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Historical and Cultural Context
The Context
Historical Background
Premodern times
Meiji period (1868-1912) to World War II
Postwar era
Some Cultural Foundations
Importance and purposes of education
Harmonious relations and central role of the group
Hard work, diligence, and perseverance

Historical and Cultural Context
It is no secret anymore that Japan has achieved world status in education. Indeed, some of Japan's contemporary accomplishments in education--as in economic development--are literally in a class by themselves.

Japanese education provides all children with a high quality, well-balanced basic education in the 3-R's, science, music, and art through 9 years of compulsory schooling. The average level of student achievement is high by international standards. So is the retention rate: virtually everyone completes the 9 compulsory years and almost 90 percent of the students graduate from high school. Japan has also succeeded in

 Motivating students to learn and teaching them effective study habits;
Creating and maintaining a productive learning environment, which includes effective school discipline;
Using time productively for educational purposes in and out of school;
Sustaining attention to developing character and desirable attitudes and behavior (according to Japanese norms) throughout the elementary and secondary years;
Developing a professional teaching force that is competent and committed, well respected and well remunerated; and
Providing effective employment services for secondary school leavers and graduates.

These accomplishments result from several interwoven factors, including:

 A preschool experience (much of it parent financed) for more than 90 percent of children;

An effective public school system, particularly during the compulsory attendance period, supplemented at elementary and secondary levels by
An informal, but symbiotic set of private (parent financed) education programs responsive to the needs of individual students.

All of the foregoing are undergirded by strong parental commitment to and sustained support for the education of the child during the entire time he or she is in school. Education is reinforced at every turn by the historical and cultural heritage, community consensus, government policy, and the needs and employment practices of business, industry, and government.

Japanese education has produced multiple benefits for the nation as well as for its individual students. These benefits include a well-educated citizenry, which strengthens national democracy; an adaptable work force capable of high productivity in a competitive world economy; the opportunity for individual social and economic mobility; and an improved general quality of life.

Despite these achievements, the system is not perfect. The Japanese know better than most foreign observers that there are significant costs as well as benefits associated with the choices they have made and the results achieved. Some difficulties appear before the end of elementary school and are compounded in secondary education. Higher education is in many respects the weakest part of the entire system even though, paradoxically, it continues to exert a commanding influence on the elementary and secondary levels that feed it. The problems are widely acknowledged in Japan and are currently the subject of concerned scrutiny in and out of government.

In trying to understand how the Japanese accomplish what they do in education, how and why the system works, and some of its dynamics, one finds that more than the school system is involved. The home environment for the student, home-school relation, unofficial education programs outside the school (particularly the juku), the relationship between industry and education, especially at the postsecondary level--all have to be taken into account along with history and culture.

For Westerners, Japanese education is fascinating and complex. Its achievements appear to be as much a product of the nation's unique historical and cultural foundations and parental commitment as of pedagogical policies and practices. Indeed, several specific factors that contribute to educational achievement may not be readily exportable, so tied are they to the Japanese context.

While this report devotes some attention to problems and to the current reform movement that aims to solve them, it focuses primarily on understanding Japanese education--formal and informal--in its cultural context. The goal is to present enough information in sufficient perspective that Japanese education can speak for itself. Japanese terms are introduced where useful, and a glossary is included.

The report also sketches--primarily in Secretary Bennett's epilogue--some possible implications, for improving American education. These points are not prescriptive. They are intended to stimulate the reader to examine the doctrines, values, performance, and potential of American education in a light refracted through the prism of Japanese experience. In the United States, it is up to those directly responsible for education--state, local and private authorities and individual citizens--to draw their own conclusions about the relevance of Japanese experience to their own situations.

The Context

 In Japan, as in most countries, education is best understood in its historical and cultural context. Indeed, sometimes education cannot be meaningfully separated from its social foundations. This is particularly true for Japan, both because much of the nation's history and culture is not widely known in the United States and Western Europe and because enduring cultural values strongly affect so much of contemporary Japanese education. While justice cannot be done to Japanese education's rich historical and cultural background in brief summary, some basic context is essential for understanding Japanese education today.

Historical Background

Not all of Japanese education is homegrown. Japan is unusual in its long record of interest and initiative in learning from other countries. Most modern nations, including the United States, have been the beneficiaries of education ideas from other countries, but Japan has been more active in deliberately seeking ideas from abroad to help solve its education problems as it perceives them and less self-conscious in adapting those which seem useful.

While contemporary Japanese education has been widely praised, especially because of outstanding results demonstrated in international comparative studies of school achievement in science and mathematics, it is not well known that Japan's record of distinction in education has roots that go back over a hundred years. Indeed, in some important respects education in Japan today is heir to a legacy of ideas whose origins long predate the century of modern Japanese history.

Premodern times

Chinese civilization was particularly influential in the formation of Japan's culture, and Chinese philosophical and literary influences have remained strong throughout Japanese history. Along with Buddhism, which came to Japan in the sixth century A.D., came the Chinese system of writing and its literary tradition. So, too, came Confucianism, its respect for learning, the Confucian classics, and its philosophical traditions. Among other things, the Confucian heritage emphasized respectful and benevolent hierarchical relationships, harmonious social relations, and morality. Chinese ideas and systems were modified to suit Japanese circumstances and ideals, and were interwoven with Japanese philosophical and literary traditions.

As the European nations began to expand their empires to Asia, Japan experienced an intense period of contact with the Western world from 1540 to 1640. Japan's traditional focus on the Asian continent was broadened to include commerce with Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England, the great seafaring trade and colonial powers of the age. Concurrently, Japan was in the final throes of a period of civil wars, and the Japanese were quick to acquire and exploit Western weapons and other new technology for internal purposes. Jesuit missionaries, who arrived with the Portuguese traders, were active printers. [1] Besides religious materials, they also published Japanese dictionaries, grammars, and textbooks for use in church schools and helped the Japanese add European scripts to their printing capability. Some Japanese traveled to Europe in this era. There was even a noteworthy mission to the Vatican. [2]

In 1603, after unifying the country, the Tokugawa family established a government headed by the shogun (military ruler). Four decades later, to consolidate power further, the shogun banned Christianity, prohibited virtually all foreign trade and contact, and closed Japan to the outside world. The nation then entered a period of isolation and relative domestic tranquility, which was to last for 200 years.

Education was very important for the warrior samurai, the most powerful class in Japanese feudal society. The samurai functioned as government administrators during this period. The curriculum for the samurai was based on both military and literary studies The literature was primarily Confucian classics, large portions of which were memorized and recited. Study of the martial arts consisted of swordsmanship and military tactics.

Commoner education was generally more practically oriented. It centered around providing basic training in reading, writing, and arithmetic, emphasizing the use of the abacus and calligraphy. Much of this education was conducted in so-called temple schools (terakoya). It is estimated that by the end of the Tokugawa period there may have been more than 14,000 such schools in Japan. [3] They were often one-room private schools, usually with one teacher and a group of students of mixed ages and abilities. Teaching techniques included reading from various textbooks, as well as memorizing and repeatedly copying Chinese characters and Japanese script.

From the 1790's on, Japan began once again to have contacts with other nations and felt renewed foreign pressures to open the doors to the outside world. By 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived requesting that Japan establish formal diplomatic and trade relations with the United States, Japan was neither ignorant of world affairs nor inexperienced in dealing with other nations.

At the start of the Tokugawa period, reading and writing were largely the province of the priesthood and the nobility. Most of the population was illiterate. By the end of the era, however, there had been such a dramatic growth in education that the level of schooling and literacy compared favorably with that of England and France. [4]According to the best estimates, by the end of the Tokugawa period almost all of the children of the court nobility and the governing samurai had some school experience, and probably 40 to 50 percent of commoner boys and 10 to 15 percent of girls of school age received some schooling.[5] Under subsequent Meiji leadership, this foundation would facilitate Japan's rapid transition from feudal country to modern nation within a relatively short span of time.

Meiji period (1868-1912) to World War II

In 1868, after a decade of bitter internal discord, the Tokugawa government was overturned by a loose alliance of internal opponents who restored political power to the Emperor. The new leadership rapidly set Japan on a modernization course. They began to study not only the nature of Western society, but Western education methods as well.

The Meiji leaders realized from the outset that education had a major role to play in nation building and modernization. The government consciously set out to create a public education system that would help Japan catch up to the West. Missions were sent abroad to study the education systems of leading Western countries. In due course, Western advisors were invited to Japan to help devise new approaches for Japanese education.

While the new system built atop the education base laid down in the Tokugawa period, it was quite different from the old. Public schooling was systematically introduced throughout the country. It was open to girls as well as boys and to lower as well as upper classes. The new system endeavored to tap all the nation's human resources in support of national objectives.

Ronald Anderson briefly summarizes the resulting evolution to World War II:

The Meiji leaders...borrowed selectively from the West, leaning primarily on the United States as a model for the initial modern school system. After almost a decade of American influence, however, Confucian sources were once again consulted for educational guidance and Germany was found to be a model more congenial to their own traditions and goals. They codified a nationalist educational philosophy in 1890 in the famed Imperial Rescript on Education, which was the basis for Japan's ideology until 1945. The Imperial Rescript stressed Confucian precepts, particularly those concerning the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the state, and the pursuit of learning and morality. Besides the exposure to an egalitarian American influence in the first decade of the Meiji period, Japan experienced a second transmission of democratic American educational influence in the so-called "liberal 1920's" when the philosophy of John Dewey and the progressive education movements became popular. Though widely accepted at normal schools and the elementary level, this approach was suppressed by the militarists when they rose to power in the late 1930's. During World War II, education was characterized by authoritarianism, indoctrination, and thought control. [6]

By the end of the war Japanese education was devastated. Students were not attending school with any regularity, if at all, and many school buildings had been destroyed. With defeat came the bankruptcy of much of prewar thought. A new wave of foreign ideas was introduced during the postwar military occupation period.

Postwar era

Occupation policymakers were determined to democratize Japan. The United States Education Mission, which arrived in 1946, believed that a complete reform of Japanese education was necessary to help achieve this objective. The Mission made a number of recommendations for major changes in the Japanese education system along American lines. Some of the resulting changes included the institution of the 6-3-3 grade structure; the revision of curriculum and textbooks, including the abolition of moral education courses (which had become highly nationalistic in the decade leading to the war); reforms in the writing system; the establishment of coeducation; the introduction of university-based teacher education; and support for equal access to higher education. There was also an attempt to transform the centralized prewar system into a decentralized system based on the American model with elected local school boards.

After the restoration of full national sovereignty in 1952, Japan immediately began to modify some of the education changes introduced during the Occupation period. These modifications more clearly reflected Japanese ideas about education and educational structure. The Ministry of Education regained a great deal of power. School boards reverted to being appointed, rather than elected. A moral education course was reinstituted in modified form, despite substantial initial concern that it would lead to a reintroduction of prewar nationalism into the schools.

By the 1960's, postwar recovery and accelerating economic growth brought increased demands on the education system. In addition, there were strong disagreements between the government and the teachers' union. This was also a period of great turbulence in higher education. All this fueled confrontation and debate about education reform. Some aspects of Japan's current reform movement can be traced back to the late 1960's.

The Japanese education system has grown rapidly since 1960. According to Morikazu Ushiogi, from 1960 to 1982 the proportion of the high school age group enrolled in high schools increased from about 58 percent to 94 percent, while the proportion of those of college age enrolled in higher education institutions increased from about 10 percent to 36 percent. [7]

Today's system still reflects the long-standing cultural and philosophical ideas that learning and education are esteemed and are to be pursued seriously, and that moral and character development remain intimately related to education. A meritocratic legacy stemming from the Meiji period endures, as does a centralized education infrastructure and an orientation toward viewing education in the service of national development as well as of personal benefit. The interest remains in investigating alternative education models abroad, as does a continuing capability to adapt foreign ideas and methods to Japanese traditions.

Some Cultural Foundations
Japanese education is a powerful instrument of cultural continuity and national policy. The explicit and implicit content of the school curriculum and the manner in which teaching and learning are accomplished impart the attitudes, knowledge, sensitivities, and skills expected of emerging citizens of Japanese society. These lessons are further reinforced in the context of family and society.

Linguistically, racially, and ethnically, Japan is a comparatively homogeneous nation with a strong sense of cultural identity and national unity. But Japanese society is not monolithic, and there is considerable individuality. There are also finely calibrated distinctions in status based on age, gender, employment, and social and educational background.

Despite these differences, however, the Japanese prefer to define themselves in a manner which emphasizes their core of commonly held beliefs and values. While popular culture and lifestyles have undergone some dramatic changes since World War II, there remains a high degree of public consensus regarding societal values, appropriate standards of behavior, and the importance and goals of education.

Importance and purposes of education

The origins of the Japanese commitment to education lie in the Confucian and Buddhist heritage in which great respect is accorded learning and educational endeavor as means to personal and societal improvement. Today, there is a clear consensus that education is essential for both individual and national development and that it requires active, sustained commitment of energy and resources at all levels of society. Parents and children take education seriously because success in school is a crucial determinant of economic and social status in adult life. Government policymakers and business leaders view the content and quality of public education as central to national cohesion, economic development, and international relations.

To the Japanese, education has always had important goals in addition to acquisition of academic knowledge, intellectual growth, or vocational skills. Moral education and character development are also among the central concerns. There is a strong consensus that schools have the obligation and authority to impart fundamental Japanese values as the foundation of proper moral attitudes and personal habits.

Respect for society and the established order, prizing group goals above individual interests, diligence, self-criticism, and well-organized and disciplined study and work habits are all traits, which are believed to be amenable to instruction. The child's learning experiences at each level from preschool through 12th grade reinforce their acquisition. Japanese teachers believe that the proper development of these values, attitudes, and habits is fundamental to success in the classroom as well as in adult life.

Harmonious relations and central role of the group

Japanese society places a high value on harmony in interpersonal relations and the ability to cooperate with others. The Japanese believe that being a member of a well-organized and tightly knit group that works hard toward common goals is a natural and pleasurable human experience. Schools reflect this cultural priority. Classroom activities are structured to encourage or require participation in group activities, to emphasize the responsibility of individual students to the class as a group and the school as a whole, and to develop group loyalty.

Particularly in elementary school, classes are organized into small groups, which are the basic units of instruction, discipline, and other activities. Teachers attempt to foster group cohesion and a strong group spirit by avoiding overt recognition of differences in individual ability and minimizing one-against-one competition. Daily life in a Japanese classroom requires considerable mutual assistance and adaptation of individual views and interests to group goals and standards of behavior. The heavy emphasis on group activities and social consensus results in considerable conformity in behavior. There is a strong tradition of viewing conformity and group orientation as demonstrations of moral character.

To most Westerners, a high degree of behavioral conformity is typically associated with top-down control. However, Japanese teachers are not typically authoritarian nor is harshness a characteristic of classroom life in Japan. Instead, the cultural emphasis on harmony and hard work requires that each individual within the system be a willing contributor to the group effort. Group leadership, Japanese style, orchestrates the membersí motivations and expectations so that order and discipline, both in the classroom and the larger society, are natural outgrowths of achieving a high degree of individual identification with group goals.

Hard work, diligence, and perseverance

The Japanese believe that hard work, diligence, and perseverance yield success in education as well as in other aspects of life. A certain amount of difficulty and hardship is believed to strengthen students' character and their resolve to do their best in learning and other important endeavors.

The amount of time and effort spent in study are believed to be more important than intelligence in determining educational outcomes. Most Japanese parents and educators are unshakably optimistic that virtually all children have the potential to master the challenging academic curriculum, provided they work hard and long enough. Some teachers and students are less sanguine. The educational results achieved by most Japanese students in international comparisons provide considerable support for the beliefs and expectations of the majority, particularly in light of the fact that there is no credible evidence that Japanese children have a higher level of native intelligence than, for example, American children.

A recent comparative study by Robert Hess and others provides interesting confirmation of the Japanese belief in the efficacy of effort:

In Japan, poor performance in mathematics was attributed to lack of effort; in the United States, explanations were more evenly divided among ability, effort, and training at school. Japanese mothers were less likely to blame training at school as a cause of low achievement in mathematics...Their children generally shared this view of things. [8]

Parents and teachers encourage regular study habits from the 1st grade on. A careful, reflective approach which achieves accuracy and precision rather than speed or intuitive insight is emphasized, particularly during the early years. Repetition and memorization continue to be important in the learning process, particularly in preparation for the arduous and important high school and college entrance examinations.


The cultural emphasis on student effort and diligence is balanced by a recognition of the important responsibility borne by teachers, parents, and schools to "awaken the desire to try." Japanese teachers do not believe that motivation is primarily a matter of luck, family background, or personality traits. They believe that the desire to learn--like character itself--is something which can be shaped by teachers and influenced through the school environment. Students are unceasingly taught and urged to "do their best," in groups and as individuals.

A major method of motivating students is the encouragement of group activities, which are believed to be more enjoyable for students than solitary endeavor. Motivation through group activity is accomplished by promoting a strong sense of shared identity and by allowing individuals opportunity to influence group goals and activities. Wearing school uniforms, rotating student monitors, and planning and staging class and school activities all contribute to the process.

Particularly at the secondary level, entrance examinations provide special motivation for study. Students know that their scores on high school and university entrance examinations will strongly influence their future life path. Parents reinforce this concern by urging their children to study hard, by providing a home environment conducive to study, and by financing extra lessons and tutorial assistance.


Japanese history and cultural values permeate Japanese education. The heritage is reflected in the national consensus on the importance of education, its role in character development, and the willingness of both parents and children to sustain effort and sacrifice year after year to achieve success in school. It helps form the invisible foundation of the contemporary education system.


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