Japan is today the second largest economy in the world. In half a century and despite a defeat during World War II, this country has managed to catch up with and even overtake most of the countries of the West. For many authors, French and Japanese, education plays an important part in this economic prosperity.

Indeed, Japanese students are considered to be among the most cultured and they regularly outstrip American or European students in international competitions.
What are the characteristics of this educational system? What are the strengths of education in Japan and what are the weaknesses of the Japanese education system?

Organization of the Japanese school system

Education in Japan is secular, co-educational, free and compulsory until the end of college, which represents 9 years in the school system. Almost all children finish middle school and go on to high school. The establishments are distributed according to a school map and each zone is assigned one and only one public establishment at each level.

The school year begins on April 1 of the year and ends on March 31 of the following year. It is divided into quarters (April-mid-July, September-December, January-March) between which the spring, summer and winter holidays are inserted until the university where the year is divided into semesters (April-September, October-March). Classes take place 6 days a week and since 1995 the second and fourth Saturdays of the month are free. Repetition is only possible from high school and class skipping is prohibited.

The cleaning of classrooms and premises in general is traditionally entrusted to the students who form groups that rotate periodically to carry out chores. Finally, the wearing of the uniform is generally observed in high school and sometimes in college.

Advantages of the Japanese education system

With a high rate of compulsory education and high school attendance, the education system has succeeded in bringing adult literacy to almost 100%. And this is not trivial considering the complexity of the Japanese language. This is why the education system in Japan attaches great importance to language. The written Japanese language is made up of two syllabaries (the kana, grouping together on the one hand the hiragana, on the other hand the katakana) and a system of ideograms of Chinese origin (the kanji). At the end of their schooling, the pupils thus know nearly 2000 kanji. All students are required to learn kanjis and master these characters to complete their schooling, and must even learn more if they continue their studies in higher education.

This learning of kanji is very controlled by the state which fixes the number of characters to know for each level as well as the time necessary for their teaching. Knowledge of the language is therefore not limited to a brief knowledge of the everyday language, which has the effect of reducing disparities between social classes or origins. There is thus no single literate elite as is or often was the case in Asia.

Moreover, in addition to learning to write and read, the education system is also very rich culturally speaking. The place given to general culture is considerable and it remains so even in high school. Thus the teaching of world history as well as of Japan, geography or economics, all grouped together under the term social studies, constitutes one of the most important schedules with the teaching of the Japanese language. The teaching of Japanese is not limited to learning the language, which already requires a substantial amount of work, but also includes courses devoted to literature and expression. All this has the effect of giving the pupils an openness to the world and to society which encourages them later to constantly inform themselves about current events. What makes the Japanese people of great readers!

In addition, and unlike in many countries, the teaching of the arts (music or visual arts) remains compulsory throughout schooling and education is generally provided in very well equipped premises. This further strengthens the general culture of the students. This can be seen by the enormous success of plastic art exhibitions or the significant figures achieved in the sale of records or musical instruments.

This cultural wealth is framed by a particularly strict educational system. The discipline is very rigorous during secondary education and the demands of teachers have the effect of preparing students for the world of work. Indeed, if the goal of competition was to give everyone the same chances of success whatever their situation, it also had the effect of pushing students to always do more. It is this state of mind that prepares them for the world of work where the same rivalry reigns and where the demands are much more important than those of the school system. Thus no error is tolerated in the professional environment. We thus obtain workers whose quality and reliability are complimented by all Western countries.

Some problems and limitations of the Japanese education system …

While the Japanese education system seems to be functioning perfectly, there are also many negative effects on the students. For example: the Japanese education system is essentially a memorization-based system. Indeed, the trend in Japanese education is unfortunately towards memorization without explanatory process. A telling example of this problem is the teaching of foreign languages. So in most middle and high schools, the only language available is English. Even if the teaching of a foreign language requires a minimum of memorization, in particular for the vocabulary, one notices that this is the only axis of teaching of the Japanese courses. The pupils are thus prepared to answer standard grammar questions which in themselves are not necessarily necessary for the practice of the language.

In addition, we must be aware of the spirit of competition, excessive in the educational system in Japan. The disproportionate importance given to the fame of the schools has the effect of creating over-competition which completely destroys the lives of the pupils. Pupils are thus pushed from an early age (especially boys) towards excellence and not towards a job that is just satisfactory. Parents tend to think that their children’s future will be guaranteed only if they go to a good college which will allow them to enter a good high school which itself will allow them to enter a renowned university. The system tends to always push towards excellence, which has the effect of leaving students in difficulty on the sidelines and favoring the best students who will ensure the reputation of the establishment. This notion of excellence is therefore combined with that of security and survival in a hyper-competitive system.

Finally, let’s touch two words about ijime… Another characteristic problem of Japanese education is theijime. This word designates a form of hazing (much more serious than in France) that takes place throughout schooling and whose meaning comes from the word ijimeru which means “torture”, just that… Even if hazing exists in most countries, nowhere else does it reach the same extent as in Japan. So theijime can take many forms which range from the simple ignorance of the one who is the object to racketeering through physical or verbal violence and public humiliation. The slightly fragile pupil victim of this kind of treatment can end up completely broken, and never get over it … It should also be noted that the violence does not take place only between pupils and that the teachers (who generally close the eyes on ijime practices) also sometimes show physical violence on students during lessons and clubs, especially in private establishments …

Photo: USAGJ

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