There is a well-known stereotype around the world that East Asian cultures are far more academically-focused than their Western counterparts. But how much truth is there behind this commonly held notion? And where does it come from? In order to compare the Japanese culture of education to American school culture, let’s start by looking at a few statistics.
Each year, Japanese students spend 240 days in school, compared with just 180 for American students. At face value they are already spending two more months of the year attending classes. While school in America is compulsory from elementary through high school, only elementary (小学校 shōgakkō) and junior high (中学校 chūgakkō) are required in Japan. Despite this, high school enrollment is 99% nationwide. In 2010, Japan’s high school graduation rate was at 95%, compared with just 77% in America. Japan has one of the world’s best-educated populations, with 100% enrollment in compulsory grades, and a 99% literacy rate.
But what exactly is behind these numbers? Along with the massive economic growth in Japan following World War II came an extreme pressure for Japanese students to achieve academic success. This pressure is ingrained in children by their parents from birth. The cost of failing means not only losing out on financial success and stability, but also bringing shame to oneself and one’s family, known as 恥 (haji). Despite a nationwide policy of ゆとり教育(yutori kyōiku, or relaxed education) that was introduced in 2001, Japan’s drop in international rankings, and concern with the academic levels of graduates, ushered in a shift back to longer school days and more rigorous schedules for students over the past few years.
While getting into a good college in America means having a strong GPA, a well-rounded list of extra-curricular activities, and a good SAT score, Japan is focused almost exclusively on college entrance exams (入学試験, nyūgaku shiken). Getting into a top university may be difficult in America, but once you’re there, the work has only just begun. If you do manage to earn your degree, getting a good job is a whole different story. In Japan, however, if you’re accepted into one of the most prestigious universities, you’re almost guaranteed a degree and a position at one of the country’s best companies. Students will spend their entire adolescence preparing for these exams, knowing that they play a critical, singular role in determining their future. Hence the coining of the phrase 試験地獄 (juken jigoku), or, “entrance exam hell.”
Because the pressure to succeed on nyūgaku shiken is so high, Japanese students often enter cram schools known as 塾 (juku) in order to better prepare. If you aren’t accepted into university, you become 浪人 (rōnin), or a master-less samurai. At this point you will likely enter a juku or 予備校 (yobikō) in preparation for taking your exams again. While almost all Japanese high school students are enrolled in some kind of supplemental education, it doesn’t begin there.
As of 2011 almost one in five children in their first year of primary school attended after-class instruction. Parents in Japan will send their children to juku as early as three years old in order to prepare for pre-school, elementary, junior high, and high school entrance exams. In 2010, 97% of Japanese four-year-olds were enrolled in some form of pre-primary education. Compared with the OECD average of 81%, this statistic is even more staggering. Of course, once your child is accepted into a prestigious pre-school, they can ride the path to the best elementary schools, the best high schools, and naturally, the best universities. While this concept isn’t completely foreign in America, the Japanese have made it all but required to enroll your child in juku at some point if you want them to succeed.
So where does all this pressure leave students in Japan? Because extra-curricular activities are not considered an integral part of academic success, many students are forced to abandon these in exchange for additional time studying for exams. After an early morning, a full day at school, several hours at a cram school, and a few more hours of homework, most young students won’t make it to bed until after midnight. Additionally, the Japanese system is centered completely on rote memorization and the ability to test well. While this is clearly (and proudly) reflected in their international rankings, it may not be a good measure of overall intelligence. In class, students listen, take notes, and do not ask questions. As students are taught only to memorize answers rather than to come up with creative solutions to problems, their test scores flourish while their ingenuity as a nation suffers.
Over the past decade, many critics have come out against the Japanese system, insisting that the country as a whole needs to move away from just cramming to a multifaceted approach to education that includes identifying problems, taking risks, and finding innovative solutions. But so long as those entrance exams are the sole determiner of your child’s future, testing well will remain students’ top priority, and cram schools will remain an inescapable part of education in Japan.
Have you studied abroad in Japan before? What are your thoughts on their educational culture and methodology? Is too much pressure put on students to succeed? What, if anything, do you think should change? Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!