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Japan's education system


The present Japanese education system is very similar to that of Western countries for two reasons. The first one is that in the late 19th century Japan completely re-modelled its education system on that of Western powers as part of the radical reforms brought by the Meiji Restoration. The second reason is that the United States imposed its own education system on Japan during the post-war occupation.


Prior to the Meiji era (1868-1912), education was the prerogative of the rich and was not regulated by the government. The Meiji government immediately instituted a new education system based on the French, German and American models. Primary, secondary schools and universities were established in 1872. In the same year, the authorities declared 4 years of elementary education to be compulsory for all boys and girls, nationwide. However, school attendance did not exceed 25 to 50% in the first decade of the new system. In 1905, school attendance for school-age children had reached 98% boys 93% for girls, and about 10% of the eligible population continued to middle school. Only a small minority made it as far as high school. Nevertheless, in 1899, the government required all prefectures to have at least one high school for girls.

The Meiji education system quickly became state-centered. The curriculum had a moralistic approach and promoted Confucian ideals of loyalty to the state, filial piety, obedience and friendship. In 1890, the Imperial Rescript on Education formalised these conservative values. A portrait of the emperor was also to be enshrined in every school in Japan.

In 1907, the Ministry of Education extended compulsory education to 6 years instead of 4. and adapted the curriculum to emphasize the importance of the emperor and nationalism.


The American occupation forces made the Japanese authorities change the textbooks promoting nationalism, loyalty to the emperor as well as war propaganda, by teachings of peace and democracy.

In 1947, added 3 years to compulsory education. Japanese people now had to go to school until the age of 15 (end of middle school), which hasn't changed to this day. More universities were founded and the name "Imperial" removed from existing elitist ones such as Tokyo (Imperial) University and Kyōto (Imperial) University. Women were granted access to private and public universities.

Current education system

The Japanese education system has it exist now was established by the Americans, based on their own system, after WWII. It consists of 6 years of elementary school ("shougakkou" wZ), 3 years of junior high school ("chugakkou" wZ), 3 years of high school ("koukou" Z), and either 2 years of junior college ("tankadaigaku" Pȑw or "karejji" JbW) or 4 years of university ("daigaku" w).

Education is compulsory until 15, but 90% of the people complete high school and 40% graduate from university or college. The proportion of male students is higher at universities, while the opposite is true of junior colleges.

Japan has both private and public schools and universities. None of them are free, but public schools are considerably cheaper than private ones. Most elementary and junior high schools in Japan are public, while most kindergartens, colleges and universities are private. In 2002, private school attendance was 79% for kindergartens, 0,9% for elementary schools, 4% for junior high schools, 29% for highschools, 91% for junior colleges and 76% for universities (click here for detailed figures).

Japan also has a "shadow education" which consist of home-tutors, "juku", prep schools, correspondence courses, etc. The most famous are the "juku" or cram schools. These are divided in "enrichment juku", attended by over 75% of elementary school and 25% of junior high school students, and "academic juku" teaching the same curriculum as ordinary schools. These "academic juku" are further divided in "review juku" ("hoshuu juku" Km) and "advancement juku" ("shingaku juku" iwm), the latter preparing for the entrance exams (see below).

School system

School usually starts at 8:30am and finishes at 3:50pm. In elementary schoolessons last 45min with a 10min break between them. From junior high school, lessons last 50min. Pupils go go school on Saturday mornings till 12:30 twice a month. There are officially 35 weeks of schooling a year.

There are 9 regular subjects in Japanese elementary schools. These are Japanese language, social studies, arithmetic, science, life and environmental studies, music, arts and handicrafts, homemaking, and physical education.

Exam system

Students have to take entrance examination for junior high school, high school and university, if they change institution. It is always the case in public schools and universities.

University entrance exams ("juken" ) are particularly hard and is often referred to as "exam hell" ("shiken jigoku" n). Students who fail the "juken" become "rounin" (Ql), a term formerly used for masterless samurai. Preparatory schools called "yobikou" (\Z) have for sole task to drill these students for the entrance exams.

Some private schools do everything from kindergarten to university. In that case, students will only have to take an entrance examination or interview when they join the school, and are generally exempt afterwards. This is called the "elevator system", meaning that once someone has entered the institution, they automatically go to the next step until graduating from university.

Quick facts

  • Compulsory education age : 15
  • Academic year start : early April
  • Academic year end : late February or early March
  • Major holiday period : Spring (March), Summer (mid-July to end of August), New Year (late December to early January)
  • Famous universities : Tokyo University (Todai), Kyōto University (kyodai), Keio University, Waseda University


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For more information about the Japanese education system, consult the official website of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

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