Justin Miera


This paper will examine superficial aspects of the Japanese educational system. Since the assignment is limited by length this paper will only survey the basic elements of the administrative, curricular, kindergarten, elementary and lower secondary constructs.


The public Japanese educational system is centrally governed by the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (Monbusho). The system was established in 1871, and has since undergone several reforms and changes. The organization of the present school system is divided into five basic divisions defined by age and grade. These divisions are: (a) kindergarten, ages 3-6; (b) elementary schools, grades 1-6, ages 6-12; (c) lower secondary schools, grades 7-9, ages 12-15; (d) upper secondary schools, grades 10-12 (part time and correspondence 13), ages 15-18 (19); (e) higher education, grades 13-18, ages 18-24. The upper secondary schools are divided by colleges of technology, part time, correspondence, upper secondary schools, special training colleges and miscellaneous schools. Higher education is subdivided into part time, correspondence, colleges of technology, universities, junior colleges, special training colleges and miscellaneous schools (Monbusho, 1997, p. 22). There are other schools set aside for students with varying degrees of disability. There is also a strong emphasis on life long learning which provides educational opportunities for all people.

The hierarchy of governance flows from the national prime minister to the members of Monbusho, into prefectural boards (overseeing upper secondary and higher education), municipal boards (overseeing kindergarten, elementary and lower secondary) and finally individual schools. Prefectural board members are responsible for the hiring and payment of all teachers. Teacher salaries are substantial, even higher than pharmacists or engineers (Kristof, 1997, p. 44). Municipal board members are accountable to the prefectural board members for various reports on progress and curriculum. Principals are hired by their respective boards to administer individual schools.


Monbusho members set national standards for all schools through a "Course of Study" (Monbusho, 1997, p. 28). These broad guidelines are reviewed by a curriculum counsel and the Minister of Education to ensure the highest level of education and an equal opportunity to all students. Then, according to law, the members of each individual school must construct a specific curriculum by following the guidelines and accounting for the circumstances of their own environment and community of students.

This system concurs with the collaborative, consensus building nature of Japanese culture. It also demonstrates the demand for individual responsibility once the community has agreed upon the rules. The highest governmental officials set broad expectations. The individual schools are then responsible for specifically implementing the general goals.

There are four main objectives set out by the members of Monbusho: (a) To ensure that students have a "rich heart" and are open to change. (b) To emphasize the knowledge and skills that all citizens should possess through a consistent linear curriculum. (c) To nurture and stimulate the creativity of students. (d) To develop respect for Japanese, and foreign, cultures and traditions (Monbusho, 1997, p. 29).


The course of study for kindergarten emphasizes learning through every day activities, learning through play and developmentally appropriate lessons. The objectives of kindergarten education are to encourage (a) basic healthy, happy living habits, (b) love and trust of various people while developing independence, cooperation and morality, (c) an appreciation for one's surroundings, both social and natural, (d) language development in the context of every day talking and listening, and (e) a rich mind by providing creative experiences (Monbusho, 1994, p. 56).

Again, each individual school must find specific ways to implement these broad guidelines. The most common application is through non-academic, life learning, group activities, or "shudan seikantsu" (Peak, 1991, p. 64). Group identity is initially fostered through such things as grade segregated, color coordinated uniforms (p.22). Mothers play an important administrative and organizational role, but do not enter classrooms (pp. 57-62).

Elementary School

Monbusho (1994, pp.58-9) states that elementary school studies fall into three areas: (a) subjects, (b) moral education and (c) special activities (classroom activities, student council, club activities and school events). There is a standard number of units, 45 minutes per unit, spent on each area during the year.

In first grade 306 units are used for Japanese language, 136 for arithmetic, 102 for life environment studies, 68 for music, 68 for art, 102 for physical education, 34 for moral education and 34 for special activities; a total of 850 credits per year. This works out to about 72 minutes per week in music during a 42 week year. Specific school calenders are developed by municipal and prefect school boards. If a school calendar had a seven hour day in a 42 week year then four hours per day would be spent on these structured, supervised activities. Three hours a day would be free time for the students. There are several recess and play breaks built into every class' schedule.

In sixth grade, students take 210 units on Japanese language, 105 on social studies, 175 on arithmetic, 105 on science, 70 on music, 70 on art, 70 on homemaking, 105 on physical education, 35 on moral education and 70 on special activities; a total of 1015 credits. Using the same schedule, 4.8 hours each day are dedicated to structured activities and 2.2 hours for free time.

Most classroom duties are delegated to the students. Taking role, cleaning the school, monitoring behavior, distributing lunch and leading reflection, hansei, are all performed by the students (Kristof, 1997, p. 43). Hansei is a time for students to apologize to each other for the wrongs they did during the day. Whether it was inappropriate use of cleaning materials or forgetting ones books, all students confess their short comings. Because classrooms are student, class identity centered, teachers rotate between classes and have a separate community work room to prepare lessons. The teacher's role is truly that of facilitator and a community builder. The teacher asks questions which help the students to self clarify discussions. "Do you agree with this answer? How else can we find the solution?" The teacher also organizes small work groups, or "han" (Baris, 1997, p.620), to develop collaborative learning. Teachers are not the arbiters of discipline. Teachers allow students the freedom to wrestle and shout so that the guilt and shame of peer judgment can fully instill self-discipline (Shields, 1980, p.12).

Lower Secondary School

In theory, lower secondary school continues on the linear progression of elementary school. Compulsory study in subjects like social studies, mathematics and physical education continue to increase. The emphasis on music, fine arts, language and moral education either remain static or decrease. One considerable area of change is in the use of elective studies. Students may choose from a large number of classes to develop their individual interests (105 credits in the 7th grade, 200 credits in 9th grade). The overall time spent in structured activities increases to 1050 units per year; this still allows for substantial free and reflective time.

The elective system is meant to help students prepare for their life vocation. If a student is interested in physics then they opt for classes to broaden their understanding of that field. At the conclusion of their 9th grade year all students are required to take an exam which determines their ability and suitability for an upper secondary course of study. If that same student can not demonstrate enough specific knowledge regarding physics, or the general knowledge necessary for the program, then they would have to choose an "ordinary" (Shields, 1990, p. 140) vocational study path. Because of these life consequences lower secondary school becomes a pressure cooker of preparation. Most students attend "juku" (p. 142), outside cram schools, to prepare for the exams. The exams focus on quantity, not process, so students feverishly work to memorize as many facts as possible. Monbusho members are currently trying to diversify the methods of evaluation. These include (a) using various measures of aptitude like those from records of study, (b) allowing more weight for recommendations and allowing multiple opportunities for testing and (c) consideration of extra-curricular activities. Still, it is up to the specific municipal and prefect school board members to determine the exact standards for admission (Monbusho, 1997, p.28).


The Japanese school system is an extension of the greater cultural and societal community. Schools are set up to foster individual responsibility while acknowledging selfless abdication to a greater agreement. There is a longing for harmony between individuals, communities and environments. Still, as with all human constructs, there are imperfections and reassessments.


Baris-Sanders, Marcia (1997). Cooperative Education. Phi Delta Kappan, Apr97, 78, 8, 619.

Kristof, Nicholas D. (1997, August 17). Where Children Rule. The New York Times Magazine, 40.

Monbusho (Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (1994). Education in Japan. Japan: Gyosei.

Monbusho (Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture (1997). Monbusho. Japan.

Peak, Lois (1991). Learning To Go To School In Japan. Berkely, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.

A review of literature presented in partial fulfillment of the course Philosophical Foundations of Education, MLS 654 E, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D.

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