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Japanese Education and Literacy

 

 

 

 

 

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Overview

 

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Overview

Languages:
Japanese
Literacy:
definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 99%
male: 99%
female: 99% (2002)
School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education):
total: 15 years
male: 15 years
female: 15 years (2008)
Education expenditures:
3.7% of GDP (2007)
country comparison to the world: 126

Japan's education system played a central part in enabling the country to meet the challenges presented by the need to quickly absorb Western ideas, science and technology, and it was also a key part in Japan's recovery and rapid economic growth in the decades following the end of World War II.

After WWII, the Fundamental Law on Education and the School Education law were enacted in 1947 under the direction of the Occupation forces.  The latter law defined the system that is still in use today: six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, two or four years of university.  Elementary and junior high school attendance is compulsory.

Education prior to elementary school is provided at kindergartens and day-care centers.  Public and private day-care centers will take children from under age one on up to 5 years old.  The programs for those children ages 3-5 resembles those at kindergartens.  The educational approach at kindergartens various greatly from unstructured environments that emphasize play to highly structured environments that are focused on having the child pass the entrance exam at a private elementary school.

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HISTORY

Education in reading and writing has existed in some form since the introduction of Chinese writing and Buddhism in the 6th century.  In 701, the Taiho Code established schools for the children of the nobility, in both the capital and the provinces.  Beginning in the Jamakura period (1185-1333), an increasing number of the children of the samurai received formal education, but it was not until the 250 years of peace of the Edo period (1600-1868) that education became widespread among both the elite and the common people.

Education in the Edo period was basically Confucian concepts that emphasized rote learning and study of the Chinese classics.  Two main types of schools develops.  The first type was the domainal schools (hanko) that existed in more than 200 domains by the end of the period and provided education primarily to children of the samurai class. The second type the the terakoya schools, which enrolled the children of commoners as well as samurai and concentrated on moral training and teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Terakoya were usually run by a single teacher of a married couple, and there were tens of thousands of these schools in existence at the end of the Edo period.

Japan's literacy rate at the time of the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 is estimated at 40 percent, a level that compares favorably with many Western nations at the time.  Without this educational foundation, the rapid modernization achieved in the following years would not have been possible.

The Meiji leaders wanted to develop and begin an educational system that would make it possible for Japan to unite as well as bring the country up to the western standard.  Their system established three levels:  primary school, middle school, and university. Both boys and girls were required to attend school at the primary level.

The close World War II brought about change in Japan's educational system.  With the assistance Occupation forces, two laws were enacted, the Fundamental Law on Education and the School Education Law.  The School Education Law is the one that defined the current educational system in Japan.  This educational system includes six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school and two or four years of university.  Elementary and Junior High attendance is required for all students.

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SCHOOLS AND CURRICULA

There are three terms for most elementary, junior high, and high schools, with April 1 being the beginning of the school year.  The three terms are from April to July, September to December, January to March.  Saturday morning attendance is still seen in some areas (as of 1998), but many have changed to a five day school week and some schools have two terms instead of three.  In comparison to other industrial nations, the Japanese study more than those elsewhere, but it is unknown whether this number is due to shorter summer vacations or more homework.

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Preschool Education: For those who wish to start their children in a school environment early, kindergartens are available. There are also public and private day-care centers that will take children who are less than a year old and on up to five years of age.   These programs, at least for the children in the 3-5 year range, are comparable to kindergartens. Kindergartens are not all alike and will vary from being very structured and focused on learning, while others are more for social interaction or play and are basically unstructured.

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Elementary Schools: Elementary education is compulsory for all six years.  The Ministry of Education defines the elementary school curricula and makes it uniform throughout Japan, thus all students in one grade are studying the same subjects.   The following subjects are included in the national curriculum: Japanese language, social studies, arithmetic, science, life environmental studies, music, arts and craft, physical education and homemaking.  In addition, there is an hour a week of moral education as well as extracurricular activities. The most important part of the curriculum, on the elementary level, is reading and writing.  Not only are children required to learn Japanese they are also required to learn, by the end of the sixth grade, a minimum of 1006 Chinese characters.

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Junior High Schools: Attendance is compulsory for the three years of junior high as well.  Although the subjects taught are specified by the Ministry of Education, teachers are allowed leniency in defining the specific topics that are covered in their classes. The standard curriculum for the junior high level requires the following subjects: Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health and physical education, and industrial arts or homemaking.  There are also electives in foreign language (usually English), extracurricular activities as well as an hour per week of moral education. 

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High Schools:  Attendance in high school is not compulsory and most of the high schools are run by prefectural boards of education.  Entrance into high school can be intensely competitive, especially in the popular schools, and is based on how the prospective student performs on an entrance exam.  The schools that are the most popular tend to be the ones where graduates get into the "better" universities.  Enrollment is highest in general academic courses, but other programs are offered like those specialized  in the vocational area.  The curriculum for high school is comprised of required subjects and electrives comprised of the following: Japanese language, geography and history, civis, mathematics, science, health and physical education, art, foreign languages and home economics.

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Universities: A little less than half of all high school graduates attended a two-year junior college or four-year university.  Most of the junior college graduates are women.  Most of the universities and junior colleges are private and in 1996, almost 10 percent of the 4 year graduates went on fur further education (graduate school).

Competition is intense for top-level schools.  The biggest factor creating this competition is the name value associated with the university, the better the name the better the chances of getting a good job after graduation.  Competition is so fierce that if a high school graduate doesn't get into the college of his/her choice, they will study to try again the next year.

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ISSUES IN JAPANESE EDUCATION

Examination Hell:  Competition is so intense with the high school and university entrance exams it is called "examination hell."  This competition is caused by wide spread problems in the schools themselves and in society.  The major corporations in Japan do nothing to help this problem because they tend to chose recruits from a small select group of universities.  This then creates the impression that if you want to get anywhere after graduation, you go to one of those universities.  Most of the admissions exams are simply multiple choice questions, though a few many include essays or performance tests.

A large number of elementary and junior high students attend schools in the evening to be tutored or to "cram".  They do this in the hopes that they will improve their performance on the required entrance exam.  Unfortunately, a side effect of all this competition is severe stress that comes out by bullying, violence and "allergies to school".  Children are refusing to go to school for emotional reasons, thus the saying "school allergy", as early as the elementary school years!  The bullying and violence are the causes of suicide and murder in the junior and high schools across Japan.  Some blame the parents for this behavior and others blame the education system for it's strictness and extreme pressure regarding examination performance.

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