Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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Due to the ever-decreasing rate of childbirth in Japan (in 2003, 1.29 children per woman in her lifetime), the number of students has been rapidly decreasing.  A large number of elementary schools have converted their empty classrooms into computer rooms, international understanding rooms, and even public rooms, while many elementary schools have been closed or merged with neighboring schools.  With the decreasing number of students, there is a decreased need for new teachers.  As a result, the average teacher is now more than 40 years old.

Elementary school classes of 40 students prevent teachers from seeing their students as individuals.  Since the 2001-2 school year, each prefectural board of education can reduce class sizes at its discretion.  Furthermore, elementary and middle schools have been able to create 20-student learning groups for Japanese language arts, mathematics, and science classes.  In addition, elementary and middle schools are hiring 22,500 new teachers for these smaller classes.  Moreover, the MOE has recruited 50,000 temporary teachers from the general public, even waiving the requirement of a teaching certificate, in order to form team-teaching groups with regular teachers, and to teach computer skills or other practical skills.  Also, retired teachers or local people will be invited to work as teachers’ aides on a part-time basis.  Many communities have a large pool of retirees, homemakers, and potential volunteers who are qualified to work as classroom aides or as teachers’ aides during school and after school hours.  The smaller student-teacher ratio will mean that students have personal attention and learn more in the classroom. 

Schools are now much more open to the community.  Since 1993, the MOE has promoted the use of school facilities for local people.  For example, athletic clubs can use the school gymnasium for weekend basketball practice.  Furthermore, since April 2000, principals can appoint a school committee of parents and community members to discuss school management.  When members of the community are more involved in schools, the quality of education improves.

In 1987, the National Council on Educational Reform (NCER) (Rinkyōshin) recommended the deregulation, diversification, and individualization of education in order to reform the rigid and uniform Japanese educational system.  The MOE has implemented large-scale educational reforms for deregulating the school system including the diversification of curriculum, changes in the examination system, the promotion of higher education, the development of lifelong education, the promotion of scientific research, information technology and sports, and the internationalization of education.

The 1998 Course of Study for 2002 onward created a new subject, “integrated study” (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan), in which each school can determine what and how to teach international issues, information science, environmental issues, social welfare, and health issues through debates, volunteer activities, surveys and experiments.  Integrated study is intended to nurture the creativity and individuality of students, and emphasize problem-solving methods rather than the rote-memorization of the basics.  The 1998 and 1999 Courses of Study expanded the range of electives for middle and high school students.  Moreover, each school can regulate the length of each class.  Teachers have much more authority to determine what and how to teach their students. 

Corresponding to the five-day school week, educational content in the 1998 Course of Study has been reduced by 30 percent, while 20 percent of class time is set aside for review sessions.  Critics worry that the students will cease to excel in mathematics and science.  Many public schools plan to supplement class hours by spending less time on school events and offering a summer session.  Parents and community leaders organize Saturday classes, while some juku (private educational organizations) cooperate with the MOE to provide camping, sports, and science experiments on the weekend.  In order to maintain the class hours for academic subjects, half of all private middle and high schools did not adopt the five-days school week for the 2002-3 school year.


After the nine years of compulsory education in elementary and middle schools, all 15-year-olds are sorted out, through high school entrance examinations, into ranked public and private high schools.  In order to ease the intense competition, high school admissions committees have begun to consider extracurricular activities and volunteer service, in addition to the entrance examination score.  In addition, six-year secondary schools have been created.  However, as long as educational credentials affect students’ future prospects, the competition to enter high-ranked high schools and high-ranked colleges will continue.  The promotion of measures that create flexibility in college entrance, such as the transfer system and a quota for adult admissions, will give late-bloomers a second chance, and ease the “examination war” for better high schools and better colleges.  Furthermore, compensatory and remedial education for low-achievers helps students who have fallen behind to recover and have the chance to enter better colleges.

Higher education is now universal education.  In 2003, almost half of high school graduates went to two-year junior colleges or four-year colleges, the largest rate in the record, and 19 percent of high school graduates went to specialized training colleges.  More students than ever are entering college, despite the decline in the number of 18-year-olds.  However, the academic quality of college students has diminished, as many colleges must accept almost all applicants, in order to remain financially solvent.

Lower educational achievement tends to be a more acute problem among minority children and children from low-income families or dysfunctional families.  Family backgrounds have a significant impact on the educational attainment of children.  Children whose fathers are in professional or managerial positions are more likely to attend selective high schools and colleges.

Early compensatory education and outreach programs for low-achieving and disadvantaged children will improve their academic abilities and keep them performing at grade level.  Compensatory education and outreach programs such as supplementary lessons for Buraku children should be open to all children with low educational achievement.  Though some teachers voluntarily teach children with low educational achievement after school, there is no system of teachers’ aides or tutors for these students.  The Ministry of Education has recently devised a plan to provide compensatory education for children with learning disabilities and those who are behind.  It will not be too difficult to provide teachers’ aides and volunteers for those students who have trouble learning, because schools have started recruiting volunteer teachers from the community.


Integrated education has helped create more accessibility to regular classes and schools for disabled children, although not all children with disabilities are legally guaranteed entry to regular schools.  Moreover, since 1993, children with mild disabilities can join regular classes with special assistance from the resource room.  Furthermore, human rights education promotes exchange programs between the students in special schools and those in regular schools.

Minority children include socially discriminated-against Buraku children, indigenous Ainu children, ethnic minority Korean children, and ethnic or linguistic minority children of newly arrived migrant workers and immigrants (such as Nikkei children, Chinese returnee children, and refugee children).  In order to improve the lower educational level of minority children, the government provides scholarships, subsidizes compensatory education, supports ethnic education, and assigns language teachers when necessary.  The government also sponsors human rights education to teach Japanese children about minority cultures and history in order to instill respect, acceptance, and tolerance for all people. 


Teachers, parents, the community, and the government have been looking for the best way to help children develop their creativity and individuality as well as their educational achievements.  Since the 1987 recommendation of the Rinkyōshin that started the current wave of reforms, Japanese education has been moving rapidly toward deregulation, diversification, and individualization.  According to the 1998 and 1999 Courses of Study, each school can decide what to include in integrated study, and set the length of class hours.  Students can now take many more elective classes and follow their own interests. 

Responding to criticism concerning the possible repercussions of shortened academic class hours and reduced content, the Ministry of Education claimed that the Course of Study is based on a “minimum standard,” and created 20-student groups for Japanese language arts, mathematics, and science by hiring more full- and part-time teachers.  Smaller class sizes and more teachers’ aides will keep students performing well in their classes. 

Cooperation between schools and the community has been promoted by inviting members of the public into schools as volunteers, lecturers, and teachers’ aides, and school committee members.  A large pool of educated homemakers and retirees can help teach children after school in order to improve their educational standing.

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