On Pretending to Know About Education in Japan, pt 1: The System!

After spending two years in a Japanese High School and having multiple conversations with people who actually know how things work, I’m happy to return to my journalistic roots by pretending I’m an authority on something I’ve barely scratched the surface of.

So this week, we’ll examine the Japanese Education System in three parts: The System!, Getting into High School and College, and The Cost of School Attendance. We’ll call it, “On Pretending to Know About Education in Japan.”

Today: The System!

The Japanese Educational System
Don’t panic. I know “systems” are boring, and part of what makes Japan so inscrutable is the monumental boredom of understanding the country’s beloved bureaucracy. I’ve learned a lot about Japan by understanding this bureaucracy, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting to read.

So, let’s raise the stakes. We’re having a baby! And he’s a 13-year-old Japanese kid. I’m the father. You’re the mom. Our kid’s name is Tetsuo, named after your grandfather. While we’re at it, you also think all my jokes are hilarious.

At 13, Tetsuo is in Junior High School. He’ll be in Junior High for three years, having completed grades 1-6 in primary school, with three years of pre-school and kindergarten before that. Having recently outgrown a uniquely Japanese penchant for collecting enormous beetles, he spends time after school banging on a taiko drum.

Cue the Ministry of Education, or specifically, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or MEXT (The “X” strikes out the unwieldy center of “MECSST”).

MEXT says that Tetsuo, like all Japanese kids, must attend Junior High. You and I – and Tetsuo – will decide where he goes after that. But while MEXT has some say over Senior High Schools, it’s not legally required, so the system has more flexibility. That means it gets a lot more complicated, confusing and expensive.

Japanese High Schools
In America, the public high school you attend is based on where you live. Americans consider this natural, but it’s often arbitrary and unfair. Since schools benefit from property taxes, upper-class neighborhoods have better-funded schools with better-paid teachers and all the perks that wealth provides.

Seeking Equality
Japan’s system is convoluted, but many decisions from MEXT are based on rooting out inequalities, which keep popping up anyway.

First, public high schools sort students by ability (teachers speak more subtly about “motivation”), using a series of entrance exams which are the scourge of Japanese childhoods.

Second, Boards of Education rotate teachers between schools every April, ensuring that no single school accumulates a treasure trove of brilliant teachers while other schools are left with the dregs. The result, in theory, is a well-rounded staff across a spectrum of schools, and teachers who get a fresh start to their careers every three to five years.

These staff rotations can also be problematic for students, however, as some teachers are naturally better with academic students whilst others are better with inspiring the “less motivated.” The staff rotation is, in principle, random, without regard for a teacher’s strengths. I often attribute this to a kind of “humility enforcement” on behalf of the Boards of Education: If a teacher gets too good, they might get cocky, which is unseemly.

While the assignment process is random, many teachers have theories on what “actually” goes into the decision, with speculation ranging from logical observations to paranoid conspiracies. Obviously, teachers find these rotations are stressful, as they often mean uprooting their families to move to different places around a prefecture.

Breeding Inequality
Despite the egalitarian aims of the public system, less-regulated private high schools can charge whatever they want. 15 years of public school would cost $62,130 US dollars, where private schooling would come to $182,651. (In April 2010, the Japanese government started giving grants to every Japanese student, effectively making public education free, in the hopes that it would cut costs across the board).

The Goals of Japanese Education
As a Junior High Student, Tetsuo has had nine years of schooling and has four or five left before university. But as far as MEXT is concerned, he’s got to be made into a proper Japanese citizen before he finishes Junior High. After that, MEXT can’t tell him what to do.

The education system in America doesn’t focus much on “good citizenship,” but MEXT requires an academic and moral education. MEXT specifically lists topics such as “valuing justice and responsibility, mutual respect and cooperation, equality between men and women, and a civic spirit,” or “loving the country and region that nurtured them” as goals for students. Teachers are also tasked with giving students a “zest for life.”

These ideals have to be taught in Junior High, because that’s where their required education ends. After that, JHS feeds those students to the crushing machinery of entrance exams, through which they are packaged and distributed into their futures.

That process starts with Tetsuo, age 13, wondering where he’s going to go to High School.

In Wednesday’s post, we’ll look at Getting Into High School in Japan.

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8 Responses to On Pretending to Know About Education in Japan, pt 1: The System!

  1. zoomingjapan says:

    Yay, I can has a husband now! And I already thought that this would be impossible for me here in Japan!! *g*

    As always I enjoyed to read your article.
    I’ve been teaching in Japan for about 5 years now and the school system is very different from the one in my home country. (btw. most other countries such as America also have a completely different school system from ours).
    Personally I’m not really a big fan of the system.
    Students only have to study for their exams a few times per year, but are basically free to forget everything in the meantime. In my country we had tests almost every week and could never really stop studying.
    I also think it’s not a good idea to split students up depending on how well they did in entrance exams. I’ve seen best friends who were seperated because of that.
    This also puts a lot of stress on the students at a very young age already.

    I genereally don’t like how kids are treated here.
    At first they are (mostly) spoiled and parents won’t be strict no matter what and as soon as they enter elementary school their schedule becomes so riduculously busy!
    All the parents think that they might have a little pro soccer or pro pianist at home and so they need to push push push their children.
    After school, they go to juku and/or eikaiwa and after that they have to play soccer, baseball, learn how to play the piano, violin and whatnot.
    Some of them enjoy this busy schedule, but many don’t.
    They should be allowed to be kids and explore their unique talents.
    In Japan, the parents try to push some talent on their kids hoping their kids will become super famous and successful in the future.
    I don’t get it. It makes me sad and angry.

    I have a young, small family in my house.
    Every night the young elementary school kid practices the piano (I come home from work after 10pm and she’s still at it!!!) – and there’s no evening when the mother isn’t screaming like hell at her kids! :(

  2. Didem Aydin says:

    Great article! I was always intrested in Japan’s educational system, arigato!

  3. tanya says:

    “In America, the public high school you attend is based on where you live. Americans consider this natural, but it’s often arbitrary and unfair. Since schools benefit from property taxes, upper-class neighborhoods have better-funded schools with better-paid teachers and all the perks that wealth provides.”
    hey do you think this problem is more specifically a new england thing? i remember talking to friends from virginia where schools are run by county and not by town, i think there students can choose a school within the county (or apply to more prestigious magnets), that seems similar to the japanese system

    • owwls says:

      You’re right, and you spurred me into deeper research!

      I guess it’s typical for schools in America to draw funding from a mix of federal, state and local (property) taxes, and the mix will vary from state to state to municipality, as will restrictions on the schools students can attend. Local revenues *typically* cover about 25% to 55% of school funding (the national average being 28%) with state revenues contributing almost all but 10% of the rest. (That 10% is the feds).

      “Local” funding is covered by school boards, which are superlocalized, except in (ding ding!) Virginia and Maryland where the school boards are matched to counties! (And Hawaii, where the entire state is a single school district). So it’s a given that students can attend any school in a school district (assuming the school board says its OK) but very rare that two school boards would exchange students within a district, because then taxes from on municipality would be paying for students whose families pay taxes in another.

      The vast majority of US students will go to school in the attendance zone determined by their local school boards… but that “local school board” could have 150 schools, or 1.

      Thanks for keeping me on my fact-toes. I was also reminded last week that some Americans do, in fact, carry umbrellas! The things we forget.

  4. Kathryn says:

    They teach gender equality at school? I’d love to know what goes into that lesson.

    • kamo says:

      It’s probably about as effective as most English classes ;)

      I’d make my customary link back to mine at this point, but frankly I’ve blethered on about it so much it’d be pretty tedious. I’ll try to hold my auto-rant function in check until Tetsuo finishes his little journey. Which given he was born already aged 13 might not be too long, and frankly a breeze compared to the delivery…

  5. Pingback: On Pretending to Know About Education in Japan, pt 2: On Getting Into High School (and University) | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  6. Pingback: Education for a new Japan | Namban Japan

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