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Education in Japan

A Comprehensive Guide About the Education System and International Schools

If you are looking for excellent education or top international schools, you will find them easily in Japan. The country continually scores high in global rankings of education systems around the world. Whether you enroll your child in public or private schools, they will most likely be influenced heavily by the Japanese education system’s strong emphasis on communal learning, morality, and well-rounded social development.

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Whether you are moving to Japan with children or you plan to start a family there, many expats will want to know about the best schools and higher education institutions in the country. Japan is known worldwide for its high academic standards. This can be both a pro and a con. It is a pro because such high academic standards have helped shaped Japan into the highly advanced, innovative society that it is today. At the same time, this need to succeed can be seen as a con because of the immense pressure students often feel, especially in relation to passing exit and entrance exams.

As foreigners, expat students have the same rights to attend free public schools just like native Japanese students. The only fees required will be those for uniforms and required school materials. Public school instruction is in Japanese, so some expat families may opt for private or international schools so as to continue their child’s education in English or their home language. Keep in mind that private and international schools are nearly five to six times the cost of the few fees mandated at public schools.

The Education System in Japan

The education system in Japan is one of the best in the world. When comparing educational quality across the globe, the island country consistently ranks in the Top 5, often claiming the first or second spot. This feat is thanks in large part to the school system’s emphasis on developing its pupils as “whole people,” rather than being able to simply recite facts and figures.

Expats may be surprised to find that schools, like jobs, often play a more central role in Japanese society than is found throughout other parts of the world. However, while this does create an innovative and high advanced population, there is also a downside. In addition to having one of the best education systems in the world, Japan also holds the sad title for one of the highest suicide rates among students 14-19, due in large part to academic success pressures.

Education Facts in Japan

  • The Japanese school system has a heavy emphasis on teaching its pupils good morals and ethics. In fact, morals and ethics are actually taught as a course subject with a textbook and specific class time.
  • Students do not take any exams until they are ten years old (Grade 5). Instead, from Grade 1—5 they just have small tests.
  • In order to understand and respect the Japanese culture, students take formal courses on Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and haiku during their schooling.
  • Public schools do not employ janitors or custodians. Instead, students are broken up into small teams and tasked with cleaning the school—including the kitchens and bathrooms.
  • It is most common for students to have lunch in their classroom with their teacher. This is meant to build a strong rapport between the students and teacher.

What is the Education System Like in Japan?

Compulsory schooling in Japan lasts for nine years from when the child is six years old until they are about 15. This covers Grades 1–9 or, in westernized terms, elementary and middle school. High school/upper secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, but nearly 99% of students attend.

The most common subjects for students to study are:

  • Japanese language;
  • mathematics;
  • science;
  • social studies;
  • music;
  • crafts;
  • physical education;
  • home economics (such as sewing and cooking).

In addition to traditional Japanese, students also learn how to write in kana, which are the phonetic characters derived from kanji.

A strong emphasis is made throughout Japanese schooling to create “whole people.” This is done by special emphasis on students learning to respect nature, animals, and people. They are also taught how to be compassionate, generous, and empathetic, as well as qualities like self-control and justice.

What are the School Systems like in Japan?

Education is broken up into three main schooling systems:

  • Elementary school: Grade 1–6
  • Middle school/lower secondary school: Grade 7–9
  • High school/upper secondary school: Grade 10–12

When students enter lower and upper secondary schools, their grade level starts back at one. For example, you may hear a 12-year-old student referred to as being in “Grade 1 of middle school” or a 15-year-old being in “Grade 1 of high school.”

The school system between public and private institutions is largely the same. As it is in many countries, one of the main differences between public and private schools is cost: public schools require a few fees, while private schools are nearly five times more expensive. With public schools, tuition is free, but parents will need to buy materials such as uniforms, backpacks, and specified writing utensils. Private schools, on the other hand, cost an average 2,000,000 JPY (18,000 USD) per student just for tuition alone. Public school classes are also taught in Japanese, while students attending private schools have the option of taking courses in English.

The School Year, Week, and Hours

The school year in Japan is year-round. It starts at the beginning of April and goes until late March. Students start school at age six. The school week spans from Monday to Friday, but many schools also offer optional classes on Saturdays. Because the pressure to achieve academically is so important in Japan, many Japanese students attend Saturday classes, which gives the impression that the school week is six days long.

Schools will consist of two or three terms. They are separated by short breaks in spring and winter, and a longer break in the summer.

School hours are generally from about 8:00/8:30 until 15:00/16:00 depending on the school and student’s age. However, Japanese schools offer many extracurricular classes, clubs, and workshops outside of these standard hours. Therefore, it is common to see children returning home from school in the evening.

In some prefectures, especially in rural areas, the official start of school starts before 8:00 with a group walk to class. Children are given specific times in which their teacher-led group will walk by their home and pick them up (times such as 7:39 or 7:51). Times are allocated based on where the students live in relation to the school.

School Ages

Compulsory schooling begins in elementary school. However, many students enroll in nursery/kindergarten/preschool beforehand.

School Name Grade Level Student’s Age
Yōchien (幼稚園) Nursery school 3–6 years old
Shōgakkō (小学) Elementary school 6–12 years old
Chūgakkō (中学) Middle school 12–15 years old
Kōkō (高校) High school 15–18 years old
Daigaku (大学) University 18+ years old
Senmongakkō (専 門 学校) Vocational school 18+ years old

 

Grading Scale

Grading systems in Japan may vary slightly from school to school, but on average this is the grading scale your student should see:

Grade Scale Description
A+ 90–100 shū (秀)/outstanding
A 80–89 yū (優)/superior
B 70–79 ryō (良)/good
C 60–69 ka (可)/fair
D 50–59 nin (認)/approved
F 0–59 fuka (不可)/bad or fail

Be advised that receiving an A+ is rare.

Exams

One infamous aspect of Japanese schooling is its exams and the extreme importance placed upon them. For some, the pressure of these exams can start before they turn one year old with an entrance exam for daycares and kindergartens (read more in the section below).

However, it is the exams to get into secondary schools and universities that are the most strenuous. Students throughout the country even call these tests shiken jigoku (試験地獄), which translates to “exam hell.” Many Japanese students enroll in afterschool workshops to help them study for these exams and it is not uncommon to see young children walking home late at night after finishing one of these courses. Parents also enroll students in special “cram schools” just to prepare for these exams. Students begin studying for these exams anywhere from one to two years in advance.

The outcome of these exams not only determine a student’s academic career but can also heavily influence their job prospects. Unfortunately, the pass rate for these exams is just 50–70%. Students may retake the exam, but only in the following year. However, for many students, not passing the exam means they are unable to attend the university of their choice, which can be devastating in such an academically minded culture.

The pressure to excel in these exams, combined with their difficulty, has sadly led to Japan’s shockingly high suicide rate among students 14–19. Japan has taken strides in recent years to curb this trend. While the number of suicides has decreased slightly, partially due to the foreign presence in the market and less of a need to score so highly on the exams, it is still a tragic factor of the country’s education system.

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Daycare and Kindergarten

The concepts of daycare, preschool, and kindergarten are largely western-based, but recent years have seen a rise in their popularity in Japan. Neither preschool, nor kindergarten is mandatory, but over 85% of students enroll in at least two years of kindergarten before compulsory primary schooling begins.

To begin understanding how daycare, preschool, and kindergarten work in Japan, it is important to know the different terms and their English equivalent.

  • Yochien (幼稚園)—nursery, preschool, kindergarten
  • Hoiku (保育)—daycare
  • Hoikujo (保育所)—nursery/daycare school
  • Ninka (認可)—authorized daycare facility
  • Mu ninka (無認可)/ninka gai (認可外)—unauthorized daycare facility
  • Ninshou (認証)—government-certified daycares

It is essential to bear in mind when sifting through childcare options in Japan that the English terms “daycare” and “nursery” are interchangeable, as are “kindergarten” and “preschool.”

There is no such thing as junior or senior kindergarten. Instead, there is just the Japanese equivalent of preschool and kindergarten. Parents can enroll their children in whichever they see fit. The educational approach of daycare focuses on play and socializing children with each other. Yochien/kindergartens focus more on developing a child’s motor skills, mental reasoning, social and emotional development, as well as friendship and responsibility.

It is also worth noting that a downside to daycares in Japan is that hours may be limited to just four hours a day, and children are not permitted in if they are sick. However, kindergartens and preschools can have extended hours almost until 19:00 and they will allow sick kids.

What Age Do Kids Start Kindergarten or Nursery?

Children can enroll in hoiku/daycare before they turn one year old. They can stay in daycare until they are five. The word hoiku can also be used to refer to a kindergarten. Children can enroll in a hoiku at three years of age.

Things to Know

A very traditional society, Japan has seen a recent shortage of daycare facilities ever since there has been a spike in working mothers. Therefore, competition to get into daycare is stiff. It involves an entrance exam (identifying shapes and colors) as well as a points-based system to identify those with the greatest need. Points differ from school to school, but here is a look at an example of need-based daycare points:

  • A parent applying for daycare while on maternity leave: +10 points
  • A parent working 7+ hours a day for 16+ days per month: +40 points
  • A parent working 7+ hours a day for 20+ days per month: +50 points
  • Living with grandparents (whether they are employed or unemployed): -6 points
  • Not a resident of the ward in which you are applying: -10 points

Daycare and Kindergarten Fees 

The school cost for daycares and kindergartens in Japan will fluctuate depending on where you live. On average, public daycare is about 10,000 JPY (90 USD) per month, while a private daycare is between 40–60,000 JPY (370–550 USD). Kindergartens and preschools range anywhere from 20–80,000 JPY (180–730 USD).  Your income will also be considered when calculating your child’s tuition.

Your chosen institution will also give you a list of items you must purchase for your children such as uniforms, specific types of bags/backpacks, bento boxes, etc.

Primary and Secondary Schools

If you are moving to Japan with children, you will want to know how to find the best primary and secondary schools for your students. However, in Japan, the prefecture and ward in which you live largely determine the school your student can attend. If you intend to enroll your child in a Japanese public school, it is a good idea to research the schools associated with specific wards before officially settling-in. However, keep in mind that academic standards throughout the country are extremely high, and children should do well no matter which school they attend.

One thing you should be aware of is that it is cultural for a school community to accept you as family. Be prepared to be asked to serve on a committee at some point. You will also have regular contact with your child’s teacher. Most teachers send students home with a “communication notebook,” which serves as a tool for parents and teachers to communicate. Home visits by teachers to talk about a student’s progress are also not unheard of.

Do not be dissuaded by the state of Japanese school buildings. While the learning inside is of extremely high caliber, Japan is often criticized for its less than glamorous, almost derelict, looking buildings. The outsides will be stark and bare, and having a nice yard is rare. The insides will look worn and used. This is partially due to the Japanese school policy of not hiring cleaning staff and instead relying on students for the upkeep of the property.

Some Top Primary and Secondary Schools in Japan

  • Tokyo Metropolitan Kokusai High School
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Asuka High School
  • Nanzan Elementary School
  • Nobeyama Elementary School

Class Structure

Class sizes in Japan are large. The average is about 38 students per class. Each class will have an assigned homeroom teacher. They will receive instruction in their various subjects by different teachers, although it will be the teachers who move from classroom to classroom instead of the students. Instruction is typically in the form of lectures. Informational technology is gaining in popularity in Japanese classrooms, so do not be surprised if your school requires its students to have a laptop or tablet.

If your child goes to public school in Japan, they will receive instruction in Japanese. However, in recent years the Japanese government has mandated that English be introduced at the primary school level so that pupils can start to retain the language more easily.

Primary School (Elementary School)

In primary school, students start learning basic core subjects such as mathematics, social studies, homemaking, and science. They will also learn haiku and Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) as a means to appreciate Japanese culture. In addition, a strong emphasis is placed on morality and community building, so much so that formal courses are given on the subject. Most elementary school students participate in after school clubs or Saturday activities.

Secondary School (High School)

Secondary schooling is split into lower and upper secondary school. Lower secondary school covers Grades 7–9; upper secondary school covers Grades 10–12. When a student starts lower or secondary school, they are considered starting at Grade 1. For example, a student entering a lower secondary school at Grade 7 is actually called a “Grade 1 lower secondary/junior high school student.” Likewise, a student in Grade 11 is called a “Grade 2 upper secondary/senior high school student.”

Upper secondary school is voluntary although nearly 99% of the student population attends. Students will study the same subjects that they did in primary school. Teachings will grow more intense with each grade level. Only foreign language courses may remain slightly less intense, although the Japanese government is gradually introducing a more intense study of English.

In secondary school, students will also begin more intense studies for their exit exams. It is not unheard of for students to study for these exams for multiple years leading up to the tests.

School Cost

Tuition for public primary and secondary schools is free, even for foreign students. However, you will be required to cover some costs for lunches, school materials, uniforms, and contributions to the PTA. Your school should provide a detailed list of everything that your student needs. On the whole, students carry identical materials and dress exactly the same. This goes along with Japan’s communal mindset as it is believed that if students have the same materials and wear the same outfits then there is less of a chance of class or status division.

School items you will be required to buy include backpacks, school hat (boushi/子), inside shoes, sports uniform, tote bag, etc. All of these extra costs should run about 4,000–6,000 JPY (35–55 USD) per year.

Requirements to Enroll

Foreign students in Japan have the same rights as native students. To enroll your student, you will need to register your address with your local municipal office. Once you have done this, you will be assigned a specific school in your municipality. The requirements your child must meet are:

  • appropriate age for the school year to which they are enrolling;
  • enrollment application form;
  • transcripts from previous school;
  • residence card.

International Schools

Although easily the most expensive schooling option in Japan, some expat parents may want to look into the best international schools for their children so that they receive a more global education or do not fall behind the standards of their home country.

Native Japanese families are also turning to international education more and more as the global education opens kids’ future abilities to study and work abroad. International schools also do not come with the same academic pressure or “exam hell” that is seen in the traditional Japanese education system.

Schools in Japan for International Students

Given Japan’s ever-increasing foreign population, it is now easy to find international schools in nearly every prefecture throughout the country. In total there are about 40 accredited international schools throughout Japan. If you are unsure whether the school you are looking at is accredited or not, you can use the database by the Japan Council of International Schools.

Unsurprisingly, expats will find the greatest amount of international schools in large cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe. The cities with fewer options are Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Sendai, and Sapporo.

One benefit of an international school is the language. International schools in Japan can largely be divided into two categories: American and British schools. This relates to the offered curriculum as well as the language. Most international schools teach pupils in English, which is another reason some Japanese families enroll their children in the schools. However, expat families from select non-English speaking countries will also find schools instructing in their native languages such as German or French.

Another benefit is smaller class sizes and learning that can be tailored to a child’s special needs. There are public schools in Japan that specifically cater to students with developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities. However, with an international school, special needs students can stay with the student body while also receiving individualized care.

Select International Schools in Japan

British Schools

  • The British School in Tokyo
  • Michael’s International School

French Schools

  • Lycée Français International de Tokyo

German Schools

  • Deutsche Schule Tokyo Yokohama

Indian Schools

  • Global Indian International School Tokyo

North American Schools

  • American School in Japan (Tokyo)
  • Canadian International School Tokyo

Catholic Schools

  • Seisen International School (all-girls school)
International School Requirements and Admission

Requirements to enroll in an international school will vary from school to school. Many will require students to pass an entrance exam. In addition, you will also need to provide

  • your residence card;
  • student’s residence card;
  • transcripts from previous school;
  • enrollment application form;
  • your address so that the bus can pick up your child.

In addition to these requirements, you will also be required to pay a registration fee should your child be accepted. This is usually around 300,000 JPY (2,700 USD).

International School Tuition Fees

International schools are by far the most expensive option when comparing schooling options in Japan. Annual tuition averages around 1.5 to 2.3 million JPY (13,700–21,000 USD) per year as well as extra fees for uniforms, school materials, etc. Be sure to factor in the registration fee.

Higher Education

Given the great importance the country puts on qualifying exams, it is not surprising that many of Asia’s top universities are found in Japan. These institutions can be separated into three major categories:

  • Traditional universities: These are typical four-year institutions that are found throughout the rest of the globe. Universities can be national, public, or private. National universities are typically the largest and supported by federal taxpayer money. Public universities are run by specific prefectures and supported by taxes only from that prefecture. In addition, students from a specific prefecture may be required to pay less tuition than a student from a different prefecture. Private universities do not receive any state funding and are therefore the more expensive option and also the smallest of the three university types.
  • Short-term universities: These schools are typically only two-years long. They are specialist schools, but with more focus on studies rather than vocation.
  • Specialist schools (called senmon-gakko): These institutions are similar to short-term universities, but with greater emphasis on vocational training. Their teachings range from hairdressing and care-specialists to business. These are often easier to get into than traditional universities and therefore good options for students who do not score high enough on their secondary school exams. These schools are also the cheapest of the higher education options.

Similar to primary and secondary schools, higher education institutions in Japan begin the academic year in April and end in March. There are usually two semesters with breaks in September and March.

Top Studies for International Students in Japan 

There are a variety of degrees you can study at Japanese universities, but there are a few specialties that are particularly popular for international students coming to the island country. Most obvious is for those looking to study the Japanese language. After that, students interested in the following fields will also find a lot of opportunities in Japanese universities:

  • interior design
  • animation
  • producing
  • game creation
  • architecture

Requirements for Higher Education in Japan

If you did not already assume this, Japanese universities have one of the most competitive admissions processes in the world. However, Japanese universities are also desperate to diversify their student body (non-Asian students remain the lowest enrollment numbers) and have recently been ranked as one of the most popular study abroad destinations in the world.

The general requirements for a foreign student to enroll in a Japanese university are:

  • completion of twelve years of study including primary and secondary education;
  • valid passport;
  • knowledge of the Japanese language (the required proficiency level will vary by institution, but most require a minimum of an N2 level);
  • completion of the Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU) exam.

The EJU is held twice yearly in Japan and in select foreign cities around the world. The exam covers topics related to Japan in language, science, social studies, and mathematics. Questions are available in English or Japanese.

Other requirements you will have to meet as a foreign student will be dependent on whether or not you are accepted by a Japanese university. These requirements will pertain to obtaining a student visa. In order to qualify you will need:

  • an offer of acceptance from a Japanese university;
  • Certificate of Eligibility submitted by the Japanese university;
  • proof of your financial stability to live and study in Japan;
  • proof of accommodation in Japan;
  • valid passport;
  • passport-sized photo.

It will take about two to three months for this visa to process. Student visas will permit you to work and study, but the work will be limited to 28 hours per week.

Best Universities for International Students in Japan

These are some of the top universities for international students looking to study in Japan:

  • Tokyo University
  • Sophia University (Tokyo)
  • Waseda University (Tokyo)
  • Doshisha University (Kyoto)
  • Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Beppu)
University Tuition Fees in Japan

If you are wondering how much it costs to study in Japan as an international student, you may be surprised to learn that it is fairly affordable, especially when compared to institutions in Europe or North America. National universities cost around 360,000–585,800 JPY (3,300–5,400 USD) per year at the undergraduate level. These will also include a one-time registration fee of about 220,000 JPY (2,000 USD). At the graduate level, average yearly tuition hovers around 600,000–650,000 JPY (5,500–6,000 USD). Private universities will cost about twice as much. It is also possible for international students to apply for scholarships to help alleviate costs.

In addition to tuition fees, foreign students will need to factor in the living costs of being in Japan. On average, single-room student accommodations can be found for 20–30,000 JPY (180–275 USD) per month, which should include basic utilities. Depending on where you live, you may also be expected to pay upwards of 90,000 JPY (830 USD), so be sure to look into the living costs when researching Japanese universities.

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Language Schools

Unless you are already proficient in Japanese, it will be imperative to enroll in a language school upon your arrival to the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan has one of the worst English language proficiencies in all of Asia. This has improved slightly in recent years as Japan becomes more and more open to foreigners and international businesses. Generally, though, expats will need to know a decent amount of Japanese in order to live and work in the country.

Many language schools will offer visa sponsorship in conjunction with their courses. This is especially useful for expats who want to move to Japan, but do not yet have a job, nor are registered with a higher education institution.

Class types range from individual tutors to group courses. As this is an important decision in a country where knowing the language is also essential to qualify for a visa, let InterNations GO! help find the right course for you.

Language School Fees

Fees for language courses will vary depending on many factors such as your individual needs, age, location of the school, and length of study. Below are some sample prices from schools in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Okinawa:

Course, Location JPY USD
3-month intensive course, Tokyo 190,000 1,750
6-month business language course, Tokyo 460,000 4,200
1-year standard course, Okinawa 760,000 7,000
1-year standard course, Kyoto 870,000 8,000
3-month intensive course, Kyoto 140,000 1,300

 

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Updated on: November 08, 2019
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