Education in JAPAN

Education in JAPAN

Brian Christian, Principal of the British School in Tokyo, gives Winter’s readers an introduction to education in Japan, covering all key topics, from the main characteristics of the Japanese education system to the different types of international school that are found in Japan.


Japan is a fascinating country of contradictions, boasting the greatest mega-city on the planet and some of the world’s most beautiful and tranquil rural landscapes, ranging from the tropical to the alpine. Its rich tradition and remarkable cultural heritage stand in stark contrast to its reputation as a hot-bed of technology and innovation, while its people enjoy a reputation for both inscrutability and warmth. In 2020 the Olympics and Paralympic Games come to Tokyo just a year after Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup, and even now the country is beginning to see something of the impact these global sporting occasions are going to have. The eyes of the world are already turning to the Far East.

As in so many parts of Asia, education is taken very seriously in Japan, and from nursery through to university there are many examples of world-class provision. As the national birth-rate continues to fall and the effects of an ageing population begin to bite, the importance of giving children the head-start they deserve has never been more keenly felt. is taken very seriously in Japan, from nursery through to university. is taken very seriously in Japan, from nursery through to university.

The public school system

Dating back to the early years of the post-war period, the pattern of Japanese education is often described as a 6-3-3 system, based on the number of years spent in each of the respective schools: elementary, junior-high and high school. Beginning at the age of six, compulsory education lasts for nine years up to the end of junior-high school and is free during this time; however, the vast majority of Japanese teenagers progress to high school, and more than 50% go on to university. It is important to note that average class sizes are high, generally in the mid-forties, and that the school year begins in April rather than in August or September, although the longest school break is in July and August as in most of the northern hemisphere.

The Japanese curriculum is rigorous and reasonably comprehensive, but standards and styles of teaching do vary from school to school, and even from class to class. Given the complexity of the Japanese language it is not surprising that in elementary schools six hours each day are devoted to its acquisition, and rote learning is prevalent. By the time they enter junior-high school children will be expected to know at least one thousand kanji characters and double that number by the end of compulsory education.

Almost all elementary and junior-high schools ask that their students wear uniform, and children are expected to make their way to and from school independently from a very early age. It is not at all unusual to see five year-olds negotiating the busy Tokyo streets and the bewilderingly complex (but highly efficient) public transport system entirely on their own at the beginning and end of the school day.

"...25% of Japanese students attend private high schools"

Attendance at high school does not form part of compulsory education, but approximately 97% of children do go on to complete the three-year programme. An entrance examination and tuition fees are obligatory, but the level of the fee and the rigour of the entrance examination can vary widely according to the reputation of the school. Approximately 25% of Japanese students attend private high schools. High school graduation is a requirement for university entrance, but there is no formal completion examination.

Foreign children who live in Japan are not legally required to attend school, but if they wish to do so they can receive free education and textbooks at public elementary and junior-high schools just as Japanese children do. Some schools in Tokyo, largely in the private sector, offer programmes of study specifically designed for Japanese students returning from time spent overseas (returnees); such schools are generally better equipped to support students from international families.

Despite the fact that pre-school education falls outside compulsory schooling in Japan, more than 90% of all children spend some time in yochi-en and hoiku-en. Hoiku-en cater for children from two months of age while yochi-en accept children from the age of three.

"...juku schools offer private tuition to supplement lessons..."

Another important element of education in Japan is the rather controversial juku system; the juku schools offer private tuition to supplement lessons in regular schools and to prepare students for the entrance examinations to the next level of education. One third of Japanese children from elementary school upwards are sent to these institutions by their parents with the aim of winning places at the best universities. Classes are often held late in the afternoon or evening and continue throughout the school holidays.

Most schools in Japan expect children to wear uniform.

Most schools in Japan expect children to wear uniform.

International education in Japan

International schools of all shapes and sizes catering for a diverse range of nationalities can be found in most of the major towns and cities throughout the country, although, as might be expected, by far the most significant concentration is found in the capital. Some, such as the Lycee Francaise de Tokyo, aim to offer an education similar to that provided in a specific home country, while others are much more of a melting pot. There are small niche schools with well under a hundred pupils, and well established 3-18 institutions of more than a thousand, such as the American School in Japan.

"...staff turnover tends to be lower..."

The vast majority of the schools are rigorous in their staff recruitment procedures and carry out background and qualification checks in line with global best practice. Most teachers are recruited as expatriates and, where there is an affiliation to a particular home country, they are usually expected to have similar qualifications to those required in that country. It says much about the quality of the schools and perhaps the attractions of life in Japan, that staff turnover tends to be lower than in international schools in many other countries around the world.

The Japan Council of International Schools (JCIS) is a membership organization that includes most of the international schools operating in Japan. It is important to note, however, that each school exists completely independently of the others. As it states on its website:

"JCIS is a collegial and collaborative organization which exists for the betterment of all international schools in Japan to the benefit of the parents who choose them and the children who attend them."

Illustrating this mutually supportive, collaborative approach, in 2011 in the aftermath of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, member schools liaised closely and valuably to share information and to coordinate a response.

Schools applying for membership to JCIS must meet a number of important criteria including stability, continuity, professionalism and an explicit commitment to internationalism. Education must be provided in English. Beyond that there are no requirements relating to curriculum, ethos or ownership. Some schools offer one or more of the programmes of the International Baccalaureate Organization; others provide an education based to a greater or lesser degree on a national curriculum. There are those that offer a full Kindergarten to Grade 12 education, while others specialise in particular age groups.

Many of the international schools in Japan are also affiliated to recognised national and international associations. The British School in Tokyo, for example, is an accredited member of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), and submits to regular inspections carried out by the UK Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) to ensure that it complies with the standards set out for British Schools Overseas.

Images courtesy of The British School in Tokyo

Most teachers at international schools in Japan are recruited as expatriates.

Most teachers at international schools in Japan are recruited as expatriates.

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