Setting out to write this post, I wondered for a long time about its subject: what is relevant right now? What is interesting? Then I remembered that it’s September, the month which every school-age person dreads as the first day of this month marks the beginning of the new school year. It is also the month in which those of us at university see those last few weeks of our summer holiday fly by far too quickly. Then it occurred to me that this is not the case around the world. The Japanese have a rather different system. In addition, there is a persistent image concerning the Japanese education system that gets spread around the media and internet which may be interesting to discuss.

Asking people for the first image that pops into their heads when they think of a Japanese secondary school, the answer was largely the same: they thought of uniformed teens, they imagined these teens to experience immense pressure to perform. They described children who are magnificently bright (especially in math and science), playing chess or reading manga in their downtime, and being the best at anything they compete in. Things that were not mentioned were creativity, individuality, and laziness. Maybe the lazy creative type is a cliché Western teenager, but I digress. The aim of this post is to describe the main features of the Japanese school system – especially the most significant differences between their system and the one most familiar to us (it does not do to encompass the many Western education systems under one name, but for the purpose of this post I will focus on the differences the Japanese systems have compared to the features the Western systems have in common). Secondly, I would also like to address the stereotypical image surrounding the life in the Japanese education system, and provide some additional tidbits of information.

Firstly – the Japanese schooling system is divided into four groups, as it is with us. There is kindergarten from the ages 3 to 6, then elementary school up to the age of twelve, and secondary school up to the age of eighteen. Secondary school is divided into two groups, as in, for example, the US and in some schools in Belgium where there is a division between ‘middle school’ and the remainder of secondary school. In Japan, there is the lower secondary school which is comparable to the US’s junior high (ages 13 to 15) and upper secondary school, comparable to high school (15 to 18). The upper secondary school may be replaced by the start of a college degree in a technical field. This then would last until the age of 20. Elementary and lower secondary school are both compulsory, as they are here.

After secondary school it gets complicated, and it very much depends on which field of higher education you are entering in. As stated above, entering in a college of technology would start at an earlier age but everyone else begins their higher education at eighteen. There are several levels of degrees you can obtain: Associate, Bachelor, Master, and Ph.D. The difference with our system is that we do not really have an ‘Associate’ level, the students in Belgium start at Bachelor level which takes roughly three years. In Japan, Associate takes one or two years, followed by Bachelor, which is another two years, and Master, an additional two years. Master degrees in Belgium typically vary from one to three years. Ph.D, as with us, is roughly four years. At university, the division is similar to the US up to a certain point: undergraduate corresponds with a Bachelor’s degree, graduate is Master, and Ph.D is also in graduate school. In the US, this would be called a postgraduate degree.

The main difference with us is that the school year starts in April, and the summer break lasts six weeks. It is their longest break as well, but instead of marking the passing between one school year and the next, it is effectively a break in the school year for Japanese pupils. Depending on the school, classes may be held until Saturday instead of Friday, which would not sit well with the school children here (and who can blame them?). Another area in which Japan differs from Belgium is the usage of school uniforms. Largely absent in Belgium, the majority of Japanese secondary schools still require their students to wear uniforms. Contrastingly, this is not the case in the majority of elementary schools. Uniforms typically have summer and winter versions, and there is an additional one for sports activities. And, as one can imagine, there are several ways in which the students attempt to bend the rules, much as one would expect anywhere else in the world: the girls may shorten their skirts and boys may leave that extra button unbuttoned or omit the tie. Sailor outfits and military styles are traditional, and still used for girls and boys respectively, as seen in the image below.


As to the pressure a lot of people imagine the Japanese going through – it is definitely present. Entrance exams to top schools are a major source of this pressure, the school you go to plays an important part in the path of your career. It is something that seems to be present in the US as well, where the Ivy league universities are difficult to get into and have a high reputation. But in Belgium, for example, such a thing is not common at all. The difference in universities’ reputation barely seems to influence students’ choices anymore. Which university you go to tends to be decided on grounds of location, which subjects they offer, which offers the best extracurricular activities, and which just fits your personality best. Entrance exams are held for specific areas of education – like medicine – but are uncommon anywhere else.

The stereotype that Japanese pupils are smart seems to hold up as well – and this goes for both secondary school and university level education. Japanese pupils rank at the top in global testing, especially in scientific subjects. However, this success seems to have declined since the mid-nineties. Foreign languages, especially in the context of globalization, are also a weakness and efforts are being made to improve education in that subject. The top universities in Japan at this moment are the University of Tokyo, and Kyoto University, and the QS World University Rankings have Japanese universities in high places: the university of Tokyo is in the 32nd place, and Kyoto follows soon after at 35. Overall, there are six Japanese universities in the top 100 world ranking. The The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014 list The University of Tokyo on the 23d place, and Kyoto University on 52.

It has to be said, however, that despite of our exposure to videos in which Japanese schoolchildren show their extraordinary discipline and coordination, and comments are made that such a thing is unthinkable here, children and teens will act according to their age much the same as they do here. The rigorous attitude towards education is not held up as much as it was in the past, and in the same way our parents subject us to tales on how we have it easy compared to way back when they were in schools, the strictness has dwindled slightly over time in Japanese culture as well. It certainly seems to be a world well beyond our own, especially when one considers the uniforms, entrance exams, and the school itself determining nearly as much as the results obtained therein. However, in Japan as much as in Belgium or other countries, rules are broken, eyes are rolled at teachers, and homework is made with a longing sigh for free time.

And with that, I want to add that I hope that the pupils all over the world have enjoyed their summer break, and that the return to school – be it the beginning or continuation of a year – has been pleasant! Good luck, and may your year be as colourful as the outfits of these elementary school children:


Information on world ranking of universities obtained from:

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