How creative is Japanese education


Japanese society is perceived by its members to be very homogeneous. For example, more than 95 percent of Japanese children go to school until the age of 17 or 18 - this shared experience is a really harmonizing factor. A special case related to the special Japanese culture.

Pupils in their traditional school uniforms, inspired by the fashion of the German Empire, shape the streetscape near the large schools. (& copy Japan photo archive)


Japanese society is perceived by its members to be very homogeneous. More than 95 percent of Japanese children go to school by the age of 17 or 18 - this shared experience is a really harmonizing factor. Only one to two percent of foreigners who have not attended a Japanese school live in Japan. The family and the school class are the first and most important groups in which children experience themselves as members of Japanese society. For adults, the most important reference group is usually in the workplace. Less emphasis is placed on the individual personality than on interpersonal relationships. There are fixed manners for every relationship - with parents, siblings, teachers and classmates. These are intended to make it easier to deal with others on a day-to-day basis and offer a predefined attitude, a "face", for most situations.

Against this background, "loss of face" would mean that unexpected behavior on the part of a conversation partner requires a spontaneous, personal reaction. The danger is seen in this that feelings and weaknesses will be abandoned and the encounter will not come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Membership in a group determines stable living conditions and future prospects, but this membership must first be acquired. Security is of course only given in the family, while the children are still learning the manners. Each learning and working group expects its members to behave according to their position in the group and to work hard and persistently towards the common goals. Especially groups that offer their members a particularly useful support network often have very hard and arbitrary criteria for excluding others. It is not easy to move up into a success-oriented group in order to achieve a good professional position. This can be achieved through a school career, for example. Leadership positions in politics and business can only be achieved by those who, through years of disciplined learning, pass the extremely difficult entrance exam to an elite university and are particularly skilled in maintaining social relationships.

The structures of the Japanese family and the educational system presented below are still almost universal models today. There are deviations and variations, but hardly any equivalent, alternative lifestyles. However, the dynamics of modern industrial society will also bring about social changes in Japan in the future, which endanger the security of the previously mapped out life and make individual decisions necessary.


Even after the abolition of the extended families that determined traditional Japan, the families remain the social, material and psychological support of the people. (& copy Japan photo archive)
In Japan, the laws on the institution of the patriarchal extended family were not abolished until after World War II. During the period of economic development, however, the families continued to provide important social and material support, which helped to cushion the lack of state welfare. Around 1955, the model of the family with five people, which is still valid today, emerged, which in addition to the parents includes children, grandparents or other relatives. Statistically, in addition to the usual five-person families, there have been more and more small families with one child and one-person households.

Going through the phases of school education up to the age of 18, starting work, marriage and parenting is still a natural prospect for Japanese young people. It is now common for young people to choose their own spouses for a "love marriage" rather than using the services of a matchmaker. Nevertheless, marriage is rarely entered into without the consent of both parents, because the daughter-in-law or son-in-law and, above all, the expected grandchildren are thus accepted into one of the most important groups in their lives, the family.

In the average life course of Japanese women and men, the typical entry age for a particular phase of life has changed compared to 1920. The average age at marriage and the age of the parents are on the rise. More and more families only want to have one child. This has to do with the high costs of maintaining and educating a child. As a result, many married couples work a few more years until they have some financial footing before they have their first child. The younger Japanese and especially the Japanese women today also have higher expectations with regard to the way they live. Many women would like to have a skilled job if they could find a job that would allow them to arrange caring for their children. But this possibility rarely exists. Although more than 50 percent of married women have to work to supplement the household income, they mostly work part-time and still remain responsible for all the housekeeping and child-rearing.

Different areas of responsibility

The ideas about the division of tasks between the sexes are changing only slowly because they are an important source of personal identity. The working conditions are also designed in such a way that the areas of life of men and women hardly overlap. Most Japanese, and especially the younger ones, regret the separation of work and family. Men would very much like to spend more time with their families and women would like more exchanges with their husbands and a greater share of public life. Married couples rarely go out together. The children live in the world of women, in which the mothers make it their business to learn with the schoolchildren on the one hand and to cook and pamper them on the other. Often grandparents also live in the households, but in contrast to earlier times they have equal rights with the parents and do not retain guardianship over them as in the extended families. In 1955, 86 percent of all people over 65 lived with their children, compared with 60 percent in 1990.

In the family, the children learn important attitudes and rules that they need to participate in Japanese society. Small children live very closely with their mothers and Japanese mothers do not put sleeping children to bed alone. The little ones take on everyday processes through a lot of patience and constant repetition. The mothers do not explain, but practice certain rules of behavior with the children: how to speak to whom, how to take off your shoes before entering the living room, or how to regulate an outburst of emotions. The mothers adjust their upbringing style to the neighboring families and orientate themselves on expert opinions from books and magazines. When the children come to school, they shouldn't be different from others because of their home.

The school career of children is the main task of families today. Compared to Germany, you not only spend a lot of time, but also a lot of money on bringing up your children. Only through school and a good university do children have the chance of advancement in society. In the best case scenario, a son can join a large company that also secures supplies for his family. Daughters should also get the best possible education, because they can then marry accordingly and give their own children a certain educational advantage. Gratitude to the parents for their often self-sacrificing commitment and the hope for a better life are the main motives for the eagerness to learn of many Japanese students.


There is a clear contrast between the principles of Japanese pedagogy on the one hand and the tough selection pressure caused by the increasingly difficult exams on the other. The curiosity and joy of learning of the children should be promoted by the school as well as their physical health and their comradely participation in joint projects and games. They should also acquire self-discipline, patience and diligence, because only with these skills - and not through an individual talent - can, according to the Japanese view, learn everything that is needed for professional success in a modern state. In this way, Japanese children acquire extensive cultural and scientific knowledge. Japanese students always do better than their European and US peers in international math competitions, they enjoy word problems, and girls 'grades in science are as good as boys'.

Young people spend a significant amount of their free time in gaming rooms. (& copy Japan photo archive)
Up to middle school, however, the pressure of selection increases considerably, because the transition to high school is imminent. For almost all fourteen-year-old students, passing the entrance exam for a high school is the decisive step that will shape their lives forever. Since the school grades are assigned as a ranking within the class, everyone knows where they stand in comparison to the others. The class associations break up into smaller, competing groups. The daily learning workload begins to overwhelm the children's strength. You can no longer deal with interests and projects that do not directly serve as exam preparation. Especially those who have the prospect of going to an elite high school and then an elite university have to forego creativity and independent thinking and accumulate pure factual knowledge.

The ranking of universities is a measure of the Japanese social order. At the top is the University of Tokyo: its graduates are almost certain to find jobs as government officials or in a respected large corporation. By attending this university, you become part of a class whose members retain their solidarity later on when they are active in politics and business. Other state universities, for example in Kyoto and Sendai, as well as some private universities in Tokyo are also very highly regarded. For these institutions there are the toughest entrance exams, and therefore also for those high schools that in turn prepare particularly successfully for these exams.

mandatory school

Many people in Japan consider childhood and not youth burdened by worries about the future to be the most beautiful time in life. Even in the first years of school, most Japanese children are happy and secure. In kindergarten, the children come together for the first time in large groups of equals under the direction of a teacher who, unlike the mother, acts as an authority. She sets up a regular daily routine and sets tasks, but she lets the children look for solutions themselves and they have to sort out their own affairs. By overcoming difficulties together, one should be able to learn better than just through instruction. School material is only offered in kindergarten in exceptional cases. What is more important is what the children and their families learn about behavior, group activities, nutrition, etc. through everyday kindergarten life. Around 90 percent of children had at least one year of kindergarten when they started school at the age of six.

In the six years of primary school, the children continue to learn a lot through their own activities and experiments. Here, however, you also improve the technique of memorizing through repetitions and mock exams. The discipline exercises started in kindergarten will also be continued. Students must be punctual, orderly and respectful of teachers, take responsibility for joint projects, and clean the school themselves every week. A focus of education in elementary school is also knowledge of Japanese culture and local history. These are not only conveyed through books, but also through frequent class trips to the surrounding area or through guest lectures by artisans or firefighters, for example.

Compulsory schooling includes elementary school and three years of middle school. You learn according to national curricula from textbooks that are checked - one could also say censored - by the Ministry of Culture. Because of the increasing selection pressure, problems arise most frequently among students in their first teens. The cliques within the classes are now more important than the class as a whole. The young people become more aware of their individuality, but at the same time they try very hard to be included in a group. Almost everyone has the experience of being teased by group members at some point. Some permanently assume the role of outsider and are ostracized by others, others refuse to attend school or form aggressive gangs. But most of them learn to withdraw inward when overwhelmed, into a balanced world of books, comics or video games.

Increasing pressure to perform

After passing the entrance examination to a secondary school, about a third of the young people have already decided on their careers. They do their vocational preparation at technical colleges or they spend the time here until they turn eighteen. The social conflicts in the middle schools are largely defused in the high schools. Sometimes there are still arguments with the teachers or youth gangs form. For most of them, however, another period of learning full of privation begins at high school, as they now have to prepare intensively for the university entrance exams.

In the afternoons after school and on the weekends, many also attend private tutoring schools. For them, it's not just about more individual tutoring and exam preparation. There you also get the rare opportunity to socialize with friends outside your own school class. On the other hand, the private schools are also subject to a ranking according to the status of the secondary schools and universities for which they are preparing. Some even get their teaching materials from these schools. The fees for the tutoring schools are also graded according to this ranking, so that children of wealthy parents gain an advantage in the university entrance exams through a promising private school.

Only about five percent of high school graduates in a given year pass the entrance exam at the best university they aspire to, 15 percent pass the exam at a two-year short-term college. Another ten percent succeed - after a year in a private tutoring school - on the second attempt to be admitted to a university with slightly lower requirements. This means that about a quarter of a year does not achieve the desired university place.

The universities are the first and perhaps the last opportunity for students to enjoy life. Here personal contacts are made in sports clubs and seminars, from which relationship networks emerge for the entire professional life. Most university graduates find a job after four years of undergraduate studies. Only a few continue their studies until they graduate. At least the large companies are ready and able to provide the graduates with the professional qualifications for their later work after they have been employed. However, in recent years, the almost automatic takeover in a large company is no longer guaranteed due to changes in the economy and in the operational mode of operation. It is therefore increasingly the case that graduates, especially women, are disappointed with the expectations they had of a secure job throughout their entire school career.

Ideas for reforming state policy for the Japanese school system are aimed primarily at the changed requirements of the economy. The Department of Education, Science and Culture sees the need to introduce "greater freedom into the country's school system, if only to accommodate business interest in more creative individuals who will help the nation in software, computer science, and others knowledge-intensive industries to become competitive. " With this in mind, changes to the curriculum are sought, but these can only be implemented by changing the examination regulations for admission to universities.A further aim is to strengthen vocational training in order to make alternatives to an academic career attractive.