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Elementary School

More than 99 percent of elementary school-age children are enrolled in school. All children enter first grade at age six, and starting school is considered a very important event in a child's life.

Virtually all elementary education takes place in public schools; less than 1 percent of the schools are private. Private schools tended to be costly, although the rate of cost increases in tuition for these schools had slowed in the 1980s. Some private elementary schools are prestigious, and they serve as a first step to higher-level private schools with which they are affiliated, and thence to a university. Competition to enter some of these "ladder schools" is quite intense.

Although public elementary education is free, some school expenses are borne by parents, for example, school lunches and supplies. For many families, there are also nonschool educational expenses, for extra books, or private lessons, or juku (see Glossary). Such expenses rose throughout the 1980s, reaching an average of 184,000 (US$1,314) in FY 1987 for each child. Costs for private elementary schools are substantially higher.

Elementary school classes are large, about thirty-one students per class on average, but higher numbers are permitted. Students are usually organized into small work groups, which have both academic and disciplinary functions. Discipline also is maintained, and a sense of responsibility encouraged, by the use of student monitors and by having the students assume responsibility for the physical appearance of their classroom and school.

The ministry's Course of Study for Elementary Schools is composed of a wide variety of subjects, both academic and nonacademic, including moral education and "special activities." "Special activities" refer to scheduled weekly time given over to class affairs and to preparing for the school activities and ceremonies that are used to emphasize character development and the importance of group effort and cooperation. The standard academic curriculum include Japanese language, social studies, arithmetic, and science. Nonacademic subjects taught include art and handicrafts, music, homemaking, physical education, and moral education. Japanese language is the most emphasized subject. The complexity of the written language and the diversity of its spoken forms in educated speech require this early attention.

A new course of study was established in 1989, partly as a result of the education reform movement of the 1980s and partly because of ongoing curriculum review. Important changes scheduled were an increased number of hours devoted to Japanese language, the replacement of the social sciences course with a daily life course- -instruction for children on proper interaction with the society and environment around them--and an increased emphasis on moral education. While evidence is still inconclusive, it appears that at least some children are having difficulties with the Japanese language. New emphasis also was to be given in the curriculum to the national flag and the national anthem. The ministry suggested that the flag be flown and the national anthem sung at important school ceremonies. Because neither the flag nor the anthem had been legally designated as national symbols, and because of the nationalistic wartime associations the two had in the minds of some citizens, this suggestion was greeted with some opposition. The revised history curriculum emphasized cultural legacies and events and the biographies of key figures. The ministry provided a proposed list of biographies, and there was some criticism surrounding particular suggestions.

Elementary teachers are generally responsible for all subjects, and classes remain in one room for most activities. Teachers are well prepared. Most teachers, about 60 percent of the total, are women; but most principals and head teachers in elementary schools are men.

Teachers have ample teaching materials and audiovisual equipment. There is an excellent system of educational television and radio, and almost all elementary schools use programs prepared by the School Education Division of Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai--NHK). In addition to broadcast media, schools increasingly are equipped with computers. Although only 6.5 percent of public elementary schools had personal computers in 1986, by 1989 the number had passed 20 percent. The ministry is greatly concerned with this issue and planned much greater use of such equipment.

Virtually all elementary schoolchildren receive a full lunch at school. Although heavily subsidized by the government, both directly and indirectly, the program is not altogether free. Full meals usually consist of bread (or increasingly, of rice), a main dish, and milk. Although the program grew out of concern in the immediate postwar period for adequate nutrition, the school lunch is also important as a teaching device. Because there are relatively few cafeterias in elementary schools, meals are taken in the classroom with the teacher, providing another informal opportunity for teaching nutrition and health and good eating habits and social behavior. Frequently, students also are responsible for serving the lunch and cleaning up.

Japanese elementary schooling is acknowledged both in Japan and abroad to be excellent, but not without some problems, notably increasing absenteeism and a declining but troublesome number of cases of bullying. In addition, special provision for the many young children returning to Japan from long absences overseas is an issue of major interest. The government also is concerned with the education of Japanese children residing abroad, and it sends teachers overseas to teach in Japanese schools.

Elementary school education is seen in Japan as fundamental in shaping a positive attitude toward lifelong education. Regardless of academic achievement, almost all children in elementary school are advanced to lower-secondary schools, the second of the two compulsory levels of education.

Data as of January 1994

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Japan Table of Contents