Fumi Ginshima
Kenji Matsubara
National Institute for Educational Policy Research

Overview of Education System

The Fundamental Law of Education, the basis for post-World War II education in Japan, was enacted in 1947 and amended in 2006.1 This law establishes the basic principles of Japanese education and provides students with equal opportunities to receive a free, compulsory education for nine years. It is the foundation of all education-related laws in Japan, including the School Education Law and the Social Education Law.2,3

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) is the administrative body responsible for school education, and all educational activities in Japan come under its supervision. Local bodies establish and maintain virtually all primary and lower secondary schools, and are accountable to a prefectural or municipal board of education. MEXT supervises and subsidizes local boards of education.

Both public and private institutions exist at all levels of the academic hierarchy. The federal government bears most of the expense for national schools, while municipal and prefectural schools are supported locally, with some assistance from the federal government. As a rule, private schools are self-supporting through tuition, donations, and contributions from businesses. However, national and prefectural governments do provide financial assistance toward maintaining and improving private schools. Throughout Japan, 82.6 percent of kindergarten students, 1.1 percent of primary school students, 7 percent of lower secondary school students, and 31.1 percent of upper secondary school students are enrolled in private schools.4

Three types of institutions provide public preprimary education: kindergartens, daycare centers, and centers for early childhood education and care. Kindergartens enroll children ages 3 to 6, and are supervised by MEXT. Kindergarten educational programs last one to three years. Daycare centers enroll children ages 0 to 6, and operate under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Centers for early childhood education and care are a new type of preprimary institution designed to promote cooperation between kindergartens and daycare centers. The federal government authorized these centers in 2006, and MEXT has collaborated with the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare to improve the new system.

Education in Japan follows a 6-3-3 pattern: six years of primary school, three years of lower secondary school, and three years of upper secondary school. Some students attend six year secondary schools that combine lower secondary education with both general and specialized upper secondary education. Introduced into the school system in April 1999, these comprehensive secondary schools are designed to focus on the diverse needs of secondary school students. Of students attending these comprehensive schools, 25.1 percent are enrolled in private six year secondary schools.5

Compulsory education consists of six years of primary education and three years of lower secondary education, and almost all children ages 6 to 15 are enrolled in school. In 2014, 98.4 percent of this age cohort went on to upper secondary school, and 51.5 percent entered a university.6 In upper secondary schools, education can be full time, part time, or by correspondence. Full time students complete upper secondary school in three years, while part time and correspondence students can take longer. In 2014, approximately 96.9 percent of students in upper secondary schools were enrolled full time.7

In public primary and lower secondary schools, there is no official policy on educational streaming, and students are not tracked. From primary to the end of lower secondary school, a compulsory program of mathematics and science is taught to all students in mixed ability classes. The same curriculum is prescribed for all students. However, beginning in seventh grade, schools may offer several optional subjects for interested students. At the upper secondary level, schools place students into tracks according to their entrance examination results, offering courses geared toward differing abilities and interests. In Grades 11 and 12, schools offer several different curriculum options in mathematics and science.

Upper secondary education is divided into two main streams: general secondary education and specialized secondary education. In 2014, 72.6 percent of students in upper secondary schools were enrolled in the general stream,8 which provides general academic preparation. The specialized stream provides vocational and other classes for students who are preparing for a specific career, with subjects such as agriculture, business, fisheries, home economics, nursing, information technology, social work, physical education, music, art, science, mathematics, and English.

Under Japan’s curricular reform, the national curricula, called the Courses of Study, have been revised eight times since their implementation in 1947, with the goal of keeping up with societal changes over the years and the needs of each age group. There also have been changes in the number of class hours. The revised Course of Study for Elementary Schools was announced on March 2008 and fully implemented in April 2011.9 Some parts of the new curricula for mathematics and science were implemented partially during a transition period from April 2009 to March 2011. The revised Course of Study for Lower Secondary Schools was announced in March 2008 and also fully implemented in April 2012,10 but some parts of the new curricula for mathematics and science were implemented partially during a transition period from April 2009 to March 2012.

Languages of Instruction

Japanese is spoken by the overwhelming majority of Japanese people and is the language of instruction in Japanese schools. According to 2013 population data, Japan’s population was approximately 127.3 million.11 The majority of its inhabitants are Japanese. In addition, the population of Japan includes Koreans (0.4 percent), Chinese (0.5 percent), Brazilians (0.1 percent), and other minority groups. Recently, foreign national residents (medium term to long term residents and special permanent residents) have increased in number gradually and account for 1.6 percent of all residents in Japan.12 In some regions (such as in Brazilian communities), education is provided both in Japanese and Portuguese.