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Japan’s Schools: Myths, Realities, and Comparisons with the United States

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In the 1980s, when the Japanese economy was booming, debates over educational reform in the United States seemed often to start in Japan. The Japanese economy was outperforming the US economy because Japanese schools were outperforming our schools, or so the argument went until their economy collapsed. When the US economy eventually rebounded, no one cited our educational system as a source of its recovery, and the connection between education and the economy was forgotten.

During the decade-long debates over whether Japanese education could or should be a model for US education, American politicians and the media regularly added their opinions to the point where even the average American could reel off casual impressions of schools in Japan. Some people embraced Japanese education as a model of high standards and rigorous schooling; others rejected it as a test-obsessed, anxiety-producing failure. The debate was never resolved, but the sound bites presented in support of either side still linger, even though they lack nuance and often are outright wrong.

The collapse of Japan’s bubble economy has since returned the study of Japanese education to the scholarly community where nuance isn’t lacking, but where theoretical concerns have replaced political ideology and kept us from agreement on even some of the most basic points. For conservatives, Japan represents the success of a test-driven education; for progressives, it illustrates the detriments of using tests as a means of improving education. Others still point out more accurately that the Ministry of Education1 discourages Japanese schools from using standardized tests to assess their students and themselves. The impetus for most testing comes at the initiative of academically oriented schools and the private, for-profit juku (private supplementary school) industry in response to the high school and university entrance examination system.

In addition to political and theoretical debates, another source of our impressions of Japanese education comes from exchange programs and study tours of teachers and students. By virtue of their trips to Japan or their hosting of visitors from Japan, these instant experts eagerly share the truths of what they have seen or heard about Japanese schools. Their vignettes cannot be disputed—they saw what they saw—but when they result in hasty generalizations, these observations fail to provide insight.

My own experience as an observer of the Japanese educational system began thirty years ago, and, looking back on my early years, I too spread my share of inaccuracies. So as a means of penance, here is my attempt to counteract my own and others’ distortions by presenting a summary of the most common misconceptions about Japanese education, followed by some thoughts on comparative education and its use as an impetus for reforming US education.