Brief History of Modern Japanese Education:

( 近代日本教育史概略 外国の方に日本教育を紹介するときなど、お使いください
by Furuyama Akio (c)2002

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Meiji government's policy
In mid 19th century, Japan was threatened by Western countries' colonialism. Tokugawa government, which was based on feudalism and a status system, could not effectively respond to this challenge. This caused a revolution in 1867 to establish a new nation that would cope with Western countries. The new government, Meiji government, regarded education as one of the most essential factors to construct a modern nation. Education was utilized to defeat old status system and to let people's power pour into the new nation. And then, education became a very good device to keep people loyal to the nation.

Prevalence of obligatory education
At the early stage of Meiji era, the government could not provide sufficient resources. Many private schools coexisted with public schools. Then , with the help of subsidies, public schools increased and substituted for private schools, finally to occupy most part of primary education. Within twenty years, primary school attendance became obligatory and schools including private schools were put under a single national curriculum. In 1890s, enrollment rate of obligatory education went over 90%.

Education served militarism
This prevalence of obligatory education in Japan took place at the same time as in England, America, and other developed Western countries. Prevalence of compulsary education prevailed in the latter half of 19the century and the beginning of 20th century in many Western countryies.
The victory to Russia in 1905 convinced Japan that military power brings everything, and in 1930s Japan devoted itself to militarism. Education was mobilized to support this war-like country. Especially in 1941-1945, all the schools were re-organized to complete World War II.

Reformation after defeat
Japan was totally defeated by American military power, including atomic bombs, in 1945. The U.S. occupied Japan and carried out a radical social reformation. This reformation included establishing democratic government, demolishing army and zaibatsu (monopoly capitalist families), and executing land reform.
Education was one of the main targets of social reform. American system of 9 year's compulsary education was introduced. The Ministry of Education was supposed to greatly reduce its power and to give way to regional Education Boards (educational comittees).

Economical development
After the end of occupation by the U. S., Japanese politics swang to nationalism.
In 1956 Education Boards were subjected to Ministry of education by a new law. The Ministry of Education was successful to create an efficient education system for modern industrial society. It was a major basis of Japan's rapid economical development. But people have not had the right to vote and enjoy regional autonomy in education.
When America's occupation ended in 1951, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ( conservative ) and Ministry of Education began to tighten its reign over education, being afraid that socialists might affect education. They tried to control teachers with law. There had been many struggles until 1990.

Problems erupt
When Japan was achieving amazing economical development, problems in education didn't come up to the surface. It was in late 60s that world-wide student turbulence drove Japanese students to protest against suffocating administration. The government and bureaucracy merely surpressed student riots. They never conceded to democratic requests. On the other hand, in many developed countries, this turbulence brought educational reforms. Japan remained far behind.
In 1970s school refusing children, or school phobia, began to keep increasing, up to 130,000 in 2001. Since '90s, schools are blamed for their bad service.

Competitive System
Major motivation of learning is competition. Every senior high school and every university select students by its own entrance examination. Famous schools attarct many applicants and there is severe competition. So people believe that if the school is difficult to enter it is a good one. Consequently, students have to study hard to get higer status.
Many people and mass media have been appealing that competition in entrance examination is spoiling young people's mental development. But no effective policies have been carried out to resolve this problem, because they never doubted the selection system and they believed students wouldn't study without the motivation of entrance examination.

Compulsary education is consisted of 6 year primary school and 3 year junior high school. Enrollment ratio in compulsary education has never been below 99% since 1948.
After compulsary education, 97% enrol in 3 year senior highschool.
After graduating seior high schools, 49% goes to universities and colleges. (in 2001)