By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
The Japanese education system is modeled on and heavily influenced by its American counterpart. The Fundamental Law of Education, passed in 1947 under American occupation, introduced the 6+3+3+4 structure of Japanese education: six years of elementary education, three years at lower secondary school, three at upper secondary school followed by four years at university for those in the academic stream.
Japanese school children consistently achieve impressive results in international benchmarking tests such as the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is testimony to a high school system that enrolls over 97 percent of junior school students and graduates close to all of them. In the United States, by comparison, 88 percent of junior high school students go on to high school, from where only 70 percent graduate within four years*.
With approximately three million students enrolled at over 1,200 universities and junior colleges, Japan provides a wealth of opportunities for students wishing to pursue tertiary education. Yet despite these opportunities, the nation’s universities are widely considered to constitute the weakest component of the education system. For students, the battle lies in gaining admission to a prestigious school; once admitted, students typically breeze through the first three years of their undergraduate program and spend the final year job hunting.
Academic standards at the undergraduate level were addressed in a 1998 report titled “Universities at the Turn of the 21st Century: Plans for Reform.” Issued by the University Council, an advisory organ to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the report stresses the importance of stricter grading policies and limiting the number of credits undergraduates can earn each year. The 1998 report, however, addresses only a fraction of the issues now facing the education sector in Japan, with demographics and graduate education being at the top of the list.
Japan’s widely discussed demographic issues are epitomized, in the higher-education world, by a MEXT report estimating that by 2007 the number of high school graduates seeking admission to universities will be equal to the total number of places available (this was recently revised from an original estimate of 2009). This essentially means open enrollment to all but the most prestigious universities, which does not bode well for academic standards. The ministry is addressing the problems with a number of reform measures, which include plans for institutional mergers and closures, greater recruitment from abroad, greater institutional autonomy over finances and academics, and increased specialization.
Over the last decade the government has been pushing national universities, which enroll less than 25 percent of students but run 60 percent of the nation’s graduate programs, to increase research efforts in a bid to make them world-class centers of research, science and technology. Since April 2004 national universities have been given greater budgetary and administrative autonomy. In return, universities are now required to file structured six-year plans with MEXT detailing how they will improve their academic programs. Future government subsidies will then be weighted according to the performance achieved by each university in relation to the goals set out in its plan. These reform measures are designed to increase competition among universities, which in turn is designed to enhance academic and research standards at all institutions.
Changes are already beginning to take root at the graduate level, where training has traditionally focused on the academic rather than the practical, even in disciplines such as law and business. In April of last year, 68 new graduate law schools heavily influenced by the U.S. model opened at national and private universities as the core of a new system for educating and training lawyers. A new bar examination will be implemented in 2006 for the first graduates of these new schools (see below under University Higher Education for more details).
In 2004, there were 117,302 foreign students studying in Japan †. The vast majority of the foreign student body is comprised of Asian students, with almost 78,000 from China, 15,500 from South Korea and 4,100 from Taiwan. In addition there were 1,456 students from the United States.
In 2000, approximately 194,000 Japanese students studied abroad of whom 55 percent were in the United States.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology supervises all aspects of education from pre-school through upper secondary school and tertiary education in both the public and private sectors.
The academic year for both the school and higher-education sectors runs from April to March. Children enter the compulsory school system in the April after their sixth birthday. Schools use a trimester system: from April to mid-July, from September to late December and from January to late March. Colleges and universities generally run a two-term semester system: from April to September and October to March.
The medium of instruction is Japanese, with a very limited number of programs at university level taught in English. The study of foreign languages begins at the lower secondary level as an elective, with English being the primary language studied.
* Source: 1999-2000, National Center for Education Statistics
†All figures are from the Ministry of Education unless otherwise stated
Compulsory education begins in Japan for all children after they have turned six years of age. A majority of children also attend kindergarten (yochien). In 2004, the number of new entrants to kindergarten was approximately 60 percent of the number of new entrants to primary school. Approximately 80 percent of students at the kindergarten level are enrolled at private institutions, a number of which are selective. These selective kindergartens better the odds for parents wishing to have their children gain access to highly selective schools at subsequent levels of the education ladder. There are even pre-kindergarten classes available to help children prepare for the admissions tests. As of 2003, there were 1,753,396 students enrolled in kindergarten.
Primary school (shogakko) is six years in length (grades 1-6) and is for children between the age of six and 12. The vast majority of schools at this level are public (2003: 98.4%), but there is considerable competition to enter one of the small number of prestigious private schools, usually affiliated with a private university foundation, where entry virtually guarantees entry to affiliated schools all the way up to university.
In 2004, there were approximately 7,220,929 students attending primary school, marking a significant drop from a 1981 peak of 11,925,000 students. There are no tuition charges for children attending public schools. At the end of primary school a certificate of completion is awarded. Attendance at primary school is almost universal (99.98%). Students who complete the primary cycle are automatically accepted into lower secondary school.
Duration of Program: Six years in length (Grades 1 to 6).
Curriculum: Japanese language (reading, writing, literature), mathematics, science (grades 3 to 6), social studies (grades 3 to 6), arts, music, physical education, moral education, home-making (grades 5 and 6), life environment studies (grades 1 and 2), special activities (includes periods for class activities and club activities) and periods for integrated studies to combine skills learned in different subject areas (grades 3 to 6).
Leaving Certificate: Shoggako Sotsugyo Shosho (Elementary School Certificate of Graduation).
Secondary education is divided into two three-year cycles: lower and upper secondary. Lower secondary school is compulsory and enrollment is almost universal (99.98 percent). Although upper secondary school is not compulsory, 97.3 percent of lower secondary school students in 2003 went on to enroll at upper secondary school. A number of private schools offer six years of continuous education, covering the lower and higher secondary cycles.
As at the primary level, there has been a significant drop in the number of students attending lower secondary school since the baby-boom peaks of the 1960s and 1980s. Enrollment peaked at 7,328,000 in 1962, and again in 1986 at 6,106,000. Since the 1986 peak there has been a steady decline. In 2003, there were 3,663,512 students enrolled at lower secondary schools. This pattern is mirrored at the upper secondary level with 1965 and 1989 peaks of 5,074,000 and 5,644,000 respectively. In 2003, there were just 3,810,000 students attending upper secondary schools.
Lower Secondary School (Chugakko)
The lower secondary stage (grades 7 – 10) of the education cycle, from 12 to 15 years of age, is a very important phase in the educational process for Japanese students. Results at lower secondary school can determine whether or not the student gains access to a good upper secondary school and by extension to a good university and career.
As at the primary level, the vast majority of lower secondary schools (97 percent) are public and tuition free. In 2003, only six percent of the lower secondary school student body attended private schools. These private schools require students to pass an entrance examination. Entrance to public lower secondary schools is by allocation of the local education board, except at national public schools of which there were just 76 in 2003 where entrance is by examination.
In the second and third year of the lower secondary cycle, attendance at Juku, or cram schools, is common as students prepare for the competitive upper secondary school examinations. Students completing the lower secondary cycle are awarded a graduation certificate and are eligible to take admissions examinations for upper secondary school.
Duration of Program: Three years.
Curriculum: Japanese (1st year 140*, 2nd & 3rd 105*), social studies (1st & 2nd year 105, 3rd 85), mathematics (105), science (105), music (1st year 45, 2nd & 3rd 35), fine arts (1st year 45, 2nd & 3rd 35), health and physical education (90), industrial arts and homemaking (1st & 2nd year 70, 3rd 35), moral education (35), special activities (35 includes class activities, pupils’ councils, club activities and ‘school events’), elective subjects (1st year 0-30, 2nd 50-105, 3rd 105-165), foreign languages (105 English and Chinese are most popular), and periods of integrated study (70-130).
*Number of yearly periods per grade (each period lasts 50 minutes).
Leaving Certificate: Chugakko Sotsugyo Shomeisho (Lower Secondary School Certificate of Graduation).
Upper Secondary Education (Kotogakko)
Upper secondary education is divided into two basic streams: academic and vocational/technical. Since 1994, a small but growing number of schools have begun offering integrated programs that combine both academic and vocational classes. In 2003, 73 percent of students were enrolled in general academic courses, 24 percent were enrolled in specialized (vocational) courses and 3 percent in integrated courses. Since 1993, a small but growing number of schools have been offering credit-based courses as opposed to the school year-based system. This new type of school is designed to offer students the opportunity to study part-time or by correspondence as their needs dictate. Entrance to upper secondary school is based on competitive examinations and the strength of lower secondary school reports.
In 2003 there was a 70/30 split in the number of enrollments at public and private schools. Private schools at the upper secondary level are generally considered to be better at preparing students for university entrance examinations, hence the higher proportion of students attending private schools at this stage than at the lower secondary level. Although public upper secondary school is not free, the fees are considerably cheaper than in the private sector.
Admission to the academic stream is generally more competitive than to the vocational/technical stream. Schools in the upper secondary sector are ranked on a national basis according to the number of their students who are accepted to prestigious universities such as the University of Tokyo. There are elite and highly selective schools in both the public and private sector. As noted above, entry to the best upper secondary schools is increasingly dependent on the lower secondary school that students attend.
In order to complete an upper secondary school full-time course, a student must earn 80 credits or more, one credit consisting of 35 class hours (one class lasts 50 minutes). Students in a specialized course must earn 30 or more credits in vocational or specialized subjects.
As at the lower secondary level, a majority of students take extra classes at juku (cram schools) to prepare for the all-important university entrance examinations. Many students who fail the university entrance examination on their first attempt spend a full year at full-time cram schools known as yobiko to improve their chances on the re-sits (see below in the Admission to Higher Education section for more).
Academic Upper Secondary School
Duration of Program: Three years (minimum 80 credits)
Curriculum: Japanese language I & II (18 credits), plus Japanese classics (8 credits); world history (2 to 4 credits); Japanese history or geography (2 to 4 credits); civics — contemporary society or ethics, politics and economics (4 credits); mathematics (16 credits); two sciences (4 to 8 credits); physical education (7-9 credits) and health (2 credits); music, fine arts, crafts or calligraphy (2 credits); a foreign language (8 to 16 credits); and a home economics subject (4 credits).
Leaving Certificate: Kotogakko Sotsugyo Shomeisho (Certificate of Secondary Education). All students who hold the certificate are eligible to take the university entrance examination, known as the Examination of the National Center for University Entrance.
Technical/Vocational Upper Secondary Schools
Students who enter the vocational stream are required to choose an area of specialization in which they must take subjects worth 30 credit points. They are also required to take a number of general education subjects to bring their number of credits to 80 over three years of study. Subjects studied tend to be fairly specialized and the training provided is quite job specific. Students are admitted either on the basis of a recommendation from their lower secondary school, or through an entrance examination.
Duration of Program: Three years (minimum 80 credits)
Curriculum: Students must choose a field of specialization from seven major areas: agriculture (11.5%*), industry (35.7%*), business (32% *), fisheries (1.2%*), home economics (6.6%*), nursing (1.6%*), welfare (0.4%*), and other (11.5%*). General education subjects: Japanese, a foreign language, mathematics, science, social science, art and physical education).
* Percentage of students in the vo-tech stream specializing in this field.
Leaving Certificate: Kotogakko Sotsugyo Shosho ( Certificate of Secondary Education). This is the same qualification earned by students in the academic stream, and no distinction is made on the certificate. As in the academic stream, holders of the certificate are eligible to take the national university entrance examination; however, for university admissions students from the vocational stream are at a significant disadvantage as the entrance examination is based on the content of academic courses.
Other Upper Secondary Level Programs
In addition to three-year vocational upper secondary schools, secondary-level educational opportunities are also offered at colleges of technology and specialized training colleges (described below in Non-University Higher Education section).
Higher education in Japan is provided at universities (daigaku), junior colleges (tanki daigaku), colleges of technology (koto senmon gakko) and special training schools and colleges (senshu gakko). Of these four types of institution, only universities and junior colleges are strictly postsecondary providers.
With 77.1 percent of all tertiary-level enrollments, the private sector in Japan plays a key role in postsecondary education. At the university level there are a wide variety of institutions, from the very large to the very small, and from the very specialized to the multi-faculty, multi-campus university.
In 2004, there were a total of 709 universities in Japan, comprising 87 national universities, 80 local public universities and 542 private universities. There has been a significant year-on-year drop in the number of universities at the public level in the last two years as the government begins to enact reforms prompted by the declining number of high school graduates. Although Japan’s population is stable, the proportion of college-age children is declining, with the number of high school students dropping from more than five million in 1985 to under four million in 2002.
In April 2003, a three-year plan of mergers began and at least 35 of Japan’s 100 national universities have merged or are in the process of doing so. Between 2003 and 2004, the number of national universities dropped to 87 from 100. No merger plans have been announced by Japan’s private universities, which are relatively autonomous of the ministry. The number of private universities continues to grow at a rate of approximately 16 a year.
While total enrollments at national universities have been climbing in recent years, there is a definite prospect of declines, as there is at private universities. It is the largely private junior college sector, however, that appears to be bearing the brunt of the declining numbers of college-age students. Between 1998 and 2004 the number of junior colleges dropped from 585 to 508 (-13.6%), while enrollments over the same period have plummeted from 416,825 to 233,749 (-44%). As universities continue to search for students to fill classrooms, they are increasingly accepting transfer credits from junior colleges, something that would not have even been considered ten years ago. Many junior colleges provide specialized training and certification, yet increasing numbers of employers in specialized fields now prefer to hire people with university degrees, which is further decreasing the appeal of a junior college education.
The ministry’s program of university mergers is part of a larger overhaul of the higher-education system, which includes plans to make national universities more self-supporting financially and more autonomous in their decision making. The cornerstone of these reforms is an authorization for national universities to incorporate as public corporations with a board of trustees, independent of the ministry. This has implications for faculty hiring and firing practices, curriculum content and research capabilities. National universities have traditionally been supervised by the ministry and largely financed from the national budget. Local public universities are generally funded from prefectural budgets. Private institutions derive the majority of their income from tuition and student fees, but also make up to 20 percent of their budget from the ministry. Under the reforms universities that fail to meet government-imposed enrollment targets will lose ministry subsidies. If imposed, the financial penalties may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of many private universities, already buckling under the strain of decreasing enrollments.
Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has at least one national university, which generally offers a wide variety of programs at undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate level. Local public universities offer mainly undergraduate programs.
Universities and colleges must meet and maintain standards set by the ministry in accordance with the University Establishment Standards to gain and keep their accreditation.
Since 1947 the Japan University Accreditation Association (JUAA) has operated a voluntary system of accreditation that exists in addition to the Ministry’s mandatory accreditation. JUAA is a voluntary association of national and local public and private universities, which accredits institutions based mainly on institutional self-assessment. Until quite recently, however, neither the government nor universities made much use of the JUAA accreditation system.
Influenced by global trends in quality assurance, the Japanese government has recently spearheaded efforts to transform accreditation in higher education. In 2000, the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation (NIAD-UE), established by the government, launched a national pilot project on the evaluation of quality standards within higher education. As a result, Japan’s School Education Act was amended in 2002 and a new accreditation process began in April 2004. A number of new and established accreditation organizations, including JUAA, have now been authorized by the government to assess all public and private institutions of higher education. Accreditation is to be valid for seven years, after which institutions will be reassessed.
The first round of accreditation’s is now one year in and it will take a further six years until all institutions have undergone the process. The new accreditation process is designed to compensate for increased financial and decision making autonomy recently granted to institutions of higher education as the decisions of the accrediting organizations will have implications for the levels of government subsides that institutions receive.
Admission to Higher Education
Admission to an institution of higher education requires the Upper Secondary School Certificate of Graduation (Kotogakko Sotsugyo Shosho) and, in most cases, is based on competitive examinations.
Entrance to public universities is based on two entrance examinations: the highly competitive National Center for University Entrance Examination, which is administered throughout Japan over a two-day period each year, and examinations administered by the individual universities at which the student wishes to enroll. The most prestigious national universities have such high applicant volumes that the national test is often used as a screening device for qualification into their own admission tests. Ministry policies require that universities also consider other factors such as school reports and interviews, but by far the greatest weight is placed on the examinations.
Given the great lifelong advantage traditionally enjoyed by those who graduate from a top university, the stakes and pressure associated with the admissions and examination process are very high. Many students who fail to gain admission to their preferred institution try again the following year and commonly devote themselves full time to the preparation process at private schools known as yobiku. Such students are commonly referred to as ronin, or masterless samurai. The ronin experience is so common in Japan that the Japanese education system is often said to have an extra year built into it.
Private universities can also use the national examinations for admission purposes, however most choose to set and grade their own examinations, and students often sit for at least one of these in case they fail to gain admission to their desired national institution. Private schools charge fees for these examinations, which make up a not insignificant portion of their operating budgets.
In 2003, 72.9 percent of upper-secondary graduates (including those retaking the university entrance examination) enrolled at an institution of higher education of some description. Forty-nine percent enrolled at either a junior college or a university.
University Higher Education
Programs and Degrees
Stage I: The Gakushi Shogo ( Bachelor’s Degree) requires four years of full-time study in all fields that it is offered, including the humanities, social sciences, sciences and more professionally oriented disciplines such as engineering and agriculture. First degrees in medicine (Igakushi-go), dentistry (Shigakushi-go) and veterinary science (Juigakushi-go) require six years of full-time study. Holders of these qualifications are often referred to, in English, as Master of Medicine and Master of Dentistry, and the holder may be admitted directly to a doctoral program.
All bachelor’s degree programs require the completion of a general education component comprising approximately 60 credits taken in the first two years of the program. Courses in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences generally count for 36 credits. The remaining general education credits are usually earned in subjects more closely associated with the subject of specialization, and a minimum of eight credits in foreign languages and four in physical education. Courses in the student’s major comprise a minimum of 76 credits, the majority of which are taken in the third and fourth years of the program. Most undergraduate courses are worth four credits. Students are required to earn a minimum of 124 credits to graduate, although some faculties require as much as 160.
Stage II: The Shushi-go (Master’s Degree) requires two years of full-time study and a maximum of four years part-time study. It is offered in a majority of subject areas and is conducted by coursework, thesis and oral examination. A minimum of 30 units of coursework must usually be completed. Admission is based on the bachelor’s degree or sixteen years of school and higher education in another country, plus a competitive written and oral examination administered by individual universities. Sixty percent of graduate programs are offered at Japan’s 87 national universities.
Legal education and the judicial system as a whole is currently undergoing comprehensive reform. Based on the 2001 recommendations of the Justice System Reform Council, 68 graduate-level professional law schools were inaugurated in April 2004 to educate and train future lawyers. Central to the reform is the desire to increase the number of lawyers and increase the level of their general and specific education. In 2006, these new law schools will award J.D. degrees to the first graduating class. Standard programs require three years of instruction, although those with prior professional experience are able to complete the program in two years. The J.D. degree will be the basic requirement for taking the new National Law Examination.
Stage III: The Hakushi-go (Doctorate) normally requires three years of study following the master’s degree, or five years following a bachelor’s degree. The program generally includes a coursework component, the submission of a doctoral dissertation and an oral defense. This structured doctoral program is known as katei hatase. Less common is the dissertation doctorate, known as ronbun hakase, which requires the submission and defense of a research dissertation.
WES GRADE CONVERSION GUIDE
The technical and vocational sector is serviced mainly by junior colleges (tanki daigaku). Tertiary-level training is also available through colleges of technology (koto senmon gakko), specialized training colleges (senshu gakko), vocational training centers and colleges and skill development centers.NON-UNIVERSITY HIGHER EDUCATION
Junior College (Tanki Daigaku)
Junior colleges offer two-year specialized training programs in a wide range of areas. Nursing programs are three years in duration. The most common fields of study are education (child care, preschool and primary school teaching), home economics, humanities, social sciences and nursing. There are also a wide range of less-popular programs in the arts, agriculture and engineering.
Over 90 percent of junior college students are female, as the sector has traditionally catered to their traditional role in society. However, times have changed and the number of women entering four-year degree programs has risen from 775,000 to 1,100,000 in the last ten years, even as the overall number of college-age children continues to shrink.
Many colleges provide specialized certification in fields such as dental health, nursing, and child care. Employers in these areas are, however, increasingly seeking employees with university degrees.
As enrollments plunge at junior colleges, so the sector seems to have descended into a relative state of crisis. Enrollments are 55 percent lower than they were 10 years ago, and institutions have begun to close as a result with the overall number of junior colleges dropping from 595 to 508 since 1994.
The minimum credit requirement is 62 and, for three-year programs, 93. Students who successfully complete a two- or three-year program are awarded the Tanki Daigaku Shuryo Shosho (Junior College Certificate of Graduation, or Associate Degree), which is generally considered a terminal qualification, although junior college graduates are eligible to sit for the national university entrance examination.
Admission to junior college is open to those who have completed upper secondary education and is generally based on competitive examinations.
Colleges of Technology (Koto Senmon Gakko)
At colleges of technology over 80 percent of enrollments are male. Most colleges are operated directly by the ministry as national institutions and generally teach engineering subjects. Engineering programs at this level are five years in length and are open to students who have completed nine years of school education and passed competitive examinations. Students who have completed upper secondary school join the program in the fourth year.
Programs offer both theoretical and practical training in skills of immediate use to employers. Graduates of the five-year program are awarded the Koto Senmon Gakko Sotsugyo Shosho (Technical College Graduation Diploma) and are considered to be trained technicians Students who leave the program after three years are awarded a Shuryo Shomei (Certification of Completion) and can sit for the university entrance examination. Graduates of the five-year program are eligible to transfer to relevant university programs at the third-year level.
Entrance is based on competitive examinations and the completion of lower secondary school. In 2003, there were 58,000 students enrolled at 63 colleges of technology.
Specialized Training Colleges (Senshu Gakko)
Specialized training colleges offer one- to three-year employment-related programs to students who have completed either lower or upper secondary education; most are at the postsecondary level, although approximately a quarter are offered at the upper secondary level. There are approximately 3,500 such institutions, the vast majority of which are private. In 2003, there were 786,000 students enrolled at specialized colleges. The ratio of male to female students is approximately 50-50.
Graduates from three-year programs at upper secondary level are awarded the Senshu Gakko Koto-ka Sotsugyo Manjo (Special Training School Advanced Course Certificate of Completion). Those graduating from postsecondary-level programs are awarded the Senshu Gakko Senmon-ka Shuryo Shosho (Special Training School Advanced Course Certificate of Completion).
Primary and secondary school teachers in Japan are trained mainly at universities or junior colleges.
Teachers are required to obtain certification, which is awarded by regional boards of education after candidates have completed their programs of study. Certificates are divided into three categories second, first and advanced based on the length of the program of study and the credits earned in teaching subjects and professional subjects.
Primary School Teachers
Primary school teachers are required to complete either a four-year Bachelor’s in Primary Education, or, for a second-class certificate, a two-year program at a junior college. The four-year program requires a minimum of 18 units in teaching subjects and 41 units in professional subjects, including a teaching practicum. There is also an advanced teaching certificate available to those who have completed a Master’s in Elementary Education. The majority of elementary school teachers have a four-year university degree.
Secondary School Teachers
Lower secondary school teachers must complete a four-year Bachelor’s in Education. The lower-secondary program requires a greater concentration in the teaching subjects than at the primary level, with a minimum of 40 units required. An advanced certificate is available to those who have completed a Master’s in Lower Secondary Education.
To qualify for the first-class teaching certificate required to teach at this level, students are required to complete a four-year degree with a concentration of 40 units in the teaching area of specialization and 19 in the area of professional studies. An advanced certificate is available to those who have completed a Master’s in Lower Secondary Education.
All four-year education programs require a minimum of 124 units. All beginning teachers are required to participate in a one-year supervised training program in the classroom and at a prefectural education center.
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