Education in Japan

Education in Japan Lead Image: Photo of Japanese students at a train station [1]

Japan’s economy was once the envy of the world. From the ashes of World War II rose a nation that, in a little over two decades, became the world’s second-largest economy. The Japanese Miracle, a period of rapid economic growth lasting from the post-World War II era to the end of the Cold War, made Japan the global model to emulate in industrial policy, management techniques, and product engineering. The postwar period left no room for the country’s continued reliance on military-industrial production and development. To effect a rapid transformation, Japan had to reimagine and redefine its national image beyond its militaristic and industrial past, which for centuries had been the cornerstone of its economy and national identity.

But by the 1990s, Japan found itself beleaguered, stuck in its worst recession since World War II. Years of rapid economic growth had given way to decline and eventually stagnation. While Japan’s economy has improved marginally since that “Lost Decade,” many of the conditions underlying that decline remain. Others, most notably the growing economic and military threat from China and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, have only grown.

Many analysts attribute Japan’s recent problems, particularly its slowing economy, to the country’s declining birthrates. In the 1970s, with the hyperactive economy causing the cost of living to rise and encouraging young men, and increasingly, women [2], to focus on their careers, birthrates began to fall. As a result, population growth slowed and eventually declined. According to the Statistics Bureau of Japan [3], 2019 marked the ninth year in a row of population decline. The population fell that year to 126.2 million, a decrease of 276,000 (0.22 percent) from the previous year. At the same time, improved health care caused life expectancy to rise—Japan’s population today enjoys one of the longest life expectancies in the world—and Japan’s elderly population numbers to swell. Around 28 percent of Japan’s population is over the age of 65, the highest proportion of that age cohort of all the countries in the world.

Education in Japan Infographic: Fast facts on Japan’s educational system and international student mobility [4]

These demographic trends have had serious economic consequences. A shrinking workforce has complicated efforts to recover from the 1991 collapse in asset prices, leading to a prolonged economic recession, the effects of which are still being felt today. The employment outlook for many of the country’s youth has also deteriorated, with weak economic growth, an aging workforce, and the unique employment practices of most Japanese companies—workers in Japan are often hired for life with salaries highly correlated with seniority—forcing Japanese companies to “refrain from hiring new regular workers [5] and to increase their reliance on irregular workers.” The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, with one analyst predicting a “steep recession” and warning [6] that the health crisis would deal the “final blow” to Japan’s economy.

Its sluggish economic performance has afforded Japan’s rapidly developing neighbors time to catch up to and, in China’s case, surpass Japan. In 2010, China succeeded Japan as the world’s second-largest economy [7], a status Japan had held since 1968. This milestone also symbolized a rebalancing of power in East Asia, with China increasing its pursuit of foreign policy goals that Japan views as a threat to its national security. China has increased its military presence around the strategically important Senkaku Islands, or as they are known in China, Diaoyu Islands [8], control over which Japan and China have disputed for decades. China’s growing economic strength has also allowed Beijing to pursue its strategic goals through trade agreements, international investment, and access to supply chains and its massive domestic market.

To counter the rising influence of China, Japan has turned its eyes to the rest of the world, nurturing strategic alliances with large Western powers like the United States. It has also introduced measures aimed at fueling economic growth and innovation. The Japanese government has sought to promote technological advances, increase economic links with other East and Southeast Asian countries, and diversify its workforce for a more globalized and fast-paced future. Like many other countries that have sought to diversify their workforce in the face of global crises, the Japanese government has investigated reforming certain components of its education system.

The Backdrop to Reform: Japan’s Educational Performance

Education is one of the most important aspects of Japan’s national identity and a source of pride for Japanese citizens. The country’s high-quality education system has consistently won international praise. An emphasis on the holistic development of children has for decades led Japanese students to achieve mastery in a variety of academic disciplines—their performance in science, math, and engineering is particularly noteworthy. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2015, Japan ranked second in science and fifth in math among 72 participating countries and regions [9].

The school system also still embodies the values of egalitarianism, harmony, and social equality, which were highlighted as early as the first postwar education law, the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education [10], also translated as the Basic Act on Education. According to the OECD, Japan ranks highly among wealthy nations in providing equal opportunities to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Only 9 percent of variation [11] in performance among compulsory school students is explained by socioeconomic hardship, about 5 percent below the OECD average.

Despite international praise for Japan’s educational system, many of the system’s underlying principles have come under increasing scrutiny in recent decades. The educational system has become the focus of increasing discontent because of its perceived rigidity, uniformity, and exam-centeredness. The extent to which the country has succeeded in providing equal access to education is also being questioned, especially when its selective, competitive tertiary level is considered. The gap in access to higher education between the upper and lower classes is widening alongside growing income inequality. While most obvious at the higher education level, this inequality is growing at each educational stage and is driven by several variables including the proliferation of private preschools and senior high schools, the growth of exclusive institutions aimed at preparing students for university and high school entrance examinations, and rising tuition fees at higher education institutions (HEIs). These challenges, combined with the need to provide education and training relevant to the expanding knowledge economy, have prompted renewed calls for education reform.

Education Reform: Past and Present

Education reform in Japan is not new. Western education systems came to influence Japanese education [12] shortly after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, which transferred effective political power from the Tokugawa shogunate to the emperor, ushering in an era of modernization across all sectors of Japanese society. In 1872, Japan’s newly established Ministry of Education adopted from the American school system the three-tier elementary, secondary, and university structure, and from the French, strong administrative centralization. A group of newly established Imperial Universities took on certain aspects of the German university model [13]. Despite those early international influences, domestic resistance to outsiders quickly followed, intensifying sharply during World War II.

But following Japan’s surrender in 1945, foreign influence on the educational system resumed, with all national reform and revitalization efforts falling under the aegis of the occupying Allied powers, led largely by the U.S. Of all the areas identified for reform, Allied personnel and the newly installed Japanese cabinet considered educational reform to be the most important, expecting it to play a principal role [14] in channeling the thoughts and beliefs of the Japanese people in a more liberal and democratic direction. In 1946, the Educational Reform Committee laid out what would remain the core issues for Japanese education ministers until well after the years of occupation. The committee identified three issues as top priorities: the decentralization of educational administration, the democratization of educational access, and the reform of the educational curriculum.

Although occupation ended in 1952, it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that Japan’s economic slowdown and growing integration in the global economy [15] solidified these priorities as essential cornerstones of Japanese policy and national identity. The unexpected economic decline made it clear to Japanese policymakers that remaining competitive on the global stage would require a highly skilled and educated workforce, able to increase worker productivity and drive technological innovation. In response, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [16] (MEXT) stepped up its reform efforts, focusing on democratization, decentralization, and internationalization with the goal of developing a new generation of globalized and resilient Japanese youth. As occurred at earlier stages in the country’s history, these reforms have sought to balance modernization with respect for tradition. Current reforms are shaped both by an openness to ideas found in the educational systems of other countries and a deep respect for long-held values and principles, especially those of societal honor, communal harmony, and self-sacrifice.

While the reforms have produced some positive results for Japan, they are not without their shortcomings. The OECD’s 2018 report, Education Policy in Japan: Building Bridges towards 2030 [17], warns that the reforms, though well regulated and well-intentioned, risk being “adopted only as superficial change.” The content and success of these reforms will occupy much of the discussion below.

Student Mobility

For years, Asian countries have sought to even out [18] imbalances in inbound and outbound student flows—historically, the region has sent out more students than it brings in. For many of the region’s countries, such as China, the effort to erase that imbalance has meant putting in place policies and programs aimed at effecting a transformation from mere sources of international students to educational destinations of choice in their own right. Japan is no stranger to the desire to balance inbound and outbound numbers. However, with more inbound than outbound students, Japan has, somewhat uniquely, often had to work harder to promote outbound mobility than many of its neighbors.

One notable priority of the MEXT’s 2013 National Education Reform Plan [19] was the promotion of internationalization by raising total numbers and softening the imbalance between outbound and inbound student mobility, among other initiatives. To increase outbound mobility, the government set a goal of doubling the number of Japanese students studying abroad [20], from 60,000 in 2010 to 120,000 in 2020. For inbound mobility, the government sought to attract 300,000 international students by 2020 [21]. Observers view increasing the number of inbound and outbound students as central to the nation’s economic development plans [22]. After graduation, talented international students can help fill positions left empty by Japan’s shrinking domestic workforce, while the internationalized education received by Japanese students studying abroad can be leveraged by the country’s corporations and national government to further trade and diplomatic ties.

Inbound Student Mobility

With Japan’s aging population causing university admissions to decline, the Japanese government has launched several initiatives to attract foreign students; the Study in Japan Global Network Project [23] (GNP) is one. A global recruiting initiative co-managed by MEXT and the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), the GNP helps Japanese universities establish overseas bases in key regions, such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and South America, from which they can directly promote the benefits of studying in Japan to prospective international students. GNP also allows staff members of university overseas offices to visit high schools in various countries to recruit students, prioritizing those schools that have previously sent students on exchange trips or study abroad programs to Japan.

Other initiatives include CAMPUS Asia [24], an East Asian regional initiative aimed at promoting the cross-border mobility of students from Korea, Japan, and China through student exchanges and institutional partnerships. Internationalization efforts undertaken by individual universities and educational associations, such as the Global 30 Project [25], also seek to attract international students to Japan. Currently, the Top Global University [26] project, an initiative of MEXT, supports internationalization efforts at 37 of the country’s top universities. At the selected universities, the project seeks to promote international academic and research partnerships, increase the number of courses offered in English, and facilitate the recruitment of international students and faculty, among other objectives.

Some Japanese universities have also begun adding study abroad requirements to their programs and adopting an academic curriculum and semester system conducive to overseas study. For example, in 2016, Chiba University made overseas study a graduation requirement [27] for all students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, introducing at the same time a six-semester academic calendar to accommodate it. In 2020, the university made study abroad mandatory for all students university-wide.

These initiatives have been met with considerable success. By one measure, Japanese universities reached the 2020 enrollment targets set by the government a year early. According to JASSO [28], which includes in its measures international students enrolled in non-university, Japanese language institutes, more than 312,000 international students traveled to Japan to study in 2019.

Measuring just university enrollments, the number enrolled in HEIs reached more than 228,000 that same year, up nearly 70 percent from 2013. Over 90 percent of those students came from other Asian countries, with students from China and Vietnam alone accounting for nearly two-thirds of all international students in Japan.

Education in Japan Image 1: Chart showing the growth of international students at Japanese higher education institutions between 2010 and 2019 [29]

Still, despite these promising results, Japan’s inbound mobility rate [30] remains low compared to that of other developed countries. Although increasing by more than a third over the previous decade, Japan’s inbound mobility rate stood at just 4.7 percent in 2018. Several obstacles [31] hinder efforts to increase international student enrollments, most notably, language. Despite attempts to increase their English language offerings, few programs in Japanese universities are taught in English, a situation that forces many interested international students to undergo intense Japanese language training prior to the start of their studies. Another barrier is student uncertainty surrounding the in-country employment pathways available to international students earning Japanese credentials, a lack of clarity that raises concerns about the value of Japanese higher education to international students. To facilitate international students’ transition from the university to the workplace, national universities have begun hosting monthlong internships in cooperation with local governments and private companies.

Differing Measures of Student Mobility: Short Term vs. Full Time

Various organizations in Japan differ in how they define international students and in how they measure outbound and inbound student mobility, so reported international student numbers can differ widely. Some organizations, such as JASSO, consider short-term study abroad programs as a barometer of success, and measure student mobility numbers accordingly. JASSO defines [32] the act of studying abroad as participation in any post-secondary educational program, a definition that includes not only formal university programs, but also language and cultural programs. While government agencies like MEXT and intergovernmental organizations like UNESCO are primarily concerned with full-time higher education enrollment, JASSO’s numbers also reflect Japanese university students pursuing short-term exchange programs abroad, often for six months or less. The pool of students measured by the Japan Association of Overseas Studies [33] (JAOS) is even broader. When measuring and reporting outbound student mobility numbers, JAOS includes students going abroad for secondary education in addition to those in degree programs and short-term language and exchange programs. Another common means of evaluating Japanese outbound mobility rates is through the lens of university exchange agreements. As of 2017, the top three destinations [34] for Japanese students participating in institutional exchange programs were the U.S., Canada, and China.

Chinese Students in Japan

China’s economic growth since the start of the millennium has greatly benefited Japan’s education sector. Despite long-standing tensions between East Asia’s two largest economies, Chinese students currently make up the largest portion of international students studying in Japan. In 2019, four in ten international students in Japan were from China.

Per the UNESCO Institute of Statistics [35], the number of Chinese students studying in Japan peaked at 96,592 in 2012, up from 28,076 in 2000, an increase of more than 300 percent. Analysts attribute this growth to “a nexus of factors [36],” including “the popularization of educational mobility during China’s reform era” and “Japan’s efforts to attract students from overseas.” China’s cultural and physical proximity [37] to Japan likely also plays a role, as do regional exchange initiatives, such as CAMPUS Asia, discussed above.

Given China’s growing middle class, the latest generation of Chinese students in Japan is more affluent and aspirational, largely self-financing their overseas studies. However, China’s economic growth and own improving HEIs mean that more students are willing and able to study further afield or at home. Since their peak in 2012, Chinese enrollments in Japan have declined, falling to 84,101 in 2018.

Outbound Student Mobility

Outbound mobility, as measured by JASSO, is just under the government’s goals. According to JASSO [38], more than 115,000 Japanese students studied overseas in 2018, up from just under 70,000 in 2013. However, far fewer Japanese students are pursuing a full degree program at an overseas university. According to UNESCO, less than 32,000 degree-seeking tertiary students studied overseas in 2018, less than 1 percent of all Japanese tertiary students [39].

Japan has never been a major source of globally mobile students. But, around 2005, after decades of low population growth, outbound mobility began a sharp and swift decline. According to UNESCO data, by 2018, outbound student numbers had fallen by nearly half their 2005 level (63,492).

Education in Japan Image 2: Chart showing the growth of outbound Japanese degree-seeking students between 2000 and 2018 [40]

While low birthrates are widely recognized as a key driver of Japan’s low outbound mobility rate, some experts also attribute the low rate to some of the country’s unique cultural characteristics. Students from other Asian countries that have low and declining birthrates, like South Korea and China, study overseas at far higher levels [41] than those of Japanese students. Some Japanese experts [42], including government officials, attribute the low rates of study abroad to the “inward-looking mindset” of the country’s students, a state of mind known in Japanese as Uchimukishikou. In everyday usage, the term describes an internal, psychological state stemming from personal lack of interest; a state that combines intimidation, fear, and inhibition typically felt when confronting an uncertain and highly consequential event. But the Japanese government has elevated the term to national prominence, employing it to explain a lack of overall interest among Japanese students in overseas study or work. Other trends within Japan’s borders likely contribute to low outbound student numbers, such as the growth of domestic higher education opportunities, the expansion of doctoral programs and student grants, and the increasing availability of English language training in Japan.

Those students who do study overseas tend to head to English-speaking countries. According to UNESCO, four of the top five destinations in 2018 were English speaking: the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. In Germany, the only non-Anglophone country in the top five, English language university programs are widely available. In recent years, German universities have greatly increased the number of master’s and doctoral programs taught in English [43].

Education in Japan Image 3: Graph showing the top 10 destination countries of Japanese degree-seeking students in 2018 [44]

Japanese Students in the U.S. and Canada

Historically, Japan has been one of the leading countries of origin for international students studying in the U.S. Each year since 2000, according to IIE Open Doors data [45], Japan has been one of the top 10. The popularity of the U.S. among Japanese students stems in part from long-standing ties between the governments of both countries. Since the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan [46] in 1951, Japan has been aligned strategically and militarily with the U.S. The resulting atmosphere of cooperation and mutual goodwill has helped nurture an abundance of educational exchange programs [47], such as the U.S. Embassy’s TeamUp campaign which fosters “institutional partnerships between U.S. and Japanese colleges and universities to facilitate student exchange.” Another project, the TOMODACHI Initiative [48], a public-private partnership developed in the wake of the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, has facilitated thousands of educational and cultural exchanges for American and Japanese citizens.

That said, since 2000, Japanese enrollment in U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) has declined sharply. According to Open Doors [45], the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. during the 2019/20 academic year was 17,554, falling from a high of 46,810 in 2001/02. Growth has been negative in all but two years since 2000/01.

Nearly half (49 percent) of the Japanese students that are in the U.S. are enrolled at the undergraduate level [49], while 26 percent are registered in non-degree programs, 16 percent in graduate programs, and 8 in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs (18 percent) are the most popular field of study for these students [50], followed by business and management (17 percent) and intensive English (14 percent) programs.

Education in Japan Image 4: Graph showing the declining number of Japanese students in the U.S. between 2000/01 and 2019/20 [51]

There has been much speculation on the reasons behind the downturn in the number of Japanese students in the U.S. Among the proposed theories are feelings of hesitation and unease about studying abroad stemming from crucial differences between Japanese and U.S. education systems.

Differences in the academic calendar may prove an obstacle to Japanese students hoping to study abroad. Since the beginning of the Meiji era, Japan has always matriculated and enrolled students in the spring, a season closely associated in Japanese culture with new beginnings. There have been recent debates on whether schools should shift the start of the year to the fall to align with most other countries in the world. However, such plans have never come to fruition because of the heavy cultural implications associated with the start of the school year and the uncertainty surrounding the consequences that such a change would bring. A change to the academic calendar would not only complicate the graduation timeline of Japanese students, it would also complicate their job search. Traditionally, the job-search process for Japanese college students starts in the fall of their penultimate year of study, or the second semester of their junior year.

For Japanese students choosing to study in the U.S., the country’s fall to spring academic calendar could delay the job-search process. Furthermore, students who studied abroad or possess a degree from the U.S. are not guaranteed a leg up in the domestic job market in Japan. Rather, potential employers in Japan have negatively judged [52] returning students for their inability to readjust to the norms of the Japanese workplace.

Another challenge for Japanese international students on short-term study abroad programs is the recognition of their international academic coursework. Credits earned at overseas universities through exchange or short-term study abroad programs are often not recognized at Japanese universities. Finally, soaring tuition fees at HEIs worldwide, and especially those in English-speaking countries, are of great concern to Japanese students.

These differences are also likely to present obstacles to Japanese students thinking about studying overseas in countries other than the U.S. Still, the recent experience of Canada seems to tell a different story.

In contrast to the U.S., where the number of students has continued a long-standing decline in recent years, the number of Japanese students studying in Canada has increased, albeit at an uneven rate. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada [53] (IRCC), the number of Japanese students with study permits reached a high of more than 10,000 in 2001, before a nearly unbroken, decadelong decline brought numbers to a 20-year low of less than 6,000 in 2010.

Education in Japan Image 5: Graph showing the number of Japanese students in Canada between 2000 and 2019 [54]

Enrollment numbers began to rebound in 2011. They were given an additional boost by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2013 policy goal of doubling outbound student mobility, mentioned above. MEXT, which measures international student numbers differently from Canada’s IRCC, reported that between 2013 and 2015, there was a 24 percent increase [41] in outbound mobility to Canada, from 6,614 to 8,189 students. The increase in outbound mobility to Canada outpaced both overall Japanese outbound mobility growth and Japanese mobility growth to the U.S., which grew 21 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Several factors are likely driving the divergence in growth trends between the U.S. and Canada. Canadian universities offer many of the same benefits of U.S. universities, with few of the drawbacks. Japanese students, like students from other countries around the world, are increasingly drawn to Canada’s high-quality and relatively affordable colleges and universities. A 2017 MEXT survey also found that Japanese students and parents prioritize public safety. Canada is widely perceived as a safer study destination than the U.S. Previous WES research [55] revealed widespread concerns among international students in the U.S. about gun violence both at their institution and in the surrounding community.

In Brief: The Education System of Japan

The structure of Japan’s education system resembles that of much of the U.S. [56], consisting of three stages

of basic education, elementary, junior high, and senior high school, followed by higher education. Most parents also enroll their children in early childhood education programs prior to elementary school. Children are required to attend school for nine years—six years of elementary education and three years of lower secondary education. At the primary and secondary levels, the school year typically begins on April 1 and is divided into three terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March.

High educational outcomes have earned Japan’s educational system a sterling reputation on the global stage, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. On worldwide assessments of educational attainment, the country consistently scores above average in educational performance, participation rates, and classroom environment. In the OECD’s 2018 PISA [57], 15-year-old Japanese students scored 16 points above the OECD average in reading and literacy, 36 points higher in mathematics, and 38 points above in science.

That said, Japan’s education system faces a number of challenges, among the most significant of which are demographic aging and enrollment declines. Elementary and secondary enrollment peaked in the 1980s, with elementary enrollment reaching a high of nearly 12 million in 1982, and secondary enrollments, a high of over 11.4 million in 1988.

Since then, enrollment at both levels has declined sharply. In 2018, the latest year for which data were available, elementary enrollment had fallen to just under 7 million, and secondary enrollment to around 6.5 million. That decline has closely tracked the country’s aging population. After reaching 24 percent in 1976, the percentage of the Japanese population age 0 to 14 declined steadily, falling to 13 percent in 2018.

Education in Japan Image 6: Graph showing the decline in elementary and secondary enrollment in Japan [58]

The ramifications of these declines have rippled outward to affect nearly all aspects and levels of Japanese education, society, and economy. The following sections will not only explore the varying impact of demographic trends on different levels of education in Japan, they will also outline the structure and content of each level of education, other current challenges, and important reforms and modifications that are aimed at mitigating internal and external pressures.

Administration of the Education System

Responsibility for educational administration and policy development is divided between government authorities at three levels: national, prefectural, and municipal. At the national level, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [59] (MEXT), or Monbu-kagaku-shō, is responsible for all stages of the education system, from early childhood education to graduate studies and continuing, or lifelong, learning. MEXT ensures that education in Japan meets the standards set by the 1947 Fundamental Law of Education [60] which stipulates that the country provide an education to all its citizens “that values the dignity of the individual, that endeavors to cultivate a people rich in humanity and creativity who long for truth and justice and who honor the public spirit, that passes on traditions, and that aims to create a new culture.” To fulfill that mandate, MEXT sets and enforces national standards for teacher certification qualifications, school organization, and education facilities, among others. It provides a significant portion of the funds for public schools, universities, research institutions, and, under certain circumstances, issues grants to private academic institutions. MEXT is also typically responsible for the development of national education policies, although in recent decades prime ministers have often convened ad hoc councils to determine education policy.

At the elementary and secondary levels, MEXT develops national curriculum standards or guidelines (gakushū shidō yōryō) which contain the “basic outlines [61] of each subject taught in Japanese schools and the objectives and content of teaching in each grade.” Typically, private educational publishers develop and print textbooks following these guidelines. Elementary and secondary schools can only use textbooks reviewed and approved by MEXT, which provides textbooks to students free of charge.

Although MEXT revises the curriculum guidelines roughly once every 10 years, their overall structure and objectives have remained more or less the same since 1886. Since then, curriculum guidelines have emphasized standardization, objectivity, and neutrality to avoid divisive political, factional, and religious issues. While this emphasis may lead one to assume that the national government strictly limits and controls educational content and teaching methods, in theory, these guidelines are only intended to establish nationally uniform standards of education, allowing students throughout the country access to an equal education. The system is designed to give teachers the freedom to develop individualized lesson plans and tests. Still, comparisons with other OECD countries [62] suggest that Japanese teachers have limited control over classroom instruction and curriculum. Among the recent concerns cited as limiting the freedom of Japanese teachers is the 2007 introduction of a national academic achievement test. Observers note that in order to reach achievement test targets, local schools and educational authorities have tightened control over teaching methods and educational content.

At the prefectural and municipal levels, the external influences mentioned in the introduction are readily apparent. In the post-World War II era, democratization and the decentralization of education were core issues of educational reform, spurring the Japanese government to adopt the system of boards of education common in the U.S.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, each of which is composed of smaller municipalities, such as cities, towns, and villages. Boards of education, representative councils responsible for the supervision of education at the elementary and secondary levels, exist at both the prefectural and municipal levels. At the prefectural level [63], governors appoint members to five-member boards of education for terms of four years. Prefectural boards are responsible for appointing teachers and partially funding municipal operations and payrolls, including funding for two-thirds of teachers’ salaries, with the remaining third financed by the national government. At the municipal level, members are appointed by local mayors. Municipal boards are responsible for the supervision of day-to-day operational tasks at elementary and junior high schools, the management and professional development of teachers, and the selection of MEXT-approved school materials.

A 2015 reform of the board of education system—the first such reform in nearly 60 years—expanded the control of local chief executives, such as governors or mayors, over educational administration and planning, and reduced the role of boards of education. Authority to appoint the superintendent, the most powerful local educational authority, was transferred from the board of education to the local chief executives. The reform also increased their authority to determine local policy goals—it transferred authority to establish the local education policy charter to chief executives, reducing boards of education to an advisory role. Reformers hope the changes will lead to improvements in a system long criticized for its lack of transparency, accountability, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Early Childhood Education

Traditionally, two principal forms of early childhood education (ECE) have existed in Japan: kindergarten (yōchien) and day care (hoikuen). Under the jurisdiction of MEXT, yōchien is a non-compulsory stage of the country’s educational system, coming immediately before elementary school, providing preschool education to children from the ages of three to six. Children typically attend yōchien for around four hours each day. As at other levels of Japan’s basic education system, MEXT develops and publishes curriculum standards for kindergartens, which must meet criteria necessary for the curriculum to realize the nation’s educational goals. The latest, issued in 2017 [64], seeks to foster a “zest for living,” a goal pursued at all levels of the educational system, and lay the groundwork for learning at the elementary level and beyond.

Administered by a different ministry, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare [65], hoikuen exists outside the Japanese educational system. Its principal function is to provide basic childcare services for children age one to six while their parents are at work. Typically lasting for eight hours, or the length of a typical working day, hoikuen often include some educational elements like reading and math.

Both yōchien and hoikuen centers can be owned and operated by public or private bodies, such as local municipalities, educational corporations, or non-profit organizations. However, the majority of students enroll at private institutions, some of which are highly selective and expensive. Many parents believe that enrolling their children in these highly selective institutions increases their children’s chances of being admitted to more selective institutions later in their educational career. In fact, some yōchien and hoikuen centers even prepare students for admissions tests at private elementary schools.

With more and more Japanese mothers entering the workforce, yōchien kindergarten programs, which have traditionally provided educational supervision for only part of the day, have in recent years faced

difficulty maintaining enrollment numbers. For the same reason, the demand for full-day hoikuen services has been on the rise. Historically, there have been long, persistent waitlists for parents hoping to enroll their children in hoikuen centers.

Given the clear demand for full-day childcare services, more and more yōchien have begun to adopt the day care elements more typical of hoikuen centers. For example, some yōchien have begun to offer extended hours to meet the demands of working parents, not ending their classes until the end of the workday. Some local governments have also started combining yōchien and hoikuen centers and mandating enrollment for all children prior to elementary school. The national government has even introduced measures [66] merging childcare and early childhood education services into a single facility known as nintei-kodomoen. However, because of conflicting ministerial jurisdictions, reform efforts have often been stymied by administrative complications and are yet to achieve widespread success.

Still, early efforts at reform, combined with declining birthrates, have proved effective in reducing hoikuen waitlists. In 2019, waitlists for day care facilities [67] reached an all-time low, with just under 17,000 children waiting to enter day care, a decrease of more than 3,000 children from the previous year.

Elementary and Lower Secondary Education

Elementary education marks the beginning of compulsory education for all Japanese children, lasting six years and spanning grades one to six. Children enter elementary education provided they reach age six as of April 1.

The elementary curriculum emphasizes both intellectual and moral development. All students must take certain compulsory subjects [68], like Japanese language, mathematics, science, social studies, music, crafts, home economics, living environment studies, and physical education. For public school students in grades five and six, English [69] has been a compulsory subject since 2011. Since 2020 [70], English has been mandatory starting in third grade. Moral development is promoted through a moral education course [71] and informal learning experiences designed to inculcate respect for society and the environment. The importance of moral education—long a taboo subject given its association with the nationalistic excesses of Imperial Japan—to Japan’s educational policies has increased over the past few decades. In recent years, the reintroduction of moral education as a formal course was spurred by reports of rampant student truancy, bullying, and school violence.

Classes remain large by international and OECD standards [72], despite efforts by MEXT to improve student-teacher ratios and recruit additional instructors. In 2011, MEXT limited first grade classes to 35 [61], down from 40, although intentions to extend similar limitations to other grades subsequently failed. Nearly all the country’s elementary schools, known as shōgakkō, are public. Enrollment at public elementary schools is free.

Students completing the elementary education cycle are awarded the Elementary School Certificate of Graduation (shogakko sotsugyo shosho) and automatically accepted into public junior high school.

Lower secondary education, the final stage of compulsory education, lasts three years, comprising grades six to nine. Instruction is conducted at junior high schools, or chūgakkō, 90 percent of which are public and tuition-free. Some municipalities have established nine-year unified compulsory education schools which combine primary and lower secondary education. Students hoping to enroll in private junior high schools or national junior high schools affiliated with national universities are required to sit for admissions examinations administered by the institution.

All public junior high schools follow a standard national curriculum [73] which comprises the compulsory subjects previously taught at the elementary level. In addition to compulsory subjects, students can also choose from a wide range of electives and extracurricular activities in fields such as fine arts, foreign languages, physical health and education, and music.

Lower secondary education is a critical stage in a typical student’s educational journey, as grades partially determine whether a student will be accepted into a good senior high school, and consequently, into a top university. It also culminates in the first significant stage of what is colloquially referred to as “examination hell [74],” a series of rigorous and highly consequential entrance examinations that are required for admission to senior high schools and universities. Many students in the final two years of junior high school attend Juku, or cram schools, in preparation for the competitive senior high school admissions examinations.

Students completing junior high school are awarded the Lower Secondary School Leaving Certificate and are eligible to sit for senior high school admissions examinations.

Yutori Kyōiku: Compulsory Education Reform

Since the 1990s, the direction that education reform in Japan should take has been a hotly debated topic. Experts have long criticized [75] Japanese education for its “strict management” which “places excessive emphasis on standardization and student behavioral control.” They have also voiced concerns about the “the widespread practices of rote memorization and ‘cramming’ of knowledge,” which have been accused of “depriving pupils of opportunities to develop their intellectual curiosity and creativity.” Finally, experts allege that the “intense competition among students vying for admission to prestigious senior high schools and universities has caused tremendous psychological pressure for these students and their parents.”

To address these concerns, the government issued national curriculum standards in 2002 that put in place a concept known as yutori kyōiku, which roughly translates as “relaxed education.” The updated guidelines brought about significant changes, reducing the length of the school week from six to five days and cutting curriculum content by 30 percent. The guidelines also mandated the creation of a new “Integrated Studies” course, which granted schools and municipalities discretion to create their own courses to provide students with a “learning space [76] outside the traditional bounds of the curriculum that would not be closely associated with entrance tests or tightly defined learning outcomes.”

But a year after the new curriculum guidelines were introduced, yutori kyōiku policies faced intense criticism. The disappointing results of Japanese students in the OECD’s 2003 PISA study shocked the nation. In the study, the average performance of Japanese 15-year-olds dropped from first to sixth rank in mathematics and from eighth to 14th in reading. In just three years, mean performance had dropped from 557 to 543 in mathematics, from 522 to 498 in reading literacy, and from 550 to 548 in science.

Experts also highlighted the results of the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [77] (TIMSS), an assessment that measures U.S. eighth grade student performance comparatively with that of other secondary students around the globe, as a sign of the country’s declining educational quality. While Japanese students again performed well overall, outperforming the global average in mathematics, when compared with other high-performing Asian countries, Japan’s performance was disappointing. Between 31 percent and 44 percent of students from Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong scored at the advanced benchmark for math, compared with just 24 percent of Japanese students. Many Japanese scholars attributed the Japanese students’ relatively poor performance in these international education assessments to the more relaxed nature of the yutori kyōiku reforms.

Public concern over declining performance prompted the Japanese government to review the yutori kyōiku reforms. What followed were a number of reforms aimed at maintaining some of the benefits of the educational reforms of the 1990s and early 2000s while increasing the academic rigor of Japanese compulsory education. MEXT issued new curriculum standards in 2008 and 2009 which increased academic lesson hours while reducing Integrated Study and elective hours, and a number of municipalities, supported by MEXT, reintroduced Saturday classes. MEXT also introduced mandatory foreign language courses to the elementary school curriculum, as mentioned above. More recently, reform in Japan has avoided the yutori kyōiku concept, instead promoting “Active Learning [75]” with the aim of developing “students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes compatible with the new visions of learning for a knowledge-based society in the twenty-first century.”

Upper Secondary Education

After nine years of compulsory education, students have the option of enrolling in senior high schools (kōtō-gakkō), widely regarded as the most strenuous stage of Japanese education. Despite being a non-compulsory level of education, the transition rate from junior to senior high school is extremely high, in part due to the integral role a student’s performance in senior high school plays in determining future access to higher education and employment. Per MEXT [78], as many as 98 percent of Japanese junior secondary students choose to move on to upper secondary schooling.

Admission to senior high school is typically determined by three criteria: an entrance examination, an interview, and junior high school grades. Of these criteria, the fate of a student’s placement in higher education—and even of their career in the years beyond—is determined most heavily by the entrance examination (kōkō juken). Students take these examinations, which are administered by their senior high school of choice, between January and March. Typically, entrance examinations test a student’s proficiency in the core subjects of Japanese, mathematics, science, social studies, and English.

Students hoping to enroll in public high schools take entrance examinations standardized by the prefectural board of education which has jurisdiction over the school. If students fail the entrance examination for a public school, they will often opt to apply to a private school. Unlike public schools, private senior high schools typically create their own examinations. Although nearly three-quarters of the country’s senior high schools are public, the proportion of private senior high schools has been growing in recent years. Students enrolling in the country’s limited number of unified junior high and senior high schools [79] (chuto-kyoiku-gakko) are spared the entrance examination. Since reforms introduced in 2010 [80], students have been able to attend public high schools free of charge, while students attending private high schools receive government subsidies.

The employment prospects of students who fail to gain admission to either a public or private senior high school are often grim, with many forced to find work as unskilled blue-collar laborers, an occupational category traditionally thought of as low status. Given the highly competitive nature of senior high school admissions and coursework, it is no surprise that senior high school is perceived as a vehicle toward higher social status. This exclusivity, however, has long raised concerns about equity and access. Since the 1980s, MEXT has attempted to rectify these concerns through a series of reforms, the most significant of which was the introduction of the credit system to senior high schools [78]. In the late 1980s, MEXT implemented the credit system for part-time and distance education learners, allowing them to learn at their own pace and graduate when they completed the required number of credits. In the early 1990s, the credit system was expanded to full-time senior high school students as well.

Senior high school lasts for three years, comprising grades 10 to 12, with students receiving 240 days of instruction each year. Following recent yutori kyōiku-inspired educational reforms, the school week is officially five days long, from Monday to Friday. Still, as mentioned above, workarounds exist, with educational authorities issuing special approvals to public schools to hold Saturday classes, while many less regulated private schools have reintroduced Saturday classes at monthly or bimonthly intervals.

As at the lower secondary level, the senior high school curriculum [81] comprises three years of mathematics, social studies, Japanese, science, and English, with all the students in one grade level studying the same subjects. Electives are also similar to those offered at earlier levels, including physical education, music, art, and moral studies courses. However, the high number of required courses often leaves students with little room to fit in electives or subjects matching their personal interests. Although MEXT has pushed to expand the types of courses taken in high school to promote individuality, purpose, and inspiration, implementation has proved difficult because of a lack of qualified teachers.

Students must obtain a minimum of 74 credits [82] to graduate. Students who graduate are awarded the Senior High School Graduation Certificate (sotsugyo shomeisho) and are eligible to sit for university entrance examinations.

Senior high schools use a numeric grading scale ranging from 1 to 5.

Education in Japan Image 7: Table showing the senior high school grading scale [83]

Technical, Professional, and Vocational Education

Amid Japan’s current economic challenges, technical and vocational institutions have attracted considerable attention from reformers and government planners. Concerns that the education system is “obsolete and dysfunctional [5], with the curricula lacking relevance to the realities of society and the economy,” has led to calls to expand and strengthen vocational and professional education. A 2017 MEXT white paper [84], which laid out key priorities in education reform, included a call to strengthen and reform the country’s technical and vocational education. To meet the challenges of globalization, economic transformation, and declining birthrates, the paper highlighted the importance of diversifying the country’s education system by increasing the availability of vocational schools and junior colleges. That paper followed a 2016 revision to the 1947 School Education Act; the revision urged professional institutions to collaborate with industry leaders to develop curricula that better balance practical and theoretical components.

Government planners are hoping that these efforts will expand and strengthen what is an already diverse landscape of vocational and professional institutions. Japan possesses a wide variety of institutions offering specialized education and professional and technical training to Japanese students at the secondary, post-secondary, and continuing education levels. Given the unique recruitment practices of Japanese employers—discussed further below—these institutions are attracting a growing number of university students who choose to study in a vocational institution either simultaneously or after graduating from university, to increase their employability, a phenomenon known in Japan as “double schooling.”

Specialized Training Colleges (senshu gakku)

First introduced in 1976 [85], specialized training colleges (senshu gakku) offer courses of study aimed at developing skills and competencies that are needed for specific occupations. Three categories of specialized training colleges exist [86]: general, upper secondary, and post-secondary, each maintaining different requirements for admission and offering training programs that vary in content and intensity.

Most specialized training colleges are privately owned and operated. New specialized training colleges must meet minimum quality requirements [87] set by MEXT, after which they can be granted approval to operate [88] by the prefectural government in which they are located.

Specialized Training College, General Course (senshu gakko ippan katei)

The lowest level of specialized training college offers courses in general vocational subjects [89] such as Japanese dressmaking, art, and cooking. MEXT does not set admission requirements for entry to general courses, instead allowing individual institutions to set their own. As of 2017 [89], there were 157 colleges offering general courses to around 29,000 students.

Specialized Training College, Upper Secondary Course (koto-senshu-gakko)

More popular are the specialized training colleges offering courses at the upper secondary level. As of 2017, 424 institutions offered upper secondary courses to around 38,000 students. Admission to courses at this level requires possession of the Lower Secondary School Leaving Certificate. Courses typically last between one and three years. Those completing a course lasting three years or more that meets minimum academic requirements set by MEXT are eligible for enrollment in a university or a professional training college. Students graduating from these courses are awarded a Specialized Training College Upper Secondary Certificate of Graduation.

Professional Training College (senmon gakko)

The highest level of specialized training college is the professional training college, which offers courses at the post-secondary level. Admission is open to graduates of senior high schools, with courses lasting between one and four years. Students who graduate from specialized vocational schools are able to enroll in a traditional four-year university but can also use their degrees directly toward careers in their specialty. Options for specialization are vast but are typically classified into eight fields of study [90]: industry, agriculture, medical care, health, education and social welfare, business practices, apparel and homemaking, and culture and the liberal arts.

Students completing a MEXT-approved course of at least two years and 62 credits (1,700 credit hours) are awarded a diploma [91] (senmonshi). Those completing a MEXT-approved course of at least four years and 124 credits (3,400 credit hours) are awarded the advanced diploma [92] (kodo senmonshi).

With birthrates falling and universities accepting a higher percentage of applicants, professional training colleges have struggled to maintain enrollment levels [93]. Still, as of 2017, 2,817 professional training colleges existed, offering courses to around 660,000 students or around 15 percent to 20 percent of senior high school graduates [94]. To encourage enrollment, some professional training colleges have adopted a dual education approach, organizing class schedules in a manner that allows students to study for a vocational diploma and a university degree simultaneously (the double schooling mentioned above).

Colleges of Technology (kōtō-senmon-gakkō or KOSEN)

Unlike other vocational institutions, colleges of technology, which were introduced in 1961, provide education and training that straddles the secondary and post-secondary levels. Students who are 15 years of age, or those completing junior high school, are able to study in these colleges, which primarily offer courses in engineering, technology, and marine studies. Programs typically last for five years, requiring 167 credits. Students who complete programs from colleges of technology are awarded a title of Associate (jun gakushi).

Colleges of technology are growing in popularity among university graduates who fail to secure employment immediately after graduation.

Professional and Vocational Junior Colleges (tanki daigaku)

A subset of junior colleges, discussed below, professional and vocational junior colleges [95] (PVJC), pursue “teaching and research in highly-specialized fields with the aim to develop practical and applicable abilities needed to take on specialized work.” Programs at PVJCs are two or three years in length, requiring 62 to 93 credits, one-third of which must be earned in “practicum, skills training, or experiment,” including “on-site training conducted off-campus.” Students completing their studies are awarded the associate degree (professional) [96] and are able to transfer to a general university or a professional and vocational university.

Professional and Vocational Universities (senmon shoku daigaku or PVU) and Professional Graduate Schools (senmon shoku daigakuin)

Other HEIs include professional and vocational universit [97]ies (senmon shoku daigaku, or PVU), which offer courses similar to those offered at PVJCs and award four-year, 124 credit bachelor’s degrees (professional) [98].

Professional Graduate Schools [99] (senmon-shoku-daigakuin), which “specialize in fostering highly-specialized professionals who will be active internationally” and include law schools and schools for teacher education, award graduate professional degrees [100], such as the Juris Doctor and other professional master’s degrees. Programs range from one to three years in length with widely varying credit requirements. These professional degrees often meet eligibility prerequisites to sit for professional examinations; for example, a Juris Doctor is required to sit for the national bar examination.

Nursing Education

Before sitting for their national licensing examinations, nurses in Japan must complete at least three years of post-secondary education and training [101]. Midwives and public health nurses must study for an additional year in a specialized program. Nursing programs are taught at a variety of institutions; universities, junior colleges, and nursing schools (kangoshi-senmon), which are overseen by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW), offer three-year programs in general nursing and one-year specialized programs in public health or midwifery. Universities are the only institutions authorized to offer four-year nursing programs, which often include a year of specialized training in midwifery or public health and lead to bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

Nursing programs typically follow a standard curriculum set by MEXT and MHLW. Students who successfully complete three years of general nursing education are eligible to sit for the National License Examination for Nursing; a high passing score allows them to begin practicing. After receiving their general nursing license and completing an additional year of specialized training, students can sit for National Public Health and National Midwifery Examinations.

Higher Education

Japan offers a wide and diverse landscape of HEIs that comprises junior colleges, universities, and graduate schools in addition to the post-secondary professional and vocational institutions touched on above. The country has one of the largest higher education sectors in the world, with around 3.9 million students enrolled in post-secondary education [102] in 2018. That same year, a total of 2.9 million students [103] were enrolled in universities, with 2.6 million enrolled in undergraduate programs and 254,000 in graduate programs. Enrollment rates are also high; according to MEXT [104], in 2017, the percentage of 18-year-olds studying at the post-secondary level was 81 percent, with 53 percent studying at a university, 22 percent at a specialized training college, 4 percent at a junior college, and 1 percent at a college of technology.

Three categories of Japanese universities exist: national universities, established by the national government; public universities, established by prefectures and municipalities; and private universities, established by educational corporations. One noteworthy characteristic concerning the composition of Japanese HEIs is the country’s high proportion of private institutions, which expanded rapidly in response to growing demand for higher education in the postwar economic boom years. In 2018 [103], less than a quarter of Japan’s 782 universities were public or national—with just 86 national and 93 public universities, compared with 603 private universities. That same year, private institutions enrolled nearly four-fifths of all higher education students [105], giving Japan the seventh-largest private higher education student population in the OECD.

However, despite making up the majority of Japanese HEIs, private universities are often considered less prestigious than their national and public counterparts. Even today, national and public universities typically rank higher on domestic and international league tables and are responsible for the bulk of Japan’s academic research output. Of the 11 universities making up RU11 [106], a consortium of Japan’s top research universities, only two are private, Keio University and Waseda University. Even more prestigious are the National Seven Universities [107], a group of national universities established and operated by the Empire of Japan until the end of World War II, the oldest and most prestigious of which is the University of Tokyo.

Recent reforms have helped modernize Japan’s highly respected national universities. The National University Corporation (NUC) Act [108] , implemented in 2004, reorganized this HEI category, which had previously been managed directly by MEXT, transforming national universities into public corporations, a move that expanded their autonomy in academic, budgetary, and other matters. The NUC reforms also empowered national university presidents, allowing them to make important organizational, strategic, and academic decisions without statutory or MEXT approval.

Still, despite its size and diversity, higher education in Japan remains more challenged than any other stage of the country’s educational system. Problems include quality concerns, growing inequality, and shrinking enrollment. Japan’s population decline has meant that fewer and fewer students graduate from senior high school and that fewer are eligible to enroll in universities. Although the population of 18-year-olds has remained more or less steady for the past decade, MEXT projects that from 2021 onward, the decline, which was uninterrupted from 1991 to 2009, will begin again. The decline has had and will likely continue to have far-reaching ramifications in the higher education sector. As mentioned above, the decline has also prompted the Japanese government, universities, and higher education associations to look overseas for students to fill empty university seats. It has also driven some universities to ease admissions standards [109], replacing strenuous entrance examinations with interviews and student essays.

Educators have long been concerned with the quality, rigor, and purpose of education at Japanese universities. In contrast to the rigor of secondary education, university studies are typically considered easy [110], with students sailing through the first two and a half years before focusing on the job search in their final year and a half. The unique Japanese system of shūshoku katsudō [111] (job hunting), long the country’s predominant recruitment practice, has meant that university education and the job market are more intimately connected in Japan than they are almost anywhere else in the world. Under the system, companies recruit exclusively from among new or soon-to-be university graduates, rarely hiring older job seekers. Once hired, these new university graduates often remain at the same company for life, with pay highly correlated with seniority, a system of employment known as shūshin koyō. As new graduates typically have little to no practical experience, recruiters place enormous emphasis on the prestige of a job seeker’s university and senior high school. Top employers, such as the Japanese government and the country’s largest companies, hire almost exclusively from Japan’s most prestigious universities. Job seekers who do not have a university education, and students attending an overseas university that follows a different academic calendar, face extreme difficulties obtaining employment.

The importance of a university education is reflected in employment rates. According to a 2012 OECD study [112], the employment rate for both men and women who hold a university education is significantly higher than for those with just an upper secondary education. The study also revealed a large gap in employment between men and women. Among men, 92 percent of those with a university education and 86 percent of those with an upper secondary education were employed, compared with just 68 and 61 percent of women with a university and an upper secondary education, respectively. Gender inequality [113] is a widely recognized issue throughout Japan, not only in the workplace, but also in higher education. In a series of investigations, beginning at Tokyo Medical University [114] in 2018, found that a handful of universities were systematically manipulating their entrance examination scores, lowering the test scores of women to ensure that they made up only a small minority of all admitted students. After the scandal forced Tokyo Medical University to make corrections, more women than men [115] passed the entrance examination.

Japan’s singular reliance on private sources to fund higher education further exacerbates concerns about unequal access to a university education. As students at all universities, whether national, public, or private, pay tuition fees, private sources [116], such as students and their parents, fund a comparatively large share of Japanese higher education. The share of private expenditure on higher education, reaching nearly 69 percent in 2017 [72], is among the highest in the OECD. Additionally, few scholarships or grants are available to students who need them, and a large proportion of Japanese students take out private or government-sponsored loans [117] to fund their studies, raising concerns about the ability of less well-off individuals to obtain a university education and a comfortable post-graduation career.

Critics have also highlighted a mismatch between the education and skills imparted at the country’s universities and those needed to prosper in the modern world. In response, policymakers in Japan have called for the “internationalization” (kokusaika) of universities to better prepare students to navigate and succeed in an interdependent global economy. In many cases, these internationalization efforts have gone furthest in private universities, while national and public universities have struggled to adapt. In a 2008 survey conducted by MEXT [118], only 5 percent of faculty members in Japan’s most prestigious public institutions came from overseas.

University Admissions

“Thus there is a general belief that a student’s performance in one crucial examination at about the age of 18 is likely to determine the rest of his life. In other words: the university entrance examination is the primary sorting device for careers in Japanese society. The result is not an aristocracy of birth, but a sort of degree-ocracy.”

Despite the passage of half a century, those words, written [119] in a review of Japan’s national education policies that was published by the OECD in 1971, still ring true today. Attending a prestigious university has a direct impact on one’s employment and life prospects, making the university admissions process one of the most significant stages of Japan’s educational system. While MEXT encourages universities to consider a range of factors when making admissions decisions, such as interviews, essays, and secondary school grades, entrance examinations are far and away the most important factor.

Students with a Senior High School Graduation Certificate who want to enroll at public universities or certain private universities typically take two entrance examinations: the National Center Test for University Admissions (daigaku nyūshi sentā shiken), more often referred to simply as the National Center Test or Center Test; and a university-specific entrance examination. National Center Tests, administered by the National Center for University Entrance Exams [120], are held annually over two days in January. There are 30 tests total, all multiple-choice, in six subjects [121]: geography and history, civics, the Japanese language, foreign language, science, and mathematics. Students can sit for up to 10 examinations over the two days, typically choosing subjects required by their preferred universities for admission.

Institution-specific examinations at prestigious universities are often even more difficult than the National Center Tests. Students often elect to sit for multiple institution-specific examinations at several universities in case they do not get in to their preferred university. Prior to both examinations, universities distribute booklets to students to help them prepare for the subject examinations.

Criticism and Reform: The Common Test for University Admissions

Many Japanese policy experts have criticized the National Center Test, alleging that the test’s outdated emphasis on rote memorization contributes to a lack of independent and critical thinking in Japanese students. They also contend that the high-stakes nature of the test inflicts significant psychological distress on students and their parents, even going so far as to assert that the test reinforces a centuries-old cultural stigma that associates failure with being ostracized. For example, a large number of students who fail to achieve scores high enough for admission to their preferred university elect to retake the entrance examinations the following year. These students, who made up one-fifth [122] of all students sitting for the National Test in 2011, are known as rōnin, a term that historically referred to wandering samurai stripped of their social status by the loss of their feudal master. Rōnin opting to study in a Juku, or cram school [123], which students can attend both before or after they sit for an entrance test, are typically relegated to a specific section of the school, segregated from other students. There, they subject themselves to long, grueling hours of study in hopes of raising their test scores high enough to gain admission to the college of their choice.

The test has also been decried for its lack of accessibility. Test prices are high and can cost students up to 18,800 Japanese yen [124], or around US$180, for just three subjects.1 [125] Cram schools can cost far more. Yobikō, which like Juku prepare students for entrance examinations, can cost as much as a year of university tuition. These high costs exacerbate economic inequality in an already-stratified Japanese society, stirring up tensions by furthering the impression that only the most socially and financially fit will be admitted to top-tier universities and, in turn, be guaranteed high-paying jobs in the future.

To address some of these issues, the Japanese government plans to replace the National Center Test [126] with the Common Test for University Admissions, or Common Test, scheduled to be held for the first time in 2021. MEXT hopes that the new Common Test will select “entrants [127] based on a multifaceted methodology that ‘fairly’ evaluates the skills that individuals have built up for themselves,” encouraging critical and independent thinking and deep analysis of problems instead of rote memorization. One means of achieving these goals is the introduction of written sections for mathematics and Japanese language tests. The significance of the new Common Test is enormous. It not only reveals a willingness to adapt to the demands of an ever-more globalized, knowledge-based world, but also signals a reevaluation of deep-seated cultural values, especially those of success, fairness, and individuality.

Higher Education Institutions, Programs, and Degrees

The structure and requirements of Japan’s higher education programs strongly resemble those of the U.S. The academic year for most HEIs is split into two semesters, April to September and October to March, although some institutions operate on a trimester or quarter system. Although the government and university officials in recent years have debated beginning the academic year in the fall to better align with international practices, no nationwide action has yet been taken. The language of instruction in most programs is Japanese, although a small number are taught in English.

Junior Colleges (tanki daigaku)

Junior colleges (tanki daigaku), sometimes referred to in English as community colleges, offer two- to three-year programs in a variety of fields. Two-year courses require the completion of a minimum of 62 credits; three-year courses require a minimum of 93 credits. Between 1991 and 2005, junior colleges awarded their graduates the title of Associate. Since 2006, students have been awarded an associate degree [128] (tankidaigakushi) which allows them to transfer to an undergraduate program at a university. At times, credit exemptions are awarded.

The vast majority of students enrolled at junior colleges are women [129]. In 2009, women made up nearly 90 percent of junior college enrollments [130]. With more and more women choosing to study at four-year universities, however, enrollment at junior colleges has declined sharply.

Universities (Daigaku)

Universities offer bachelor’s degree programs [131] (gakushi) requiring a minimum of four years of full-time study. They are offered in a variety of fields, including the humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering, and agriculture. Bachelor’s degree programs typically require the completion of a general education component, which usually comprises 30 to 60 credits taken in the first two years of the program. Students must earn a minimum of 124 credits to graduate. Medicine, dentistry, pharmaceutical sciences, and veterinary sciences programs require six years of study and between 182 and 188 credits.

Curricula in medical programs generally consist of subjects in biology, physics, mathematics, and chemistry, with four years dedicated to academic study and two years dedicated to clinical practice and training. Upon completion of the program, students are awarded a Bachelor of Medicine. Graduates passing a national licensing examination [132] are legally authorized to practice, beginning with a two-year rotating residency. A Bachelor of Medicine is required for admission to a three-year Doctor of Medical Science program.

Master’s degrees [133] (shushi) typically require two years of full-time study and the completion of 30 credits. Master’s degree programs are offered in a variety of subjects and consist of coursework, a thesis, and an oral examination. Admission requires a bachelor’s degree or 16 years of school.

Doctoral degrees [134] (hakase) require three to five years of full-time study. Graduation from a master’s or professional degree program is typically required, although some institutions also demand that applicants pass an additional entrance examination. Students admitted to a doctoral program with just a bachelor’s degree are typically required to complete 30 credits of coursework in their first two years.

Both master’s and doctoral degrees are taught at graduate schools [135], which are usually divisions of universities, although some are operated as independent institutions. Relatively few Japanese students pursue graduate education, in part because of the perception among employers that graduate students are not much more qualified than undergraduate students. Unlike enrollment at the undergraduate level, where most students attend private institutions, graduate level enrollments are concentrated in national universities.

National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education (NIAD-QE)

Since 1991, the National Institution for Academic Degrees and Quality Enhancement of Higher Education [136] (NIAD-QE), known prior to 2016 as the National Institution for Academic Degrees and University Evaluation (NIAD-UE), has also awarded degrees on the basis of accumulated credits [131] or the completion of a NIAD-QE-approved academic program. For example, a graduate of an associate degree program who has earned at least 62 credits from a university over a two-year period can apply to NIAD-QE, which, after evaluating and approving the student’s academic coursework, awards a bachelor’s degree. NIAD-QE also awards bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to students completing a course of study at an educational institution run by a government ministry [137], such as the National Defense Academy of Japan [138] or the National Defense Medical College [139]. Students in master’s and doctoral programs also sit for an examination conducted by a committee of experts convened by NIAD-QE.

Quality Assurance and Accreditation

Japan’s current system of quality assurance and accreditation is complex. It consists of government control over the establishment of new HEIs, external accreditation, and institutional self-monitoring and self-evaluation.

MEXT has sole statutory power to charter new universities [140], with the decision of whether to approve the establishment of a new university based on the outcome of a review conducted by the Council for University Chartering and School Corporation, a MEXT agency. The council evaluates the compliance of proposed universities in light of standards set by the government in areas like the organization and administration of the university, staff qualifications, student-to-faculty ratios, facilities, and educational programs, among others. After the institution has begun operations and before the first cohort graduates, the council conducts a “Survey to Track Implementation of University Foundation Plans” to ensure that the university has continued to uphold the standards set by law.

Since 2004 [141], Japanese HEIs have been subject to the certified evaluation and accreditation [140] (CEA) system. Under this system, all HEIs must undergo a comprehensive evaluation of their education, research, and facilities by MEXT-approved CEA organizations at fixed time intervals. As of 2020, MEXT had approved 15 CEA organizations [142], each of which develops and applies its own evaluation criteria. CEA organizations are approved to evaluate only certain institution types, such as universities or colleges of technology, or professional programs, such as law and business management. While the CEA evaluation is mandatory, HEIs are free to choose from among the list of approved CEA organizations. The evaluation results are published publicly.

All public and private universities, junior colleges, and colleges of technology are required to undergo CEA evaluation once every seven years. Besides comprehensive institutional evaluations, professional programs offered by PVJCs, PVUs, and professional graduate schools are required to undergo evaluation once every five years. For universities, MEXT has approved five CEAs, the largest of which is the NIAD-QE [142], which also maintains a searchable database [143] of recognized HEIs and programs.

Universities, junior colleges, and colleges of technology are also required to conduct internal quality assurance and self-assessment reviews, the results of which are published publicly. Following the 2004 NUC reforms, national universities are subject to additional evaluations by MEXT to monitor their progress in achieving previously determined goals. The results of these evaluations determine the level of funding national universities receive from MEXT.

Grading Scales

Although grading scales [144] vary by institution, most national universities employ a variation of a five-scale grading system, with most using letter grades ranging from S (superior) to F (fail). Other universities use a numeric 0 to 100 grading scale, with a 60 being the minimum pass for each course. Students performing at an inadequate level are given an F and are encouraged to retake the same subject(s) in the following semesters. As of 2016 [145], most Japanese universities had also adopted a grade point average (GPA) system.

Education in Japan Image 8: Table showing the most common higher education grading scale [146]

Teacher Training

Despite Japan’s large student population, the country employs relatively few teachers. As mentioned above, student-teacher ratios are well above the OECD average. Despite recent attempts by MEXT to reduce these ratios, a national drive to cut public sector spending has negatively impacted the hiring of new teachers. Between 2014 and 2015, the total number of teachers declined [147].

Working conditions for teachers are also far from ideal. Teachers are overworked, employed for an average of about 54 hours a week, and, as is the case for the rest of the Japanese workforce, their terms of employment have become increasingly precarious. In 2012, around 16 percent of Japanese teachers were employed on short-term or part-time contracts, up from less than 9 percent in 2005. Irregular employment often hinders teachers’ professional development, limits the time available for lesson planning, and lowers morale, all of which can have a detrimental impact on educational quality.

Outside of higher education, teachers at all educational levels must hold teaching certificates in order to practice. Prefectural boards of education [148] issue these certificates to candidates who have earned a minimum number of credits as set by MEXT-approved academic programs. Candidates typically study at general universities and junior colleges, although graduate schools of education have recently been established to provide advanced teacher education and training. Academic teaching programs include courses on pedagogy as well as those related to the subjects that prospective teachers intend to teach.

A separate teaching certificate is required to teach in different stages or types of education—kindergarten, elementary, lower secondary, upper secondary, and special needs teachers must all obtain different teaching certificates. Three different classes of certificates are awarded—advanced, class I, and class II—and each requires different academic credentials. A master’s degree is needed to earn an advanced teaching certificate, a bachelor’s degree for a class I certificate, and an associate degree for a class II certificate. The class II certificate is not an option for teachers at the upper secondary level, and those teachers who hold a class II certificate at other levels are urged to continue their studies and obtain at least a class I certificate. Teachers are required to renew their licenses every 10 years by completing a set of courses developed by MEXT and taught at MEXT-approved universities or teacher training institutions.

WES Document Requirements

Secondary Education

Higher Education

Sample Documents

Click here [149] for a PDF file of the academic documents referred to below:

1. [150] University-specific entrance examinations raise costs even more, adding around 17,000 yen per exam to a student’s total expenditure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).