Chapter 3 – Individual Differences and
the Japanese Education System
(Part 4 of 5)

Tracking and High School Education

At the end of junior high school, Japanese children enter the second phase of their socialization in the education system: the non-compulsory high school years. Starting in high school, Japanese students are tracked into various schools with various academic rankings. Students are also tracked by ability or by educational goals into different classes within a school.

Whereas the goal of Japanese elementary and junior high schools is education of the whole person, the central focus of Japanese high schools is career education, either preparing students for higher education or for post-high school employment. This transition from junior high to high school education is epitomized by the way classrooms are structured in the two systems. In elementary and junior high schools, a Japanese class consists of a mixture of students with diverse abilities and varying socioeconomic backgrounds. During these years students are encouraged to discover and share varied ways of solving problems. In high school, where students are sorted into different schools according to their levels of academic achievement, students within each school cover a narrow range of academic ability.

One way to understand how the tracking system works is to study its terminology. To stratify students by entrance exam scores is called sou-ka, usually translated as stratification but literally means “layer” (sou means “layer,” ka means “to make”). The distance between one layer (sou) to another is called kakusa (the gap), and placing one school above another is called joretsu (to rank order). Perhaps the most widely used word to describe the stratification system is wagiri, which refers to dividing and stacking students into a single academic totem pole according to their entrance exam scores.

Ability Ranking Inside a School

Many high schools also “lane” students into different tracks, with the most common pattern being the division between the “science” and “liberal arts” tracks. Within each lane, students many be further stratified to different classes on the basis of their shujukudo.

By official definition, neither dividing students into lanes or ranking them according to ability is based on students’ innate ability. Rather, the former is based on their expressed interests, particularly in relationship to their prospective major in university, while the latter is based on shujukudo, which is a measure of how much a student achieved academically in the past. As one high school teacher cautioned us, placing students into lanes was “not about ability but about courses.”

In general, the liberal arts track attracts lower-achieving students in math and science, whereas the science track attracts lower-achieving students in Japanese and English. Nevertheless, the very use of the term shujukudo minimizes the implication that students are assigned to different classes by their ability. Students in higher tracks seemed more likely to be regarded as gambatteru, “working hard,” than atamagaii, “smart.”

The Transition to High School

Teachers tend to be most concerned with the match between students and high school; they believed that the right match produces the greatest chances of a student’s succeeding during and after the high school years. Parents and students, on the other hand, were most concerned with the rankings held by the various high schools.

Many junior high school teachers expressed their concern for students’ lives during high school and after their graduation, especially in how well they will do in university entrance exams. One teacher summarized his approach to student counseling as “knowing what a students hopes to become in the future and working backward from there” (Teacher, Shimogawa Junior High).

We start from the student’s future plan. The most crucial thing is whether or not a student is planning to go to college. If so, they must go to the academic track. If on the other hand, they do not plan to go to college, but plan to work after graduating from high school, they would probably like to learn practical trade skills. So it may be better for them to go to an industrial or commercial school and get a certificate there. That way, they will have a better chance of getting a job after high school because vocational schools also maintain close ties with employers looking for high school graduates . . . If they are going to college, they have to choose between going to a public or a private school . . . Private schools involve paying tuition and therefore cost more. But many of them are associated with colleges, so most of these high school students are automatically admitted to these universities by recommendation, whereas those who are coming from public high schools have to take regular entrance exams.

Junior high schools also have school-wide programs to help students learn about the high school to which they should apply. These programs are oriented toward educating students and parents about what students may want to do in the future and informing them about the steps they need to take to reach these goals. First, in a “survey project,” first-year students ask their parents about their jobs, the tasks and responsibilities involved, and how they like or do not like their own jobs. They share their reports with the class. After this, the homeroom teachers inform their students about the types of jobs that are available, using actual data collected by students, and explain what it is they must do to obtain some of these jobs. Second, in a “general orientation” meeting, parents gather at the school auditorium and are informed of specific procedures involved in the high school entrance exam. They are advised “not to think of school names alone, but to think which school is most appropriate for their children’s ability and interests” (Teacher, Shimogawa Junior High). Despite such warning, this teacher lamented:

some students would apply to schools beyond their ability, solely because of the name of the school. As a result, the students fail to keep up with the high school’s standards and in so doing, fail to prepare themselves for university entrance exams.” (Teacher, Shimogawa Junior High).

While teachers stress the importance of the right match between a student and the high school selected, parents and students weigh an additional factor very carefully: students should not apply to schools that enroll students below their own level of ability. It was our general impression that many students simply take the homeroom teacher’s and counselor’s advice about the appropriate schools. However, another important piece of information many students relied upon was the juku’s knowledge of which school they are capable of being accepted into on the basis of their hensachi. Many high school students testified to the accuracy of the juku’s information, saying that their choice of high school was significantly affected by them.

Attitudes about Tracking

What do Japanese students feel about tracking? Given the enormous effect it will have on their future life, one would expect to hear heated debates about the pros and cons of tracking. This, however, is not the case. Most Japanese students accept the tracking system; they describe the system as being neither good nor bad, but it just is the way it is. An opinion of one high school teacher, who grew up with the current, post-war tracking system, exemplified this attitude:

Personally, I don’t feel like rocking the boat at this stage. I’ve lived in this society for so long that now I don’t think about doing anything about it. Like everyone else, I just say, ‘let it be’ (Teacher Meiji High School).

Generally speaking, the Japanese attitude toward issues of education is more practical than ideological, an attitude well exemplified in regard to tracking. Instead of arguing how the tracking system benefits or alienates certain segments of the population, the Japanese emphasize that tracking is the rule that everyone must follow in Japanese society. Even a parent in Hasu Elementary School, a school in a working class neighborhood that is known to be highly progressive, had this to say about tracking:

Tracking is a good thing because by the time students enter high school, they all should know what they like and what they want to do in the future. So they should go separate ways and not stick together as in elementary school (Parent, Hasu Elementary School).

As is the case with their teachers and parents, the vast majority of Japanese students have already internalized the necessity and legitimacy of tracking by the time they reach junior high school. Below are two examples:

Ninth grade student (female): I think it is quite okay. This may sound conflicting to what I said earlier [i.e., students should not be grouped according to ability inside a class], but I think there are students who can study well and those who cannot. So it is good that everyone can go to a high school that suits them. Once you get into a particular level of high school by passing the entrance exams, you will be among the students who are at the same level as you are. That means everyone is standing at the same start line, and you have as much chance as others in the school to excel. It is a new beginning for us, I think, so it’s good.

Seventh grade student (female): Of course it is good. Because there are different levels of high school, we can set our goals and work hard toward those goals. And for those who are at the bottom of their grade, I feel exactly the same as Kato-senpai. Comparing themselves to good students, they may always have to deal with a kind of inferiority complex and lose their willingness to study, but when they go to high school and are with students who are at the same level, they don’t have to feel they are the only ones who cannot study well. They may even begin to show more willingness to study.

As we shall see next, it is during the high school years more than during the years of elementary and junior high schools that young Japanese polish their more specialized skills. With diversity reduced to a large degree within the classroom and school, high school students show more focused, career-oriented commitment in their academic pursuits.

High School Instruction

Unlike their elementary and junior high school counterparts, Japanese high school teachers lecture and students listen; students attempt to solve practice problems and teachers explain the ways to solve them. There is little or no extended exploration and discussion of the concepts and ideas that characterize Japanese elementary and junior high school education.

High school instruction in Japan, compared to instruction at earlier grades, focuses more strongly on textbooks and teachers as primary sources of information. As one high school teacher testified: “In high school, we almost always use whole class instruction without group work. When the content is very difficult, students discuss it with their neighbors, but that’s as far as our group discussion goes” (Teacher, Kita High School). Lessons from an 11th-grade biology class and a 10th-grade math class provide typical examples.

An Eleventh-grade Biology Class

The topic of this lecture as indicated by the textbook was “Research on Organisms and the Environment: Water.” The class involved some student participation as a form of lab work. The class followed the teacher’s directions; students listened, did what the teacher said, and expressed few opinions of their own. The class consisted of the following basic segments.

After being greeted by students’ bow, Mr. Suzuki, the teacher, introduced the topic of the day by making reference to the water shortage they were facing in the area. He asked students why some areas have restrictions on the use of water while others do not. He suggested that they should pay attention to the source of water without giving specific answers.

For the next 13 minutes, the class conducted an experiment. The teacher prepared two kinds of water to taste: commercial spring water and tap water. Both types of water were contained in plastic bottles, and students were asked to taste both kinds of water and determine which was which. After this they were to put some chemical in the one they thought was tap water to test whether it really was tap water. Mr. Suzuki instructed the class to compare the color, smell, and the taste of the water.

For the next 30 minutes, the class discussed, under the guidance of the teacher, what they found in the experiment. Mr. Suzuki distributed a handout and a booklet that he prepared himself that explained how drinking water is purified. Then he went over the results of the experiment. The tap water turned blue after the chemicals were added. He explained why it came out blue and how the drinking water had been processed from the source water — he actually obtained some source water that morning to show how it differed from drinking water. Then he went back to the discussion of water restriction in the area. In the school’s area, there is little water restriction because a water source is nearby. Using this example, he pointed out how environmental resources can affect our daily lives. He urged the class to go back to the articles that were included in the booklet and to consider the intricate relationship between the convenience of our daily life and the state of the natural environment. With this concluding remark, he introduced the next class’s topic and the class ended.

A Tenth Grade Math Class

After the greeting, Mr. Hori reviewed the material covered in the last class: three equations for a line, a circle, and a parabola. Then he announced the topic of the day: corresponding inequalities such as 2x-3y+6>0. He wrote two more sample questions on the chalkboard, and students wrote them down.

After a few minutes, Mr. Hori demonstrated how to solve the first problem in detail. Then students tried to solve the other two problems in the way the teacher solved the first. During this seatwork, the teacher went around the classroom surveying the students’ progress.

When most of the class had finished solving the two problems, Mr. Hori introduced a formula, such as y>f(x), that can be applied to other inequalities. By replacing x with actual numbers, he indicated the y area that is covered by the formula. Then he explained which side of the line (above or below) was indicated by the formula.

Students worked with the inequality by themselves to find out which areas were indicated by inequalities. Later, Mr. Hori asked several students to demonstrate their answers on the board. He went through them and checked key points with yellow chalk. To confirm their answers, especially to assure that they have marked the right side (up or down) of the area, he suggests that they find the value of y when x=0. If the y value is situated in the area they indicated, then they have marked the right area.

Toward the end of the class, Mr. Hori went over the lesson briefly and emphasized several key points to remember. Then, he introduced the content of the next class. He asked if the class had any questions about today’s lesson, and ended the class.

Between-class Variation at High School

Some high school classes are not lively; students lack motivation and teachers barely keep them focused on the lecture. Such was the case at the lower-level math class for students in the liberal arts track at Arata. Since these students are not required to take math for their college entrance exams, many understandably lack motivation. This class remained noisy even after I stepped in with the vice principal. Some students in the back of the room continued to have personal conversations unrelated to the teacher’s lecture. The teacher simply lectured, with his text book in his hand, and tried to ignore the students’ off-task behaviors as much as possible. When the noise level became so high that he could no longer lecture, he shouted to the disruptive students, “Be quiet. Don’t talk about useless things!”

The advanced math class at Arata had a totally different atmosphere. All students were totally involved in the lecture; there were no disruptive behaviors; the teacher lectured much of the time; and students took notes and solved practice problems quietly. Other high school classes fall somewhere between these two classes in terms of the level of student attention and the cooperative spirit that characterize the teacher and students.

The High School Experience

The experiences in high school reflect the stratification that occurs on entry to high school. At this level, Japanese students have more freedom to explore individual styles, but individual expression is still tightly linked with school atmosphere.

Autonomy and Freedom in the High Track School

Meiji is not unique among many high-level schools in its outward lack of emphasis on academic matters. Academic high schools with a strong academic tradition can downplay academics because, as one teacher explained; “In good schools, students study without being told, so we don’t have to push them to study” (Teacher, Meiji High School). Students in the high track schools are granted a great deal of freedom and autonomy but are encouraged to participate in non-academic experiences that “build character.”

In accordance with its motto of “balanced education,” for example, Meiji encourages students simply to enjoy their youth. At the top of the school catalogue, one sees a message, boldly painted with a Japanese brush, seishun o ikiru, “Live your youthful days!.” Meiji students do enjoy their school life: one survey indicated Meiji as the most popular school in Naka city. Not surprisingly, one teacher described Meiji students as “growing up straight and tall” (suku suku to sodatte iru) as the Japanese words “suku suku” here indicate plants growing up with proper nourishment and adequate protection.

Paternalism and Apprenticeship in a Low Track School

Schools in the lower tracks such as Naka Vocational thrive on the non-academic, the “wet” side of education to keep students in school (Lewis, 1996). (The English word “wet” is used in Japanese to indicate the warm and affectionate — as opposed to impersonal and rational — individual characters and human relationships). More specifically, we found teachers at Naka to be paternalistic, and students, as the Japanese say, sunao, (cooperative in spirit and obedient in action).

Naka teachers take seriously their role of helping students to graduate. This commitment on the part of teachers is reminiscent of the traditional master-apprentice relationship. One way the teachers assume this responsibility is to play the “big-brother” role of benevolent superordinate. Teachers make sure that they stand “above” students, but at the same time they are remarkably sensitive to the emotional, as well as the academic, needs of their students.

The type of language Naka Vocational teachers use is often coarse and earthy. During my visit to Mr. S’s math class, I was reminded of a father-like figure in a traditional Japanese family who is known to admonish his children harshly should they act improperly in front of a guest (e.g., forgetting to use polite language). At the beginning of the class, he announced to his class, “Listen up boys! We have a guest who came all the way from the U.S. Let’s work together so that we can show him the best in us!” None of the students appeared to feel that Mr. S was exaggerating the importance of the matter since all students conducted themselves extremely well.

Much of Naka teachers’ teaching philosophy and practice evolve around being an exemplary senpai (teacher and mentor). A science teacher indicated:

If students are motivated to learn, if they want to learn because they want to get a good job in the future and so on, I would love to teach them as a senpai. Because teaching is a human endeavor, you must have this type of relationship to begin with. Otherwise you cannot teach. I’m not teaching to a thing, therefore, human relationships play a very important role here. For one, I try not to hurt my students’ feelings because when their feelings are hurt they become too reluctant and react negatively to studying.

Being an effective Naka Vocational teacher, however, requires more than being a morally exemplary and emotionally nurturing figure: teachers have to demonstrate their care for students by making sure that they graduate. One math teacher explained:

This year, I am not a homeroom teacher, but from a point of a homeroom teacher, it is very sad to see students leaving or dropping out. Even though I am not a homeroom teacher, I think I will regret if I let the students quit school without offering any help. If I try helping them, and still find that they, themselves, do not want to study, then I feel I can succumb to such a regrettable outcome—that is, students leaving Naka. There may be students who are actually seeking my help, but because they do not know how to express their need, I may not notice them. I believe that students who really want to graduate from high school will work hard, and for those students I feel obligated to do something. So instead of waiting for the students to come to me, I go to them and tell them to stay after school.

Students do believe that teachers care about them and are both willing and capable of helping them. In the group interview at Naka Vocational, the first student said their teachers were “always thinking about each student.” The second student responded by saying, “They are enthusiastic. They give us good advice and positive comments like ‘Keep up your good work! You can go to college.’ Such words make a world of difference to me.” The third student also praised his teachers, saying “Many teachers at this school seem willing to walk miles in my shoes. They put themselves to our level almost to the point of being my friends.” This and other interviews with Naka Vocational students suggest that they are grateful to have teachers who care, rather than being resentful about being in low-track vocational schools. While students’ levels of academic achievement may be considerably lower than those in higher track schools such as Meiji and Arata, the students displayed remarkable willingness and desire to succeed in a non-academic high school.

“Mid-slice Crisis” at the Middle-Track School

Differences in the level of ability among students appeared much higher in the mid-level high school than among their high- and low-track counterparts. Arata epitomizes this “mid-slice” school phenomenon—as its school counselor explained:

This school is about the average in this prefecture. Schools that are placed in the middle (academic level) have students of different academic levels, and thus the individual differences are very noticeable. Schools that are at the top, as well as bottom, tend to have pretty much the same level of students. Math is the subject in which such individual differences become most apparent. So we are dividing our students into different classes according to shujukudo, because there are students who need to study math for college entrance exams and those who don’t. We do such grouping for every major subject, but especially for math and English.

Being a newly-founded school in an area recently converted from an industrial neighborhood to a residential area, Arata epitomizes what it takes to become a shinsetsu ko (newly-built school). Being only 10 years old, Arata has no history to build upon in comparison to Meiji. It is in the process of making one, and for most new schools like Arata, the reputation improves as the number of students they send to prestigious universities increases. The school’s activities appear to be singularly focused on this goal; the one and only motto of this school isnobasu (“to improve”).

Arata’s counselor emphasized the value of having divergent tracks for students:

Being well rounded will no longer mean much in Japan. It will stand in the way of students expressing their strengths. The students who are good at math should strengthen that ability, and those who are not good at math should do the same in other subjects.

At a teachers’ meeting at Arata, however, teachers openly discussed their ambivalent feelings toward ability grouping. Clearly, ability grouping interferes with their sense of “fairness” for students. One teacher complained that the term shujukudo itself is a vague concept: “Teachers are told to divide students by shujukudo. But is shujukudo their exam scores, grades, willingness to study? I’m very confused here. Even in classes grouped by ability, we still have ability differences because some students study harder than others.” The second teacher responded by saying, “In order to group students by ability, we rely on our regular exams. But when the top classes and the bottom classes are covering totally different subjects, we have no way of comparing the students’ ability because they can’t take an exam on the same subject.” All teachers agreed in the end that there is not much a new school such as Arata can do about tracking, because in order to survive it has to attract students of high quality, and to do so, it has to send more and more students to good universities. The teachers acknowledged that it is difficult to handle lower-level students who have little chance of getting into prestigious universities.


Source: The Educational System in Japan: Case Study Findings, June 1998, Douglas TrelfaRetrieved from ERIC Database [Link is currently down, retrieved from the cached copy]