy. The single 6-3-3-4 system of education replaced the prewar dual (elite and popular) educational system, and required all children to attend middle school. Wartime “National People’s Schools” became six-year elementary schools. Two-year higher elementary schools and youth schools became three-year middle schools, while five-year secondary schools became high schools. Two- and three-year professional schools, preparatory high schools, normal schools, and all other schools became four-year colleges. ~

The six years of compulsory education were extended to nine years of elementary and middle school education. Almost all gender-segregated schools became coeducational. High schools in small districts, modeled on public high schools in the United States, were introduced by the GHQ. About half of all prefectures adopted the model of small school districts with one high school, and 42 percent of high schools were high schools of small school districts. In addition, 63 percent of high schools became coeducational (Aramaki 2000:24). The rate of high school enrollment was 42.5 percent in 1950, and rose to 51.5 percent in 1955 (Monbukagakusho- 2001a:27). ~

Prewar universities (49 universities including 28 private universities) were open to less than five percent of college-aged youths, and produced the elites of the nation. In 1949, the GHQ revolutionized the system of higher education by introducing a uniform four-year college system. All two- and three-year professional schools, preparatory high schools, and normal schools were upgraded into four-year universities under the order of the Bureau of Civil Information and Education of the GHQ. ~

At least one national university was established in each prefecture, modeled on state universities in the United States. More than two hundred universities were established throughout Japan. Professional schools, which did not meet the requirements to become universities, became junior colleges, whose system was formally recognized in 1964. By 1951, the 49 colleges and 452 professional, high, and normal schools of the prewar educational system were transformed into 203 colleges and 180 junior colleges. The government had strong authority over the approval of the establishment of private colleges. General courses, unit credits, professional graduate schools, and accreditation, all modeled on higher education in the United States, were introduced into Japanese higher education (Amano 1996:13, 83; Kawai 1960:203; Osaki 1999:2, 210-211). ~

According to the 1947 and 1951 Courses of Study, the MOE emphasized progressive child-centered education. The principles of American progressive education emphasized naturalism and pragmatism. Teachers help children learn from their own experiences, without a fixed program. Social studies replaced geography, history, and ethics, and emphasized social experiences from daily life and problem-solving methods. Progressive scholars and educators, as well as the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) praised this pedagogy. However, critics argued that child-centered education aggravated the juvenile delinquency of the “après la guerre generation” (Kawai 1960:196-197). ~

Education in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s

The outstanding economic growth of Japan throughout the postwar years is regarded as a contemporary marvel. Along with it, education in Japan also made great progress quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Much of its content will be introduced in the following section. It should, however, be explained here that the Showa Era was closed in 1989 upon the passing of Emperor Showa, and now it is the era of Heisei. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, 1997 ++]

After Japan regained its independence in 1952, the country enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth that lasted until the first oil shock of 1973. Average economic growth during the 1960s was 8.0 percent per annum, sometimes reaching as high as 10.6 percent (Ko-dansha 1999:300). As the number of laborers in the manufacturing and service industries increased at the expense of farming, fishery and forestry, farmers’ sons streamed into urban areas after graduating from middle or high schools, and became salaried employees. The government designed an educational plan to produce more educated and qualified laborers, responding to requests from industry, and the increasing number of school-age baby boomers. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Education proved a vehicle for upward social mobility for most young people. In 1950, almost half of all Japanese people were engaged in primary industries (Aramaki 2000:17), and almost 80 percent of the workforce was made up of elementary school graduates (Kondo- 2000:4). In 1950, among 1.59 million middle school graduates, 720,000 proceeded to high school, while 720,000 joined the workforce (Kariya 2000:1). However, by the mid-1970s, more than 90 percent of 15-year-olds attended high school, and more than one-third of 18-year-olds attended four-year colleges or junior colleges. ~

The comprehensive high schools introduced by the GHQ never became popular in Japan. By 1957, only eight prefectures had the small school district system for high schools. By 1967, only Kyoto prefecture implemented this system, which was abolished in 1983. By 1963, the MOE acknowledged the use of entrance examinations for high school admission (Aramaki 2000:25). All high schools were academically stratified, and the admission into the elite high schools became highly competitive. Many children were pushed to study hard to enter high-ranked high schools and colleges. “Examination hell” was a popular reference to the competitive entrance examinations and “education mama” were women who had high hopes for the academic prospects of their children. ~

The high school enrollment rate nearly doubled from 51.5 percent in 1955 to 91.9 percent in 1975 (Monbukagakusho- 2001a:27). By the mid-1970s, the high school enrollment rate of children whose fathers were manual laborers or farmers had almost caught up with that of children whose fathers were professionals or in managerial positions (Aramaki 2000:19). In 1965, the number of high school graduates who joined the workforce exceeded that of middle school graduates who joined the workforce (Ishida 2000:114). It was only after the 1960s that the majority of 15-year-olds stayed in schools. ~

College enrollment rates also rose from 10.1 percent in 1955 to 38.4 percent in 1975 (Monbukagakusho- 2001a:28). From 1960 to 1968, the number of college entrants increased eight-fold, because of growing number of private colleges. In just eight years, 127 private colleges and 188 private junior colleges were built, though only three national universities were founded (Osaki 1999:220). Since 1970, the MOE has subsidized private colleges. By 1975, 80 percent of colleges were private (Amano 1998:15). College education accounted for upward social mobility, and helped many college graduates form a new middle-class of white-collar salaried workers in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1957, the government launched a “manpower plan” to develop 8,000 more science and engineering students by 1960, and 20,000 more students overall by 1964 (Osaki 1999:212-214). In 1976, specialized training colleges (senshu- gakko-) were reclassified as accredited formal schools from “miscellaneous schools.” ~

When many baby boomers (born between 1947-1949) became 18 years old in the mid-1960s, many universities and colleges accepted more students than their allowable quotas, and the ratio of students to teachers became too large. That caused dissatisfaction among the students, and student riots occurred nationwide in the late 1960s. The student movements, starting from demands for lower tuition, better instruction, and more student participation in college management eventually became increasingly political, and anti-establishment forces and were led by radical Trotskyite students (Steinhoff 1984; Motohashi 1985). After campus disturbances subsided in the 1970s, some universities reduced class sizes and reformed the curriculum. However, little has changed in the basic structure of college education. ~

The enrollment rate of high schools and colleges has been stabilized during the slow economic growth following the mid-1970s. High school enrollment increased five percent from 91.9 percent in 1975 to 97.0 percent in 2000, while college enrollment increased from 38.4 percent in 1975 to 49.1 percent in 2000 (Monbukagakusho- 2001a:27-28).9 Since the 1990s, many universities and colleges have admitted non-traditional students, partly because of the difficulty recruiting high school graduates due to the ever-decreasing number of children in Japan. ~

Educational Reforms in the 1980s and 1990s

Based on the 1987 recommendation by the National Council on Educational Reform (NCER) (Rinji kyo-iku shingikai, Rinkyo-shin for short), the Ministry of Education (MOE) has been implementing large-scale educational reforms for deregulation, diversification, and individualization. In 1984, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone formed a provisional advisory body, the Rinkyo-shin, consisting of industrialists and conservative scholars, in order to instill more “moral” and “patriotic” values into Japanese students. In 1987, in a final report,5 the Rinkyo-shin recommended the deregulation of the school system; the diversification of curriculum; changes in the examination system; the promotion of higher education; the development of lifelong education; the promotion of scientific research, information technology and sports; and the internationalization of education (Monbusho- 1989). In 1987, the MOE created the Headquarters for the Implementation of Educational Reform in order to enforce policies based on the recommendation of the Rinkyo-shin. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Leftist and liberal scholars, in conjunction with the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU), who were not members of the Rinkyo-shin, opposed the neo-conservative proposals of the Rinkyo-shin. They predicted that the emphasis on moral education and national identity would trigger a revival of Japanese nationalism and militarism. They further argued that the purpose of deregulation and privatization was to produce human capital for the nation’s economic growth, not to develop democracy and the rights of the child (Horio 1988:365; Lincicome 1993:128; Schoppa 1991b:61-62). However, the JTU failed to rally teachers against the recommendations of the Rinkyo-shin. ~

Since 1993, the MOE has promoted the establishment of credit-based comprehensive high schools (so-go- ko-ko-), which are similar to public high schools in the United States. The students can choose elective classes to develop their skills and abilities, can transfer credits from other schools, and even graduate ahead of schedule. In addition, the MOE recommended in 1997 that high schools admit students on the basis of: 1) motivation; 2) sports and cultural club activities; 3) volunteer service; 4) recommendations from community leaders; 5) teachers’ recommendations; 6) interviews; and 7) essays, compositions and other practical skills (So-mucho- 1998:320-321). Since 1998, the MOE has established six-year secondary schools in order to ease high school “examination hell” through a six-year program. ~

For more than a decade, the teacher recruitment process has been deregulated, so that prefectural boards of education can hire special instructors who do not have teaching certificates. New teachers are expected to bring fresh ideas and perspectives to school culture. In 1993, the MOE established the team-teaching system in order to pay closer attention to the needs of individual students, and to reduce teachers’ heavy workloads. Beginning in 1995, school counselors have also been deployed to schools in order to handle increasing school-related problems, such as bullying and school refusal syndrome. ~

Since 1993, the MOE has promoted cooperation between schools and communities, and has made school facilities available for community activities. School-initiated volunteer activities include visiting nursing homes or institutions for disabled people, and cleaning public places. Volunteer activities are also part of integrated study courses. In recent years, the government has also supported human rights education (jinken kyo-iku) to teach students about minority cultures and history. ~

In its 1991 report, the College Council recommended curricular reforms, the introduction of an independent evaluation system, and the expansion of graduate schools. Many colleges started to create syllabi, evaluation forms, and more teaching and research assistants, and to admit more nontraditional and transfer students, similar to colleges in the United States. Since 1997, students who excel at mathematics and physics can skip a grade, and enter college one year earlier. As of 2003, one national university and one private university admit 17-year-olds. Furthermore, since April 2004, all 89 national universities and junior colleges became an independent administrative corporation (gyo-sei ho-jin) to be independent from the government. ~

Education for the Twenty-First Century

The National Commission on Educational Reform (Kyo-iku kaikaku kokumin kaigi), commissioned by Prime Minister Keizo- Obuchi, submitted its final report in December 2000. The report underscored the need for further deregulation, diversity, and individuality. It emphasized home education, moral education, volunteer activities, college education, and cooperation between the community and parents. It proposed grouping primary and secondary school students according to the learning level, the use of learning achievement tests in high schools, the promotion of six-year secondary schools, the requirement of volunteer activities, an evaluation system for teachers, and the revision of the Fundamental Law of Education (Kyo-iku Kaikaku 2000). The MOE developed the Educational Reform Plan for the 21st Century (also known as The Rainbow Plan) based on the final report of the National Commission on Educational Reform. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Critics of the proposed reform argue that school choice, six-year secondary schools, ability grouping, and the abolition of age restrictions for college admission are elitist ideas, and that they reinforce educational competition and social stratification among students (Fujita 2001; Yoneyama 2002). Concerned with the drastic reduction of academic content, many educators are worried about the lowering educational achievement of children, especially in mathematics and science. Responding to critics, the MOE stated that the 1998 Course of Study is based on a “minimum standard” so that teachers may teach higher-level materials. The MOE plans to recognize about 10 percent of materials, at a higher level than the contents of the 1998 Course of Study in the 2005-6 textbooks (AS January 3, 2004). The MOE also published reference materials along with additional materials for teachers teaching elementary and middle school mathematics and science in order to demonstrate methods of teaching advanced materials. The Central Education Committee suggested that the MOE revise the 1998 Course of Study to encourage teachers to go beyond the Course of Study if students understood the materials. In hopes of keeping academic expectations high, public schools have compensated for the reduction of class hours by shortening school events and providing a summer session. Parents and community leaders hold Saturday classes in order to maintain high academic standards. ~

The idea of “integrated study” (so-go-tekina gakushu- no jikan) was the brainchild of the reform. Integrated study has been allotted three to four unit hours a week for third to sixth graders, two to three unit hours for middle school students, and three to four unit hours for high school students. Each school has the right to determine what and how to teach integrated study, whose topics include international issues, information science, environmental issues, social welfare, and health. As pedagogy for integrated study, the MOE has recommended debates, volunteer activities, surveys and experiments. ~

Furthermore, many more elective courses are now available for middle and high school students. Each school can set the length of each class, such as 75 minutes for laboratory experiments, and 25 minutes for English classes rather than the customary 45 minutes hour-units for elementary school and 50 minute hour-units for middle schools. For the 2001-2 school year, the MOE planned to hire 22,500 elementary and middle school teachers in the next five years to reduce the mandated class size of 40 students, and create smaller groups of 20 students for academic subjects (Monbukagakusho- 2003b:126-127).

Educational Reforms in the 2000s

In 2000, the Council on Curriculum proposed a National Scholastic Aptitude Test (gakute) for elementary, middle, and high school students, to begin in 2003. As of April 2004, more than 80 percent of the prefectural Boards of Education enforce a National Scholastic Aptitude Test (AS June 13, 2004). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Since April 2000, school committees can be established at the request of the principal, with recognition from the Board of Education. For the first time, parents and community residents have a say in the management of schools. It is interesting to note that in 2000, one school was able to reduce the percentage of students who believed that “classes are difficult” from 30 percent to less than 10 percent within six months of introducing teacher evaluations and open classes for members of the community (Nihon Keizai 2001:56). In addition, the MOE plans to deploy 50,000 teachers’ aides and school support volunteers in the three years beginning with the 2001-2 school year (Monbukagakusho- 2003b:62-63). Furthermore, the MOE plans to deregulate the 6-3 elementary and middle school system so that the municipal administration can change it to a 4-3-2 system or a 5-4 system after the 2006-7 school year (AS August 11, 2004). ~

Making Japanese Schools Safer

On June 8, 2001, 37-year-old Mamoru Takuma stormed into Ikeda elementary school, stabbed eight schoolchildren to death with a kitchen-knife and injured 15 others, including two teachers. In May 2003, the trial started in the Osaka District Court, and prosecutors demanded the death penalty. The death sentence was upheld after the defendant withdrew his appeal to the Osaka High Court in September 2003. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

On June 8, 2003, the MOE apologized for not implementing the appropriate preventive measures, promised to compile a manual on crisis management, and agreed to pay the families of the eight murdered children a total of 400 million yen in damages. In addition, 24 school officials, including the principal of the Ikeda elementary school were punished for failing to prevent the disaster. ~

After the incident, the boards of education and schools sought to make educational institutions safer. Although Japanese schools had been considered quite safe before the June 2001 killings, schools started to check school visitors, installed surveillance cameras, and taught faculty and staff about emergency measure. The city of Toyonaka, near the Ikeda elementary school dispatched a security guard to all elementary schools in the city. The guards watch school gates and patrol the schools from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Schools close their gates and screen visitors before allowing them to step onto school property (AS June 7, 2003). By the end of 2003, 45 percent of schools had a security system such as surveillance cameras, 33 percent had given students buzzers for the prevention of crimes, and 8 percent had security guards (AS January 15, 2005). On February 14, 2005, a 17-year-old boy entered his former elementary school and killed a teacher and wounded another teacher and one dietician with a knife. Responding to the incident, the Board of Education of the Ko-to- District of Tokyo arranged regular police patrols at all preschools, elementary schools and middle schools in the district (AS February 17, 2005). ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, usjp.org/jpeducation_en/jp ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~; Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated Japan 2014

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