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Secondary education in Japan

Secondary Education in Japan is split into middle schools (中学校 chūgakkō) which cover the seventh through ninth years, and high schools (高等学校 kōtōgakkō, abbreviated to 高校 kōkō) which mostly cover years ten through twelve. Attendance in upper secondary school is not compulsory, but most students do attend.

Most Japanese upper secondary schools have complicated admissions procedures, similar to university admissions in other countries. Some of the top high schools, however, graduate their students directly into the top universities, such as Tokyo University. Students who do not plan to attend university are generally tracked into vocational high schools: very few lower secondary school graduates forgo upper secondary school entirely, although they are free to do so if they wish.

In Japan, the School Education Law was revised in 1998, and secondary schools were newly recognized. Education in these schools combines that of middle and high schools, without a clear break. A further revision to the law was carried out on 15 December 2006. The revised law leaves the structure of schooling basically the same but includes new emphases on respect for Japanese culture (Article 2.5), school discipline (Article 6.2), and parental responsibility (Article 10).

Middle School (Years: 7,8 and 9)

Lower-secondary school covers grades seven, eight, and nine—children between the ages of roughly twelve and fifteen—with increased focus on academic studies. Although it is still possible to leave the formal education system after completing lower secondary school and find employment, fewer than 4% did so by the late 1980s.

Like elementary schools, most middle schools in the 1980s were public, but 5% were private. Private schools were costly, averaging 558,592 yen (US$3,989) per student in 1988, about four times more than the 130,828 yen (US$934) that the ministry estimated as the cost for students enrolled in public middle schools.

The teaching force in lower-secondary schools is two-thirds male. Schools are headed by principals, 99% of whom were men in 1988. Teachers often majored in the subjects they taught, and more than 80% graduated from a four-year college. Classes are large, with thirty-eight students per class on average, and each class is assigned a homeroom teacher who doubles as counselor. Unlike Elementary students, middle school students have different teachers for different subjects. The teacher, however, rather than the students, moves to a new room for each fifty-minute period.

Instruction tends to rely on the lecture method. Teachers also use other media, such as television and radio, and there is some laboratory work. By 1989 about 45% of all public lower-secondary schools had computers, including schools that used them only for administrative purposes. Classroom organization is still based on small work groups, although no longer for reasons of discipline. Students are expected to have mastered daily routines and acceptable behavior.

All course contents are specified in the Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools. Some subjects, such as Japanese language and mathematics, are coordinated with the elementary curriculum. Others, such as foreign-language study, usually English, begin at this level. The curriculum covers Japanese language, social studies, mathematics, science, music, fine arts, health, and physical education. All students also are exposed to either industrial arts or homemaking. Moral education and special activities continue to receive attention.

Students also attend mandatory club meetings during school hours, and many also participate in after-school clubs.

The ministry recognizes a need to improve the teaching of all foreign languages, especially English. To improve instruction in spoken English, the government invites many young native speakers of English to Japan to serve as assistants to school boards and prefectures under its Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. By 2005 participants numbered over 6,000. In the last few years, several school boards in Japan have relied on ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher) from private dispatch companies.

As part of the movement to develop an integrated curriculum and the education reform movement of the late 1980s, the entire Course of Study for Lower-Secondary Schools was revised in 1989 and took effect in the 1992–93 school year. A main aim of the reform is to equip students with the basic knowledge needed for citizenship. In some measure, this means increased emphasis on Japanese history and culture, as well as understanding Japan as a nation and its relationships with other nations of the world. The course of study also increased elective hours, recommending that electives be chosen in light of individual student differences and with an eye toward diversification.

Two problems of great concern to educators and citizens began to appear at the lower-secondary level in the 1980s: bullying, which remains a major problem , and the school-refusal syndrome (toko kyohi—manifested by a student's excessive absenteeism), which was on the rise.

Experts disagreed over the specific causes of these phenomena, but there is general agreement that the system offers little individualized or specialized assistance, thus contributing to disaffection among those who can not conform to its demands or who are otherwise experiencing difficulties. Another problem concerns Japanese children returning from abroad. These students, particularly if they have been overseas for extended periods, often need help not only in reading and writing but also in adjusting to rigid classroom demands. Even making the adjustment does not guarantee acceptance: besides having acquired a foreign language, many of these students have also acquired foreign customs of speech, dress, and behavior that mark them as different.

Upper Secondary School

Even though upper-secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, 94 % of all lower-secondary school graduates entered upper secondary schools in 1989. Private upper-secondary schools account for about 24 % of all upper-secondary schools, and neither public nor private schools are free. The Ministry of Education estimated that annual family expenses for the education of a child in a public upper-secondary school were about ・300,000 Yen (US$2,142) in both 1986 and 1987 and that private upper-secondary schools were about twice as expensive.

All upper-secondary schools, public and private, are informally ranked, based on their success in placing graduates in freshman classes of the most prestigious universities. In the 1980s, private upper-secondary schools occupied the highest levels of this hierarchy, and there was substantial pressure to do well in the entrance examinations that determined the upper-secondary school a child entered. Admission also depends on the scholastic record and performance evaluation from lower-secondary school, but the examination results largely determine school entrance. Students are closely counseled in lower-secondary school, so that they will be relatively assured of a place in the schools to which they apply.

The most common type of upper-secondary schools has a full-time, general program that offered academic courses for students preparing for higher education and also technical and vocational courses for students expecting to find employment after graduation. More than 70 % of upper-secondary school students were enrolled in the general academic program in the late 1980s. A small number of schools offer part-time or evening courses or correspondence education.


The first-year programs for students in both academic and commercial courses are similar. They include basic academic courses, such as Japanese language, English, mathematics, and science. In upper-secondary school, differences in ability are first publicly acknowledged, and course content and course selection are far more individualized in the second year. However, there is a core of academic material throughout all programs. Vocational-technical programs includes several hundred specialized courses, such as information processing, navigation, fish farming, business English, and ceramics. Business and industrial courses are the most popular, accounting for 72 % of all students in full-time vocational programs in 1989.

The upper-secondary curriculum also underwent thorough revision; in 1989 a new Course of Study for Upper-Secondary Schools was announced that was to be phased in beginning with the tenth grade in 1994, followed by the eleventh grade in 1995 and the twelfth grade in 1996. Among noteworthy changes is the requirement that both male and female students take a course in home economics. The government is concerned with instilling in all students an awareness of the importance of family life, the various roles and responsibilities of family members, the concept of cooperation within the family, and the role of the family in society. The family continues to be an extremely important part of the social infrastructure, and the ministry clearly is interested in maintaining family stability within a changing society. Another change of note was the division of the old social studies course into history, geography, and civics courses.


Most upper-secondary teachers are university graduates. Upper-secondary schools are organized into departments, and teachers specialize in their major fields although they teach a variety of courses within their disciplines. Although women compose about 20 % of the teaching force, only 2.5 % of principals are women. Teaching depends largely on the lecture system, with the main goal of covering the very demanding curriculum in the time allotted. Approach and subject coverage tends to be uniform, at least in the public schools. As in lower-secondary school, the teachers, not the students, move from room to room after each fifty-minute class period.

School codes

Upper-secondary students are subject to a great deal of supervision by school authorities and school rules even outside of school. Students' behavior and some activities are regulated by school codes that are known and obeyed by most children. School regulations often set curfews and govern dress codes, hairstyles, student employment, and even leisure activities. The school frequently is responsible for student discipline when a student ran afoul of the regulations or, occasionally, of the law.

Delinquency generally, and school violence in particular, are troubling to Japanese authorities. Violations by upper-secondary school students include smoking and some substance abuse (predominantly of amphetamines). Use of drugs, although not a serious problem by international standards, is of concern to the police and civil authorities. Bullying and the drop-out rate are also subjects of attention. Upper-secondary students drop out at a rate of between 2.0 and 2.5 % per year. The graduation rates for upper-secondary schools stood at 87.5 % in 1987.


Discrimination in education is prohibited, but the burakumin discriminated communities, a group of people racially and culturally Japanese who have been discriminated against historically, are still disadvantaged in education to some degree. Their relatively poor educational attainment through the upper-secondary level in the 1960s was said to have been largely corrected by the 1980s, but reliable evidence is lacking.

There are some private schools for the children of the foreign community in Japan, and there are some Korean schools for children of Japan's Korean minority population, many of whom are second-generation or third-generation residents in Japan. Graduates of Korean schools face some discrimination, particularly in entering higher education. Observers estimated that 75 % of Korean children were attending Japanese schools in the early 1980s.

Training of disabled students, particularly at the upper-secondary level, emphasizes vocational education to enable students to be as independent as possible within society. Vocational training varies considerably depending on the student's handicap, but the options are limited for some. It is clear that the government is aware of the necessity of broadening the range of possibilities for these students. Advancement to higher education is also a goal of the government, and it struggles to have institutions of higher learning accept more handicapped students.

Upper-secondary school students returning to Japan after living overseas present another problem. The ministry was trying to get upper-secondary schools to accept these students more readily and in the late 1980s had decided to allow credit for one uppersecondary school year spent abroad.

Job placement

Upper-secondary school graduates choosing to enter the labor force are supported by a system of job placement, which, combined with favorable economic conditions, keeps the unemployment rate among new graduates quite low. For those students going on to college, the final phases of school life becomes increasingly dedicated to preparing for examinations, particularly in some of the elite private schools. About 31 % of upper-secondary graduates advance to some form of higher education directly after graduation.

After-school activities

After-school clubs (kurabu katsudō in Japanese) provide an important upper-secondary school activity. Buraban (school band) is among the more popular activities among girls. Sports, recreational reading, and watching television are popular daily leisure activities, but schoolwork and other studies remain the focus of the daily lives of most children. The college entrance examinations greatly influence school life and study habits, not only for college-bound students but also indirectly for all; the prospect of the examinations often imparts seriousness to the tone of school life at the upper-secondary level.

Special Education

Japanese special education at the compulsory level was highly organized in the late 1980s, even though it had been nationally mandated and implemented only in 1979. There is still controversy over whether children with special needs can or should be "mainstreamed." In a society that stresses the group, many parents desire to have their children attend regular schools. Mainstreaming in Japan, however, does not necessarily mean attending regular classes; it often means attending a regular school that has special classes for handicapped students. There are also special public schools for the handicapped, which have departments equivalent to the various levels of elementary and secondary schools, including kindergarten and upper-secondary departments in some cases. There are few private institutions for special education. Some students attend regular classes and also special classes for training for their particular needs. Some teachers are also dispatched to children who can not attend schools.


  • - Japan
  • David G. Hebert (2005). Music Competition, Cooperation, and Community: An Ethnography of a Japanese School Band. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington. Ann Arbor: Proquest/UMI.

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