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Education and Schools

Japan - Education and Schools


Education in Japan is free for state school pupils in grades one to nine. These are the compulsory school years for Japanese nationals. Other children may attend school on a voluntary basis.

Children start grade one at the age of six, and end grade nine when they are 15.

Elementary schools teach grade one through to grade six. After that, the pupils move up to junior high school, the first element of the secondary education system, until the end of grade nine.

During these compulsory school years, textbooks are also provided without charge.

Children with special educational needs due to physical or mental disabilities have the option of attending a school catering to these needs. This is also provided by the state without charge.

Private schools also offer places for pupils during compulsory school years, but charge tuition fees. It is a parent’s choice whether or not to send their child to a private school.

After grade nine ends, pupils can choose to leave education or move on to high school. Since education is voluntary at this stage, all schools in both the state and private sector charge tuition fees.

The Japanese School Year

In Japan, the new school year opens at the start of April, when the cherry blossom trees herald new beginnings. The summer vacation begins at the end of July, and pupils return to school in September.

Annual university entrance exams are taken in January.

How Long Is The School Day In Japan?

Timetables are complicated and vary according to age, school and day of the week. However, from Monday to Friday, pupils generally start school at 8am and leave at 4pm. Some days will be longer for assembly and career planning events. Pupils are often at school for fewer hours on Wednesdays.

Pupils are given a morning break and later enjoy a long lunch break, which is good for exercise and socialising.

Is There School On Saturday In Japan?

Elementary schools don’t usually have lessons on Saturdays except for sports and extracurricular activities. However, many high schools routinely teach Saturday classes and may even be open on Sundays.

Elementary schools often run sports and club activities on Saturdays. Even though pupils are enjoying extracurricular activities rather than learning in a classroom, great value is placed on achievement, so children are expected to do well in these Saturday sessions.

There are also regular parent days held on Saturdays at elementary school. Parents can come in to see how the children are taught and how the school operates. These days are popular in a society where education is highly valued.

Japan has a culture of hard work and hard achievement. This means that if a high school pupil is doing well and aiming for university, Saturday lessons will become a normal part of life. And take a deep breath for the most surprising part; in the run up to university entrance exams, students may well spend several months going to school on Sundays too.

Schools In Japan

Schools in Japan are very different to those in the UK and US.

Each school has their own uniform, with every item regulated so all children look the same. In the UK, pupils wear different styles of trousers, skirts and shirts according to where their parents shopped, with usually just the branded jumper from one supplier. However, individualism is not encouraged in Japan. This is reflected in the strict adherence to the set uniform.

Wearing shoes indoors is a big taboo in the country. This applies in school too, so children place their shoes in lockers and wear a pair of school slippers.

A national curriculum is followed across Japan. The dominant teaching style is traditional and conservative, with pupils sitting and quietly writing down what the teacher says. Teachers prioritise the learning of facts ready for fact-based exams, which is very different from the US aim of producing free thinkers with strong soft skills sets.

Violence In Japanese Schools

You are likely to read stories online about the high levels of violence in Japanese schools. There are two aspects to consider here.

The first regards violence against pupils by staff members. This appears to have been fairly common until the 1990s, especially for schools outside prosperous neighbourhoods. Punching, kicking, hair pulling and humiliating tasks such as holding buckets of water were seen as part of a discipline regime to keep difficult pupils in line.

Fortunately, Japanese attitudes to child welfare have changed dramatically since the 1990s. Today, the physical assault of pupils is against the rules, and any allegations would be investigated. Teachers can restrain a pupil if needed, but not hurt them. If found guilty of such charges, they will suffer a pay cut or even termination of their contract (and career), depending on the nature of the offence.

Secondly, school bullying exists in Japan – as it does in classrooms across the globe. A society based on strict unwritten rules expects children to conform. However, this can exacerbate the social targeting and ridicule of outsiders to which groups of children are already prone.

Eryk Salvaggio from Maine in the USA worked in Japanese classrooms as part of the popular JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program. He observed class bullying first hand and gives a full account of the group dynamics in his blog This Japanese Life. If you are thinking of working in a Japanese school or sending your child to one, his article is a fascinating insight into the complexity of the situation.

In 1993, the death of a 13-year-old pupil at school drew national and international attention. Yuhei Kodama had been rolled up into a gym mat and placed upside down in a storage cupboard, where he suffocated. What was particularly notable was the refusal of any other pupils to come forward and testify to the bullying that Yuhei had endured.

However, it should be noted that deaths at school are very rare indeed. The terrible Osaka school massacre of 2001 in which eight young children were killed and 15 children and adults injured was committed by a mentally ill 37-year-old former school janitor wielding a knife, and was an isolated incident. Japan has rigorous gun control laws and no history of school shootings.

International Schools In Japan

International schools are private schools that follow the curriculum and teaching practices of a foreign country, such as the US, UK or France. Typically, a number of the teaching and support staff for these schools will have been recruited from overseas.

Expats are not the only people who value the facilities and teaching system on offer at these international schools. As UK expat Jonathan explained from his home in Tokyo: “it’s not unknown for executives to take advantage of this to provide their children with the opportunity to be immersed in a second language.” Fees are often higher than for local private schools, which is a factor to bear in mind in a country as expensive as Japan.

If you want to know more about the International Schools in Japan, including Tokyo’s American School in Japan, the Canadian Academy in Kobe and the Yokohama International School, you can read more in the Expat Focus article An Overview Of International Schools in Japan.

Choosing A School? Ask Other Expats

Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions of your life. Other expats in Japan are often only too happy to share their experiences.

Expat Focus runs a dedicated Forum for expats in Japan as well as a Facebook Group where you can ask for help from other people who have been in the same situation as you.


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