As tour guides, we often get questions about the Japanese education system and the life of working people like company employees in Japan. Many people who travel to Japan are familiar with anime or manga about high school life or the stories about Japanese employees living solely for the company they work for. Our customers want to know what is true of the stories they have read or heard. Let’s have a look at school life in Japan for elementary and junior high school.
It is true that every country has its own unique school system to prepare kids for life as an adult and the job market, and Japan is no different. The way a country educates its future generations says a lot about the culture and the way of life. The way school life in Japan is, says a lot about Japanese culture, and what kind of traits Japanese people value. What does the educational system in Japan look like for kids between 0-15?
A Short History of Education in Japan
The 6th century was the time during which Japan became more unified and started developing systems to live as a more modern society, like a writing system, a bureaucratic system, and an educational system. Most of the Japanese culture that developed around that time is based on the culture of the Chinese. At that time, only higher-up people at the court were able to become scholars, and you had to be born into the right class in order to become higher up.
Once samurai became a lot more influential when the Kamakura period started, scholar-officials lost their influence and the warrior class gained entrance in education. It was Buddhist institutions that remained the central places of education just like before. When the Edo period came, a period of peace started which meant that the samurai class didn’t have much to do anymore in terms of fighting.
They wanted to become adept at agriculture and business, which became subjects of education. The rich merchant class wanted to study art and science besides business, meaning that the curriculum and people who studied only broadened. Regular people also received education from Buddhist temple schools, meaning that around 35% of people were not illiterate anymore since the Edo period.
The Meiji Restoration saw wide modernization and Westernisation of Japan, and this was the time that education became compulsory for everyone so that Japan could become a strong and modern country. It was in the late 1890s that school homework was introduced. After WW2, the American occupants reformed the Japanese education system once more to make sure there were no militarist teachings and Japan would become more democratic. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been some more modernizations in the areas of IT and internationalization.
School Life in Japan : Preschool
Japanese kids can be enrolled in daycare from age 0, which is pretty rare because most Japanese moms (and dads) still subscribe to the idea that a child should stay home (usually with mom) until they are 3 years old for healthy development. This means that even today, many women give up their full-time job for years in order to take care of the children. If you do decide to enroll your child in daycare, you have two options; government-sponsored daycare (hoikuen) or private daycare.
Government-sponsored daycare spots are limited, and in large cities like Tokyo, it often happens that your child is waitlisted. Especially if both parents didn’t already full-time before getting pregnant it is difficult to find this type of spot in the city. For those parents, there is private daycare which is unfortunately quite expensive.
Things become a lot easier for working parents once the April after the child turns 3 years old arrives; this is when kindergarten, or yochien in Japanese, becomes an option. Attending yochien is not mandatory, but around 98% of Japanese kids do attend. Because yochien isn’t government-mandated, all schools are private which means parents have to pay a significant amount of tuition and other fees including the cost of a school uniform. Still, most yochien are a lot cheaper than private daycare and many of them have an educational program. If both parents work, some yochien have an after-school care program that can keep the kids until 5 or 6 pm.
Different Types of Kindergartens
Yochien educational programs vary greatly, and parents’ choice often depends on what they find important. There are yochien that focus on teaching kids the basics of reading, writing, and math, some focus on sports, others on music, and some yochien are very play-centered. If you want to put your child on an easy track towards a good private university and can afford it, private universities like Keio and Waseda offer programs from age 3 to help kids get a coveted place on their university once they are 18 (more about this later).
If you want to enroll your child in a high-end yochien you don’t only have to pay a large tuition fee but you also have to pass their entrance interview. Quite often, entering a high-end yochien is competitive because there are fewer available spots than prospective students. This is why usually parents have multiple potential yochien lined up just in case.
Yochien is 3 years, with the first year called nen-shou, the second year is nen-chuu, and the last year is nen-chou. There tend to be many special activities throughout the year in yochien, many of which also demand parental involvement. Even if you don’t become a PTA-member, you still need to expect to be called to the school for meetings, attending special events, and sometimes to help out with organizing an event.
If you do become a PTA-member you will be quite busy throughout the year with PTA-related duties. Another thing that stands out about the Japanese yochien parent experience is the amount of handiwork that is expected; the chair’s pillow, all kinds of bags small and large, handkerchiefs, and more all need to be personalized. This is usually done by the moms, but the good news is that you can also order these online if you are not good with needle and thread.
School Life in Japan : Elementary School
The first day of elementary school in Japan will be in April after your child turns 6, and this is when mandatory education will begin. Again, you can choose between a public elementary school or a private one. Usually, it is the kids who went to a high-end yochien who will go to a private elementary school, but the vast majority of Japanese kids will attend their local public elementary school. Public elementary school in Japan is free and serves low-cost school meals that are healthy and tasty.
Which school your kid will go to depends on where you live; you can usually not choose which elementary school your child will attend. This makes certain areas with good public schools very sought after by families, while other areas are less popular for people with kids. The level of education varies greatly per district, and in Tokyo central areas tend to have higher-level schools than outer districts. The level of the public elementary school also often directly correlates with the average household income in an area.
Elementary school teaches Japanese kids to be independent, and from day 1 they will walk to school with other schoolmates and without parents or teachers. They will be bringing all their things with them in a randoseru, which is a large and heavy backpack that will last them from year 1 until year 6. In public elementary schools, kids don’t wear uniforms, so you will only recognize them by their randoseru and usually yellow or blue hats when they walk to and from school.
Elementary School Curriculum in Japan
Japanese elementary school lasts for 6 years just like its counterparts in most of the Western world. Kids mostly stay in the class with the same kids for 2 years in a row, and then they shuffle the kids and form new groups. In Japan, there is no system where a kid who is falling too much behind can re-do the same grade twice, everyone moves at the same time to the next year.
If a kid would have trouble catching up, there are plenty of cram schools (juku) like Kumon that can help with extra explanations and more practice. Also, parents who are very serious about their kids going to a good university but who don’t have the kind of money that is required to send your kids to private elementary and junior high schools tend to send their kids for extra studying to these institutions.
The curriculum of elementary schools in Japan roughly follow is the same throughout the country; there is a large emphasis on studying the Japanese writing system that is infamously difficult to learn but incredibly efficient once you know it and on mathematics. The focus on math pays off, as Japanese kids consistently score high on tests that compare math ability internationally.
Those who graduate from university in Japan also read a lot faster than the average English language reader. Other subjects that kids study in elementary school are nature/science, drawing, and a simple version of civics. Of course, there is also time for PE class once or twice per week, for which they do have a uniform. In late spring and early summer, most schools also offer swimming classes, but those are often canceled as they only happen when it is not raining and not too cold because the pools are outside.
Parental involvement in elementary school isn’t as great as it is in yochien, however, moms are still expected to do one year of PTA duty for each kid. If you’re a working mom, they will usually be nice and assign you to a committee that doesn’t have many meetings. If you are a dad who joins the PTA you are rare, but definitely welcomed. A few times per year parents will meet with the teacher to discuss the child’s progress.
Japanese people also put great importance on traditions and celebrations, which can be seen in the entrance ceremonies, graduation ceremonies, and year opening- and closing ceremonies. For many of these ceremonies, parents are also invited. Make sure you are dressed to the nines as everyone else will be; men wear formal suits, and women wear dark-navy formal suits or even kimono.
Another event that is very big in Japan is undokai, which is like sports day on steroids. It happens every year from yochien until the last year of junior high, and it is serious business. Kids practice for undokai for months, and when the big day finally comes everyone is invited; parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and everyone else who knows a kid in the school and wants to see them in action.
The program usually lasts around 5-6 hours, and many parents are already waiting in front of the school gates an hour before the event starts in order to snatch a good spot. Besides the usual running, ball games, and other athletic games, all classes will do a unique synchronic dance, and there is an event where parents have to participate. It is great fun and usually held in spring or fall which makes it enjoyable to spend the day outside.
Homework and After School
One aspect of elementary school in Japan I wasn’t expecting is the large amount of homework kids get every day in general and for the summer in particular. Our son spends around an hour every day on his homework, and several full days at the beginning of the summer holiday on all the special summer assignments.
Parents are required to check the homework and have the child make corrections if there are any mistakes. For me, it is easy to see why Japanese kids score high on math tests, as the math my son is studying in his 3rd year of elementary school didn’t show up in my curriculum until junior high school.
And then there is the life-saver of working parents in Japan with elementary-aged kids: gakudo. Gakudo is the after-school program that runs nearly throughout the year. The only times gakudo is closed is one week during the New Year’s holiday in winter, and one week during the Obon holiday in summer. Most gakudo that are government-run don’t offer any special educational activities, so it is more like semi-supervised play-time for the kids or time to do their homework.
It is easy to enroll your child in gakudo because there is enough space in nearly every school district, even in Tokyo. Some parents opt for private gakudo, those are usually quite costly but your kid gets educated in for example English or receives extra support with homework.
School life in Japan : Junior High School
When kids are 12, it is time for junior high school. This is when things get serious, even for those who weren’t that serious before with extra studies and extracurricular activities. Junior high school is the last part of mandatory education in Japan.
You can drop out of school without any repercussions if you don’t want to continue your studies, this is, however, very rare. Only about 6% of kids stop with school once they graduate from junior high school. The kids who do drop out often have learning problems or mental issues, and sometimes there are financial issues in the family that make it hard to attend (private) high school.
For public junior high school, there is no entrance exam. Most kids go to public junior high school, which is free of charge and the school your child can go to depends on the area where you live. Usually, there are a few different elementary schools from which students will go to the same junior high school. This means that most of their school friends from elementary school will go to the same junior high school, and there will be a bunch of new kids to get to know.
In junior high school, learning goes at a great speed in order to prep the kids for the first very important exam to come; the entrance exam(s) to high school. A lot will depend on which high school a child ends up with, as this will greatly determine the university the child can go to.
The university someone goes to will in turn greatly affect which companies and which kind of jobs a young adult can apply to, which is extra important in a country where job mobility is still not great and your work-life balance greatly depends on the company you work for. Knowing this may make it a bit easier to understand the great pressures that rest on teenagers’ shoulders in Japan, and why many of them study as much and as hard as they do.
Another important feature of junior high school is bukatsu, or club life. When a kid enters junior high school, they get the opportunity to choose for an extra-curricular activity club that they will stick with for the duration of junior high. Usually, these clubs are sports-centered but there are also other kinds of clubs that for example center on arts, science, or something else. These clubs consume extreme amounts of time from a Western point of view, as many of them are team sports and it is considered very bad to let down your team so you had better be present at all practice and matches.
Many kids spend their early morning hours, late afternoon hours, and weekends doing club activities. And then they still have homework to do as well. Some say that the combination of school, homework, and bukatsu is a precursor to how working life will be after you graduate. Depending on the company you will work for, in Japan it can happen that you will spend 5-6 days at the company from 8 am until midnight…
Fortunately for those who have no interest in bukatsu, it is not mandatory to participate and you can become a member of the ‘going home club’ too. Kids that don’t participate in bukatsu often still attend private extracurricular activities or go to cram school to study some more. But according to many in Japan, bukatsu is an unmissable part of junior high school life.
In their 3rd year of junior high school, kids have to take their first important exams, the high school entrance exam. As mentioned before, which high school your child attends will greatly determine their future prospects. Many kids go to juku (cram school) until late at night many days per week in order to prepare for these important exams. Usually, kids take more than one exam in order to spread the chances a bit and not be left without a high school to go to if you fail your exam.
What happens after kids finish junior high school? Read more about high school, university, and beyond!
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