Organization and staff
Instruction and evaluation
Transition to upper secondary school
Entering lower secondary school (the equivalent of junior high school
in the United States) is another major stage in coming of age in Japan.
For the first time, public school students are required to wear
uniforms. Other aspects of personal appearance are also regulated,
including hair style and accessories. These changes symbolize the
seriousness of secondary education and the expected attitudes and
demeanor. Though elementary school is serious and disciplined, the
atmosphere of lower secondary school is more so. There is greater
emphasis on academic subjects and concerns. Education goals and
procedures focus more narrowly on the transmission and acquisition of
factual knowledge and on the further development of basic skills.
Completion of lower secondary school marks the end of compulsory
education. It is the point of departure for entry into employment, for
the few so inclined at this stage, and for the first competitive sorting
of those who go to senior high school and beyond.
Public lower secondary school buildings and grounds are usually
separate from those of elementary and upper secondary schools, but are
often similar in design with comparable facilities for learning.
In the classroom desks are arranged in rows, and each pupil has a
chair and desk where books are stored during the day. Rooms are
generally spare, often with a single poster indicating the classroom
cleaning schedule for students or the weekly list of scheduled classes.
The lack of displays and decorations signals that serious study is the
primary purpose of the room. Computers and other technical learning
devices are not evident in the Japanese classroom; in 1983 only 3
percent of lower secondary schools had a personal computer, and few were
used for instruction.
Organization and staff
The administration of lower secondary schools is similar to that of
elementary schools, with the principal and head teacher at the top.
Almost all of these positions are filled by men. The majority of head
teachers are more than 50 years old, and most principals are more than
About one-third of lower secondary school teachers are women.
Three-quarters of the teachers at this level have bachelor's degrees,
while only 1 percent have graduate degrees.
The average number of teaching hours per week is about 22.
Average class size is 36 students.
Each class has it own room where it remains all day. The teachers,
not the students, move between classrooms. This helps maximize learning
time. The room, and its daily maintenance, is the responsibility of the
students who occupy it; it is not the responsibility of the teachers who
come there to lecture. (This is also the situation at the upper
Each class is assigned an advisor, tannin, whose duties
combine those of homeroom teacher and counselor in the United States.
This advisor is a teacher who is responsible for the academic and social
guidance of the members of the class, including counseling on personal
and behavioral problems. The advisor is present at daily and weekly
homeroom meetings and handles various class administrative matters. For
9th graders, tannin guides each student in selecting the appropriate
upper secondary school.
Instruction and evaluation
A basic characteristic of Japanese secondary education and high
school and university entrance examinations is adherence to the view
that there is only one right answer. Generally speaking, the premium is
on mastery of factual material, often through drill and memorization,
rather than on analysis, investigation, and critical thinking.
Instruction is based heavily on lectures which adhere closely to the
textbook and course content specified by Monbusho. The teacher's main
concern is to cover the prescribed material thoroughly. Instruction in
most subjects is teacher-centered and takes place in a straightforward
manner, usually through lectures and use of the chalkboard. Students are
frequently called on for answers and recitation. They stand to respond.
Other methods of instruction are also employed, including field
trips, student projects, and laboratory work in science. Two-thirds of
all Japanese lower secondary schools use some educational television as
part of their instructional program, and about 20 percent use
As in the elementary school, students are treated uniformly and are
not assigned to separate classes or groups on the basis of ability.
Students are still commonly divided into small groups for classroom
duties, but the elementary school emphasis on han as basic units for
instruction largely disappears. Students take tests at the end of each
of the three trimesters of the Japanese school year, and their
performance is recorded for parents on report cards which contain test
scores, comments on the students day-to-day performance, and the
teacher's general evaluation.
By the 9th grade, impending high school entrance examinations impart
a sense of urgency to studying. In-class drilling for these examinations
is rare in public schools, however.
In addition to the required subjects of the core curriculum, the
lower secondary school introduces the study of English. The typical
number of class periods per week for the full curriculum is shown in
C. Required Weekly Class Periods per Subject by Grade Level.*
Health and physical education
Industrial arts or
Elective (usually English)**
Additional elective hour***
* Each class period is 50 minutes
** Electives are assigned at the
principal's discretion. The entire grade level is required to take the
same elective. English is the almost universal elective.
*** The additional elective hour in
the 3rd year is typically assigned by the principal to one of the more
difficult subjects such as mathematics or English.
Source: Ministry of Education,
Science, and Culture, Japan. Education in Japan: A Graphic
Presentation. Tokyo: The Ministry, 1982. p.59.
Japanese language. Lower secondary students study Japanese at
an accelerated pace. In addition to a review of the 1,000 characters
covered during elementary school, they learn to read and write another
1,000 characters, thus completely covering the 2,000 characters required
for basic literacy in Japanese. Students continue to study composition,
grammar, and calligraphy and are introduced to classical Japanese and
Chinese literature, learning to read short, easy passages in archaic
language and literary style.
Social studies. In the first 2 years of lower secondary school
students restudy Japanese history and geography at a more sophisticated
level. They also study world history and geography in terms of other
countries' relations with Japan. In the third year, students learn the
fundamentals of Japanese civics, including the principles of the
constitution and legal system, and the interrelationships of local,
prefectural, and national government. Considerable attention is devoted
to economics, including taxes, insurance, savings, price determination,
trade unions, and international commerce.
There is strong emphasis on reading and interpreting statistics,
maps, and tables of all types. In addition, students learn to make
observations, conduct surveys, and summarize their results in a formal
report. A study comparing Japanese secondary school social studies
textbooks to those of the United States found that Japanese textbooks
present more complex vocabulary, more data, and a broader range of
points of view than American texts do. American textbooks include more
case studies, inquiry exercises, and reflective thinking activities.
Mathematics. In addition to completing the study of basic
arithmetical concepts and skills, principles of algebra and geometry are
taught at each grade level of lower secondary school. In the 2nd and 3rd
years, probability and statistics are covered. By the end of the
compulsory curriculum, all Japanese students have studied algebra
through the factoring and plotting of quadratic equations and the
geometry of circles, the Pythagorean theorem, and some basic solid
According to an analysis by Bruce Vogeli of Teachers College,
Columbia University, the normal pace in these subjects (and most others)
for all Japanese students is roughly equivalent to "the fast track
in a good suburban school system in the U.S." Vogeli further
observed that in the United States, "junior high school mathematics
is primarily a review of arithmetic, while in Japan it is oriented
around basic algebra and geometry.
Japanese mathematics textbooks at the lower secondary level are much
shorter than similar textbooks in the United States, and their prose
style has been described as "terse." The texts are written
with the assumption that the teacher will provide whatever further
explanation and elaboration may be necessary to fully convey the
concepts. Problems in the textbooks are more complex than in American
textbooks. End-of-chapter drills and extra problems are fewer and rarely
Mathematics teachers do not typically assign a great deal of
homework, but it is assumed that students will spend considerable time
reviewing and studying on their own. Japanese 7th-grade teachers report
that they assign 1.7 hours of mathematics homework per week in
comparison to 2.6 hours per week reported by U.S. teachers.
Yet, when the time spent on homework is combined with juku classes
and/or private tutoring, Japanese 7th grade students report spending 4.7
hours per week studying mathematics outside of class in comparison to
2.9 hours per week at the equivalent level in the United States.
Like other subjects, mathematics is taught in a well-organized
systematic fashion. Let's look at a typical lesson:
The teacher arrives in the classroom a few minutes after the bell
rings, signaling the end of the 10-minute break between classes. The
day's student monitor calls the class to attention. All students rise
Instruction begins almost immediately with a 5- to 8-minute review of
the previous lesson and its homework problems. The latter, with their
solutions, have already been written on the chalkboard by students
assigned this task the previous day.
The teacher then introduces the new material to be covered and
assumes that the students already have looked over the new section in
their textbook before coming to class. The teacher refers to related
topics covered at earlier levels, provides definitions and explanations,
and writes key points on the chalkboard as the lesson evolves.
Students are expected to take notes in their mathematics notebooks as
the lesson proceeds. Teachers collect the notebooks periodically for
inspection, as is done in other subjects. All notebooks contain a dated
entry followed by a complete record of what the teacher has written on
the board, as well as supplementary notes. Problems worked in class are
entered, followed by homework assignments and any additional home study.
When teachers evaluate students' homework, the entire notebook is
collected. Very little work is done on separate sheets of paper.
After explaining the new material, the teacher works some sample
problems on the chalkboard. Then the students are assigned one or two
problems to solve at their desks. Students are free to discuss these
problems with their seatmates. The solutions are finally settled through
explanation at the board.
As the end of the class period approaches, the teacher reviews the
important points of the day and describes the topic that the next lesson
will cover. One or two homework problems may be assigned, and the
students who will put them on the board the next day are designated.
When the bell rings, students again rise and bow, and the teacher
returns to the teachers' room.
Science. During the 1st year, students study the properties of
substances and their reactions, characteristics and measurement of
force, plant and animal ecology, and the solar system. During the 2nd
year, the curriculum covers atoms and molecules and their influence on
chemical reactions, electrical circuits, cellular processes and
microscopic organisms, and the mechanisms involved in weather changes.
By the end of the 3rd year, students have studied the interrelationship
of motion, energy and work, ions and ionic substances, ecology,
photosynthesis and big-organic processes, and rock types and geologic
formations. Scientific observation, laboratory experiments, and
fieldwork are part of the curriculum at all levels.
Music. The music curriculum continues to emphasize vocal and
instrumental performance and appreciation. Students learn to sing in a
chorus and play musical instruments in an ensemble. A full complement of
treble, mid-range, and bass parts is included, and attention is paid to
sophistication of tone quality and phrasing. Music appreciation includes
a broader acquaintance with classical Japanese music, world folksongs,
and classical and modern Western orchestral and solo music. Basic music
theory and history are also covered. Students compose simple works for
voice or instruments and perform them as a group.
Fine arts. The middle school curriculum continues training in
painting and sculpture and adds graphic design. Students plan and
construct larger works. They make a diagram, develop a production
schedule which accounts for the required tools and steps in completing
the project, make a model, and finally produce the finished product.
Students also learn about various periods and styles of paintings,
sculpture, design, and craft work.
Health and physical education. Physical education encourages
students to be interested in and develop their ability to participate in
individual and team sports, including exercise, gymnastics, swimming,
volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Boys are trained in traditional
Japanese martial arts such as judo and fencing. Girls study expressive
dance. For both sexes, planned individual programs to increase physical
skills are emphasized.
Twenty percent of class time is devoted to the study of health,
including physical and mental growth and development. Topics include
prevention of disease and accidents, first aid, and the
interrelationship of health and daily habits.
Industrial arts and homemaking. In lower secondary school,
most boys are trained in industrial arts and most girls in homemaking,
though boys and girls can choose to take either subject. The general
purposes are to help students acquire practical skills, to become
accustomed to using them, and to develop appropriate attitudes toward
work and home life.
The industrial arts curriculum includes woodworking, metal working,
machine and engine maintenance, wiring and electrical circuitry, and
agriculture and crop cultivation. The homemaking curriculum covers
clothesmaking, cooking, nutrition, housing and interior design, and
infant and child care.
English. According to Monbusho requirements, English is an
elective subject, one of several foreign languages approved for study at
the lower secondary level. As noted earlier, in Japan most
"electives" are not choices left to the student, but are
courses selected by the principal according to prefectural guidelines.
Nearly all lower secondary schools follow a policy of requiring 3 years
of English language instruction involving 105 class hours per year. The
choice is not surprising, in part because English is one of the required
subjects on university entrance examinations.
The purpose of the English curriculum is to train students to read
and write English, relying on grammatical analysis and translation to
and from Japanese as the primary methods. Instruction includes
grammatical explanation, practice with basic sentence patterns, and
memorization of vocabulary. Each year approximately 350 words are
studied in addition to various idioms and grammatical forms. Brief
passages are read and translated and students practice writing short
compositions in English.
Although there have been various efforts over the years to provide
more experience in listening to and speaking English, these dimensions
remain underdeveloped. The English portions of the university entrance
examinations have focused exclusively on the written rather than spoken
language, and instruction at the secondary school level is primarily
geared to what will be tested in the university entrance examinations.
Moreover, few Japanese teachers of English have substantial proficiency
in conversational or idiomatic English.
Moral education. This core educational concern continues to be
addressed along the lines and themes summarized in the elementary school
curriculum section. Self-control is emphasized in a broader human and
social context. The course is taught by the classroom advisor. Character
development is stressed all teachers in and out of formal classroom
Special activities. Two class hours per week are devoted to
special activities which, as in elementary school, consist primarily of
ceremonies, field trips, all-school events, and required club
activities. Teachers continue to emphasize student guidance in both
cognitive and behavioral matters and encourage the development of group
awareness, cooperative attitudes, and proper behavior.
Class trip. Each May, all Japanese 9th graders go on an
extended field trip. For 4 days and 3 nights, teachers and students tour
one or another of Japan's famous cultural and historical metropolitan
areas. Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima are favorites. The purposes of these
trips are to broaden students' experience with a region of the country
other than their own and to create an enjoyable, shared memory of school
life. Another important goal is to train students in public manners and
group etiquette. Students are expected to conduct themselves with
dignity. Maintenance of school reputation is a serious matter.
Students and teachers spend a great deal of time in cooperative
planning and preparation for this major event in class history. Many
students carefully save money to help finance their expenses. Families
contribute most of the costs, and assistance for needy students is
Clubs. All students are required to participate in a school
club during one of the special activities hours. There are clubs for the
arts and several academic areas as well as for sports.
The vast majority of students also belong to an after school club.
These clubs are school based, but largely student organized and run.
Athletic clubs are the most popular. Club activity starts when school
ends shortly after 3 p.m. and continues until 5 or 6 p.m., depending
upon the season of the year.
Two-thirds of all Japanese students in the three grades of lower
secondary school report that they actively participate in the voluntary
clubs. Many students would likely engage in club activities every day,
but school regulations generally limit the number of days a club can
meet each week. In Japan, the better a student's academic record, the
more likely the student will be active in a sports club.
Lower secondary school students attend juku after school on the
average of two and a half times per week. They average 2 hours of
lessons per regular visit or 5 hours total per week. Juku students today
have somewhat longer lessons and heavier courseloads than their
predecessors did a decade ago.
Of all lower secondary school students attending juku, the largest
group, 42 percent, is studying two subjects each week, which are, almost
without exception, English and mathematics. Twenty-five percent of all
third-year lower secondary school juku participants take five subjects.
The number of juku that concentrate on examination preparation has
increased in recent years. Currently the educational goals stated by
juku operators for their lower secondary school programs are evenly
divided between giving students a better understanding of ongoing school
work and preparing them for entrance examinations.
The demanding curriculum is difficult for slow learners. Three
aspects of education policy compound this problem: the view that effort
alone can compensate for differences in ability; little provision for
diagnosis of learning disabilities and individualized remedial
assistance; and automatic promotion, which increases the pressure on
students who have fallen behind (ochikobore) as they face an increasing
burden of academic demands. Inevitably, the number increases with grade
level, accompanied by attendant disaffection from school.
There is some school violence in Japan, though its extent, both in
degree and frequency, is much less than that experienced in the U.S.
However, because violence is considered a serious aberration of school
and societal norms, it is a source of public concern and receives
extensive coverage in the mass media.
In Japan, "school violence" usually means violence directed
against teachers, student violence against other students, and
vandalism. It rarely includes teacher violence against students. The
number of schools in which incidents of student violence occurred
declined between 1982 and 1984. In 1984 about 11.5 percent of public
lower secondary schools experienced some form of school violence.
The related problem of ijime--"bullying," the
intimidation or tormenting of individual students by others, especially
by groups of students--has become the subject of serious concern and
widespread media coverage throughout the country. Bullied students are
said to have some characteristics which set them apart from the rest of
the students. From all accounts, the problem has been increasing in
recent years and is more serious at the junior high than at the senior
high school level.
Monbusho has set up a program to make teachers sensitive to such
behavior and its symptoms, and the police have established a special
unit, including a telephone hotline, to deal with such incidents. In the
first half of 1985, approximately 1,000 students were involved in
bullying incidents which required police intervention. The Tokyo hotline
received over 1,300 calls in 6 months, mostly from lower secondary
school students who were victims of bullying.
Transition to upper secondary school
In Japan, the passage from compulsory education to senior high school
is not automatic. It requires formal application and entrance
examinations, which are given in March. Preparation for these
examinations becomes the dominant concern of most students in 9th grade.
Changes in participation patterns in sports clubs and juku dramatize the
shift in use of discretionary time.
In July, at the end of the first trimester, third-year students begin
to withdraw from active participation in clubs and enrichment activities
and increasingly focus their out of school time on preparation for the
entrance examinations for upper secondary school. The participation rate
in clubs drops sharply from over 90 percent of students in 7th and 8th
grades to just under half of the students in 9th grade.
Of students attending juku in the 7th grade in 1985, about 62 percent
were enrolled in a program geared toward reviewing and supplementing
regular classroom instruction, while approximately 24 percent were
engaged in an examination preparatory program. For 9th-grade students
facing high school entrance examinations, the pattern changed
considerably. The proportion of juku attendees engaged in examination
preparatory programs more than doubled, to 54 percent, while the
proportion engaged in review and supplementary study programs dropped
off somewhat to a still high level of 43 percent. There was a related
decline in the proportion of students taking nonacademic enrichment
lessons, from approximately 36 percent of 7th-grade students to only 20
percent in 9th grade. These shifts reflect the preoccupation of
third-year students with the challenge of gaining entry to a senior high
school of their choice.
The 6-week summer vacation and New Year's holidays are times of
particularly intense study and preparation. High school entrance
examinations are given in March.
Upper secondary school hierarchies. In public perception, each
of the high schools in an attendance area is ranked in a hierarchy. This
perception is based largely on each school's record or success in
sending its graduates to prestigious institutions of higher
learning--the traditional standard of excellence in Japanese upper
secondary education. Historically, public schools have enjoyed greater
status than private schools, but the situation is undergoing some
change. The majority of private schools and public vocational schools
still occupy the middle and lower rungs of the hierarchy. Recent
scholarship indicates that part-time, correspondence, and night schools
or programs are usually perceived to be the least prestigious form of
upper secondary education.
The school hierarchy has remained stable. Thomas Rohlen, who has done
the most thorough study of Japanese secondary education by a foreign
scholar, explains why:
. . . Reputation is a
self-fulfilling prophecy. The school drawing the best applicants has no
trouble retaining its high reputation, and the schools at or near the
bottom can do very little to change their destiny.... New public high
schools, for lack of reputation, take their place at the bottom of the
ladder in their category (academic or vocational). The rule among public
high schools is that status and quality are functions of relative age.
Most students and their parents aspire to a public high school with a
college preparatory program for reasons of status, further education
prospects, and cost. While public schools generally have the edge, the
number of students they accept is limited. Thus, students in the middle
and lower levels of classroom achievement must adjust their aspirations
to less prestigious institutions, often a private school or one with a
vocational curriculum. Despite the higher cost of private secondary
schools, there is no guarantee of higher quality.
Children who do not perform well academically, and their families,
usually pay a heavy price in more ways than one. The youngsters end up
in less prestigious high schools with all that foreshadows for future
social status and career prospects, and many of the parents have to pay
the higher costs of private education. Rohlen notes a further family
burden for many parents whose children make up the lower third of the
class academically: "Because there is a solid correlation between
poverty and poor school performance, it follows that the costs of
private schooling are likely to fall heavily on families least able to
Those who do not succeed in gaining entry to a public or private high
school for academic or economic reasons usually turn to public
vocational schools. For those students not gaining admission to the
lowest ranking vocational schools, the principal remaining alternatives
are night school or employment.
Entrance process. The entrance process for upper secondary
schools is carefully shaped to avoid a free-for-all competition at
examination time. Admission is influenced prior to actual examinations
by a form of guided placement at the application stage.
Advisors counsel each student regarding schools where he or she is
likely to be admitted. The advice is based on the student's overall
record, grades, scores on commercial achievement tests (and sometimes on
aptitude tests), and the aspirations of student and parents. The
commercial tests are used as indicators of likely success on the various
high schools" entrance examinations. Yet, in the final analysis,
the main criterion for entrance into upper secondary education is the
extent to which the course of study for lower secondary education has
been mastered, this is what the examinations confirm.
As is the case 3 years later for entry to the higher education level,
a large commercial publishing industry supplies examination preparation
books and related study material such as practice examinations. The
books and study guides are often detailed. For example, they report kind
and frequency of questions likely to be faced, provide practical drill
questions, explain special problems that students should prepare to
meet, and give specific advice on strategy and tactics for examination
All public high schools in a particular prefecture administer the
same test, although tests vary from prefecture to prefecture. The
examinations usually contain questions in three subject areas--Japanese
language, mathematics, and English. Recently some prefectures have added
science and social studies. The examinations cover the work of all 3
years of lower secondary school, but frequently half of the questions
involve material learned in the 3rd year.
For a small percentage of the best students, the classroom advisor's
recommendation and the student's lower secondary school record may
suffice in assuring admission to an appropriate upper secondary school.
These students are spared the pressure of entrance examinations. This
form of early selection is partly based on the predictability of the
examination results if the conventional path were to be followed. But it
also reflects an emerging, liberalized trend in high school admissions
that is beginning to take into account a broader range of abilities than
examination results alone.
Although there is some variation by prefecture, the common pattern is
that students can apply to only one public upper secondary school. (The
entrance examinations of private high schools are usually available to
anyone who wishes to apply, so a student can apply to both a public and
a private institution concurrently.) Schools choose from among the
applicants on the basis of their scores on the entrance examination and
their lower secondary school record. The school record usually includes
a description of the student's special activities, an evaluation of
personality, work habits, and behavior, and the school attendance
The advisor's recommendation is seriously given and usually followed.
Most students take the entrance examination of the highest ranking
school which their advisors believe they are likely to be able to enter,
and succeed in gaining admission. Rohlen reports that a modicum of
affirmative action on behalf of students from poorer sections of the
district sometimes occurs in the process on an unofficial basis.
The fit between the number of openings in a given school,
particularly in the better academic high schools, the number applicants,
and the qualifications of individual students is so carefully worked out
by classroom advisors that the final ratio of applicants to places in
each of the upper secondary schools is kept very low, commonly not above
1.2 to 1 and often under 1.1 to 1. Some close, informal, district-wide
coordination with the admissions officials of the higher ranked public
high schools seem apparent.
Essentially, then, especially for the academic high schools, entrance
examinations serve more to confirm the lower schools' advice and
recommendations than to rigorously select a few students from among many
applicants. (Indeed, given the low ratio of applicants to openings, the
examination process could be viewed as a mechanism for excluding rather
than including a very small proportion of the applicants). The high
school examinations' major influence is motivational: it provides a
powerful influence on students to study seriously during the late middle
school years--and in the earlier years as well.
Girls do as well as boys in the high school entrance competition, but
their subsequent institutional enrollment pattern at the postsecondary
level differs significantly, reflecting different cultural norms and
subsequent employment realities. A smaller proportion of girls continue
their education in universities.
The results of the March entrance examinations are announced later
the same month. The small number of students who do not gain admission
because of their own miscalculation in selecting a school to apply to,
poor examination performance, or because they were misadvised, can take
a second-round examination at another school. The second examination
opportunity takes place shortly after the results of the first
examination are known.
Net results. The basic lesson regarding high school entrance
is, as Rohlen puts it, "work very hard in school or you will have
to end up having to pay for private schooling just to get a diploma, or
even worse, miss the chance for college altogether."
But regardless of level of school achievement, cost, or prospects for
postsecondary education, the great majority of students continue on to
senior high school.
By the end of 9th grade, all students who desire to continue their
schooling have been successfully matched with an upper secondary level
school. As shown in table 4, approximately 94 percent of all Japanese
children advance to full-time enrollment in one or another kind of upper
secondary school and about 2 percent enter some type of part-time
education program. Approximately 3 percent take a full-time job. This
leaves less than 1 percent unemployed or otherwise out of school.
The facts that nearly all Japanese junior high school students
continue their education in one or another form of upper secondary
education, that 28 percent of the full-time high school students attend
private schools, and that about 93 percent of those who enter 10th grade
graduate from 12th grade indicate the great importance that Japanese
culture places on securing at least a high school diploma. These facts
also dramatize the determination and sacrifice of parents at all levels
of society to provide for their children's education at least through
high school graduation.
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U.S. Dept. of Education Study