Home Up Table 7





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Grades 1-6

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Instruction in letters and numbers and other prereading skills is absent from the formal curriculum guidelines set forth by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Welfare. 


Home, Family, and Pre-Elementary Education
Formal pre-elementary education
Reference to table 7
Teachers and school environment
Nonformal early education
Preschool and family
Pressures on pre-elementary education

Home, Family, and Pre-Elementary Education
Japanese families are stable. Divorce rates have increased since the 1960's, but remain relatively low. In 1980 the number of divorces was 1.2 per thousand people, while the comparable figure for the United States was 5.2 per thousand. [1] Just 6 percent of all Japanese families are headed by a single parent. [2]

Roughly half of all households in Japan are made up of a two-parent family and children. This typical family unit is smaller and more urban than that of a generation or two ago. More than half the population now lives in large urban areas, and only one family in six includes three generations. [3]

Most homes, apartments, and condominiums are smaller than their American counterparts because of the high cost of urban land. For the most part, residences are comparably modern and are filled with common consumer products. Most Japanese children grow up taking television and the latest toys and gadgets for granted.

There is a strong consensus regarding roles and the appropriate division of labor within the family. A man's primary focus is the workplace, which often includes extensive work related socializing with male colleagues during the evening hours. In contrast, a woman's primary focus is her home and family, with particular attention to the rearing of children. The family-centered role of women is reinforced by their relative lack of long-term career opportunities outside the home.

While most Japanese subscribe to the view that a woman's place is in the home and that work should not interfere with her primary responsibilities to children and husband, women nevertheless make up almost 40 percent of the labor force. More than half of these women are married. [4] Many mothers with small children work only part-time so they can be at home when their children are not in school. The extra income generated by mothers working outside of the home is often used to help meet the cost of their children's education. [5]

Spouses generally agree about their respective parental roles and share a belief that the children are at the center of their marriage. Thus, the education of children becomes one of the most important family functions.

In earlier times, Japanese fathers were regarded as severe and as having great authority. Indeed, there is an old Japanese saying that there are four things to be feared in life--earthquakes, thunder, fire, and fathers. Mothers may indicate to children that father will discipline them if they do not behave, but it appears that the father's authority in childrearing has decreased over the past generation.

In many white collar families, the father is a proverbial "guest" in his own house, returning home most evenings after the children have gone to bed. Although fathers provide children with certain role models and many take an active interest in education matters, the task of attending to the child's upbringing and education is usually left to the mother. Mothers take that responsibility seriously. Research indicates that Japanese mothers place the subject of childrearing at the top of their worry list. [6]

Mothers and their children are especially close. Japanese mothers seldom confront their preschool children. Rather, they attempt to appease the child and foster an intimate, dependent relationship. The purpose of this approach is to get the child to comply willingly with the mother's wishes and to shape behavior gradually over the long term. Another goal of early training is to instill in the child a deep sense of responsibility to the mother and family. This becomes an important factor in developing motivation for school achievement in Japan.

The Japanese believe that the home should be a relaxed place where children are free of constricting requirements for emotional control and good behavior expected in formal social situations. Early childhood training includes attention to manners and proper social behavior required outside of the home, but there is little actual exposure to group situations beyond the family until the preschool experience.

Much of a mother's sense of personal accomplishment is tied to the educational achievements of her children, and she expends great effort helping them. In addition, there is considerable peer pressure on the mother. The community's perception of a woman's success as a mother depends in large part on how well her children do in school.

Some Japanese mothers have gained a reputation for extraordinary concern and involvement with their children's education. Stories about overzealous mothers abound. In part, this phenomenon may stem from the sharply defined role distinction between spouses. Indeed, some Japanese note that fathers should shoulder a fair share of the blame for these maternal excesses, since the father's typical preoccupation with matters outside the home forces the mother to bear near total responsibility for managing the education of the children. [7]

Formal pre-elementary education

The initial transition from indulgence at home to the institutional demands of formal education constitutes a radical change in environment for the Japanese child. The difficulties are resolved for most children through some form of preschool experience, wherein the child is socialized in the ways of a group. The transition from the more or less self-centered focus of home life to the shared needs and group responsibilities of school life occurs through the socially oriented preschool experience. [8]

Japanese parents are strongly committed to early education, though pre-elementary education in Japan is not a part of compulsory education nor is it linked, like American kindergartens, to the formal school structure. Virtually all Japanese pre-elementary education takes place in one of two types of institutions: preschools and daycare centers. Preschools (yochien, often translated as "kindergartens"), which operate under Monbusho supervision, enroll children primarily between ages 3 and 5. They are in session approximately 5 hours per day. Daycare centers (hoikuen, sometimes translated as "nursery schools"), established by the Ministry of Welfare, are primarily for the children of working mothers. They accept children from infancy through age 5 and are in session 8 hours per day. In most other respects the two types of institutions are similar in physical facilities, curricula, teaching styles, and classroom activities.

A very high percentage of Japanese children are enrolled in pre-elementary education. Forty percent of all 3-year-olds and 92 percent of all 4- and 5-year-olds attend either preschools or daycare centers table 7. Japanese parents rarely withdraw their children once they are enrolled.

Both types of pre-elementary institutions require tuition. In the case of daycare centers, parents are assessed charges in accordance with their income. In addition to income from tuition, pre-elementary institutions receive subsidies from all three levels of government in varying amounts.

Teachers and school environment

 Japanese preschools are staffed by licensed professional teachers. Virtually all are women under the age of 25 who have graduated from a junior college. Their preparation includes training in teaching as well as in relevant subject areas. The former includes such topics as principles of education, child psychology, and practice teaching, and the latter such things as music, physical education, and the arts. Although serious and enthusiastic about their work, many women leave preschool teaching after marriage in order to raise children of their own.

During most of the day, Japanese preschools and daycare centers are relaxed, boisterous places. Parents and teachers prize high spirits in their preschool children, and the yard and building usually resound with enthusiastic voices and great activity.

Preschool classes are large by American standards, averaging 30 students (and just one teacher) per class. [9] This large class size is preferred by many Japanese teachers who believe that it gives children an opportunity to learn to interact in a group and generates more enthusiasm for the activities. Teachers refrain from overt direction of group activities, preferring to encourage the class to learn to function as a group. [10]

Teacher strategies for gaining compliance from the child and for inducing proper behavior have considerable similarity to maternal strategies and techniques. That is, they emphasize persuading the child to understand and comply willingly with demands for particular behavior rather than forcing the child to obey.

Teachers do not rush to intervene or correct occasional misbehavior. They encourage other students to become involved in solving problems. [11] Working through the group to resolve individual behavioral difficulties is believed to be an important part of the social curriculum, even at this early stage.


The curriculum of preschool is largely nonacademic. Interaction with other children is stressed over interaction with materials. Cooperative activities, games, freeplay, and chores form a substantial part of each day. Children are encouraged to accommodate themselves to the activities others around them. Great emphasis is placed on social development and training in proper habits and attitudes.

Instruction in letters and numbers and other prereading skills is absent from the formal curriculum guidelines set forth by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Welfare. These guidelines contain six content areas to be emphasized in classroom activities: health, social life, nature, language, music and crafts. [12] Most preschools and daycare centers follow these guidelines.

While explicit teaching of reading and writing skills is uncommon , children are encouraged to speak and comprehend language by becoming familiar with illustrated stories and picture books. Self-expression and the correct use of spoken language are emphasized.

In music, the children sing and become acquainted with simple musical instruments. In most preschools, each class spends several weeks preparing to stage a yearly show for parents and neighbors. Miniature operettas, complete with costume scenery, and piano accompaniment, are among the most popular presentations.

Traditional paper folding, or origami, is an important element of craft instruction. Even 3-year-olds are considered old enough to learn to make airplanes, boats, and cups. Older children learn more sophisticated folding techniques, producing penguins, cranes, and a wide variety of objects.

Throughout Japanese pre-elementary education, children learn to function as members of a group. Major goals are to interest children in school and their classmates and to provide an order orientation to school life. This focus on the group is carried throughout the school years and ultimately into adult life.

Although unrestrained voices and physical activity are encouraged during play periods, the day is interspersed with brief periods of solemn ritual when the entire class learns to stand quietly with attention focused on the teacher. Children learn to distinguish among the various levels of order and discipline appropriate at different times during the school day.

Japanese pre-schools thus provide important preparation in the habits and routines of elementary school life. Children learn to be orderly and neat, to manage their personal school supplies, to take care of their personal needs, and to wear school badges, hats, or uniforms according to school custom.

Nonformal early education

Preschool and daycare institutions are not the only sources of pre-elementary education in Japan. Children often attend enrichment lessons in addition to preschool. Swimming, gymnastics, and piano lessons are popular. Mothers believe that these lessons provide enjoyable opportunities for their sons and daughters to be with other children and to participate in physical exercise.

In comparison with typical preschool activities which emphasize social skills, the enrichment lessons provide a more structured and focused learning experience. The Suzuki method of music teaching is one example of these types of lessons. Such lessons are the forerunners of similar out-of-school enrichment classes and related remedial and cram courses which become more widespread during the later elementary and secondary school years.

Preschool and family

The close nature of the mother-child relationship and the strong cultural and parental commitment to education enable the mother to provide a strong foundation for the child's entry into elementary school.

During the preschool years, mothers provide informal learning opportunities such as drawing, making simple toys with paper, paste, and scissors, and various activities related to basic reading and counting skills. Most mothers encourage their child's natural interest in letters and numbers, although few undertake a concerted program of instruction in reading and writing. By answering questions, purchasing readily available children's magazines and activity books, and playing traditional letter recognition and phonetic children's games, mothers stimulate their children's interest in basic reading skills. This preschool home environment is largely responsible for the fact that many Japanese children enter the 1st grade already able to read and write the 48 basic Japanese phonetic symbols.

An important outgrowth of preschool and daycare experience is that Japanese mothers develop the habit of providing considerable assistance for their children in the schooling process. Japanese preschools require a large investment of maternal energy. Numerous articles such as book bags, lunch box wrappers, and the like must be handmade according to certain specifications. Each day the child must be personally taken to and from the school gate or bus stop, often on the back of mother's bike or motor scooter.

Mothers are also directly involved with the school in various ways. Each day the child carries a notebook back and forth between mother and teacher which is alternately inscribed with notes regarding the child's health, mood, and activities at home and during the preschool day. Usually twice a month there are PTA meetings or mothers' club meetings. There are also frequent meetings of committees of mothers working on various special projects for the school such as gardening and hot lunch preparation. With all of these additional school related responsibilities, enrolling a child in preschool has only a small time-saving effect for Japanese mothers.

Although daycare centers, which are designed for working mothers, require somewhat less intensive involvement, they also require considerable matemal participation.

In contrast to many preschools in the United States, Japanese parents never function as assistant teachers or aides in the classroom. Their role is to provide auxiliary support for the child's activities and visibly to demonstrate their support and interest. These parental--largely maternal--habits and attitudes will be maintained throughout the child's school career.

Pressures on pre-elementary education

Pre-elementary education in Japan is beginning to reflect the pressures of parental concern with academic achievement in the school years ahead. A growing minority of parents are concerned that the traditional nonacademic focus of the official preschool and daycare curriculum is insufficient. They worry that their children may not be able to keep up once they enter school. They see the pre-elementary years as crucial in giving their children an academic head start as well as helping them develop social skills. Thus, some preschools and daycare centers are beginning to provide instruction in basic reading and writing skills.

Another factor contributing to the gradual introduction of explicit instruction in pre-elementary education is increased competition among preschool and daycare centers to maintain enrollments. One successful way of developing a competitive edge is through providing some instruction in recognizing letters and numbers. Other preschools create distinctive programs through weekly instruction in art, judo, calligraphy, or other special subjects.

This trend toward introduction of academic instruction in preschools is not regarded in an entirely favorable light by elementary school officials and social commentators. Emphasis on academic training at this stage is seen as interfering with proper development of children's social skills and daily habits. Further, it is believed that having some children enter 1st grade with academic skills while most have not had a comparable opportunity to acquire them causes teachers difficulties that could be avoided if the entire group entered 1st grade with no previous academic instruction.

Paradoxically, the children who have had the advantage of preschool instruction sometimes endure difficulties of their own. Since Japanese elementary schools do not separate students according to ability, the better prepared students often suffer some months of boredom waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.

The combination of more instruction in basic reading and writing skills at home, virtually universal participation in preschool education, and growing enrollments in enrichment lessons, have created an increasing discrepancy between the official guidelines for pre-elementary education and the actual experience and capability Japanese children bring to the 1st grade.

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