[Editorial Tuesday] Why Japanese Students Study So Hard

Fantasy Vs. Reality

Ever since anime and dramas have been broadcasted, a good number have touched upon school life in a romanticized manner. Students hang out having lunch on the roof, some sleep in the middle of class, others spend their time in the library reading fiction, and a significant number participate in a club activity. A majority of the things we shared are true with the exception of hanging out on the roof (which is banned in a majority of schools due to suicide and accident prevention). But in the end, they have to study hard. As you can see in whatever school-related media in context to Japanese culture, they are still emphatically academic.

No matter the country of origin, pop culture portrayal of daily life only covers a small fraction of the truth and culture differences will be invisible to viewers who have no first-hand familiarity with the country itself. So for today’s Editorial Tuesday, we are happy to assist you readers in bringing you information why students in Japan study so hard.

Difference in Education Systems

If there is one reason why Japanese students are very dedicated to their studies, it is because students from a young age are very motivated to get a good job at the encouragement of modern society. This has been the idea since the education system was reformed after World War II, where it was difficult to get quality employment at the time. And of course in order to get a good job, one must go to a good university and in turn, go to a good high school (and this can conceivably go as far back as going into a quality kindergarten).

A good percentage of a compulsory education system in Japan (which is from first to ninth grade) is centered on getting prepared for the high school and/or university entrance exams. Though more than 90% of the Japanese population has a high school education or something akin to it, high school is not at all legally required.

For American high schools, students just enroll in the high school closest to their house. In the case of Japanese high school students, some may commute somewhere between thirty minutes to two hours to get to school, or some may go to a high school on the opposite side of the country and reside in a school dormitory if that school has one (though this is a likely scenario for private schools). As for why students still go to high school, in addition to hoping for quality employment, in Japan, it is believed that high school are the final years one can enjoy their youth.

Examination Hell

Some of these high schools can only take in a certain number of applicants so as a result, students must pass certain exams in order to get into them, and this extends to universities. Very rarely portrayed in pop culture, students are usually applying somewhere between three to five schools and taking exams there. As a result of this system, teachers in the junior highs and senior high schools are focused on getting their students ready for these exams. As a result, it also becomes like a competition and these students want their spot into the school of their choice, or to become number one. This competition like idea was very reflective of how they economically progressed domestically between the 1970s and 1980s, and this thinking still remains despite the decline of the economy from the 1990s.

How Far Do They Go In Studying?

This particular feature is portrayed in J-Drama and in movies a little bit more in comparison to anime and manga, but a large percentage of students go to juku, or cram school, or extended after school tutoring. A good number of jukus tend to advertise how their students are able to get into a certain famous high school and/or university. While a regular school in Tokyo or some other big city is likely to have 35-45 students in a classroom, just like how it is in other countries with similar conditions, it is next to impossible to address the individual needs of students and keep up with a demanding curriculum. With jukus, students can either work in small groups and/or get individual tutoring to have their personal academic needs addressed. Most educational experts and parents feel without cram schools, students cannot keep up with their studies.

Since these institutions are private, they cost a lot of money but are reportedly worth it. Due to the roles that these cram schools play in helping out Japanese students keep track of their progress, a good number of regular school teachers feel inferior to the quality of education they can provide. In fact, a lot of Japanese students say they find their cram school teachers more engaging as opposed to their regular schoolteachers, who are overwhelmed with teaching numerous students and having other non-teaching duties such as regulating a school club they are assigned to.

Is It All About Exams?

Students don’t exclusively go to school just to pass a test. A good number students in junior and senior high school participate in a school club whether it would be a sports team, the school band, an art club, an English club, photography, astrology and so on.

With school sports anime like All Out!!, Prince of Tennis, and Kuroko’s Basketball, though this is very difficult to consciously contextualize to non-Japanese viewers who have no fast hand knowledge of the Japanese education system, sports in schools serve a very unique role. Just like how youth sports programs around the world work, it is not about the sport, but it’s also about building character and being part of a team. This is the same in Japan but is taken to a distinct kind of emphasis. In a team sport, like how it is portrayed in All Out!!, students learn about leadership and having a relationship between senpai and kouhai, which eventually extends to the workplace. Students learn their roles and how they contribute. It gives them a realistic sense of structure.

Though we cannot deny this practice is not as progressive in other Western nations, in some high school sports teams, girls are regulated to domesticated roles. In Japan, a good percentage of women who get married retire from the workforce and become housewives, and taking roles such as being a team manager allows women to prepare for such expectations. So students in some ways are studying to become a part of society through their activities.

What are the Options?

A good percentage of anime, manga, and dramas tend to portray the generic high school where the students study the core subjects (English, math, Japanese history, science, PE), but in real life, there are numerous forms of secondary education that students are free to pursue, which are both public and private. In addition to attending a regular high school, there are high schools related to technology, construction, business, culinary, and nursing. And just like in the anime Silver Spoon, there are high schools in places like in Hokkaido and other farming communities that teach farming first hand. And for some places that are centered on fishing industries, there are schools that are dedicated to fishing! So beyond basic academics, a good number of other students study hard because they have decided what trade they wish to pursue, and want to be ready for society upon graduation.

For students in the big cities like in Tokyo and Osaka, some may want to join a private high school that is connected to a university. For most high schools that are connected to a university, students who graduate from that high school can go onto the university upon graduation (this also applies to private junior highs that are connected to high schools). However, these high schools tend to cost a lot of money. For a very long time, public high school required tuition fees but were no longer required after 2009, but going to high school is still expensive with uniforms, school bags, textbooks, and other required supplies still cost a lot of money ranging anywhere from a mere $1,000 to almost $50,000 depending on the school.

Of course, students are able to seek scholarships. In some private schools, depending on their test scores, they can be eligible for scholarships and/or cheaper tuition. And just like how it is in some other schools in other countries if they have a parent who is an alumnus they are eligible for discounted tuition. Sometimes siblings who attend together can receive such benefits.

Other Options

In addition, a small fraction of students can enter the next phase of their education without having to take an exam. If for an example a valedictorian of a junior high is recommended to a prestigious high school by their principal, the student exclusively just has to go through an interview with the administration. Think more of it as an oral exam. They are asked questions about their future, why they want to go to this school, what they hope to achieve, etc. However, if a recommended student rejects an offer, it could make their junior high look bad and that school would go on their blacklist from anywhere between five to ten years. For a university, if a student wishes to enter their English program, they are given an oral exam/interview by the native English faculty to test their speaking proficiency.

Another possible means of getting into high school and/or college is just like in some top American universities, athletic scholarships. High school baseball is pretty big in Japan and going to the Koushien, the high school baseball championship is a very big deal to all high school teams. So if one school is famous for their baseball team, they are recruiting the best up and coming talent. So if one junior high student was the top pitcher, then you bet that student and such schools are probably gunning for each other. Conditionally, students who are accepted into schools under such stipulations are still required to maintain an acceptable grade point average in order to keep participating and to stay enrolled.

Domestic and International Criticisms

We cannot deny that Japan’s rigorous system has produced one of the most literate nations in the world and Japanese students score very high on subjects such as math and science. However, Professor Yong Zhao (of the University of Oregon’s Education Department) and Hirotada Otoake (a former elementary teacher and board member of the Tokyo Board of Education) feel that the system has its flaws in preparing the youth for a global economy. Both of these education experts feel that as opposed to focusing education around exams, schools should help students be more creative and innovative to encourage them to become entrepreneurs.

In early 2016, Ototake publicly accused the Japanese system of being a training facility for average salarymen and if the US did something similar, the world wouldn’t have people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Naturally, he caused a controversy with such claims. What he is asking for is for schools to provide students with an environment that offers more variety and to seek other opportunities besides general employment as a company man. All he wants are schools to give students to learn how to be leaders and not followers. As stated before, after junior high, students are free to pursue whatever for of education they want. They have the choice of attending a school with specializes in a certain skill or trade. Students are free to be artists, and others are free to learn to become musicians. So it is possible that Ototake’s criticisms may have some contradictions.

The accusations of education not adequately preparing people for the real world has been around for years in the US. On social media, whether it would be Facebook memes or YouTube satirical videos, people vent their frustrations that they learned how to do the Pythagorean theorem (which they claimed to have never used in their life) as opposed to how to do their taxes or manage their credit rating. There are other memes that are critical of other controversies of modern day education such as Common Core, which has been criticized by professionals who use math in their respective fields such as electrical engineers.

It is natural for many to immediately rebuttal that not everybody can be a successful entrepreneur. If you fail, you’re broke. Some like to say that if you fail in school, you fail in life. Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, has also been critical of modern academics in his own way. Kiyosaki expresses that academics is very negative in regards to failure. As many motivational experts would say, sometimes we need to fail in order to learn and to succeed. Due to the pressures to not fail in not just in Japan, but also in any other country, this can lead to mental health issues, bullying, and consequently to suicides which have happened in Japan. So by fostering in a system where making mistakes is not only ok but natural, individuals can be more secure with the choices they can make in their life. The important thing he teaches is that no matter what you do, believe in what you’re doing and never give up.

The Big Picture

There is no doubt that Japanese students study hard. They are a product of a society where they are expected to play a role in the harmony and the end goal is to get a good job. And it is undeniable that when people grow up, they want stable and quality employment and we all know that knowledge is power. It is nice to study certain subjects, but should we study for the sake of personal knowledge, or pass a test? No matter what your grade may have been in your senior year of calculus, unless your present employment requires it, how much do you remember? People know that not everybody can be the next Alexander Bell, Tom Brady, Hayao Miyazaki, or Elvis Presley, and not everybody wants to be your typical company worker. But if people want to pursue that life, that’s ok.

Final Thoughts

If the goal of education is to prepare the next generation for the real world, then maybe changes should be made. As stated, the roles of women in sports clubs such as baseball are rather limited. Prime Minister Abe wishes to get women into the workforce. Economists have stated that if most women enter the workforce, Japan’s GDP could go up a little more than 12%. So hopefully reforms and encouragements in all aspects of society in hopes of it extending to education can encourage the next generation to bring Japan back to its economic glory days.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with studying and should be encouraged. The true question is, what and why should we study?

silver-spoon-tome-gin-no-saji-manga-wallpaper-1-700x495 [Editorial Tuesday] Why Japanese Students Study So Hard


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

Previous Articles

Top 5 Anime by Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty