Japan schooling system


Japan is unique in how it assigns teachers to schools. Teachers are hired at the prefectural level, not at the school level. Teachers’ school assignments change every three years or so when they first start teaching, with fewer changes later in their careers. This allows the prefecture to assign the strongest teachers to the schools and students that need them the most. This rotation not only ensures that the most disadvantaged students have access to the most capable teachers, but helps build capacity within the profession. Young teachers are exposed to experienced teachers in a number of different environments with the expectation that they will learn from and interact with their peers.


Since the end of World War II education has been compulsory for all children in Japan for nine years, which includes six years of primary school (also called elementary school) and three years of lower secondary school (also called middle school or junior high school). Children start their schooling at the age of six. After graduating from primary school six years later, and then lower secondary school three years after that, they have completed their compulsory educational period by the age of 15. At that point, most students move along to upper secondary school (high school) for three additional years, followed by four years of university education for an even more select group. Because of changes in the population patterns of Japan, the number of students in primary school has declined steadily since 1980, though the number of students enrolled in universities has increased every year since the end of World War II.

Academic Year: The academic year in Japan begins in April and ends the following March. Students have a summer vacation of several weeks starting in July, as well as a two-week break at New Year’s. The year is broken down into three main terms beginning in April, September, and January, respectively. School generally starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends about 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. There was a half day of additional schooling on Saturday morning, but schools have gradually been dropping the Saturday schedule and moving instead to a five-day school week.

Language of Instruction: The language used most predominantly in Japanese schools is, of course, the Japanese language. Dominant features of this language are the high dependence on context to determine meaning, the precise ordering of words in a sentence, and the use of three different types of character systems in the written language (kanji, hiragana, and katakana). The complexity of the written language means that Japanese students spend many years studying their own language.

Although Japanese is the dominant language of instruction, there is no law declaring it the official language of the country. In fact, a school could use other languages. There are now a few schools that use English to teach science and mathematics classes. Although English is usually not the language of instruction, it is now studied by almost all students in Japan—making it the most commonly used foreign language in the country. The entrance exams for high school and for universities test for English ability.

It appears that the question of the role of English in the school system—and, indeed, in the entire culture—will remain a controversial subject for some years to come. A report entitled “Japan’s Vision for the 21st Century,” submitted to the Japanese prime minister’s office in early 2000, suggests that the government consider establishing English as Japan’s official second language. Given the need to increase the “global literacy” of the population, the report went on to urge that all students should be able to speak English before they start working after their schooling. Although the reading and writing of English is taught in schools, speaking and listening skills lag behind. So the recommendation of the report would require a significant upgrading of English language training in Japan.

A final point about the language of instruction concerns the minority populations in Japan. Although Japanese remains the dominant language in the classroom, there are significant numbers of Japanese residents whose native language is not Japanese. The native Ainu population, located mainly in the northern island of Hokkaido, is not permitted to receive courses in the Ainu language and culture in the public schools. Other linguistic minorities include Chinese and Ryukyuan (Okinawa). The teaching of ethnic languages and cultures remains a politically charged subject in Japan, though the debate has not yet presented any significant challenge to the dominance of Japanese as the language of instruction in the school system.

Use of Technology: Japan continues to emphasize the use of technology in education at all levels. In 1998 the Curriculum Council submitted a major recommendation report to the Ministry of Education, in which it advocated the use of computers throughout the educational system. Apparently that report has brought even more attention to the need to increase the exposure of Japanese students to instructional technology.

Statistics from 1999 suggest that although almost all public schools have computers, many teachers have not yet learned to use them in their teaching. As of March 1999, computers were used in 97.7 percent of primary schools, 99.9 percent of lower secondary schools, and 100 percent of upper secondary schools. The average number per school was 12.9, 32.1, and 76.4, respectively. Contrasted to these figures are the relatively low percentages of teachers who can use the technology effectively: 28.7 percent in primary schools, 26.1 percent in lower secondary, and 26.0 percent for upper secondary.

Quick Facts

Services-dominated economy Key services industries:finance, retail, tourism, and transportation Key manufacturing industries: automobiles, shipbuilding, robotics, and electronics

Sources: CIA World Factbook 2021

Japan’s three levels of government are national, prefectural, and municipal. Each of the 47 prefectures has its own smaller municipalities, which can be cities, towns, and villages. At the national level, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for the education system from early childhood to higher education, including establishing the national curriculum, operating teacher and administrator certification programs and pay scales, and developing requirements for setting up schools. MEXT also allocates funding to prefectural and municipal authorities for schools. Prefectures play a significant role in resource and personnel management. Municipalities are responsible for the supervision and day-to-day operation of schools.

At the prefectural level, there is a board of education composed of five members appointed by the governor. This board is responsible for appointing teachers to primary and lower secondary schools and funding municipalities. Until 2015, these boards appointed the superintendent of education at the prefectural level, but they now advise the governor of the prefect on the choice of superintendent. The governor makes the appointment.

Within municipalities there are boards of education appointed by the mayor. These boards are responsible for making recommendations to the prefectural board of education on teacher appointments, choosing textbooks from the MEXT-approved list, conducting in-service teacher and staff professional development, and overseeing the day-to-day operations of primary and lower secondary schools. In the schools, principals are responsible for planning the school curriculum, based on the national curriculum, and for managing the schools’ day-to-day activities. Teachers are responsible for determining how to teach the curriculum and for creating lesson plans, as well as being in contact with parents.

Planning and Goal Setting

The 2006 Basic Act on Education, the first revision of Japan’s foundational education law since the establishment of the education system after World War II, mandated that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) develop periodic plans for the “promotion” of education. The plans outline objectives for improvement as well as indicators of progress toward those objectives.

Japan issued its first Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education in 2008. It called for a society-wide commitment to improve education; development of a strong and independent citizenry; development of human resources to support social development; safety and security for children; and a high-quality education environment. The second Basic Plan followed in 2013, and the third in 2018.

Japan Education System: Academic Calendar

Have you seen those cute Japanese cartoons, especially Shinchan, which often feature the gorgeous season of ‘Cherry Blossom’ in their episodes? If yes, then this will help you understand the Japan education system well. Both the business and the academic calendars start from the month of April and end in March, which also happens to be the season of cherry blossom. Most of the Japanese schools adopt the tri semester academic calendar where:

The student exchange programs form an integral part of the Japan education system. Offered in various schools and other educational institutes, the Japanese students are sent to the university in a foreign country for study purposes for a period of not more than a year. The main objective behind these programs is to provide the necessary exposure to the students in terms of gaining knowledge and learning about various cultures and languages.

Best Universities in Japan

The higher level of Japan education system opens the doors for students to pursue advanced education. The universities in Japan impart knowledge in the field of their choice through a comprehensive curriculum and inculcate moral values. Enlisted below are some of the top-ranked universities which you can consider:

The Japanese education system consists of six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, three years of high school, and three years of university (four years). Only the first nine years of elementary and middle school are required, although 98.8% of students continue on to high school.

While educational levels differ by country, there is a definite link between the quality of a country’s educational system and its overall economic standing and well-being. The Japanese educational system is ranked seventh in the world.

Even for foreign students, tuition at public elementary and secondary schools is free. However, you will be responsible for some expenses such as lunches, school supplies, uniforms, and PTA contributions. Your student’s school should provide a full list of everything they require.

If you are planning to study in Japan but need guidance in the admission process then the experts at Leverage Edu will not only assist you in selecting the most suitable course but will also complete the admission-related formalities.