The Spread of School Education in Japan - Papers & Essays



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The Spread of School Education in Japan


Compulsory education in Japan extends from the age of six to fifteen and covers six years of elementary school education and three years of junior high school education. Not only are a large percentage of children who are subject to compulsory education enrolled in school, but actual attendance rates in elementary and junior high school are also high. For many years, the percentage of children receiving compulsory education has been nearly 100% (Figure 1). According to the PISA 2000 survey of low school participation among 15-year olds, Japan had the second highest attendance rate after Hong Kong (Figure 2).

In FY 2008, 97.8% of junior high school graduates advanced to senior high school, the second phase of the secondary education. Furthermore, a large percentage of senior high school students continued on to an institute of higher education upon graduation: 76.8% advanced to either junior college, university, or a vocational school (Figure 3).

As this indicates, Japan has one of the highest school education participation rates in the world. Attending some kind of school is considered to be the norm for children nowadays. Widespread participation in school education, however, did not happen overnight, but was, in fact, a long process. Needless to say, prior to the establishment of the school system in Japan in 1872, attending school was not the rule, nor was it for some time even after schools were established. How have Japanese people regarded school education, from the time when heretofore nonexistent schools were suddenly incorporated into daily life to the present, some 140 years later?

This paper examines the process of the spread of school education in light of statistics on enrollment and advancement.

When attending school was not considered the norm for all children

The Japanese school system, modeled after the Western school system, was established in September, 1872. The plan called for dividing the nation into 53,760 school districts and setting up one elementary school in each district. The plan was not fully realized, however, but the number of elementary schools actually established when the school system began operation three years later in 1875 was about the same as it is today (Figure 4). This is because, in each school district, prominent local residents used their influence to establish an elementary school in their region.

On the other hand, schools were also the objects of the popular protests, and sometimes even destroyed. The grievances mainly concerned the financial burden of obligatory payments by the local school district to establish and maintain schools, the high tuition, and a curriculum that did not meet the needs of the local people.

As a result, the number of children studying at school did not increase as planned. Rather than attending the elementary schools that were made obligatory for all Japanese citizens, many chose to go to terakoya (i.e. private educational institutions) where they could learn reading, writing, and the abacus for a reasonable monthly fee. Furthermore, the idea that education was not necessary for girls and the children of farming families was deeply ingrained, and working was deemed to be more important for children.

This troubling situation prompted the government to quickly implement education reform that flexibly combined both conciliatory measures and a hard-line approach. While it recognized students of private educational institutions, those tutored at home, or those enrolled in public school less than 16 weeks a year as "enrolled students," at the same time, it strongly urged public school attendance.

A legal turning point came with the Third Primary School Act in 1900, which further stressed the obligation of parents and guardians to ensure that children between the ages of six and thirteen complete four years of elementary school. Furthermore, the revision made tuition free and abolished final exams for advancement to the next grade. It clearly established the obligation to send children to school, barring an exemption or special exception due to illness, poverty, disability or other such circumstances, and at the same time, stronger administrative control reinforced compliance. At this time, teachers and bureaucrats were known to visit each house in their district to urge school attendance.

According to trends in the school enrollment rate defined as the percentage of six- to thirteen-year old children who are enrolled in or have graduated from ordinary elementary-school (Figure 5), the school enrollment rate had been rising from the 1890s, which indicates that the Primary School Act of 1900 did not exert a major effect on the school enrollment: With the existence of schools accepted as a matter of course and the synergistic effect of repeated reforms, school enrollment increased as attending school became a normal part of everyday life for children. The increase was also due to efforts to attract students by, for example, teaching girls sewing, waiving tuition, allowing students to attend school while babysitting, or teaching a high-demand practical skill like the abacus. In FY1929, the gender gap in school enrollment was eliminated and overall enrollment itself reached 99.5% (Figure 5).

Nevertheless, the school enrollment rate remained only a record of nominal student enrollment. A look at the daily attendance rate, or the average daily attendance of ordinary elementary school students subject to compulsory education, and the graduation rate, or percentage of entering students who remain in school until graduation, reveals that in FY1929, the daily attendance rate at ordinary elementary schools was 96.6% and the percentage of entering students who graduated was 92.5% (Figure 6).

It is generally thought that, around 1930, ordinary elementary school graduation came to mark one life phase, but the above figures indicate that this was not the case for a small number of children. Despite an attendance rate of about 100%, nearly 10% of children could not manage to continue attending school on a daily basis until graduation. Moreover, given that this represented approximately one in ten children, these children were a visible presence in society. They remained visible for some time in the postwar period and came to be labeled "long-term absentees."

When attending school was considered the norm for all children

The daily attendance rate, for which figures are not available during WWII and the immediate postwar chaos, never exceeded 98% in the postwar period (Figure 6). The figure 98% represents a critical border line, as a drop in the daily attendance rate to 98% or less suggests the occurrence of an unforeseen situation such as an outbreak of the flu. In Japan today, the daily attendance rate rarely falls to 98%. For some time after WWII, the daily attendance rate remained at 98% or less due to a small number of students who stayed out of school. These were children of families who were willing, but unable to send them to school for lack of daily food, or from households where work took priority over attending school.

Regardless of whether families and children themselves might consciously decide not to attend school, society at large had come to view attending school as the norm. As a result, the small number of absentee students came to be seen as an even larger problem. Social workers criticized surveys using the daily attendance rate, which is an average of the majority of children who attend daily and long-term absentees, because they did not specify the number of continually absent children. "Long-term absentees" were thus defined as students who were absent 50 days or more per school year, and in FY1952, surveys began to recognize the existence of such students and included them as a category (Figure 7). Unlike during the prewar period when it was taken for granted that any community would inevitably include some absentees, the move to urge absentees to attend school spread and took root throughout all of Japan.

When did these long-term absentees disappear? Trends in the long-term absentee rate, which is based on the percentage of enrolled students who are long-term absentees, show that long-term absenteeism declined among both elementary and junior high school students up to the second half of the 1970s (Figure 7). When regions located throughout Japan with a high long-term absentee rate such as fishing and mining areas, etc., are compared with other regions, the gap narrowed as the rates approached the same level. In the latter half of the 1970s, it was considered the norm for children to attend school and complete compulsory education.

When attending school is considered the norm, but some students do not attend

Ironically, although school attendance was considered to be the norm, in the late 1950s, clinical practice in psychiatry, psychology, child welfare discovered a growing number of children who were actually unable to attend school. These children who were said to be suffering from "school phobia," "school refusal," or "non-attendance. In fact, the long-term absentee rate increased from the beginning of the 1980s (Figure 7).

During an era when attending school was not considered the norm, no particular meaning was attached to non-attendance in itself. Now, however, when attending school has become the norm and the ratio of students advancing to higher education is steadily increasing (Figure 3) non-attendance is given serious significance. Children who are not attending school bear frequent witness to their pain in writings and interviews. Moreover, even though we profess to want a society tolerant of different lifestyles and we are becoming accepting of school non-attendance as an alternative lifestyle, the individual is increasingly being forced to assume responsibility for attending or not attending school as matter of individual choice. More and more, school non-attendance is seen as personal problem of lifestyle, and as this perception becomes entrenched, we can expect that each non-attending child will have to assume a greater burden for this alone.

Reflecting on history, we see that divergent definitions of school and school attendance have been constructed depending on the particular era and based on views of people representing various positions. What is school? What kind of school for whom? How does the matter of attending school or not differ for certain people? What are the differences in awareness among people who consider attending school to be the norm? We will have to reexamine what appears to be self-evident. And when doing so, to what extent can we listen to the voices of those who are most central-the children? In Japan today, where the justifications for school and school attendance are accepted as self-evident, it seems to me that only the voices of school system planners are getting louder.