U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

Education in Japan

Fact sheet released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
U.S. Department of State, July 31, 1997.

Blue Bar rule

The current Japanese education system was established during the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II. Compulsory education begins at age 6 and lasts nine years, encompassing the 6 years of elementary and 3 years of lower secondary school education. It is characterized by a high degree of uniformity and equality of opportunity. National curriculum standards are specified by the Ministry of Education, and all textbooks must be approved by the central government. Generally, students throughout the country at the same grade level study the same material at the same time and pace.

During the compulsory school years, no distinctions are made between students on the basis of ability or achievement. There are no separate tracks, ability groupings, remedial programs, or student electives. Promotion to the next grade level is virtually automatic as long as the student attends classes.

Examinations are the foundation of the Japanese education system. Both high school and university admissions are determined by highly competitive examinations open to all applicants nationwide. University entrance examinations are famously rigorous, and performance on them has a heavy impact on future social and economic status. In preparation for examinations, many students undertake remedial education or special examination preparation assistance in private education programs, or "cram schools" (juku). Failure to pass a university exam leads some Japanese students to spend a year or more as ronin, or "masterless samurai," during which time they do little but prepare for the following year's examination.

Student participation rates are high and dropout rates low at all levels of education. Almost all--more than 99%--of Japanese children of compulsory school age are enrolled in school. Beyond compulsory education, more than 94% of students go on to full-time study and another 2% continue part-time. Japan enjoys 99% adult literacy, and secondary school Japanese students have been among those who have scored highest on international aptitude tests.

Education in Japan, though, has not been free from controversy. The large class sizes, strict discipline, and absence of creative thought in the Japanese educational system has received much criticism. In addition, the government continues to censor passages in public school history textbooks that deal with Japan's role in World War II. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the problem of bullying, or ijime, in Japanese middle and high schools.

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Blue Bar rule

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