19th century secondary school kids
Japanese middle and high school students attend six or so classes a day like American secondary school students but they stay in the same classroom, with the teachers being the ones that have to move from room to room.

Japanese students get graded on a 1-to-5 scale that is similar to the American A-through-F system with 5 equaling an A and 1 equaling an F. Grades are less important for Japanese students than American students, and few students fail. The main goal for schools is to prepare students to get good scores on their college entrance examinations.

Japanese elementary school textbooks sometimes have more discussion questions in them than high school textbook, which are full of facts to prepare students for their college entrance examinations. Teachers often don't have many liberties to be creative because they have so much required material to get through.

Top universities are opening up affiliated middle schools and high schools in different parts of the country as a way to attract the brightest students.

In March 2010 a law was enacted that waived tuition for students attending public high school and provided financial aid to students attending private schools. In accordance with the law schools with be paid ¥120,000 to ¥240,000 per student depending on household incomes of the student’s families.

Junior High Schools in Japan

Attendance for the three years of junior high school education is compulsory. More than 90 percent of junior high schools are public coeducational institutions. Each year students are assigned to a homeroom with a maximum of 40 students (the average class size in 2010 was 29.4), with whom they take their classes. For the most part, classes are not segregated based on ability, but some schools have implemented streaming systems for math and English classes. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

The standard curriculum includes the following required subjects: Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, a foreign language elective (almost always English), music, fine arts, health and physical education, and industrial arts or homemaking. Requirements also include extracurricular activities, a moral education course, and integrated study.

High Schools in Japan

High school attendance is optional. In 2010, 98 percent of all junior high school graduates entered high school, and about 74 percent of all high schools were public. High school entrance is based on exam performance and the competition is intense for favored schools. Students attending unified junior high and high schools avoid the high school entrance exam pressure, but there are still relatively few such unified schools in the public school system. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

The high school core curriculum includes the following required subjects: Japanese language, geography and history, civics, mathematics, science, health and physical education, art, foreign language, home economics, and information. Extracurricular activities and integrated study are also required. Students in special vocational programs also take courses in their area of study (business, industrial arts, agriculture, etc.) while spending less time on the core curriculum than regular students.

With almost all junior high school students now going on to high school regardless of their desire and willingness to learn, high schools are looking for ways to reduce student apathy and the number of dropouts. As part of this effort, new and more diverse models of high school education are being introduced to better respond to the different abilities and interests of individual students. Examples of such new models include creditbased high schools, where graduation is based on accumulated credits rather than completion of a set number of full academic years, and integrated-program schools, where students have more flexibility to take electives based on their individual interests and abilities.

Secondary School Life

Japanese secondary students have a shorter summer vacation but a longer winter one than their American counterparts. On an average day, Japanese high school students attend school from 8:30am to 4:00pm and have 2 to 6 hours of homework a night, depending on the school, individual and how immersed in exam hell they are. Many attend cram school in the afternoon and on weekends and are heavily involved in sports or club activities.

High schools are ranked and students who attended them are identifiable by their school uniforms. Those that attend low-ranked schools stand out. Once a students has been condemned to low school it is hard for them to make advancements in life. Describing the students in an a vocational high school, Karl Taro Greenfield wrote, "The kids were friendly, jovial and not at all interested in learning English. Most of them slept during class, others kept up a steady stream of jabber, and when I tried to quiet them, they simply walked out...The girls dyed their hair reddish brown. Tattoos abound. Take, a guitar player....asked about drug prices in Los Angeles."

Surveys indicated to show that secondary students are goofing off more. One poll that half of final year high school students do less than two hours of studying a day outside of school and one in five did hardly any studying at home.

A government survey found that a third of middle and high school students slept during the day.

In a piece on a high school in Kitakyushu by the Japanese television station “News Zero” first year students came across as being eager and hopeful; third years students seemed burnt out from preparing for university exams; and second year students appeared aggressive and rebellious, anxious to take out their frustration in first year students for not showing proper respect.

High School Texts Bulk up with 12 Percent More Pages

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The average number of pages in high school textbooks to be used from next spring will increase by 11.9 percent compared to those being used now, according to the results of textbook screenings released by the education ministry. The increase results from the government's new curriculum guidelines, which expand the amount of academic content students must learn while also eliminating a clause that restricted the teaching of higher-level material. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 2012]

“Compared with current textbooks, new ones in mathematics will have 27.2 percent more pages, and science books will have 16.5 percent more. The number of pages in English textbooks, in which the number of words to be learned has increased, rose by 25.2 percent. Descriptions of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake are included in textbooks for geography and some other subjects.

“Based on the new curriculum guidelines, which aim to depart from so-called cram-free education, all of the textbooks have more pages. Compared with textbooks screened under the cram-free policy for fiscal 2005, the new mathematics textbooks have 48, or 30.4 percent, more pages, and those of science have 124, or 23.6 percent, more pages.

“The new guidelines increase the number of English words to be learned in three years of high school from 1,300 to 1,800, and stipulate that English classes will have to be held in English in principle. Biology textbooks newly contain descriptions of methods for analyzing base sequences of DNA. Some of the English textbooks, such as one produced by Taishukan Publishing Co. for college preparatory schools, are written mostly in English except for a small number of Japanese words about proper nouns and grammar.

“Sixteen textbooks describe the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which began with the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Those for Contemporary Society discuss the incident in relation to "the danger and seriousness of damage if an accident occurs." Seven textbooks mentioned radiation from the crisis. One physics textbook contains a passage that reads, "Meltdowns occurred and radioactive substances from nuclear reactors were discharged to the outside." One Home Economics textbook introduces temporary limits on radioactive substances in food in a sidebar.

Efforts to Reform Japanese Secondary School Education

The Central Education Committee and the National Commission on Educational Reform promote six-year secondary schools to ease “examination hell.” The Amendment to the School Education Law has been in effect since 1999. It helps both middle schools and high schools cooperate and create six-year secondary schools. Sato- proposes the elimination of high school entrance examinations and the abolition of public subsidies for private high schools. Under his proposal, private schools will need to either abolish their entrance examinations or sacrifice public subsidies. He predicts that many private high schools, which would be in dire financial straits without the subsidies would abolish entrance examinations (Sato- 2000:84-89). [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Comprehensive community high schools that can accommodate all students in small school districts have never prevailed in Japan. Comprehensive community high schools introduced by the GHQ after World War II, were never popular and ceased to exist soon after the Occupation, except in the Kyoto area. When small school districts were introduced in Tokyo in 1967, many high-ranked public schools in Tokyo lost their best students to private elite high schools or private six-year secondary schools. That intensified the competition among ninth graders as well as sixth graders to enter good private middle and high schools. ~

In 2003, the Tokyo metropolitan administration abolished its 10 school districts in favor of citywide public high schools, in order to attract students to the public high schools. As a result, the traditionally competitive public schools attracted many students from outside their former districts to take the 2003 entrance examinations (AS January 8, 2003). In addition, the Wakayama, Fukui, Gunma and Mie prefectures plan to abolish school districts, and many other prefectures also plan to broaden their school districts so that students have the choice of many more high schools, and so high schools can compete for the best students. Since 2001, the prefectural boards of education have been able to decide how they wish to divide the school districts (AS October 20, 2001). ~

Flexibility in college entrance admissions and the return-match system for students in low-ranked high schools would give late-bloomers a second chance, and ease the first stage of competition: the entrance examination for high school. The established model, in which students go from high-ranked academic high schools to high-ranked colleges, discourages students in low-ranked high schools from competing against students in high-ranked high schools at the second stage of competition: the college entrance examination. They usually experience a “cooling off” of their ambitions and life goals after having lost the initial competition during high school selection because they realize that they do not have good chance of admission to a good college (Takeuchi 1995). ~

In addition, low educational expectations from teachers and parents do not inspire students to seek admission to a good college. Remedial education for low-achievers helps students to improve their academic performance. Some students from low-ranked high schools go to specialized training colleges and junior colleges. If they can keep their grades up and transfer from these two-year colleges to four-year colleges, these late-bloomers can still attend a good college. However, transfer is extremely difficult. Increased flexibility in the transfer system would help ease “examination hell” and provide a second chance for late-bloomers, just as many community college students transfer to four-year colleges in the United States. The MOE has moved in the right direction since 1999 by creating a transfer system for students from two-year specialized training colleges with 1,700 hours of class units or more to enroll in college (Monbusho- 1999b:167). ~

Unified Secondary Schools

There is an increasingly popular trend for public schools to offer a unified secondary curriculum — where both a middle school and a high school curriculum are taught at the same institution. This means that students take a test to get in before middle school rather than before high school.

These schools came into existence after the revised School Education Law, which came into force in 1999, made it possible for public schools to offer a unified secondary curriculum. Such schools are generally viewed as being top quality schools, in many cases offering the same level of education as top private schools while being a public school.

Unified secondary schools are popular with parents. As of 2010 there were 96 such schools nationwide. Among the 11 in the Tokyo area the ratio to get in is 6.83 to 1. Many juku cram schools offer special classes for kids wanting to attend these schools. "It's impossible to pass the test only by mastering what children are taught at primary school. It's essential to prepare specifically for the exam," Atsushi Miyata, and employee of the Eikoh Seminar juku chain told the Yomiuri Shimbun . The tests, he said, tend to focus heavily on gauging children's ability to think logically, through reading-, writing- and arithmetic-based tasks — as opposed to checking simple knowledge retention.

Single-Sex Schools in Japan

Single-sex schools account for less than 10 percent of all schools in Japan. In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Sngle-sex schools have an advantage in terms of the advancement rate to prestigious universities. Educational consultant Toshimi Nakai held a symposium on single-sex education in Tokyo last year. "From late primary school to middle school, girls develop faster than boys both physically and mentally," Nakai, 53, said. "So it's inefficient for boys and girls to take the same classes together because their mental ages are different.

“Single-sex high schools always rank high in the list of successful applicants to the University of Tokyo," Nakai added. "It also has been shown that in Britain and South Korea students in single-sex schools tend to perform better academically [than their counterparts in coed schools]." According to a survey by Daigaku Tsushin, an information magazine on university entrance exams, the top seven high schools among successful University of Tokyo applicants in 2012 were boys schools--including Kaisei, Nada and Azabu high schools. All-girls school Oin Gakuen ranked eighth in the list.

“Explaining the advantage of boys schools, Yukio Yanagisawa, principal of Kaisei Junior and Senior High Schools, in Tokyo, said, "Boys can concentrate more on their studies when they aren't having to compete against female students, who develop faster in middle school." Year after year Kaisei high school tops the list of schools whose students who pass the University of Tokyo entrance exams. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 23, 2012]

Enrollment Declines at Single-Sex Schools

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Reflecting the nation's declining birthrate, the number of single-sex schools in the country has decreased dramatically, according to a 2011 poll by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. There were 464 schools attended by only male or female students nationwide, according to the survey.Single-gender schools account for less than 10 percent of all schools, and their number is half of what it was 20 years ago. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 23, 2012]

“The decline is mainly due to a shift at many schools to coeducation to attract more students amid the low birthrate. Despite the decrease, boys schools still rank high in terms of the number of successful applicants to top-notch universities, highlighting an advantage of single-sex education.

“At the beginning of the Heisei era (1989 to present), the country had far more boys schools, known as "bankara" (rudeness) schools, and girls schools, poetically called "otome no sono" (maiden's garden). In 1991, there were 1,002 single-sex high schools, accounting for 18.2 percent of the total. However, this figure had fallen to below 10 percent in 2008. In 2011, there were 464 single-sex high schools nationwide--130 for boys and 334 for girls, accounting for 9.2 percent.

“Formerly an all-male school, Meguro-Gakuin Junior and Senior High School in Meguro Ward, Tokyo, had begun suffering a decline. As the student population failed to recover, the school became coeducational in 2011. "We had no choice but to become coeducational to boost the number of applicants and students," Takemi Matsumoto, the school's executive director, said. The school had about 390 applicants in 2010. After becoming coed, this number shot up to about 660 in 2011. The number of applicants further increased to 766 in 2012.

“Entrance exam fees are an important source of funding for private schools. Becoming coeducational means potentially doubling the number of students qualified to take an entrance exam. "The number of both female and male students has increased. I think becoming coeducational led to the boost," Matsumoto said.

Teaching International-Understanding at Japanese Secondary Schools

Middle schools teach international understanding through regular classes, such as Chinese poetry in Japanese language arts, geography, history, civics, and English. Many middle schools have an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), a native-English speaker who regularly teaches English conversation as well as foreign cultures in English classes. For most students, one of the few foreigners they see regularly is their ALT for English classes. Also, with free access to the Internet, providing students an international-understanding education becomes easier. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

High schools teach about foreign cultures and world studies in English, history, geography, political science and economics, contemporary society, and Japanese language arts classes. The students learn about the interdependence of the global system, the environment, and human rights from international perspectives. Many high schools have student clubs for English conversation and international exchange. In addition, some high schools have field trips abroad, and foreign student programs. Recently, some high schools offer international studies courses. Jo-sei High School in Marugame has an international studies course. The school offers a three-week home-stay program in Canada, the United States, or England every year. They also have an English conversation club, an English club, and a Chinese club. ~

Sister School Programs in Japan

The sister school program is one of the best ways to establish relationships with students in other countries. Many Japanese cities currently have sister cities. About twenty middle school students in Marugame take a 10-day trip to San Sebastian, Marugame’s sister city in Spain every summer. Many cities in Japan have sister cities abroad. However, only a few have established sister school programs. The students in sister schools exchange letters and gifts. Nowadays the Internet and e-mails make it easier than ever to communicate over long distances. Sister school programs should be given a larger role in teaching international understanding. [Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~]

Since 1993, Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture has been the sister city of Federal Way, Washington. Six elementary schools and one middle school found sister schools in Federal Way.5 Sanjo- Elementary School became the sister school of Lake Grove Elementary School in 1993. Sanjo- Elementary School sent students’ letters, pictures, stationery, videos of the school and the city, calendars, comic books, toys, newspapers and other items to Lake Grove Elementary School. Lake Grove sent student letters, Christmas cards, popular magazines, school papers, music tapes, popular toys and other items. ~

Meanwhile, both schools display these gifts in their international exchange classrooms, and created a student committee for international exchange. The two schools decided to hold simultaneous environmental awareness events for their communities. On October 28-29, 1994, Lake Grove Elementary School students participated in a community clean-up, while their counterparts at Sanjo- Elementary School collected aluminum cans for recycling and had an all-student meeting called the “SL Fureai (“bringing Sanjo- and Lake Grove together”) Meeting.” At Sanjo- Elementary School, students invited two native English speakers to give a talk, counted the number of cans that the students had collected, watched a slide show, and played a game. Through the cultural exchanges, the students had direct exposure to different cultures, and they learned how to communicate with students on the other side of the world. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Source: Miki Y. Ishikida, Japanese Education in the 21st Century, ; iUniverse, June 2005 ~; Education in Japan website ; Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), Daily Yomiuri, Jiji Press, 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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