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What lessons might we draw for ourselves from a close look at Japanese education?  It is scarcely a novel query. Japan, after all, has increasingly become a reference point or gauge by which Americans appraise our own education system.

At the same time, many American educators have tended to shun the "lessons" of Japanese education. "Their culture is so different," we are told, or "their society is so homogeneous," that nothing about their education enterprise could possibly be germane to the American experience. This stance seems somewhat peculiar for American educators, who generally want the lessons children learn in our schools to yield deep understanding and appreciation of other peoples and cultures. So it strikes me as odd that many educators have characterized Japanese education as interesting, perhaps in its own terms impressive, but fundamentally irrelevant to their lives and work.

Why should we Americans seek to distill lessons for ourselves from the experience of Japanese education? For two main reasons, the first practical, the second more idealistic.

Japanese education works. It is not perfect, but it has been demonstrably successful in providing modern Japan with a powerfully competitive economy, a broadly literate population, a stable democratic government, a civilization in which there is relatively little crime or violence, and a functional society wherein the basic technological infrastructure is sound and reliable. One may not attribute these accomplishments entirely to the education system, but it would be folly to deny that the education system has strongly reinforced them.

We Americans, being a pragmatic people, would therefore be well-advised to learn what we can from Japanese education if only because of its manifest success. But there is a more abstract reason, too: It is the American belief in the value of universal education that the Japanese have so successfully put into practice, and the American quandary over "equality" and "excellence" that the Japanese seem rather satisfactorily to have resolved. Our educational ideals are better realized on a large scale in Japan than observers have tended to realize.

This is not, to be sure, entirely coincidental. The structures, policies and practices of modern Japanese education have been influenced in no small part by that nation's remarkable knack for borrowing an idea and then adapting it, working it out in detail, and executing it with thoroughness and finesse in the Japanese context. And at least a few of the ideas and approaches used in education in Japan can be traced to American influence four decades ago.

What lessons, then, do I draw from Japanese education that American educators and policymakers may wish to consider? Not, let me be clear, that we should try to mimic specific practices or imitate particular arrangements. We would not, for example, want to emulate the basic organizational framework of Japanese education that relies heavily on direction and control from the central government.

Instead, we should look for principles, emphases and relationships in Japanese education that are compatible with American values, indeed that tend to embody American values (as well as many findings of education research), to see how we might borrow and adapt them for ourselves.

Let me offer a dozen such principles that I glean from the foregoing pages as well as from other accounts of Japanese education. I would note that none of these findings, conclusions, and impressions is uniquely the property of Japan. Rather, they are uncommonly well-displayed within modern Japanese education. Where appropriate, I have noted some agreements between Japanese practice and our own research findings.

1. Parental engagement with the education of their children. from infancy through high school. makes a big difference in how much and how well children learn. As we said in What Works, "parents are their children's first and most influential teachers." It seems to me that Japanese families have melded parenting and formal education in commendable fashion--and in many cases have accomplished this with only one parent "on the scene" much of the time. Yet it does not seem that Japanese families (or preschools and daycare centers) "hurry" young children into academic work. Instead, they do their best to equip the youngster with attitudes and habits that will ill stand him in good stead when formal schooling begins. And once it does, the parent stays in touch with the teachers, supervises the homework, arranges extra instructional help if needed, and buttresses the child's motivation to do well in school and beyond. Many American parents also do these things. More should.

2. Schools are clear about their purposes--and children and parents are, too. Though Japanese schools attend to character formation, physical health, and good behavior, and offer a wide variety of teams, clubs and other extracurricular activities, they nonetheless seem to remain well-focused on their central functions. They have not turned into societal multiservice centers, nor are they buffeted by pedagogical and curricular fads. They know their mission and role and, while these are not exclusively "cognitive," they are the objects of sustained and purposeful effort by everyone associated with the schools. To borrow once more from What Works, a great many Japanese schools seem to embody these characteristics that research has ascribed to "effective" schools: "places where principals, teachers, students, and parents agree on the goals, methods and content of schooling. They are united in recognizing the importance of a coherent curriculum, public recognition for students who succeed, promoting a sense of school pride, and protecting school time for learning."

3. Motivation matters. There is a continuing emphasis in Japanese society, at least through the primary and secondary years, on awakening in students the "desire to try," the sense that significant rewards accompany school success, the conviction that progress can be made by practically anyone who tries hard enough, and the realization that adults genuinely care about one's performance.

4. Expectations and standards matter, too. Children learn more when more is expected of them. In What Works we cited research indicating that "Students tend to learn as little--or as much--as their teachers expect." The Japanese experience suggests that the expectations and standards of community and family powerfully influence the child, too. Leaving aside special schools and programs in the U.S., the Japanese generally seem to expect a level of performance that is closer to children's true intellectual capacities than Americans ordinarily do. More remarkably, they adhere to these standards for virtually all youngsters, never supposing that one or another category or subpopulation cannot accomplish as much as everybody else. These beliefs do not, to be sure, work perfectly for every single child, and the Japanese, we understand, are interested in some of our ways of assisting youngsters who have special needs, problems or gifts. But the Japanese also tend not to underestimate children's potential or be overly swayed by external characteristics. They elicit more from students because they have high standards for ordinary youngsters.

5. It is possible to deliver to virtually all children a comprehensive basic education that starts with the "3-R's" but also incorporates history, science, art and music, physical education, practical studies, and the beginning of foreign language study. This can be done through a balanced and integrated curriculum that is substantially the same for all youngsters during the period of compulsory attendance--and then allows limited choices and some specialization in the senior high school.

6. The school can and should do its part to transmit the shared and inherited culture to the next generation. A nation whose young people do not understand its history is ill-equipped to relate knowledgeably to other nations or to learn from experience--either its own or that of others. Moreover, a society whose people fail to become "culturally literate" will have increasing difficulty with internal communications, domestic tranquility, informed civic participation, and external relations.

Though my own intellectual convictions would not lead me to organize a social studies curriculum quite as the Japanese have, I admire the systematic and purposeful stance they have brought to the transmission of historical knowledge and cultural understanding through the schools.

7. Sound character, sturdy values and ethical behavior may not originate in school, but the formal education system can reinforce and nurture these qualities both through the regular curriculum and through the "implicit curriculum," as I termed it in First Lessons. This phrase refers to the way the school organizes and presents itself, how the adults in it conduct themselves, the standards that are set for behavior and integrity, the symbols and attitudes, the incentives, rewards, sanctions and ceremonies. Japanese schools designate certain hours for "moral education"--but the amount of attention they pay to children's character far exceeds the class time specifically reserved for such studies. Nor do teachers and principals (or parents and other adults) refrain from committing themselves to clear distinctions, or from indicating preferred courses of action, or imbuing youngsters with a deep sense of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. As Aristotle and William James both remind us, character is acquired through habit. And if children see teachers and principals as models of democratic sensibilities, they will tend to build the right kind of habits.

If Japanese schools do any one thing with greater care and persistence than other nations of whose education systems I have knowledge, it is to forge the kinds of habits that their society deems right.

8. The school and classroom environment should reflect the purposes to be achieved there. Japanese education here confirms both research and common sense; a well-ordered, and purposeful learning environment, including both formal discipline and a high level of individual self-discipline, is the kind of setting in which learning best occurs. Appropriate school behavior and effective study habits are instilled in Japanese youngsters from the first day of school--and prudently foreshadowed by much that occurs in home and preschool settings. Visitors to Japanese schools report being in the principal's office of a junior high school with the office door open and several hundred young adolescents not more than 50 yards away. Yet it is possible to converse in normal tones with no interruptions from the corridor. Remarkably, though. Japanese schools are not somber places, nor are their students fearful and inhibited. They laugh and play, are cheerful and enthusiastic, just like girls and boys around the world. But they seem to have learned what kinds of behavior are appropriate, where and when. So should our youngsters.

9. Ensuring that enough time is effectively devoted to learning, in school and out, is one of the most reliable means by which adults can help children acquire a good education. Here Japanese educators and parents seem to have worked out a three-part strategy. First, they assign so many days and hours to formal education that by the end of 12 grades a Japanese student has actually accumulated the equivalent of an entire American school year more instructional time than students the same age in the United States. Second, they minimize diversions and distractions in school so that little time is wasted during the day or in the class period. By ensuring good classroom discipline, and by assigning responsibility for routine procedures to the students themselves, the teacher is able to remain "on task" for nearly all of the allotted time. Third, youngsters do not stop learning when school ends. There is homework to be done, there are exams to he studied for and, for many boys and girls, parents provide for additional, unofficial instruction from various sources. Instead of tailoring standards to the student, Japanese education seems to vary the total learning time that a student puts in so as to enable him to achieve the goals that he and his parents and teachers have set.

10. Besides extracting the most learning from the time available, education needs to ensure that its other resources are deployed in accord with its priorities. The Japanese have put their money into a high quality teaching force and basic education materials, not into frills, large bureaucracies, lavish facilities, innumerable electives or platoons of specialists. Yet children learn--while in school--to play musical instruments, to read a second language, to read and write their own difficult language, in most schools even to swim! Though teachers are relatively well-paid, their classes are large--and the teaching year lasts nearly 12 months.

Japanese families incur a number of out-of-pocket expenses for education at every level-and they pay tuition for senior high school, even in public institutions. I do not suggest that we emulate that practice, but I do note that in both their private and public outlays for education, the Japanese strive to ensure that they are getting value for money.

11. Competent, dedicated teachers make for good schools--and a society that offers its teachers reasonable remuneration, respected status in the community, an orderly school environment, a substantial measure of colleagueship and responsibility, and opportunities to recharge their intellectual and professional batteries--such a society can attract a surfeit of eager, qualified people to the classroom, and can retain them in the teaching profession. It may be noted that, in most cases, the Japanese do not enter the teaching profession via colleges of education, nor is it necessary to do so in order to be knowledgeable about one's field and competent to transmit one's knowledge to young people. Remember: Japanese schools have more than five applicants for every classroom opening.

12. Youngsters who take responsibility--and are held accountable--for their educational achievement are apt to work hard, to persist, and in time to learn a lot. What we sometimes call the Protestant ethic is strong in Japanese education. There are clear rewards for success: short-term rewards in the respect of one's peers and praise from parents and teachers; mid-range rewards in gaining admission to the senior high school or college of one's choice; and more distant rewards in the worlds of work and adult society. Notwithstanding reports of "pressure"" on Japanese young people, their on-time high school graduation rate is considerably greater than our own, and their average level of skill and knowledge acquisition is higher than in any other "universal" education system I know.

There are aspects of Japanese education, perhaps especially at the college level, that do not impress me, that would not be appropriate in the American context, or that contravene other principles we value. Educational opportunities in Japan may not be especially responsive to children with special needs, for example. It is important to note, however, that Japan has embarked on an education reform movement of its own and that many discontents and criticisms have been voiced within that nation. It seems likely that changes are in the offing.

But it is not my place either to praise or to criticize Japanese education. Nor have I attempted to construct a comprehensive catalog of specific lessons or promising imports for the United States. The dozen "principles" sketched above may, however, be encouraging to Americans who even without benefit of detailed knowledge of Japanese education had adduced these or similar points from research, from experience, from history, from reason, or from common sense. The essential lesson for us to glean from our examination of Japanese education, after all, besides the intrinsic rewards of enhanced knowledge and understanding, is that much of what seems to work well for Japan in the field of education closely resembles what works best in the United States--and most likely elsewhere. Good education is good education.


Diet - The legislative branch of the Japanese government, comprising the House of Representatives (lower house) and the House of Councillors (upper house).

han--Small mixed-ability groups of four to six students assigned to sit and work together which cooperate in study, discipline, chores, and other classroom activities.

ijime--The intimidation and tormenting of individual students by others. Commonly translated as "bullying."

juku--Privately established schools which teach academic and nonacademic subjects. Academic juku offer tutorial, enrichment, remedial, and examination-preparatory classes which supplement regular school work. Most hold classes after school or on weekends.

Meiji period--The historical period from 1868 to 1912 during which Japan embarked on a program of industrialization and modernization.

Monbusho--The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, often shortened to Ministry of Education.

NHK--Nihon Hoso Kyokai, the Japanese National Public Broadcasting Service.

Nikkyoso--The Japan Teacher's Union, JTU.

Ochikobore--Students who have fallen seriously behind in their studies. Literally, those who have "fallen to the bottom of the system."

prefecture--One of 47 regional districts of the Japanese government, the level between the nation and the municipality.

ronin--Students who have failed the entrance examination to an institution of their choice and have chosen to spend an additional year or more in study to take the examination again. Originally used to mean "masterless samurai."

samurai--The hereditary class of warriors who served Japan's feudal lords from the 12th to the 19th centuries and also provided aristocratic leadership for the Japanese government, particularly during the Tokugawa period.

shido shuji--Experienced teachers on leave of absence from regular teaching duties who serve as inservice teacher trainers.

shogun--a military ruler and de facto head of the government during much of the 12th to 19th centuries.

Sohyo--General Council of Japanese Trade Unions.

tannin--The teacher in charge of a particular class of students, whose duties in lower secondary school combine those of homeroom teacher and counselor.

terakoya--small private schools, usually run by a single teacher, popular during the Tokugawa period.

Todai--Tokyo University

Tokugawa period--The historical period from 1603 to 1868. The period takes its name from the Tokugawa family, whose descendants held the office of shogun during that time.

yabiko--Upward extension of juku which specializes in preparing high school graduates for university entrance examinations, often through intensive full-time programs.

Japanese Terms for Different Types of Educational Institutions

yochien--preschool (sometimes translated kindergarten)

hoikuen--daycare center (sometimes translated nursery school)

shogakko--elementary school

chugakko--lower secondary school (sometimes translated as junior high school)

kotogakko--upper secondary school (sometimes translated as high school)

koto senmon gakko--technical college (offering a 5- or 5 1/2-year course, which spans the upper secondary and 2-year college levels)

daigaku--college or university

tanki daigaku--2-year junior college

senshu gakko--special training school, including:

koto senshu gakko--upper secondary special training school

senmon gakko--special training college (for graduates of upper secondary schools)

kakushu gakko--miscellaneous school (offering various courses at upper secondary or postsecondary level)

 Sources of Information: U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Commerce. OERI Research Team for the U.S. Study of Education in Japan

Robert Leestma, Director
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)

Nobuo Shimahara
(Associate Dean, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers
University; first year, full-time on leave of absence, then
part-time as consultant and senior advisor)

Robert L. August
(on loan from the Library of Congress)

Daniel P. Antonoplos
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)

Lawrence P. Grayson
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)

Tetsuo Okada
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)

Nevzer G. Stacey
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)

Consultants for Japanese Education Today:

Lois Peak
(Japan specialist)

Betty George
(Former comparative education specialist, U.S. Office of Education)

Clerical staff:

Carol Foley
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)
Charlene Medley
(OERI, U.S. Department of Education)


United States CULCON Education Subcommittee

The Subcommittee served as the Advisory Committee for the U.S. Study of Education in Japan. The current membership as augmented for the Study:

C. Ronald Kimberling, Co-chairman
Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education
U.S. Department of Education

Chester E. Finn, Jr., Co-chairman
Assistant Secretary for Educational Research and
Improvement and Counselor to the Secretary
U.S. Department of Education

William S. Anderson
Chairman, Executive Committee
NCR Corporation

Justin L. Bloom President,
Technology International, Inc.

Mary Jean Bowman
Professor Emeritus of Economics
University of Chicago

Betty Bullard
Director, International Education
College of Education
University of South Carolina

William G. Craig
President, Monterey Institute of International Studies

Denis P. Doyle
Hudson Institute

Eleanor H. Jorden
Professor, Cornell University and Visiting Professor of
Japanese Language and Culture
Williams College

Kenneth O. Michel
Vice President, Education and Training (Retired)
General Telephone and Electronics Corporation

Herbert Passin
Professor, East Asian Center
Columbia University

William F. Pierce
Executive Director
Council of Chief State School Officers

Billy R. Reagan
General Superintendent (Retired)
Houston Independent School District

Thomas Rohlen
Professor, Anthropology and International Strategic Institute
Stanford University

Herbert J. Walberg
Professor, College of Education
University of Illinois at Chicago

Kenneth D. Whitehead
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs
U.S. Department of Education

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