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Monday, June 2, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 3

You can find the original “quiz” in Part 1.
Part 2 is here.

7. Japanese students behave better than American students.

False. Kids are kids are kids. If American visitors to Japanese schools observe Japanese students to be better behaved than American students, it is because Japanese students fear the consequences of bad behavior more than American students do. American students know that at bottom teachers are powerless and have no administrative support.


Hizamazuki is a common form of punishment in Japanese schools. Students who are late to school can be found every morning lining the hallway in front of the administration office doing hizamazuki. They kneel upright for 45 minutes on the hard linoleum. In class, each teacher has their favorite discipline technique. Some may rap their knuckles on the student's head once or twice. Some may twist the sideburn hairs. Some may pinch the shoulders. Most students do all they can to avoid punishment at school. Sometimes a teacher will go too far and injure a student. In such cases, the newspapers will have a field day for a while, because even though Americans may consider Japanese routine forms of punishment excessive, outright harm and abuse is just as wrong in Japan as America.

All of the forms of punishment I have described are illegal in America. In fact, imposing discomfort of any kind on students is not an option in America unless you are a sports coach. An American principal told me that merely having a student stand for ten minutes during the lunch hour was unacceptable because standing was physically uncomfortable and it was unfair to make the student ten minutes late to the cafeteria for lunch.

Students may also be punished at school for actions committed outside of school. For example, if a student is found driving a motorcycle without a license the school will levy a punishment of some sort. The teachers vote on the form of punishment at the daily morning meeting. The reasoning is bound up with the group ethic of Japanese people. All day long the Japanese person is a member, and thus a representative, of one group or another. The actions of each member reflect on the group. When a student misbehaves outside of school, it brings dishonor on the school.

Nevertheless students do misbehave. In middle school and high school, if a teacher is absent, the school do not call a substitute teacher unless the absence will last at least several days. Therefore, the class of 45 students will have no adult supervision for an hour. Students are expected to treat the time as a study hall, but some students will take the opportunity to go over the back wall and smoke in a side street. As long as they are back in class by the time the bell rings and the next teacher appears, they may not be caught.

Between classes it is the teachers who pass but not the students. One teacher leaves the class at the ending bell; the next teacher heads to class at the sound of the starting bell. There is normally a full ten minutes of unsupervised time between classes when students may commit mischief or worse. Much of the bullying happens during this break. It is not uncommon for a teacher to walk down a deserted hallway on the way to class and find a student tied to a pillar with his pants pulled down. Bullying is a huge problem in Japanese schools and the Japanese are always wringing their hands about it. I once suggested simply making sure there was no unsupervised time would eliminate most of it, but none of the teachers were willing to go to class ten minutes earlier, or cover the classes of an absent teacher.

The reader may think, well, I wouldn't want to cover someone else's class during my prep period either. The reader would be assuming that Japanese teaching schedules are similar to American teaching schedules. It may surprise the reader to learn that middle school and high school teachers have at least two, but usually three, prep periods a day. It would be easy for a teacher to supervise a study hall and still prepare for class. Instead they would rather hold symposiums about the difficult problem of bullying.


8. Japanese students have more instructional days than American students.

True. If you compare an Japanese school calendar with an American school calendar, you will find that Japanese students get up and go to school many more days than American students, but it does not necessarily mean they have classes more days than Americans. The average American calendar has about 180 school days; the Japanese calendar may have around 240 school days. However, if you examine the Japanese calendar carefully you will find that many of those days are not instructional days.

There are club days, cleaning days, field day rehearsal days, days during the summer break for attendance-taking. A Japanese school year has three terms with a midterm and a final for each term. During midterm week and finals week, there are no classes in the afternoon. There are also the weekly homeroom class meetings and club meetings. Students used to go to school every Saturday morning mostly to make up for all the lost instructional hours during the week, but Saturday attendance has been gradually phased out. In a typical school year 65-70 afternoons are either free time or devoted to nonacademic activities.

Japanese students do experience more instructional time at school than American students, but not the wildly dramatic difference a raw count of calendar days would suggest. Of course, since nearly every middle school and high school student attends juku, Japanese students do in fact experience substantial more instruction than American students.

9.Japanese educational standards are high.

There seems to be plenty of evidence of high education standards in Japan. For example, we know Japanese students perform near the top in international comparisons. Furthermore, in order to be accepted into college, students must demonstrate levels of knowledge comparable to an American bachelors degree. However, the situation in Japanese schools might make us wonder about education standards.

Compulsory education in Japan extends through middle school. Students who desire to pursue education must take an entrance exam for high school. Because the entrance exam is more a test to avoid elimination than a test to demonstrate ability, students can get into high school with surprisingly low levels of achievement. I have seen students avoid elimination with scores as low as 10 points out of 200 possible points. This strange result happens when the number of applicants is only slighter higher than the number of available slots. For example, if there are 304 applicants and 300 slots, the applicants with the four lowest scores are eliminated. Schools will even go to the trouble and expense of giving entrance exams even when the number of applicants is less than the number of slots.

At the college level, there are normally many more applicants than slots, so to avoid elimination students must score very highly. In some prestigious universities, students need scores in the 90's. Students know what score they need because they study the test questions from previous years and the statistics from many universities to strategically determine at which university they will have the best chance.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Japanese education is the pathetically poor job the public schools do in preparing students for the university entrance exams. The entire mission of the academic high school is to prepare students for those crucial entrance exams. Ironically, virtually 100% of public school graduates would fail the entrance exam if they depended on the public school alone to prepare them.

Any student who hopes to go directly from high school into college must attend juku. Even so, most high school graduates are eliminated through the entrance exam. Most students spend at least a year as roninsei (literally masterless samurai) attending juku full-time to prepare to retake the entrance exam which is given only once annually. Students have been known to study full-time in a juku for as many as three years in order to avoid elimination.

The Japanese are not unaware of the failure of the public schools to accomplish their express mission. Task forces perennially convene to discuss the issues and make recommendations for education reform. The pace of reform is slow because the current system helps preserve the values of Japanese society, especially the sorting the population according to the Japanese concept of merit.

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