Japanese Education: Its Effect on the Youth and Family Life

While modeled after the American system, education in Japan dictates not only the futures of individual students, but also determines the structure of the modern Japanese family.

Crucial to understanding the development of Japanese society due to its current education system is to understand the concept of the traditional Japanese family. The dominating model of the family unit prior to World War II, the traditional Japanese family is distinguished by the succession of the family business to the eldest son, while all younger brothers find other occupations. Daughters are married into other families, forming alliances between two families. While the head of the business, the patriarch of each family played an important role on the family.

The end of World War II saw to the complete transformation of Japanese family, beginning with the emphasis on “salary jobs” (as opposed to family businesses) and the adoption of an education system similar to the United States’. As in the U.S., the Japanese government provides for four levels of education: 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of middle school, 3 years of high school, and tertiary school (either a 2-year junior college or 4-year university). However, whereas the United States requires twelve years of compulsory education, one must only graduate from junior high in order to enter the Japanese work force full-time. However, as of the year 2000, nearly 100% of junior high graduates enrolled in high school. Around fifty percent of high school graduates continue on to college. The fifty percent that remain with a high school education either join the workforce or become unproductive NEETs (individuals Not in Employment, Education, or Training).

While a Japanese citizen can begin earning an income at age 14, one does not even become a legal adult until the age of 20, at around which age most become financially independent of their parents. After completing his or her higher education, the typical Japanese person will become a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or office worker.

While economic success in Japan no longer favors the organization of the traditional family, important social values have remained which allow Japanese society to adopt so easily to this Western system. The social values are that of familial pride and honor. Whereas before they were primary measure by the prestige and history of the family, the family’s reputation rested on the ability of the children to excel in school and make it far in life. In general, an upper-middle class mother will send her child to primary school around the age of three, in order to get them into top-notch private kindergarten schools, believing that an elite start should carry on throughout the rest of their child’s education. The majority of Japanese people believe that children who do not begin school at the age of three (and thus do not enter an elite kindergarten) will not get into the best universities when they grow older.

Elementary schools are usually public, whose attendance is determined by residence district, with the exception of a few elite private schools. The number of private schools dramatically increases at the junior high level, the enrollment of which is based on standardized entrance exams. From this point onwards, public school students are assigned to their school by residence and are generally barred from any possibility of getting an elite job. During junior high, 60% of students attend juku, or cram schools—private, afterschool classes—around four times a week, 3 hours per day. This is preparation for their high school entrance exams, which are regarded to absolutely determine your future career.

The competitive nature of entrance exams and many stresses imposed on children by the end of junior high school fosters an unhealthy learning environment. While elementary schooling is enjoyable in Japan, most districts experience a serious problem of ijime (or school bullying) by the sixth grade, which only grows more intense as the years pass by. Japanese society tends to encourage conformity in members of society, so bullies tend to target those who “stick out”—people of different appearances or socio-economic backgrounds, or students with particularly low grades. In retaliation to the conformity code in Japanese schools, a growing percentage of the Japanese youth has turned to delinquency, which increases cases of bullying, street violence, and gang-related crimes. Stresses only increase during high school (evident by the dramatic increase in cram school attendance—ninety percent), in preparation of college entrance exams. Most students experience a loss of purpose and meaning during their teenage years, encouraging the typical “rebellious spirit”, a breeding ground for delinquency in Japan. Loss of focus on school causes most students to not pass their college entrance exams the first time (or even second time) around. As a result, many students often attend yobiku, a type of cram school between the high school and university that helps prepare potential college students from their entrance exams.

While the extra support and highly academic-centered culture of Japan might appear to encourage a nation of highly educated youth, but as stated earlier, the environment places too much stress on its participants, leading to bullying, delinquency, and severe depression. Furthermore, because the whole purpose of education up until college was to get into a college, the quality of tertiary education rapidly decreases. The whole effort of students is put into getting into a top public university, such as Tokyo University (Todai), or one of the roku dai (Six Best) private universities. Students who don’t get into Todai or the Roku Dai only focus on getting into college, then treat college in a manner similar to the party-loving fraternity and sorority members in American colleges. This lifestyle remains undisciplined by the universities, as professors sympathize with their students who will become office workers upon graduation.

While the education system in Japan has allowed women increased employment opportunities, Japanese tradition encourages women to continue to “marry for income” and become housewives. The nature of “office jobs” requires the male “head of household” be away from home many hours a day, and the husband is often gone for business trips. As such, it becomes the duty of the head woman to manage daily household affairs and push her children towards a higher education. Although Japan remains a “patriarchal society”, in the eyes of the younger generations, it is actually the mother who holds power within the family, and the father is an arbitrary figure who is never home to exercise any real power. While the mother is seen as over-competitive and prideful, any father who exercises his right to inquire after his children’s education is seen as a meddling dictator.

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