Japan has one of the most successful education systems in the world, as well as one of the most unique. But can its methods for attaining academic excellence work in British schools, or are the cultural differences between the two nations too vast to broach?
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, followers of the Japan men's national football team earned admirers across the globe for steadfastly cleaning up their section of the stadium after games. With such a high degree of respect for their environment, these supporters certainly set a benchmark for fans of other nations. What was less apparent, however, is that such fastidiousness stems directly from the influence of Japan’s education system.
In Japan, all students are required to clean the school themselves — including the classrooms, cafeteria, and toilets. Students are divided into small groups and assigned cleaning tasks on a rota. The reason? To nurture a sense of duty, responsibility and perseverance in young people. As a result of this distinct cultural trait, most Japanese schools do not feel the need to employ caretakers.
This level of discipline may seem excessive to casual Western observers, especially those from countries where individuality is a defining aspect of national culture.
By Western standards, Japanese society is inherently collectivist. Though Japanese culture does indeed have individualistic tenets (much more so than East Asian neighbours such as China or the Koreas), the emphasis on social harmony above individual expression touches all aspects of everyday life, including education.
This article will explore the vagaries of education in Japan — from its most profound achievements to its worst excesses — and see if there is anything that the British education system can learn from it.
Japan’s global standing
According to the OECD’s influential PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test rankings, last conducted in 2015, Japanese students ranked second in scientific literacy and fifth in mathematical literacy among 72 countries or regions — up from fourth and seventh, respectively.
As for reading, however, Japan dropped from fourth to eighth, suggesting that the rapid digitalisation of the learning environment has had a negative impact on linguistic abilities.
It’s important to take this drop in rankings with a pinch of salt. Unlike smaller countries that rank higher in the PISA test, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, Japan has 18 million young people enrolled in schools to tailor a curriculum towards (roughly equivalent to the total population of Chile).
What’s more, Japan spends less on education than most other developed nations. In 2016, 3.5% of government expenditure was spent on education — less than the United States (5.0%) and United Kingdom (5.5%). Far from representing underinvestment, this figure actually denotes a well-developed strategy for allocating financial resources. Japan spends its money wisely.
Given the size of the population and the relatively low amount spent on schools, the success of Japanese education seems all the more remarkable. As we will see, elements of this success stem from Japan’s unique history.
Japan is one of the most homogeneous societies on Earth. Of its 126.71 million inhabitants, 98.5% are ethnically Japanese. Net immigration to the country is also far lower than other industrialised nations.
Along with the geographical isolation that comes with being an archipelago nation, these antecedents have allowed a distinct and deeply rooted conformist culture to emerge over the centuries. This, in turn, enabled education to assume a central role in Japanese cultural life.
In the Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868), over 70% of all children went to school. In the late 19th century, the leaders of the Meiji Restoration established a public education system, which greatly increased the country’s literacy rate. Today, 99.9% of people in Japan can read and write, and school is still regarded as a pivotal stepping stone in a person’s early life.
Looking to the future
Despite having a strong ties to its past, Japan as a country is known for embracing new ways of thinking. After the horrors of World War II, the nation rebuilt itself to become a giant in manufacturing and the world’s third-largest economy by nominal GDP.
In schools, innovative teaching methods have been introduced as a way to harness critical thinking and improve performance. For Japanese teachers, it’s common to spend time studying and discussing lesson plans at lesson study conferences, and books full of lesson plans are sold in commercial bookstores around the country.
The Japanese system of lesson planning is known as jugyou kenkyuu, and involves teachers meeting regularly to collaborate on the design and implementation of lessons. Such an active involvement gives teachers greater autonomy over the method of teaching used in the classroom.
One unique teaching method for nurturing creativity in children is Nameless Paints — an innovative product which consists of ten tubes with coloured paint inside. Instead of being labelled with the names of the corresponding colour, only primary colours (red, yellow and blue) appear on the tubes. To get green paint, for example, children therefore have to find the tube adorned with a yellow dot and a blue dot.
The aim of designers Yusuke Imai and Ayami Moteki is to change the way children think and learn. Unlike education in Britain, where teachers guide students through a series of steps to help them learn how to solve problems, the focus in Japan is on enabling students to develop their own methods for problem solving through trial and error.
Unpacking the Japanese model
Unlike most schools in the world, which begin their academic year in September or October, the Japanese academic year starts on April 1st. As well as core subjects like maths, language the sciences and physical education, traditional Japanese calligraphy (shodō) and poetry (haiku) are taught on the curriculum — highlighting a strong sense of connection to cultural and artistic heritage.
Education in Japan is divided into five cycles:
Yōchien (nursery school) from 3 to 6 years old.
Shōgakkō (primary school) from 6 to 12.
Chūgakkō (middle school) from 12 to 15.
Kōkō (high school) from 15 to 18.
Daigaku (university) or senmongakkō (vocational school), which typically lasts two to four years.
School is compulsory until 15 years of age, but 99% of chūgakkō graduates enrol in kōkō to continue their studies.
In Japanese schools, the aim of the first three years of school is not to judge a child’s knowledge but to develop their character and establish good manners. The idea of social harmony is drilled into children from a young age, with schools placing emphasis on qualities such as compassion, self-control, and justice.
At the end of high school, Japanese students have to take a single exam that determines their future. Competition for places in higher education is very high, and only 76% of school graduates continue their education after high school. Little wonder that the period at the end of high school is often referred to as “exam hell” (shiken jigoku).
Japanese school rules
In Japan, all students are also required to wear school uniforms. This is intended to eradicate social barriers among students and promote a sense of community. For comparison, only 82% of UK state schools have a compulsory dress code. In Japan, uniforms typically follow the military style, including blazers for boys and sailor suits for girls.
This level of uniformity also extends to the banning of accessories, including jewellery, makeup, and unusual hairstyles. Students are also prohibited from dating romantically or having open relationships. In addition, mobile phones are banned in schools.
Punctuality and the value of time as a resource are central principles of Japanese education. Good timekeeping is taken very seriously, and children are expected to be in by 8:30 am. Students who are as little as five minutes late will likely face some form of punishment, such as having to come into school even earlier for cleaning duties for the rest of the week.
Discipline is also reflected in the school attendance rate, which is about 99.99%. Pride around education is so deeply embedded across all areas of Japanese society that foregoing school represents a huge stigma — across all generations and social groups.
When it comes to lunchtime, the government strives to ensure that all students eat healthy and balanced meals, and kitchens in most schools adhere to a standardised menu that has been developed with the input of chefs and professional dieticians. All students eat in the classroom together with their teacher, helping to forge positive teacher-student relationships.
This high degree of conformity certainly reflects Japanese society as a whole. Despite certain aspects garnering criticism from Western pundits and progressive elements within Japan, supporters of the Japanese education system argue that a disciplined approach prepares students for success later in life.
However, as the case of the 18-year-old student who was forced to dye her hair black or face exclusion shows, such a level of stringency can sometimes cause unnecessary harm.
What it’s like to teach in Japan?
Teaching is a popular, well-respected profession in Japan — so much so, in fact, that there is currently an oversupply.
As such, most teachers go through an intensive selection process, including rigorous school board exams and evaluations. For those who make the cut, there is plenty of room for professional development (kounaikenshuu) throughout their career in education, and young teachers are expected to learn from and interact with their more experienced peers.
Japan is unique in how it assigns teachers to schools. Teachers are hired at the regional or prefecture level, and not by individual schools. Teacher school assignments change roughly every three years when they first start out teaching, with fewer changes later in their careers.
By allocating teachers to prefectures and not schools, school boards can assign the strongest teachers to the schools and students that need them the most. Aside from helping to build capacity within the profession, this ensures that the most disadvantaged students have access to the most capable teachers.
The remit of teachers is often expected to reach beyond the classroom, with many teachers greeting children at the school gate, helping out at sports clubs, and even visiting their students’ parents to get a better sense of nuanced family contexts. By taking extra-curricular attention in their students, teachers aim to foster a sense of community and nourish the cultural concept of wa (implying peaceful unity, conformity and harmony within a group).
Teaching in Japan requires a high level of commitment and is not for the faint-hearted. Junior high school teachers, for example, work an average of 63 hours a week — by far the longest hours of all countries in the OECD. There is also little overtime pay, and classes can be as large as 40 students — representing a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds and academic abilities.
Substitute teachers are rare in Japan. If a teacher is sick or cannot attend school that day, students are expected to complete their work and conduct themselves as if a teacher were present. Students are trusted to study quietly, independently, and responsibly by themselves.
Ironically, though Japanese students spend less time on homework than their Chinese, British or American counterparts (around 3.8 hours per week), most students attend after-school cram schools known as juku. These are private, fee-paying schools that provide supplementary, education for students preparing for key exams.
Aside from exerting large amounts of academic pressure on young people, the commercial nature of these juku has brought them criticism, with detractors arguing that they seek profit from students’ pre-exam angst.
Student wellbeing in Japan
Given the level of pressure on students to succeed academically, schools in Japan are increasingly coming under scrutiny for being breeding grounds for poor mental health.
According to a 2017 survey (conducted by the Varkey Foundation education charity) of 20,000 youngsters across 20 countries, Japan ranked bottom for young people’s wellbeing. Incidentally, the UK ranked second bottom.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Japanese children aged 10 to 19. Data suggests that this is directly related to experience at school, with a huge peak in suicides coinciding with the start of the second term of the school year on September 1st. Given that group culture is such a central tenet of Japanese life, the feeling of ostracisation is arguably heightened.
Similarly, Japanese schools have been criticised for taking a lax approach to bullying. A three-year study by the Education Ministry revealed that only a quarter of Japanese students have not been bullied. Bullying in Japan is rarely physical. However, this doesn’t diminish the amount of pain inflicted.
In light of these concerns, a growing number of Japanese parents are becoming disillusioned and dissatisfied with the state school system, with some preferring to enrol their children in more multicultural international schools.
As a response, many Japanese schools have adopted strategies to improve student wellbeing.
These strategies include encouraging crying to reduce stress, adopting cognitive behavioural therapy ‘games’ to combat anxiety, and providing physical and psychological care to students via a health center. Known as hokenshitsu, these health centres are ubiquitous in every elementary and secondary school and are administered by licensed health education teachers called yōgo.
Though Japanese education still has a long way to go, it’s encouraging to see the Education Ministry’s movers and shakers taking a positive approach to wellbeing among students. Indeed, the 2015 PISA study found that 85% of students in Japan actually feel happy in school and have a strong sense of belonging while at school.
As with the UK, education in Japan is complex, multifaceted, and difficult to summarise in sweeping statements. Despite legitimate concerns about standardised testing, conformity, academic pressure, and bullying, the quality of education on offer is evident for all to see.
There are two key successes of the Japanese education system that the UK can learn from:
Japan spends its education budget wisely. Despite the UK investing a greater proportion of GDP into education, British state schools are chronically underfunded, while regional councils are overspending on education. Spending is inherently lopsided, and thousands of schoolchildren are suffering as a result. In Japan, funds are distributed in a way that mirrors the country’s concept of educational equality.
Teachers have greater control over lesson plans. Though education in the UK has undergone years of reforms to structures, exams and accountability measures, the style of classroom teaching has changed little in the past hundred years. In Japan, teachers are given primary responsibility for moulding teaching methods in the classroom — giving students access to more innovative and bespoke ways of thinking and learning.
Of course, with a vastly different history, contemporary culture and demographic makeup, the political climate for the large-scale development of a uniform, Japan-like education system simply does not exist in the UK. However, by redistributing funding and giving teachers greater autonomy in the classroom, Japan’s influence can help the UK take steps to reduce systemic inequality in its education system.