Here’s a story that appeared a couple days ago in a major Japanese paper
on the increasing numbers of families pulling out of the public school
system in Japan, and their reasons for doing so.
For those who would like to grasp the bigger picture of the current
“education crisis” in Japan, this rather long article also offers some
good background on how dumbing down, cram schools (known as *juku*) and
breakdown of order in classrooms (*gakkyu hokai*) fit into this scenario.
Asahi Evening News – 7 Oct. 2000
BOREDOM MAIN REASON FOR PRIVATE SCHOOL EXODUS
Giving up time to play and sleep is worth it for a chance
to have fun while learning, say children and parents alike.
When children fall behind at school, it’s not necessarily because the
work is too hard for them. Sometimes it’s just the opposite.
This year, the Ministry of Education announced plans to introduce a
lighter curriculum in public schools by 2002 after it received complaints
from parents and others that the education system put too much pressure
on students. Now some students are paralyzed with boredom.
The “dumbing down” of Japan’s education system is one of the reasons that
private schools, especially junior highs, are gaining in popularity. A
worse problem, *gakkyu hokai*, which is the total breakdown of classroom
order, may be another cause.
After-school *juku* (cram schools) that claim to prepare children for
private junior high school entrance exams are thriving accordingly. Asahi
Shimbun has received stacks of letters from parents, students and
teachers on the volatile subject of *juku*. Here is a sampling:
Piano teacher, 37, Tokyo:
My son is in fifth grade of elementary school. He goes regularly to a
cram school to prepare for private junior high school entrance exams.
He’s had to give up his extracurricular activities that he used to enjoy,
and his time to play with his friends and sleep are both limited — but
even so, I feel it’s better than having him go to a public junior high
school in Tokyo.
I feel this way for two reasons. First of all, public junior and senior
high schools nowadays are absolutely chaotic. Secondly, I don’t trust the
grading system in use in the public schools.
In Tokyo’s public schools, student delinquency is simply taken for
granted. Nobody tries to do anything about it. Kids talk on cell phones
in class. They stay out all night drinking. Even their parents seem to
have given up on them. “That’s the way kids are today,” they say.
On the other hand, public junior high schools raise the grades of
students going on to public senior high schools at the expense of those
planning to enter private senior high schools.
(Editor’s note: In each public junior high school class, a fixed
proportion of students must be given the top grade of 5, a slightly
larger proportion a grade of 4, and so on, all the way down to 1.
Together with entrance exams, these grades determine admission to senior
Moreover, teachers have begun to use this grading system as a club to
beat the students with. “That sort of behavior will affect your grades,”
they threaten — as if to encourage students to fawn on them and worm
their way into their good graces for the sake of marks.
Homemaker, 44, Hyogo Prefecture:
My two childen attended a school well-known for its *sogo gakushu*
(comprehensive studies). The teachers were wonderful, but the problem was
that so much of the school day was taken up with comprehensive studies
that there was scarcely any time for the basic subjects.
When my older child was about to graduate from elementary school the
teacher assured me, and I believed it, that academic skills come
naturally with the mastering of “life skills”; therefore it was not
necessary to send the child to cram school.
Imagine my surprise when the junior high school homeroom teacher
complained to me that my child totally lacked basic academic skills! When
I talked with other mothers, I found that they had all been sending their
children to cram schools since their second year of elementary school.
That’s what I did with my younger child — who seems to prefer the
after-school study: “School’s okay, but at *juku* we learn all kinds of
things I didn’t know, so it’s really fun.”
Homemaker, 48, Fukuoka Prefecture:
My middle daughter is now a first-year university student.
Just before she graduated from elementary school, we moved. Almost all
the public junior high schools in our new neighborhood were in a state of
chaos. We had to move fast. We had her take private junior high school
admission tests, which fortunately she passed, and she enjoyed six
It was different with my youngest daughter. Shortly after we moved, her
school was hit by a wave of *gakkyu hokai* (classroom breakdown). Two or
three of the boys were running amok in class, attacking the other
children and even the teacher.
Teaching became utterly impossible. I don’t know how many PTA meetings
were held. Anyway, my daughter absolutely refused to go to a public
junior high school — and insisted on being sent to cram school.
We could not easily afford to send both girls to private schools, but a
learning environment in which children can study undistracted is surely
worth financial sacrifice. I think that unless public schools change, the
exodus into private schools will continue.
Second-year student, 17, of a private girls’ high school in Osaka:
Elementary school was difficult for me, especially the math.
What was most important was treating everyone the same. Every effort was
made to make sure everyone got through the material and nobody fell behind.
“Some students will understand something after hearing it just once;
others will need to hear it 20 times before they understand,” the
teachers would say. But what is the student who understands the first
time supposed to do during the remaining 19 explanations? The slow
students improve, but the ones who learn quickly are simply wasting their
I think it’s important to wait until everyone learns what’s being taught.
But when the lesson has to slow to the pace of kids who don’t even know
their multiplication tables, it’s terribly boring. If those who can do a
test in five minutes have to just sit there for 45 minutes, they will
inevitably lose interest in school.
Third-year student, 17, at a private high school in Yokohama:
Elementary school Japanese, math, social studies and science were all
boring. Lots of people say that. Japanese was just writing simple Chinese
characters and reading easy stories. Math was extremely basic.
At the cram school, on the other hand, they gave us novels and essays to
read, and we learned a lot of interesting word combinations. In math we
had to solve difficult problems. For kids who have a thirst for
knowledge, school is just not enough.
At elementary school, they treat everyone equally. They don’t want one
student to be different from another. The lessons are easy so that
everyone will be able to understand them. As a result, students with
genuine ability don’t have the chance to develop it. What a waste.
Second-year student, 14, at a public junior high school in Osaka:
I can’t stand kids who spend their time going to cram school and cramming
for exams. I never study. I never listen in class either. Don’t have to.
I can pass without working. The teachers say, “If only you’d try a little
harder, you could go anywhere.” That’s just noise to me.
I have some friends who are pretty bad dudes. To me, they’re a lot more
interesting than the nerds who do nothing but study.
I don’t mind kids studying because they know what they want to do in
life. “In future, I want to be such-and-such, so I’m going to a private
junior high.” That’s okay. But “I’m going to a private school to get away
from bullying” — no. People should study in order to get ahead in life.
Teacher, 41, at a junior high school in Mie Prefecture:
I’m trying to decide whether to send my elementary school daughter to
public or private junior high. I teach at a public junior high, but the
truth is I don’t have much confidence in the public school system.
First of all, there isn’t enough class time. For example, for a course
that was built around 140 hours of classroom instruction in the school
year, only 80 percent of that time is available. School events have been
Meanwhile, club activities are over-emphasized. In the sports clubs,
winning is considered everything. Training is continuous, the only breaks
are for summer’s Obon and New Year’s.
About 10 percent of the kids in the grade I teach can read almost no
kanji at all. Those are the kids who cut classes, or when they do show
up, cause trouble. You can’t hold the lessons down to their level without
boring the rest of the class. One way to save the public school system
might be to organize separate classes for advanced, intermediate and
Teacher, 37, at a junior high school in Nara Prefecture:
The public junior high school where I work is in an area where private
junior high schools are especially popular.
During the summer holidays we had lecturers come in to help us prepare
for the new, somewhat lighter curriculum being introduced in 2002.
Meanwhile, the local cram schools were busy handing out sample
end-of-term tests to their students. The samples basically came from
tests we had given in past years.
Even supposing students get good marks on these test, can we say they
have really benefitted from the exercise? Or does it merely harm those
kids who don’t attend cram schools?
On the one hand, schools are being asked to provide an education rich in
experience; on the other, there’s the prevailing view that marks are
There’s a contradiction here. As long as the marking system and senior
high school entrance exams remain what they are, I doubt that change is
Copyright 2000 Asahi Shimbun Online source