The school system in Japan has its roots far back in time, and at least dates back to around the 500s when Chinese teachings, Buddhism and the Chinese written language were introduced in Japan. Chinese characters followed Confucianism and Buddhism. In the Nara period (710 – 794) in the 700s, the first public school was established according to designs from the Tang Kingdom in China. Chinese and Korean teachers were invited to teach religion, law, history, Chinese literature, music, math and medicine. The school was highly elite.
During the Heian period (782 – 1184), the aristocracy established several private schools that were equated with the public. Towards the end of the 1100s, the knight class (the samurai) took over the political leadership and became a leader in the field of education. In the troubled time leading up to the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868) around the year 1600, Buddhist temples in Kyoto and Kamakura were centers of learning. There are no specific figures on the percentage of the Japanese population that could read and write during this period, but it is agreed that it was not until the Tokugawa period that education became available to larger sections of the population.
Japan flag source: Countryaah.com
In the 16th century, the Jesuits made their entrance led by Francisco Xavier. They were very active schoolchildren, but were banned in the 1600s when Japan closed its borders to the outside world. At Jesuit schools astronomy, geography, medicine and art were taught.
During the Tokugawa period in the 18th century, the Terakoyas schools, private institutions that taught children, including ordinary people and not just the elite, arose to read and write. Terakoya means “temple school”, and the schools were linked to the Buddhist temples. The teaching was given by monks and warriors, and took place either in the Buddhist temples or in private homes. Boys and girls were taught separately from about the age of 7. Although no specific figures are available, it is estimated that around 50% of men and 20% of women could read and count towards the end of the Tokugawa period in the 19th century.
After the Tokugawa period, the Meiji Restoration followed in 1868, during which Japan worked to recapture the West and undergo industrialization of the country. In 1871, the Iwakura delegation (which included, among others, many of Japan’s foremost political leaders and oligarchs) embarked on a two-year journey to the West to acquire new knowledge on, among other things. education, culture, technology and militarism. The youngest detective in the Iwakura delegation was Umeko Tsuda, who at the age of 6 was with the delegation around the US and Europe. She decided to stay in the United States, and did not return to Japan until adulthood, where she founded the school now known as Tsuda University for Women. One of the goals of the Iwakura delegation was to bring the knowledge they acquired back to Japan so that the country could be modernized quickly.
It was during the Meiji restoration in 1872 that 4 years of compulsory schooling were introduced, and it was also after the Meiji period that the precursor to the school system in Japan as we know it today was introduced. Arinori Mori is considered the founder of this school system and became Japan’s first Minister of Education in the 1880s. Another important person to mention in this context is Fukusawa Yuchi – who was sent with a of the first delegations after the country was opened from isolation in the mid-1800s. Fukusawa was a major driver when it came to modernizing Japan. He published a number of texts in the 1870s entitled Gakumon no Susume – A Call for Learning. In these texts, Fukuzawa focuses on the fact that good education was important for both individuals and society as a whole.
Up to the Second World War, the school system was increasingly characterized by nationalism and militarism, and naturally the school books were also colored by the ideology that was central to the country. When Japan surrendered during World War II, on the other hand, there was a complete turnaround in the value system of the school system, and text in the textbooks marked by militarism and nationalism was colored and stretched. Even today, there is controversy about the content of school books, as the school system has once again become centralized and school books must be approved by the state in order to be used in teaching. Criticism has been raised about Japan moving in the wrong direction in this textbook issue, and once again glorifying history, and not giving concrete and critical enough descriptions of what Japan did during World War II.
Building the modern Japanese school system
The Japanese educational and upbringing system as we know it today consists of primary school (shogakkou), secondary school (chugakkou), secondary school (koukou) and higher education (daigaku, senmon gakkou). In addition there are kindergartens (yochi and hoiku-sho) as well as afternoon schools (juku).
There are two types of kindergartens/preschools in Japan. The Yochi is for children from the age of 3 and lasts for about 5 hours a day. Over half of Japanese children attend such a daycare. In addition to the Yochi, there is a type of nursery for smaller children and infants, called hoikusho. These kindergartens are open from early morning until late afternoon, and about 30% of children in Japan attend this type of kindergarten. This type of kindergarten is especially suitable for children with working mothers.
Around the age of 6, Japanese children begin in elementary school, called shogakkou. Shogakkou extends over six grades, and there are usually 30 – 40 students per class. The students are served a hot meal during the day, and the children are responsible for keeping the classroom and school clean. There is a lot of teaching in reading and writing, and after finishing high school it is expected that students will be able to kyouiku-kanji – a collection of about 1,000 kanji.
After shogakkou follows chugakkou, the secondary school. Chugakkou extends over three grades and is part of the compulsory schooling in Japan. It is also at this level that students begin to learn English. Although some elementary schools (especially private) have a uniform duty, uniform is even more common at the secondary school level. Participation in various clubs is important, and the senpai / kouhai system is more debt-ridden than before. This means that you should have respect for those who are above you in the system, and this is reflected well in eg. sports clubs, where the younger recruits have to do a lot of work and services for the older members of the club.
After secondary school, 95% of Japanese schoolchildren go on to high school, kotogakkou, or koko. These schools are to an even greater extent than primary and secondary schools characterized by tough entrance exams, and 30% of upper secondary schools are private. Students can choose whether they want to take a general education, but vocational schools are also available at this level. After completing higher education, the students will be able to know about the 2000 joyo kanjis, which include the kanjis used in newspapers and other media.
Generally speaking, one can say that the Japanese school system is characterized by hard entrance exams, especially when it comes to university admission. Some universities have admissions directly from prestigious high schools, which in turn have admissions from prestigious secondary schools that in turn recruit their students from selected elementary schools. Japan is often portrayed as a meritocracy, but the system where students are directly recruited from selected schools also plays a crucial role.
Juku and yobikou
Because of the hard entrance exams, around 25% of primary school students go and about 60% of high school students also attend an afternoon school, called juku. Due to the time and effort Juku is taking, it has been commented that the students are unable to stay awake for hours in school where they actually go. In addition to primary and secondary school pupils, about 5% of students who attend juku are students who have not entered the university they want, and who are studying specifically to succeed in getting good results at the entrance exams at the universities next year. This preparation is called yobikou. One way to find out if you have the opportunity to enter the school you want is a points system called hensachi. Pupils receive individual feedback after test exams that are held on how likely they are to enter the school they want.
When the students have finally entered the university, it is often argued that the name of the university is more important than the grades one actually gets. It is conceivable that university time is the only time when Japanese schoolchildren can actually take it a little quieter. Most students graduate from the university once they have successfully entered.
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Despite being portrayed as a picture of everyone in Japan yearning to enter well-known universities such as Todai, Keio and Waseda, this probably does not reflect the everyday lives of the majority of school students. Only about 40% of students take a four-year higher education (equivalent to a Norwegian 3-year bachelor’s degree). In addition to this, just under 10% of students go on to something called tankidaigaku – a “university program” that extends over 2 years instead of 4. Of these, 90% are women. A little over 20% of the students go on to technical colleges, while 30% of the students do not go on to higher education at all. It should also be mentioned that higher education in Japan is not free. The national universities are less expensive than the private universities, but private universities account for around 70% of the market in Japan. The private universities can cost a lot of money. Not everyone has the opportunity and advice to pay tuition, so students often need parental support in addition to part-time jobs to have the opportunity to pay tuition and also have enough money to live.
Challenges in the school system
In Japan, as in the rest of the world, there are a number of challenges related to school and education. Bullying and school violence is not uncommon. More recently, there has been an increased focus on school refusal, students isolating themselves in the room, and not least students dropping out of school.
Since the 1980s, the term yutori-kyouiku – “learning without stress,” has been talked about, and a number of school reforms have been implemented. In the 80s the syllabus was reduced and the hourly rate was also lower. In the 1990s, the same type of reform was continued, and in addition it was partly Saturday free. In 2002, such reforms were continued, and in addition Saturday was introduced for all students. (Unfortunately, Saturday-free rather led the Juku to a real boost, so the responsibility for Saturday education went from the public to the private market.) Educational reform has received a lot of criticism that the school has become too slack, and it is required for little of the students now compared to before. As of 2013, Japan’s second largest city of Osaka has implemented Saturday teaching at all primary schools in the city.