The Japanese school system is modelled after the system in the United States. Its basic structure is outlined below:
- 6 years primary school (shogakkou)
- 3 years junior secondary school (chugakkou)
- 3 years senior secondary school (koutougakkou)
- 4 years university
The importance of education is established at an early age in Japan. Almost all Japanese children attend some form of pre-school, either kindergarten (yochien) or education-based daycare centres (hoikuen). These schools help prepare children for entry into the larger school system.
Public education is the norm in Japan. There are only a small number of private schools and most of these are international schools.
Though the majority of schools are public, the Japanese government does not fund all education expenses. Students must purchase their own books, uniforms, and lunches (the cost of lunches is subsidized, however). Once students reach the senior secondary level of education they must even pay tuition, though that too is heavily subsidized.
Even still, almost all Japanese students go on to university or vocational schools. Japan has a combination of over 500 national, public, and private universities, and it is almost every student´s aspiration to attend a top university.
Japanese education culture
Japan was once known for brutally rigid curricula that pushed students beyond their limits. In recent decades, the Japanese government has begun to move away from this system, placing increased emphasis on creativity, internationalism, and critical thinking in schools. The government still regulates all curricula at every level of the system, however. Even preschool has an official curriculum.
Education is synonymous with competition in Japan, especially at the upper levels. Students feel intense pressure to attend top universities. To have a chance at admission they must excel in school from an early age. As students get older, most attend juku (cram schools) that help them prepare for university entrance exams. These are private schools that teach extra lessons after normal school hours. In Japan, being a student is a full-time job.
Going to school in Japan
The typical Japanese school year lasts around 240 days. The actual number of regular school days is significantly lower, however, as students routinely miss over 20 days due to festivals, holidays, and other activities.
The school day itself is centred around the core unit of the “homeroom.“ Each homeroom consists of around 40 students (less at the primary level). Teachers announce schedules to their homerooms each day of the year. Classes usually last around an hour (or a little shorter) and will often be cancelled for part of the day due to special speakers and other activities.
School days begin around 8:00, with lunch served in the classroom at midday. Lunch is nothing special, it usually consists of milk, a meat dish and a rice side. These lunches are not free, though the government subsidizes much of their price. Parents pay the remainder of their children´s lunch costs.
Children in first grade usually finish their school days in the early afternoon, while older students remain in class for two or three hours longer. Students preparing for university entrance exams may still have several more hours of classes ahead of them if they are attending cram schools.
In spite of its move away from rigid structure and curricula, Japanese educators still struggle to break with the rote memorization that students have used for years to prepare for exams. English, for instance, is a skill tested on university entrance exams. Instead of learning to converse in the language, however, most students memorize reams of vocabulary words and grammar rules. While this helps them to pass the exams, it does not necessarily give them a working knowledge of the language.
This same criticism has been applied to many subjects in the Japanese school system.