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20 Differences Between the U.S. and Japanese Education Systems

November 3, 2010

My mom sent in the following question:

Can you tell us more about the vast differences between the Japanese education system and  the U.S.  that you haven’t touched on already?  One thing you told me that is interesting is that students there aren’t rewarded or given treats of any kind.

You’re the best, Jon!

I still wouldn’t say that I know a whole lot about the Japanese education system, being that my position is more like an outside contractor than a proper teacher.  But I can give however little information I’ve come to learn since March.  Keep in mind that since I don’t have first hand knowledge as a Japanese teacher or student there’s a good chance that the information isn’t 100% accurate, and it may only be relavent for my specific city or region.  Also, much of this info will be fore junior high since I spend most of my time there.

  1. Teachers and administrative staff change schools every 3-8 years, the younger teachers moving more frequently.
  2. In elementary and junior high school there are no actual grades, I don’t even think that it’s possible to fail, you just have to show up.
  3. Discipline is far different than that in the States.  There is no such thing as detention (the kids typically stay at school long after classes are over to do club activities anyhow) or suspension.  Troublesome kids are free to get up and leave whenever they want with no consequence, if a kid doesn’t want to do the work that’s his problem.  If a class gets out of control the teachers have a tendency to ignore that there’s a problem and just continue on for the kids that care.  But all that said, there is far from a discipline problem with the students.  I have practically no problems maintaining order and attention in the classroom.
  4. Every teacher is required to coach a club activity or sport.
  5. At the beginning of the year the home room teachers in junior high school visit the homes of every single one of their students for a meeting with the parents.
  6. About a third of the way through the year the parents each come to school for a meeting with the teachers.
  7. The principle is mostly a title only position, given to an older teacher close to retirement, the vice-principle does much of the day to day running of things.  The principle is still the face of the school and also receives a lot of respect.
  8. You have to apply for high school and take a standardized test as part of the application, similar to college.  Students often travel an hour’s journey to a different city just for high school.
  9. School officially starts at 8:30 and ends at 3:20, but students often come much earlier and leave much later.
  10. There are typically no yearbooks.
  11. Schools almost never have fancy names, often just whatever neighborhood they are in.
  12. Home room teachers eat lunch with their students.
  13. There’s often half-days of school on Saturdays.
  14. The school year starts in mid-March
  15. There are only two real vacation breaks.  Summer vacation, which is the entire month of August, and winter vacation, this year being from December 25th to January 5th.
  16. If there’s a national holiday on a Thursday you still have to go to school on Friday.
  17. There are no custodians, the students clean the school.
  18. In elementary and junior high, all students walk to school on a pre-designated route.  For high school kids either walk, ride their bikes or take public transportation.
  19. Curriculum is handed down from the national level as opposed to the state level.
  20. There are 240 school days in Japan, 160 in the U.S.A.

That’s all that comes to mind, but I’ll be sure to post more as they come to mind.  As always, everyone is welcome to ask questions of their own in the comments section or email me at

  1. Roger permalink
    November 4, 2010 5:05 pm

    To give you some answers from my experience:

    No 2 & 3: public education up to lower secondary (Junior High) is a constitutional right. Nobody fails because it is their right to pass, and I’ve seen kids that I thought would become future criminals sitting next to future astronauts. I think that a lot of discipline “problems” are just attributed to growing up (since kids have decades to be adult) and that is better than pumping them full of drugs or putting them in a hole, thereby giving them a disposition towards even worse behavior later. The whole concept of school & discipline is different, since in the U.S. we don’t have a right to an education, but rather education is enforced by local law.

    No. 7: The Principal is the school manager who ensures that the principles of public education are upheld. A lot of their job is not seen by ALTs, since it happens away from school in meetings at the school board. They are teachers who have passed the principal exam, and when appointed, are no longer teachers, but rather hold the highest authority over their school, even to a degree where their opinion can go against the school board or the teachers at the school. You are right that the Vice-Principal does almost all the work (that you see,) but this is the same in the U.S. (I’ve taught there) and I’d say that if the school were a ship, then the Principal is the Captain, and the Vice-Principal the Executive Officer. Just ask someone who was in the Navy how much pull the XO has and you’ll get the idea.

    No. 17: A lot of schools have janitors. Typically the school janitor is a repairman/groundskeeper/handyman who may stay overnight as a guard. You may see them in an elementary school listed as “senior” as a lot of post-age-65 employment plans these days place them in schools. In larger JHS/SHS schools, typically the janitor will be full-time. The janitor at my last SHS was my favorite member of the staff, and by best Japanese teacher. Kids clean, that much is true, but there are a lot of things around the school that kids can’t do, and that’s where the janitor/handyman comes in. As a teacher in the U.S., we had to deal with the B.S. (Building Supervisor) who didn’t report to the Principal, and for sure let us know that we might teach there, but the buildings and everything in them were under HIS power…that was always a lot of fun trying to get a light-bulb changed. If I had to choose…I take the Japanese system.

    No. 19: The national curriculum is more visible in Japan. In a country with a hierarchical society it makes a lot of sense. But, the local area does have a say in education, and a lot of freedom to choose textbooks, teaching methods, and programs like English, etc. Every few years there will be a big stink about History textbooks (usually one) whitewashing Japan’s role in WWII and their actions in China and Korea…typically this results in a lot of puffing and a few anti-Japan demonstrations in those counties, and then in the end you’ll find out that the only school that adopted the books in question were adopted by one blind school in outer Gunnma. Prefectural schools or schools run by designated cities can choose their own books and decide the standards for hiring teachers. That last part’s not done in the U.S., and there’s no backbreaking Praxis exam to take to become a provisional teacher…just graduate and interview, and if you pass you are a teacher. Standardized testing is the same since the local board can choose to do it or not, and they don’t lose funding over it.

    • Cathy permalink
      February 16, 2011 12:51 pm

      As a professional who seems to have taught with much experience in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, your words seem quite applicable when considering the teaching profession.
      You mention that to become a teacher in a Japanese school, there is first graduation then an interview. I assume that the interview would be at whichever school stands out to you, but does the graduation (university bachelor’s degree in Education, i assume, minimum requirements?) have to be from a Japanese university? Or is any recognized university acceptable, like a Canadian or Australian one?

  2. November 6, 2010 12:17 am

    >At the beginning of the year the home room teachers in junior high school visit the homes of every single one of their students for a meeting with the parents.

    As a parent of three teenagers, I can say I’m glad this isn’t exactly accurate (at least in my kids’ school). The teacher came to our house once…when my oldest kid started JHS.

    Also, mandatory education in Japan ends after JHS. So to enter SHS, there’s an entrance exam (as you said). Most kids plan to attend high school so they want to pass the exam and therefore study hard…even without the threat of failing a grade.

    >In elementary and junior high school there are no actual grades

    Individual worksheets and homework are checked by the teacher but not given a “grade”. But tests are graded and the kids get report cards at the end of every semester with their final grades.

    >There are typically no yearbooks.

    Japanese schools have yearbooks. My kids get one every year…even in elementary school they did.

    You didn’t mention that Japanese students wear “indoor” shoes in the school, the kids usually eat lunch in their classroom, the teachers in Japanese schools change rooms after each period…not the students, Japanese schools don’t have showers, and Japanese kids serve lunch to their classmates (not the “lunch ladies”).

    I wrote a similar post:

    • Cathy permalink
      February 16, 2011 1:02 pm

      I can understand why many teachers tend to compare siblings especially in cases where they would only visit the home once for three different children. They would most likely assume that the household life hasn’t changed much for each particular student, and that there must be something wrong with the individual student if she/he does not perform at the level his/her older sibling could previously achieve. That sucks because it sounds like a lot of pressure for the younger siblings…

  3. November 9, 2010 11:02 pm

    What a nice post. I really love reading these types or articles. I can?t wait to see what others have to say.

  4. Cathy permalink
    February 16, 2011 1:03 pm

    Thank you for your article, it’s always interesting to read comparisons of different education systems, especially Asian schools versus Western ones.

    Do teachers and students really develop a very close (friendly and professional) relationship in Japan like they show in Japanese dramas? I’m assuming it’s all really exaggerated, but it seems highly likely that the homeroom teachers could get closer to his/her students in Japan, compared to a school in NA, where teachers are quite distant. Even in HS, when we have homerooms and homeroom teachers, we see our homeroom teacher like ONCE a semester! Ridiculous.

    • February 16, 2011 6:17 pm

      Well it depends on the teacher and the student. Some teachers have a great relationship with all of their students, others will practically ignore them, and also everything in between.

  5. lata kittur permalink
    December 24, 2012 5:13 am

    is it true that in japanese schools, cooperation is stressed rather than competition? Also that children are taught how to deal with aggressive thoughts or tendencies? And that this is because the Japanese feel that it is necessary to teach this so as to have a society that is peaceful and non-aggressive?

    • December 26, 2012 9:43 am

      Not in all cases, but yes, generally in Japanese culture people work more towards the group as a whole rather than the individual. I personally saw no evidence of teaching them how to do deal with aggressive and saw no acts to address situations where students did act aggressively (such as when a student violently grabbed a teacher’s arm and refused to let her go).

      I don’t think that the education system is a direct cause of their peaceful, non-agressive culture. I think a lot of it has to do with honor, shame and politeness. If you commit a crime, it’s seen that you will be disgracing the family name which would be unacceptable. But overall, I couldn’t give you a distinct, single reason why, there are many.

  6. Lin permalink
    January 13, 2013 5:42 pm

    U.S. schools have a minimum of 180 days/school year, not 160 days as noted in the article.

  7. April 23, 2013 7:29 am

    Ask a Japanese student how much of World War 2 is taught in Japan, almost nothing….they will tell you everything that the Japanese did in China as in the “Rape of Nanking” is all a lie and “Western Propaganda” They simply refuse to believe they were as savage and brutal they truly were. Japanese hypocrisy sickens me…and the Japanese PM Abe continues this arrogance by his recent commments that have angered the Koreas, China and the Philippines…

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