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    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Jul 17, 2002

    Post Education system : Japan vs other countries

    What motivates me to start this thread is the widespread stereotype of the difficulty of the Japanese educational system. Long before coming to Japan, I heard of the Japanese "exam hell" (university entrance exam or "juuken") and stories of numerous students who committed suicide because they failed. I heard of "cram schools" (juku) where children and teenagers went after the regular school to study till sometimes 9pm. I heard of 5 years old kids forced to exercice in shorts and tshirts outside in the snow.

    But all this is really isn't worth more than tabloid credibility. I don't know if the Japanese started spreading these stereotypes themselves to try to prove their "superior" education system, their industriousness or even their economic success in the 1980's. It all sounds like another "nihonjinron" ("theory of Japaneseness") to demonstrate the unique (read "superior") qualities of the Japanese compared to the rest of the world.

    Here is how I came to realise that all this didn't mean anything and the Japanese educational system was actually one of the worse among developped countries.

    After coming to Japan, I obviously came into contact with hundreds of Japanese, and my initial job as a privare language instructor gave me lots of opportunities to test my student's general knowledge besides language.

    I was shocked many times at the poverty of geographical, historical, political and even linguistic (for their own mother tongue) of adult Japanese. Shall I mention that my students were not farmers or manual workers, but almost exclusively well-paid Tokyo business people and professionals. I heard such things as Argentina was in Europe, Napoleon was a middle-age knight or people not able to name the Japan's main political parties or Buddhist sects (while I could soon after coming to Japan, like most Westerners).

    Then, I gradually asked as many people as possible about the Japanese education system and their personal experience at school (what subject did you study ? how many hours a week ? what kind of exams ? did you learn about this or that in this or that subject ?) to compare it with my own experience.

    Weekly hours

    I appeared that Japanese have less school hours than I did, as they both start later and finish earlier. I was used to start (primary or secondary) school at 8:30am and finish at 4 or 5pm, with an average of 32h/week. Japanese usually start at 9am and finish around 3pm, with an average of 25 to 30h/week. Most people going to juku do not exceed 5h/week. So altogether it is very similar, except for those who do not go to juku at all or just 1h/week (the majority I believe).


    The main difference I noticed is that Japanese teachers follow almost exactly the curriculum and use only official books, while in my experience, teachers used any book or material they wanted (or more often wrote their own lesson material). Consequently, whereas it is said that almost all Japanese school teachers teach exactly the same thing, the same way at the same time all over Japan, teachers in my schools did not even teach the same from one class to another (depending on how their average ability), and each teacher of the same subject sometimes taught completely different things (esp. in languages, geography, etc.). This is probably the best example of difference between individualistic (Northern European) and collectivist (Asian) societies.

    Exam system

    Let us talk about the examination system, one of the most important difference, and what really made me understand the "exam hell" dillema.

    In the schools I attended in Europe, their was a system of continuous assessment, which means that there are small tests almost every week in every subject. The end of the year exams accounted for 50 to 80% of the total. To pass to the next year, pupils (from age 6) must imperatively score more than 50% in every subject. If they don't, they are given another chance at the end of the summer holiday, and if they fail again they must do the same grade again - which means they lose one year of their life. In my primary school, the failure rate was about 15%, but it was famous being a tough school. In secondary, 1 to 4 student per class or 20 to 35 people failed. I have never seen a class where nobody had to re-do the year.

    The contrast with Japan is huge. Apparently, nobody fails in Japan. Even if you don't understand anything in any subject, you automatically pass to the next grade.

    Understandably, when students are confronted for the first time to serious exams that they can actually fail at the time of entering university (which will decide their career), many are completely stressed out, and it turns into the "exam hell".

    This is just because their education had been too pampering and lenient before that. The exam hell happens at every year-end exam in European countries where I have studied (although it is softer thanks to the continuous assessment system). Actually, France and Germany also have big final year exams similar to the Japanese "juuken". They are called respectively BAC and Abitur. But they "only" determine secondary school graduation, not entrance to university, which do not exist in Europe to the best of my knowledge (except sometimes a maths or science test for medicine or engireeing).

    In other words, the reason why Japanese students have to study so hard for the "juuken" is not because it is that hard, but because they didn't know their real ability due to the lack of real eliminatory exams before that. As a results, many simply do not have the necessary knowledge and instead of "doubling" a normal school year like in Europe, they end up becoming "rounin" and study one or two more years by themselves or at a "yobiko" (preparatory school) to be able to enter university.

    It is this system itself that leads parents to send their children to cram schools, to increase their chances to pass the dreaded "juuken". Most parents seem to have no idea of their children's abilities or what is good for them, especially when it comes to English learning. Many people still think that because they pay for private schools or juku will increase their offspring's chances to go to university.

    Private schools : buying your way to university

    Unfortunately, the once socially equal Japanese educational system (in the 1960's) is becoming more and more elitist and class-divided. The reason is that some private schools have their own private university (which I never heard of in Europe). By joining one of these from primary school, children are almost sure that they can go directly all the way to

    I said earlier that Japanese did not have eliminatory exams until the "juuken". Actually they do have exams at the end of primary and junior high schools, but only if they change school in between. These exams will determine who will be able to join more prestigious schools, not whether they pass or fail that year. The advantage of paid (and expensive) private schools is that children do not need to take these exams and pass directly from primary to junior high, to high school to university in the same institution. In other words, they might not be gifted at all and not learn much, but they will be amost sure to graduate from university anyway because they pay for it. In Europe, only bribery can achieve this.

    Selection process

    So, we could say that the selection process happens annually in Europe from the first year of primary school and continues even more harshly through university (where failure rate often surpass 50% in the first year, because of the absence of preliminary entrance exam).

    In Japan, the selection is concentrated in the university entrance exam, and can even be skipped by going to a private school which has its own university.

    That surely explains the poor general knowledge of the average population, best reflected by their language inability - as you can't know one's maths, science or general knowledge level without asking them questions directly related to that.
    Last edited by Maciamo; May 22, 2004 at 17:26.

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