Are Japanese students less industrious than their international counterparts?

Excerpted from Child Research Net and Benesse’s data:

Although Japanese children have a reputation, and an image, as some of the most studious children in the world, in reality the declining birthrate in Japan has eased competition for places in top schools. As a result of these factors, a rising number of children have stopped studying altogether. Not only have their school hours decreased, but many also no longer do enough studying at home. Consequently, their academic performance has begun to drop off noticeably. Japan’s ranking on international tests of scholastic ability, such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), has been declining year by year.

The dramatic drop in scholastic performance prompted a sense of crisis at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which began taking numerous steps to try to improve performances. In 2007, MEXT carried out nationwide achievement tests for students in elementary and junior high schools, for the first time in 43 years. These tests were intended both to provide a clear picture of children’s educational ability and to provide a basis for developing new educational guidelines. In January 2008, the Central Council for Education, a group that helps the Japanese government develop education policies, issued a report entitled “Regarding Reform of the National Curriculum Guidelines,” which sketched out policies for future reform of the education system. This report was used as the basis for the revised national curriculum guidelines which MEXT communicated to all elementary and junior high schools, in March. The new guidelines place great emphasis on “zest for living” (ikiru chikara)–a new educational buzzword–and mandate four basic changes: (1) an increase in the total number of lesson hours, (2) increases in the extent of subject matter covered, (3) English language-related activities in elementary schools, and (4) increased instruction in “moral values.” Furthermore, the focus of education is not simply to have children memorize basic information, but to help them develop the ability to apply the information that they have learned. These new national curriculum guidelines are scheduled to be implemented at elementary schools in 2011 and at junior high schools in 2012 and some portions of the new curriculum will be adopted early starting next year (2009). In this way, Japan is introducing major changes to its educational system and content.
(2) Survey of children–A need for services that address each individual’s needs

The policies of MEXT are being combined with the efforts of teachers to reverse the drift away from study of recent years. Benesse Educational Research and Development (BERD) Center has conducted surveys of children nationwide, entitled “Basic Research on Academic Performance,” which indicate that during the 1990s there was a steady decline in the number of hours that children spent in education, but that since the start of the 2000s, the number of hours has been rising. An increasing number of students replied that they begin studying early for scheduled tests in school, they pay attention in class, and their attitude towards learning is very diligent. These answers reflect a very desirable trend.

Nevertheless, an international comparison suggests that Japanese children still have less interest in learning than children in many other countries. Figure 1 shows a comparison of attitudes towards studying among children in various cities around the world. When asked whether they “review school lessons on the same day as the class,” and whether they “research things that interest them, even if they are not related to lessons at school,” a lower percentage of children in Tokyo responded in the affirmative than any of the other cities studied. This indicates that Japan still faces a challenge, in trying to find ways to motivate children to study. In the past, the reason that most Japanese children gave for studying was “to get into a better school.” But nowadays, succeeding on an entrance examination is not the only goal that children have for getting an education; indeed, the range of answers is broadening. Considering this trend, it is important that educational efforts be flexible and capable of addressing the needs of each individual student, and essential that learning materials be developed to address not only these needs, but the varying abilities and learning tendencies of each child.

Figure 1: Overview of Study Activities at Home

Source: “Basic Research on Academic Performance–Report on International Survey of Six Cities,” BERD, 2006; data covers children aged 10-11


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