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Reference to Table 1
Reference to Table 2
Reference to Table 3
Compulsory education
Upper secondary and higher education
Enrollment and advancement rates
Reference to Table 4
Reference to Table 5
Governance and administration
School year
Other dimensions of education in Japan

Japan's education system today has its legal basis in the post-world War II Japanese Constitution and national laws. The 1947 Constitution provides for free compulsory education for all children "correspondent to their ability." Two laws passed in 1947, the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law, provide the remainder of the basic legal foundation for the education system.

The Fundamental Law of Education clarifies the aim of education and establishes national policy on such core issues as free compulsory education, equality of opportunity, and coeducation. It sets forth the central importance of education in its opening lines:

Having established the Constitution of Japan, we have shown our resolution to contribute to the peace of the world and welfare of humanity by building a democratic and cultural state. The realization of this ideal shall depend fundamentally on the power of education. [1]

The School Education Law provides general regulations for the operation of the system at all education levels. In addition to provisions on establishment, staffing, and operation of all types and levels of schools, the law emphasizes the importance of creating moral and capable members of society.

Figure 1: Structure of the Education System

The structure of the official education system is summarized in figure 1. Its elementary and secondary portion is organized along the lines of the common American 6-3-3 model. The total structure includes the following types or levels of institutions:

preschools (yochien) and daycare centers (hoikuen).
6-year elementary schools (shogakko),
3-year lower secondary schools (sometimes called middle school, chugakko)--corresponding to junior high school in the United States,
3-year upper secondary schools (sometimes called high school, kotogakko)--corresponding to senior high in the United States,
schools for the handicapped (various terms are used depending on the type of school),
4-year colleges and universities (daigaku), many of which also have graduate programs,
2-year junior colleges (tanki daigaku),
technical colleges (koto senmon gakko) offering 5- and 5 1/2 year technical programs, which span the upper secondary and 2-year college levels,
special training schools (senshu gakko) offering vocational training at both the upper secondary and 2-year college level, and
miscellaneous schools (kakushu gakko) offering practical or vocational courses. (Note: This is the most variable institutional category, embracing diverse subjects for varying lengths of time at the upper secondary or postsecondary levels.)

Japan has both public and private schools at each level of education. There are few private schools for the 9 compulsory grades, but the private sector becomes increasingly significant at the upper secondary and postsecondary levels. Public schools fall into two categories: national schools, established and funded by the national government, and local public schools, established by either the prefectural or municipal government and funded by all three levels of government.

Table 1 shows the total number of education institutions of each type by administrative category: national public, local public (prefectural and municipal), and private. Table 2 shows total enrollment by type of school and percentage distribution by administrative category. Table 3 shows enrollment by type of school and gender.

Compulsory education

Compulsory education begins at age 6 and lasts 9 years, encompassing the 6-year elementary and 3-year lower secondary school period. It is characterized by a high degree of uniformity and equality of opportunity. Curriculum standards are specified in a national Course of Study, and textbooks are government approved. Generally speaking, students throughout the country in the same grade study essentially the same material at approximately the same time and pace. Schools are similar in facilities, standards, and teaching methodology. In short, the same basic education is provided for all for the first 9 years.

During the compulsory school years Japanese education assiduously avoids making distinctions between students on the basis of ability or achievement. There are no separate tracks, ability groupings, remedial programs, or student electives. Promotion from grade to grade is virtually automatic as long as the student is attending classes. Students are almost never retained in grade or skipped ahead.

Compulsory education for blind and deaf children began in 1948. Coverage was broadened in 1979 to include other categories in special education. Students with major disabilities are educated in special schools, almost all of them public. Students with minor disabilities are educated in regular schools, either via mainstreaming or in special classes. In 1984 approximately half of the elementary schools provided special classes.

Upper secondary and higher education

Educational uniformity diminishes beyond compulsory schooling, and there is some ability grouping at the upper secondary level. There are growing costs for parents at the senior high school level and beyond and restricted enrollment opportunities in public higher education.

According to public perception, each institution at the upper secondary and higher education levels fits into a hierarchy. Which high school a student attends is determined by academic achievement confirmed by an entrance examination. University admission is determined largely by highly competitive examinations open to all applicants nationwide. These examinations are famously rigorous, and a student's performance on them has a heavy impact on future social and economic status. In order to surmount the examination hurdle, a substantial proportion of students undertake remedial education, supplementary instruction, or special examination preparation assistance in private education programs.

Enrollment and advancement rates

Student participation rates are high and dropout rates low at all stages. Practically all--over 99 percent--of the children of compulsory school age are enrolled in school. Although pre-elementary and upper secondary schools are neither compulsory nor free of charge, more than 90 percent of Japanese children in the respective age groups attend them. After compulsory education in the 9th grade, over 94 percent of the students go on to full-time study in one or another form of upper secondary education and another 2 percent continue part-time Table 4. The number of upper secondary school graduates in 1984 was 88 percent of the number of lower secondary graduates in 1981. [2] Over 29 percent of high school graduates enter a university ( 18 percent) or junior college (11 percent). Another 25 percent enter a vocational education program of one sort or another Table 5). The great majority of those who enter these programs graduate.

Governance and administration [3]

Japan has a three-tiered structure for governing and administering education with national, prefectural, and municipal components, all under the general supervision of national authority, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, commonly shortened to Ministry of Education (Monbusho). The relationships among the various components are summarized in figure 2.

Figure 2: Operating Relationships of National Educational Agencies

Education policymaking at all three levels is systematized and consensual. At the national level, Monbusho draws on the advice and recommendations of 13 standing advisory councils, members of which are appointed by the minister from a broad spectrum of specialists outside the ministry. The Central Council for Education is the most powerful of the group and is concerned with fundamental policy issues. Its members are appointed by the minister with the consent of the cabinet.

The Minister of Education is appointed by the Prime Minister, who is an elected member of the Diet (the popularly elected national legislature). Seldom does an Education Minister serve for more than a year or two, since cabinet posts are frequently shifted under Japan's parliamentary system.

Monbusho is involved with the Cabinet and the Diet in developing budget estimates and drafting national legislation for education in Japan. In addition to its education responsibilities, Monbusho has overall responsibility for administering government services for science and culture, including all national museums and national art galleries and some national research institutes. The range of its functions is illustrated in figure 3.

Figure 3: Organization of Monbusho

The Ministry of Education wields a considerable measure of national authority over the entire official system of education, particularly at the elementary and secondary school levels, by:

prescribing curricula, standards, and requirements;
approving textbooks;
providing guidance and financial assistance to the prefectures and municipalities;
authorizing the establishment of colleges and universities;
operating national education institutions, primarily universities, junior colleges and technical colleges;
providing general supervision of private institutions of higher education;
regulating establishment of private schools;
investigating and issuing directives to local boards of education for corrective action, as occasion may demand.

Each of the 47 prefectures has a 5-member board of education appointed by the governor with the consent of the prefectural assembly. Prefectural boards of education are responsible for:

appointing the prefectural superintendent of education (with the approval of Monbusho);
operating schools established by prefectures, primarily upper secondary schools;
licensing teachers and, with municipal recommendation, making appointments to the various municipal elementary and lower secondary schools;
providing advice and financial assistance to municipalities on education matters.

The prefectural governor is responsible for operating prefectural postsecondary institutions and supervising the administration of private schools.

Each municipality has a 3- or 5-member municipal board of education, appointed by the mayor with the consent of the municipal assembly. These boards are responsible for:

operating municipal public elementary and lower secondary schools in their jurisdictions;
adopting textbooks for compulsory school use from Monbusho's approved list;
making recommendations to the prefectural boards of education on the appointment and dismissal of teachers.

The municipal superintendent of education is selected from among the board members with the consent of the prefectural board of education.

The mayor is responsible for operating municipal postsecondary institutions.


The cost of public education is shared by national, prefectural,and municipal governments, augmented at upper secondary and higher education levels by tuition from parents. Private institutions are established as nonprofit corporations which derive their income from student tuition and subsidies from national and local governments, sometimes augmented at the postsecondary level by contributions from business and industry.

The national government provides almost half of total public expenditures on education. [4] It funds the more than 600 "national" education institutions at all educational levels 
table 1
. It also provides subsidies for educational purposes to private institutions, prefectures, and municipalities. These include:

subsidies to prefectures to cover half the cost of salaries and allowances of educational personnel at compulsory schools and schools for the handicapped;
subsidies to prefectures and municipalities to cover half the cost of teaching equipment for public compulsory schools; and
subsidies to prefectures and municipalities to cover one-half or one-third of the cost of construction of public elementary and secondary schools.

The national government also makes local allocation tax grants to prefectures and municipalities in order to reduce financial inequalities among them, and a portion of these grants is used for education.

Prefectural governments provide funds for prefectural education institutions and services; salaries and allowances of teachers at municipal elementary, lower secondary, and other schools; and subsidies to municipal elementary and lower secondary schools.

School year

The Japanese school year begins in early April and is organized into trimesters that run from April to July, September to December, and January to March. The principal long vacation takes place from mid-July to the end of August. There are shorter vacation periods at other times. In higher education, the academic year has two semesters.

The Japanese elementary and secondary school year is usually reported as being 240 days long, including Saturdays. This figure is somewhat misleading. Monbusho requires a minimum of 210 days of instruction, including a half day on Saturdays. Local boards can add more time at their discretion. They commonly specify 240 days. This permits 30 days for such school activities as field trips, Sports Day, cultural festivals, and graduation ceremonies. Adjusting for the half days on Saturdays, the Japanese school year contains the full-time equivalent of about 195 days of classroom instruction. The average length of the school year in the United States is 180 days, and this total usually contains some days of activities comparable to those for which the Japanese local boards add extra days.

On a cumulative basis this difference means that by the time of high school graduation, Japanese students have been in school for at least the equivalent of one American school year longer than students in the United States. The difference in time devoted to education is actually greater because of the more effective use that Japanese teachers make of time in school, the larger amount of time Japanese students spend in study outside of school, and the number of days in the American school year given over to nonacademic pursuits.

The 5 1/2-day school week, the shorter summer vacation, and the additional time spent in study outside of school, in homework, tutoring, or juku all combine to make education a continuing aspect of Japanese children's lives, somewhat analogous to a full-time job for adults.

Other dimensions of education in Japan

Japan is a learning society of formidable dimensions. The strong commitment to education and self-improvement extends beyond the official school system through a variety of institutions, programs, and opportunities. For example, there is a vast publishing industry which provides a wide range of general reading and education material for the highly literate Japanese public. The several national newspapers which report in depth on national and international affairs have a combined morning and evening daily circulation of more than 40 million. [5] High quality educational television is extensively developed and widely available. Other educational opportunities are found in diverse places, including cultural centers, department store clubs, and correspondence schools.

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