Secondary education in Japan

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Japanese high school students wearing the sailor fuku

Secondary education in Japan is split into junior high schools (中学校 chūgakkō), which cover the seventh through ninth grade, and senior high schools (高等学校 kōtōgakkō, abbreviated to 高校 kōkō), which mostly cover grades ten through twelve.

Junior high school[edit]

The courtyard and classrooms wing of Onizuka Junior High School (鬼塚中学校) in Karatsu, Japan
A typical classroom in a Japanese junior high school

Lower-secondary schools cover grades seven, eight, and nine. Ages are roughly thirteen to fifteen with increased focus on academic studies. Although it is possible to leave the formal education system after completing lower secondary school and find employment, fewer than 4% did so by the late 1980s.

Like most elementary schools, most junior high schools in the 1980s were public schools and government funded; 5% were private schools. Private schools cost about ¥558,592 (US$3,989) per student in 1988, about four times more than the ¥130,828 (US$934) that the ministry estimated as the cost for students enrolled in public junior high schools.

The minimum number of school days in a year is 210 in Japan, compared to 180 in the United States. However, students will typically attend school for 240 to 250 days a year. A significant part of the school calendar is taken up by non-academic events such as sports days and school trips.[1]

The teaching force in lower-secondary schools is two-thirds male. Schools are headed by principals, 99% of whom were men in 1988. Teachers often majored in the subjects they taught, and more than 80% graduated from a four-year college. Classes are large, with 38 students on average, and each class is assigned a homeroom teacher who doubles as counselor. Unlike elementary students, junior high school students have different teachers for different subjects. The subject teachers usually move to a new room for each 50-minute period. Usually students' lunch is provided by the school itself.


A teachers' room at Onizuka Junior High School in Karatsu, Japan (classes usually stay in one place and teachers move each period)

Instruction tends to rely on the lecture method.[citation needed] Teachers also use other media, such as television and radio, and there is some laboratory work. By 1989 about 45% of all public lower-secondary schools had computers, including schools that used them only for administrative purposes. Classroom organization is still based on small work groups, although no longer for reasons of discipline. Students are expected to have mastered daily routines and acceptable behavior.

All course contents are specified in the Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools. Some subjects, such as Japanese language and mathematics, are coordinated with the elementary curriculum. The curriculum covers Japanese language, English, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, industrial arts, homemaking, health, and physical education. Moral education and special activities continue to receive attention. In science, students may take courses emphasizing the safety and necessity of nuclear power plants, with curricula written by government bureaucrats rather than teachers.[2]

Extracurricular activities[edit]

Many students participate in after-school clubs. Sports clubs, such as baseball are especially popular among boys,[3][4] while wind bands are the most popular club for girls.[4] Soccer (football) clubs are gaining popularity. Judo clubs attract boys and girls. They may be inspired by the many Japanese judo athletes who have won medals at the World Judo Championships and the Olympic Games. Other popular sports clubs include tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and volleyball. In every sport, many games are held between schools and at the regional level, so students have opportunities to compete.

For cultural clubs, one that has gained popularity is the go club. Go is a strategic board game played with black and white stones. After a manga about the game was published (Hikaru no Go), more schoolchildren started enjoying go. Other options for students include choir and art clubs. Brass band, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement clubs are popular.[3]

Some junior high schools encourage students to take academic ability tests such as the STEP Eiken for English or the Kanji kentei for Japanese.

Students in the highest grades of elementary, junior high, and senior high schools also take trips lasting up to several days to culturally important cities like Kyoto and Nara, ski resorts, or other places.[3]

Senior high school[edit]

A high school class in 1963

Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, as of 2005 94% of all junior high school graduates entered high schools[5] and over 95% of students graduated successfully from them compared to 89% of Americans.[6]

To enter, students must take an entrance examination in Japanese, mathematics, science, social studies, and English,[7] whether it is standardized for all public high schools in the prefecture or a test created by a private high school for that school alone.[7] All upper-secondary schools, public and private, are informally ranked based on their success in placing graduates in freshman classes of the most prestigious universities.[which?][7] Success or failure on an entrance examination can influence a student's entire future, since the prospect of finding a good job depends on the school attended.[citation needed] Thus, students experience the pressure of this examination system at a relatively early age.[7] Because of the importance of these exams in entering high school — even more than the scholastic record and performance evaluations from lower-secondary school — students are closely counselled in lower-secondary school so that they will be relatively assured of a place in the schools to which they apply.

Daily Life[edit]

Students walk, ride bicycles, or take public transportation to school.[7] It is not uncommon for students to spend two or more hours each day on public transportation,[7] taking time to sleep, study or socialize. What they can do on the way to and from school — chewing gum, consuming snacks, reading books while walking — anything that might reflect badly on the reputation of the school[7] is heavily regulated to protect that reputation.[7] Some schools even require students to leave seats open on buses and trains for other passengers "to demonstrate consideration."[7] Each school has a unique uniform that makes its students easily identifiable to the public.[7]

Every high school has a set of lockers for students to exchange their street shoes for a set of slippers, which in some schools are color-coded for gender.[7]

High schools typically begin at 8:30,[7] when teachers meet for a five-minute meeting, followed by homeroom.[8] Students assemble in their homerooms of an average of between 40 and 45 students each,[7] with some schools having a weekly schoolwide assembly beforehand.[7] Homeroom teachers are in charge of morning and afternoon homeroom times, both about five minutes each,[8] as well as a weekly one-hour long homeroom period.[9]

The latter meeting "provides an opportunity for teachers to concentrate on student guidance. Typical activities include helping students develop greater awareness of themselves as high school students, encouraging them to reflect on their summer vacations, or perhaps asking them to contemplate the forthcoming advancement from one grade to another. These discussion topics are planned by teachers and scheduled in advance for the entire school year."[8]

During the daily homerooms the students themselves conduct what they call "toban" — taking attendance, making announcements, etc. — that are shared on a rotating basis.[7] "Two class leaders, one male and one female are elected every trimester, and many students are assigned to specific task committees in their homeroom class.[9]

Regular classes begin at 8:45 AM and there are four classes of 50 minutes each before lunch.[8] Students go to different classrooms for physical education, laboratory classes, or other specialized courses; otherwise, teachers change classrooms instead of the students for the entire day.[7] Students typically attend between ten and fourteen courses a year;[10] however, "you don't have all of your classes every day. The schedule rotates throughout the week, and in every classroom you enter you will find a schedule taped to the wall."[9]

Most schools do not have their own cafeteria,[7] students eating in their homerooms instead,[8] and unlike elementary and middle schools high schoolers do not have government-subsidized lunches.[9] Because of this many students bring a box lunch from home with foods such as rice, fish, eggs, vegetables, and pickles.[7][9]

After lunch students have two more classes.[8] All students then participate in a fifteen-minute cleaning the school ("osoji").[7][9] The students work in assigned groups of between four and six students, known as han, to clean their classrooms, corridors, and school grounds.[9]

After osoji and the afternoon homeroom meeting, or at 3:30 PM, students are free to attend extracurricular activities,[7][8]

Saturday schooling, when offered, ends at 1 PM after four courses.[8] (As discussed below, Saturday courses were officially done away with in 2002 but many schools have either kept them or are trying to bring them back.)


In most schools, there are two types of extracurricular clubs:

New students usually choose a club after the school year begins and only rarely change for the rest of their high school careers.[7] Clubs meet for two hours after school every day, many times even during school vacations.[7] Although there is a teacher assigned to each club as a sponsor, they often have very little input in the club's daily activities.[7] These clubs are an important chance for students to make friends and learn the social etiquette and relationships like the "senpai" (senior)/"kohai" (junior) dynamic that will be important in their adult lives.[7]

However, most college bound students withdraw from club activities during their senior year to devote more time to preparation for university entrance examinations.[7] Homeroom teachers work with students and their parents at this time to discuss their admission prospects or career plans.[9]

Free time[edit]

Outside of school and cram schools, research done in the late 1990s showed students doing approximately two hours of homework on weekdays and about three hours of it on Sundays.[7] Every day students spent an average of two hours watching television, 30 minutes listening to the radio, an hour reading for fun, and less than half an hour hanging out with peers.[7] Parents and teachers strongly discourage teenage dating, and most young people do not begin to do so until after high school.[7]


As of the late 1990s Japanese students spent 240 days a year at school, 60 days more than their American counterparts[7] even with the amount of time spent preparing for school festivals and events.[1][7] Traditionally Japanese students attended class on Saturdays;[7] although education reforms from 2002 have made them no longer mandatory,[6] many schools have begun to bring them back to have more time to cover the rigorous material required by the Ministry of Education.

Schools have limited autonomy in developing their curriculum or choosing their textbooks. Instead, although the latter are written and produced in the private sector,[6] the Ministry of Education has the final say over any and all content and materials.[7] Typically students take three years each of mathematics, social studies, Japanese, science, and English, with additional courses like physical education, music, art, and moral studies.[6] In particular social studies in Japan is broken down into civics, geography, Japanese history, world history, sociology, and politics/economics.[6]

Because the amount of mandatory courses, electives are few. All the students in one grade level study the same subjects,[7] although it is in upper-secondary school that differences in ability are first publicly acknowledged.

Most upper-secondary teachers are university graduates. Upper-secondary schools are organized into departments, and teachers specialize in their major fields although they teach a variety of courses within their disciplines. Teaching depends largely on the lecture system, with the main goal of covering the very demanding curriculum in the time allotted. Approach and subject coverage tends to be uniform, at least in the public schools.

Types of schools[edit]

General program[edit]

The most common type of upper-secondary schools has a full-time, general program that offered academic courses for students preparing for higher education.

According to 2005 research, while almost 90% of Japanese students attend public schools from kindergarten through the ninth grade, over 29% of students go to private high schools.[6] A late-1980s study by the Ministry of Education had found that families paid about ¥300,000 (US$2,142) a year for a public high school and about twice as much for a private high school; however, as the name suggests, the 2010 "Act on Free Tuition Fee at Public High Schools and High School Enrollment Support Fund" did away with all public high school tuition.[11]

Besides being free to attend, public schools are more popular because many students and experts have found the quality of education to be much better than that at private schools.[12] Because of this entrance exams for public high schools are much more competitive among students than their private counterparts.

Japanese vocational and technical programs include several hundred specialized courses, such as information processing, metal works, fish farming, business English, and automotive industry. Business and industrial courses in particular accounted for 72% of all students in full-time vocational programs in 1989.

The first-year programs for students in both academic and commercial courses are similar. They include basic academic courses, such as Japanese language, English, mathematics, and science.

Training of disabled students, particularly at the upper-secondary level, emphasizes vocational education to enable students to be as independent as possible within society. Vocational training varies considerably depending on the student's disability, but the options are limited for some. It is clear that the government is aware of the necessity of broadening the range of possibilities for these students. Advancement to higher education is also a goal of the government, and it struggles to have institutions of higher learning accept more students with disabilities.

Nontraditional schools[edit]

A small number of schools offer part-time classes, night school or correspondence education.

Education reforms[edit]

International educational scores (latest, 2007)
(8th graders average score, TIMSS
International Math and Science Study, 2007)
Maths Science
Rank Score Rank Score
 Singapore 1 3 593 1 567
 Taiwan 2 1 598 2 561
 South Korea 3 2 597 4 553
 Japan 4 5 570 3 554
 Hong Kong 5 4 572 9 530
 Hungary 6 6 517 6 539
 England 7 7 513 5 542
 Czech Republic 8 11 504 7 539
 Russia 9 8 512 10 530
 Slovenia 10 12 501 8 538
 United States 11 9 508 11 520
 Lithuania 12 10 506 12 519
 Australia 13 14 496 13 515
 Sweden 14 15 491 14 511
 Armenia 15 13 499 17 488
 Italy 18 19 480 16 495

Maths Highlights from TIMSS 2007
Science Highlights from TIMSS 2007

The ministry recognizes a need to improve the teaching of all foreign languages, especially English. To improve instruction in spoken English, the government invites many young native speakers of English to Japan to serve as assistants to school boards and prefectures under its Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. By 2005 participants numbered over 6,000. In the last few years, several school boards in Japan have relied on ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher) from private dispatch companies.

As part of the movement to develop an integrated curriculum and the education reform movement of the late 1980s, the entire Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools was revised in 1989 and took effect in the 1992–93 school year. A main aim of the reform is to equip students with the basic knowledge needed for citizenship. In some measure, this means increased emphasis on Japanese history and culture, as well as understanding Japan as a nation and its relationships with other nations of the world. The course of study also increased elective hours, recommending that electives be chosen in light of individual student differences and with an eye toward diversification.

A further revision to the law was carried out on 15 December 2006. The revised law leaves the structure of schooling basically the same but includes new emphases on respect for Japanese culture (Article 2.5), school discipline (Article 6.2), and parental responsibility (Article 10).[13]

Junior high issues[edit]

Two problems of great concern to educators and citizens began to appear at the lower-secondary level in the 1980s: bullying, which remains a major problem, and the school-refusal syndrome (toko kyohi; manifested by excessive absenteeism), which was on the rise.[14] In 2008, there were 42,754 incidents of problematic behavior in junior high schools, according to a government survey.[15]

Experts disagreed over the specific causes of these phenomena, but there is general agreement that the system offers little individualized or specialized assistance, thus contributing to disaffection among those who can not conform to its demands or who are otherwise experiencing difficulties. Another problem concerns Japanese children returning from abroad. These students, particularly if they have been overseas for extended periods, often need help in reading and writing — and in adjusting to rigid classroom demands. Even making the adjustment does not guarantee acceptance: Besides having acquired a foreign language, many of these students have also acquired foreign customs of speech, dress, and behavior that mark them as different.

Senior high issues[edit]

The upper-secondary curriculum underwent thorough revision in 1989. That year a new Course of Study for Upper-Secondary Schools was announced that was to be phased in beginning with the tenth grade in 1994, followed by the eleventh grade in 1995 and the twelfth grade in 1996. Among noteworthy changes is the requirement that male and female students take a course in home economics. The government is concerned with instilling in all students an awareness of the importance of family life, the roles and responsibilities of family members, the concept of cooperation within the family, and the role of the family in society. The family continues to be an extremely important part of the social infrastructure, and the ministry clearly is interested in maintaining family stability within a changing society. Another change of note was the division of the old social studies course into history-and-geography and civics courses.



  1. ^ a b Shields, James J. (31 May 2004). Japanese Schooling: Patterns of Socialization, Equality, and Political Control. Penn State Press. pp. 82–84. ISBN 978-0-271-02340-3. Retrieved 16 November 2012. 
  2. ^ With a Mighty Hand, New Republic, March 19, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ a b Wind Bands and Cultural Identity in Japanese Schools by David G. Hebert (Springer press, 2011).
  5. ^ STATISTICAL ABSTRACT 2006 edition<>
  6. ^ a b c d e f
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Japanese Education in the 21st Century, Miki Y. Ishikida, June 2005, p. 101
  10. ^
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ Reed, p. 119.
  13. ^ Comparison of old and current law on Japan Focus an Asian Pacific e-journal] accessed at December 11, 2008
  14. ^ Free to Be by Miki Tanikawa, New York Times January 12, 2002
  15. ^ The Daily Yomiuri 2/12/2009

Further reading[edit]

  • Benjamin, Gail. Japanese Lessons: A Year in a Japanese School through the Eyes of an American Anthropologist and Her Children. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • DeCoker, Gary, editor. National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002.
  • Ellington, Lucien. "Beyond the Rhetoric: Essential Questions about Japanese Education." Footnotes, December 2003. Foreign Policy Research Institute's website:
  • Eades, J.S. et al., editors. The 'Big Bang' in Japanese Higher Education: The 2004 Reforms and the Dynamics of Change. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2005.
  • Fukuzawa, Rebecca Erwin and Gerald K. Letendre. Intense Years: How Japanese Adolescents Balance School, Family, and Friends. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2000.
  • Goodman, Roger and David Phillips, editors. Can the Japanese Change Their Education System? Oxford: Symposium Books, 2003.
  • Guo, Yugui. Asia's Educational Edge: Current Achievements in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, and India. New York: Lexington Books, 2005.
  • Letendre, Gerald K. Learning to Be Adolescent: Growing Up in U.S. and Japanese Middle Schools. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Masalski, Kathleen. (2001). "Examining the Japanese History Textbook Controversies." A Japan Digest produced by the National Clearinghouse for U.S.-Japan Studies. Full text at
  • Rohlen, Thomas P. JAPAN'S HIGH SCHOOLS. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. ED 237 343
  • Tomlinson, Tommy. "Hard Work and High Expectations: Motivating Students to Learn." Issues in Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Washington, D.C. Report. April 1992. ED 345 871
  • White, Merry. THE MATERIAL CHILD: COMING OF AGE IN JAPAN AND AMERICA. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
  • Wray, Harry. Japanese and American Education: Attitudes and Practices. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1999.

External links[edit]