High School in Japan

High School in Japan 高校

Public high school in Japan is rigorous. Like elementary and junior high school, the high school year begins in April and runs until the following March with breaks in summer and around the New Year.

Comprehensive education ends at 16, the age when one graduates junior high school. Today, roughly 98% of Japanese students proceed to high school.

To do so, one must pass a test, unless your school is one of the few private schools that do not test between junior high and high school.

All high schools prepare their own test. Thus, in the last year of junior high school, students register for tests for the high school (s) they hope to enter, take the test in February, and if they pass will then matriculate in early April at said high school.

High School

What then to expect?

Well, Stanford professor of education Thomas Rohlen has made the case that graduates of Japanese high schools have acquired the knowledge equivalent to a graduate of an American college.

Japanese high school graduates are highly numerate and literate in a language that requires reading and writing 3,000 Chinese characters.

Results on the international PISA tests bear out the above. In 2015, out of 72 countries Japan placed 2nd in Scientific Literacy, 8th in Reading Literacy, and 5th in Mathematical Literacy. Moreover, unlike the other countries and regions that fare well, Japan is a very large country, both geographically and in terms of population. On a massive scale, Japanese public high school education provides a uniform curriculum, schools that are funded equitably, and hard-working well-educated teachers.

Keeping up with the national curriculum, however, forces nearly all students to attend cram schools (juku) after school or at night. For students without the financial means to do so, academic success can be become all but unattainable.

(The average household income of undergraduates at Tokyo University, the nation's most prestigious university, trends high. In 2012, 60% of Todai students came from families that enjoyed incomes of 9.5 million yen or more, which is more than double the national average.)

For those unable to pass a public high school entrance exam, there are private schools that cater to such students. (There are also in every city elite private schools that cater to the wealthy and or academically gifted.)

Class Size

Most classes have between 35-40 students. Classes tend to be teacher-centric, though in recent years project work and presentations - part of what make elementary education in Japan so positive - have found their way into the classroom. Still, the overriding goal of most high schools is to funnel students into colleges, which requires preparing them for college entrance exams.

High School

Extra Curricular Activities

Sports and "clubs" predominate. These are not required, but for many students the team or club activity is the most meaningful part of their high school years. Sports in particular are extremely serious and time-consuming. The club activity or bukatsu in Japanese schools mirrors Japanese work and office practice and reinforces the senpai / kohai (senior / junior) distinction of Japanese society as a whole.

Lunch

Most students will eat a bento (boxed lunch) prepared that morning by their mother or father. As an alternative, schools do provide very simple lunches for a fee.

School Facilities

Compared to schools in other countries, Japanese schools are grim. The buildings are concrete and unattractive. Heating and cooling is often courtesy of individual space heaters and fans.

That means the gym is boiling in summer, freezing in winter.

Except at private schools, the halls are worn and badly maintained. The students clean up the halls, toilets and classrooms.

Uniforms

Boys wear a dark blue or black tunic style uniform that was originally worn in Prussia (which gives you an idea of when it was last used in Europe). Girls wear a skirt, button down shirt, and blazer. In private schools, there is a bit more variety.

Some high schools do not require uniforms. They are few and far between - but do exist.

High School

Language

Aside from the English teacher, few teachers will speak any language but Japanese.

Parent-Teacher Contact

Unlike elementary school, there is little contact aside from a once a semester meeting with the teacher. To keep up with what is going on in the classroom, parents will need to rely on their children.

School Trips

High schools often take trips far afield - Hokkaido, Okinawa, even abroad. Parents will need to pay extra expenses for these excursions.

Fees

Elementary and junior high school - compulsory education - are free (i.e., paid through taxes). High school is not compulsory and therefore public schools charge tuition. Fees are charged based upon the parents’ previous year’s income. At my daughter's Kyoto public high school, we paid approximately 9,000 yen/month (roughly US$100), which is the full fee. Some students pay nothing, others a percentage of the 9,000 yen.

Overview

For people who permanently reside in Japan, what high school your child attends - international school, private school, public school, night school - is a choice that should be taken very seriously.

Non-international Japanese high school is preparing students for Japanese higher education. It is Confucian in approach: students must defer to teachers and older students, learning methods are often rote, and the opportunity for individual expression limited. Essays are never assigned, in either Japanese or foreign language classes.

Moreover, for those who hope to send their child to a non-Japanese university, the transition is difficult. The school calendar is different, the language is different, the system is different, the final product - the educated young person - different.

That said, to return to what is positive about high school in Japan, your child will become fluent in a very difficult language, competent in basic math and science, and ready for much of life in Japan.


Books on Japanese Education