Monbusho and the National Curriculum

This case study excerpt was retrieved from the ERIC database:

 The Educational System in Japan: Case Study Findings, June 1998 by Douglas Trelfa


The Development and Implementation of
Education Standards in Japan

(Part 1 of 5)

By Douglas Trelfa

Research Methodology

The field research on national standards focused primarily on interviews and conversations held with teachers, administrators, students, and parents, as well as on observations in classrooms, on school premises, and in everyday settings. All interviews were conducted in Japanese, tape recorded, and later transcribed and translated into English for storage and analysis.

At the primary site, Naka City, Douglas Trelfa conducted all of the interviews and observations pertaining to the topic of national standards, except for a few interviews with officials atMonbusho and those with school board members and professors of mathematics education, which were conducted by Eileen Wu. Naoko Moriyoshi collected interview and observation data at the schools in Minami City, while Gerald LeTendre collected the interview and observation data in Kita City. Wu, Moriyoshi, and LeTendre shared their data with the author, and these data were included in the analysis, and are reflected in this chapter.

In pursuit of information on national standards, the four researchers conducted 31 interviews at academic high schools, 9 at vocational high schools, 43 at junior high schools, and 15 at elementary schools. Of the total number of interviews pertaining to this topic, approximately 15 were held in Minami City and 19 in Kita City. In addition, approximately 32 classroom and general observations were included in the data analysis. Printed information obtained from schools, school boards, education research institutes, and Monbusho was also integrated into research findings in this chapter.

All introductions to schools were arranged through the National Institute for Educational Research in Japan and cleared with the proper local school boards. Many of the Japanese interviewees appeared uncomfortable at first with the unstructured interview format. Most requested a list of questions before the interview. Consequently, many of the interviewers began quite formally, and most interviewees appeared tense or reserved at first. However, the researchers found that as the interview progressed, the interviewees became less tense and were able to talk freely and at length.

Another factor contributing to the initial tension in the interviews was the fact that nearly all of the interviews were conducted in principals’ offices. Third parties, such as principals, vice-principals, or teachers, were present during many of the interviews. The interviews with students were all conducted as group interviews, with all but one being supervised by a principal or vice-principal. No interviews for this topic were held outside the school. It is unlikely, therefore, that critical perspectives were adequately represented in this research.

We believe that our sample includes students of above average ability and consisted mostly of student council members. Teachers were often selected on the basis of availability on the particular day we were visiting and their willingness to cooperate. In most cases, the interviews with teachers were conducted with teachers whose classrooms we observed. Almost all parents interviewed were members of the PTA.

Monbusho and The National Curriculum

The Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho) plays a central role in the development and maintenance of national education standards in Japan. The Ministry develops national curricular guidelines which comprise the educational standards. In addition to the national curricular guidelines, the Ministry enforces academic standards by certifying textbooks, overseeing regional and national entrance examinations, and regulating the training of teachers.


Standards of education in Japan are based on the Monbusho curricular guidelines. Monbusho develops and revises national curricular guidelines approximately every 10 years. This has been the case since the end of World War II when the first course of study, based on an American model, was introduced. These 10-year revisions have allowed Monbusho to respond to changes in national priorities in education.

Revisions of the Monbusho curriculum are developed by Monbusho-led review groups that consist of Monbusho officials and nationally-recognized education authorities. The content of these meetings are widely publicized.

Revisions of the curriculum are first published as a set of proposed curricular guidelines. The proposed curricular guidelines have typically consisted of the following: a survey assessing the old curriculum, a delineation of new curriculum goals, a proposal for a new curriculum, and an evaluation of the proposal by an in-service teachers’ group. For a period of 3 years following the initial publication of the proposed guidelines, Monbusho finalizes and conducts tests of the new curriculum at selected schools. This gradual approach allows time for dissemination and ample time for schools to implement the curricular reforms.


The first post-war Monbusho curriculum was implemented in 1947 after the United States returned sovereign powers to Japan with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. This curriculum emphasized life experiences and practical knowledge. The second national curriculum, which was implemented in 1958, emphasized basic academic skills, particularly in arithmetic and Japanese. Monbusho continued the policy of higher academic standards with the third curriculum, published in 1968. This curriculum also reflected Monbusho’s attempt to modernize the Japanese education system. As part of the modernization effort, Monbusho sought to integrate the junior high school and elementary school curricula more effectively and to improve the curricula in all subjects. Improvements in math and science education were integral parts of the modernization effort.

By the late 1970s, the Japanese Teachers’ Union and others began expressing concern over what they called “educational overheating” (kyoiku no kanetsuka). According to these critics, Japanese students were studying excessively hard because of the increasing focus on entrance examinations and entrance into highly ranked colleges. In an effort to cool down the “educational overheating” and respond to these critics, Monbusho reduced the total number of class hours by 10 percent in the curriculum revision of the late 1970s.

Recently, some Japanese policy makers have expressed the opinion that curricular revisions should be more frequent in this age of rapid social change in Japan. In response to these suggestions, Monbusho and its advisors are currently considering a revision period of 8 years.


The current curricular guidelines (The New Monbusho Curriculum) were published as a set of proposed guidelines in 1988. Implementation has been in stages, with the elementary school curricular guidelines having been implemented in 1992. The new curriculum includes a reduction of emphasis on arithmetic and science in the early school grades. Since 1968, arithmetic has been reduced from about 19 percent to 17 percent of the sixth-grade total class hours. Likewise, science has been reduced from about 13 percent to 10 percent of total class hours (Calculations based on data presented in Mizuhara, 1992).

The new curriculum establishes more electives in junior high school. In addition, there are changes in moral instruction and in the treatment of the Japanese national anthem and flag. Overall, the new Monbusho curriculum mandates the following major changes:

  • comprehensive reform of moral instruction,
  • merging of science and social studies in the first and second grades into a new subject, the study of life activities (seikatsuka),
  • increase in the range and number of electives in junior high school,
  • creation of two new subjects in high school (earth history and citizenry) by reorganizing the old social science subject, and
  • reforms in the treatment of the national flag and national anthem in school.

Monbusho describes the new curriculum as being based on “a new perspective on academic ability” (atarashii gakuryokukan). The purpose for this shift in policy was explained by an education official: “Knowledge-centered education was taught to students in the past, but now we want to find ways of motivating them to learn. This is the area we are putting great effort into at present.”

With the new curriculum, Monbusho states that it is seeking to cultivate students who are, in the words of one teacher, “creative, philosophical, able to make judgments and decisions and able to express themselves.” These are the qualities that some reformers of Japanese education have said the Monbusho curriculum and Japanese schools did not emphasize in the past and that they hope can be cultivated among Japanese children currently in school.


Information about revisions in Monbusho’s curriculum guidelines reaches the schools through Monbusho publications and a series of scheduled workshops that are to inform schools of the changes in the curriculum.

Monbusho also publishes its curricular guidelines and makes these guidelines widely available. There are three sets of guidelines, one each for elementary, junior, and senior high schools. Each of these three sets of curricular guidelines is available in soft cover at any major bookstore in Japan. Each booklet of curricular guidelines is anywhere from 120 to 220 pages in length and costs under $5.

These guidelines in turn are used by textbook publishers, regional education authorities, schools, and teachers to develop curricular materials that conform to the national guidelines. Although this system gives a great deal of responsibility to education authorities in the prefecture and city, it is not uncommon for Japanese children in widely separated regions to be studying the same topics during any given week, for reasons that will become clearer in the remainder of this chapter.

After the publication of the revised curricular guidelines, Monbusho schedules a series of workshops throughout the nation for representatives of regional boards of education and for school teachers. These participants, in turn, conduct workshops for other teachers in their own school districts. Several of these workshops are scheduled each year between the publication and implementation of the guidelines. After the official implementation of the curricular guidelines, workshops are conducted less frequently, about once a year.

In spite of its considerable administrative powers, Monbusho does not closely monitor conformity to the national curricular guidelines at the school level. Monbusho policy allows local boards of education and schools to make adjustments in the national curricular guidelines that are considered to be appropriate for the local level.

However, our discussions with regional officials indicate that regional boards of education typically tend to interpret the Monbusho guidelines strictly. Schools are also allowed to formulate their own curricula as long as the schools’ curricula are based on the Monbusho curriculum guidelines. However, since the task of devising a school curriculum involves considerable effort by teachers, most schools adopt the curriculum developed by the municipal board of education.

To facilitate the proper implementation of the curriculum, the Monbusho curriculum guidelines make clear the content, the desired order, and the duration of instruction for all subjects and all grades. The topics of study for each school subject during each school year are listed, but detailed descriptions of instructional material are not presented. For example, the course of study in mathematics for the eighth grade presents algebraic calculation of formulas as the first topic and methods of data analysis and frequency distributions as the last. The guidelines do not contain descriptions of formulas that need to be memorized, or other explicit descriptions of content.

In summary, the Monbusho develops national curricular guidelines for elementary, junior, and senior high schools approximately once every 10 years. The curricular guidelines are published and made widely available. Prior to and after publication of the guidelines, Monbusho schedules workshops throughout the country in order to disseminate the new curricular guidelines to regional boards of education and school teachers. The regional boards of education are invested with the task of interpreting the curricular guidelines and developing materials that are appropriate for the region. Schools are also given authority to develop curricula based on the national curricular guidelines. Education authorities we interviewed indicated that schools and regional boards of education tend to follow the guidelines closely in part because developing material independently is time-consuming.


Textbooks. Instead of publishing its own textbooks, Monbusho allows private companies to publish textbooks that are reviewed at Monbusho for conformity to the curriculum and quality of presentation. Textbooks that survive this review process are designated as being approved. Only textbooks approved by Monbusho can be used for instruction in public schools. The number of text books approved depends on the grade level. For basic subjects in elementary school six or more companies may publish a series. For some subjects at the high level the number is smaller.

The Authorization and Research Council at Monbusho, which approves textbooks, consists of university professors and teachers in elementary and secondary schools. These experts are appointed by the Minister of Education and the Monbusho’s senior curriculum specialists. The Authorization and Research Council insures that the Monbusho’s curriculum standards have been followed. Each member of the Council examines proposed textbooks separately before the Council meets. The Monbusho Minister makes the final decision about certification upon receiving the Council’s recommendation.

Monbusho designates three levels of textbooks (easy, medium and difficult) for high schools, but only one level for elementary and junior high schools. However, Monbusho certifies more than one textbook for each subject and grade in elementary and junior high schools. Schools can choose their own textbooks as long as the textbooks are approved by Monbusho. In addition, Monbusho does not require that textbooks be completely covered by teachers. According to an education official in Naka City,

It is not necessary to cover all the material in the textbooks.

It is not to be followed word for word. We say that one should ‘teach with the textbook’ not ‘teach the textbook’.

The curricular guidelines are in outline form and the details of textbooks vary, depending on how authors use the outline.

Companies that publish student textbooks also publish teachers’ manuals (kyoshiyo shidohyo). The use of the manuals is not mandatory. However, the teachers’ manuals contain explanations of the textbook, good examples, and points about teaching. According to one teacher, “There are teachers who do not think that the manuals are necessary.” It is not clear whether the typical Japanese teacher uses these resources frequently, but our conversations suggest that they are used by most teachers when planning lessons.

To supplement their own textbooks, which they receive from the school, students also use inexpensive booklets of practice problems sold by the school, and drill books, which are available at local bookstores. These drill books contain problems related to the textbooks and are available for arithmetic, science, and Japanese language. Drill books are more expensive than the booklets of practice problems but are popular among parents of children in elementary school.

Other resources for curriculum implementation. In addition to the Monbusho-approved textbooks and teachers’ manuals, Japanese teachers may also rely on instructional plans (shidoan) in conducting their lessons. These instructional plans are included in some teachers’ manuals. Teachers also develop instructional plans on the basis of demonstration classes for which they prepare detailed written lesson plans. The plans are then distributed to the teachers who observe their demonstration classes. The instructional plans provide information to teachers about various ways one can teach each topic effectively. For example, the instructional plan typically spells out the amount of time the teacher should spend on each instructional task.

Figure 2 is a translation of an instructional plan. Information about the general relationship of the day’s topic to previous and forthcoming topics is provided, as well as instructions to the teacher for conducting the lessons. Examples for use in class are also provided.


Seventh Grade, C Group: Instructional Plan
12-12-1994 (Thursday) 3rd Period Instructor: Mr. T
  1. 12-12-1994 (Thursday) 3rd Period Instructor: Mr. T
    1. Unit Change and Correspondence


  2. Instructional Plan
    • Simultaneously changing quantities……………2 hours
    • Direct proportions………………………………..2 hours
        (Today 2nd of 2)
    • Graphs of direct proportions…………………..3 hours
    • Indirect proportions and graphs………………3 hours
    • Wrap-up…………………………………………….1 hour
  4. Today’s instruction
    • Goal: Investigate the properties of direct proportions
    • Preparation: Printout
    • Related Curriculum:
      8th grade first order equations 
      9th grade first order equations 
  5. Instructional Process:
  1. Instructional Process:
Time allotment Content of Instruction Learning
Areas of instructional emphasis Evaluation Perspective
7 minutes Review of direct proportions Review of previous period Evoke the nature of direct proportions using proportion from previous period Determine by students raising hand
15 minutes Have students find examples of direct proportions using graphs Using various graphs of proportions find the relationship of direct proportions Make students aware of what qualities make a direct proportion Determine the degree of student problem solving by walking around students’ desks and watching their activities
17 minutes Examine two quantities that change in equation and graphic form Find the relationship of direct proportions from 2 changing quantities using equations, graphs, and nature Make students think on their own. Make students answer the reason for the relationship of direct proportions Determine student comprehension by calling students up to the board and having them write down answers
6 minutes Have students draw a graph that includes negative numbers Write a graph of direct proportions including negative numbers Make students understand that direct proportions can include negative numbers Going between desks, determine understanding by seeing how students are doing on their printouts

SOURCE: Third International Mathematics and Science Study, Case Study Project, 1994-95.

Monthly Meetings. Teachers stay involved with the implementation of curricula through committee work at school. At the school level, Japanese teachers coordinate the implementation of the curriculum through monthly departmental meetings, which are scheduled during a designated preparation period. These monthly departmental meetings are a forum for Japanese teachers to interact and exchange information with colleagues about curricular issues. We found that these meetings were used by math and science teachers to coordinate instruction and coverage of topics with other teachers, and, importantly, to articulate concerns and make group decisions regarding instruction.


Although students are tested in their classes on knowledge of the curriculum, formal measurement of school performance is not conducted by Monbusho. According to local education officials, Monbusho began a nationwide testing program for all students in each grade of elementary and junior high school about 30 years ago. This created an unexpected situation in which schools became highly concerned about performance relative to other schools. Consequently, some schools conducted dishonest practices to raise averages, such as asking poor achieving students to stay home. The testing of schools was discontinued because of these abuses and also because of opposition from members of the Japanese Teachers’ Union who objected to the monitoring of school performance.

Currently, Monbusho conducts an academic achievement test on a national sample of schools to obtain an estimate of student attainment of the curricular objectives. These data are used to infer the percentage of the curriculum that is being mastered. Monbusho then determines what topics in the curriculum seem too easy or too difficult for each grade level and uses this information in revisions of the curriculum. An important informal measure of school performance is the fact that newspapers publish and everyone in an area knows school performance based on Shingakuritsu, which refers to the percentage of students progressing to good schools at the next level.

Chapter 2 – The Development and Implementation of Education Standards in Japan (Part 2 of 5)]

(PART 2 OF 5)

Elementary Schools


Schools are required to provide students with the “official curriculum” throughout their 6 years at elementary school. Consistent with the concept of a uniform curriculum, Monbushodoes not allow the tracking of students into ability groups at the elementary school level. The only exceptions are for students judged to have major emotional, developmental, learning, or physical disabilities. These students either attend special schools or classes and follow a different curriculum.

The standard number of school hours that must be devoted to instruction at the elementary school level is part of Monbusho’s curriculum guidelines. These guidelines also specify the number of instructional hours (50 minutes per class hour) required for each subject (Table 4).




1 2 3 4 5 6

Japanese language 306 315 280 280 210 210
Life activities 102 105 105 105 105 105
Arithmetic 136 175 175 175 175 175
Science 105 105 105 105
Music, arts & handicrafts, and  homemaking 136 140 140 140 210 210
Physical education 102 105 105 105 105 105
Moral education 34 35 35 35 35 35
Special activities 34 35 35 70 70 70
Total 850 910 980 1,015 1,015 1,015

SOURCE: Jichi Sogo Center, 1991.
NOTE:(Implemented in April, 1992)

In an effort to help Japanese students master and understand arithmetic, the Monbusho curriculum designates that third-graders receive instruction in the use of the Japanese abacus (soroban), a tool many Japanese we interviewed regarded as useful in promoting children’s skills at calculations and in promoting understanding of numbers.

The latest curricular revisions have had minimal impact on the difficulty of arithmetic at the elementary school level, but the introduction of the new curriculum has resulted in some changes in the curriculum. One official informed us that about 10 to 20 percent of the math curriculum has been “moved around” in the latest revision of the curriculum. Certain mathematical topics, such as finding the volume of a cylinder, have been moved from junior high school to elementary school. Conversely, mathematical topics that were considered too difficult for certain grades have been moved up to higher grades. Despite efforts to match the curriculum to the cognitive level of students, some parents and educators with whom we talked indicated that many students begin having problems with arithmetic around the third or fourth grade.

Life Activity Subject. The new elementary school curriculum emphasizes personal learning experiences, or (taikengakushu). The newly-created subject ‘study of life activities’ (seikatsuka) for first- and second-graders was created by Monbusho to provide such personal learning experiences to Japanese students in a formal, school setting.

The ‘life activity’ subject merges the study of science and social studies. ‘Life activity’ was created by Monbusho because it was decided that first- and second-grade students were not ready to study science in the traditional way since they lacked sufficient personal life experiences that form the basis for interest in the sciences. Several teachers said they believed that this lack of personal life experiences is the result of urbanization, whereby children have lost opportunities to interact with nature. One teacher described how young Japanese children living in cities do not have many opportunities to experience the pleasures of picking flowers, catching frogs and insects, or watching falling stars.

In an effort to provide experiences missing in an urban setting, one designated activity of the ‘life activity’ curriculum involves students raising rabbits. The principal of Matsu explained:

We raise rabbits. Although we don’t have the money and can’t make enough room for them, we are raising rabbits. As for me, I would like the first- and second-graders to feed the rabbits every morning. While doing that, they will eventually discover that rabbits eat cabbage but not wheat. And they will learn that there are things rabbits will and will not eat. And they can learn, if they hold the bunnies, that the mother will protect the bunnies. And they can learn that a rabbit is warm and puffy. In the process of raising rabbits, they learn these things. But, let’s say this is a science class. Then, the teacher would say ‘let’s find out what rabbits do and do not eat.’ It is the teacher who would be separating the food.

This principal suggested that the experiences the ‘life activity’ subject is trying to provide for children are not easily taught by schools, where the fear of liability and insurance premiums are also considerations. The primary goal of the “life activity” lessons is to get students to understand and to take responsibility for activities in their everyday lives. Despite the problems some Japanese educators may see with the ‘life activity’ subject, the ‘life activity’ subject reflects the policy of Monbusho of providing an elementary school education that stimulates interest in learning.

A typical elementary school lesson. The pace of the elementary school curriculum is illustrated by an actual lesson that is typical of those we observed in Japanese elementary schools. The goal of the 45-minute arithmetic lesson was to have students understand that fractions could be both greater than and less than one. The following observational notes describe this lesson.

The teacher is a female in her thirties, Mrs. H. The students (about 40) are sitting quietly at their desks. All students have colorful plastic cards with animated figures on which they put the printouts on which the class is working.

The subject of today’s lesson is fractions. Mrs. H. places a magnetized yellow strip on the board that is exactly 1 meter in length. Below the yellow strip, she places a pink strip a half a meter in length, a blue strip a third of a meter in length and a green strip a quarter of a meter in length. Finally, above all of these measured strips, Mrs. H. places a red strip of undetermined length that represents the width of Masako’s outstretched arms.

Mrs. H. tries various combinations of strips in order to match the length of the red strip. While doing this, she asks frequent questions of the students. Students are attentive and very quiet as she speaks. Finally, Mrs. H. is able to make five one-quarter meter strips match the length of the red strip. She asks the students what the length of the red strip is. Students, with open textbooks, do not seem to understand and no responses are given.

The teacher reassures students that they will understand the concept. Moving to a television monitor hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room, the teacher projects a copy of the same printout that students have on their desks. The printout has three problems.

  1. Let’s record the length of both arms outstretched.

Masako ___m X _____ therefore = _____ m
Friend ____m X _____ therefore = _____ m
Teacher ___m X _____ therefore = _____ m

  1. Draw in the following with a colored pencil.

3/5 meter
5/5 meter
7/5 meter

  1. Write the fractions that are represented by the shaded regions.

1/4 meter is shaded
3/4 meter is shaded
1 and 3/4 meter is shaded

The teacher explains the printout by using the television monitor and projection system. After explaining the printout, the teacher instructs students to break up into groups of four and five. The teacher gives each group a set of strips of colored paper. Students put their desks together and lay out the strips. Students work together and appear to be on task, although the students have become boisterous.

Mrs. H. alternates between making comments to each group and providing instructions to the whole group. For about 5 minutes, the students become quiet and focused on the task, without intervention by the teacher.

Mrs. H. gives one strip at a time to the groups. The groups of students begin working with the strip of paper that represents the length of Masako’s outstretched arms. Then, after 10 minutes, the students return Masako’s strip for the friend’s strip. After another 10 minutes, the students exchange the friend’s strip for the teacher’s strip. In spite of the loud talking and cheerful demeanor of students, the students are on task. Altogether the group activity lasts about 25 minutes.

At the end of the group activity, the teacher instructs students to return to their desks, which the students do promptly. The teacher returns to the printout, which is being displayed on the screen, and in interaction with students, begins filling in the answers.


The instructional processes of this lesson and the others we observed in elementary schools were similar. Common to all of these lessons was the Japanese teacher’s emphasis on teaching the understanding of concepts rather than calculating skills. In other words, arithmetic lessons in the Japanese elementary schools we observed were largely conceptual, involving a steady but relaxed pace of instruction, during which Japanese students were expected to think about mathematical concepts rather than doing many calculations.

Along with the emphasis on the conceptual in the classroom, Japanese teachers expect students to learn and practice calculating skills outside the classroom. Hence, calculators are rarely if ever used in Japanese elementary schools. Some teachers stated that calculators, unlike the soroban, do little to deepen understanding of arithmetic and, hence, are of little educative value. This attitude was typical of the ones expressed by other respondents.

Most teachers also believed that learning the soroban is highly useful for developing arithmetic skills. The principal of Matsu Elementary School agreed with this thinking, but added that the soroban is “not almighty.” One parent, herself well-trained in the soroban, explained that at least one year of instruction, not the 5 hours as provided in the curriculum, is needed to reap the benefits of the soroban.

Perception and Use of Instructional Resources Outside of School
for the Mastery of Curriculum

In spite of its perceived usefulness in developing understanding of mathematical concepts, the popularity of soroban has declined in recent years. According to the principal of Matsu Elementary, very few parents at Matsu send their children to soroban lessons nowadays, opting instead for lessons in the Kumon method. The Kumon method provides supplementary instruction in arithmetic as well as in other subjects. Kumon lessons are based on a series of drills arranged in subtle gradations of difficulty. Students begin doing drills on material that they have mastered and progress from there.

One mother offered her observation of why the Kumon method has been so popular recently among parents at her child’s elementary school:

Well, the Kumon method does not force anything upon the learner. Irrespective of grade, the Kumon method begins from an easy point that perfectly matches the learner so that he can get 100 percent correct. That is one point. After that, everything is repeated until it becomes second nature just like the soroban thing where you can visualize it in your head. Another good thing is that one can learn at one’s own pace without learning from a teacher. One can skip above one’s grade level, and I think this leads to self-confidence. The negative thing is that there are no application problems and no word problems. Since there are no application problems, by just knowing Kumon method arithmetic, one cannot do real arithmetic.

In spite of the popularity of Kumon lessons in particular and juku in general, the parents we interviewed expressed a reluctance to push their children of elementary school age academically. These parents may be in the majority. A recent study found that only 23.6 percent of elementary school students attend academic juku classes for instructional support outside of that provided by their school (Nohara, 1993).


Most respondents did not perceive the level of math and science, or other subjects, required of elementary school students to be excessively demanding. In fact, one mother characterized the elementary school and the curriculum in the opposite way:

Elementary school has a lot of free time. For example, in arithmetic and science and such, the point is to make students interested in what is out in the world. For example, my son likes science and he used to make robots; now he makes things with legos. It is important not to push them. Rather, I think that one must give them time to think. Also, they study many subjects in elementary school. I think of this as a foundation for a lifetime. I think the purpose of elementary school education is to provide experience, to show kids what is out in the world, and to let kids develop an interest in things that comes from the spirit. (Mother of fourth-grader, Matsu Elementary)


Because there is no entrance examination for entrance into public junior high schools, elementary school education in Japan is not oriented toward an entrance examination. One elementary school teacher said that if they prepared students for examinations, the purpose of elementary school education would be lost. Public elementary schools provide no extra classes or special instruction for students taking entrance examinations for private junior high schools. Elementary school teachers, however, may give encouragement and advice about home study (kateigakushu) to these students. An elementary school in Kita City has a policy forbidding homework, but teachers expect that children will review the day’s lesson and will study the next lesson. Teachers also suggest topics of study to self-motivated students.

Although there is no concern about preparing elementary school students for testing oriented toward examinations, elementary school teachers do frequently test students. The purpose of these tests is to evaluate the students and the effectiveness of instruction. Tests are given by teachers once every 4 to 6 weeks and students are allowed roughly 40 minutes to complete them. Students are not ranked in comparison to other students according to their performance on these tests, but are given grades, typically on a three-point scale (A, B and C). The grades are used by teachers to calculate semester grades for report cards.

We found that standardized intelligence tests (IQ tests) are also administered in Japanese schools. At the elementary school level, for example, teachers reported that students are given group tests of intelligence in the second, fourth and sixth grades. The purpose of the intelligence tests, according to an elementary school teacher, is to determine the correlation between grades and intelligence tests scores to help determine whether students are performing at their potential. However, this teacher emphatically stated that he did not use these intelligence tests in any other way. Further, the intelligence test scores are never reported to parents, the elementary school teacher said because, “parents of students with high scores might force their children to study at home and parents of students with low scores might become sad.”


According to teachers at Matsu Elementary School, many elementary schools are devising their own school standards related to the new Monbusho curriculum. One teacher explained the importance of responding positively to children’s effort:

The new Monbusho curriculum calls for the positive evaluation (hyoka) of students instead of critical evaluation (hyotei). The meaning of hyoka is that you look for the good part of the child and evaluate that. In order to recognize the good part, it is necessary to figure out what parts to recognize. The idea is that this will lead to students developing more positive attitudes toward learning. In the past, it was such that say, in calculation, you made students do all kinds of calculations, and then you would divide them up on the basis of scores. There was a time when students could only get half of the problems correct on a test of say 40 problems. Now, it is different. With the new thinking, we recognize both students who take 30 minutes and those that take 40 minutes to do a problem. That is the point of the new evaluations standards.

Matsu Elementary School devised its own standards based on the Monbusho curriculum, using a three-point grading scale. The standards for the school were created by committees of teachers. There were eight committees, one for each of the subjects in the curriculum. The committees created a text called the standard evaluation report that detailed the levels of attainment required in order to achieve each of the three letter grades: A, B and C. This report was several hundred pages in length.


Minor differences in achievement between students attending elementary schools in poor areas and those attending schools in affluent areas were acknowledged by Japanese educators and parents. For example, one mother reported that the level of the elementary school her son was attending was higher than that of neighboring elementary schools, a belief she based on “conversations with her friends” and her own observations of the differences in the types of families of students at the various elementary schools.

Japanese educators spoke freely about the social characteristics of people in the community and how that influences the level of students in the local elementary schools. White collar communities were considered superior by Japanese educators because parents in these communities were perceived as providing more support for schooling. In general, the differences were considered minor by those we spoke with, and there was no indication that Japanese parents in the three regions based decisions about where they would live primarily on the quality of elementary schools.


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