Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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    Contents of This Chapter
  1. 2-1    PRESCHOOL
      1. Sakura Preschool (Yōchien)
      1. Kiku Daycare Center
    1. 2-2-1    ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS
    3. 2-2-3    AFTER SCHOOL
      1. After-School Activities
      2. After-School Programs
      3. The After-School Program at Momo Elementary School
      4. Private Lessons (naraigoto) and “Cram Schools” (juku)
      5. Students At Home
  4. NOTES

Recently, yōchien (preschool and kindergarten) have become more like hoikuen (nursery school) by providing extended services for working mothers.  Otherwise, because of the falling birthrate, it would be too difficult for the yōchien to maintain the number of children enrolled.  Elementary schools have also confronted the problem of too many vacant classrooms by the decreasing number of students.  In April 2002, the school week was reduced to five days.  All elementary schools now have “integrated study” and course content has been reduced by 30 percent, in accord with the 1998 Course of Study.  This chapter discusses the current state of preschool and primary school education in Japan.



More than 70 percent of three-year-olds, more than 80 percent of four-year-olds, and more than 90 percent of five-year-olds attend either preschool/kindergarten (yōchien) or nursery school (hoikuen) (Monbushō 1999b:270).1  Yōchien is the Japanese equivalent of American preschool and kindergarten.  Under the jurisdiction of the MOE, preschools teach three- to six-year-olds approximately four hours a day.  Nursery schools provide full-time childcare for infants and preschoolers to the age of six whose guardians are unable to take care of them because of work, illness, or other reasons.  Nursery schools began as a social welfare program for poor working mothers under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  The local government had examined eligibility and assigned nursery schools before the 1997 Amendment to the Child Welfare Law allowed parents to select nursery schools.  As the number of working mothers has risen, more mothers prefer nursery schools to preschools.  Approximately 60 percent of first-graders graduated from preschools (yōchien) in 2003 (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  The government plans to establish integrated preschool/nursery school facilities, which will accept children up to the age of five without the requirement of guardian’s work status and let part-time guardians use only during working days, if they want, after April 2006 (AS January 15, 2005).

In recent years, the government has become interested in preschool education and childcare.  The government enacted the 1995 Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, the Angel Plan (1994-1999), and the revised Angel Plan (2000-2004) to provide favorable childbearing and childrearing environments for women, especially working mothers.  This change in policy came after the government was alarmed by the drastically decreasing birthrate (in 2003, 1.29 children per woman in her lifetime).  The ever-decreasing number of newborns will reduce the number of productive workforce-aged groups, and stall economic productivity.  Moreover, a smaller pool of workers will have to bear the burden of supporting social welfare for a population that is both aging and living longer.  Lawmakers have realized that they have to make it easier for women to balance their careers and motherhood if they want to prevent a further decline in population.  The Child Care and Family Care Leave Law guarantees working parents childcare leave for newborns and toddlers.  Beginning in April 1999, all companies must provide childcare leave up to one year after birth, and shorter working hours until the child enters elementary school, at the request of any employee (male or female).

Under the Angel Plan (1994-2004), the government subsidizes childcare facilities and childrearing expenses.  First, the government launched the Five-Year Program on Emergency Measures for Nursery Care (Angel Plan) (1994-1999) which opened more nursery schools for newborns, extended the hours of daycare service, provided temporary and emergency daycare service, created infant health daycare services, promoted after-school children’s clubs, and increased the number of multipurpose nursery schools and child-rearing centers.  The conditions for childbearing and childrearing are improving.  However, the demand for nursery schools for newborns is still high.  In practice, not many women take long-term childcare leave from work. 

Local governments regulate their own Angel Plans to meet demand at the community level.  Many local governments provide incentives for women to have more children.  The Marugame municipal administration enacted the Marugame Angel Plan (2000-2004) to promote 1) health and medical care for pregnant women, newborns, and new mothers; 2) extended daycare service and temporary daycare service; 3) community support at child centers, mother’s clubs and child counseling centers; and 4) reduction of fees for nursery schools (Marugame-shi 2000).  The administration waives half of the daycare tuition for the second child, and provides total daycare tuition for the third child.

In 1999, there were 5,069 children under the age of six in Marugame City, which had a population of 80,000.  Fourteen public nursery schools operate for eight hours a day.  Some of them provide service for 10.5 hours a day.  Three private nursery schools operate 11 hours a day.  Private nursery schools take care of infants and provide temporary emergency daycare.  In addition, there are five unlicensed nursery schools.  There are eight public preschools and two private preschools that thus far do not provide extended childcare service.  Six percent of newborns, 26.2 percent of one-year-olds, and 37.7 percent of two-year-olds are sent to nursery schools.  Mothers and/or relatives care for the rest at home.  Approximately half of all children between the ages of 3 and 6 attend preschools while the other half go to nursery schools (Marugame-shi 2000). 

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Preschools provide two or three years of education for children before they enter elementary school.  The first public preschool was affiliated with Tokyo Women’s Normal School in 1934.  Since the 1960s, the number of private preschools has rapidly grown (Monbushō 1992:33).  Most preschools operate four hours a day and lunchtime, and are finished by around two o’clock.  Therefore, the children sent to preschools often have stay-at-home mothers, or working mothers whose relatives, usually a grandparent, can watch the children in the afternoon.

In 2003, 702,000 five-year-olds, 659,000 four-year-olds, and 400,000 three-year-olds attended 14,000 preschool, including 8,400 private preschools (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  In 2002, the MOE allowed two-year-olds to attend preschool in special districts since many parents wanted their children to attend preschool before the age of three (AS September 27, 2002).

The ratio of enrollment in preschools and nursery schools has changed over the years, as more and more working mothers use nursery schools rather than preschools.  Many preschools, especially private ones, are pressured to provide extended childcare hours in order to stay in business.  Private preschools, approximately 60 percent of all preschools, receive less public funding than public preschools do, and have to rely primarily on tuition fees from parents. 

With extended childcare service, preschools are becoming more like nursery schools.  In 1997, about 30 percent of preschools, including almost half of all private preschools, offered extended childcare services until the evenings (Kōseishō 1998:164).  Extended childcare service in preschools was recognized as a part of preschool operations in the 1998 Course of Study for Preschool, which went into effect in 2000.  For example, since 1999, Midori Preschool, which used to operate from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., is now open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.  They planned to have a daycare room for children from children up to the age of two by May 2000, responding to the request from the Setagaya Ward government in Tokyo.  Approximately 30 percent of preschools (4,197 preschools) have provided extended childcare service since 1997 (YS January 10, 2000). 

Preschools with longer hours do not differ greatly from nursery schools (hoikuen), and it is expected that the current ministerial jurisdictions (the MOE and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) of two institutions will be phased out.   Some local governments have already begun to integrate yōchien and hoikuen for childcare and preschool education.  In 2003, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare deregulated in order to transfer some daycare center facilities for the preschool, while the MOE consider doing the same for nursery schools (AS October 22, 2003). 

The average preschool has 23.9 students in a classroom, with 16.2 students per teacher (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Some classes have two teachers: a regular teacher and an assistant.  Large classes promote interaction, socialization, and group consciousness among children.  The assistant teachers help to meet a child’s individual needs. 

Ninety-four percent of preschool teachers are female (Monbukagakushō 2004a), most of whom received a teaching certificate from a junior college.  They generally remain in the classroom for less than five years, leaving either when they marry or when they have their first child.  Recently, however, more preschool teachers have kept teaching because their earnings help the household income.  Their salaries are decent, and the social prestige of being a preschool teacher is relatively high among female workers.  Many female students wish to become a preschool teacher.

Japanese preschool education is child-centered and based upon the principle of “whole person education,” which focuses on social and emotional development, friendship and responsibility.    The 1989 Course of Study for Preschool changed preschool education pedagogy from planned classroom teaching into child-centered education with minimal intervention from teachers.  Children learn social skills through playing, while teachers create optimal environments for their development, and monitor their activities.  Many preschool teachers were initially confused by this hands-off policy.

The 1998 Course of Study for Preschool Education remains child-centered, but provides more teacher guidance.  According to the 1998 Course of Study, preschool education should help children develop healthy bodies and minds while exposing them to a range of experiences.  The Course of Study does not mention the cognitive and academic development of preschool children.  Preschools are considered to be places for fun and socialization, not for academic study (Monbushō 1998c).  Preschool education is the first step in children’s socialization.  Teachers instill an appreciation of friendship and cooperation.  Children develop their creativity and sensitivity through crafts, drawing, playing music, dancing, caring for plants and animals, and making friends.  Children learn about cooperation and responsibility by participating in small group (han) activities.  Peer interaction sharpens their interpersonal skills.  Teachers take a low profile, seldom scolding or punishing mischievous behavior.  Teachers let children play and settle their own conflicts.  The children take turns as task monitors so that every child has an opportunity to lead the class.

Comparative ethnographic studies of preschools show that the Japanese preschool focuses more on teaching social skills and fostering a collective identity, unlike the American preschools, which place a premium upon individualism and independence.  The Japanese preschool keeps teachers at a low profile, and lets children monitor themselves.  In contrast, the American preschool establishes a dyadic relationship between a maternal type of teacher and the children (Tobin et al. 1989:63, 70).

According to another cross-cultural survey, preschool education in the United States focuses on cognitive and academic stimulation.  About 30 percent of class time is allocated to teaching academic materials in American preschools.  On the other hand, only 20 percent of class time is allotted to teaching academic materials in Chinese preschools, while less than 5 percent is used in Japanese preschools (Stevenson and Stigler 1992:78-79).  Three percent of Japanese mothers and 28 percent of American mothers expect kindergarten to provide their children with academic experience.  Almost all Japanese mothers and 55 percent of American mothers expect kindergarten to help their child’s social and emotional development (Bacon and Ichikawa 1988:380).  Japanese mothers teach their children basic reading and counting through reading books and playing with numbers at home.  Most children can read the Japanese alphabet and count to ten before they enter elementary school.

Most preschoolers are indulged by their parents and family members.  According to a cross-cultural study, Japanese mothers are much more likely than American mothers to give in to their child’s wishes.  For example, 68.4 percent of American mothers stated that they would force an unwilling child to go to kindergarten, while only 37.4 percent of Japanese mothers would (Bacon and Ichikawa 1988:381).

Sakura Preschool (Yōchien)

In April 2000, Sakura Public Preschool, established in 1898, had 121 preschoolers between the ages of 3-5 in five homeroom classes with five teachers and three assistant teachers.2  The city assigned two of the assistant teachers to two disabled children.  Sakura Preschool operates from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The facility is closed on the second and fourth Saturdays.  Children bring lunch boxes on Mondays and Thursdays, and have school lunch on Tuesdays and Fridays.  Parents/guardians are required to take their children to preschool in the morning and pick them up in the early afternoon.  Approximately 70 percent of the children’s mothers are stay-at-home mothers.  Parents/guardians read the teachers’ daily journals every day, and cooperate with teachers.  The preschool has a 40-day summer vacation and two weeks of winter and spring vacation, like public primary and secondary schools.  The monthly tuition amounts to 6,000 yen.  By comparison, a nearby private preschool costs 14,500 yen per month, more than twice as much as the Sakura Public Preschool.

Sakura Preschool emphasizes child-centered education and learning through experience (social experience education).  According to the preschool’s brochure, “Preschool education helps raise children to be healthy and strong in their bodies and minds, to have basic life disciplines and group norms, to be sensitive and love nature, to be thoughtful toward friends, to be creative, and to be persistent in accomplishing goals.”  The children learn interpersonal skills, group rules, and affection by playing with friends, nurture affection for animals and plants by caring for school rabbits and plants, and develop creativity and artistic abilities by drawing, crafting, singing and dancing.  Teachers organize students into groups of six or seven in order to build their sense of cooperation and responsibility. 

Ten years earlier, the pedagogy changed from teacher-centered to child-centered, following the Course of Study.  Five-year-olds used to learn the Japanese alphabet and counting by studying workbooks, but now they learn the Japanese alphabet and counting indirectly, through drawing and crafting.  The new methods of pedagogy perplexed some teachers, and initially the child-centered curriculum created discipline problems in the classroom.  The 1998 Course of Study reflects the overemphasis on child-centered education, but adds the importance of the teacher’s leadership in children’s education.  Teachers need to find the best methods of guiding children in their activities. 

On a sunny day in February 2001, children came to preschool between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and put their bags away in their classroom.  Then the children and their teachers played on the playground until 10:30 a.m.  Between 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., all children stopped playing so that they could take physical exercise.  All children engaged in fitness exercises set to music and then ran around the playground and/or played jump rope.  At 11:00 a.m., all the children returned to their classroom and sang, listened to picture book stories, drew pictures, made crafts, or watched videos under the supervision of their teachers. 

In a class of 17 three-year-olds, the children practiced songs with a piano played by their teacher, and danced to music together with their teacher.  Then they practiced skipping to music.  The teacher asked the children what they had done with the class of five-year-olds during a field trip to a nearby castle a few days previously.  The children said that they had played games with their five-year-old “big brothers and sisters.”

Around 11:30 a.m., the children prepared for lunch.  They washed their hands, and arranged several long tables and their chairs for lunch.  The two children in charge of the day’s task force cleaned the tables.  All children put napkins over the desk, and the children in charge distributed hotdogs and milk.  Then, two children of the day’s task force said, “Please eat now!”  The rest of the children replied, “Thank you.  We will eat now.  Please eat, Dear Monitor”  “Thank you.  We will eat now.” 

After lunch, they put away the dishes and brushed their teeth.  Then they played in the playground or in their classrooms until 1:30 p.m.  The teacher took charge of the class from 1:40 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. by singing, reading stories, and informing them about upcoming events. 

In another class, four-year-olds sang a song and listened to stories told by their teachers.  The class of five-year-olds practiced dancing for the upcoming 100th-year celebration of a nearby elementary school.  Around 2:00 p.m., the mothers and guardians of the children arrived to pick them up.

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Nursery schools (hoikuen) were established under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (now the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) as a part of the social welfare programs for working mothers.  Nursery schools tend to newborn babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to the age of six whose guardians are unable to take care of them because of work, health problems, or responsibilities to sick or elderly family members.  As more mothers work outside of the home, the number of children enrolled in nursery schools has risen.  Prior to the revised 1997 Child Welfare Law, local governments had designated certain nursery schools as a part of their social welfare program.  Since April 1998, parents/guardians have been able to choose nursery schools.  Since April 2000, businesses, private preschools, and individuals can establish their own nursery schools.  The local government sets tuition fees for licensed nursery schools, taking into consideration the annual income of parents/guardians and the age of the child. 

In April 2003, approximately 1,990,000 children received nursery care at 22,355 licensed nursery schools (AS August 20, 2003).  The prefectural and municipal governments together share half of the expenditures for nursery schools.  Nursery schools regularly operate eight hours a day on the weekdays all year long.  Parents apply for daycare at their municipal office, which determines whether their child can be taken care of at a daycare center, depending on their needs.  The fees for nursery schools are based upon the income of the family or guardian.  National and local governments subsidize both public and private nursery schools (about 60 percent of nursery schools are public). 

Nursery schools, which provide extended childcare service and care for newborn babies, are in high demand.  Many nursery schools accommodate working mothers who cannot pick their children by 4:30 p.m. by offering longer service hours.  However, many caregivers are themselves mothers, and cannot work early in the morning or late in the evening.  The local government subsidizes these extended services, especially for children under the age of two, because many newborn babies are on nursery schools’ waiting lists. 

In 1999, the national government established a 200-billion-yen grant to counter the plunging birthrate.  The grant money is distributed to local governments to use at their discretion.  In many cases, local governments subsidize preschools and nursery schools.  About 70 percent of the grants are used to build facilities and purchase equipment for preschools and nursery schools (AS January 14, 2000).  Since 2000, public subsidies for childcare have been extended to children under elementary school age.  Originally these subsidies were only granted to children under three years old. 

One of most serious childcare problems is the shortage of caregivers for newborn babies, toddlers, and children before and after regular business hours.  If working mothers cannot find a daycare center, they have to bring their children to an unlicensed daycare center or to a daycare home.  In 1998 there were 9,644 unlicensed nursery schools, including 3,561 company daycare facilities and 649 “baby hotels” (Kōseishō 1998:160).  The government must increase the number of nursery schools that offer extended childcare service and emergency daycare service.  As of April 1, 2003, there were 26,383 children, 57 percent of whom were 1- to 2-year-olds, on waiting lists for the licensed nursery schools.  The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare planned to increase the number of nursery schools in order to take 150,000 children from 2002 to 2004 in order to take all children on the waiting lists (AS August 20, 2003).  About half of new nursery schools may be private, and unlicensed but excellent nursery schools may receive public subsidies (AS May 21, 2001).

Newborn babies and toddlers can be taken care of by daycare homes, baby-sitters, community-based support centers, and by mothers’ support groups, though many parents prefer licensed nursery schools.  In the mid-1950s, local governments started a home-based daycare system (so-called “daycare mama system”) for babies and toddlers younger than three years of age.  In 1997 there were 137 local government-operated home-based daycare systems (Kōseishō 1998).  Many homemakers or retirees are interested in obtaining the certificate to open licensed home nursery schools.  Childcare providers can earn certification by completing correspondence courses.  Many local governments have taken the initiative in creating “childcare home-helpers” by providing free workshops for baby-sitters and nannies.

Many community centers offer childcare facilities that are staffed by volunteers.  Marugame City provides a community-based childcare support club for stay-at-home mothers of children up to three years of age.  Mothers bring their children to the childcare support clubs in nearby community centers once a month, where the public health nurse and volunteers examine the children and offer advice to the mothers.  However, this support is available only for stay-at-home mothers or guardians, not for working mothers. 

Nursery schools emphasize childcare services rather than preschool education.  The curriculum for nursery schools follows guidelines from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.  Almost all nursery teachers are female, and most of them received their certification from a junior college.  Nursery schools have much longer operating hours than preschools, and provide naptime and snack time.  Nursery schools teach children up to six years of age how to use the toilet, feed themselves, and put on their clothes.  In addition, nursery schools provide preschool education for four- to six-year-olds, like preschools/kindergarten (yōchien).  According to a cross-cultural study of American and Japanese nursery schools, American teachers prepare children to be self-sufficient, while Japanese teachers indirectly train children to socialize with their peers (Fujita and Sano 1988).

Kiku Daycare Center

In April 2000, the private Kiku Daycare Center in Marugame had 216 children up to five years of age, 32 caregivers, one nurse, four food service workers, and three administrators.3  The government regulates the maximum ratio of children per caregiver.  For example, one caregiver cannot take care of more than three newborn babies. 

The Center, like other private childcare centers, tailors its programs to working mothers in order to attract more children.  The Center operates from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, and from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays, with extended hours from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. in the morning, and from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the evening.  The Center also provides temporary childcare services, where one childcare worker and one assistant care for the children.  Furthermore, the Center has an after-school childcare program for first to third graders from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the spring, summer and winter vacations. 

The tuition for public and private nursery schools is based on the guardians’ household incomes because childcare service in nursery schools is a social welfare program under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Children are dropped off at the Center between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., have a snack time at 10:00 a.m. for newborns to 2-year-olds, lunchtime at 11:30 a.m., a naptime from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. (except for 5-year-olds), and an afternoon snack time at 3:00 p.m.  The mothers and guardians return to pick up the children between 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.  All classrooms, except the 5-year-olds’ classroom, have a corner of tatami-floor where children can nap.  The bathrooms are connected to the classrooms for smaller children so that caregivers can teach toilet training.  Children play, sing, dance, make handcrafts, and listen to stories read by caregivers in the playgrounds and classrooms.  Five-year-olds have more classroom learning activities in order to prepare for elementary school.  The Center provides English lessons with a native English-speaker once a week for four- and five-year-olds.  The children perform plays in English at the school festival.  Four- and five-year-olds have a dance lesson once a week and a brass band class once a month.  In addition, the Center teaches computer skills to five-year-olds three times a week.

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Ninety-nine percent of elementary schools are public schools, and each municipal board of education supervises all public elementary schools under its jurisdiction.4  The municipal boards of education are overseen by the prefectural board of education, which is responsible for the employment, assignments, and salaries of teachers.  The MOE subsidizes the educational expenses of the prefectural governments that have insufficient budgets for education expenses, in order for all children in the nation to receive the same quality of education.  All school-aged children are assigned to a school in their locality.  All children study the same curriculum based on national standards from teachers with a uniform set of qualifications.

Teachers are periodically rotated among the schools in their district in order to keep the quality of the instruction equal.  However, some regional discrepancies in academic achievement and college enrollments are well attested.  The students in urban areas are more likely to attend colleges than those in rural areas.  However, this has less to do with the quality of the schools or the teachers than with cultural and socioeconomic differences.  The degree of educational aspiration in the urban communities is generally higher than in rural communities.

The strict division of elementary school districts based on egalitarianism (one elementary school per district) became looser in an era of deregulation and decentralization.  Responding to the 1997 deregulation of the school district system by the MOE and to the growing popularity of private schools, the Shinagawa Ward in Tokyo introduced a school choice system in public schools.  In April 2000, Shinagawa Ward created four large districts comprising forty elementary schools, any of which parents can choose.  Since April 2001, parents can also choose a middle school among 18 public middle schools in the Shinagawa Ward.  On April 1, 2001, 21.1 percent of Shinagawa Ward’s elementary school students and 28.1 percent of its middle school students attended schools outside of their designated districts (MKS July 10, 2001).  The Shinawaga Ward also plans to establish a nine-year school that combines elementary and middle schools in 2006, in order to have a more flexible curriculum and to compete with private schools (AS January 18, 2002).  Since April 2002, the Shinawaga Ward introduced an evaluation system run by parents and local residents who visit the school.

The number of elementary school students has been decreasing for eighteen consecutive years, due to the lowered rate of childbirth.  In 2002, there were approximately 7,239,000 students in elementary schools, about 61 percent of 11,925,000 students (the second generation of baby boomers) recorded in 1981 (Monbukagakushō 2002a).  In recent years, many elementary schools have been closed or merged with other schools because of the shortage of students.  Many elementary schools have empty classrooms, which have been converted into computer rooms, international understanding rooms, and even into rooms open to the general public.  Since 1993, the government has promoted the use of school facilities for the community (Monbushō 1999b:10).  Responding to the growing elderly population, schools such as Yushima elementary school in Tokyo have converted parts of their facilities into a nursing home (Kaplan et al. 1998:96).  Such an arrangement promotes intergenerational communications.

The declining number of students also caused higher competition for teaching positions, and in 1999 only one-third of the people graduating from national universities with degrees in education found teaching positions (AS September 19, 1999).  In 2001, the average teacher was 43.8 years old (Monbukagakushō 2003a).  Growing age difference between elementary students and teachers may cause miscommunications and problems in classroom management.

The average number of students per class is 26.5, and the student-teacher ratio is 17.5:1 (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  The current maximum class size of 40 prevents teachers from paying enough attention to individual students.  Teachers also have heavy workloads when they grade the homework, quizzes, and examinations of 40 students, write daily notes to each student and complete all of the administrative paperwork.  One principal told me that it is impossible to give each of the 40 students individual attention and meet all of their needs.  Making classes smaller is at the top of the lists of demands of elementary school reformers.

Since April 2003, each prefectural board of education has had the right to reduce class size to fewer than 40 students, but the prefecture has to pay for the extra teachers.  Following the recommendation of the Research Survey Group, the MOE started to allow schools to experiment with smaller classes.  In April 2001, five prefectures authorized class sizes of under 40 students, especially for first graders (AS May 12 2001).  A year later, sixteen prefectures planned to enforce a smaller class size policy, including six prefectures implementing smaller class sizes for middle school students (AS March 10 2002).  Yamagata prefecture planned to implement a class size of fewer than 21 to 33 students for first to sixth graders by adding 223 teachers over the next few years (AS January 10, 2002).  After April 2002, sixteen prefectures decided to keep classes between 30 and 38 students, especially for the first graders.  Six prefectures have similar plans for middle schools (AS March 10, 2002).

The MOE rejected the Group’s proposal for a 30-student class, arguing that it would require about 120,000 teachers and an additional trillion yen.  The Group also recommended that the homeroom class, the core of elementary school education, could be dissolved and regrouped into a different class for certain subjects.  Then, the MOE decided to increase the number of elementary and middle school teachers to 22,500 over five years, beginning in the 2001-2 school year, in order to assign two teachers per class in the lower grades, and divide a class into two for mathematics and English in elementary and middle schools (AS October 14, 2001).  Classroom aides and volunteers would assist teachers in the classroom and after school.5   The MOE plans to hire approximately 50,000 teachers’ aides to work in elementary and middle schools over the three years starting in 2001, and to promote the volunteer system (Monbukagakushō 2003b:62-63).  Furthermore, the MOE plans to send college students who are majoring in education to elementary and middle schools to tutor students after school (AS August 17, 2002).  It will reduce costs if schools become more open to the community, and recruit classroom aides and volunteer helpers from the large local pool of highly educated homemakers.  Many such volunteers are now active in after-school programs and integrated study.  The practice of using of school support volunteers has spread across Japan.

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All public elementary schools are required to design a curriculum based on the MOE’s Course of Study.  The national standard of education guarantees a high quality education to all students.  However, the rigidity of the school curriculum has impeded the individuality and creativity of students.  In 1987, the National Council on Educational Reform (Rinkyōshin), commissioned by Prime Minister Nakasone, criticized the uniformity of education, and recommended the diversification of primary and secondary school curricula and that the deregulation of the educational system (Monbushō 1989). 

The 1989 Course of Study for 1992-2001 was issued in accordance with the recommendation.  The 1998 Course of Study for 2002 onward emphasizes further deregulation, diversity, and individuality.  The 1998 Course of Study also reduces the content of the curriculum by 30 percent, and allots 20 percent of class hours to review sessions, in order to emphasize basic knowledge for all students.  Many teachers are worried that such a reduction of educational content will interfere with student’s academic progress.  According to a 2002 survey, the test scores of elementary school students on the 100-point mathematics test was 10.7 points lower than the scores of those who had taken the test in 1992 (AS September 23, 2002). 

Responding to public concerns about lowering academic standards, many public schools found ways to increase the number of academic class hours by shortening school events, providing a summer session, and having parents and community leaders teach Saturday classes (AS May 6, 2002).  Furthermore, the MOE plans to create a special study group for advanced students, by adding one more teacher to each of the 846 model elementary and middle schools (increasing to 1,692 schools and 20 high schools in the 2003-2004 year) (AS August 18, 2001; AS August 17, 2002). 

Since April 2002, students in third grade and higher spend at least two hours a week on “integrated study” (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan).  Each school can choose its own topic and design a curriculum for this new subject, which might include international issues, information science, environmental issues, social welfare, and health.  The MOE suggests “social experience” education such as debates, volunteer or community activities, surveys, and experiments.

Since April 2000, elementary schools have implemented integrated study courses.  Fourth-graders at Jōkon Elementary School used integrated study to investigate how a local river had become polluted.  According to a 2003 survey, 89 percent of elementary school students and 78 percent of middle school students enjoyed integrated study classes because it gave them an unconventional academic experience.  However, 44 percent of teachers are struggling to find methods of teaching integrated study (AS September 18, 2003).

English conversation classes are also recommended for comprehensive learning classes in elementary schools.  Schools invite an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), a native English speaker, or a Japanese native who is proficient in English to teach English conversation once every two weeks.  In a surprise move, the MOE agreed to cooperate with the juku (cram school) for the first time, and to subsidize English conversation juku for fourth to sixth graders (AS August 30, 1999).  The MOE plans to grant 140,000,000 yen for 50,000 elementary school students for English language education on Saturdays in 100 areas nationwide.  The MOE will choose five areas in twenty prefectures, recruit 500 fourth to sixth graders in each area, and subsidize their participation in an English conversation juku on Saturdays or Sundays for a total of 35 lessons per year.  These juku can be operated by a private individual at home, American schools, cultural centers, English-language schools, and similar institutions.  The government pays half of the tuition and the parents pay the remainder (AS August 30, 1999).  In 1995, 18 percent of fourth to sixth graders attended English conversational juku (Sōmuchō 1996:66).

Moral education teaches children ethics and values such as honesty, integrity, respect for the environment, compassion, obedience, and appreciation for their own and other cultures.  Moral education is not based on nationalistic ideology, the remnant of the wartime education, as some progressive scholars claim, though it is based on conservative values.6  In this respect it is similar to character and value education in the United States (Ban and Cummings 1999).  Patriotism in moral education is very moderate in Japan, compared with the United States and other countries.  It is still a taboo to teach students in schools to pledge themselves to their country or to fight for their country.  The conservatives, the government, and the MOE have always emphasized the importance of moral education in order to prevent juvenile delinquency. 

Fifth and sixth graders learn “to appreciate the culture and traditions of their hometowns and this country, in order to understand the efforts of their ancestors, and to develop patriotism for their hometowns and country” and simultaneously to “appreciate the cultures of foreign countries, and make efforts in developing friendship with people in the world as a Japanese citizen” (Monbushō 1998a).  In practice, students develop interpersonal skills and the spirit of volunteerism through reading and discussing stories in supplementary moral education textbooks and/or watching television programs or videos about morality.     

A typical public elementary school starts at 8:15 in the morning, Monday through Friday.  The students have the morning homeroom period from 8:15 to 8:30.  Then, they have four 45-minute periods in the morning, with three 10- to 15-minute breaks, starting the first period from 8:35 to 9:20 and then a 10-minute break from 9:20 to 9:30.  After finishing the fourth period at 12:15, they have school lunch together in the homeroom.  Then, they clean classrooms, corridors and playgrounds from 1:00 to 1:20, and have a long break from 1:20 to 13:45.  The fifth period starts at 13:50, and the sixth period ends at 3:45.  The afternoon homeroom period lasts from 3:45 to 3:55 before a school day ends.  School lunch has been provided to public elementary schools since 1952, and to public middle schools since 1956 nationwide.  As of 1997, 99.4 percent of elementary school students and 82.1 percent of middle school students have school lunch (Ukai et al. 2000:19).

Table 2.1    Elementary School Curriculum and the Prescribed Number of School Hours in the 2002-3 School Year

Grade 1 2 3 4 5 6
Japanese Language Arts 272 280 235 235 180 175
Social Studies - - 70 85 90 100
Mathematics 114 155 150 150 150 150
Science - - 70 90 95 95
Life Environmnet Studies7 102 105 - - - -
Music 68 70 60 60 50 50
Arts and Crafts 68 70 60 60 50 50
Home Economics - - - - 60 55
Physical Education 90 90 90 90 90 90
Moral Education 34 35 35 35 35 35
Special Activities 34 35 35 35 35 35
Comprehensive Leraning Hours - - 105 105 110 110
Total 782 840 910 945 945 945
Note: One hour-unit has 45 minutes. 
(Source: Monbushō 1998a)

Elementary school education is based on “whole person education,” the development of the child’s character in cognitive, moral, emotional, and physical areas.  It emphasizes egalitarianism and group consciousness, and rejects tracking or ability grouping.  All children are assumed to have the potential to develop their own abilities and skills, and education is intended to help them develop their potential. 

All public school students receive the same education based on almost identical textbooks and a shared curriculum.  Japanese textbooks are slim, only about 100-200 pages long, and are supplied to all elementary students and middle school students at no charge.  The MOE checks the factual accuracy of the textbooks through a formal authorization system.  Teachers design their lesson plans on the basis of the national standards outlined in the Course of Study.  Teachers deliver knowledge of academic subjects through textbook-centered class instruction.  The current educational reform advocates criticize a uniform curriculum and textbook-centered pedagogy as undermining children’s creativity and individuality.  These criticisms were the rationale for the creation of “integrated study” and “social experience” pedagogy.

According to a comparative study, Japanese teachers led students for 74 percent of class time, while American teachers led their students for 46 percent.  American teachers frequently left children to work alone at their desks, and often divided the class into small groups, according to the children’s levels of skill.  Japanese teachers systematically taught the whole class how to underline, outline, organize, and summarize the content of a lesson (Stevenson and Stigler 1992:69, 92, 144).  One study of science and social science classes found that Japanese teachers motivate students to learn intrinsically, and to think within their groups (han), while the American teachers rely on reward and punishment as well as providing assistance to individual students (Tsuchida and Lewis 1996:209-210). 

Students are frequently divided into small fixed groups (han) of a certain number of students with mixed-abilities for the social activities of a homeroom class.  This group serves as a study group, a laboratory group, and a task team for cleaning, serving school lunch, and performing daily tasks.  Students have lunch with their fellow han members in the homeroom classroom.  The han members are changed when seating arrangements are changed.  The han has one boy and/or one girl leader(s) and group members build solidarity through group activities. 

All students are responsible for specific tasks, such as being in a committee and/or being the daily monitor for their homeroom class.  Peer monitoring is common, and teachers remain largely uninvolved.  All students become daily monitors by rotation, and take responsibility for erasing the blackboard, writing a daily journal, and/or being a daily monitor in the morning and afternoon homeroom periods.  Moreover, some students are assigned to a committee for one trimester.  These committees perform routine tasks such as watering classroom plants, keeping track of items in the lost and found, and distributing handouts.  In the afternoon homeroom period, the last period of the school day, the students reflect on what they have accomplished.  A daily monitor or a monitor group presides over afternoon homeroom time.  The monitor leads a discussion of how everyone had behaved that day, and whether all of the assigned tasks had been completed.

Tracking and ability grouping in elementary schools has been a taboo topic in Japan because of the prevailing strong egalitarian principle, though the MOE has created a special study group for advanced students (AS August 18, 2001; AS August 17, 2002).  All children are believed to have the potential to develop both their cognitive and non-cognitive abilities through effort and hard work.  Tracking stigmatizes slow learners, and ruins their potential by lowered expectations and inferior instruction.  The five-point curve grade system was changed into a three-point grade system: “excellent,” “good,” and “fair.”  Teachers make efforts to find and encourage the strength of each child.  IQ is rarely used as criterion for measuring children’s abilities. 

In the near future, the MOE plans to implement special education for learning disabled children, modeled on special education for LD children in the United States.  Currently, special classes for children with mild disabilities (shōgaiji gakkyū) are held in regular elementary schools.  Severely disabled children attend separate special schools for children with visual impairments (mōgakkō), children with hearing impairments (rōgakkō), and children with orthopedic disabilities, mental retardation, and sickly children (yōgō gakkō).

Responding to the problems of an aging society, school-initiated volunteer activities have become a popular type of social experience education and human rights education, with the goal of showing children the importance of compassion for the elderly and the disabled.  Many schools carry out visitations to the elderly in nursing homes and to the disabled in special schools or homes for the disabled through integrated study classes and human rights education programs.  Schools arrange for their students to do volunteer work, in cooperation with local social welfare agencies and the volunteer centers, and design volunteer programs for the elderly and the disabled, as well as for cleaning, recycling, and raising donations for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 

Students visit the elderly living alone and in nursing homes, and participate in social activities with senior citizens’ clubs.  The students learn to care for and be considerate to the elderly, to appreciate their lives, and to see things from their perspective.  In order to have teachers volunteer with the elderly and disabled, since 1998, a week of practical training in special schools, or care in social welfare facilities has been a requirement for teaching certificates for elementary and middle school teachers. 

However, voluntarism has not yet become as popular in Japan, as it is in United States.  Despite the recent school sponsorship in volunteer activities, only 23 percent of children join participate in volunteer activities, according to a 1999 survey of fifth- and eighth-graders in Tokyo (Kodomo no 2000). 

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After-School Activities

Elementary school students go home around 4:00 p.m., though the first- and second-graders go home earlier.  For first- to third-graders, about half of elementary schools provide after-school programs for children whose mothers or guardians work.  After school and during holidays, many children participate in their local Children’s Association, and community- or school-based sports clubs such as soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and table tennis, which are under the supervision of parents or local volunteers.  According to a 2000 survey, about half of fourth- to sixth-graders (44.6%) join their neighborhood-based Children’s Association.  More than forty percent of boys (40.2%) and 19.4 percent of girls participate in a sports club.  One-third (34.3%) do not join any associations (Naikakufu 2001b).  Public schools open their gymnasiums and school grounds for private sports clubs that are registered with the municipal administration.  Some teams practice two or three times a week.  For example, one soccer team practices from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays and from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Sundays.

Most children participate in community festivals. Parents’ involvement in community activities effects their children’s participation. Two-thirds of children whose parents joined a festival participated in community festivals, while less than half of all children whose parents do not join a festival participate (Sōmuchō 1996:100-101, 223).

The MOE started to subsidize local educational activities during holidays and after-school in April 2002.  Children can participate in community activities such as making traditional crafts with the elderly, working in the fields with farmers, collecting plants and insects, and learning techniques in factories, rather than going to cram schools, watching TV, or playing games at home (AS August 30, 2001). 

After-School Programs

After-school programs provide childcare for children from first to third grades whose mothers or guardians work.  Working mothers who cannot find a caregiver may send their children to after-school programs if the school or the community has one.  At school or in public facilities, the children do homework, play with friends, have snacks, and relax under the supervision of after-school teachers until 5:00 p.m. 

In 1966, the MOE started a small-scale subsidized childcare service for latchkey children.  In 1975, the Ministry of Health and Welfare initiated “the childcare club” in urban areas.  When most mothers with small children stayed home in the 1960s and 1970s, many full-time working mothers were from low-income households.  Therefore, the after-school programs were regarded as a social welfare program for poor children.  Over the past two decades, the number of working mothers with small children has been increasing.  Now that the half of the mothers of first- to third-graders work outside the home, after-school programs are in high demand. 

After the childbirth rate hit its all-time low (the so-called “1.57 shock”) in 1989, the government took a serious look at childcare in order to stop the falling birth rate.  The government recognized the importance of after-school programs in the 1994 Angel Plan and in the revised Child Welfare Law in 1997.  According to a 1995 survey (N=718) of full-time working mothers with children in first through third grades, 44.2 percent of mothers who did not live with their parents or in-laws sent their children to the after-school programs (Fujin Shōnen Kyōkai 1995:14).

According to the National Federation of After-School Programs survey, by May 1, 2002, there were an unprecedented 12,825 programs for about 490,000 children.  More than 60 percent of after-school programs are operated by local governments and social welfare associations.  Almost half of after-school programs (43.3%) are school-based, 19.3 percent are in children’s centers, 18.1 percent in other public facilities, 9.1 percent in private homes, 6.3 percent in corporate facilities, and 3.3 percent in other places.  More than half of elementary schools (53.3%) have after-school programs.  Still more after-school programs are needed because only 170,000 of 420,000 first-grade children from nursery schools attend after-school programs (Zenkoku 2002). 

The government needs to support more of these programs.  The government subsidizes 3 million yen (one-third each from the national, prefectural, and municipal governments) per year to programs with at least 20 children.  The Ministry of Health and Welfare decided to add subsidies to the programs that operate more than 6 hours a day and after 6:00 p.m. to meet the needs of mothers who work late (AS September 21, 1998).  After-school programs can operate efficiently and at minimum cost because public schools and community facilities are available at no cost for after-school programs.  Moreover, caregivers can be recruited from a large pool of highly educated homemakers, some of whom hold teaching certificates.  The government plans to add 15,000 more after-school centers for first- to third-grade children by 2004.  Half of these after-school centers will be run by the private sector and nonprofit organizations (NPOs) (AS May 21, 2001). 

The After-School Program at Momo Elementary School

The Department of Lifelong Education under the Marugame Board of Education supervises after-school programs.8  An after-school program for latchkey children started at one elementary school in downtown Marugame City in 1966.  In 1967, after-school programs operated in four urban elementary schools, and in six rural elementary schools during the planting and harvesting seasons.  These rural programs finally adopted a regular daily schedule in 1996.  In April 1999, 19.3 percent of students (433 students) in Marugame attended after-school programs in their elementary schools.

The after-school program at Momo Elementary School in Marugame operates from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.  Two after-school teachers take care of 27 first- to third-graders.  There are no after-school programs during spring and winter vacations, but there is a two-week program during summer vacation.  During summer vacation, the program runs from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for four weeks.  Only ten children attended after-school programs during summer vacation in 1997.  One teacher said to me that offering childcare services only in the morning did not make much sense because it did not help full-time working mothers.  

The after-school program operates in a small building with one large tatami mat room at the corner of the school grounds.  Momo Elementary School has one of the oldest after-school programs, and that is why this facility is rather out-dated.  The new after-school programs in other schools have much better facilities.  In Momo, the children sit on the floor along three long wooden desks.  There are two stoves, a bookshelf with children’s books, cards, comic books, origami, an organ, a sink for washing hands, and a shoe rack at the entrance.  The maximum number of students per teacher is 40, the same size as a regular class.  In the 1997-8 school year, 41 children were officially registered for this program.  Therefore, there are two teachers for this club. 

After school, children entered this building, saying, “I am home” (tadaima).  They began to do their homework, and asked one of the teachers for help if necessary.  After finishing their homework, some children went out to play on the school grounds.  When it started raining, they came inside.  Three boys played with blocks, two girls played with cards, one girl read comic books, three girls drew pictures, and two girls played at cat’s cradle with the teachers.  One teacher said that the children usually liked to play in the schoolyard, but they stayed inside because of rain.  Snack time was at 3:30.  All of the children looked forward to it, but they had to have finished their homework if they wanted a snack.  They chose four kinds of snacks from rice crackers, cookies, tangerines, candies, and so on. 

One boy did not want to do his homework.  The teachers tried unsuccessfully to get him to sit down and do his homework.  They threatened not to give him any snacks.  He had not received a snack the day before.  He did not finish his homework, but the teachers gave him a snack anyway.  The teachers could have been stricter, but the after-school programs foster a more relaxed attitude between teachers and students.  After-school teachers are more like baby-sitters than classroom teachers. 

Private Lessons (naraigoto) and “Cram Schools” (juku)

Parents are concerned about the academic achievement of their children, and encourage them to earn the highest grades, apply to better high schools, attend selective colleges, and eventually land well-paying jobs.  Mothers are usually the ones who help their children study, and create favorable study environments for them at home.  The majority of children have their own study room and desk.  Many parents send their children to private lessons (naraigoto) to learn swimming, calligraphy, and piano.  In addition, they buy worksheets and workbooks for their children and send them to “cram schools” (juku).

Since the 1970s, after-school private lessons for piano, calligraphy, swimming, abacus, and English conversation have been popular among elementary schoolchildren.  In 2000, male elementary school students attended after-school lessons for (in descending order) swimming, piano, and calligraphy, while female students preferred piano, calligraphy, and swimming (Japan Information 2002).  When they enter middle school, many middle school students stop taking music and sports lessons, and attend private study classes, “cram school” (juku) instead.

According to a 2000 study of educational expenditures, one-third of elementary school students (36.7%) attended juku, and parents spent on average 119,000 yen per year for juku (Monbukagakushō 2002c).  The juku for elementary school children usually operates informally in the private home of an individual juku teacher, often a retired teacher or a homemaker.  Children attend juku late in the afternoon several times a week, or every day.  Children review their schoolwork by doing homework and studying workbooks with juku teachers.  Many of these teachers are homemakers who have teaching certificates but did not become teachers or who retired early to raise children of their own.  They start a juku in their homes after their children have grown up.  The juku helps elementary school children review schoolwork and homework for relatively low fees.  In this sense, the juku plays an important role in supplementing children’s schoolwork.  

Students At Home

At home, a typical elementary school child studies for thirty minutes to one hour, watches TV for three hours, and also plays computer games.  According to a 1999 survey of fourth to sixth graders, almost half (41.8%) studied for thirty minutes, one-fifth of them (19.1%) studied for one hour, a few of them (3.5%) for two hours, while one-third of them (33.2%) did not study the day before the survey.  Also, one-fourth (24.9%) of elementary students watched TV or videos, or played games for two hours, another one-fourth (24.5%) did so for one hour, and 19.4 percent did so for three hours.  More than one-third (37.1%) said that they did not play with friends the day before the survey (Sōmuchō 2000b:64-66).  According to a 2003 survey, 62 percent of elementary school children use the Internet (AS June 5, 2004).  According to a cross-cultural survey in Japan and the United States, the fifth graders in Sendai, Japan spent six hours a week on homework, while the fifth graders in Minneapolis spent four hours a week (Stevenson and Stigler 1992:54-55).   

Parents with only one or two children spend more time helping their children excel at school.  Many mothers check children’s homework, notebooks, tests, and school journals every day.  Teachers contact parents every day through classroom handouts, and/or daily journals.  Students write a daily schedule and make entries in a daily journal, in which teachers and parents add comments of their own.  The Parents’ Associations at elementary school are generally active in organizing school events, such as a sports day.  PTA meetings are usually held after school visitation day when parents visit and see their children’s classes at least once a trimester.  Nowadays schools try to have school visitation day on the weekend so that both parents can visit the classes.  As the number of working mothers increases, fewer mothers have time to join the Parents’ Association.  Many PTA meetings are now held in the evening when most parents can attend.  Parent-teacher conferences are held at the end of each trimester to discuss children’s school performance and behavior.  Many schools have scheduled an open school day when schools invite parents and community residents to school events, such as a sports day.

The positive and active involvement of parents contributes to the academic success of children.  The correlation between parents’ educational level and children’s expectations is remarkable.  Sixty-two percent of children in the fourth to ninth grade whose fathers are college graduates plan to attend college, while only 26 percent of children whose fathers are middle school graduates plan to attend college (Sōmuchō 1996:169).

About half of fourth to sixth graders plan to attend college.  According to a 1999 survey of fourth to sixth graders, about 38.5 percent of boys plan to attend a four-year college, 7.2 percent plan to attend a junior college or specialized training college, while 40.1 percent want to work after high school, and 10.4 percent have not yet decided.  Comparatively, about 34 percent of girls plan to attend four-year colleges, 18.4 percent to junior colleges or specialized training colleges, while 35.1 percent plan to work after high school, and 12 percent have not yet decided (Sōmuchō 2000b:61).  According to a 1995 survey of fourth to sixth graders, many boys want to be a professional sports player (25.3%) or company employee (5.6%), while 38.2 percent are not sure.  Among girls, the most popular occupation is teaching (12.3%) and the next most popular is nursing or care-giving at a daycare center and kindergarten (9.7%), while 37.5 percent are unsure (Sōmuchō 1996:72-73). 

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Homeroom classes are the core of elementary school education.  Homeroom teachers teach all subjects to their classes, and stay with their homeroom students all day.  Homeroom teachers are also responsible for the character development of their students.

The “collapse of homeroom classes” (gakkyū hōkai) has become a major problem in elementary schools.  The term first appeared in educational journals in 1997.  Since 1998, the mass media has publicized this problem (Asahi 1999:230).  The “collapse of homeroom classes” refers to a dysfunctional homeroom class where a homeroom teacher has lost control over classroom management and student behavior for a certain amount of time (Monbushō 1999b:84). 

This phenomenon occurs most frequently in elementary schools.  There have always been troublemakers who ignore their teachers, and disturb the classroom.  But when other students join the troublemakers and interrupt instruction regularly over several weeks, the homeroom teacher cannot enforce discipline.  Once the students no longer respect the authority of the homeroom teachers, the class is considered “collapsed.”  “Collapsed” homeroom classes tend to be messy (Ogi 2000:10-14).  The students walk around at will, even leaving the classroom or screaming (Asahi 1999:57-8). 

According to a 2001 survey, 26.0 percent of elementary school principals and 32.4 percent of elementary school teachers said that their school had some form of “collapse of homeroom classes” (AS October 2, 2001).  The television program, “Spreading Collapse of Homeroom Classes,” broadcast on June 19, 1998, stated that eight percent of 1,300 teachers surveyed had experienced a “collapse of the homeroom class” (Kawakami 1999:190-1). 

These troublemakers in the first to third grades are not ready to sit still and accept instruction.  According to a survey in 1998, the overwhelming majority of childcare providers contend that children have become more self-centered, rough, and spoiled than ever, and that children stayed up later at night mainly because of the lack of discipline at home.  The 1989 Course of Study for Preschool has drastically changed preschool education from the teacher-centered classroom to child-centered education.  Children may have trouble adjusting to a more regimented elementary school after having become accustomed to the unstructured days in preschools.  Ogi argues that the “collapse of homeroom classes” began in 1994-1995 when the children who had experienced child-centered preschool education since 1990 entered elementary school (Ogi 2000:89, 94). 

It has been argued that children become self-centered at school when they are not disciplined at home, and the class is boring in comparison to video games and comics (Asahi 1999:232).  Parents are also blamed for their out-of-control and undisciplined children.  Young parents who were raised amid the material culture of the 1970s tended to spoil their children like themselves (AS February 11, 1999). 

Furthermore, the media and the public blame homeroom teacher for losing control of the classroom.  The age difference between aging teachers and children needs to be seriously considered (Asahi 1999:233-235).  The average elementary school teacher is now over 40 years old.  Older teachers are considered to have a more difficult time keeping up with the changes in society and with children.  However, teachers cannot take full responsibility for poorly disciplined children.  Cooperation between teachers and parents is necessary, and parents need to correct their children’s unacceptable behavior. 

The Research Group for Classroom Management, consisting of 18 educational specialists, principals, and superintendents, investigated 150 dysfunctional elementary school homerooms in search of the causes of the “collapse of homeroom classes.”  The results suggest that the “collapse of homeroom classes” happens more often in classes where the number of students had rapidly increased to nearly 40 students, the maximum number of students per class in elementary schools (8 cases).  The collapse of a homeroom class tends to occur more frequently when the class is large.  More than one-fourth of dysfunctional homerooms (41 classes) had 36 or more students, 7.6 students more than the national average.  The “collapse of homeroom classes” also occurs in the following situations:

1.    The class lacks cooperation with preschool education (20 cases);

2.    The class has potential troublemakers, such as children who need special attention (37 cases), do not receive enough education at home (30 cases), or are dissatisfied with the contents of subjects and pedagogy (96 cases);

3.    The homeroom class tends to be slow in resolving problems such as bullying (51 cases);

4.    The school lacks the leadership of principals and the cooperation of teachers (51 cases);

5.    The class lacks flexibility in classroom management (104 cases);

6.    The class has not built trusting relationships with parents and is slow in responding to problems (47 cases);

7.    The investigation and countermeasures against the collapse of homeroom class failed (24 cases); and

8.    Discipline at home and in the school in response to the problems failed (26 cases). 

The Group suggests that teachers, children, and parents take the “collapse of homeroom classes” as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Also, the Group advises teachers and parents to understand that the children have ‘different cultures’ and that teachers should not give up on the potential of their students.  The teachers should consult and cooperate with other teachers as well as with social and medical specialists (AS May 19, 2000).  Homeroom teachers need to admit that their homeroom class is dysfunctional as early as possible, and consult promptly with other teachers and parents.  Team-teaching can also remove some of the pressure from the homeroom teacher (Asahi 1999:17-19).  The MOE responded to the report and decided to add retired teachers as temporary teachers to troubled classrooms (AS May 19 2000).  According to a 2001 survey, the change of a homeroom teacher usually improved the situation (87.5% of 88 cases) (AS October 2, 2001).

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The majority of children between the ages 3-5 receive preschool education in yōchien (preschools and kindergarten) or hoikuen (nursery schools).  Yōchien, under the Ministry of Education (MOE), provides preschool education for four hours a day for the 3-5 year-old children of stay-at-home mothers or guardians, while hoikuen offers childcare service for 0-5 year-old children of working mothers or guardians as part of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s social welfare program.  As the number of working mothers increases, the number of children in nursery schools has also increased.  To survive an ever-decreasing number of children being born, many yōchien have begun to offer extended hours to meet the demands of working mothers.  Thus, the distinctions between yōchien and hoikuen have become unclear, as more yōchien, like hoikuen, provide extended hours until 5:00 p.m.  Some local governments have started integrating yōchien and hoikuen for all children prior to elementary school.  The integration of yōchien and hoikuen is inevitable. 

Preschool education is based on “whole person education” and child-centered education.  It emphasizes the emotional development of children, friendship, responsibility, and socialization, but not their cognitive and academic development.  Children develop creativity and sensitivity through making crafts, drawing, playing music, dancing, nurturing plants and animals, and playing.  Children develop their interpersonal skills among peers through small group activities.  Teachers let children play and resolve conflicts among themselves.  Children take turns monitoring daily tasks; every child has an opportunity to lead the class for a day.  At home, mothers teach their children basic reading and counting.  Most children can read the Japanese alphabet and count to ten before they enter elementary school. 

Elementary schools have successfully provided “whole person education,” with cognitive, moral, emotional, and physical training, based on ideals of egalitarianism and group solidarity.  Elementary school students have done well, acquiring a basic knowledge of academic subjects, and have received high scores in mathematics and science on international achievement tests. 

The government has promoted children’s creativity and independence ever since the 1987 Rinkyōshin (National Council on Educational Reform) educational reform.  The 1998 Course of Study created the field of “integrated study” (sōgōtekina gakushū no jikan) for children in and above third grade.  For at least two hours each week, they explore international issues, information science, environmental issues, social welfare, and health, through community-based social experiences.  Integrated study is designed to develop the creativity that inhabitants of a modern global society need.

The 1998 Course of Study has reduced the amount of subject content by 30 percent in order to ensure a mastery of basic knowledge.  Many educational specialists and teachers worry that it may lower the educational level of Japanese students.  Limiting class sizes to fewer than 40 students will make it easier for teachers to give individual attention to each student.  Some prefectures have already set lower limits on class size.  The recruitment of classroom aides and volunteers from the large pool of highly educated local homemakers will also help students, especially those who are struggling academically.  


1.    The Ministry of Education (MOE) provides annual statistical data on preschool and kindergarten in the Basic School Survey, and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare provides data on nursery schools.  Anthropologists and education specialists discuss preschool education on the basis of their fieldwork and/or analysis (Hendry 1986; Fujita and Sano 1988; Tobin et. al 1989; Boocock 1989; Fujita 1989; Sano 1989; Boocock 1991; Peak 1991; Lewis 1995; Ben-Ari 1997; Holloway 2000).

2.    This case study is based on my interview with the principal and my observation of children’s activities in the playgrounds and the classrooms in Sakura Preschool on February 23, 2001.

3.    This case study is based on my observation of classroom activities and interviews with teachers on February 27, 2001.

4.    Daily practices in Japanese elementary schools are described in ethnographic studies in English (Lewis 1995; Benjamin 1997; Tsuchida and Lewis 1997; Satō 2004).

5.    In the United States, parents and senior citizens are encouraged to be school volunteers and to help teachers by checking assignments, working in the library, reading to students, and helping slower learners and disabled children (Simic 1991; Lipson 1994).

6.    After examining moral education textbooks, Khan concludes that concepts such as “thoughtfulness,” “reverence,” “modesty,” “patriotism,” and “sincerity” in moral education resemble those of the prewar moral education (shūshin), except for the emphasis on imperial ideology (Khan 1997:204-205).  McVeigh argues that moral education takes a role in reproducing the ideology of the politico-economic elite, that is, hierarchy, social categorization, and cultural homogeneity in the minds of students (McVeigh 1998).

7.    According to the 1989 Course of Study, life environment studies replaced social studies and science for first and second graders in 1992.

8.    I observed an after-school program at Momo Elementary School on February 24, 1998.

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