Inside the cramschool pressure cooker: the juku system

Should we help our children “face the heat” (academically speaking) of the academic pressures of the educational system which is what cramschooling or “afterschooling” is about? Or whether we should “escape from the heat” which is what many of us “unschooling” and “homeschooling” our children seek to do?

My son is a fourth grader. Until this year, he had many playmates in the playground adjacent to our residential complex. Then all of sudden, it seems, he is playing alone or with the third graders and younger ones. The fourth graders and above have disappeared and no longer play here. I was told it was because beginning with fourth grade, almost every kid enters juku. And not just ANY juku. Mums prepare a dinner obento; when their kid returns home after school, after a light refreshment, it’s off to juku where they study, and eat their dinner and continue their studies till way past dark. This juku isn’t Kumon which is considered lightweight, it’s a serious afterschool prep-and-cram school that is supposed to help kids get into the best public or private schools in the area.     

Perhaps like me, you’d like to find out what the juku hype is about — what it is that our children have to “face” or to “escape” from out there in the “real world” of public and other conventional schools, — and what it takes to survive and succeed in the long-term task of educating our children in Japan.

This is what last issue’s route-map to college, and today’s feature on the Juku are all about. This piece gives us an “insider’s view” of what really goes on in a Juku, why it is regarded as so indispensable to the Japanese education, the good that we can get out of Jukus and where to find it. So before we throw out the baby with the bathwater and disdainfully say, “juku for my kids? Not in a million years” as foreigners are wont to do….read Reiko Watanabe’s feature below. She has done a fabulous and scholarly job lifting the haze surrounding the infamous Japanese institution of the Juku.

Reiko’s own two lovely girls have studied in British schools before returning to “face the heat” of the Japanese educational system. Not only has Reiko taught at a juku, but also her husband is an associate professor with the University of Tokyo, so she is particularly well-placed to comment on the local education system. I know you’ll enjoy reading this as much as I have.


The Juku System: The Other Face of Japan’s Education System

By Reiko Watanabe

Many foreigners find it incomprehensible why so many Japanese children flock to the Juku, or private after-school classes in cram schools. So I hope to examine the role of the Juku in the Japanese educational system and also consider why the Juku flourishes so today. Without understanding the role of the Juku, one essentially misses the “other half” of the Japanese education system.

Most foreigners must feel they want nothing to do with jukus. Apparently, for the foreigner, the Juku conjures up images of assembly-line style classrooms of kids handing in worksheets to their teachers, but this was not my experience. When I was a high school student, I went to a small juku with at-home atmosphere. As there were only five or six students in one class, I remember we studied quite efficiently. Besides, the bond between teachers and students there was so strong that I still keep in touch with one of the teachers. It was one of the Juku in good old days, I suppose.

Later I myself taught at a juku for a short time at a middle sized cram school for elementary, junior high and high school students. This school had maintained a pastoral atmosphere because of its owner’s philosophy and perhaps its location in Fukuoka, a rather laid-back city compared to Tokyo. The owner was a former public high school teacher who had quit because he did not like the uniformity of public high schools. He was a humanist and interacted closely and warmly with teachers, students and their parents. Students studied quite hard but enjoyed chatting and had fun with teachers during short breaks and looked happy there. For me therefore, the word juku is associated with a nice, cozy but also effective place to study.

However, most of my Tokyo university friends used to go to much more academically rigorous cram schools beginning from their elementary school days. Now their children also attend such intensive cram schools as a matter of course (the second juku generation) while parents like myself who were brought up without such severe cram school experiences, hesitate to put kids into such jukus.

The Role of the Juku

There are mainly two types of jukus:
okeikogoto (enrichment lessons)
Nowadays, all sorts of extracurricular activities are an indispensable part of the most Japanese children’s lives. Most Japanese children take up some form of okeikogoto lessons like piano, swimming, ballet and calligraphy.

This involves assistance such as supplementary studies in academic subjects. Homeschooling parents may find the juku to be a useful supplement to home-school studies. And many foreign parents do resort to jukus in Japan.

Anne Conduit, author of “Educating Andy. The Experience of a Foreign Family in the Japanese Elementary School System” wrote, “I wonder whether the Japanese achievement would be as high without the cram school system.” The top students in her son’s class (at a public elementary school in Tokyo) were all attending the more competitive cram schools while her son Andy attended Kumon, a franchising juku (see below for details)). Conduit postulated that it was a combination of the primary school and the cram school which produced such high achievements in mathematics for the Japanese(p194). I agree with her there … that without jukus, the Japanese academic level would be far below than the present level.

Another author Mary White, in her book “The Japanese Education Challenge, A Commitment to Children” wrote of an interesting episode:

“Visiting Washington, the Japanese minister of education met with the American secretary of education, who praised Japanese schooling and exhorted Americans to borrow the key to academic achievement, the excellent Japanese Juku system. A shocked silence followed, after which an aide informed the secretary that it is precisely the juku that the ministry wants to abolish, to relieve exam pressure on Japanese children. The secretary may not have been very well briefed, but like many others, he sees in the juku the harnessing of effort and commitment that Americans feel our schools don’t have. If we could only import the juku, the secretary may have felt, just as we have imported Sonys and Toyotas.”(p180)

As this episode reveals the Japanese Monbusho (Education Ministry, now known as MEXT) has not, until recent times, acknowledged the significance of the juku in the Japanese education system. Paradoxically, regardless of the Monbusho’s intentions (to abolish the Juku system), jukus have intruded further and further onto its turf. For example, seven universities in Kyoto have started employing juku teachers this spring to help their students acquire or brush up their basic academic skills (The Daily Yomiuri, June 5, 2000). The increasing dominance of the jukus is also shown by the recent debate over whether jukus should be allowed to help colleges put together their entrance exams, to which the Education Ministry finally stepped forward to say that it would not be acceptable for any juku to have control over setting the entrance exams (The Daily Yomiuri, May, 2000).
Academic excellence and Jukus

More than 40% of elementary school children in the metropolitan Tokyo area and 77.2% of junior high students attend cram schools. Their parents spend approximately 127,000 yen and 210,000 yen a year respectively on the juku (source: “Report on Children’s Education Fee in 1996 fiscal year” by the Education Ministry). Where children go to a cram school specializing in junior high entrance examinations, it is said to cost nearly 2 million yen for the last three years of elementary school days.

The key reasons why Japanese children started to attend cram schools are mainly to keep up with school classes, to prepare for entrance examinations and to follow friends who already go to cram schools. According to some Monbusho and Gyosei surveys, children and parents are in general satisfied with cram schools because children’s grades usually go up with the help of cram school teachers, and because cram school teachers tend to be more dynamic and enthusiastic than ordinary school teachers. Children also enjoy their interactions with friends and teachers there.

Academic jukus can be roughly divided into the five categories below:
1. Yobikos or big cram schools specializing in entrance exams
2. Locally-based middle- or small-sized cram schools
3. Schools for salvaging dropouts or avoiding school children (free schools, etc.)
4. Franchising cram schools
5. Other miscellaneous types of cram schools

To follow onto Reiko’s Annotated Guide to the Juku Jungle of famous and not-so-famous cram schools, go to URL: 

Other Related Internet Links
Jukus & Yobikos by Shoji Sugita. He looks at what is studied at Nichinoren juku, its cost, etc. URL:  

What Causes Examination Wars? By Shuichi Fujimori  


Originally published in the


Copyright Reiko Watanabe and Aileen Kawagoe

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