Chapter 1. Education in Japan: Strengths and challenges

This chapter provides a brief description of Japan’s education system and the context in which it operates. Since the 1990s, the Japanese economy has been sluggish, and the ratio of debt to GDP has reached uncharted territory. The forecast of sharp demographic decline, the rapidly ageing population and the evolution of the skills required to flourish in a knowledge economy also present new challenges to Japan’s economy, society and educational institutions.

Japan’s unique education system relies on the concept of “the whole child” or holistic education, where schools not only develop academic knowledge, but also foster students’ social, emotional and physical development. International standardised assessments highlight the excellence of education and the high level of equity in Japan, but Japanese students exhibit a higher level of anxiety and a lower level of life satisfaction than their counterparts elsewhere in the OECD.

Building on its strengths, Japan has started to reform its education system to adapt to the globalised environment of the 21st century, increase well-being, broaden students’ skills and enhance its contribution to the economy and society.


The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Introduction and background to the report

The Basic Act on Education specifies that the mission of the Japanese education system is to convey universal principles such as “full development of the personality” and “dignity of the individual.” It also states that the system should “help children to become independent individuals who combine well-balanced knowledge, morality and a healthy body” and will continue to work towards personal fulfilment, while respecting civic responsibility and actively participating in building the state and Japanese society. As such, Japan’s education system not only ensures that children will receive the necessary inputs for self-realisation, but it also helps to bond society by providing basic training ground for good citizenship (Boyle, 1992[1]).

Since the beginning of international standardised assessments of student achievement in the 1990s, Japan has demonstrated the excellence of its education system by regularly being among the top performers. But today’s rapidly changing socio-economic situation is posing new challenges to Japan in terms of academic achievement and civic responsibilities for shaping the future of Japanese society. Globalisation and modernisation have been changing the skills required in the workplace and in everyday life. With a shrinking and ageing population, Japan faces major demographic decline, which has led to significant changes in its industrial and employment structures. Japan’s high standards of equity in education have also been challenged, with widening income and social disparities across the population. Meanwhile, school bullying and student well-being have come into focus.

To respond to these challenges, the Japanese government (elected in 2012) created the Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding, a new institution aiming to place education at the centre of the roadmap to growth. Headed by the Prime Minister, the Council brings together experts from a wide variety of fields. It has formulated ten global recommendations, including policy recommendations for development of the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education (2013-2017).

In the Second Basic Plan, based on the report prepared by the Central Council for Education (an advisory board to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology - MEXT), the Cabinet set four policy directions for the reform package:

  1. Developing social competencies for survival: independence and collaboration in a diversified and rapidly changing society.

  2. Developing human resources for a brighter future: initiating and creating changes and new values through leadership in various fields in society.

  3. Building safety nets for learning: a wide range of learning opportunities accessible to everyone.

  4. Building bonds and establishing vibrant communities: a virtuous circle where society nurtures people and people create society.

These policy directions focus primarily on curriculum reform and school organisation. Other matters, such as lifelong learning and costs of tertiary education, are still under active policy consideration.

Building on the Council’s work and the current Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education (2013-17), MEXT has been implementing policies such as increasing financial assistance to households for education, reorganising local education boards and strengthening self-governance in universities.

In 2015, MEXT announced a plan to enhance schools’ capacity by improving teacher quality, introducing specialists, promoting school-community partnerships and revising the National Curriculum Standards to be implemented from fiscal years 2020-22. MEXT and the Central Council of Education, an advisory board to MEXT, have also been discussing transition mechanisms from upper secondary education into university, aiming to transform upper secondary education, the university entrance selection process and university education (called Articulation Reforms).

In this context, the government plans to introduce the third Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education (2018-22). Developed by the Central Council of Education, it defines a comprehensive and systematic implementation of education policy in Japan, focused on how the education system can help individuals prepare for 2030.

The Japanese government invited the OECD to conduct an analysis of the strengths and challenges of its education system, focusing on selected policy areas that are part of the third Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education and future education policy. The review’s objectives were to: 1) define practices to improve instruction in schools, including school partnerships with the community; and 2) assess the state of tertiary education and the means to revitalise it (examining the key features and the role of tertiary education and how lifelong learning can contribute to its revitalisation).

The OECD analysis focused on the following items of the Japanese current reform agenda:

  • A National Curriculum Reform (to be implemented from 2020-22), which will focus on using active learning to develop the competencies of students around the three stated pillars: 1) motivation to learn and apply learning to life; 2) acquisition of knowledge and technical skills; and 3) skills to think, make judgements and express oneself. New student assessments aligned with the new curriculum will be developed.

  • An integrated reform of the teacher training system, which includes development of comprehensive training for teachers throughout their career, along with reorganisation in schools to reduce non-teaching tasks for teachers, and continuous development of a school environment favourable to in-service training for teachers (e.g. Lesson Study).

  • Strengthening school-community partnerships, which includes involving communities in children’s education as partners to schools, and implementing a school management reform (the Community School programme and the Team Gakkou [school as a team] programme). Among the objectives of these reforms are: 1) maintaining the holistic approach to children’s education with support from the community; and 2) lightening the workload and responsibilities of teachers and schools, with greater engagement from parents and the community.

  • Ensuring financial support for those in need, which includes reducing the financial burden of education on families, especially at non-mandatory levels of education. Grant-type scholarships for tertiary students and subsidies to low-income families for early childhood education and care (ECEC) have recently been introduced as part of the reforms.

  • Improving access to tertiary education and adult learning, which includes development and promotion of new programmes for adults to foster lifelong learning in an ageing society. Plans to reform university entrance examination procedures have also been discussed.

OECD National Reviews of Education Policy aim to help Japan and other countries to better understand the challenges and potential responses resulting from the need for education systems to evolve as they seek to prepare students for the future, in light of current demographic, economic and social changes, the important contribution of lifelong learning and the impact of education funding structures on equity.

Box 1.1. The OECD Education Policy Review process

OECD National Reviews of Education Policy can cover a wide range of topics and sub-sectors tailored to the needs of the country. They are based on in-depth analysis of strengths and weaknesses, using various sources of available data, such as PISA, national statistics and research documents. The reviews draw on policy lessons from benchmarking countries and economies, with expert analysis of the key aspects of education policy and practice being investigated.

Reviews include one or more visits to the county by an OECD review team with specific expertise on the topic(s) being investigated (often with one or more international and/or local experts). An OECD Education Policy Review typically takes from eight months to a year, depending on its scope, and consists of six phases: 1) definition of the scope; 2) preparation of a background report by the country; 3) desk review and preliminary visit to the country; 4) main review visit by a team of experts; 5) drafting of the report; and 6) launch of the report.

The methodology aims to provide tailored analysis for effective policy design and implementation. It focuses on supporting specific reforms by tailoring comparative analysis and recommendations to the specific country context and by engaging and developing the capacity of key stakeholders throughout the process.

OECD National Reviews of Education Policy are conducted in OECD member and non-member countries, usually upon request of the country.

For more information:

Using OECD review methodology (Box 1.1), this report is part of the OECD’s efforts to strengthen the capacity for education reform across OECD member countries, partner countries and selected non-member countries and economies. Education Policy in Japan: Building Bridges Towards 2030 draws on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), as well as other comparative data from benchmarking education performers, research and analysis of key aspects of education policy in Japan, and two review visits to Japan. The OECD review team members also made extensive use of OECD’s internfernational knowledge base and Japanese educational research, statistical information and policy documents.

The report identifies the main strengths and challenges of Japan’s education system within the focus area of analysis, and provides a number of recommendations that can contribute to improving Japan’s future education policy design. In particular, to ensure that the current reforms take hold, it is important for Japan to recognise the present well-rounded (holistic) model of education, to build on its strengths, and to prioritise reforms that can help to Japan transition to 21st century skills and further enhance its education performance.

Japan’s socio-economic context

Geography and political system

Japan is an archipelago of 6 852 islands located in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, China, Korea and Russia. The country stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Chinese Taipei in the south-west. The four main islands of the archipelago are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, which together make up about 97% of Japan's land area.

The world's tenth largest country, Japan has a population of 127 million and is highly homogenous, as Japanese make up 98.5% of the total population. About 73% of Japan is forested, mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use. As a result, the habitable zones, mainly located in coastal areas, have extremely high population densities. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 340 people per square kilometre (OECD, 2017[2]). Tokyo, the capital city, has the most populated metropolitan area among OECD countries, with approximately 36 million people.

Japan is a constitutional monarchy, with the role of the Emperor limited to ceremonial duties. Power is held by the Prime Minister, while sovereignty is vested in the Japanese people, who elect members of the Diet, the legislative body of Japan. A bicameral body, the Diet consists of the House of Representatives, in which members are elected by popular vote every four years, and the House of Councillors, in which members are also elected by popular vote but serve six-year terms. Japan has been governed by the Liberal Democratic Party, either alone or as part of a coalition for around 40 years, with other parties in power in 1991-93 and 2009-12.

Japan is a unitary state. The central government delegates many functions to the local governments, but retains the overall right to control them, as provided in the Local Autonomy Law passed on 17 April 1947. Japan is divided into 47 prefectures in 8 regions. Each prefecture is overseen by an elected governor and subdivided into municipalities (1 719 in total). Roles usually fulfilled by prefectures include providing services such as education, public health, social welfare, urban planning, economic development, sanitation and environmental protection, transportation infrastructures and police. As a result, municipalities have significant capacity to decide what services they should prioritise, as long as they respect the parameters set by the central government. In fact, while local government expenditure accounts for 70% of overall government expenditure, the central government still controls local budgets, tax rates, and borrowing.

A sluggish economy

After China and the United States, Japan has the world’s third-largest economy, with gross domestic product (GDP) at USD 4 125 billion (OECD, 2017[2]). It is the world's fourth-largest exporter and importer of goods and also of services (WTO (World Trade Organisation), 2017[3]). However, since the early 1990s, Japan’s GDP per capita has gone down compared to the top half of OECD countries – to 81% of their level (Figure 1.1a). In 2015, Japan’s GDP per capita was USD 38 400, below the OECD average of USD 40 800 (OECD, 2017[2]).

Figure 1.1. Japan’s economic situation, 1990-2015

Source: OECD (2017[4]), “OECD Economic Outlook No. 101 (Edition 2017/1)”, OECD Economic Outlook: Statistics and Projections (database), (accessed 13 September 2017).


Japan’s economy is concentrated on services, which amount to 72% of the total GDP, while industry contributes 27% of the total value added and the agricultural sector contributes 1%. Because it lacks natural resources to support its growing economy and large population, Japan has had to specialise in the export of goods where it has a comparative advantage, such as engineering-oriented, or R&D-led industrial products, in exchange for the import of raw materials and petroleum. Japan is among the top three importers of agricultural products in the world by volume (along with the European Union and the United States) to provide for its own domestic agricultural consumption (OECD/FAO, 2007[5]).

The Japanese labour market is tight.1 Japan’s ratio of job offers per applicant rose to 1.51 in June 2017, the highest since 1974 (Japan Macro Advisors, 2017[6]). Total employment as a share of the population aged 15-74 in Japan (68%) is one of the highest among all OECD countries, and the OECD projects even further increases in the employment rate during 2017. Correspondingly, the overall unemployment rate in Japan has fallen to 3.3% and the youth unemployment rate to 5.6%, among the lowest in the OECD (OECD, 2016[7]). Moreover, data from the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) rank Japanese workers as the most proficient in numeracy and literacy in the world.

There may be room to improve resource allocation. Workers in Japan may be overqualified, since 31% of them state that they hold a qualification level above what is required for their job (compared to the OECD average of 21.7%). Estimates of the difference in wages between overqualified workers and their well-matched counterparts also show that they earn 19% less (compared to the OECD average of 14.5% less) (OECD, 2016[8]).

Despite high economic performance, Japan has had a sluggish economy for more than 20 years. At the start of the 1990s, the Japanese asset price bubble burst, throwing the Japanese economy into turmoil. The economic recovery that ensued did not restore Japan’s prosperity. The subprime crisis in 2008 triggered a recession, with a growth rate of -5.5% in Japan in 2009, causing Japan to sink even deeper into what is now called the “lost decades”. Japan’s GDP per capita, which almost matched the level of the top half of OECD countries in 1990, is now 19% below that (Figure 1.1a).

During that period, persistent deflation increased the debt ratio, while chronic deficits were maintaining this effect. Today, the gross debt stands at 216% of GDP (Figure 1.1b), and the public debt service is now the biggest item in the Japanese budget (24.3%). This leaves little leeway for government policy action. In response, the government launched a package of reforms to stimulate the economy, including monetary easing to tackle the liquidity trap, fiscal stimulus to boost consumption and policies to spur private investment and revive growth.

This background has contributed to rising inequalities, linked to the development of a dual labour market after the price asset bubble crisis. As declining growth shifted the Japanese lifetime employment model, labour law reforms gave firms incentives to explore alternative forms of human resources practices (Aoyagi and Ganelli, 2013[9]). Since the early 1990s, a rise in the share of non-regular workers (refers usually to workers who do not enjoy employment security: short-term contract, part-time work or indirect employment) in the workforce has fuelled the increase in inequality in income, strengthened the dualism of the labour market (regular versus non-regular workers), generated a working-poor population, and potentially leveraged the poverty rate (Jones, 2007[10]).

The share of non-regular workers rose from below 20% in the 1990s to almost 40% in 2017. Moreover, the share of the population living under the poverty threshold (i.e. with a disposable income of half of the national median), rose by 4 percentage points between 1985 and 2012 to reach 16%, which was in the second highest decile among OECD member countries (OECD, 2017[2]). In 2011, the richest 10% of the population in Japan earned 10.7 times as much as the poorest 10% (compared to the OECD average ratio of 9.5). These results highlight that a segment of the population in Japan is fragile and facing the risk of poverty. Unemployed people, part-time workers, homeless people and single-parent households, in particular single mothers, are especially at risk (Sekine, 2008[11]).

Rapidly ageing population

The demography of Japan is intertwined with the economic issues the country is facing. Japan’s population peaked in 2010, at just over 128 million, before beginning what is projected to be a sustained and increasingly steep decline to reach less than 100 million in 2050 (Figure 1.2). At the same time, the low fertility rate and the highest life expectancy among OECD countries have led to a progressive ageing of the population, with the share of the elderly rising from 5% in 1955 (one of the lowest percentages among OECD countries) to the highest in 2014, with more than 25% of the population who have retired (OECD, 2017[12]). A shrinking labour force undermines Japan’s growth potential and might slow its progress towards higher standards of living. Moreover, ageing of the population has induced the growth of public spending, fuelling deficits that are to some extent responsible for the high level of debt.

Figure 1.2. Japan’s population and age structure, 1950-2060

Source: OECD (2017[12]), “Labour Force Statistics: Population projectionsOECD Employment and Labour Market Statistics (database), (accessed 13 September 2017).


The rapid ageing of the Japanese population is a direct challenge to the economy. One way to target this is to invest in family-friendly or welfare policies that support increased births or immigration. While foreign-born individuals as a percentage of the total population reached an average of 13% across OECD countries by 2015, the proportion in Japan was less than 2% (among the smallest across the OECD) (OECD, 2017[13]). Permanent migration to Japan relative to the total population represented 0.06% in 2015, below the OECD average of 0.71% (Figure 1.3). In PISA 2015, only 0.2% of 15-year-old students in Japan have an immigrant background, compared to 5% of students across OECD countries (OECD, 2016[14]).

Figure 1.3. Permanent migration flows to OECD countries, 2015
Percentage of the total population

Note: Permanent immigrant inflows cover regulated movements of foreigners considered to be settling in the country from the perspective of the destination country. They cover regulated movements of foreigners as well as free movement migration.

Data for countries in light blue are not standardised. EU average is the average of EU countries presented in the chart. EU total represents the entries of third-country nationals into EU countries for which standardised data are available, as a percentage of their total population.

Source: OECD (2017[13]), International Migration Outlook 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris,

A cohesive society

Japan is a relatively homogenous society. The Japanese ideal has traditionally been embodied in the unity of people, language, and culture (Weiner, 2009[15]). More recently, Japan has started to consider diversity more openly. For instance, ethnic clubs in schools have begun to open to encourage pupils with different backgrounds to “maintain and nurture their ethnic identity” (Creighton, 2014[16]).

Feudalism and neo-Confucianism left a legacy of a highly stratified and ordered society in Japan. The hierarchical caste system (in decreasing importance: samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants) was formally established at the start of the Edo period (1603) and disappeared with the Meiji restoration (1869). While Japan was progressively opening to the world, the Meiji government established a bilateral system of education to compete with western countries (mandatory primary education for the masses, and secondary and tertiary education for the elite). Since then, the number of schools, enrolments and the length of studies have continued to grow. In the 1960s, when many farmers’ sons obtained upper secondary and college degrees and enjoyed upward mobility into white-collar jobs, their educational credentials became an indicator of a lifetime achievement and of a new social status. The historical vertical differentiation of society inherited from the Edo period has been progressively replaced by a “credential society” (gakureki shakai), in which upper secondary schools and universities are academically stratified, and graduation from a particular institution is a measure of academic achievement conferring prestige and social ranking. (Ishikida, 2005[17]).

The concept of social peace and group identity is pervasive in Japanese education and society in general. The socialisation process in Japanese primary schools mimics the distinctive features of Japanese law, government and management (Rohlen, 1989[18]). Teachers develop group behaviour among pupils, without exerting strong authority. As in civil society, authority tries to shift responsibility downward to lower-level groups. This results in a great sense of order within the group, and prepares children for group participation and bonding, which are required in the Japanese society at every level. Some experts have suggested that the Japanese concepts of attachment and group behaviour as part of social order could explain why Japan is a more ordered society than China or South Korea, for instance, which share the same Confucianist roots (Hechter and Kanazawa, 1993[19]).

Education governance and curriculum

Trickle-down policy-making process

The Basic Act on Education (revised in December 2006), stipulates that the government shall formulate a basic plan (Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education) to comprehensively and systematically advance policies to promote education. It also specifies that local governments shall also endeavour to formulate a basic plan suited to their local circumstances by referring to the national Basic Plan.2

Figure 1.4. Responsibility process of the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education

Source: Adapted from MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

The government mandates the Central Council for Education to prepare the Basic Plan. A special Committee is formed for that purpose. The plan has to be ultimately validated by the Cabinet of Japan, the executive branch of the Government of Japan, composed of the prime minister and other ministers. The first Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education 2008-12 was endorsed by the Cabinet in 2008.

The Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding was created after the election of Shinzō Abe in 2012. The Central Council drafted the Second Plan for 2013-17, taking into account some recommendations formulated by the Council, and it was endorsed by the Cabinet in 2013 (Figure 1.4). This OECD review has been undertaken in parallel to discussions for the development of the third Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education 2018-22.

According to the Basic Act on Education, the national government comprehensively formulates and implements educational measures to provide equal opportunities in education and to maintain and increase educational standards. In general, the Basic Plan first assesses the current status of education in Japan and the challenges facing the education system. It then offers different policy directions and diverse measures to be implemented for each of them. For instance, in the Second Plan, one of the measures to achieve the policy direction “developing social competencies for survival” was the “improvement of the educational content and methods to cultivate solid academic abilities”. There is also provision for unexpected circumstances. For example, the Second Plan details exceptional measures for “recovery and reconstruction assistance for the Great East Japan Earthquake”.

The Act requires local governments (47 prefectures and their respective municipalities) to formulate and implement educational measures corresponding to their regional context. Among the main bodies that help shape national education policies:

  • The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science and Technology (MEXT) regulates the education system from ECEC (kindergartens only) to upper secondary education levels (e.g. setting National Curriculum Standards, defining teacher certification programmes and official requirements for setting up schools). The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare is in charge of ECEC (day-care centres) and vocational education and training.

  • The Central Council for Education, composed of education experts and representatives from various stakeholder groups (e.g. parents and representatives from different fields, such as economy, sports, culture and media), prepares reports on educational issues at the request of the Minister of Education.

  • MEXT is responsible for tertiary education. It regulates the standards for establishing universities. Public and private universities are required to conduct self-evaluations and undergo accreditation processes by evaluation and accreditation organisations certified by MEXT at least every seven years (at least every five years for professional graduate schools).

Overall, the national government has to maintain and improve the level of national education by presenting strategic objectives as national standards, formulating the framework of the education systems, and maintaining the infrastructure. At the local level, governments are expected to take action respecting the national guidelines in order to deliver education. Figure 1.5 shows the hierarchy of the different local institutions. For instance, the prefectures and municipalities endorse important responsibilities in terms of policy and delivery of education at the local level:

  • The 47 prefectures are in charge of upper secondary education and responsible for the handling of teaching materials. The prefecture governor is responsible for the education budget and private education from ECEC to upper secondary education.

  • The 1 719 municipalities are responsible for mandatory (school-level) education. A board of education in each municipality is in charge of establishing and managing public mandatory schools. The mayor of the municipality is responsible for the education budget.

  • Both boards of education from prefectures and municipalities can help schools understand and comply with the National Curriculum Standards by providing additional material. Boards of Education set rules concerning basic school administration and evaluate schools. To do so, they send supervisors to schools (usually former school leaders), who are expected to provide external guidance on school management, curriculum and teaching.

  • Other education stakeholders include teacher unions, the juku3 institutions and civil society.

Figure 1.5. Government of mandatory education system by level, as of October 2016

Note: Figures in parentheses indicate the number of these bodies in Japan.

Wards are subdivisions of large cities (population over 500 000) with a stabilized budget. They are granted some prefectural authorities such as hiring teachers, covering the budget of teachers’ salary and conducting teacher’s training.

Source: OECD (2012[21]), Lessons from PISA for Japan, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Updated: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications

Prefectures and municipalities make most education decisions on school management and allocation of teachers to schools. In Japan, 66% of decisions are taken at the local or regional level, compared to the OECD average of 23% (Figure 1.6).

The population of Japanese municipalities is spread out, with many villages and towns located in rural areas and on small islands. These rural municipalities sometimes do not have sufficient financial resources to hire teachers and may struggle to attract them to their schools (OECD, 2015[22]). In such cases, the national law transfers the authority for teacher affairs in mandatory education from smaller municipalities to prefectures (through the prefectural boards) or to cities designated by government ordinance (cities large enough to exert the role of a small prefecture).

Prefectural boards of education have the authority to recruit and train teachers, and to allocate them to schools based on municipalities’ reports and principals’ opinions. The boards of education in each municipality supervise issues related to everyday delivery of teacher public services. The share of decisions taken at prefecture level in public lower secondary education in Japan is 31%, well above the OECD average of 5%. Prefectures take 65% of decisions in resource management and 58% of decisions in personnel management (compared to the OECD average of 8% for both).

Figure 1.6. Distribution of decisions taken in public lower secondary schools, 2012

Source: OECD (2012[23]), Education at a Glance 2012: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,


In tertiary education, decision-making is shared between the government and the tertiary education institutions. MEXT regulates the standards for establishing universities and sets six-year mid-term objectives for each of the national university corporations, which then set their mid-term plans based on these objectives. MEXT also certifies accreditation organisations. Public and private universities are required to conduct self-evaluations and undergo evaluation by those accreditation organisations at least every seven years (OECD, 2015[22]). Overall, MEXT’s position is that it should retain its authority over certain aspects of operations of national universities (such as defining the student enrolment cap and level of fees and controlling any major academic reorganisations at department or programme level) on the grounds that they are run with public funds and play important public roles (Newby et al., 2009[24]).

An education system that is centralised in some ways, but decentralised where it matters

As stated in a previous report (OECD, 2012[21]), the Japanese education system is not as centralised as it seems at first. The government authority (MEXT) is responsible for developing and implementing national education policy, distributing public resources for education at the national, prefectural, and municipal levels, and guiding national curriculum standards, textbook development, and teacher training. At the regional level, each of the country’s 47 prefectures has its own board of education responsible for co-ordinating education in its geographic area, according to its Local Basic Plan for Education (Figure 1.4).

Prefectural boards of education are mainly in charge of regulating the number of institutions: they have the power to establish and close schools. They also certify teachers, control the quality of teaching and are in charge of offering support measures necessary for implementing projects in cities and towns and for the appropriate operational management of the facilities (providing instruction, advice and aids, dispatching supervisors to the municipal schools, etc.).

At the municipal level, each of the approximately 1 700 municipalities in Japan has its own board of education responsible for selecting school textbooks. However, school principals also seem to participate in this selection to some extent (Table 1.1). The way the curriculum is taught rests almost exclusively with teachers, who also have authority over instruction and actual classroom practice.

Table 1.1. School autonomy over curriculum and assessment policies, 2015
Percentage of 15-year-olds in Japan in schools whose principals reported that principals have considerable responsibility in …

PISA 2012


OECD average

Establishing student-assessment policies



Deciding which courses are offered



Determining course content



Choosing which textbooks are used4



Source: OECD (2016[26]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, OECD Publishing, Paris,

According to PISA data, Japan can be characterised as providing below-average school and local autonomy in decisions relating to resource allocation (Figure 1.7). In contrast, Japan grants significant autonomy to schools in curriculum and assessment policies. This reflects the way in which education governance is structured in Japan: the central government largely guides financing; prefectures largely guide teacher selection and evaluation; municipalities have authority over textbooks; schools set general student assessment approaches; and teachers have significant freedom to innovate in classroom practice.

This distribution of roles might be one factor leading to Japanese academic success. PISA results suggest that school autonomy in content is more closely related to educational performance than responsibility for making decisions concerning resource allocation. For example, school systems like Japan’s, that provide schools with greater discretion in making decisions on student-assessment policies, courses offered, course content and textbooks used (Table 1.1), tend to perform at higher levels in PISA (OECD, 2012[21]; OECD, 2016[26]). Further evidence also shows that while autonomy in content makes a difference, this depends on the capacity and quality of those working in schools to be able to use such autonomy effectively (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2014[27]).

Figure 1.7. Distribution across the education system of responsibility for school resources, 2015

Note: The six tasks categorised as responsibilities for resources (selecting teachers for hire, firing teachers, establishing teachers’ starting salaries, determining teachers’ salary increases, formulating the school budget and deciding on budget allocations within the school) are given equal weight.

Source: OECD (2016[26]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Curriculum revised every ten years

MEXT determines the National Curriculum Standards, a broad set of standards for all schools from kindergarten to upper secondary schools. The National Curriculum Standards provide curriculum guidelines and structure education programmes to ensure that they comply with a fixed standard of education throughout the country. The National Curriculum Standards have generally been revised once every ten years or so since 1951.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the revision of the National Curriculum Standards imposed a large reduction of learning content, full implementation of a five-day school week (reduced from six days) and the introduction of the period for integrated studies, all in an attempt to reinforce a more “relaxed education” (yutori kyōiku) policy. The subsequent revision of the National Curriculum Standards, announced in 2008 and implemented from 2009 to 2011, was developed in response to the argument that the implementation of “relaxed education” had contributed to a decline of academic standards, as shown by tests run by the Mathematical Society of Japan in top Japanese universities and at the primary and lower secondary level, and later by 2003 PISA results (NIER (National Institute for Educational Policy Research), 2011[28]).

The latest revision of the National Curriculum Standards was discussed by the Central Council for Education starting in 2014, and the National Curriculum Standards for primary and lower secondary school were announced in March 2017. They are to take effect progressively: in April 2020 in primary school, in April 2021 in lower secondary school, and in 2022 in upper secondary school. The new National Curriculum Standards will introduce school curriculum management and enhanced use of active learning (defined as proactive, interactive and authentic learning). It will also aim to develop “curriculum open to society” by fostering students’ competencies relevant to society and promoting partnerships between schools and communities.

The objectives defined for the revision of the National Curriculum Standards are:

  • to nurture competencies needed to live independently in the rapidly changing and unpredictable future society and to participate in shaping a society (a “curriculum open to society”),

  • to improve the quality of understanding and nurture academic competencies, while maintaining the framework and educational content of the current National Curriculum Standards,

  • to nurture richness of mind and sound body through enhancement of moral education, experiential learning and physical education.

The revision of the National Curriculum Standards, as of March 2017, will follow four main directions:

  1. Adhering to the objectives set out above.

  2. Improving lessons through proactive, interactive and authentic learning: This type of pedagogical approach should be generalised to improve the quality of the learning process, to achieve high-quality understanding and develop the qualities and abilities of all students.

  3. Curriculum management by each school: Each school will manage its curriculum to improve the quality of educational activities and maximise the effect of learning, by determining educational content, allocating time adequately, securing necessary human and physical resources, etc.

  4. Educational content for primary and lower secondary education: The new National Curriculum Standards will enhance Japanese language learning, information and communication technologies (ICT) learning, mathematics and science education, education on Japanese tradition and culture, experiential learning activities and foreign language education, moral education and education for students with special educational needs. “Foreign language activities” will be introduced as a mandatory subject in the third and fourth grades in primary education.

Japan’s education system

Structure of the school system

In Japan, three different kinds of institutions offer pre-mandatory education: kindergartens, nursery schools, and centres for ECEC. Kindergartens, the core component of Japanese early education, accept any child from age three to age six (the age of primary school admission). Nursery schools provide day care for children from zero to six years old, while centres for ECEC have the characteristics of both kindergartens and nursery schools. Around 96% of four-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary education in Japan in 2014 (OECD, 2016[29]).

School education in Japan is designed as a comprehensive single-track school system based on the US model. Japanese students attend primary school (shōgakkō) for six years before attending lower secondary school (chūgakkō). This mandatory education is free of charge, open to all local residents and contributes to the social fabric of the community. Most important, the Japanese hold strong beliefs concerning children’s ability to learn. Every student is expected to succeed, subject to the right amount of effort, perseverance and self-discipline. By teaching these behavioural habits early, primary school education is seen in Japan as fundamental in shaping a positive attitude toward lifelong education (Dolan and Worden, 1992[30]). Table 1.2 gives details of the composition of pre-primary, primary and secondary education.

Table 1.2. Schools, students, teachers and non-teaching staff in Japan, 2015

Education Stage

Type of School

Establisher Type

Course Term (Years)

Normal School Attendance Age (Years)

No. of Schools (Schools)

No. of Pupils or Students (1 000 People)

No. of Full-Time Teachers (Person)






4 763


23 704



8 142

1 287.2

87 355

Day-Care Centres

Public (Management)



9 528


116 862

Private (Management)


14 548

1 385.7

203 334


Primary Schools




20 630

6 522.5

411 586




4 889


Lower Secondary Schools




9 780

3 258.5

238 710




15 122

Upper Secondary Schools




3 643

2 295.

174 938


1 320

1 039.

60 368

Secondary Schools






1 734












77 265



1 975.8

103 614

Junior Colleges










7 921

Colleges of Technology






4 192





Graduate Schools






61 504




43 760

Special Needs

Schools for Special Needs Education


Elementary School Div. 6 yrs. Junior High School Div. 3 yrs. High School Div. 3 yrs.


1 082


78 981






Specialised Training Colleges



Post-secondary Courses: From 18 yrs. Upper Secondary Courses: From 15 yrs. General Courses: No limit



2 955


3 001


37 819

Miscellaneous Schools


1 year or longer in principle, but term of 3 months or longer, but less than 1 year is also acceptable

No limit





1 268


8 776

Source: MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

The Ordinance for Enforcement of the School Education Law stipulates the annual standard school hours for each subject (this is also specified in the National Curriculum Standards), while the organisation of the teaching time is decided in each school. In primary and lower secondary education, the set of subjects taught in schools is uniform across Japan. The organisation of the class is detailed in Table 1.3 and Table 1.4. Along traditional subjects such as Japanese or Arithmetic, the Period for Integrated Studies’ aims to enable students to think in their own way about life through cross-disciplinary studies and inquiry studies. Students are expected to acquire the abilities to learn and think on their own, to make proactive decisions, and to solve problems. The uniform organisation of education at primary and lower secondary levels embodies the Japanese notion of equal opportunity of education.

After three years at lower secondary school, students attend upper secondary school (kōtōgakkō) for another three years. Although this stage is not mandatory, 97% of the population graduates from upper secondary (the third highest rate among OECD countries) (OECD, 2016[29]) and thus qualify to access tertiary education (Figure 1.8).

In upper secondary education, students need 74 or more credits in order to graduate. Only 31 credits should come from compulsory subjects, which are the following:

  • Integrated Japanese language

  • Either world history A or world history B

  • One subject out of Japanese history A, Japanese history B, geography A and geography B

  • Contemporary society, or ethics, politics and economy

  • Mathematics I

  • Science and our daily life, and one subject out of basic physics, basic chemistry, basic biology and basic earth science or three subjects out of basic physics, basic chemistry, basic biology and basic earth science

  • Physical education and health

  • One subject out of music I, art and design I, crafts production I and calligraphy I

  • English communication I

  • One subject out of basic home economics, integrated home economics and design for living

  • One subject out of information study for participating community and information study by scientific approach

The remaining of credits is obtained by studying elective courses included in fields such as Japanese Language, Civics, Mathematics, Science, Art or Foreign Language. Since the proportion of time spent on compulsory subjects is around 30%, there is room in upper secondary education for students to stand out (Nakayasu, 2016[31]).

Table 1.3. Mandatory provision of education in primary schools, 2016









Number of classes for each subject








Social studies





















Living environment studies














Art and handicraft







Home economics







Physical education







Moral education







Foreign language activities







Period for integrated studies







Special activities







Total number of classes








Note: Classes are 45 minutes long.

Source: MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

Table 1.4. Mandatory provision of education in lower secondary schools, 2016





Number of classes of each subject





Social studies




















Health and physical education




Technology and home economics




Foreign languages




Moral education




Period for integrated studies




Special activities




Total number of classes





Note: Classes are 50 minutes long.

Source: MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

In Japan, the different kinds of tertiary education institutions are highly stratified, and each plays a well-defined role. Strictly speaking, only universities and junior colleges provide post-secondary education, but other institutions complete the picture:

  • Universities aim to develop students’ academic knowledge as well as specialised skills based on scientific research. Entrance to public universities is determined by a standardised national test (the National Centre for University Entrance Examination) and special examinations administered by the individual universities. The university track follows a classic scheme: bachelor’s degree (four years), master’s degree (two years) and doctorate (three to five years).

  • Junior colleges provide mainly professionally oriented short-cycle degrees. They offer a two-year specialisation programme in fields such as education (childcare, pre-primary school teaching), home economics, gardening or nursing (three years). Junior college students were usually female, as the sector tended to cater to their traditional role in society. However, these institutions are now declining, because the number of female students entering universities has increased significantly, while the overall number of students has been falling due to demographic trends. There were 6 000 students in junior colleges in 2015, compared to 23 000 in 1995 (MEXT, 2016[20]).

  • Colleges of technology offer both theoretical and practical training in skills of immediate use to employers, mostly in the field of engineering. Lower secondary graduates can apply to this five-year programme, while upper secondary graduates can enter it directly in the fourth year. Successful students are considered to be practical technicians with an “Associate” credential.

  • Specialised (or professional) training colleges offer one-year to three-year employment-related programmes at either upper-secondary or post-secondary level to meet immediate workforce needs.

  • Junior colleges and colleges of technology deliver an associate degree. Specialised training colleges deliver a diploma in two to three years, or an advanced diploma in four years. All three of these institutions deliver diplomas at the ISCED 5 level.

Figure 1.8. Structure of the Japanese education system, 2015

Source: OECD (2016[32]), “Diagram of the education system: Japan”, OECD Education GPS, (accessed 20 July 2017).

School management: distributed leadership

In Japan, as in most OECD countries, school leaders are experienced former teachers who have met some additional training requirements. Teachers wanting to become a school leader have to enter a Professional Graduate School in Education to build on their applied knowledge and develop a theoretical background. This graduate school delivers a master’s degree in teaching to become a “School Leader (mid-career core teaching staff)”. School leaders are then expected to master leadership theories and exhibit practical and applied skills needed to fulfil their leadership role in the school as well as bringing local communities closer.

There have been changes in the career structure of teachers in Japan (Box 1.2). Since the revision of the School Education Act in 2007, three new positions have been introduced to promote effective school administration: senior vice-principal, senior teacher and advanced skills teacher. A narrow definition of school leaders includes only upper-level management (school principal, senior vice-principals and vice-principals), while broader definitions also include mid-level leaders, such as senior teachers and head teachers (Yamamoto, Enomoto and Yamaguchi, 2016[33]).

The roles of senior teacher, advanced skills teacher and senior vice-principal are optional in school. The senior vice-principal is part of management and accessing this position requires passing an examination at the prefecture level (Box 1.2). As the senior teacher will undertake tasks close to management, some examination at the prefecture level is also required to become a senior teacher. Advanced skilled teachers and senior teachers are selected by the prefectural Board of Education after recommendations from the Board of Education of the city, town, or village (in case of ordinance-designated cities, they are directly selected by the Board of Education of the cities themselves).

Box 1.2. The career structure of teachers in Japan

The Boards of Education (BOEs) of prefectures and ordinance-designated cities are responsible for hiring teachers to work in schools in their jurisdiction. Teachers are employed by the BOE and assigned to teach in schools in its jurisdiction. They are typically transferred to different schools every few years.

New teachers usually start their teaching career as homeroom teachers and/or as subject teachers in specialised area(s). After they have gained more classroom teaching experience, those teachers take on the role of chief teacher of a grade, responsible for managing a group of teachers. They are then promoted to senior teachers, who work to support principals and (senior) vice principals. After this stage, teachers must pass the managerial class examinations in order to be promoted to head teacher, (senior) vice-principal and principal. Some teachers are also transferred to BOEs to become teacher supervisors, who advise schools and co-ordinate training for teachers and school leaders.

Source: MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

Boards of education usually allocate senior teachers and senior vice-principals to school with difficulties or a large number of students, and advanced skilled teachers to school with young teaching staff. The senior vice-principal supports the principal in the effective operations of the school. Both the senior teacher and the advanced skilled teacher teaches students, but the senior teacher also supports the principal in the effective running of the school, while the advanced skilled teacher advises other teachers and staff in order to improve education guidance for students.

Leadership in-service training is provided through several different options:

  • At the local level: Since local boards of education are responsible for educational training, the ministry has provided since 2003 a sample of training for school leaders focused on organisational management that has been distributed to local boards of education and other interested parties (Yamamoto, Enomoto and Yamaguchi, 2016[33]).

  • At the national level:

    • The National Centre for Teachers’ Development (NCTD) provides national training programmes for leaders at different levels. Leadership programmes focus on school administration training and training for future trainers on school organisational management (National Center for Teachers' Development, 2015[34]). The school administration training programmes are designed for specific positions and experiences, such as principal, vice-principal and mid-level teachers.

    • The NCTD, in co-operation with MEXT, also provides training programmes for selected school leaders nominated by the BOEs of local governments, who are expected to play a central role in their region (National Center for Teachers' Development, 2015[34]; Yamamoto, Enomoto and Yamaguchi, 2016[33]).

Given this management-oriented training, and the strong engagement of teachers and collaborative practices, the role of principals in Japan is more of an administrative nature, focusing on determining schedules, managing teachers and other functions that may be required to support teaching and learning practices by teachers. Teachers work together collectively on classroom issues, and school leaders adopt a supportive role on organisational issues. This distributed approach to leadership means that the individual principal does not exercise the main pedagogical role in schools, as it is a collective distributed task among teachers. Therefore school leaders in Japan do not appear high in international comparisons of instructional leadership indicators.

Data from PISA 2015 shows that Japanese school principals scored below the OECD average in the index of instructional and curriculum leadership (OECD, 2016[26]). As set out in the Basic Act on Education and the School Education Law, at the national level, the government specifies the goals to achieve and formulates the National Curriculum Standards that schools refer to while developing their curriculum.

Leadership in schools in Japan is spread across different leadership administrators and teachers, who have the freedom to develop their own curriculum according to the government’s directives (Pont, Nusche and Moorman, 2008[35]). Effective practices are discussed during design of the curriculum, and school leaders, as former teachers, can play an active role. However, this role appears to be limited, as shown by data from PISA and the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). In both PISA and TALIS, Japan scored among the lowest in related indicators. The index of engagement in instructional leadership in lower secondary education by principals was lower than the TALIS average (OECD, 2014[36]).

But principals do provide feedback to teachers. About 75% of Japanese teachers reported receiving feedback from their school leader (above the TALIS average of 54%). School leaders in Japan are more likely than the OECD average to make decisions about student retention or promotion and to make judgements about teachers’ effectiveness (OECD, 2015[22]). Despite their former careers in teaching, school leaders in Japan focus on ensuring effective organisational management, such as the proper functioning of the school, while teachers are in charge of instructional and pedagogical issues.

Vertical and horizontal stratification in secondary education

In contrast to differentiated school systems, such as those in Austria and Germany which stream their students into separate tracks as early as age 10, Japan has a comprehensive school system and sorts students into different programs at age 15 when they are entering Grade 10 (compared to the OECD average of 14.3 years old). Vertical stratification is defined as the extent to which students of a similar age are enrolled at different grade levels. In PISA, 100% of 15-year-old students from Japan are enrolled in Grade 10 (as in Iceland and Norway). This makes vertical stratification non-existent in these countries, with no grade repetition by students (OECD, 2013[25]).

Conversely, a highly vertically-differentiated school system tackles heterogeneity among students. Vertical differentiation occurs when applicants to schools agree upon the level of quality for each institution, resulting in a clearly established hierarchy of educational institutions. Upper secondary schools in Japan are ranked predominantly by the prestige they gain based on the percentage of their students who enter top universities after passing the difficult entrance examinations. To maintain the rank of their institution, upper secondary schools organise their own entrance examinations and rely more than other OECD countries on screening applicants. For instance, the “percentage of students in schools whose principals reported that students’ records of academic performance (including placement tests) are always considered for admittance” is 92.3% in Japan, the highest rate among OECD countries (OECD, 2013[25]).

The direct consequence of vertical differentiation is reduced variation within schools and increased variation between schools. Japan exhibits significant variation in student performance: 42% between-school variation (above the OECD average) and 54% within-school variation (below the OECD average) (Figure 1.9). Therefore, the index of academic inclusion5 across schools for Japan is 56, 14 points below the OECD average (an index of 100 indicates that all schools are performing the same even if their students perform differently) (OECD, 2016[14]).

Within schools, the heterogeneity level of students is tackled with a mild ability-group learning strategy, which amounts to horizontal stratification. In Japan, the “percentage of students in schools where students are grouped by ability into different classes” is 10.1% for “all subjects” (compared to the OECD average of 7.8%) and 43.5% “for some subjects” (compared to the OECD average of 38%) (OECD, 2016[26]).

Figure 1.9. Variation in science performance between and within schools, 2015

Note: Countries and economies are ranked in descending order of the between-school variation in science performance, as a percentage of the total variation in performance across OECD countries.

Source: OECD (2016[14]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I):Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

High student performance that comes at a cost

While already having demonstrated educational success, Japan has embarked on a major reform of the education system, revolving around a reform of the school curriculum. This ambitious plan aims to encompass policy measures to adapt teaching and learning to the competencies required for the 21st century. By doing so, Japan could also improve in lower-performing dimensions, such as students’ ability to think critically and student well-being.

Strong academic achievement and equity, with some limitations in the ICT environment

Japanese students are among the highest performers in PISA across OECD countries. With an average score of 538 points in science in PISA 2015, students in Japan are outperformed only by students in Singapore (556 points), and they perform similarly to students in Estonia and Chinese Taipei (Figure 1.10). Japanese students’ average reading score (516 points) is comparable with that of students in Germany and Korea, but students in Canada, Finland, Hong Kong (China) and Singapore outperform Japanese students in reading by 10 score points or more. Japanese students attain the same mathematics score (532 points, on average) as students in Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (China) and Korea, but they are outperformed by students in Hong Kong (China), Macao (China), Singapore and Chinese Taipei (OECD, 2016[14]).

Across most countries, socio-economically disadvantaged students not only score lower, they also have lower levels of engagement, drive, motivation and self-belief. Japan, along with Canada, Estonia and Finland, achieves high levels of performance and equity in education outcomes as assessed in PISA 2015, with 10% or less of the variation in student performance attributed to differences in students’ socio-economic status (Figure 1.10). Across OECD countries, 13% of the variation is attributable to socio-economic status. Moreover, some 29% of disadvantaged students (those in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status in each country) across OECD countries are “resilient”, meaning that they manage to perform better than expected on the basis of socio-economic status and perform among the top 25% of students around the world. In Japan, the percentage of resilient students has grown by 8 percentage points since 2006, so that nearly one in two disadvantaged students (49%) is considered resilient.

Similarly, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) demonstrates high performance. Among 49 surveyed countries, Japan ranks in the first decile in mathematics and science in Grades 4 and 8. Trends in these two fields are rising, with an increase in Grade 4, for instance, from 567 points in 1995 to 593 points in 2015 in mathematics, and from 553 to 569 in science (Mullis et al., 2016[37]).

In the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), as noted earlier, adults in Japan demonstrated the highest levels of proficiency in literacy and numeracy among adults in all countries participating in the survey. Japan also had by far the smallest share of adults scoring at Level 1 or below in both proficiency domains (Figure 1.11).

In contrast, PIAAC results show that 21% of adults in Japan had no computer experience or failed the ICT core assessment (compared to the OECD average of 14.2%), meaning that they lacked the most elementary computer skills. This share rises with age, showing that the older population is even less familiar with ICT (21.2% for the 45-54 age group, 40.9% for 55-64 year-olds, the fourth-highest among participating countries).

Figure 1.10. Science performance and equity in PISA, 2015

Notes: B-S-J-G (China) refers to the four PISA-participating China provinces: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong. FYROM refers to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Argentina: Only data for the adjudicated region of Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (CABA) are reported.

Source: OECD (2016[14]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris,

The younger group (those aged 16-24), is more proficient in computer literacy than their elders, but still lags behind other countries, since 12.1% of them failed the ICT core test or had no computer experience (4.3% in average in OECD countries). Moreover, the share of Japanese 16-24 year-olds proficient at higher levels (Levels 2 and 3) is 5 percentage points below the OECD average and 17.5 percentage points behind the top performer, Korea (OECD, 2013[38]).

Figure 1.11. Proficiency of adults, 2012
Percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments


Note by Turkey: The information in this document with reference to “Cyprus” relates to the southern part of the Island. There is no single authority representing both Turkish and Greek Cypriot people on the Island. Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Until a lasting and equitable solution is found within the context of the United Nations, Turkey shall preserve its position concerning the “Cyprus issue”.

Note by all the European Union Member States of the OECD and the European Union: The Republic of Cyprus is recognised by all members of the United Nations with the exception of Turkey. The information in this document relates to the area under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.

Source: OECD (2016[8]), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Japan also struggles with the effect of its university entrance exams on the whole education system. Since accessing top universities in Japan not only makes students more likely to win a secure job on graduation but also heightens social recognition, students are under pressure to win entrance to those universities. As reported in The Economist (1997[39]), this high-stakes exam has led the education system to focus on “rote learning” and “teaching to the test”, while incentivising students to attend academic jukus (after school courses). The Council of Education noted in a report back in May 1997 that cramming hours were stifling creativity and critical thinking.

During the review visit, the OECD team had several discussions with stakeholders on the issue of developing specific dimensions of cognitive skills such as critical thinking. TALIS data show that around 16% of teachers in Japan reported feeling capable of helping their students to think critically (compared to the TALIS average of 80%) (OECD, 2014[36]). Data from the Survey of Adult Skills also show that while younger Japanese (16-24 year-olds) displayed higher levels of proficiency than their older compatriots in problem-solving, their performance was lower than in relation other countries (OECD, 2013[38]).

Mandatory learning time in school

Students in Japan are currently expected to receive a total of 7 260 hours of instruction during their mandatory primary and lower secondary education. This is slightly less than the OECD average of 7 540 hours (Figure 1.12).

Figure 1.12. Mandatory instruction time in general education, 2015

Source: OECD (2016[29]), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

During the last revision of the curriculum (in 2011 for primary and in 2012 for lower secondary education), the intended number of hours of schooling in Japan has increased, particularly compared to the early 2000s (Figure 1.13). In the 1990s, concerns about the system's strong focus on examinations and disciplinary problems in schools (including widespread bullying) prompted moves to encourage greater individual creativity, and the so-called “relaxed education” (yutori kyoiku) reform was introduced in the early 2000s. The reform included cutting the school curriculum content by 30% and reducing the school week from six days to five. The goal was to increase students’ experiences outside schools in order to improve their social competencies, for example during activities in nature and society. As a result, the number of study hours was significantly reduced.

Around the same time, the PISA 2003 reading test shifted the emphasis from reproduction of subject content to solving problems in new contexts. Between 2000 and 2003, the overall performance of Japanese students on PISA dropped from 522 points to 498 points, causing what has been called “PISA shock”. This sparked a national debate on education policy, especially on the effectiveness of the 2002 revision of the National Curriculum Standards, which had significantly reduced the curriculum content and lesson hours in primary and lower secondary education.

Figure 1.13. Intended instruction time in the National Curriculum Standards, 1961-2012

Note: The intended instruction time indicated in the National Curriculum Standards is calculated in units of 60 minutes.

Sources: MEXT (2016[40]), Shougakkou no kyouiku katei ni kansuru kiso shiryou (Basic information on the primary education programme),, MEXT (2016[41]), Chuugakkou no kyouiku katei ni kansuru kiso shiryou (Basic information on the lower secondary education programme),

After 2004, the “relaxed education” was adjusted to take account of successive PISA results and public reaction to the earlier reforms, with new measures to that ensure students get solid grounding in basic knowledge. The revised national curriculum announced in 2008 and 2009 aimed to balance the building of a solid knowledge base with nurturing of students’ skills to think, make judgements and express themselves. Primary school textbooks have been expanded by almost a quarter and lesson times lengthened by one or two hours per week in primary and lower secondary schools to cover the longer curriculum (Figure 1.13).

Pervasive shadow education

Japanese students attend a slightly lower number of mandatory schooling hours than the average in OECD countries. However, according to PISA 2012, 70% of 15-year-olds reported attending after-school lessons in mathematics (along with 58% in Japanese and 54% in science). This share of after-school mathematics was the highest among OECD countries and is significantly higher than the OECD average of 38%. In particular, socio-economically advantaged students are more likely to attend after-school lessons in mathematics (83%) than disadvantaged students (55%). The difference between the two groups in Japan is also among the largest across OECD, along with Korea and Greece (OECD, 2013[25]).

A survey organised by MEXT shows that more than half (around 60% depending on the year) of students in their last year of lower secondary school attend jukus, as most students at this level prepare for entrance examinations to upper secondary schools (MEXT, 2016[42]). In fact, the closer students get to university entrance examinations, the more likely they are to attend jukus. In a report on children’s educational activity outside of schools, MEXT showed that the share of students attending jukus increases steadily, from 16% in the first year of primary school to 65% in the last year of lower secondary education, while the share of students engaged in extra activities drops from around 70% in primary school to around 30% in lower secondary education (MEXT, 2008[43]). During the fiscal year 2016, surveyed Japanese households reported spending JPY 246 000 on supplementary learning for lower secondary in public schools and JPY 195 000 in private schools (MEXT, 2016[44]).

Juku attendance started escalating in the 1970s, when a steep increase in the educational aspirations of the Japanese population was not matched by the level of education supplied by the government. Because the number of candidates far exceeded the available places, parents turned to private providers offering educational support, the juku industry (private after-hours tutoring schools). According to a detailed literature review (Entrich, 2015[45]), there is a strong popular belief in Japan that investment in shadow education (out-of-school private tutoring) leads to a tertiary education level and access to high-ranking institutions. This led to academic research, which established that investing in shadow education fosters educational inequalities (Seiyama, 1981[46]; Seiyama and Noguchi, 1984[47]; Konakayama and Matsui, 2008[48]). However, Japanese schools appear to deliver equitable results (Figure 1.11), since students’ socio-economic status explains only 10% of the variation in science performance, below the OECD average of 13% (OECD, 2016[14]).

In Japan, standardised exams that determine entrance to upper secondary school or university signal the social status of a family. Families’ investments in jukus therefore peak in Grade 9 the last year of lower secondary, when students prepare entrance examinations to access selective upper secondary schools, which are seen as potential gateways to top universities (MEXT, 2016[49]). Further evidence indicates that shadow education is also pervasive at other levels in education.

To access university, students must go through “examination hell”, where the intensity of the competition is crystallised by the saying “four pass, five fail”, meaning that students who sleep four hours a night should succeed, but those who sleep five hours will likely fail (Stevenson and Baker, 1992[50]). A majority of students in upper secondary school also take extra classes at jukus to prepare for the all-important university entrance examinations (Clark, 2005[51]). Although the competition for access to upper secondary school and university is believed to have decreased lately, due to low birth rates, attendance at jukus is not declining (MEXT, 2016[49]).

Lower levels of student well-being and higher level of anxiety

In the Japan Times, Kyodo (2015[52]) echoes a report from the Cabinet Office stating that youngsters have a higher propensity to commit suicide when they are due to go back to school after a long vacation, around the end of spring and summer holidays. The highly competitive school environment, the repeated standardised tests (the “exam race”) and bullying (see below) may generate high levels of stress for students. The cost of the academic success of Japan may lie in a lower level of child well-being.

In Japan, 61% of students feel satisfied with their life, 10 percentage points below the OECD average, according to 2015 PISA data. While Japanese students perform the highest in science, their average life satisfaction index is significantly below the OECD average (Figure 1.14).

Figure 1.14. Life satisfaction and performance across education systems, 2015

Note: B-S-J-G (China) refers to the four PISA-participating China provinces: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong.

Source: OECD (2017[53]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Japanese students also report school-work-related anxiety in the highest quartile of an index that measures anxiety, while their index of achievement motivation is the second lowest among OECD countries. The students’ sense of belonging at school is around the OECD average (OECD, 2017[53]). There is a positive correlation across education systems between the index of school-work anxiety and the index of achievement motivation (Figure 1.15). However, Japan appears as an outlier on this representation, since Japanese students combine high levels of anxiety with low levels of motivation.

Japan presents a below-average index of exposure to bullying in PISA 2015, although 22% of student reported being bullied at least a few times a month (above the OECD average of 18.7%). The fact that, in Japan, students interviewed for PISA are in upper secondary (rather than lower secondary) could play a role in the relatively low ranking of Japan among other countries in terms of bullying. According to a MEXT survey, the number of reported cases of bullying at primary, lower and upper secondary schools rose to 225 132 in academic year 2015, from 188 072 cases in the previous year (an increase of 20%) (MEXT, 2017[54]). These results do not necessarily highlight an upward trend but may be the result of a new law introduced in 2013, by which schools are legally compelled to detect bullying early and take measures to prevent it (Act for the Promotion of Measures to Prevent Bullying).

Figure 1.15. Achievement motivation and school-work anxiety across education systems, 2015

Source: Adapted from OECD (2017[53]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students' Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris,


In PISA 2012, students in Japan reported lower confidence about their ability to solve a set of pure and applied mathematics problems than the average across OECD countries, although they have shown improvement since 2003. Japanese students reported less pleasure and interest in learning mathematics, less openness to problem-solving and more anxiety in learning mathematics than the OECD average, even if their pleasure and interest in learning mathematics have increased over time (OECD, 2014[55]).

Compared to 2006, fewer Japanese students in 2015 reported that they enjoy learning science, but more students reported that learning science is useful for their future plans. Students in Japan reported almost the same level of motivation to learn science as the OECD average. And while Japanese students in 2015 reported a greater sense of self-efficacy in science than their counterparts in 2006, they are still below the OECD average in this respect (OECD, 2016[14]).

According to TIMSS, Japanese students from Grades 4 and 8 are among the three countries whose students least like learning mathematics (with Korea and Chinese Taipei in Grade 4, and with Korea and Slovenia in Grade 8). Japanese students in Grade 4 are slightly below the OECD average in terms of appreciating learning science, but they once again rank last when reaching Grade 8 (with Korea and Chinese Taipei).

A report published by MEXT in 2011 reveals that Japanese upper secondary education students have markedly lower self-esteem and self-confidence than students in America and in other Asian countries. On standard questions such as: “Do you value yourself as a person”, only 36.1% of students answered “Agree” or “Somewhat agree”, compared to 89.1% in the United States, 87.7% in China and 75.1% in South Korea. Similarly, only 15.4% of students in Japan “believe they are a capable person”, while 84.5% of students do so in the United States, as do 67% in China and 46.8% in South Korea (MEXT, 2011[56]).

Schools as learning environments

Part of the success of Japanese students stems from the holistic approach of education in schools. Parents’ engagement with and bonds to communities make school life rich and diverse for students and contribute to the completeness of the curriculum. Moreover, the evaluation and assessment process of school performance drives schools to improve constantly and guarantees an environment especially conducive to learning.

The unique Japanese model of holistic education

The Japanese model revolves around the concept of “whole child education” (cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of students), where other systems might focus only on two or three dimensions of child development. To achieve this, the Japanese curriculum is infused with Tokkatsu, a concept encompassing non-cognitive aspects of education that aims to develop emotional intelligence. In particular, Tokkatsu are educational activities in which the school and classrooms are considered as “societies”. Through group activities, independent and practical attitudes are cultivated in children to enable them to build better group life and to develop personally. Key principles behind Tokkatsu include encouraging child-initiated activities, self-motivation, collaborative learning and learning by doing.

During their visit, the OECD review team observed that teaching in Japan is not limited to academic content, but also tackles a broad range of activities. For instance, teachers supervise students as they clean the school, help serve school lunch or engage in extracurricular activities. They also supervise field trips and excursions, and engage with the parents by initiating discussions and organising visits at their home. Primary school teachers may teach the same group of students for 2 or more years, and teachers from lower secondary are responsible for a homeroom class that remains together until high-school entrance. Repeated and diverse interactions develop trust between teachers and students, in contrast to systems where teachers focus on teaching activities only. Schools in Japan are thus the breeding ground for social and emotional development and provide students with initial training to become good citizens.

Figure 1.16. Parental involvement in education, 15-year-olds, 2012
Based on school principals' reports

Source: OECD (2013[25]), PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful (Volume IV): Resources, Policies and Practices, OECD Publishing, Paris,


Parental involvement in education in Japan strengthens the school’s influence. Compared to their OECD counterparts Japanese parents particularly stand out in two areas: discussing their child’s progress on the initiative of a teacher and discussing their child’s behaviour on the initiative of a teacher (Figure 1.16). For instance, the homeroom teacher establishes relationships with students’ parents, which facilitates open lines of communication about the student’s academic progress. According to Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler (1995[57]): “In most circumstances, parental involvement is most characterised as a powerful enabling and enhancing variable in children’s education success, rather than as either a necessary or a sufficient condition in itself for that success. Its absence eliminates opportunities for the enhancement of children’s education; its presence creates those opportunities.” The excellent school-home communication established by Japanese teachers incentivises parents to support the teacher’s position at home and contributes to Japanese education success.

Teachers in Japan: A highly productive but fragile population

The teaching profession in Japan is highly competitive, especially outside large cities, which helps drive the quality and status of the profession. To start teaching, teachers in Japan must comply with several prerequisites (see Box 1.3). First, candidates to initial teacher education (ITE) must perform well in the national university examination, and there are often additional criteria for those entering ITE through faculties of education.

Initial teacher education in Japan, which is similar to programmes offered in other countries in terms of selection criteria, duration and content, generally lasts four years. This includes a short mandatory teaching practicum, though the duration of teaching practicum is often longer for candidate teachers in faculties of education.

After completing ITE, teacher candidates must apply to their local boards of education, which issue teaching certificates, then pass multiple-stage competitive employment examinations to be eligible for a permanent teaching position in a public school. When entering the profession, they follow a 1-year formal induction programmes while engaging in teaching and other educational activities (OECD, 2015[22]).

The Lesson Study, a widespread method in primary school in Japan, used in particular in mathematics lessons, incites teachers to work together to identify specific teaching issues, spread good practices and update their knowledge. Usually, teachers work together to prepare a specific lesson on a topic where students have struggled, and nurture their reflexion with leading-edge academic literature. Then, one teacher teaches the lesson to students, while other teachers (sometimes even from other schools) observe and learn the new pedagogical approach.

Professional development in Japan tends to both extend and renew teachers’ practice, skills and beliefs. The Lesson Study not only improves teaching practices over time, but also strengthens co-operation between teachers and potentially fosters the development of an inter-school network of teachers. In addition, in 2009, Japan introduced the Teaching Certificate Renewal License. Under this system, teachers must renew their teaching certificates by participating in at least 30 hours of professional development programmes every 10 years to improve their knowledge and practices.

Japanese teachers have among the highest total statutory working time in OECD countries, with 1 891 hours per year from pre-primary to upper secondary (compared to OECD averages around of 1 615 hours depending on the education level) (OECD, 2017[58]). Their work covers a wide variety of school activities, including eight hours for extracurricular activities per week, well above the TALIS average of two hours (OECD, 2014[36]). Despite this heavy load, teachers’ salaries in Japan are only around the average of OECD countries. For instance, a starting secondary teacher in Japan earns USD 3 000 less annually than the OECD average, but USD 4 000 more when he/she reaches 15 years of experience (Figure 1.17).

Teachers in Japan are largely responsible for how the curriculum is taught and have authority over instruction and classroom practice (OECD, 2012[21]). However, they report lower-than-average levels of self-efficacy in some domains. Around 16% of teachers in Japan reported feeling capable of helping their students to think critically (compared to the TALIS average of 80%) (OECD, 2014[36]). In addition, about one-quarter (24%) of Japanese teachers reported that they do not feel prepared to teach the content, pedagogy and practical components of the subjects they teach (above the TALIS average of 7%).

They also report more often than their counterparts in other countries that work schedule conflicts were a barrier to participation in professional development activities (86.4%, compared to the TALIS average of 50.6%). Only 28% of teachers in Japan believe that the teaching profession is valued in society (compared to the TALIS average of 31%), and 58% of Japanese teachers would choose to work as teachers if they could decide again (compared to the TALIS average of 78%) (OECD, 2014[36]).

Figure 1.17. Lower secondary teachers’ salaries at different points in teachers' careers, 2014


1. Actual base salaries.

2. Salaries at top of scale and typical qualifications, instead of maximum qualifications.

3. Salaries at top of scale and minimum qualifications, instead of maximum qualifications.

4. Data from 2013.

5. Includes the average of fixed bonuses for overtime hours.

Source: OECD (2016[29]), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Box 1.3. Initial teacher education in Japan

Universities and university departments with teacher preparation programmes/courses provide pre-service training for candidates for the teaching profession. In order to become candidates, individuals need to pass entrance examinations and be enrolled as students at universities with teacher-preparation programmes. Candidates who seek to become teachers need to complete all required teacher-preparation courses and a practicum, in addition to an associate or a bachelor’s degree.

In Japan, ITE is provided by universities through the “Open System” - this means universities can provide ITE if they meet certain requirements, even if they do not specialise in teacher education - or by departments of education in universities, which specialise in ITE. As of 2014, 228 universities and departments (52 national universities, 4 public universities, and 172 private universities) have been approved to offer ITE programmes for primary school teachers, and 520 (70 national universities, 41 public universities and 409 private universities) have been approved for lower secondary teachers.

Once teacher candidates complete an ITE programme, they must apply to the local Board of Education, which issues teaching certificates. With the certificate, they may teach as a contract teacher. To teach at a public school as a permanent teacher, teacher candidates need to pass multiple stage competitive employment examination administered by the Board of Education. First-Stage Examinations typically test general knowledge, subject-based knowledge and professional knowledge, while some BOEs administer Essay Writing, Interview, Practical and Aptitude Test in the Second-Stage Examination. Each BOE sets the evaluation criteria independently, although the criteria have been similar across the BOEs. Successful candidates become teachers are on probationary status in their first year of employment. Individuals who wish to work at private schools also need to take the employment examinations that are typically administered by individual schools.

The Law for Special Regulations Concerning Educational Public Service Personnel mandates Boards of Education to provide induction training for all new teachers with a regular-term contract for one year. The law also requires assignment of a mentor teacher for every new teacher with a regular-term contract. Mentor teachers are most commonly selected by principals from among vice principals, head teachers or senior teachers at the school. Over the last decade, efforts have been made to build collaboration between universities and BOEs to raise the quality of initial teacher preparation and continuous professional development.

Japan is currently participating in the OECD Initial Teacher Preparation study, which seeks to identify and explore common challenges and strengths in initial teacher preparation systems in eigth participating countries/economies - Australia, Japan, Korea, Norway, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, United States and Wales (United Kingdom) - with a view to developing an international benchmark on effective initial teacher preparation systems. Findings from these reviews will be published in 2018.

Source: MEXT (2016[20]), OECD-Japan Education Policy Review: Country Background Report.

Despite large classes, Japanese schools are conducive to learning

According to PISA data, classrooms in Japan were more conducive to learning than those in many other countries and economies in 2003, and they became even more so by 2015 when Japanese students reported the highest index of disciplinary climate in their classes among OECD countries, with 0.83 (standardised variable). For example, 91% of Japanese students reported that students never or only in some classes don’t listen to what the teacher says (compared to the OECD average of 68%), and 92% reported that their teacher never or only in some lessons has to wait a long time before students settle down (compared to the OECD average of 71%) (OECD, 2016[26]).

Figure 1.18. Average class size across OECD countries, by level of education, 2014

Source: OECD (2016[29]), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Classes in primary and lower secondary schools in Japan are among the largest in OECD countries. In 2014, the average primary class in Japan had 27 students, the second-largest class size across the OECD (average of 21 pupils). The average lower secondary class was 32 students (Figure 1.18), the highest in the OECD (average of 23 students) (OECD, 2016[29]).

In recent decades, Japan has tried to reduce class sizes, and some municipalities changed their regulations on the maximum number of students per class. Between 2005 and 2014, the average class size in public and private schools decreased by 4% at the primary level and by 3% at the lower secondary level, while OECD average class sizes also decreased, by 2% at the primary level and 6% at the lower secondary level (OECD, 2016[29]). While PISA 2012 data showed that larger classes are generally associated with more class time spent keeping order as opposed to teaching and learning, teachers in Japan devote a similar amount of time in class to teaching and learning as the average across OECD countries, despite larger classes (OECD, 2015[22]).

Figure 1.19. Relationship between average class size and learning climate, 2013

Note: The size of each bubble represents the proportion of lower secondary teachers who reported having more than 10% of students with behaviour problems in their classes.

Source: OECD (2015[59]), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Lack of punctuality and truancy are negatively associated with student performance, but are less of a problem in Japan than in other countries that participate in PISA (Figure 1.19). On average across OECD countries, 20% of students reported that they had skipped one day of school or more in the two weeks prior to the PISA 2015 test, while only 2% of students reported doing so in Japan. In addition, while this share has remained stable in Japan, it has increased across OECD countries by 5 percentage points, signalling deterioration in students’ engagement with school. Some 12% of students in Japan reported that they had arrived late for school during the same period, in comparison to 44% of students across OECD countries. Japan shows some of the lowest incidence of student truancy among all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2015.

Evaluation and assessment

In Japan, different actors work together to allow continuous improvement of the education system. This ongoing search for improvement, combined with meticulous stakeholders, is a key factor in Japan’s academic excellence.

To support schools, prefectural and local boards of education send school supervisors to direct and advise schools regarding curriculum design and pedagogy for instance. Self-assessment is a legal obligation at each level (kindergarten, primary, lower and upper secondary schools, school for special needs education). The Ministry also recommends to have a board composed of parents, local residents and school staff realise the evaluation, and have published a guideline for school assessment to help local stakeholders (MEXT, 2016[20]).

MEXT has been conducting the National Assessment of Academic Ability since 2007. It covers assessments on student achievement (practical use of knowledge and skills) and student learning (subject knowledge) at Grades 6 and 9 every year. Student learning assessments aim to measure knowledge in mathematics and Japanese every year and, in 2015, science was added for a three-year cycle. These assessments of student achievement and student learning are intended only for monitoring purposes. Schools are expected to use them to improve their educational practices. As part of the process, students, parents and schools complete questionnaires to provide a broader view of the relationship between student performance, learning environments, student lifestyles and teaching practices.

Figure 1.20. Assessment practices in Japanese schools, 2012
Percentage of students in schools where the principal reported the following uses for student assessment

Source: OECD (2013[25]), PISA 2012 Results: What Makes Schools Successful (Volume IV): Resources, Policies and Practices, OECD Publishing, Paris,


This kind of assessment contributes to what is called the “PDCA” cycle, which takes place in every school. It consists of Planning (organising the educational curriculum), Doing (implementing the curriculum), Checking (evaluating it) and taking Action (improving it). The way curriculum is taught can evolve based on data concerning students and communities. In fact, if schools in Japan are less likely than the average school in OECD countries (-29 percentage points) to monitor the school’s progress from year to year, they are more likely to make judgements about teachers’ effectiveness (+26 percentage points (Figure 1.20).

At the national level, PDCA data concerning teaching the curriculum are gathered before the end of the ten-year revision of the curriculum. This accumulation of evidence on teaching practices, pedagogical pitfalls and success stories feeds into the Central Council for Education’s discussion of the reform of National Curriculum Standard.

Bonding schools with communities

During the American occupation of Japan after the Second World War, Americans required Japan to start Parent-Teacher Associations of the kind that are common in the United States. In the ensuing years, while these organisations have weakened in the United States, in Japan they have become a dominant player in the school system, providing parents with a real voice in education policy and local practice. They are organised not only at the school level, but also at prefectural and national levels, with a seat on the Central Council on Education. The voice of parents has remained a conservative force in education reform, with parents placing greater emphasis on the immediate incentives the education system offers for the education of their children than on the longer-term benefits of changes in the system (OECD, 2012[21]).

Historically, the role of parents in schools has been mostly defined by the Parent-teacher Association. It mainly consists in participating in the school life by helping during school educational activities or volunteering for work in some school events. Parental involvement in school is evolving nonetheless. In 2004, MEXT changed laws to enable schools to have a school council/board (School Management Council [Gakkou Un-ei Kyogikai]). These schools with school boards, called “Community Schools”, allow parents and community residents to participate in public school management with a certain degree of authority and responsibility as members of school management councils. For example, school management councils can approve basic plans for school management or express opinions to boards of education (the appointing authority) concerning the appointment of teachers and school staff.

The initiative has been expanding, as MEXT considers it a way to promote parental and community involvement in school management and activities. It is one of the four main policy directions of the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education 2013-17 consisting of “Building bonds and establishing vibrant communities: A virtuous cycle where society nurtures people and people create society”. Accordingly, engaging local communities in education is a priority policy issue. Since the introduction of the system, the number of schools in which a school management council has been set up increased from 17 in 2005 to 2 806 in 2016, narrowing the gap with the target set in the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education to get 10% of community schools among public schools.

More recently, an umbrella initiative called “Community Co-operation Network for Learning and Education” aims to further promote collaboration between schools and local communities (Chapter 3). It gathers four previously launched projects, including School Support Regional Headquarters (Gakkou Shien Chiiki Honbu), Programme to Promote After-School Classes for Children (Houkago Kodomo Kyoushitsu), Saturday Educational Activities and Community Tutoring School for the Future (Chiiki Mirai Juku). Although schools engaged in this project do not have necessarily the council management characteristic of community schools, they are still deeply committed to engaging the surrounding communities in daily activities. In 2016, there were 4 527 School Support Regional Headquarters in 669 municipalities across the country, for 6 881 primary schools and 3 148 lower secondary schools. About 16 000 after-school classes for children were conducted at public primary schools through the participation of local residents. On Saturdays, local people and companies were supporting activities in about 12 000 public primary, lower and upper secondary schools (MEXT, 2016[20]).

From the cradle to the grave: Costs and benefits of education

The provision of education in Japan starts as early as age 3, with ECEC for children, and extends throughout life with lifelong learning. Except for primary and secondary level (mandatory levels of education), education in Japan is mainly private and requires significant financial contribution from households. The degree of participation depends on the price and the quality of education.

Since globalisation and modernisation are changing the skills required in the workplace and in everyday life, improving access to lifelong learning has become a priority for the Japanese government. On the one hand, workers are more and more in need of updating their skills. On the other hand, demographic forecasts in Japan predict a decline of the workforce. The Japanese labour market needs to make the greatest use of the population, in particular by strengthening participation of women and improving adult learning. Japan is currently implementing reforms that strengthen financial support for non-mandatory levels of education. This should improve labour market outcomes in the short term for women and young graduates.

The ECEC financial burden is lightening

In Japan, educational institutions prior to the mandatory education curriculum include:

  • Kindergartens: they allow entrance of any child between three years old and primary school admission age. They are the core part of early childhood education in Japan.

  • Day care centres: their primary purpose is day care (from zero year old to primary school admission age).

  • Centres for early childhood education and care: they have the characteristics of both kindergartens and day care centres.

Although no ECEC year is mandatory in Japan, enrolment in ECEC is high: 94% of four-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary education in Japan in 2015 (OECD, 2017[58]). However, the enrolment rate at age three (80%) is significantly below (around 20 points) those of leading countries (Figure 1.21).

Japan’s public and private expenditure on early childhood education per child is low compared to other OECD countries (Figure 1.22). In 2014, the average annual expenditure for early childhood education per enrolled child was USD 6 572, which amounts to only 0.2% of GDP. The OECD average represents USD 8 858, 0.8% of GDP (OECD, 2017[58]).

According to MEXT (2016[20]), public support for pre-primary education aims to foster enrolment and consists in grants covering a share of the expenditures in kindergarten. These subsidies are granted to local governments that implement “kindergarten enrolment incentive activities”, which consists in lowering childcare costs according to the financial situation of each household (lower income families being more subsidized).

Figure 1.21. Enrolment rates at age 3 and 4 in early childhood and pre-primary education, 2015
Early childhood educational development programmes = ISCED 01, Pre-primary education = ISCED 02, primary education = ISCED 1

Notes: 1. Includes only pre-primary education at the ages of 2 and 3 (ISCED 02).

1. Includes early childhood development programmes at the ages of 4 and 5 (ISCED 01).

2. Year of reference 2014.

Source: OECD (2017[58]), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Unlike in most other countries, private sources account for the lion’s share of expenditure on early childhood education in Japan. In fact, the Japanese government dedicates its funds to mandatory education (primary and lower secondary). Public sources only fund 44% of expenditure on pre-primary education, one of the lowest proportions among OECD countries (well below the OECD average of 83%) (OECD, 2016[29]). Therefore, despite a low level of expenditures per enrolled child, the limited level of public spending means that the financial burden on households is high. Since Japanese families have demonstrated willingness to share the cost of education, there are high levels of enrolment in pre-primary at age 4, but room for improvement at earlier ages (Figure 1.21).

The Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education 2013-17 specifies the introduction of free-of-charge early-child education for all children. The rationale is to provide incentives for women to access the labour market, and/or to have more children. The Japanese government is examining potential revenue sources to fund this new initiative and has set the following objectives:

  • eliminate tuition fees so that every child can access high-quality early childhood education;

  • start providing free early childhood education to 5-year-olds incrementally as of 2014;

  • introduce free-of-charge early childhood education at kindergarten for children whose parents are welfare recipients and alleviate financial obligations for large families starting in 2014;

  • increase financial support for children whose parents get municipal tax exemptions starting in 2015.

Figure 1.22. Expenditure on early childhood educational institutions, 2014
As a percentage of GDP, by category

Note: The number in parentheses corresponds to the theoretical duration of early childhood educational development (EC) and pre-primary (PP).

1. Year of reference 2015.

2. Public expenditure only.

3. Year of reference 2013.

Source: OECD (2017[58]), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

The objectives of the Second Basic Plan have resulted in the following incremental efforts towards free access to early child education:

  • Fiscal year 2014:

    • Eliminate the childcare costs (6 600 yen/month) for households on welfare.

    • Eliminate the annual income cap (of about 6.8 million yen) for the tax breaks of half-price for a second child, and tuition-free for any children after the second one.

  • Fiscal year 2015:

    • Reduce the monthly cost to parents in households exempt from municipal inhabitant’s tax from 9 100 to 3 000 yen.

    • Expand aid to municipalities and eliminate excess burden on municipalities.

  • Fiscal year 2016:

    • Allow households with annual income below about 3.6 million yen to pay half for second child and nothing for any children after the second one regardless of the age of the first child.

    • Eliminate tuition for all children in single-parent households that are exempt from municipal inhabitant’s tax.

    • Allow single parents-households with income under about 3.6 million yen to pay half for first child and nothing for all future children.

  • Fiscal year 2017 (budget projection):

    • Eliminate tuition for second child and any further children in households that are exempt from municipal inhabitant’s tax.

    • For households with annual income below about 3.6 million yen:

      • Reduce the monthly cost to single-parents for the first child from 7 550 to 3 000 yen.

      • Reduce the monthly cost to other households for the first child from 16 100 to 14 100 yen, and from 8 050 to 7 050 yen for any other children.

Investing in tertiary education

The Japanese tertiary education system is characterised by a high participation level (Figure 1.23) and the diversity of its institutions. In total, 80% of the Japanese population is estimated to enter tertiary education over their lifetime (OECD, 2016[29]). Students can attend a wide range of institutions, from universities to junior colleges and colleges of technologies (Table 1.2). Each type is supposed to define its own function and goals in order to provide a defining character, as stated in the 2005 report of the Central Council for Education.

Another distinctive feature lies in the high proportion of private institutions by OECD standards. For instance, only 178 universities are public compared to 608 private universities (Table 1.2). Japan is one of the few OECD countries where a majority of tertiary education students are enrolled in private institutions, and the Japanese government relies heavily on private providers. In 2013, 79% of tertiary students were enrolled in private institutions (compared to the OECD average of 31%). Overall, 52% of the resourcing of tertiary education in Japan is paid for by households, one of the highest proportions in the OECD. This is partly due to a level of public funding of the tertiary sector that is half the OECD average. Japanese households contribute 2.4 times more than their OECD counterparts to the funding of tertiary education (OECD, 2016[29]).

Figure 1.23. First-time tertiary entry rates, 2014

Note: 1. Year of reference 2013.

Source: OECD (2016[29]), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

For students in a bachelor’s programme in Japan, annual average tuition fees were USD 5 152 in public institutions in 2014/15 and USD 8 263 in private institutions in 2013/14. Tuition fees are lower than in England or the United States but comparable to those in Australia and New Zealand. The reason for the high proportion of the total system cost met by private sources is that a very high share of the student population is studying in private institutions with higher fees, reflecting the lower rate of government funding of private universities.

The cost of tuition fees can be understood as an investment that allows leveraging of future income. But the financial return in Japan is low by international standards. The large numbers of university graduates (linked to high enrolment rates in tertiary education (Figure 1.23) and small wage differences between different careers (the result of tradition that rewards seniority over productivity) lead to a low internal rate of return of tertiary education. In other words, the internal rate of return, or the hypothetical real interest rate equalising the costs and benefits related to the educational investment, is around 6% for Japanese students, compared to 12% in OECD countries (OECD, 2016[29]).

Many OECD countries have student-support systems to help students bear the cost of their studies, but Japan’s systems are relatively less developed (Chapter 4). In Japan, some students who excel academically but have difficulty financing their studies can benefit from reduced tuition and/or admission fees or receive total exemptions, but most students and their families face a heavy financial burden. Tertiary students in Japan can benefit from public loans with lower interest rates than private loans, but only 38% of students use these loans, which impose a high level of debt at graduation.

Compared to other OECD countries, Japanese public institutions charge high fees, while a low level of public financial support is offered to students (Figure 1.24). This situation places Japan between two paradigms: the “English-speaking countries” model (the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia), where a high level of public financial support for students compensates for high tuition fees and the continental European model (Austria, Belgium, France etc.), where the public funding directly addressed to tertiary education institutions makes tuition fees negligible.

Following the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education 2013-17, MEXT enhanced the scholarship loan programme for students in tertiary education by developing interest-free student loans and introducing a grant-type scholarship. The repayment scheme associated with the interest-free loans is income-contingent. Students are not required to make payments until their annual income reaches JPY 3 million (around EUR 20 000) after graduation (which amounts to 70% of the median income in 2015) (Ministry of Health Welfare and Labour, 2016[60]).

Figure 1.24. Average tuition fees and student support in tertiary education, 2011

Notes: Arrows show how average tuition fees and the proportion of students who benefit from public support have changed since 1995 further to reforms (solid arrow) and how that may evolve due to changes that have been planned since 2008-09 (dash arrow).

1. Figures are reported for all students (full-time national and full-time non-national/foreign students).

2. Average tuition fees from USD 200 to USD 1 402 for university programmes dependent on the Ministry of Education.

3. Tuition fees refer to public institutions, but more than two-thirds of students are enrolled in private institutions.

4. If only public institutions are taken into account, the proportion of students who benefit from public loans and/or scholarships/grants should be 68%.

Source: OECD (2014[61]), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing,

Linking tertiary education with the labour market

In Japan, a tradition called the Shinsotsu consists of hiring graduates right after their graduation in April. Japanese firms historically exchanged long-term employment, training and pension plans for hard work and loyalty. Job rotation is also expected to occur every three to seven years, to ensure that workers have a well-rounded understanding of the enterprise. In this system, seniority is rewarded, rather than productivity: new employees start with low salaries with the promise of regular wage increases over time. Promotions, job rotation and vacation time are granted to the workers with the longest time in service (The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2011[62]; Hiten Amin Reports, 2012[63]).

In 2015, 12.5% of new university graduates did not find work, above the level of 6% in 1990, but improving compared to the level of 20% in 2010 (The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2017[64]). In fact, the start of the demographic decline in 2010 has progressively exacerbated the skills shortage in Japan and could improve the situation of new graduates entering the labour market. In 2010, 91% of students looking for a job found one, but this share reached a record of 97.6% in 2016 (MEXT and MHLW, 2016[65]).

But the work reality new graduates are now facing has changed compared to the traditional image of lifetime employment associated with the Japanese work environment. Shaken by two successive crises (the price asset bubble crisis in 1991 and the financial crisis of 2008), human resource management in Japan has followed three trends since the early 1990s (The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2011[62]):

  1. a decrease in the lifetime employment practice induced by firms narrowing the number of employees eligible for long term employment

  2. a change in the employee assessment and compensation system, with a move from seniority towards performance-based employee assessment (Seikashugi)

  3. non-regular workers as a growing share of the labour force, beyond the usual role of helping the labour market adjust.

New graduates will face a less certain working environment and are more likely to experience careers that comprise a portfolio of multiple jobs. In this context, the JILPT report (The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 2011[62]) shows that education and training for workers is more likely to be selective and targeted to high-skilled, tenured workers. Participation in lifelong learning risks falling at a time when international competition requires an increase to keep up with the pace of technological change.

Participation in lifelong learning still has to catch up with a dynamic supply

The results of the Survey of Adult Skills underline the need to move from a reliance on initial education towards fostering lifelong, skills-oriented learning (OECD, 2013[38]). The increase in the depreciation rate of human capital resulting from technical progress and globalisation should lead people to hone their skills over their lifetime, and should increase demand for tertiary education.

In Japan, tertiary education institutions are already developing the supply side of lifelong learning, with an increasing number of universities offering courses to local communities. According to the MEXT Country Background Report, the number of universities offering lifelong learning courses rose from 339 in 1992, to 707 in 2014. In 2016, MEXT started implementation of a certification of the quality of the lifelong learning courses offered by professional colleges and of their alignment with market needs, called the Brush-up Programme for Professional Training.

Around 42% of adults in Japan who took part in the Survey of Adult Skills participated in formal and/or non-formal education in 2012, a relatively low share compared to the 50% of adults across all countries who took part in the survey. At 48%, participation in education among 26-35 year-olds in Japan is among the lowest across OECD countries (Desjardins, 2015[66]).

Figure 1.25. Participation and intensity of training in non-formal education, 2012 or 2015
Hours in non-formal education per participant and per adult and participation rate in non-formal education

Source: OECD (2016[29]), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

However, Japan ranks in the first decile for the intensity of participation in non-formal education, that is to say the number of hours spent in courses offered through open or distance education, seminars or workshops, structured on-the-job training or private lessons, during the 12 months prior to the interview of the Survey of Adult Skills (Figure 1.25). While Japan is 5 percentage points below the average participation rate in non-formal education, Japanese participants spend 147 hours in non-formal education, well above the average of 121 hours per participants in OECD countries. This suggests that in Japan, adult education is limited to a certain share of workers, but they are intensely trained.

The Japanese Opinion Poll on Education and Lifelong Learning (2015) also revealed that respondents would enrol more in adult education programmes if 1) financial aid was provided and 2) courses better targeted the preparation of professional qualifications or helped find jobs (MEXT, 2016[20]).

Persisting gender imbalances

In Japan, gender imbalances persist in education, subsequently in the labour market and ultimately in earnings. A majority of tertiary graduates are women in almost every OECD country, but a gender gap in graduation remains in Japan (only 32% of master’s graduates are women and 31% of doctoral graduates) (OECD, 2016[29]). Equally important is self-selection, since women in Japan tend to favour specific fields. For instance, women represent 72% of tertiary graduates in education and 76% of all tertiary graduates in the field of services, one of the highest proportions among OECD countries (compared to the OECD average of 55%). Conversely, in science, women only represent 25% of all graduates (compared to the OECD average of 40%). In engineering, manufacturing and construction, subjects in great demand in the labour market both in Japan and other OECD countries, women represent only 13% of tertiary graduates (compared to the OECD average of 26%) (OECD, 2016[67]).

The wage gap employed Japanese women face is striking. On average, women earn 26% less than men for the same job, 11.5 percentage points above the OECD average and the third-highest gap in OECD countries (OECD, 2017[68]). According to the Survey of Adults Skills, tertiary-educated men in Japan earn about 60% more than tertiary-educated women, the largest such gap in the OECD. The average across OECD countries and subnational entities is approximately 30% (OECD, 2015[69]; OECD, 2016[8]).

In addition to the question of equity in the work place, such a wage gap could lead to inefficient use of resources. If women anticipate that they will be discriminated against in the labour market, they might choose not to participate (i.e. to exit the labour force) or might choose fields where they are less likely to hit the glass ceiling. In fact, the Japanese labour market displays other differences in the treatment of women, such as the lowest rate of political representation among OECD countries, with only 8% of members of parliament being women (Figure 1.26).

While the male employment rate in Japan is 82%, the female employment rate stagnates at 64% (still higher than the OECD average of 58%). Given the high educational achievement of women in Japan and the high population skill levels reported in the Survey of Adult Skills, women represent an important untapped supply of high-quality human capital in Japan.

Figure 1.26. Political representation, share of women in national parliaments, 2014

Source: OECD (2017[70]), Women in politics (indicator), (accessed 4 December 2017).


How Japan can bridge the gap to the future

Japan is currently facing a double-sided challenge to its future. The rapid ageing of its population, coupled with an ailing economy and hampered by the world’s highest debt- to-GDP ratio, means that the government has little leeway to find solutions. As part of the rescue plan detailed by the Liberal Democratic Party in 2012, education has been placed at the centre of the roadmap for future growth. The challenge for Japan is to find a way to engage in structural reforms to modernise the country and restore prosperity while preserving Japanese traditions and values.

To do so, Japan can rely on the numerous strengths of its high-performing education system. In Japan, education is a priority, as attested by the shared commitment of students (high enrolments in all levels of education), parents and families (high level of personal and financial investment), supportive communities and conscientious teachers, as well as schools that deliver holistic education for their students, covering not only academic education, but also values and after school activities. The system delivers high-quality education combined with equity. At the tertiary education level, the wide diversity of institutions is essential to the training of a high-skilled population. The Japanese tertiary education system has contributed to Japan’s success in high-technology industries.

However, the Japanese school system faces a number of challenges. First, there is a shift in the skills and competencies required for the labour market and well-being that schools and their students will need to develop, already planned in a curricular reform. The high-stake nature of the University entrance examination also puts pressure on the whole education system, and can undermine the scope of the curriculum reform. Specific implementation actions will be required to ensure that teachers and schools are able to integrate these new types of competencies into their teaching strategies and assessment practices, especially in light of their heavy workload.

Second, as the keystone of the holistic approach to education, teachers need to maintain the equilibrium in education reached in Japan. Any change in the teaching profession jeopardises this fragile status quo and will need to be considered carefully. Third, the current education funding system, largely relying on households for non-mandatory levels of education, can lead to inequities, prevent women from participating in the labour market and deter families from having an optimal number of children. Finally, lifelong learning in Japan is limited to a share of workers who benefit from it intensively, which increases inequalities of a dual labour market.

Building on its strengths, Japan has already started to reform its education system to move forward in the globalised environment of the 21st century, increase well-being, broaden students’ skills and contribute to the future economy and society. To this end, Japan is introducing a new curriculum reform that aims to foster students’ competencies to thrive in the 21st century (“Solid academic ability”, “richness in mind” and “sound body”, see Box 2.1). School management is evolving to adapt to new needs and alleviate the burden of teachers. School community partnerships are being fostered to strengthen the holistic approach to education. In the meantime, financial support is developing both for ECEC and tertiary education, while universities have started diversifying the supply of lifelong-learning courses.

The chapters propose a set of recommendations to help ensure that the current reforms take hold to further enhance Japan’s education performance and provide a bridge to transition into 2030. The recommendations build on an analysis of Japan’s strengths and challenges and are informed by research evidence and relevant practices from strong-performing education systems internationally.


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← 1. Tightness of the labour market measures the difficulty of filling a vacancy, by computing the ratio of vacancies to unemployment or job offers to applicants.

← 2. Basic Act on Education, Article 17, Paragraphs 1 and 2.

← 3. Jukus are private education providers which offer school-related services to students (such as preparing for tests and entrance examinations, covering extra curriculum material, supporting dropouts) or extracurricular non-academic activities.

← 4. Textbooks are chosen from the lists of MEXT authorised textbooks by, local Boards of Education for public schools and by school principals for national and private schools.

← 5. The index of academic inclusion is calculated as 100*(1-ρ), where ρ stands for the intra-class correlation of performance. The intra-class correlation, in turn, is the variation in student performance between schools, divided by the sum of the variation in student performance between schools and the variation in student performance within schools.