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Organization and staff
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Problem areas
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. [1]

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 55. [2]

About one-third of lower secondary school teachers are women. [3] Three-quarters of the teachers at this level have bachelor's degrees, while only 1 percent have graduate degrees. [4] The average number of teaching hours per week is about 22. [5] Average class size is 36 students. [6]

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 secondary level.)

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 educational radio. [7]

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 table C.

Table C. Required Weekly Class Periods per Subject by Grade Level.*


First Year
(Grade 7)

Second Year
(Grade 8)

Third Year
(Grade 9)

Japanese language
Social studies
Fine arts
Health and physical education
Industrial arts or
Moral education
Special activities
Elective (usually English)**
Additional elective hour***





* Each class period is 50 minutes long.

** 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. [8]

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 geometry.

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. [9]

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 include answers. [10]

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. [11] 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. [12]

Like other subjects, mathematics is taught in a well-organized systematic fashion. Let's look at a typical lesson: [13]

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 and bow.

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 situations.

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 usually available.

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. [14]


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. [15]

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. [16]

Problem areas

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. [17]

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. [18]

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. [19]

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 afford them." [20] 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. [21]

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 taking.

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 record.

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. [22]

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. [23]

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. [24]

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." [25] 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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