Working in the Japanese Public Education System

By: Todd Berozsky

If anyone reading this has shown any interest in Japanese society or school life, they most likely have come across many articles, memes or videos about school life in Japan. Most of them show Japanese school as a happy Disney like experience. That is somewhat true in the early elementary school years but I am going to focus more on structure, social issues and needed changes that are coming. For the most part it is in desperate need of modernization. Japans education system has a tendency to be misrepresented by people who write articles about it and have never set foot in a Japanese classroom, worked with educators in Japan or understand Japanese society. There is also a phenomenon of very opinionated people who come to Japan for a several year extended vacation and teach English to pay for it, skating on the surface of the education system and Japanese society.

I am not writing this to be critical or praise the education system here in Japan. I do not want to make comparisons to other countries or talk about statistics. I will give some facts on the matter and share my experiences. You should do your own research and/or draw your own conclusions later.

Upon coming to Japan with the intention of staying indefinitely, I needed a job. I did not speak Japanese and there were plenty of dispatch/outsourcing companies hiring warm bodies that spoke English. The company I worked for was borderline criminal. These companies supplied the majority of ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher) for public schools and still do illegally. Yes illegally! Many regulations in Japan are selectively enforced or have elaborate loopholes and that’s a great item for further discussion.

My initial shock, when stepping into a Japanese classroom for the first time, was long lasting to say the least. The reality is nothing like what I had expected from reading stories about obedient students standing at attention and bowing, eating wonderful rice dishes for lunch and diligently cleaning their school to a spotless shine. Portraying this image of school life here is misleading and a half truth. I was also expecting some high technology in the class room.

I have been teaching English in Japan in a multitude of capacities since 2008. I started as an ALT. I basically stood next to a Japanese English teacher and repeated words in my fluent tongue or simply stood there for 50 minutes and did nothing as the Japanese teacher used a CD player instead of utilizing me. Apparently they had to have me in the room to fulfill some requirement.

As time passed I decided to stop whining and develop myself professionally as an educator and that resulted in better opportunities, working conditions and teaching experiences. Later on I found myself in a large city working directly for a board of education at the forefront of educational reform and I still do. At one point I managed a group of ALTs for a city ward. I have since forged valuable relationships with educators, organizations, schools and students. I am involved in much more than teaching English conversation.

I am currently teaching English Science classes in a SSHS (Super Science High School) and developing and teaching a Global Studies curriculum for junior high schools. I have recently started a company and provide intensive English programs for public schools as well as dabbling in domestic exports.

What is school like in Japan? Let’s start with the basics. The school year starts in April!

From elementary school (6 years) to Junior high school (3 years), students automatically move up the grades regardless of their exam results. Technically they could be held back for missing a certain amount of classroom time but this is something I have never seen done or had experience with. I would like to say it never happens and in my opinion there are many nonacademic reasons for this. In my prefecture there are three grades: A B C and there is no such thing as a failing grade. I have witnessed students being absent for most of the school year or simply opting out of participating in the classroom and still getting their diploma at the end of the year. The reasons for nonattendance or nonparticipation are varied and fuel for another societally focused article. This is a very low percentage of students as most of them have a willingness to engage their studies and set goals for their entrance into a specific high school and beyond.

Students are coddled and usually have a safe, clean structured environment to learn in. All the basic subjects are covered in school just like any other developed country. There are still some areas where the schools do not get the resources that other schools get. The schools are less comfortable, have outdated equipment and are sometimes even unhealthy unsanitary environments. I have been in some of the worst schools as far as discipline, health and resources are concerned and that is another topic all together. Inside those schools I have found that the teachers are selfless, dedicated and still committed to their students and providing the best education and support that they can.

One important aspect that I really like about Japanese junior high school and high school is the amount of yearly sporting events, festivals, school trips and community activities connected to the school. Children get more than just the basic academics. International trips and home stay programs, work experience programs and celebrity lectures are just a few. Some school have programs that teach kimono, tea ceremony, martial arts and Japanese fine arts. Students must also enter an after school club: Sports, art, music or other and it’s the same for high school.  Students can spend up to 7 days a week at school and up to 12 hours depending on the day. There are also private night cram schools that focus on test preparation and they close as late as 10pm. Just enough time to catch the last train home and sleep. Despite the rigors of study and discipline, students are usually positive, energetic and cheerful. The vast majority of them are also physically fit and healthy.

The last year of junior high school is stressful for the students who want to go to high school and includes cramming for high school entrance exams.

A few children drop out of the system at this point and where they go after junior high is a mystery to me. Work programs or some form of dependency is most likely the case. It is unfortunate but these are usually students who have been delinquent, disruptive or apathetic to what had been going on around them for the last 9 years of school.

This year I asked over six hundred Japanese junior high school students to write about their hopes and dreams for the future (in English). Most of them wrote that they wanted to get into a good high school, go to college and discover an enjoyable career and they wished for world peace.

The next step is high school and on to college.

High school students have a similar experience that culminates into a final year of cramming for tests to get into a college or vocational school. Students can’t progress in high school as they did previously. They must make the grade to continue and graduate. This means retaking failed tests and making up missed assignments.

There are many vocational schools. Students can study a wide variety of skilled trades. The problem here is a declining population and low abundance of skilled trade workers. Let’s say less people want to enter a career where they get their hands dirty and skilled trade work requires a different mindset as per posed to passing tests and conducting business.

Here is a simple break down of the stages of the education system and what is offered including vocational. It is geared to foreigners attending Japanese school but it accurately shows the structure:

So what is the problem then?

The strengths and weaknesses of Japanese students are a reflection of the incongruous educational and social structure they live in. Out dated systems that clash with modern methods and society, customs and traditions that are deeply rooted into daily life and business practices. These issues combine and inhibit certain freedoms enjoyed in other societies. These freedoms that I refer to are things like practical decision making, being able to think ahead and see the possible consequences and the ability to change course quickly after committing to a plan. The ability to visualize an outcome is also difficult to foster. This is a country where you can go through life making infrequent decisions for yourself and therefore have limited responsibility.

Japanese children are very creative, intelligent, positive and fantastic dreamers but they are placed in an educational system largely designed to compress individuality and individual thought. Educators and students alike seem trapped in an obsolescent framework that harbors poor decision making and inefficiency. Japanese scholars have urged young people to spend time outside of Japan to learn critical thinking and gain a more autonomous outlook on life and career. Perhaps they hope that upon bringing these experiences back with them they will better Japanese society. These people are valuable assets. However, those who live overseas and then return to Japan, often have anxieties about their ability to both cope with the enlightenment obtained from life abroad and to successfully readjust to Japanese life upon their return. The benefit to society they carry with them can be lost as a result of this personal dilemma. Some of them adapt and become leaders, entrepreneurs and creators.

The need for global education in Japan.

Even though Japanese society is trying to focus on globalization and internationalization and its young people have embraced public media and the internet, it is still a very closed society. The language barrier seems to keep the digital aspect of their society in a closed loop.

Unfortunately most Japanese people, especially the increasing older generation in Japan have grown up with limited interaction with foreigners or foreign culture. Since Japan is an extremely hierarchal culture many Japanese people feel this sense of awkwardness and discomfort when interacting with foreigners. It is easier to just avoid it.

Japanese businesses need to be able to communicate in global markets and English is the current gateway for that. The English proficiency of Japanese professionals in Japan that work in businesses dealing with companies abroad is to say the least, unsatisfactory.

The difficulty with speaking and writing reveals that junior high and high schools continue to teach English to pass university entrance exams, instead of working toward students’ learning functional and communicative English.

Here is the MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)

English Education Reform Plan corresponding to Globalization:

In my opinion, through the reform of the mandatory teaching of English in the Japanese school system, the ministry of education hopes to improve critical thinking, a desire to express ones hopes and dreams for the future and be able to communicate/function in a global environment. This could make English education and Global Studies the gateway subject for all things global in schools across Japan. Look at what works and adopt it!

This will undoubtedly assist Japanese society in engaging the world as a global nation by creating new generations of Japanese individuals who become global citizens without losing their culture and identity.

For me, Science is key. Through teaching simple science in an all English environment, I have enjoyed producing good results with young learners and reaching the goals set forth by the new plan. I have spent three years co-developing this program with some very talented people. Instead of studying lists of vocabulary and focusing on grammar, students have a meeting in English. They choose a research topic based on their field of study, formulate a plan, conduct an experiment, collect data and report the results. This is a struggle for some students because it must be done in English. The practicality of it should be obvious.

If you are interested in this program, here is the link:    

I believe the education system and Japanese society are at a turning point. There is a growing voice within calling for change but as all things Japanese, it’s a slow complex process. Despite the recent disasters and political issues, Japan has a lot to offer the world. The 2020 Olympics are just ahead and tourism is booming. Japan is making big changes to key parts of their infrastructure including improving the conditions of their schools. There are countless products, cuisines and experiences that can only be found in Japan and yes there is still innovation coming out of the postindustrial shadows. It is a safe place to live and work and it is easy to pursue an active healthy lifestyle. For the most part, I enjoy living, working and playing here and currently have no intentions of leaving.

Todd Berozsky is originally from Boston Massachusetts and is a Wentworth Institute of Technology graduate, Certified TEFL instructor, licensed Electrician and now is currently an educator, curriculum developer and small business owner in Saitama Japan.