The Japanese Education System: 
A Tool for Labor Market Channeling
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


The structure and school environment of the Japanese education system provides all students the opportunity to succeed in the Japanese workplace.  These two elements become very important because of the socio-geographic elements that are at play on the archipelago.  Since the country is very poor in natural resources, the Japanese government views its people as its only major asset.  Thus, the education system contributes to the national welfare by producing an educated, skilled, and productive workforce. In contemporary society, access and manipulation of information has been thrust to the forefront of economic importance, as opposed to agriculture or industry, two areas where Japan cannot keep pace with larger nations.  The secondary impact then on the culture is that education becomes the key to personal and family success, because it is the single most important industry in the country.  This is compounded once again by the geography of the country, because as the population increased in the last one hundred years, urban patterns changed.  Land has been lost to urbanization, and inheritance of land has moved away from its agrarian roots, making smaller lots economically less feasible to farm.  This report will track the changes in Japanís Educational System since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 in order to utilize the countryís most valuable resource, its people.  In particular this report will examine how the modern Japanese Educational System prepares students to succeed in the Japanese workplace, thus benefiting the country as a whole (Benjamin 200-205).

Historical Background

The modern Japanese Educational System alleviated the problems of Japanís postwar educational developments, but these problems have their roots in earlier phases of Japanís educational development.  Major attempts to implement basic educational reforms occurred in the 1870ís and after World War II.  The 1870ís attempt to reform education was the Meiji governmentís reaction to an external threat.  The attempts to reform education following World War II were a means of building a modern state as quickly as possible.  A powerful occupation force intended to transform Japan form a military dictatorship into a democratic society.  Eventually Japan was left on its own to create a new model for education that met the countryís needs. 

 The first educational reforms occurred early in the Meiji period, 1868-1880, when Western education was introduced in order to modernize the nation.  The reforms were based on the principle of borrowing the best features of several Western educational systems and then adapting them to the Japanese situation.  Another principle in Japanís rush to reform was the policy of sending young students abroad to study and hiring foreign experts as teachers until enough Japanese were available to replace them.  The foreign educators introduced Western educational thought, practice, textbooks, and equipment into the country.  Despite the success of these reforms, the infamous 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education eclipsed the positives of these reforms.  This document remained the official statement of principles underlying Japanese education until occupation authorities took over Japan.  This rescript gave legal form and moral force to an educational system that supported the rise of militarism and ultra nationalism during the late 1920ís and 1930ís (Beauchamp 299-302). 

 A second major set of reforms took place immediately following World War II.  The reforms were key in the Alliesí determination to transform Japan from a military dictatorship into a democracy.  When the emperorsí representatives signed the instrument of surrender, Japanís educational system was in shambles.  In short, a functioning educational system was virtually nonexistent.  The main objectives of the Occupation force were ďdemocratization, demilitarization, and decentralization of Japanese societyĒ (Beauchamp 303).  The Americans knew that in order to achieve these goals, the educational system needed a new orientation.  This meant that occupation forces would have to transform the prewar orientation of the Japanese people -- one based on filial piety, perfection of moral powers, group harmony, and loyalty and obedience to the emperor and the nation -- into one that would meet the goals of the United States in Japan.  Many of these reforms such as coeducation, comprehensive schools, and local control, while working well in the United States, were dysfunctional when transported to Japanese context.  Before American control was withdrawn in 1952 American reformers were successful in obtaining their objectives.  They provided Japanese educators with a new curriculum, textbooks, and methodologies (Beauchamp 302-305).

 Finally, for the first time since its surrender sovereignty was returned to the Japanese government who began to fine tune the new education system to reflect the Japanese culture and the spirit of the nationís new democratic ideology.  The Ministry of Education required one hour per week for moral education.  Lessons emphasized fundamental matters like the value of life, foolishness of fighting, importance of friendship, and the problems of old people.  The Ministry also began to expand educational opportunity and improve the quality of the education offered to students.  There are equal facilities throughout Japan, uniform curriculum, equal access to the same textbooks, teachers of relatively equal competence, and a uniform set of national standards.  There was no doubt that Japan was well on its way to a successful modern educational system (Beauchamp 305-308). 

Research Report
Structure of the Japanese Education System
The Japanese education system is composed of five major components, which reflect the needs of the labor market: yochien, elementary, junior high, high school, and the universities.  The first level, yochien, is a direct translation of kindergarten, although it is slightly different from the Western idea of kindergarten.  Yochien is really pre-kindergarten and kindergarten for children between the ages of three and five.  "At the present time 95 percent of five-year-olds are enrolled in public or private kindergartens or day care centers" (Benjamin 204).  The purpose of the public yochien is more need-based than education-based.  Most of the children at the public centers have mothers who work, so day care is more critical.  In contrast, some of the private centers may cost slightly more, and likewise are more academically oriented, with incorporating simple reading and math lessons.  The effect of the public yochien system however is that most Japanese children are enrolled, and the atmosphere, activities, and equipment that each school includes are not very different from school to school (Benjamin 204).

This uniformity carries over into the elementary and junior high levels.  School becomes compulsory in Japan at the age of six when children will enter the first grade.  At this level, the experiences of each child are kept as close to uniform throughout the country as possible.  The facilities and funds available to each student vary little, and the curriculum is structured directly by the Ministry of Education.  The tracking of students into high, average, or low-achieving classes is forbidden, and certification and training of teachers is uniform.  Differences between elementary and junior high levels arise with the upcoming high school entrance exam to be taken at the end of the ninth grade.  This will separate the students by academic achievement for the first time, and begin channeling students for labor market placement (Benjamin 205).

High school is the first time that Japanese students are sorted by academic record, as schools will only admit students in a very narrow band of academic achievement.  This national tracking is set up by the high school entrance exam.  For the first time, school is not required and not free, even in public schools, yet only five-percent of Japanese students drop out of school after junior high.  This is an early indication of Japanese students being aware of the life that awaits them if they do not stay in school and do their best to achieve academically (Benjamin 205).  The students who remain are tracked into vocational, general academic, and college prep high schools.  The hierarchy of high schools places vocational schools at the bottom.  At these schools, students quickly become ready to enter the labor market as they learn a trade such as plumbing, electrical work, or machinery.  The general academic schools round out an individual's education.  They do not offer enough foreign language for college entrance, while college prep high schools fully immerse the students in subjects and skills that they must possess in order to do well on the university entrance exam.  Like the high school entrance exam, the university test, taken at the end of high school, will determine what school the student is allowed to attend (Iwama 73-74).

There has developed a well-defined correlation between what university a student attends and what career tracks open to graduating students.  The oldest universities, Tokyo and Kyoto, are the main suppliers to elite businesses and medical schools.  Many large, private employers even go so far as to limit their recruiting efforts to the national universities and a few of the older private schools. A survey of 321 members of the Japan Federation of Corporations revealed that over half considered applicants from no more than ten Universities; sixty-one limited themselves to five schools or fewer (James 78). 

Because most of these companies hire employees for a life term, the university one attends ultimately determines one's future.  Adding to this, the feeder relationship high schools have to universities also determines one's future in the workplace (Benjamin 205-209).

The School Environment

 The first aspect of the classroom environment that Japanese children must understand beginning in yochien is the difference between home and school.  At home, the child comes to learn that "there is no distinction between his own desires and what is desired for him by his parents" (James 25).  This becomes contrasted with the school environment where the beginning student is forced to adjust to participate in a starkly group-oriented situation in yochien and elementary school, rather than sit idly by as parents stimulate their senses and intelligence.  The group orientation begins in yochien where children are socialized to recognize the demands of group life over individual impulses.  Such activities that promote this mentality are ritualized, including listening to stories to encourage long attention spans and respect for the group, as well as arranging lunchtime so that all children must be present and sitting in their assigned spots in order to begin the meal (James 26-27).  At the same time, it seems that the Japanese recognize the developmental stage of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, that the children are in at this age.  Piaget refers to this time as the preoperational stage where children are constantly exploring their environment using their senses to discover the world around them.  Thus, Japanese children are readily encouraged to run around and explore freely while in the yochien.  "There seems to be almost no activity the children could do in the school grounds that is forbidden, whether it is digging holes in the playground or using sharp knives and scissors for craft activities" (James 27; DeCoker 45).

It is at this time, that following the structure of the Japanese system, three themes begin to differentiate one academic level from the previous level.  These themes include pressure on the student, individualism, and academic competition.  The educational system can be divided into non-pressurized, group-oriented, and non-competitive environments, and highly pressurized, individualistic, and highly competitive environments.  The non-pressurized, group-oriented, and non-competitive environments are yochien, elementary school, and the universities.  Meanwhile, the high pressure, individualistic, and competitive situations are found in the junior highs and high schools.

The elementary school level is characterized by as much uniformity as possible.  Each student and school has access to very similar resources from the buildings themselves to the size of the classrooms.  Competition between students is minimized through group structuring.  This grouping of students involves every student, teacher, and administrator as the school becomes a microcosm of Japanese society.  At the student level, they are asked to perform a variety of jobs on a daily basis such as cleaning the classroom and building, serving lunch, and taking roll call.  Within the learning environment itself, a class of forty students is broken up into different sets of four to eight children to work out problems in class, do classroom chores, and work on assignments.  The groups are changed regularly to discourage social cliques and to avoid one group pulling ahead or falling behind the others.  Homogeneity is very important in the elementary classroom, as it is an example of Japanese culture on a smaller scale.  In Japan, there is a relative similarity in home environments because of the high degree of socioeconomic and cultural homogeneity.  Each child has the same basic opportunities as the next child.  In addition, each individual is prepared fully; no student is left behind in the curriculum because they are slow, while faster students will have the opportunity to pull ahead later in the more competitive high school years.  High school is the time for students to pull ahead, while elementary school is a time for all students to lay sound education foundations (James 28-30).

Junior high in Japanese society begins to open competition between students.  While explicitly there are still no signs of a competitive academic curriculum there are implicit elements.  There is still little differentiation among the student bodies of different schools in terms of achievements or backgrounds, yet the junior high curriculum becomes much more challenging as it gears toward readiness for the high school entrance exams.  This more challenging curriculum helps to distinguish differences between the students.  In junior high the egalitarian view of education begins, where all students are thought to be innately equal, and everyone works through the equation: Hard Work + Ability = Academic Achievement = Status (James 34).  The more important variable in this equation is hard work, not ability.  It follows then that the greater the educational attainment, the better the high school a student may enter, which will in turn be a feeder school to a better university, and a better job.  Like at the elementary level, students in junior high are still contained in a setting that is heavily geared for group work.  For example, homeroom groups stay together for all subjects, as the teachers are the ones who move from room to room.  The structure of daily lessons is almost entirely lecture-based and taken mostly from textbooks, which creates a very docile, but bored classroom.  This is all in preparation for the high school entrance exams (James 30-31).

Upon entrance to high school, students are tracked by ability on a national scale according to what school they enter.  There is a hierarchy of schools based on entrance criteria across Japan.  Consequently, "each school is distinguished from those above and below it by the test score needed for entry and therefore serves a very narrow range, in terms of ability and prior academic achievement" (James 31).  Even if students attending the public schools are now separated into tracks according to academic achievement, the curriculum is still standardized by the Ministry of Education.  This curriculum is based on the opportunity of the students to take university entrance exams, and proves to be challenging for even the brightest of Japan's high school students.  The curriculum is very rigid and undiversified.  Students are not allowed choices of electives, and there is very little writing or research taught.  Study is grounded in a strong realist foundation of core subjects of whom the teachers' main qualification is deep knowledge of the subject being taught.  This helps to gear students toward the types of jobs they will eventually have, which require very little intuitive or creative thought, as there are very few research and publishing companies in Japan.  Competition in high school is at the highest level of any in the Japanese school system, as graduates must compete for either immediate employment or entrance to a university.  Because of the equation proposed previously with educational attainment equaling status, a good score on a university entrance exam becomes the overriding goal of the high school student (James 32).

In contrast to high school, college life is the most relaxed and pressure-free years of a student's life in Japan since admission to a particular university is the greatest factor in determining job prospects.  Very little weight is put into grades that are earned at the university level.  For the first time in their life, the Japanese student is able to have a social life, and this is organized around a variety of clubs, which reflect interest in a leisure activity such as skiing, music, archery or baseball.  The education side of college life includes general education and introductory courses all taking place in a lecture setting.  Japanese view college as a long decompression period from the rigors of high school and the entrance exams.  Since employment is almost guaranteed there is little pressure for university students to achieve any longer (James 32-33).


 The Japanese education system is run on a strict hierarchy that begins in junior high school and runs through to the labor market.  The hierarchy helps channel workers into their most appropriate compartment of society.  The highest achieving junior high students enter the most elite high schools, which feed to the finest universities and highest status jobs, like in dentistry and medicine.  The percentage of these students however is only about one percent of each year's cohort.  Roughly, sixty percent of the rest of the students attend the next tier of private and public high schools.  These schools then lead to the next tier of universities and job fields like education, business, and social work.  Another twenty-five percent then attends vocational high schools, which lead to jobs as craftsmen in certain fields.  The rest who do not choose to move on, or have not worked hard enough, in the Japanese view, fill the labor market's need for trainable or unskilled labor.  In this way the structure and environment of the system works for Japan, and provides all students the opportunity to succeed in the Japanese workplace through their hard work or lack thereof (James 36-37).

Beauchamp, Edward R. ďThe Development of Japanese Educational Policy, 1945-85Ē History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3. (Autumn, 1987), pp. 299-324.

Benjamin, Gail. Japanese Lessons.  New York: New York University Press.  1997.

Decker, Gary.  "Japanese Preschools: Academic or Nonacademic?".  Japanese  Schooling.  University Park: Penn State University Press.  1989.

Iwama, Hiroshi F.  "Japan's Group Orientation in Secondary Schools".  Japanese  Schooling.  University Park: Penn State University Press.  1989.

James, Estelle. Public Policy and Private Education in Japan.  New York: St. Martin's  Press.  1988.

Web Resources  All of the general information about the Japanese education system  A look into the daily life of a student in Japan, from kindergarden to university A case study and analysis of the Japanese Education System A closer look into Japan's educational achievements and schools A rich photo gallery of Japan including Japanese school life

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