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People and Society, Education

terakoya, supplementary lessons, social conformity, adult literacy rate, classroom procedures

With an adult literacy rate exceeding 99 percent, Japan ranks among the top nations in the world in educational attainment. Schooling generally begins before grade one in preschool (yochien) and is free and compulsory for elementary and junior high school (grades 1 through 9). More than 99 percent of elementary school-aged children attend school. Most students who finish junior high school continue on to senior high school (grades 10 through 12). Approximately one-third of senior high school graduates then continue on for higher education. Most high schools and universities admit students on the basis of difficult entrance examinations. Competition to get into the best high schools and universities is fierce because Japan’s most prestigious jobs typically go to graduates of elite universities.

About 1 percent of elementary schools and 5 percent of junior high schools are private. Nearly 25 percent of high schools are private. Whether public or private, high schools are ranked informally according to their success at placing graduates into elite universities. In 1998 there were 604 four-year universities in Japan and 588 two-year junior colleges. Important and prestigious universities include the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, and Keio University in Tokyo.

The school year in Japan typically runs from April through March and is divided into trimesters separated by vacation holidays. Students attend classes five full weekdays in addition to half days on Saturdays, and on average do considerably more homework each day than American students do. In almost all schools, students wear uniforms and adhere to strict rules regarding appearance.

In addition to their regular schooling, some students—particularly students at the junior high school level—enroll in specialized private schools called juku. Often translated into English as “cram schools,” these schools offer supplementary lessons after school hours and on weekends, as well as tutoring to improve scores on senior high school entrance examinations. Students who are preparing for college entrance examinations attend special schools called yobiko. A disappointing score on a college entrance examination means that a student must settle for a lesser college, decide not to attend college at all, or study for a year or more at a yobiko in preparation to retake the examination.

The early history of education in Japan was rooted in ideas and teachings from China. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, European missionaries also influenced Japanese schooling. From about 1640 to 1868, during Japan’s period of isolation under the Tokugawa shoguns, Buddhist temple schools called terakoya assumed responsibility for education and made great strides in raising literacy levels among the general population. In 1867 there were more than 14,000 temple schools in Japan. In 1872 the new Meiji government established a ministry of education and a comprehensive educational code that included universal primary education. During this period, Japan looked to nations in Europe and North America for educational models. As the Japanese empire expanded during the 1930s and 1940s, education became increasingly nationalistic and militaristic.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the educational system was revamped. Changes included the present grade structure of six years of elementary school and three years each of junior and senior high school; a guarantee of equal access to free, public education; and an end to the teaching of nationalist ideology. Reforms also sought to encourage students’ self-expression and increase flexibility in curriculum and classroom procedures. Nevertheless, some observers still believe that education in Japan is excessively rigid, favoring memorization of facts at the expense of creative expression, and geared to encouraging social conformity.



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