Education Policy: Can American Learn From Japan

Japanese high school students.

Japanese high school students.


Japan always outperforms the U.S. in math and science scores. That is well known, but most Americans would be surprised to learn Japanese schools do not have janitors or cafeteria workers. Those tasks are left to the students. They sign up for chores on the blackboard. Students serve the school lunch to the teachers and themselves. This helps students develop autonomy, responsibility and a strong work ethic. It’s an idea that could work well in America.
The Japanese students also wear uniforms. Japan introduced Western style school uniforms in the late 19th century as a part of its modernization program. Today, school uniforms are almost universal in the public and private school systems. They are also used in some women’s colleges. Boys wear pants and jackets, and girls wear blazers and skirts. They have lunch in the classroom, not a cafeteria. Some of them are in school on 2 or 3 Saturdays/month, and they often stay after school for cleaning or club activities. I have spoken to many Japanese students and they enjoy practicing English. I have yet to meet an American student who speaks Japanese. The U.S./ Japan comparison can also be misleading. In Japan it is only the best and the brightest who are able to attend school, while in the US school is mandatory until the age of 18.
Most Japanese students also attend night school five days a week, as well as during the day on Saturdays. They always have homework. They are drilled non-stop to prepare for very competitive exams which determine their entire future course in life. They only sleep a few hours per night – not enough by U.S. standards for growing bodies. They have virtually no free time.
The dark side of the Japanese system involves the high rates of teen suicide and bullying. They are viewed as products of an educational system which demands a high level of obedience. Lack of focus on creativity and expressing one’s opinion is the price to pay for a system that churns out students who excel on math and science tests.
The system is changing but only at the pace at which Japanese society is moving away from the job-for-life philosophy. The Japanese university system is far easier than its U.S. counterpart. Japanese students use their college days to enjoy life.
The current 20 somethings in Japan are now called the “so-so generation.” They have seen the workaholic lifestyle of their parents and they reject it. Young Japanese do not want promotions because it will mean additional work. They are satisfied with a lower income lifestyle that gives them more free time. Also, the plunging birthrate means Japan will lose 70% of its workforce by 2050, and 75% of Japanese will be of retirement age plus by 2035.

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