Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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Contents of This Chapter
  1. 3-1    MIDDLE SCHOOL
    1. 3-1-1    MIDDLE SCHOOLS
    4. 3-1-4    JUKU
  2. 3-2    HIGH SCHOOL
    1. 3-2-1    HIGH SCHOOL
      1. Academic High Schools
      2. Vocational High Schools
      3. Comprehensive High Schools
      4. Six-Year Secondary Schools
      5. Evening High Schools
      6. Kiku Evening High School
      7. Correspondence High Schools
    2. 3-2-2    HGH SCHOOL EDUCATION
    3. 3-2-3    AFTER SCHOOL
    5. 3-2-5    FROM HIGH SCHOOL TO WORK
      1. Gender Roles in Schools
      2. The Hidden Curriculum
      3. The Formation of Gender Roles at Home and in School
      4. The Gender Gap in Educational Achievement
    2. 3-3-2    EMPLOYMENT FOR WOMEN
  5. NOTES

Preparation for high school entrance examinations is the main focus in middle schools.  Almost all 15-year-olds go through “examination hell” in order to take the entrance examination for academically ranked high schools.  To be competitive, many middle school students attend juku (cram school) after school.  To ease the intensity of the competition, the Ministry of Education (MOE) suggests diversifying criteria for high school admissions.  To mitigate the rigid uniformity of middle school education, students can take several elective classes, and “integrated study,” whose content is designed by each school with the goal of stimulating students’ individuality and imagination. 

High school students are sorted into three hierarchically ranked types of high schools: academic, vocational, and new comprehensive high schools.  High school students enjoy extracurricular activities and work part-time after school.  Almost two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in colleges and specialized training colleges.  However, securing admission to higher educational institutions is not especially difficult.  Perhaps only the top 20 to 30 percent of high school students study hard to enter prestigious colleges.  More than half of the high school students study for only an hour or less a day.  This chapter will explore middle school and high school education and discuss schools’ efforts to promote gender-neutral education. 



All children from seventh to ninth grade (ages 12-15) attend middle school after six years of primary education.1  The continuing decrease in the number of childbirths has caused the number of middle school students to drop from 6,106,000 in 1986 to 3,748,000 in 2003.  In 2003, there were 10,358 public middle schools, 700 private middle schools, and 76 national middle schools affiliated with national universities, in addition to 183 newly established six-year secondary schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a). 

Every three or four years the teachers are rotated from one school to another in order to maintain a consistent quality of instruction.  Less than half of all teachers (40.9%) are female (Monbukagakushō 2004a), and in 2001 the average teacher was 41.8 years old (Monbukagakushō 2003a).  Almost all middle school teachers teach only one subject in which they specialize.

In 2003, the maximum class size was 40 students, with an average of 31.3 students per class.  The average student-teacher ratio is 14.9:1 (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Reduction of the 40-student class has been strongly considered, in order for teachers to pay closer attention to the needs of individual students.  The MOE announced that it would limit class sizes for English, mathematics, and science in middle schools to 20 students, and subsidize temporary teachers (AS May 20, 2000).  The MOE began subsidizing additional teachers for these smaller classes in the 2001-2 school year, and plans to hire 22,500 new elementary and middle school teachers within five years (Monbukagakushō 2003b:126-127).  The Yamagata prefectural administration intends to limit class sizes in all of its middle schools to 21 to 33 students in a few years, as the first experiment with smaller classes for all middle school students in the country (AS April 13, 2002).  The teachers’ unions and a MOE Research Survey Group have asserted that teachers are most attentive to individual students when classes are limited to 30.

Team-teaching and classroom aides will also help reduce the problem of overworked teachers.  There is a large pool of retirees, homemakers, and community volunteers that have the educational qualifications to work as classroom aides.  Starting in the 2001-2 school year, the MOE began hiring 50,000 teachers’ aides for elementary and middle schools over the next three years, and to invite volunteer assistants to participate in classes and after-school extracurricular club activities and to work in the library and on school grounds (Monbukagakushō 2003b:62-63).  In the 2001-2 school year, 32 percent of elementary schools and 12 percent of middle schools had volunteers working as school librarians (AS February 19, 2004).

Private middle schools have gained popularity among students in metropolitan areas because many provide six-year elite education, and a fast track to a prestigious college.  In 1996, about 600 schools, five percent of middle schools had both middle and high school sections.  In Tokyo, about 21 percent of middle schools have been merged with high schools, and about 24 percent of students in Tokyo attend six-year secondary schools (Fujita 1997:81).  Almost one-fourth (23.1%) of elementary school graduates went to private middle schools in Tokyo in 1994 (Ogawa 2000:195).  Private middle schools offer a flexible curriculum geared to preparation for college examinations.  They have been successful in sending many of their graduates to selective universities.  Fifteen of the top twenty high schools that sent most of their graduates to the University of Tokyo in 1989 were private six-year schools (Amano 1996:282). 

Furthermore, private middle schools have “escalators” (free passes) to their parent universities through a quota system for admissions that reserves space for graduates.  Keio University reserves twenty percent of its openings each year for graduates from its escalator high school, while Waseda University sets aside ten percent from its escalator high school (Amano 1996:100).

The popularity of private middle schools has risen as their success rate in sending students to leading universities has increased.   Students admitted into exclusive private middle schools are more likely to have an urban upper and upper-middle class background.  In order to compete with private middle schools, the Shinagawa Ward of Tokyo allows parents to choose an elementary school and a middle school from schools in the larger school district (AS September 25 1999).  Furthermore, in April 2002, the board of education of the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo began to invite public high school teachers to public middle schools in order to attract students (AS February 7, 2002).  This practice, however, may create inequality among public middle schools.  The results of school choice remain to be seen.

In 1997, there were 34 night middle schools in eight prefectures to serve 3,344 students, according to a survey done by the Research Association of National Night Junior High Schools.  There are also more than ten unrecognized night middle schools operated by volunteers.  The majority of students are foreigners: Chinese returnees and their descendants (34%), Koreans (27%), and other foreigners (7%).  In addition, there are 1,022 Japanese (31%) including adults who have not completed their middle school education, and youths who have not graduated from middle school because of school refusal syndrome.  Since 1991, the number of students per class at night middle schools has been reduced from 40 to 20 students because of the extra attention that foreign students require.  The Research Association has requested that the MOE assign teachers who can speak foreign languages and open public school education to foreign residents who are past the traditional school age (YS February 9, 1998).

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All public middle schools follow a standard national curriculum that is stipulated in the MOE’s Course of Study.  The 1998 Course of Study for 2002 onward states that the purpose of middle school education is for “whole-person education.”  “Whole-person education” emphasizes students’ physical and mental development.  Each school helps students to nurture “energy for life” (ikiru chikara), to learn and think independently, and to develop their knowledge, individuality, and creativity. 

The curriculum from 2002 includes Japanese language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, foreign language, music, arts, industrial arts and home economics, physical education, moral education, special activities, and integrated study (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan) (Table 3.1).  Starting in April 2002, elective classes have been increased to a one-hour unit per week for the seventh grade, two- to three-hour units a week for the eighth grade, and three- to four-hour units for the ninth grade.  Computer classes and integrated study are required for middle school students.

The MOE allows each school to design its own curriculum for integrated study in order to promote educational diversification and deregulation.  Social-experience pedagogy supplements the lecture-centered instruction of middle schools, and helps the students think and learn on the basis of their personal experiences, research, and discussion.  Since 2000, many schools have already introduced integrated study courses.  However, many teachers and schools are still struggling to find the best means of teaching integrated study.  Some teachers question the efficiency and benefits of integrated study at the expense of the lecture-style instruction of academic subjects.

Community service and volunteering are promoted by the MOE.  In 1997, the MOE suggested that volunteer services be considered as a criterion for high school admission.  The National Commission on Educational Reform suggests that elementary and middle schools require students to complete two weeks of volunteer work.  In practice, community service has not become popular.  However, schools, in cooperation with social welfare agencies, have initiated visits to nursing homes, special schools for disabled children, and group homes for adults with disabilities.  Some students are regularly involved in community service or other extracurricular volunteer clubs. 

After the five-day school week was introduced in April 2002, classroom hours and academic content were reduced.  The 1,050 classroom hours in 1984 were gradually reduced to 980 hours in 2002.  Academic content in the 1998 Course of Study for 2002 onward was reduced by approximately 30 percent.  Moreover, 20 percent of classroom hours are assigned to review sessions.  These “relaxed” (yutori) classes are promoted so that many students who fall behind academically have a chance to catch up with their peers.  It is said that only half of middle school students have a thorough understanding of the academic content of their classes (Ogawa 2000:212).

Table 3.1    Middle School Curriculum and the Prescribed Number of School Hours per Subject in the 2002-3 School Year
Subject 7th Grade 8th Grade 9th Grade
Japanese Language Arts 140 105 105
Social Studies 105 105 85
Mathematics 105 105 105
Science 105 105 85
Music 45 35 35
Arts 45 35 35
Physical Education 90 90 90
Industrial Arts and Home Economics 70 70 35
Foreign Language 105 105 105
Moral Education 35 35 35
Special Activities 35 35 35
Elective Subjects 0-30 50-85 105-165
Comprehensive Learning Activities 70-100 70-105 70-130
Total Classroom Hours 980 980 980

1.    A classroom hour unit is 50 minutes.
2.    Special activities hours are used for homeroom activities.
3.    Hours for elective subjects can be used for elective subjects as well as for special activities.
4.    The Course of Study will decide the hours used for elective subjects for middle schools.
5.    The curriculum for the new 2002 Course of Study published in 1998 has been in effect since April 1, 2002.
(Source: Monbushō 1998b)

However, many teachers are concerned about the possibilities of diminished academic achievement as a result of the reduction of instruction time.  This is particularly true for mathematics and science teachers who are opposed to the 70 unit-hours reduction among mathematics classes, and to the 25 to 60 unit-hours reduction for science classes for ninth graders.  They argue that students will lose their leading international position in scientific knowledge, and that the internationally recognized superiority of Japanese students in mathematics and science will come to an end. 

In response, the MOE officially declared the Course of Study as a “minimum standard” model and suggested that teachers use more advanced instructional materials.  For the first time, the MOE approved the mathematics and science of high school textbooks for the 2004-5 school year that include more advanced contents than those in the Course of Study.  The MOE plans to allow all textbooks for elementary, middle and high schools to include more challenging materials than those of the Course of Study for the 2005-6 school-year textbooks (AS April 9, 2003).  Furthermore, in the 2002-3 school year, the MOE took the unprecedented step of introducing special education for advanced students in 946 model elementary and middle schools, through providing additional teachers, mostly in the fields of English, mathematics, and science (AS August 18, 2001).

Middle school education emphasizes egalitarianism, and thus far has rejected ability grouping.  There are no classes based on educational achievement or special classes for children with learning disabilities.  Teachers as well as the public are opposed to tracking because it stigmatizes low-achieving students, and discourages them from studying rather than helping them learn more efficiently at their level.  Also, students considered as low-achievers could receive an inferior quality of instruction from teachers with low expectations.  However, these egalitarianism principles were questioned in the 2000 report by the National Commission on Educational Reform, which recommended the introduction of ability grouping based on educational achievement, and allowing students to skip grade levels, as in the United States (Kyōiku Kaikaku 2000). 

In the United States, ability grouping for English and mathematics is common in middle schools.  According to a 1993 survey, 82 percent of American middle schools used some type of ability grouping, although 36 percent of schools reported that they were considering eliminating it (Mills 1998).

Discrepancies in academic achievement are already distinguishable when students enter middle school.  Students who cannot understand academic subjects are labeled as ochikobore, or “slow learners.”  They do not enjoy classes, and often end up going to a low-ranked high school and obtaining a low-status occupation.  Teachers do not have enough time to give special attention to those who cannot keep up with academic classes because they are busy taking care at least 30 other students, completing endless paperwork, and supervising extracurricular clubs.  The MOE has begun to recognize learning disabilities, and will eventually provide remedial education for children with learning disabilities and those who are behind.  At present, no teachers’ aides or additional teachers have been assigned to those who have trouble learning.  Some teachers voluntarily remain after school to tutor them.  Systematic remedial education is needed for slow learners and learning disabled children.  It should not be difficult to provide such education for students who have trouble learning, if schools look to the resources in their own communities.

The “whole person education” stipulated in the Course of Study is eclipsed by preparation for high school entrance examinations.  Teachers and students are most concerned with the test scores in Japanese language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and foreign language, usually English, all of which are part of high school entrance examinations.  Subject teachers deliver textbook-based lectures, and the students copy what teachers write on the blackboard into their notebooks.  Educational achievement is tested through midterm and final examinations in each trimester, and eventually by a high school entrance examination.  The pedagogy is blamed for stifling children’s natural curiosity and enforcing conformity.  Therefore, the principles of integrated study encourage active engagement in education rather than passive learning and memorization.

The homeroom is the heart of middle school education.  The students study, eat lunch, and play in their homerooms.  In contrast to American schools, in which the students change classrooms at the end of each lesson, in Japanese schools the teachers go to the students’ classroom.  However, students do not stay in their homeroom all day.  There are special rooms for music, arts, crafts, home economics, the computer lab, the gymnasium, the playground, and a science lab.  Homeroom teachers are in charge of morning and afternoon homeroom times, a weekly hour-long special activities class, and moral education, in addition to their regular subject of instruction.  They review the journals of students and the han (fixed group), and track student development as well as behavioral problems.  Furthermore, they visit the home of each student early in the first trimester, and also see parents on the school’s visitation day, at the PTA, and in parent-teacher conference at the end of every trimester.

The han is a small multi-purpose group of six to seven students.  The members of the han study, eat, work, and engage in planned activities together.  The purpose of the han is to build group solidarity and cooperation.  The leaders of the han monitor the other members and encourage them to work together.  Group discussion and activities in the han are conducted in Japanese language arts classes, social studies classes, and during laboratory work for science classes.  The han take turns every week to see that all of the daily tasks are done, and lead the daily afternoon homeroom time when students reflect on their behavior at the end of the school day.  Each han is assigned to cleaning tasks, and the han in charge of monitoring checks on how other hans clean, and grades them during the daily afternoon homeroom time.  For example, if one han did not clean the classroom or hallway thoroughly or some members of that han failed to do so, the han in charge of monitoring can ask them to reflect on their misbehavior during the daily afternoon homeroom time.  The han also take turns delivering and serving school lunches, and the members of a han eat lunch together.  All students learn to cooperate with others in the han, and to take responsibility for the actions of everyone in the group.

The homeroom class has several committees, each of which is in charge of specific tasks.  The members of these committees learn how to accept responsibility.  Classroom leaders, one male and one female, are elected every trimester, and represent their class at the meetings of class leaders and in the student council.  In addition, many students are assigned to other committees, such as the cleaning committee, the transportation committee, the cultural committee, the physical education committee, the public health committee, and the school lunch committee.

In order to prevent student delinquency, everyone is expected to follow the rules and to make sure that others are doing the same.  There are strict rules about how students must present themselves at school.  Most schools prohibit earrings, makeup, and permed hair.  Male students have to maintain short haircuts.  The length of skirts is regulated. 

School counselors or psychologists are not yet common in Japanese schools, so classroom teachers are responsible for guidance counseling and helping troubled students.  The teachers on the counseling and guidance committee deal with disciplinary issues and troubled students in consultation with the students’ homeroom teacher, a nurse teacher, and the teacher in charge of their extracurricular club.  Parents expect teachers to correct misbehavior.  If necessary, the counseling and guidance committee will also contact the youth center and the municipal police.  As a result, the teachers have extra work, but teachers are not only expected to improve students’ minds, but also to improve their moral character. 

In 1995, the MOE, concerned with the rising rate of juvenile delinquency, began to deploy school counselors.  The number of school counselors has been increasing.  These counselors also help reduce the workload of classroom teachers. 

After school, the majority of students participate in extracurricular clubs where they develop their physical or artistic abilities, while learning group consciousness and responsibility.  According to a 2000 survey, 69 percent of male students and 45 percent of female students joined after-school athletic clubs, while seven percent of male students and 31 percent of female students belonged to cultural clubs (Naikakufu 2001b).  Athletic clubs have an hour or two of daily training, and some clubs have training even on the weekend.  Among cultural clubs, brass band clubs and choir clubs have daily practice, while painting clubs, volunteer clubs, and academic clubs (such as the chemistry club or the reading club) meet several times a week.

Students who are active in clubs agree that the extracurricular activities are the most enjoyable part of school.  They stay involved in club activities until the summer of their senior year, when their attention turns to preparation for high school entrance examinations.  Only a few middle school students join the children’s association in their community (6.4% for boys and 6.2% for girls) or a community sports association (12.2% for boys and 5.5% for girls) (Naikakufu 2001b) because most prefer the clubs at their school.

After returning home, middle school students study for about an hour and watch television or play games for about an hour.  According to a 1999 survey, middle school students studied for 30 minutes (22.4%), one hour (24.6%), two hours (13.9%), or three hours (3.9%) at home on the day before the survey, while 34.8 percent said they did not study at all.  More than one-fourth (27.7%) of middle school students watched television or videos or played games for two hours, 22.7 percent did so for one hour, 21.9 percent did so for three hours.  More than half of all surveyed middle school students (57.4%) did not play with their friends on the day before the survey (Sōmuchō 2000b:64).  According to a 2000 survey, among ninth graders, most of whom took the high school entrance examination, 13.8 percent studied for more than two hours a day, while 39.5 percent studied occasionally, though not everyday, and 11.9 percent did not study most days (Kariya 2001:64, 66, 120).

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In April 2003, 97.3 percent of middle school graduates continued on to high schools, including correspondence high schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Students select one public high school from the school district and take its entrance examination, in addition to the entrance examinations for as many private schools as they want.  All high schools in a school district are ranked, according to their success in sending graduates to prestigious colleges, and matched to the standard deviation of the test scores of prospective students. 

There are three kinds of regular daily high schools: academic, vocational, and comprehensive, in addition to evening high schools and correspondence high schools.  Academic high schools are usually ranked higher than technical, commercial, and agricultural schools because the majority of middle school graduates plan to earn a degree from a university, a junior college or a specialized training college.  Vocational high schools are also ranked through their success in placing their graduates in jobs.  Among the vocational school students, male students tend to choose technical high schools, while female students tend to attend commercial high schools and the departments of nursing and home economics in vocational or academic schools.

Each student can take only one entrance examination for public high school since the examination day is the same.  They can take as many private high school examinations as they want.  There are two kinds of private high schools: elite and low-ranked.  Unless they have extremely bad behavioral problems, all students can pass the exams for low-ranked private schools, so that everybody who wants to attend high school can do so even after they have failed the exams for public high school.

The high school entrance examination is the first obstacle that almost all ninth graders, except for students in elite private six-year schools, encounter.  Middle school students decide which high school to attend, based on their school grades and test scores.  Going to a high-ranked high school gives students a better chance to enter a high-ranked college, and to land a high status job, because employers use educational credentials as one of the main criteria for recruitment.  Takeuchi argues that the high school examination used for screening students is based on “tournament mobility theory,” and that “early winners” get better chances for the next stage in selection, the college entrance examination (Takeuchi 1995).

“Examination hell” places enormous stress on 15-year-old ninth graders.  According to the 1995 survey, over two-thirds of parents of children from fourth to ninth grades described the entrance examination as stressful for their children and for themselves (Sōmuchō 1996:163).  In order to solve this problem, several proposals have been made: 1) diverse criteria for admission; 2) six-year secondary schools; 3) comprehensive community high schools; and 4) the return-match system (e.g., transfer system and a quota system to colleges). 

Defenders of the examination contend that the competition is a good motivation for study.  According to a 1987 survey, almost 90 percent of teachers and two-thirds of middle school students think that competition is a good reason for study, and 60 percent of both teachers and students think that the competition is necessary (Kudomi 1994b:329). 

The admission selections are based on academic merit including the entrance examination scores, grades, and interviews.  The overemphasis on academic test scores undermines the whole-person education of middle school.  The MOE, objecting to the fierce competition during the entrance examinations, suggested in 1997 that high school admissions should use a greater variety of criteria: 1) student motivation; 2) sports and cultural club activities; 3) volunteer service; 4) reports from community leaders; 5) school recommendation; 6) interviews; and 7) essays, composition, and practical skills (Sōmuchō 1998:320). 

However, the evaluation of these criteria can be too subjective.  Also, students would still compete to get better evaluations from extracurricular activities and volunteer service.  Although extracurricular activities help students develop their physical and artistic abilities and improve their interpersonal skills, and volunteer activities help students gain social experiences in the community, their participation in these activities should not be forced.  As long as educational credentials affect the future careers of the students, competition to enter high-ranked high schools and then high-ranked colleges will persist. 

During placement counseling with students and parents, homeroom teachers of ninth graders take the most significant role in matching each student to a high school.  Homeroom teachers know the student’s interests as well as parents’ preference, and present the odds of passing the exams based on the analysis of his/her test scores from midterms, final exams, and practice exams.  Teachers compare the student’s performance to that of previous students, during a parent-teacher-student conference at the end of the first trimester.  They sort out students according to their academic rank, and suggest to them the high schools where they have the best chance of passing the entrance exams.  Students who reluctantly agree to take exams from their second or third choice of high school are discouraged.  At the same time, they can clearly see the probability of passing based on their academic position, and understand which high school they have the best chance of entering.  The problem with this system is that the students are sorted only by academic achievement, such as the standard deviation of mock test scores, and not by their future life plan.

Middle school students, especially ninth-graders, are serious about their future, and study hard to enter their first choice high schools.  Parents help them prepare for the exams by sending them to cram schools (juku), and by making sure that they have a quiet study area.  Two-thirds of students have their own study rooms at home (Sōmuchō 1996:26).  More than half of middle school students plan to continue on to higher education, and study hard to enter higher-ranked academic high schools.  According to a 1999 survey, 63.5 percent of male students plan to pursue higher education (50.4% to enter college and 13.1% to enter junior college or specialized training college), while 30.6 percent of male students plan to work after high school and 1.4 percent plan to work after middle school.  In contrast, 76.6 percent of female students plan to pursue higher education (42.2% to enter college and 34.4% to enter junior college or specialized training college), while 18.8 percent of female students plan to work after high school, and 0.8 percent plan to work after middle school (Sōmuchō 2000b:61). 

For future careers, male students hoped for jobs as company employees (8.8%); sports professionals (8.5%); programmers, architects, technicians, or interpreters (8.1%); and civil servants (7.6%), and 44.5 percent of boys surveyed were undecided.  Female students were interested in becoming nurses or nursery caregivers (13.8%); designers, artists, musicians, novelists, or comic writers (9.3%); and preschool/kindergarten, elementary, middle, or high school teachers (8.2%), and 37.5 percent of girls were undecided (Sōmuchō 1996:72-73).

According to a 1999 survey, the majority (74%) of parents want their children to continue on to higher education (51.1% to college, 8.6% to junior college and 14.3% to specialized training college), while 19.3% want their children to work after high school, and 0.2% want their children to work after middle school (Sōmuchō 2000b:121).  Parents are more likely to assume that their sons rather than their daughters will enroll in four-year colleges.  According to a 2000 survey, 66.9 percent of parents of children between the ages of 9 and 14 expect their son to go to a four-year college, while 44.7 percent of parents expect their daughter to go to a four-year college, and 17 percent of them want their daughters to go to a junior college (Naikakufu 2002:104).

The educational level and occupational status of parents affect the educational attainment of their children.  According to a 1995 survey, 63 percent of fourth to ninth graders whose fathers attended college planned to go to college, while 37 percent of children whose fathers were high school graduates who had not attended college planned to go to college (Sōmuchō 1996:169).  According to a 1995 Social Stratification and Social Mobility (SSM) survey, among those who were born in 1956-1975, 41.9 percent of those whose fathers were professionals or in managerial positions, 24.6 percent of those whose fathers were in clerical, sales, or service, 15 percent of those whose fathers were manual workers, and 7.3 percent of those whose fathers were in the primary sector (agriculture, forestry, and fishery) went to high-ranked academic high schools (Kariya 1998:94-95).

The Central Education Committee and the National Commission on Educational Reform promote six-year secondary schools to ease “examination hell.”  The Amendment to the School Education Law has been in effect since 1999.  It helps both middle schools and high schools cooperate and create six-year secondary schools.  Satō proposes the elimination of high school entrance examinations and the abolition of public subsidies for private high schools.  Under his proposal, private schools will need to either abolish their entrance examinations or sacrifice public subsidies.  He predicts that many private high schools, which would be in dire financial straits without the subsidies would abolish entrance examinations (Satō 2000:84-89).

Comprehensive community high schools that can accommodate all students in small school districts have never prevailed in Japan.  Comprehensive community high schools introduced by the GHQ after World War II, were never popular and ceased to exist soon after the Occupation, except in the Kyoto area.  When small school districts were introduced in Tokyo in 1967, many high-ranked public schools in Tokyo lost their best students to private elite high schools or private six-year secondary schools.  That intensified the competition among ninth graders as well as sixth graders to enter good private middle and high schools.

In 2003, the Tokyo metropolitan administration abolished its 10 school districts in favor of citywide public high schools, in order to attract students to the public high schools.  As a result, the traditionally competitive public schools attracted many students from outside their former districts to take the 2003 entrance examinations (AS January 8, 2003).  In addition, the Wakayama, Fukui, Gunma and Mie prefectures plan to abolish school districts, and many other prefectures also plan to broaden their school districts so that students have the choice of many more high schools, and so high schools can compete for the best students.  Since 2001, the prefectural boards of education have been able to decide how they wish to divide the school districts (AS October 20, 2001). 

Flexibility in college entrance admissions and the return-match system for students in low-ranked high schools would give late-bloomers a second chance, and ease the first stage of competition: the entrance examination for high school.  The established model, in which students go from high-ranked academic high schools to high-ranked colleges, discourages students in low-ranked high schools from competing against students in high-ranked high schools at the second stage of competition: the college entrance examination.  They usually experience a “cooling off” of their ambitions and life goals after having lost the initial competition during high school selection because they realize that they do not have good chance of admission to a good college (Takeuchi 1995).

In addition, low educational expectations from teachers and parents do not inspire students to seek admission to a good college.  Remedial education for low-achievers helps students to improve their academic performance.  Some students from low-ranked high schools go to specialized training colleges and junior colleges.  If they can keep their grades up and transfer from these two-year colleges to four-year colleges, these late-bloomers can still attend a good college.  However, transfer is extremely difficult.  Increased flexibility in the transfer system would help ease “examination hell” and provide a second chance for late-bloomers, just as many community college students transfer to four-year colleges in the United States.  The MOE has moved in the right direction since 1999 by creating a transfer system for students from two-year specialized training colleges with 1,700 hours of class units or more to enroll in college (Monbushō 1999b:167).

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3-1-4    JUKU

“Juku” are private educational organizations; the term is usually translated as “cram school.”  Many large-scale juku, which prepare students for the high school and college entrance examinations, are called “shingaku juku” (cram school for entrance examinations) or “yobikō” (preparatory cram school for college examinations).  These schools employ many full-time and part-time juku teachers, and operate in urban areas.  However, most juku are simply study classes taught by retired teachers or homemakers in their houses a few times a week in the late afternoon and early evening. 

Juku provides middle school students with supplementary lessons several times a week, if not every day, and helps them to prepare for the high school entrance examination.  According to a 1993 survey conducted by the MOE, the majority of middle school students attended juku to review academic subjects and to improve their school performance (Sōmuchō 1998:313).  English juku and mathematics juku are operated by retired teachers and part-time juku teachers in their homes or in rented offices several evenings a week between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.  Some of the more professionally-run juku may provide not only English and mathematics, but also all five academic subjects.  Many college students take part-time jobs as juku teachers in these juku companies. 

Some parents force their children to attend juku, while some students go to juku to socialize.  Parents are happy to pay the tuition because they believe that juku helps their children improve their school performance and increase their chances of passing the entrance examination of the high school of their choice.  Most parents can afford juku.  Nevertheless, well-educated upper and upper-middle class parents are more likely to send their children to juku than are lower-class parents. 

By middle school, differences in school achievement among students appear.  Some students are already far behind when they enter middle school, and have already given up on schoolwork.  These students are unlikely to attend juku.  But the majority of students who want to enhance their chances of going to a better high school attend juku, hoping that it will help boost their test scores.  According to a 2001 survey, fifth to eighth graders who attend juku score much higher on the examinations for Japanese language arts and mathematics than those who do not attend (AS March 17, 2002).  Of course, many students excel in their schoolwork without juku.  For the majority of students, juku is part of their “school” life, and supplements their school performance.  Attending juku is not stressful.  The problem of tense and exhausted children comes from the rigid educational system and the Japanese emphasis on credentials.  The juku merely offer children assistance with their schoolwork so that they will perform better on their entrance examinations.

According to the 2000 Survey of Expenditures in Education for Children, 37 percent of elementary school students, 76 percent of public middle school students, 37 percent of public high schools, and 45 percent of private high school students attended juku (Monbukagakushō 2002c).  Children in urban areas were more likely to attend juku than those in rural areas, because many highly educated parents in urban areas place higher emphasis on the educational achievement of their children.  Moreover, the competition for high-ranked high schools or even private middle schools in metropolitan areas is fiercer than in rural areas.  Therefore, 42 percent of children in the fourth to ninth grades in the metropolitan areas go to private study classes or preparatory schools, in contrast to 28.4 percent in the rural areas who do so (Sōmuchō 1996:171).  The number of juku for elementary school students has risen from 18,700 in 1981 to 51,100 in 2001 despite the decrease in the number of elementary school students, from 11,958,000 in 1981 to 7,265,000 in 2001.  Nowadays, small-scale juku with several students have gained popularity.  The popular juku corporation operates three-student classes for 79,000 elementary school students whose parents pay about 300,000 yen tuition per year (AS March 28, 2003).

Additionally, the educational level of parents and household income account for participation in “shadow education,” such as cram schools, private tutors, and correspondence courses, with parents investing more in boys than in girls, according to the surveys taken in 1980 and 1982 (Stevenson and Baker 1992:1649).  According to the 1995 SSM survey, almost 70 percent of those in their 20s whose fathers were in professional or managerial positions took private educational lessons (juku, tutors, and correspondence studies), in contrast to the less than 30 percent of those in their 20s whose fathers worked in agriculture (Aramaki 2000:27).  Though juku is relatively affordable, highly educated parents with greater ambitions for their children can invest more in their education.  Private tutoring is relatively expensive, and only families from upper, upper-middle, and middle-class families can afford hiring a tutor.

The MOE and many teachers criticize juku for undermining schoolwork because the students are less serious at school, and study more seriously in juku.  In reality, many children see juku as a part of their social activities because their friends are also enrolled.  The majority of students who attend juku think that juku teachers are more earnest and enthusiastic than teachers, according to a 1997 survey (Japan Information 2002). 

Juku has also been blamed for taking too much time away from students who are no longer spending as much time with their families.  Many parents believe that their children are overscheduled and overburdened.  However, they push their children to keep up with their classmates who are also attending juku, and they do not mind paying their tuition, which averages around 10,000 yen a month.  The parents of elementary school students paid 119,000 yen for juku a year, those of public middle school students paid 214,000 yen, those of public high school students paid 179,000 yen, and parents of private high school students paid 235,000 yen in 2000 (Monbukagakushō 2002c).

Private tutors and correspondence courses have been popular, especially in metropolitan areas.  Private tutors, usually college students, come to the student’s home, and teach academic subjects.  Correspondence courses are usually provided for middle and high school students.  Every month, the sponsoring organization mails study materials to its subscribers.  The children complete worksheets and take mock exams and quizzes at home, which they then return to the correspondence course institution for correction. 

In 2000, 26 percent of elementary school students, 39 percent of middle school students, 26 percent of public high school students, and 28 percent of private high school students used private tutors and/or correspondence education.  Among these students, 39,000 yen was spent by elementary school students, 96,000 yen was spent by public middle school students, and 101,000 yen was spent by public high school students.  From the data, it is obvious that the students in private schools spent more than those in public schools (Monbukagakushō 2002c).

Juku is an affordable way for students to receive extra help with their schoolwork.   MOE’s recent decision to cooperate with its traditional adversary, the juku, was a surprise.  The MOE plans to subsidize the tuition of English juku to supplement English conversation classes in elementary schools, because schools cannot allocate enough time for English conversation classes (AS August 30, 1999).  Furthermore, with the introduction of the five-day school week in April 2002, the MOE plans to cooperate with juku managers to provide extra activities on weekends, such as camping, sports, science experiments, and cultural experiences (AS February 1, 2002).  This new partnership between schools, the community and the private sector will provide a better and more well-rounded education for students.  Schools can entrust after-school programs to community centers or even private educational organizations.  

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Only three percent of middle school graduates do not attend high school.  They are usually considered low-achievers, troublemakers, or averse to studying.  Poverty no longer has a direct effect upon high school enrollment because public high school education is so inexpensive.  However, the students whose education ends in middle school are more likely to have a family background that is characterized by lower socioeconomic status and lower educational levels.  In 2003, 10,000, 0.8 percent of middle school graduates (1.1% of male students and 0.4% of female students) entered the workforce, 6,000 enrolled in the high school and general courses of specialized training colleges, and 1,000 went to public human resources development facilities.  Another 19,000 neither worked nor went to school (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  In 2003, 140,000 youths between the ages of 15-19 were unemployed with an 11.9 percent unemployment rate (Naikakufu 2004a).

More than 90 percent of middle school job seekers obtained employment through the cooperation of their middle schools and the Public Employment Security Placement Center (Sōmuchō 1998:378).  Almost half of these jobseekers (49.3%) found positions in small manufacturing or construction and the rest (43.3%) entered the service industry.  Ten percent accepted jobs outside of their home prefectures (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  About half (49.3%) of middle school graduates who went to work in March 2000 left their jobs within a year, another 14.4% (the cumulative total 63.7%) within two years, and another 9.3% (73.0%) within three years (Naikakufu 2004a).

In 2003, approximately 6,000 new middle school graduates enrolled in the high school and general courses of specialized training colleges.  In 2003, 622 specialized training colleges offered high school courses to 53,000 middle school graduates, including high school dropouts (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Among these schools, 278 schools provided a certificate to take college entrance exams, and about 13,000 (40%) went to college with a high school equivalent in 1998 (Monbushō 1999b:167).  In 2003, 1,000 new middle school graduates entered into public human resources development facilities operated by the prefectural government and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  New graduates from middle schools and high school dropouts take one to two-year courses, and high school graduates take six- and twelve-month vocational training courses. 

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3-2-1    HIGH SCHOOL

In April 2003, 97 percent of 15-year-old middle school graduates entered high school, including evening high schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a), and are expected to graduate with only a 2.6 percent dropout rate (in the 2001-2 school year).2  In the 2001-2 school year, students gave the following reasons for dropping out: unfit for high school life (38.2%); desire to change their course of life (36.3%); low educational achievement (6.4%); delinquency (4.5%); family problems (4.4%); disease, injury, or death (3.5%); economic reasons (3.3%); and others (3.4%) (Monbukagakushō 2002b).

The enrollment rate for high schools more than doubled during the years of the economic boom, from 42.5 percent in 1950 to 90.8 percent in 1974.  College enrollment rates for 18-year-olds rose nearly fourfold from 10 percent in 1960 to 37 percent in 1975.  Many sons of farmers became college-educated, white-collar employees, constituting a new middle class by the 1970s.  Since 1975, during the period of slowed economic growth, high school enrollment and college enrollment rates have risen at a much slower pace, up to 97 percent and 45 percent in 2003, respectively (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

Most of the 5,450 high schools are public schools under the jurisdiction of the prefectural board of education.  About one-fourth (24%) of high schools are private, in addition to 15 national high schools affiliated with national universities, and 104 newly combined six-year secondary schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  As of 1997, 50.8 percent of private schools and 4.3 percent of public schools are single-sex institutions (Kimura 1999:47).  In addition to regular daytime high schools, there are correspondence high schools and evening high schools.  Special high schools for disabled children serve children with visual impairments, hearing impairments, orthopedic disabilities, mental retardation, and/or chronic illness.

Since 1990, the number of students has been rapidly decreasing due to the falling birth rate.  In 2003, there were 3,810,000, 120,000 fewer than in 2002.  Since 1998, the maximum number of students in a high school class is 40 students.  The student-teacher ratio is 14.7:1 (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Only one quarter of teachers (25.2%) were female, and the average high school teacher was 43.8 years old in 2001 (Monbukagakushō 2003a).  The MOE plans to add 7,008 high school teachers in the five years since 2002 (Monbukagakushō 2003b:210).

About 73 percent of high school students attend academic high schools for college preparation.  One-fourth of high school students attend vocational high schools.  Vocational high schools fall into three categories: technical, commercial, and agricultural.  Some academic and vocational high schools have special departments for comprehensive course programs, home economics, nursing, fishery, social welfare, information science, science, physical education, arts, music, international relations, and English (Monbukagakushō 2004a). 

Vocational high schools are losing their students, as more 15-year-olds prefer academic high schools.  Some vocational high schools are making the transition to comprehensive or academic high schools in order to attract higher achieving students.  Moreover, the decreasing number of high school students has caused some less popular high schools to close down or merge with other institutions.  Technical high schools and high school nursing programs have gained popularity under the recent economic recession, probably because many students prefer attending job training to attending low-ranked academic high schools.

The correlation between socioeconomic status, the educational level of parents, and the rank of their children’s high schools confirms the theory of reproduction.  According to reproduction theory, dominant groups perpetuate their privilege through education, although education is not in itself a simple reproduction machine.  A 1995 analysis of a social mobility survey confirms that for male children their father’s education and occupation affect their son’s choice of high school, as well as their choice of profession.  Those who attended elite high schools and are in professional or managerial positions are more likely to have fathers in similar positions (Nakanishi 2000).

High schools consist of students of comparable levels of academic achievement.  Typically, students in elite academic schools are all college-bound, studious, and well behaved.  These schools often have a competitive atmosphere with high educational aspiration and expectation from peers, teachers and parents.  Less selective academic high schools have “average” students who are less driven, who enjoy extracurricular activities, and who look forward to attending four-year colleges, junior colleges, specialized training colleges, or to work. 

Vocational high schools have “average” and “lower achievers” who do not plan on higher education, and enjoy extracurricular sports clubs and a social life.  Technical high schools, known as “boy’s schools” are overwhelmingly male.  Female students comprise the majority in commercial high schools, and almost all the student body in nursing and home economics departments of high schools.  Vocational and low-ranked high schools tend to have students with more delinquency problems and a higher dropout rate.

Academic High Schools

Each academic high school is ranked according to the number of graduates who enroll in prestigious colleges.  Elite academic schools send almost 100 percent of their students to a renowned four-year university, while the least competitive academic schools send very few of their students to such institutions.  Middle school students know which high schools provide the best chances for admission to a selective university.  The highest-ranking public academic high schools attract the highest achievers from the district’s middle schools.  The majority of academic high schools include students who plan to attend less competitive colleges, junior colleges, or specialized training colleges, with a few students seeking employment after graduation.  Many low-ranked private academic high schools accept low-achievers who failed to pass the examination for public academic or vocational schools.  After the late 1970s, some academic high schools began to offer ability-grouping classes, especially in the prefectures where the influence of JTU is weak (Kariya 1998:101). 

Private high schools, comprising 24 percent of all high schools, are also hierarchically ranked.  The tuition for private high schools is usually about three times as much as that of public high schools, which for the 2001-2 school year amounted to 111,600 yen per year (YS December 28, 2000).  Many elite private academic schools provide a six-year college preparatory curriculum.  Some of them are “escalator” schools, whose students may automatically go on to private universities like Keio University.  Elite private academic high schools attract many of the best students.  For example, among those who entered the University of Tokyo, the nation’s most highly respected university, 64 percent of new entrants, including 93 percent in Tokyo in 1999 came from national or private six-year academic high schools, an increase from 26 percent in 1965 and 50 percent in 1985 (Nihon Keizai 2001:195).

In metropolitan areas, where many elite academic high schools are concentrated, private high schools are more popular than high-ranked public academic schools.  Highly educated parents want to send their children to private middle schools with a fast track to the best universities through the “escalator” system.  Twelve-year-olds compete to enter these six-year private schools.  In contrast, low-ranked private schools have an important role in accepting students who failed the entrance examinations for public high school.  These private schools accept almost every student.

The curriculum for academic high schools prepares students for college entrance examinations.  Classes are based on textbook-centered lectures and rote practice examinations.  Many academic high schools divide their students between humanities majors and science majors.  The students may be also divided into homerooms according to their interest in attending a national university or a private university.  National universities require five subjects for the entrance examinations, while private universities usually require three.  Some schools offer advanced classes for their most qualified students.  However, the majority of academic high schools are not very rigorous.  Enrolling in a low-ranked college, junior college, or specialized training college does not require much hard work.  Many colleges admit their students through school recommendation without college examinations.

Vocational High Schools

Vocational high schools provide basic academic courses and special training for students who plan to work after graduation.  Technical high schools offer courses in civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, information science, chemical engineering, programming, and ceramics technology.  Commercial high schools teach business, marketing, accounting, and computer programming.  Agricultural high schools teach agronomy, animal husbandry, and biotechnology. 

The popularity of vocational high schools has waned, as more high school graduates prefer going to academic high schools.  Prior to the 1960s when the overwhelming majority of students joined the workforce after high school, vocational high schools attracted many students who wanted to obtain specialized skills for better employment.  In 1955, 40 percent of students attended vocational high schools, which by 2001 had dropped to 25 percent.  In order to attract higher quality students, some vocational schools have become academic schools or comprehensive high schools. 

However, vocational high schools still have an important role in rural areas.  In rural areas where far fewer students go to college than in urban areas, the enrollment at vocational high schools is higher because vocational schools can provide job-related skills and help students to find jobs through the school referral system. 

The majority of students who attend vocational schools now do so simply because they thought they could not enter public academic schools.  Students in vocational schools enjoy high school life with less pressure from teachers, parents, and peers.  Because teachers do not expect as much from these students academically, they teach less demanding courses.  Students enjoy friendships and extracurricular activities.  Students in vocational high schools tend to come from the lower-middle class and working class families.  According to the 1995 survey on Social Stratification and Social Mobility (SSM survey), children whose fathers were not professionals or in managerial positions are on average more likely to go to vocational high schools (32.4%/22.6% in the average).  The majority of those who attended vocational high schools or low-ranked academic high schools went to work after graduation, half of them becoming “blue-collar” workers (Nakanishi 2000:52). 

After a decade of economic recession, more people have come to appreciate the importance of vocational and technological skills.  The popularity of technical high schools and nursing departments has risen among middle school graduates who would obtain useful job skills.  Many adults and even college students attend specialized training colleges or take evening classes to learn technical skills.  Some vocational high schools provide evening classes for adult students in the community.  Once vocational high schools show that they can produce graduates who can obtain good jobs, the schools will regain their former popularity.

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Comprehensive High Schools

Comprehensive high schools (sōgō kōtō gakkō) are credit-based schools similar to public high schools in the United States.  Established in 1993, they offer both academic and vocational subjects.  Every prefecture was required to build at least one comprehensive high school by 1996.  In 1999, there were 124 schools in 46 prefectures (Monbushō 1999b:261).  In 2003, 104,665 students, or 2.8 percent of all high school students were enrolled in comprehensive schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  These students have greater freedom in choosing their classes, can transfer credits from other schools, and can even graduate early if they fulfill the required units, a new feature in the Japanese educational system.  Comprehensive programs have trendy names like “international studies,” “information science,” and “ecology.”  However, students do not develop as much group solidarity because of the lack of interaction with homeroom classmates and a homeroom teacher. 

Comprehensive high schools, modeled upon American community high schools, were introduced during the post-war Occupation.  However, comprehensive high schools never took root in Japan.  By the 1950s, the current system of academically ranked high schools prevailed over comprehensive high schools.  Responding to the increasing diversity of ability and aptitude of high school students, in 1971 the Central Council of Education recommended that high school curriculum be diversified.  The National Association of Prefectural Superintendents proposed credit-based high schools, joint high schools, boarding schools, and six-year high schools in 1978.  Comprehensive high schools were reintroduced, and tested in the 1980s and 1990s.  In 1991, the Central Council of Education proposed the synthesis of academic and vocational programs, known as “comprehensive courses.”  In 1993, the Committee for the Enhancement of High School Reforms recommended a credit system, inter-school cooperation, and admissions criteria: interviews, recommendations, and schools reports (Shimahara 1995a).

Despite the government’s promotion of comprehensive high schools, the majority of schools, especially the traditional high schools, are skeptical about the quality of comprehensive high schools. Very few public high schools are adopting comprehensive programs.  Only some less selective high schools have become comprehensive high schools.  Some vocational high schools became comprehensive high schools in order to combine vocational programs with academic programs. 

The basic structure of high school education has not changed.  Like other high schools, the reputation of a comprehensive high school depends upon the percentage of graduates who attend college.  Comprehensive high schools are more likely to have mediocre students who might otherwise have attended non-elite academic high schools or vocational high schools.  Moreover, comprehensive high schools provide credit-based courses and flexible time schedules for older or nontraditional students whose education was interrupted. 

Six-Year Secondary Schools

In recent years, the government has promoted establishing six-year secondary public schools in order to replace the high school “examination hell” with a continuous six-year education with yutori (a “relaxed atmosphere”).  The 1998 Amendment to the School Education Law makes it easier for middle and high schools to convert into six-year secondary high schools.  The government plans to establish 500 more six-year secondary schools, at least one in each high school district in the near future.  These schools follow the model of credit-based comprehensive schools, including vocational training and internships.  The high school department of a six-year school can take graduates from other middle schools.  Also, several middle schools and one high school can be combined to provide a six-year secondary education.  Sixth graders can enter six-year schools without examination.  Middle school graduates can enter the high-school department of a six-year secondary school through a grade check and aptitude tests (Monbushō 2000a:28-29). 

In 2003, there were 183 middle school sections and 104 high school sections in newly combined six-year secondary schools.  Among them, 50 middle schools and 50 high schools were combined at the secondary school level while 133 middle schools and 54 high schools exchanged teachers.  There were also 16 six-year schools (2 national, 5 public, and 9 private schools) with about 3,105 students and 382 teachers (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

The National Commission on Educational Reform, commissioned by Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori, recommended a radical plan to replace half of all high schools with the six-year schools (Kyōiku Kaikaku 2000).  Will a new type of six-year secondary school resemble the existing national and private elite six-year schools, even though the new six-year secondary schools do not require written entrance examinations?  Just like other high schools, the popularity of six-year secondary schools will be judged by the number of graduates enter selective colleges.  It will be difficult to do away with “examination hell” unless the college admission policies are overhauled and Japanese society abandons its obsession with educational credentials.

Evening High Schools

In 2003, 110,000 part-time high school students attended evening high schools, which are usually affiliated with daytime high schools (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Students take four 50-minute classes on weekdays, and graduate in four years.  Since 1988, students have been allowed to finish the course in three years.  Most evening schools hold classes from 5:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.  However, in the past ten years or so, more evening schools have become credit-based evening high schools, and added daytime classes for a more varied student population.  The popularity of daytime classes in evening high schools is rising among students who dropped out of regular high schools and students who had school refusal syndrome.  Twenty-five prefectures plan to open at least 30 evening high schools with daytime classes.  In May 2000, 135 evening high schools had daytime courses, mostly for the students who worked at night (AS March 29 2001).

The curriculum is the same regardless of when it is offered.  The instruction resembles that of low-ranked high schools, because many of the students had been unsuccessful in daytime high schools.  Since classes are smaller, students have more individual attention from the teachers.  Teachers may offer extra help to students who hope to attend college, and who are struggling to keep up with their classes.  In addition to studying, there is a snack or meal interval between classes.  Extracurricular clubs like badminton, basketball, table tennis, photography, and computer clubs meet until 10:00 p.m.  The school also provides special events such as field trips.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, evening high schools had played a significant role in providing high school education for working youths.  In 1953, a record 567,000 students, almost one-fourth of high school students, attended evening high schools (AS February 9, 2004).  Nowadays, the majority of students in evening high schools are low achievers or youths who had either failed to pass the entrance exams for daytime high schools or been expelled from daytime high schools.  Some students had school refusal syndrome in middle school, and young working adults who want to earn a high school diploma.  These more mature students are more likely to be enthusiastic about classes, and have better grades.  In metropolitan areas, the student population includes refugees from Indochina and the children or grandchildren of Chinese returnees, who have difficulty going to daytime high schools because of a lack of Japanese language proficiency.

Kiku Evening High School

In 2001, seventy students (37 male and 33 female) were enrolled in the four-year evening high school courses in the elite academic Kiku High School in Marugame.3  Like other evening high schools, it originally consisted of students who held daytime jobs.  Kiku Evening High School even had an outpost classroom in a sewing factory from 1968 to 1978.  However, most students enrolled now are those who failed to enter or were expelled from daytime high schools, and those who had school refusal syndrome in middle school, in addition to a few young adults who returned to school for a high school diploma.  More than half of all students have a full-time or part-time job.  Most of the male students worked in the construction or manufacturing industries, while most of the female students worked in retail and service.  Teachers advised students who did not work to take a day job in order to add regularity to their lives.

Kiku Evening High School keeps its curriculum based on traditional homeroom classes, and is currently considering new credit-based evening courses.  If a student misses one-third of the class hours in a subject, he/she fails to receive credit.  First-year students have the highest dropout rate.  About half of first-year students completed the four-year evening program.  Among 18 graduates in March 2000, three students went to four-year colleges, one student went to junior college, and two students went to specialized training colleges; the rest kept the same job or found another one.

I observed classes on biology and Japanese language arts, and the long homeroom hour.  Students do not wear uniforms, and many of the female students wear makeup and have fashionably bleached hair.  Teachers emphasize the basics, according to the academic level of students, and the class atmosphere is rather casual.  In the Japanese language arts class, there was little student participation, but all the students quietly copied the Chinese poems and the teacher’s comments on the blackboard into their notebooks.  At the end of the class, the teacher collected their notebooks.  During the long homeroom hour, the young teacher and the students behaved more like friends, and discussed the practice of employment recruitment.  Because there are fewer than 20 students in a classroom, the relationships between the students and teachers, especially younger teachers, are very close and friendly. 

During the snack time between the second and the third periods, the prefectural board of education provides a piece of bread and milk to the students.  For extracurricular clubs, the students form teams for baseball, basketball, and badminton, and during the first semester practiced for the prefectural tournament against other evening high schools.

Correspondence High Schools

Students in correspondence high schools study independently at home.  They regularly submit papers for their classes, attend school for discussion, experiments, and practical training on assigned days, and take exams to obtain credits.  It usually takes four years to obtain a high school diploma; however, a three-year program was introduced in 1988.  In 2003, 190,000 students attended 138 correspondence high schools, which included 100 correspondence schools affiliated with daytime regular high schools, in addition to 397 regular high schools, which provided correspondence courses (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

Like the students in evening high schools, most of the correspondence school students are low achievers, students who had school refusal syndrome during middle school, and youths at risk.  Some students have physical disabilities and health problems that make it difficult to make the daily commute to school.  In addition to the teenagers, the students include adults who want to obtain a high school diploma and credentials for career advancement training, and retirees and homemakers who want to learn academic subjects or vocational training skills. 

Among the 40,000 graduates, 5,000 attended college, 6,000 attended the specialized courses of specialized training colleges, 1,000 attended the general courses of specialized training colleges, 100 attended public human resources development facilities, 7,000 joined the workforce, and 17,000 did not fit any of these categories (Monbukagakushō 2004a).

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The 1999 high school education Course of Study for 2003-2012 is designed to further deregulation, diversity, individuality, internationalization, and information technology.  The Course of Study also encourages moral education, volunteer service, and employment experience.  The Course of Study reduces class hours, consistent with the five-day school week, and creates more elective courses.  Regular high schools have 30 hour-units (one hour unit is 50 minutes) a week for 35 weeks a year, beginning in April 2002. 

The Course of Study states that the current 80 units required for graduation are to be reduced to 74 units, including 31 required units and 25 elective units.  The required subjects for general education are: Japanese language arts; world history; Japanese history or geography; contemporary society, ethics, or political science and economics; mathematics; basic science, physics, chemistry, biology, or geology; physical education or public health; music, arts, craftwork, or calligraphy; oral communication or English; home economics or daily life technology; and information science.  In addition, all high schools are required to teach three to four units (105 to 210 hour-units) of integrated study.  Also, all high schools have hour-long homeroom classes. 

Each school can create one “school-specific subject” based on the needs of its students.  High-ranked academic high schools provide advanced courses.  In comparison, vocational high schools provide basic academic courses and specialized vocational courses, such as electrical engineering and business.  Comprehensive high schools offer unit-based courses for both academic and special vocational subjects, in which the students can create their own curriculum (Monbushō 1999a). 

The reduced number of class hours and the changes in mathematics and science curricula may cause a shortage of scientists and engineers in the decades to come.  Many science and mathematics teachers worry that the reduction of content in academic subjects for the sake of a “yutori” (relaxed) curriculum will undermine the academic ability of high school students.  More universities and colleges need to provide remedial classes.  The business community echoes the cry for the importance of a highly trained and globally competitive workforce.  Many educators fear that Japan might lose its pre-eminent position in mathematics and science in the future.

Responding to this outcry, the MOE decided to subsidize 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schools with more than 1 million yen for science education promotion, and to designate 20 “super science high schools” funded with grants of 30 million yen per school.  The schools will invite college professors as lecturers, have adequate laboratory equipment, and promote scientific club activities (AS August 19, 2001).  

As in elementary and middle schools, the homeroom is the core of high school education, except in credit-based comprehensive high schools.  Academic subject teachers come to homeroom classrooms to deliver instruction.  High schools do not have government-subsidized school lunches, like elementary and middle schools do.  Many students bring a lunch box and eat in their homeroom classroom.  Other students go to the school cafeteria. 

The students clean the classrooms, corridors, and school grounds every day in small fixed groups, known as han.  Two class leaders, one male and one female are elected every trimester, and many students are assigned to specific task committees in their homeroom class.  Homeroom teachers are in charge of morning and afternoon homeroom times, as well as a weekly one-hour long homeroom period.  They also take responsibility for counseling students’ behaviors and future plans.  Homeroom teachers discuss college admissions or employment with the students and their parents in parent-teacher conferences. 

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After-school extracurricular activities play a significant role in the lives of high school students.  Almost half of boys (42.5%) and 26.9 percent of girls participate in after-school athletic clubs.  Moreover, 10.7 percent of boys and 29.4 percent of girls join in after-school cultural clubs (Sōmuchō 1996:58-59).  Many athletic clubs such as baseball and basketball clubs require daily training after school.  Students learn to cooperate in teams, build lifelong friendships, and cultivate physical and emotional discipline.  Furthermore, they develop interpersonal social skills in the hierarchically ranked relations between seniors (senpai) and juniors (kōhai). 

Volunteer activities and community service are not popular among high school students.  According to a 1995 survey, only 15 percent of 15– to 17-year-olds participate in volunteer activities (Sōmuchō 1996:91).  Volunteer activities and community service have been recently promoted by the government, and are taken into consideration as admission criteria for high school and colleges.  Thus, the number of high school students who are participating in volunteer activities has been increasing.  The National Commission on Educational Reform recommends one month of mandated volunteer work for high school students (Kyōiku Kaikaku 2000).  The Tokyo Board of Education decided to create one-unit (35 hours a year) “volunteer experience activities” as a required course for the graduation for all public high schools in Tokyo, to begin in the 2007-8 school year (AS November 11, 2004).

High school students also enjoy dating, shopping, watching TV, and playing video games after school and on the weekends.  According to a 1995 survey, the majority of high school students spend weekends with their friends, while one-fourth of boys and one-fifth of girls spend the weekends alone.  On the weekend, two-thirds of boys watch TV or listen to music, while one-third of boys play video games, and read comics or books.  In contrast, 71.4 percent of girls watch TV or listen to music and almost two-thirds of girls go shopping on the weekends (Sōmuchō 1996:84-88). 

Many high school students have part-time jobs.  According to a 1998 survey in the Tokyo metropolitan area, 60 percent of high school students worked at restaurants, convenience stores, or supermarkets with salaries of 820-yen an hour (close to minimum wage) for 90 days a year, earning an average of 300,000 yen (Shokuhin 2000:149-151).  According to a 2000 survey of employers of part-time high school students, most work at supermarkets, post offices, family restaurants, or gas stations, for 600 to 800 yen an hour for several days a week, especially on the weekends (AS May 7, 2000).

The majority of high school students do not study much at home.  According to a 2001 survey, the average Japanese high school students study 50 minutes a day at home or in cram schools during the weekdays, compared with 100 minutes from the 1980 survey.  More than half (51%) hardly study (AS May 28, 2002).  According to a 2002 survey, almost half (41.0%) of twelfth graders do not study or barely study, compared with 10.8 percent of sixth graders and 8.5 percent of ninth graders of a 2001 survey.  Most (79%) think studying is important, but only 39.5 percent said they understand the contents of classes at school well (AS January 24, 2004).

According to a 2000 survey, more than one-third of high school students attended juku (cram school), and their parents spent on average 200,000 yen a year on juku (Monbukagakushō 2002c).  Many students who planned to take college examinations for competitive colleges attended English juku and mathematics juku, and/or attended preparatory schools for college examinations, known as yobikō in the evening and/or on the weekend.  These students are more likely to be from high-ranked academic high schools and take college examinations for competitive colleges.

Yobikō, a preparatory cram school for college entrance examinations, was originally established for rōnin students (literally “master-less samurai”) who studied full-time for at least an additional year after high school in order to take college entrance examinations.  “Rōnin” became common in the late 1960s, especially among male students.  Each year, 200,000 to 300,000 retake college entrance examinations after failing to be accepted by the college of their choice (Ogawa 2000:106).  Large preparatory schools provide year-round lessons.  In rural areas without many preparatory schools for rōnin, academic high schools provide classes for alumni rōnin for an additional year.  Yobikō tuition is expensive, and some students board at schools and/or rent a room nearby.  Yobikō teachers can be full-time yobikō teachers, part-time college graduate students, or moonlighting professors (Tsukada 1991). 

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In 2003, almost two-thirds (63%) of high school graduates went on to higher education, including colleges (44.6%; 42.7% for boys and 46.6% for girls) and specialized training colleges (18.9%; 16.1% for boys and 21.7% for girls).  On the other hand, 16.6 percent went to work, while 10.3 percent entered neither colleges, specialized training colleges nor the workforce (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  The enrollment rate of colleges has increased among students from non-metropolitan areas since 1975, when the government began to establish new colleges all over Japan (Aramaki 2000:30-31).  However, though decreasing, regional discrepancies are still striking.  Only one-third of high school graduates in the northern and southern prefectures attended college.  In contrast, half of all high school graduates in the urban prefectures and the western prefectures attended (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Since almost half of all high school graduates enter college, admission into colleges, with the exception of the most competitive colleges, is possible.

The examination system was imported from Europe to Japan following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and in the 1920s the term “examination hell” represented the fierce competition for academic middle schools and high schools, though only a few elite went to college (Amano 1990:xii).  During the Occupation after World War II, college admissions were based on high school records, a standard aptitude test, and entrance examinations by individual colleges.  Entrance examinations given by each college primarily determined admissions. 

From 1949 to 1954 and from 1963 to 1968, a national examination was required, but as the universities did not trust the results, the examination never became as influential as the government had hoped.  National universities based their admissions primarily through entrance examinations and secondarily from school recommendations.  All national universities were divided into two groups so that applicants could apply for two national universities and as many private colleges as they wished. 

Since 1979, the National Universal Test of seven courses from five academic subjects was introduced to ease competition in entrance exams.  All national universities were required to consider the universal test in admission decision.  Since the students had only one chance for national universities rather than two after the introduction of the National Universal Test, the reform did not have the intended effect.  Instead, competition for private colleges increased.  In 1987, the National Universal Test was revised to cover five academic subjects.  Each university can choose which subjects it takes into consideration.  All national universities were again divided into two groups so that the students could apply for two national universities.  In 1989, that system was abolished.  All national universities currently have two entrance examination periods so that the students can take the entrance examinations twice. 

In 1990, the Central Test for college admissions was introduced, and private universities can also use the test.  In 1990, 14.3 percent of high school seniors took the Central Test.  After more private universities adopted the Central Test, one-fourth of high school seniors took the Central Test in 1996 (Ogawa 2000:112).  Since 2004, junior colleges have used the Central Test.  Starting in 2004, most national universities have assigned seven courses from five academic subjects rather than the five academic subjects of the Central Test.

Despite reforms, the competition will continue as long as educational credentials from these colleges help graduates obtain better jobs, and the infrastructure of the college admission systems does not change.  Students should be able to take written examinations for national universities more than once a year.  In the 2000 proposal, the Central Education Committee suggested allowing students to take the national examination twice a year, and use their best scores over a three-year period.  The national examination will be offered in December and January, starting in 2006 (AS April 29 2000).  Written examinations are fairer and more objective than school recommendations.  If students take exams several times over a long period, similar to the SAT and ACT in the United States, the scores are more reliable. 

Furthermore, the implementation of college admissions quotas for transfer students and adult students give late bloomers another chance.  Educational credentials are important because most companies look for educational credentials when they recruit college graduates.  Partly because of the recession, the system of lifelong careers for full-time workers has come under scrutiny even in large companies.  Practical abilities and skills have come to outweigh educational credentials as recruitment criteria.  Professional certificates and technical skills can be obtained by students who study part-time at specialized training colleges, correspondence courses, evening schools, or even independent studies.  These flexible routes to obtain higher status jobs or more desirable jobs may make the competition for college admission less intense.  However, only those who have the money and time to study are able to get a second chance at going to a well-regarded college.

The survival of private colleges and junior colleges is a serious problem because of the drastically decreasing population of 18-year-olds, from a peak of 2.05 million in 1993 to 1.5 million in 2000, and a projected 1.2 million in 2010.  Many colleges cannot obtain enough applicants to meet their admissions quotas.  Enrollment in junior college has been decreasing even more rapidly.  Private universities and junior colleges rely on school recommendations to fulfill admissions quotas.  Four-year private universities use school recommendations for one-third of their admissions, while private junior colleges use recommendations from high schools for two-thirds of their admissions (Amano 1996:99, 106). 

Universities are now considering the use of admission criteria other than test scores from examinations, such as extracurricular activities, volunteer activities, interviews, and written essays in order to obtain students from a wider variety of backgrounds.  Some universities (130 colleges including three national universities in 2001) have begun to use an admissions office system to consider an applicant’s GPA, extracurricular activities, essays and interviews.  They have also begun to promote outreach programs to high school students (Kuroki 1999:79-80; Ishi 2002:22-24).  Additionally, many universities now welcome non-traditional students, and have created special admissions quotas for adult students, graduates from vocational high schools, and Japanese returnees from overseas.

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In 2003, one sixth (16.6%) of high school graduates (cf., 35.2% in 1990), the lowest rate on record, went directly into the workforce (Monbushō 2000b; Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Around 30 percent of high school graduates entered the workforce in the northern part of Japan, while in Tokyo only 6.6 percent of high school graduates did (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Among the 213,000 high school graduates who went to work in March 2003, most found jobs in the manufacturing and service industries (Table 3.2).  The percentage of professionals and technicians was much smaller than the national average, and more high school graduates were employed in secondary industries, such as manufacturing.  The majority of them were employed in small- and medium-size firms in their hometowns.  About one-fourth (26.3%) of high school graduates in March 2000 left their jobs within a year, another 14.7 percent (the cumulative total 41.0%) within two years and another 9.3 percent (50.3%) within three years (Naikakufu 2004a).

Table 3.2    Occupations for High School Graduates Who Went to Work After Graduation in 2003

Male (118,917) Female (93,946)
Manufacturing Process 55.2% 18.5%
Service 13.3% 29.5%
Sales 9.6% 18.1%
Security 6.9% -
Professional, technical 4.2% 5.2%
Transportation, Telecommunication 3.5% -
Clerical 3.1% 24.3%
Other 7.9% 4.4%
(Source: Monbukagakushō 2004a)

Among the high school graduates in 2002 who sought employment through schools and placement centers, the ratio of job openings to job applicants was 1.26:1, the lowest on the record.  The number of job openings for new high school graduates decreased from 1.67 million in 1992 to 240,000 in 2002 (Kosugi 2002:17).  According to a survey by the MOE, the rate of employment was only 86.3 percent, the lowest since 1976.  Approximately 218,000 graduates who sought employment started to work in April 2002, and more than 30,000 high school graduates graduated in March without any job prospects (AS May 11, 2002).

Most high school job-seekers use the school referral system to find a job in their community, while some use personal networks.  Teachers in vocational high schools help students find jobs in local companies through institutional networks between schools and local companies.  These employers have, over the years, developed a network with vocational schools, and employers and schools cooperate to match high school graduates with suitable jobs.  In 2001, 80 percent of those who obtained employment found a job through the school referral system, and 96 percent of those who used the school referral system succeeded in finding a job (Kosugi 2002:101).

The 1947 Employment Security Law stipulates that the Public Employment Security Office (PESO) under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and other nonprofit organizations, including schools can provide job placement assistance for youths.  For job information for high school graduates, 64.3 percent of schools cooperated with the Public Employment Security Placement Center to help students obtain job information, while 29.9 percent of high schools, mostly vocational high schools, had their own school placement centers in 2000.  In addition, 5.8 percent of high schools relied on the Public Employment Security Placement Center for job information (Naikakufu 2001a:303).  Most vocational high schools, which are attended by the majority of job seekers, have their own placement centers. 

Under the school referral system, employers who want to employ high school graduates fill out a recruitment card, giving the name of the company, the job description, and labor conditions, including wages and benefits.  These cards are then approved by the Public Employment Security Office, and are sent to schools for job referral assistance.  Employers consider academic achievement the most important criterion.  They want to employ graduates from higher-ranked high schools, and graduates with good grades in academic subjects.  Employers determine how many students they employ from a particular school, judging from their past records and experiences.  If the graduates from a particular school have worked well in the company, the company develops a mutual trust with the school and is more likely to send out its recruitment cards in subsequent years.  Vocational schools have several full-time or part-time teachers at the school placement center who help students find a job. 

At the beginning of the senior year in April, schools provide new seniors with information about jobs and employment placement procedures.  Students choose several companies they would like to work for from the recruitment cards, and consult their homeroom teacher, parents, and friends.  By late August, the teachers at the school placement center, homeroom teachers, and the dean decide which companies are best suited for which students, based on students’ preferences, academic achievements, extracurricular activities, parents’ wishes, and family background.  They use academic achievement as the main criterion to decide which students acquire their first choice of company if several students seek employment at the same companies.  After placing students in suitable companies, the teachers in the placement center teach students how to take recruitment exams, and prepare them for their interviews.  In September, the students take recruitment exams at the companies that the school chose for them.  Teachers in school placement centers can help unsuccessful job-seekers until the end of May, two months after their graduation.  Afterwards, schools are prohibited from helping them find a job (Rausenbaum and Kariya 1989; Okano 1993). 

The institutional networks between schools and local companies match high school graduates to suitable companies because employers and placement counselors share information on students and companies.  The school referral system also provides a network for disadvantaged students who do not have strong social networks and useful family connections.  The criteria for selection are based on academic achievement and grades.  Therefore, it is a relatively objective way to select students.  The system has obviously worked so far since the employers keep returning to schools with recruitment cards.  However, employers yield to schools in the selection process, and are obligated to employ whoever the schools nominate.  Students have to compete with each other for these nominations, and cannot appeal to the companies directly.  Moreover, students are pressured to perform well at their workplace; otherwise, their school’s reputation suffers.

In 2002, the MOE and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare decided to relax the “one applicant for one company” school referral system and allow high school students to apply to several companies.  In the 2003-4 school year, 36 prefectures abolished the “one applicant for one company” school referral system, and in the 2004-5 school year, all prefectures abolished it (AS November 25, 2003; AS September 9, 2004).

In the United States, high school graduates do not use school networks to find a job.  According to a 1983-1984 survey, fewer than 10 percent of high school seniors entering the workforce reported that their high school helped them find their job, while in Japan 75 percent of high school graduates found a job through their schools.  Most high school graduates in the United States found jobs through friends and relatives or through direct applications to employers.  Employers do not trust grades or references from high schools for hiring, and emphasize the importance of interviews as well as social skills from extracurricular activities more than grades (Rausenbaum and Kariya 1989).

In recession years, the number of so-called “freeters,” youths between the ages of 15 and 34 who are working part-time jobs (including dispatched/contracted workers) and/or are looking for a job, except for students and homemakers, increased from 1,830,000 in 1990 to 4,170,000 in 2001.  One out of nine youths as well as one out of five youths (except for students and housewives) are freeters.  More than 70 percent of freeters wanted to be regular workers but could not find jobs (Naikakufu 2003b).  Recently, approximately 30 percent of high school graduates and about one-fourth of college graduates did not obtain regular employment immediately after graduation, and became freeters (Yamada 2001:124).  Moreover, about 50 percent of all high school graduates, 40 percent of junior college graduates, and 30 percent of university graduates have left or changed jobs by their third year after graduation and finding employment (Ministry of Labour 2000:49).  The MOE plans to send “freeters” to several-month long educational programs regarding information industry, welfare, and so on at 56 specialized training colleges in order to obtain regular jobs since the 2004-5 school year (AS August 18, 2003). 

In 2003, among the youth between the ages of 15 and 34 years old (33,760,000), 22.01 million were in the labor force, including 2.17 million freeters, and 1.64 million unemployed.  Outside of the labor force, there were 11.71 million youths, including students, homemakers, and 640,000 others who did not wish to work, called NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).  The NEET includes delinquent youths, hikikomori (those who confine themselves in their homes and isolate themselves from the society), those pursuing their dreams, and those who lost confidence in working.  They do not seek a job for many reasons: they cannot get along with people at work, they have not found the right job, they do not know their own abilities and aptitudes, they do not know how to look for a job, they are in poor health, or other reasons (AS October 2, 2004).  The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare plans to provide a three-month training camp for these youths in order to generate an interest in working through job training.  It plans to invite 2,000 or more youths at 40 places in 2005, and will eventually serve 10,000 youths per year (AS August 24, 2004).

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The legal status of women before the 1947 Constitution was lower than that of men, and women were denied equal opportunity to education by law and custom.4  During the Edo Period (1603-1867), women, especially those of samurai status (less than 10% of population) were supposed to follow Confucianist teaching to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons.  However, most women were farmers (80% of population) and worked together with men in the farms and fields.  In the Edo period, girls began to attend temple schools (terakoya) with boys to learn reading, writing, and calculating.  By the end of the Edo Period, the enrollment percentages in terakoya were 79 percent boys and 21 percent girls (Passin 1965:44).

Since the 1872 School Ordinance, primary school education was provided equally to girls and boys.  By 1910, almost all boys and girls attended elementary schools.  However, co-education ended after elementary school, and female students attended female-only middle schools and female-only post-secondary schools in the gender-segregated school system.  Until the end of World War II, women were not allowed entrance into Imperial Universities except for Tōhoku Imperial University, which was opened to women in 1913. 

In the 1930s, about 20 percent of boys went up to five-year middle schools, the first step for higher education, while 17 percent of girls attended female middle schools to become “good wives and wise mothers” (Aramaki 2000:16).  By 1937, there were 42 three-year private women’s colleges, six public colleges for women, and two national women’s higher normal schools (Fujimura-Fanselow and Imamura 1991:233).  During this period, only 1 or 2 percent of women attended postsecondary schools.

The 1946 Constitution and 1947 Education Fundamental Law guaranteed equal rights to education for women.  Furthermore, the human rights of women are protected by a series of international human rights treaties: the U.N. Human Rights Covenants in 1979; the U.N. Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1985; the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1994; and the domestic 1999 Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society.  For equal rights of women in education, the U.N. Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women specifically mentions the elimination of prejudice based on “stereotyped roles for men and women” (Article 5), and the protection of the equal rights of men and women in education (Article 10).  Article 10 stipulates “the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education by encouraging coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim and, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programs and the adaptation of teaching methods.”

In practice, the gender gap is still evident in education and employment, though the discrepancy has been narrowing.  Fewer female students than male students attend four-year colleges.  Fewer female students major in science and engineering, which affects employment rates and wages.  The “statistical discrimination” (Thurow 1975) against the employment of women, and their commitments of childbirth and childrearing also account for gender discrepancy in employment rates and wages.

Gender Roles in Schools

Schools still provide gender-specific education such as “boys-first” attendance sheets, and single-sex high schools.  The “boys-first” attendance sheet contains the names of all male students first in an alphabetical order and then the names of all female students.  Thus, male students are always called on first when a teacher checks the attendance.  All classrooms and schools used “boys-first” attendance sheets before the 1983 nationwide movement for gender-neutral attendance sheets.  The movement began when one elementary school teacher began using a gender-neutral attendance sheet in her classroom. 

Feminist critics argued that “boys-first” attendance sheet implied the superiority of boys over girls.  Many municipal boards of education decided to use a gender-neutral attendance sheet for all public schools under their jurisdiction.  In 2000, 46.6 percent of elementary schools, 28.7 percent of middle schools, and 55.3 percent of high schools used gender-free attendance sheets (Nihon Fujin 2002:165).  The 1999 survey of the JTU (Japan Teachers’ Union) found that 43.6 percent of schools used a gender-neutral attendance sheet but that there was a large regional discrepancy.  Some regions have a very low usage of the gender-neutral sheets, such as 13.8 percent in Iwate Prefecture (AS Iwate April 15, 2000).  It is easy to change the currently used “boys-first” attendance sheet into a gender-neutral attendance sheet.  Therefore, there is no reason for schools to keep using “boys-first” attendance sheets.  The gender-neutral attendance sheets should be used in all schools. 

Some old public high schools and many private schools have kept single-sex education.  As of 1997, 50.8 percent of private high schools and 4.3 percent of public high schools are single-sex (Kimura 1999:47).  Private schools have the right to be sex-segregated, following their school policy.  Though many feminists have questioned the existence of public single-sex schools, some studies from the U.S. have shown that female students in same-sex high schools tend to have higher self-esteem, and higher academic accomplishments in mathematics and science, and are less likely to seek gender-stereotyped jobs and careers than female students in co-education (Sadker and Sadker 1994:232).

The most obvious case of gender bias in school education was female-only home economics education courses in middle schools and high schools.  Home economics (e.g., sewing, cooking, housekeeping, and childcare) classes had been assigned to only female students in middle and high schools until 1993 (for middle schools) and 1994 (for high schools).  Schools reproduced traditional gender-roles of women as homemakers.  Currently, more than 90 percent of families responded that women were in charge of cooking and doing laundry in their family in Japan, compared with three-fourths of American families, according to a 1992 survey (Bandō 1998:22).

Boys and girls in the fifth- and sixth-grades learned cooking, sewing, and handcrafting together in elementary schools, but by middle school, the students went to separate classrooms.  Before 1989, male students went to take an “industrial arts” class while female students studied home economics.  Male students learned home improvement skills such as carpentry from a male teacher, while female students learned sewing, cooking, and child care from a female teacher.  In high schools, home economics classes were required only for female students until 1994.  In my high school, male students were assigned physical education classes, while female students were required to take home economics classes. 

The Association for the Promotion of Home Economics for Male and Female Students, formed by teachers, journalists, and citizen’s groups in 1974, lobbied for the abolition of gender-segregated home economics classes in cooperation with labor unions and educational organizations.  After the ratification of the U.N. Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the implementation of the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1985, the MOE created gender-free home economics for middle and high schools in the 1989 Course of Study. 

Since 1994, both male and female middle school students now take industrial arts and home economics classes, including woodcrafts and cooking.  Since 1994, both male and female high school students are required to take home economics classes.  Male students are also required to learn cooking, sewing and childcare in the formal school curriculum.  Perhaps male students will learn to share housekeeping responsibilities in the future. 

The Hidden Curriculum

In the United States, feminist movements furthered the abolition of gender discrepancies in education by lobbying to enact Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.  However, since the 1970s, education specialists found gender-specific “hidden curriculum” in classroom management, student guidance, and school events, through classroom observation and textbook analysis.  Based on classroom observation, they argued that teachers in general expect male students to do better in class than female students, and that teachers interact with male students more than with female students in class.  The analysis of textbooks and instructional materials confirms the lack of women’s contributions and the invisibility of females in curriculum materials (Sadker and Sadker 1994:55-65, 70-72).

According to the 1992 American Association of University Women (AAUW) Report, female students do not receive equitable amounts of teacher’s attention, are less likely than male students to see themselves reflected in the materials they study, and often are not expected or encouraged to pursue advanced math and science.  In order to achieve gender equity in education, the AAUW report recommended that teachers, administrators, and counselors be prepared and encouraged in bringing gender equity and awareness to every aspect of schooling; the formal curriculum include gender-fair materials; female students be supported in pursuing education and employment in mathematics and science; and gender equity in vocational education programs be supported (AAUW 1992).  Curriculum intervention on gender role attitudes seems to be most successful with young children, particularly preschoolers and kindergartners (Banks 1991:467). 

Japanese feminist activists and educational specialists have followed the example of the United States, and began to analyze textbooks and classroom management.  Textbooks, especially those on Japanese language arts, social science, and home economics often have many examples of stereotyped gender roles and sexism.  An analysis of the 1991 elementary textbooks for 1992-1996 academic years found that the main characters in novels and important figures in history are overwhelmingly male.  Traditional gender roles are strongly emphasized, such as the depiction of women as being kind and generous, while men are depicted as being decision-makers and breadwinners (Nijūichiseiki 1994:22). 

The Formation of Gender Roles at Home and in School

Both parents and teachers tend to be less aggressive in encouraging female students into achieving higher educational goals, in contrast to male students, because of expected gender roles.  Most people believe that women, unlike men, do not have to work to support their families once they marry.  According to a 1999 survey of the parents of fourth to ninth graders, the majority of parents (69.3%) wanted their daughters to be “like girls” and their sons to be “like boys” (Sōmuchō 2000b:123-124).  Many parents expect their daughters to have a “woman-friendly” education such as junior college.  Parents generally expect their sons more than their daughters to attend four-year colleges.  According to a 2000 survey, 66.9 percent of parents of children ages 9-14 expected their son to go to a four-year college, while 44.7 percent of parents expected their daughter to go to a four-year college, and 17 percent of them wanted their daughters to go to a junior college (Naikakufu 2002:104). 

According to the 1995 Social Stratification and Social Mobility (SSM) survey, women who had high academic achievements in the ninth grade tended to attend institutions of higher education, regardless of their father’s occupations.  The only exception can be found in women from blue-collar backgrounds.  It is because it is far less expensive to attend local colleges.  However, women in their 20s whose grades were average during ninth grade were 50 percent more likely to attend colleges if their fathers were in professional and managerial positions than those whose fathers were in clerical and sales positions (Iwamoto 2000:87).  Many private colleges and junior colleges are not competitive.  Therefore, female students who have average grades can still attend colleges.  Those who have fathers in professional and managerial positions may also be more encouraged to attend colleges.

Furthermore, according to surveys taken in 1980 and 1982, parents tend to spend more on their sons for private educational institutions, such as private after-school classes (juku), private tutors, and correspondence courses than on their daughters (Stevenson and Baker 1992:1643-1655).  However, in recent years more parents, especially mothers agree with gender-neutral education at home.  According to a 1995 survey, only one-third of women between ages 25-44 agree that boys and girls should be raised differently, compared with more than half (53%) of the same age group of women who agreed with the statement in the 1985 survey (Ojima and Kondō 2000:29-30).

The Gender Gap in Educational Achievement

Influenced by their teachers’ and parents’ views of gender roles, female students are more likely to attend less competitive academic high schools or commercial high schools rather than technical high schools.  Almost half of male and female students went to college in 2003.  One seventh (13.9%) of female students went to junior colleges. Therefore, one-third (34.4%) of female students, compared to slightly less than half of male students (47.8%) went to four-year colleges after high school.  However, this gender gap is closing.  In 1960, only 2.5 percent of women, compared to 13.7 percent of men, went to four-year colleges (Naikakufu 2004c).  Junior colleges, 90 percent of whose students are female, have the image of “preparatory schools for good housewives.”  Junior colleges teach home economics, humanities, education, social science, and public health, mostly for women.  Most junior college graduates obtain clerical or sales jobs in private companies and work as “Office Ladies” before marriage or motherhood. 

The gender gap in majors at universities and colleges affects employment and wages.  Lifelong employment for college-educated women has been traditionally restricted to the professions of teaching and public service.  An overwhelming majority of college-bound high school female students choose to major in traditionally female fields such as humanities, home economics, and social science rather than science and engineering.  Only 7.5 percent of female students majored in science and engineering in 2000 (Table 3.3).  However, compared to a decade ago, these numbers have increased.  Because of a lack of background in science and engineering, many female college graduates have had a much harder time obtaining a job.  After the development of micro-electrics and computer science, where working environments are friendlier to women than in heavy industry, more female students have majored in engineering and computer science. 

Table 3.3    The Majors of College Students by Gender in 2000

Gender Humanities Social Science Science Engineering Education Health Care Others
Male students 8.7% 46.1% 4.2% 27.0% 3.6% 4.2% 6.2%
Female students 30.2%
(36.3% in 1998)
(17.7% in 1998)
2.4% 5.1%
 (2.4% in 1988)
8.9% 8.5% 15.6%
(Monbushō 2000b; Keizai Kikakuchō 1999:178)

In the United States, female college undergraduates have outnumbered males since 1978, and the same has held true for graduates since 1984.  Women earned 57 percent of BA degrees, 59 percent of the Master’s degrees, 46 percent of first-professional degrees, and 45 percent of PhD’s in the 2000-1 school year.  However, female college students are less likely than male students to earn BAs in computer and information science (28%), and engineering (20%) (NCES 2003a).

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The 1997 revision to the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Act mandates sanctions against violators, and promotes affirmative action (known in Japanese as “positive action”) in narrowing the gender gap in employment.  Nevertheless, female graduates have a harder time obtaining jobs.  Female students have a disadvantage as employers tend to assume that women will only work until they marry or have their first child (called “statistical discrimination”) (Thurow 1975).  Furthermore, very few companies officially promote affirmative action and set quotas for female employees and female managers.   

The majority of women start to work full-time after graduation (72.0% of women working in the 20-24 age group), quit their jobs at marriage or childbirth (58.8% in the 30-34 age group), and return to work as part-time workers when their children enter school (72.7% in the 45-49 age group).  In 2001, the average age of female employees was 37.7 years old, in comparison to 40.9 years old for male workers, and the average length of service was 8.9 years, compared with 13.6 years for male workers.  Female workers earned 63.5 percent of the wages of male workers.  Four-fifths (82.2%) of part-time workers were women (Nihon Fujin 2002:257, 267, 270-271).

According to the 1995 SSM survey, only 22.1 percent of women who were full-time employees before marriage still worked full-time when their youngest child was born, except for female workers in agriculture, forestry, family-managed firms, and self-employment.  Tanaka concludes that the educational attainment of women did not affect the continuity of full-time work, with the exception of teachers (Tanaka 1997:134-135, 139).  In fact, the educational attainment of housewives is often higher than women in the workforce because college-educated women are more likely to marry men with higher income and are not economically dependent upon their job (Table 3.4).  However, younger four-year college graduates in their 30s are more likely to work full-time than junior college graduates, high school graduates, and junior high school graduates, according to the 1995 SSM survey (Kimura 2000:179-180).

In the United States, however, a record 59 percent of women who have a baby under one year old had a job in 1998, compared to 31 percent in 1976.  In 1999, women who worked full time earned 72 percent ($26,300) of the wages of men who worked full time ($36,500).  College-educated women who were in the workforce full time earned 69 percent ($34,408) of the wage of college educated male workers ($49,982)(Los Angeles Times March 15, 2001).

Table 3.4    The Rate of Full-Time Workers (SSM Survey 1995)
College graduates Junior college graduates High school graduates Middle school graduates
30-40 years old 32% 18% 20% 30%
40-49 years old 24% 33% 24% 25%
50-59 years old 10% 18% 21% 16%
(Source: Kimura 2000:180)

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Almost all students between the ages of 12 and 15 attend neighborhood public middle school and receive an education based on national standards.  In recent years, the uniformity of middle school education and its lecture-based pedagogy have been criticized for undermining creativity and individuality.  In response, in the 1998 Course of Study the government has increased the number of elective classes and created an “integrated study” (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan).  Integrated study includes international issues, information science, environment issues, and social welfare and health issues through social experience pedagogy such as debates, volunteer activities, and experiments.  Each school has the freedom to design its own integrated study, and teachers are still experimenting with the best methods of teaching this new subject.

Currently, the maximum class size of 40 students prevents teachers from paying close attention to individual students.  The Ministry of Education (MOE) rejected a proposal of 30-student homeroom classes, citing budgetary constraints.  Instead, in 2001 the MOE has hired additional teachers to make 20-student classes for English, mathematics, and science classes in middle schools.  In addition, the MOE has come to rely upon teachers’ aides and to invite school volunteers from the community to assist busy teachers and to tutor students.

Middle school education is undermined by the preparation for high school entrance examinations.  The competition for high school entrance examinations is so fierce that many students suffer stress.  Almost all 15-year-olds are sorted into ranked high schools.  In 1997, the MOE suggested the diversification of admission criteria in order to minimize competition.  Under this new policy, admission officers consider not only the test scores but also student’s motivation, extracurricular activities, volunteer service, reports from community leaders, school recommendations, interviews, and essays.  The government also established six-year secondary schools that had no examination requirement of admission.  However, as long as the “examination war” for admission to prestigious colleges persists, the competition will continue.  I suggest promoting the return-match system of college admissions such as a transfer system from junior colleges or specialized training colleges to four-year colleges, and a quota system for adult college enrollment, which gives late-bloomers a second chance.

High school education is universal education, though not compulsory education, because almost all 15- to 18-year-olds attend high schools.  More than 70 percent of high schools are academic high schools, that is, preparatory high schools for college, and the rest are vocational high schools.  Fewer than three percent of students attend the new comprehensive high schools.

Family backgrounds have a significant impact on the rank of the high schools that children attend.  Children whose fathers are in professional or managerial positions are more likely to attend high-ranked academic high schools.  Outreach programs for low-achievers, such as after-school lessons, particularly in elementary and middle schools, would help break the reproduction of academic stratification.

In April 2003, almost two-thirds of high school graduates continued on to higher education, attending colleges and specialized training colleges.  College admission, with the exception of prestigious colleges, is not too difficult.  Only the top 20 to 30 percent of high school seniors go through “examination hell” to pass the yearly entrance examinations for national universities and the best private universities.  One sixth (16.6%) of all high school graduates, the lowest rate on record, joined the workforce after graduation in March 2003.  School placement centers in vocational high schools match job-seeking students to local employers through institutional school networks.  The school referral system assists disadvantaged students who do not have the personal connections or social capital to find a job.  Because of a decade of economic recession, high school graduates as well as college graduates have had a hard time obtaining a desirable job.

The gender gaps in higher education and employment derive from the gender stereotyping at home and in school, in job recruitment, and in childrearing.  The majority of parents still raise their children to respect traditional gender roles, and schools “reproduce” gender specifics through curriculum, classroom management, and teachers’ attitudes.  The mass media and the community also reinforce gender stereotypes. 

In recent years, however, school education has attempted to provide gender-neutral education.  Since 1993 and 1994 respectively, female-only home economics classes in middle and high schools have admitted male students.  Starting from 1983, gender-free attendance sheets, instead of “boys-first” sheets have been in widespread use.  The number of female four-year college students, and that of female students in social science as well as science and technology have increased in recent years, and have narrowed the gender gap, though slowly.


1.    Middle school education in Japan has been introduced in English through ethnographical research (Singleton 1967; Fukuzawa 1996; LeTendre 1995; 1996a; 1996b; 1999; 2000; Fukuzawa and LeTendre 2001).  Japanese cram schools are summarized in Russell (1997).

2.    Rohlen’s Japan’s High Schools (1983) describes Japanese high school education through the ethnography of five different kinds of high schools in Japan.  A comparative study done through interviews on the social lives and material consumption of American and Japanese teenagers can be found in White (1987, 1993).  The employment of high school graduates is discussed in the ethnographical research and sociological analysis of vocational high schools in Okano 1993, and Rosenbaum and Kariya (1989 and 1991).  “Examination hell” (Frost 1991), and preparatory schools for college entrance examination (yobikō) (August 1992; Tsukada 1991) are discussed through ethnographical research and data analysis.

3.    I conducted classroom observations and an interview with the vice-principal in Kiku Evening High School on February 27, 2001.

4.    The history of women’s education is summarized in English (Fujimura-Fanselow and Imamura 1991; Fujieda and Fujimura-Fanselow 1995; Fujimura-Fanselow 1995).  Kimura discusses gender problems in schools (Kimura 1999) and Utsui analyzes a comparative study of female education in Japan and the United States (Utsui 1994).

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