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Thursday, May 22, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 1

Here is a little quiz. Every one of these statements was taken from one Western publication or another. Which statements are true and which statements are false?

1. 99% of Japanese people are literate.
2. Japanese students must pass an entrance exam to get into high school.
3. Japanese teachers give lots of homework, even during summer vacation.
4. Japanese students take responsibility for keeping their school clean.
5. Japanese students learn calculus in high school.
6. The Japanese public school system is doing an excellent job of educating its citizens.
7. Japanese students behave better than American students.
8. Japanese students have more instructional days than American students.
9. Japanese educational standards are high.

99% of Japanese people are literate .
False. Americans expect that literacy means the ability to read with understanding nearly all the written material that is part of daily living, and to write whatever they need to write to conduct the business of life. For example, we expect that we can read newspapers, magazines, the names of food in a grocery store, bills that come to a house. I am not talking about a medical textbook, or a complicated study in an academic journal, just the everyday stuff. We expect that we can write informal letters to friends as well as business correspondence, and fill out forms, again everyday stuff.

Japanese literacy involves four different scripts. Hiragana is a phonetic script used for original Japanese words. Katakana is another phonetic script used for words that originated in other languages besides Japanese. Kanji, or Chinese characters, is a pictographic script. It is perfectly possible to read and comprehend Kanji without knowing the pronunciation.

All three scripts are used together in the same document, even the same sentence. If I wrote a simple sentence like, "I went to McDonalds" in Japanese, the word for "went" is "ikimashita." the "iki-" part is where the meaning resides and is written in Kanji. The "-mashita" part is the past tense conjugation and is written in hiragana. Of course McDonalds is written in katakana.
In fourth grade, students learn a fourth script, called Romaji, which means Roman letters. If a students writes the word "ikimashita" in Romaji (as I just did), the word is still Japanese, not English. The sounds are pretty close but do not precisely correspond to their English sounds.

Even literate Japanese people cannot compose a simple note to a friend without consulting the dictionary. A medical student whom everyone would agree is quite literate in Japanese might not be able to go to the grocery store and buy fish. The student knows the name of the fish but cannot recognize the written name on the label. It would be like an American going to the grocery and being unable to read the label to determine which package is a porterhouse steak and which is a T-bone steak. Literacy is very situational and the literacy of a Japanese housewife might be qualitatively different than the literacy of a Japanese banker.

Japanese people define literacy differently than the US does. The 99 percent literacy rate cannot be used as evidence that Japanese education is superior because it is not measuring the level of functional literacy Americans assume. Even well-educated Japanese are not literate in the sense most Americans recognize. The 99 percent literacy rate is referring to hiragana which is mastered by the second grade. The functional literacy of adult Japanese is far lower than 99 percent, at least by American standards. With four scripts to learn, the incredible complexity of Japanese literacy can be a hindrance to the functionality. Having to learn four different alphabets just to function does not make one more literate.

We all have a tendency to subconsciously read through the lens of our own experience. We read “literacy” and think of literacy as we know it. We read “pass an entrance exam” and think passing in Japan is the same as passing in America. So it goes with almost everything we read about Japanese education. Japanese and American educators may enthusiastically endorse “equal education,” but Americans would never endorse what the Japanese mean by the term. They mean that every child should receive exactly the same education regardless of individual differences. Parents insist on differentiation, believing anything else would be unfair bias.

We might think if the Japanese person does not know a word, they can just look it up in a dictionary. Again, we would be assuming something about Japanese dictionaries. We would be assuming that Kanji are listed alphabetically. They are listed numerically. First you have to count the number of strokes in the radical (a basic meaningful component). If the radical has 5 strokes for example, you first find that radical among all the 5-stroke radicals. Then you have to count the rest of the strokes in the character and look for the character among all the other characters with the same number of strokes. Japanese people are perfectly fine with using a dictionary to write even an informal note. Americans would not usually consider someone who needed to look words up so often as functionally literate. In fact, when that medical student becomes a doctor, he will write medical records, not in any of the four Japanese scripts, but in English. Until relatively recently, Japanese doctors wrote medical records in German.

Japanese students must pass an entrance exam to get into high school.
False. I discussed the high school entrance exam in an article published in the Oct 1993 issue of the Kappan. I found that article on the web reprinted without my permission here under another author's name. After the opening introduction, the balance of this online article is my article verbatim with no source cited.

The following is an account of 15 years of teaching in both the private and public schools in Okinawa City, Japan. Susan Goya has reported the following facts about Japanese schooling.

Americans think a Japanese student must pass an entrance exam to attend high school, but it is a test of elimination. If there are 300 freshman slots available and 304 students apply, the test is given to eliminate four students. Passing scores can be as low as 5 percent.

On the other hand, competition for admission to universities and even to some prestigious high schools is truly fierce, because there are so few slots and so many applicants. Students preparing for a university entrance exam study not only academic material, but also statistics on the minimum passing score for each major in each college of interest to them - to determine where their best chances lie.

The Japanese people themselves perennially criticize the entrance exams, especially those for university, lamenting the “exam hell” that generation after generation has had to endure. The information necessary to pass university entrance exams is comparable to the information an American student with a Bachelor's degree is presumed to know. Japanese students must declare their major before they take the entrance exam for their target university. Most of the exams are given on the same days so it quite difficult to take the exam for a number of universities.

Changing majors is a huge undertaking. The student must retake the entrance exam for the new major and compete afresh for a slot along with all other students declaring the same major. Remember, passing an entrance exam has nothing to do with reaching a certain proscribed level of performance. It means doing well enough to avoid being eliminated. It has often been said that in Japan, the end goal is to get into college; while in America the end goal is to get out of college. Nearly all Japanese students will graduate college once they have been admitted.

Japanese teachers give lots of homework, even during summer vacation.

False. As I pointed earlier, and it bears repeating, the main problem with almost everything we read about Japanese education is filtered through our own cultural filter. We read "literacy" and think it means the same as the American concept of literacy. We read "pass a test" and think it means achieve to a certain predetermined standard. Likewise, we read "summer vacation" and think it means the interlude between grade levels.

The Japanese school year is twelve months long, from March to April. Summer vacation is about six weeks long. Teachers often assign a project. The teacher may specify the parameters of the project, or they may ask students to propose their own projects. During the year very little homework is assigned. Students do all the work for each class in separate bound notebooks. When the teacher does assign homework, the students submit the entire notebook. Since there are usually 45 students in a class, this means the teacher will be obliged to carry 45 notebooks back to the central teachers' room.

Japanese elementary teachers are assigned classrooms, but secondary teachers are not. In America, the students move from class to class; in Japan, the teachers move. The classroom belongs to a particular group of 45 students who spend pretty much the whole day there except for some specialty classes. The teachers have all their desks, as many as 60 arranged in rows, in the teachers' room. They go to class when the bell rings, and come back to their desk when class is over. Teachers have told me that it is just too much trouble to carry all those notebooks back and forth, and besides they do not like to have the students' notebooks in their possession because the notebooks contain all the work. In their view, if the teacher has the notebook, clearly the student does not, and therefore the students will be unable to study until they get their notebooks back.

(I suggested using three-ring binders so students could submit one sheet of paper as they do in America. Japanese teachers rejected my suggestion. In their opinion, students would quickly become disorganized and lose work with such a system).

Although teachers infrequently assign homework, it does not mean that students do not study. Either they study on their own initiative, or more likely, they attend juku, private after-school tutoring schools. American students do a lot more teacher-assigned homework, a lot less self-initiated study, but international studies suggest American students have little to show for all the teacher-directed study. ”

To be continued.


  1. I must disagree with your literacy statements. It is patently ridiculous that, "Even literate Japanese people cannot compose a simple note to a friend without consulting a dictionary." Beginning a paragraph with such a blatantly false statement brings the validity of your entire premise into question! The following sentence, "A medical student whom everyone would agree is quite literate in Japanese might not be able to go to the grocery store and buy fish." is marginally valid only because of the qualifying "might not be able to ..."
    BTW, I am also an educator, a PhD who spends at least 2 months a year in Japan, have a Japanese wife who is also a PhD, and frequently consult a dictionary myself (especially for Japanese), but most certainly would not do so to compose a simple note to a friend, nor would anyone else that I know!

  2. I appreciate that you have participated in my blog. I will stand by what I have written.

    My use of "might" is a version of Japanese compositional softness.

    I rely on not only published materials but also my twenty years of full-time living in Japan with experience at every level of the education system from preschool through university in probably 50 different schools.

    My observations have been supported by Japanese teachers and professors who may not like what I say but admit its validity.