Japanese Education in the 21st Century
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    Contents of This Chapter
    1. 6-1-1    TEACHER PROFILES
  2. 6-2    TEACHERS’ UNIONS
    1. 6-2-1    THE HISTORY OF THE JTU
    2. 6-2-2    THE DECLINE OF THE JTU
  5. NOTES

Careers in education are very popular in Japan and college graduates vie for the few available teaching positions.  Teaching jobs guarantee lifelong income and relatively high occupational prestige.  This chapter will describe and discuss Japanese teachers, analyzing their profiles, qualifications, the profession, and the occupational culture.  In addition, this chapter will compare Japanese and American teachers.



The number of elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers has been decreasing, in light of the declining birthrate.1  The number of newly appointed elementary school teachers in 2000 was 6,000, slightly more than one-third of the 16,200 teachers appointed in 1991.  The number of newly appointed middle school teachers in 2000 was 5,100, down from 12,000 in 1991.  The number of newly appointed high school teachers in 2000 was 6,500, a little more than two-thirds of the 8,600 teachers appointed in 1991.  Therefore, the average age of teachers has been rising (Monbukagakushō 2003a).

However, starting in April 2002, the number of new elementary school teachers was greatly increased, because elementary schools have started to assign two classroom teachers in the lower grades, and divide a class into two for main subjects.  In a few years, the number of new middle school teachers will also see an increase (AS October 14, 2001).

In 2003, 62.7 percent of elementary school teachers, 40.9 percent of middle school teachers, and 27.1 percent of high school teachers were female (Monbukagakushō 2004a).  Teaching is a very popular career among college-educated women, because it is one of a few professions which offer pay equity, and allow women who have children to be committed to their family and childcare responsibilities.  In 1960, 46 percent of college-educated women accepted a teaching job, while in 1995 only 7.6 percent did so (Tanaka 1997:136).  This is due to the growing number of female college graduates and the shrinking number of job openings in schools. 

The number of female principals and vice-principals has increased rapidly, especially in elementary schools.  Despite the efforts of feminists, a large gender gap remains in school administration.  In 2001, only 16.5 percent of elementary school principals were female.  The comparable figures for middle and high schools were 3.9 percent and 4.0 percent respectively (Monbukagakushō 2003a).  Many female teachers, in fact, decline managerial or administrative positions because they would rather remain in the classroom teachers, focus on their family responsibilities, or lack the confidence to be an administrator (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999:187).

Table 6.1    Teacher Profiles in 2001
Number Age Percentage of Female Teachers Percentage of Female Principals (Vice-Principals)
Elementary School 387,000 43.4 61.6% 16.5% (22.4%)
Middle School 242,000 41.8 39.5% 3.9% (7.7%)
High School 256,000 43.8 25.2% 4.0% (4.4%)
 (Source: Monbukagakushō 2003a)

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Before the educational reform of 1947, most teachers were trained in normal schools.  The first normal school was founded in 1872 when the School Law regulated four-year compulsory elementary education for the first time.  In 1897, normal schools, women’s normal schools, and higher normal schools were established.  Elementary school teachers required four years of training from normal schools or women’s normal schools.  Middle school teachers had three more years of training in higher normal schools after graduating from normal schools.  Tokyo and Hiroshima teacher’s colleges provided advanced studies in education for graduates of higher normal schools.  The training period in normal schools was expanded to five years for higher elementary graduates and to two years for students who graduated from middle school.  In 1943, normal schools were upgraded to professional schools, and required a degree from a middle school and three more years of training.

In the reform of 1949, normal schools were incorporated into the university system.  National universities were established in each prefecture, and included education departments for producing elementary and middle school teachers in their hometown prefectures.  Education for teachers included specialized preparation in education and in the liberal arts.  Education departments in 45 national universities and seven teachers’ colleges have provided training for elementary and middle school teachers.  However, responding to the drop in demand for new teachers, the MOE plans to integrate the departments of education in adjacent national universities (AS November 23, 2001).  The majority of high school teachers are not education majors, but took degrees in fields like mathematics and history.

Under an open license system, teaching certificates are granted to anyone who completes the required courses necessary for the teaching certificate in junior or four-year colleges.  The prefectural board of education grants a teaching certificate to those who meet the certification requirements.  Anyone who has a teaching certificate is eligible to take a prefectural examination to become a teacher.

The prefectural board of education hires new teachers through written examination and interviews.  The prefectural examination includes a written examination, swimming examination, and a test of musical abilities for elementary school teachers, and specialized subject examinations for middle and high school teachers.  Interviews and presentations gained in importance.  The board of education appoints teachers who are recommended by the superintendent.  The confidentiality and the closed nature of the selection procedure have fostered suspicions of nepotism and favoritism.  Rumors often circulate that the children of teachers and local authorities may receive special favors so that they pass the prefectural examination.  The selection process should be more open to the public.

In 1988, the National Council on Educational Reform recommended the deregulation of the recruitment system.  A one-year course to obtain a teaching certificate became available to adults who wanted to become teachers.  Special certificates for temporary teachers were made available to those without teaching certificates, but have the necessary knowledge and skills.  Most prefectures establish the age limit to take the prefectural examination.  The age limit should be abolished, and the recruitment of full-time faculty teachers should be open to anybody with qualifications.  Adults with experience outside of academia could give students different and worthwhile perspectives.  Students could also have an opportunity to learn from someone who has practical experience in the world outside of academia.

Japanese citizenship is required of those who wish to become full-time faculty.  Activists for the rights of Korean residents in Japan have fought hard for the abolition of nationality clauses for civil servants.  In 1991, the MOE finally notified the prefectural administration that the article on nationality should be abolished from the prefectural examination for public school teachers and that the prefectural administration could conditionally employ permanent residents as permanent teachers.  They are excluded from the positions of homeroom teachers, supervisors, vice-principals, or principals.

Passing a prefectural examination is very competitive because of the scarcity of teaching positions.  A new public school teacher had to pass prefectural examinations whose passing rate was one out of every 8.3 (5.3 for elementary school teachers, 11.8 for middle school teachers, and 13.9 times for high school teachers) in 2003.  New college graduates comprised only 24.7 percent of all new teachers in 2003 (Monbukagakushō 2004e).

The education departments of the national university have produced the largest number of elementary and middle teachers since 1947.  More than half (55.5%) of graduates from education departments at the national universities became teachers in 2003.  It has increased since 32 percent, the smallest percentage on record in 1999 (AS December 14 2004).  Since the 2002-3 school year, the number of new elementary school teachers has increased and will continue to increase because of the promotion of 20-student classes for some subjects in elementary and middle schools.

The competition has been exacerbated by the recent popularity of teaching jobs in this sluggish economic climate.  Public teachers have a stable income for life and good pensions.  Jobs in the public sector are more attractive than those in private sectors.  Many private companies are fighting for their survival, and many large corporations no longer guarantee a job for life.  Furthermore, teachers enjoy more respect and occupational prestige than most white-collar workers.  Teachers are addressed by honorifics such as “sensei,” the same as medical doctors, politicians, and professors.  According to the 1995 Social Stratification and Social Mobility Survey (SSM), the occupational prestige score of elementary school teachers, 63.6, is higher than that of bank employees (56.4), section chiefs of municipal administrations (56.9), but a little lower than automobile engineers (66.3) (Tsuzuki 2000:40)

New teachers who have passed extremely competitive prefectural exams are highly qualified for the positions that they hope to hold.  They are graduates of national universities or selective private universities.  According to a survey, teachers choose their careers through influence from their parents and former teachers, by reading books about teaching, and/or by watching television series about teachers (Yamasaki 1994:225-227).

An overwhelming majority of teachers are graduates from four-year colleges with bachelor’s degrees.  Most teachers do not have a master’s degree, but the number of teachers with master’s degrees has been increasing.  After the 1998 reform, students who have a master’s degree have received a teaching certificate superior to the existing first-class certificate, and have fast-tracked to managerial positions.  Due to the competition for teaching positions, many applicants who failed a prefectural examination enroll in master’s courses for a superior certificate so that they may improve their odds of passing the prefectural examination.

Once they have passed the prefectural examination, teachers are assigned to schools by the prefectural board of education.  After completing a one-year internship, they are granted tenure for life.  The prefectural board of education rotates teachers from school to school every three to five years in order to provide a consistent quality of education to all students.  Teachers’ salaries are determined on the basis of their seniority and managerial positions.  There are few regional discrepancies in teachers’ salaries because the MOE subsidizes the educational expenses of the prefectures.  The MOE plans to entrust each prefectural administration with more authority on deciding a salary system for teachers.  Since 2006, the government plans to permit the local administration hire teachers in their jurisdiction.

Few teachers face dismissal because of criminal or administrative misconduct.  Among 3,966 public teachers who received some occupational citation or warning, including 98 dismissals, in the 2000-1 school year, 141 teachers were charged with obscenity, 428 teachers were charged with physical punishment, and 265 teachers were charged in matters concerning the Hinomaru (national flag) and Kimigayo (anthem) (AS December 27, 2001). 

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Teachers have been teaching students five days a week since April 2002.  In most cases, they often go to school during summer, winter, and spring vacations, and take some days off when they can.  They teach fewer hours than American teachers, but spend more time on paperwork and extracurricular clubs.  Most teachers report that they are burned out by their heavy workloads.  According to a survey taken by the Zenkyō (All Japan Teachers and Staffs Union), teachers worked an average of 55 hours a week, 11 hours more than the required 44.  On average, teachers spent 10 hours and 36 minutes a day at school, arriving at school at 7:49 a.m. and leaving at 6:25 p.m.  Forty-four percent of teachers took fewer than 10 days off even during the forty-day summer holiday.  Male middle and high school teachers were more likely than female teachers to supervise after-school extracurricular sports clubs, spending an average of 2 hours and 41 minutes a week, while female teachers were more likely to supervise non-sports clubs, spending on average 54 minutes a week.  Furthermore, male teachers spent more time on school administration and paperwork than female teachers (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999:141, 152, 179).  However, since a four percent salary increase for overtime work is paid to all teachers, whether they worked overtime or not, these extra hours are more likely to be considered unpaid work.

According to the survey, more than 90 percent of teachers reported that they were “busy” or “extremely busy.”  Elementary and middle school teachers spend a great deal of time on paperwork, school events, meetings, and extracurricular clubs.  Many teachers think that teaching requires self-sacrifice, dedication and stress.  They also feel that they deserve to have higher salaries and respect from society.  However, teachers reported that they loved spending time with children (Kudomi 1994a:244-247).  According to the Zenkyō survey, 58 percent of teachers had considered quitting, and the majority of them cited health problems caused by overwork as one reason (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999:152).

Teachers are responsible for guidance and counseling because most schools do not have school psychologists and counselors.  The teachers in the student guidance committee are in charge of disciplining students with the cooperation of their homeroom teacher, a nurse-teacher, and the supervising teacher of their extracurricular club at school.  Since 1995, the MOE has begun to deploy school counselors to school in order to supervise troubled students.  Although there are now more school counselors than ever before, there is still less than one counselor per school.  It is important to have school counselors to deal with bullying, school refusal syndrome, and misconduct because school counselors deal with psychological problems, and have different perspectives from teachers.

Smaller classes and the team-teaching system can reduce teacher workloads.  The 30-student class proposal has been rejected by the MOE because of the expense.  Instead, since April 2001, the MOE has allowed schools to create 20-student study groups for Japanese language arts, mathematics, and science in elementary schools, and English, mathematics, and science in middle schools.

In 1993, the MOE established team-teaching system in order to pay closer attention to individual students, and to reduce teachers’ workloads.  From 1993 to 2000 the MOE increased the number of teachers to approximately 15,900.  In the 2001-2 school year, 46 percent of public elementary schools and 74 percent of public middle schools provided team-taught classes, especially in mathematics.  Starting in the 2001-2 school year, the MOE increased the number of teachers to 22,500 over five years in order to provide small study groups of 20 students for elementary and middle school classes. The prefectures can employ several temporary teachers instead of one regular teacher for the same amount of money (AS July 9, 2002; Monbukagakushō 2003b:126-127).  In 2001, the MOE began to subsidize 50,000 supplementary teachers who would be recruited over three years among the general public, including people without teaching certificates and retired teachers.  These instructors would teach computer skills or other practical subjects for approximately 30 hours a week, forming team-teaching groups with regular teachers.  Schools also invite retired teachers or local residents to come in and teach a few days a week as paid volunteers (AS August 4, 2001; Monbukagakushō 2003b:62-63).  It is a good idea for schools to recruit classroom aides and volunteers from the community.  This can be implemented with relatively small budgetary outlays because of the large number of educated homemakers who are willing to work as teachers’ aides.   

The prefectural government employs and pays public school teachers.  The national government covers the educational expenses of prefectures in order to provide uniform salaries to all public teachers in the nation. The Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) fought vigorously for better pay through nationwide strikes in the late 1960s, and in 1971 won a uniform 4 percent increase to all teachers for overtime work.  In 1974, the government increased salaries for teachers.  Since then, all elementary and secondary teachers have been paid at least 10 percent more than civil servants in the same length of service, in order to attract more highly qualified people.  All teachers are paid a basic salary based on the length of their tenure, in addition to fringe benefits.  At retirement, teachers are paid a lump sum that amounts to more than two years of their salary.  Teachers with 40 years of service also receive an annual pension of 70 percent of the last year’s salary for the rest of their lives.

The National Commission on Educational Reform proposes “special bonuses” for teachers who have brought about good results from their students, which is against the principle of educator egalitarianism sought by the JTU and the Zenkyō.  Therefore, whether or not “special bonuses” will be introduced remains to be seen.  In the United States, some states have provided cash bonuses for teachers who have improved the performance of their students on standardized tests.  Governor Gray Davis of California promised awards of $25,000 to the 1,000 teachers whose students’ test scores rose the most.  An additional 3,750 employees will receive $10,000 each, and 7,500 will get $5,000 each under the testing-and-accountability program (Los Angeles Times October 10, 2001).

The National Council on Educational Reform (Rinkyōshin) has recommended upgrading in-service training to make classroom teachers more effective. The in-service training for teachers includes an education program, in-house workshops, voluntary in-service workshops, and two-year master’s programs at teacher’s colleges.  In-service training helps teachers develop their pedagogical skills by working with other teachers.  Teachers can now have a one to twelve-month internship in a private company or social welfare facility.  Since April 2001, teachers can take a leave of absence in order to complete a master’s program. 

Municipal boards of education, teachers’ associations, and unions arrange national, prefectural, and municipal workshops for teachers to discuss pedagogy.  Each school provides in-house teachers’ workshops.  Many teachers are interested in improving their teaching skills in voluntary study groups.  Furthermore, teachers themselves organize pedagogical workshops.  For example, Dōwa teachers of Buraku children attend national and prefectural Dōwa Teachers’ Conferences, in addition to municipal workshops and meetings (See Chapter 9).  They also publish their own pedagogical journals.  

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Many teachers spend their spare time at school and outside of school with other teachers.  Many teachers have spouses, parents, and siblings who are also teachers.  According to a survey of elementary and middle school teachers, 60 percent of teachers are married to other teachers or former teachers, and 65.6 percent of teachers have relatives who are also teachers (Kudomi 1994a:187-188).  Teachers interact with each other in the teachers’ lounge during the recess and daily teachers’ conference.  In the lounge, all desks are placed together according to grades or academic subjects.  Some middle and high schools have a small teachers’ room for each academic subject, and teachers stay there when they have free time.  They have morning and afternoon meetings in the teachers’ lounge to discuss daily school events and student behavior.  During recess, they discuss troubled students, teaching methods and contents, school events, and class management.  Though it is good to exchange ideas, in Japan the pressure to cooperate with other teachers is high.  Teachers sometimes socialize with their colleagues on the weekend and after school.  The majority of schools have informal groups formed by young teachers, female teachers, drinking buddies, and homeroom teachers from the same grade.  In addition, many schools have sports groups, and groups of experienced teachers that form social clubs. 

Teachers as well as parents admire hard-working teachers who are enthusiastic and dedicated to their students.  Therefore, many teachers feel pressured to dedicate more time to their students in order to earn good reputations from their colleagues and the parents.  A vast majority of teachers claimed to be extremely busy.  Those who have burned out no longer enjoy their work.  Female teachers participate in extracurricular clubs less frequently than male teachers, but they often have to balance their teaching with their family responsibilities.  They spend most Sundays catching up on housework.  In contrast, male teachers watch TV or engage in hobbies, or go to school to supervise extracurricular activities on Sunday (Kudomi 1994a:193, 244, 278-279).  Female teachers spend 2 hours and 25 minutes on housework and child rearing a day while male teachers spend 45 minutes a day (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999:179).  The Saturday break since April 2002 has helped teachers relax more.

Each teacher has his or her own life style, teaching principles, and work ethic.  They have different attitudes, union activities, teaching principles, and academic interests.  Satō categorizes teachers as public servants, workers, technocrats, and reflective practitioners.  Before the end of World War II, teachers were “public servants” who served the country and the emperor, and the teaching profession was a “sacred profession.”  The image of teachers as “public servants” persists to this day.  The Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) regarded teachers as a “proletarian workforce” and fought for better working conditions for teachers in the 1960s.  Teachers as “workers” created the image of “salaried teachers.”  “Salaried teachers” teach only for the paycheck, try to avoid overtime, and do not belong to unions or supervise extracurricular clubs.  Many female teachers became “salaried teachers” because of their family responsibilities.  “Technocrat” teachers promote their professional pedagogy based on academic theory and technology.  “Reflective practitioners” improve their teaching skills and abilities through teaching practices and reflection through informal relationships with other teachers and through study groups (Satō 1994:30-31, 38-39).

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Until the 1990s, the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU), led by socialists and communists, were instrumental in countering the conservative MOE.  In the 1990s, the JTU made a historic compromise with the MOE.  The JTU was one of the largest left-wing unions that had belonged to the Sōhyō (General Council of Trade Unions).  In 1989, when Sōhyō was absorbed into the more moderate Rengō (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), the JTU also joined the Rengō.  In 2004, the JTU had 310,000 members, 29.9 percent of all teachers, and 18.9 percent of new teachers joined the JTU (Monbukagakushō 2004g).  The influence of the JTU varies by prefecture.

The second largest national union is All Japan Teachers and Staffs Union (Zenkyō), which had 7.6 percent of all teachers in 2004 (Monbukagakushō 2004g).  Former JTU members who opposed the JTU’s compromise with the MOE, mainly supporters of the Japan Communist Party (JCP), split from the JTU and formed the Zenkyō in 1991.  The Zenkyō belongs to the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenrōren), which cooperates with the JCP.  The Zenkyō does not agree with the JTU’s partnership with the MOE, and follows the traditional oppositional stance of the JTU.  The Zenkyō campaigns for 30-student classes, and opposes militarism, with the old motto: “Never send our students to war!”

The Japan High School Teachers Union (Nikkōso) was formed in 1950, and split from the JTU in 1956 because they preferred political neutrality and less confrontational approaches, and were dissatisfied with the JTU’s focus on primary education.  Another large union is the National Teachers Federation of Japan (Zennichikyōren), which was formed in 1984 and includes the association that originally split from the JTU in 1957.  The Zennichikyōren takes a moderate and apolitical position, but tends to lean towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. 


In 1947, the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) was founded on the ideals of egalitarianism, grass roots democracy, and peace, the same principles supported by the postwar labor movement.  The JTU admired the postwar educational reforms enacted by the GHQ, such as child-centered progressive education, the publicly elected board of education, and the decentralization of education.  However, the JTU was disappointed by the resurgence of militarism and conservatism during the Cold War.  In the late 1940s, the GHQ purged socialist and communist teachers.

Peace education is the corner stone of the JTU platform.  In 1951, the JTU adopted the slogan “Never send our students to war again!”  Teachers and the general public were deeply hurt by the devastation of World War II, and were very sensitive about wartime military deployment and patriotism.  Many teachers regretted having shared in the ultra-nationalistic and patriotic education, which had encouraged their students to die for the Emperor.  The JTU’s commitment to peace education and anti-militarism arose from this profound sense of professional guilt.

After Japan’s independence in 1952, the MOE tried to rescind the GHQ’s liberal educational reforms, and reassert its control over education.  In 1958, 86 percent of all educators belonged to the JTU (Monbukagakushō 2004g), and the JTU wielded tremendous influence.  In the 1952 school board elections, JTU candidates won 35 percent of the seats on prefectural school boards and 30 percent of the seats on municipal boards of education (Duke 1978:257).  Worried about the influence of leftist teachers over Japanese children, the MOE counterattacked.

In 1956, the MOE replaced the elected boards of education with appointed boards of education and prefectural superintendents approved by the MOE, in order to remove the JTU members.  In 1958, the MOE made its Course of Study legally binding, and required teachers to follow it.  The JTU, which sought autonomy and egalitarianism for teachers, fought against these changes under the slogan “Opposition, Smash, and Stop.”  The JTU regarded teachers as workers, and cited the class struggle in their 1956 and 1961 platforms (Ishikawa 1985:237-244).

The MOE shifted its emphasis from child-centered education to planned education in its 1958 Course of Study.  After 1955, progressive child-centered education declined as critics attributed the falling educational achievements of children to the child-centered education.  Instead, history and mathematics teachers advocated subject-oriented and planned study (keitō gakushū) for the improvement of academic achievement.  The 1958 and 1968 Courses of Study emphasized systematic education.  At the same time, however, the JTU praised egalitarian and democratic child-centered education.

In 1958, the MOE reintroduced moral education (dōtoku).  The pre-war moral education (shūshin), which molded Japanese children into the emperor’s soldiers, had been prohibited by the GHQ.  The JTU accused the MOE of reviving wartime patriotism and nationalism.  However, moral education, which is more like character and value education, is not as nationalistic or patriotic as the liberals had feared.

In fall 1956, the Ehime prefectural board of education started a Teacher Performance Assessment Program.  In 1958, the MOE and most prefectural boards of education started to implement a Teacher Performance Assessment Program.  Under this program, principals observed and evaluated teaching techniques, attitudes, and work ethic, and used the evaluations for the promotion and rotation.  The JTU feared that the Program would undermine egalitarian cooperation.  The JTU vowed to fight the implementation of the Program through nationwide campaigns and strikes.  In December 1958, more than 440,000 teachers in 40 prefectures protested the Program with the support of over two million labor union members of the Sōhyō (General Council of Trade Unions) (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999:38).  More than 62,000 JTU members were punished, and 70 teachers were dismissed (Nihon Kyōshokuin 1989:10).  In 1969, the Supreme Court acquitted all Tokyo JTU teachers who had led strikes against the Program, and recognized the legality of strikes by teachers who were using their paid leaves (Kimura 1996:193).  The Program has been used nationwide, but most prefectural boards of education have not used it for promotion.

Another JTU fight was against the mandatory National Scholastic Test in 1961.  The National Scholastic Test was required by the MOE and conducted in elementary and middle schools from 1956 to 1966, and in high schools from 1956 to 1962.  At the beginning, the Test was assigned to only a portion of students.  However, in 1961, the MOE decided to test all eighth and ninth graders.  The JTU was adamantly opposed to the Test, fearing that it would bring excessive rivalry and hierarchy among schools and prefectures.  Many teachers were punished, and filed suit.  The Test was eventually abandoned in 1969.

The JTU has won better working conditions and salaries for teachers.  In 1971, the JTU obtained a 4 percent salary increase for overtime work for all teachers.  This increase for all teachers, whether they worked overtime or not, was meant to maintain professional solidarity.  Since 1974, the JTU has earned public teachers the right to be paid at least 10 percent more than other public servants.  That guaranteed teachers relatively higher salaries and occupational prestige.  Female union members were at the forefront of the crusade for maternity and childcare leave.  In 1955, they argued for and won a system of substitution that allowed them to take a 16-week maternity leave without worrying about their homeroom classes.  They also succeeded in implementing a year childcare leave for teachers, nurses, and nursery caregivers in 1975 (Nikkyōso 1977).  That led to the 1995 Child Care and Family Care Leave Law, which guarantees parental and childcare leave for all workers with a child under one year of age. 

The JTU has participated in peace movements and liberal political activities, despite legal prohibitions against public teachers engaging in political activities.  The JTU, with the JSP (Japan Socialist Party; since 1996, the Social Democratic Party of Japan), the JCP, unionists, and citizens’ groups were in the vanguard of the peace movement, and demonstrated against the 1960 and 1970 U.S.-Japan Security Treaties, rearmament legislation, the Vietnam War, nuclear and hydrogen bomb testing, and the legalization of the national flag and anthem during the 1960s and 1970s (Nihon Kyōshokuin 1989). 

The JTU opposed the required flying of the national flag, the Hinomaru and singing the anthem, the Kimigayo, in the school ceremonies in 1975 because both were symbols of Japan’s aggression in World War II.  Furthermore, the JTU actively participated in the political movements of the Sōhyō (General Council of Trade Unions) and the JSP against conservative LDP policies, such as the law for the Yasukuni Shrine in 1974 and the legalization of the usage of the emperor’s name for designating the year in 1978.  The JTU supported the 32-year-long Ienaga Textbook Authorization Suits (1965-1997) against the MOE, in a coalition of leftist individuals and groups.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, before the government launched comprehensive human rights education for minority children in the early 1990s, the JTU had been actively fighting for the rights of children in poverty, Buraku children, Korean children, and disabled children.  In the 1960s, the movement for free textbooks, free tuition, and free school lunches led by the JTU and the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) convinced the government to pay basic educational costs in elementary and middle schools (Zenkoku 1999).  At its 1961 convention, the JTU declared, “A high school education for everyone who wants one,” and demanded that the government build new high schools (Nihon Kyōshokuin 1989:12).  In 1975, the JTU participated in the liberation movement of the BLL whose leaders were also affiliated with the Japan Socialist Party.  The JTU, along with the government, the BLL and Zendōkyō (National Dōwa Educators’ Association), has supported remedial education for Buraku children.  In addition, the JTU, with Korean parents and Korean associations, have helped to promote ethnic education for Korean students in Japanese schools. 

In 1975, the government introduced a system of middle-level supervising teachers (shunin).  The JTU was afraid that creating middle-management positions without union affiliations would weaken the solidarity of union teachers.  After nationwide strikes by union teachers, in 1975 the government compromised so that the shunin system would not be regarded as managerial without union affiliation (Miyake 1994:69-70).  Middle-level supervising teachers (shunin) in elementary schools generally include a curriculum coordinator, a chief teacher for each grade, and a chief teacher for student guidance.  In addition to these supervising teachers, middle schools and high schools usually have a chief teacher for each subject department and a chief teacher for guidance for further education or employment.  The supervising teachers are paid an additional 4 percent of their annual salary on the top of the basic salaries.  The principal appoints a shunin after the approval of the principal’s recommendation by the board of education.  However, once teachers became vice-principals or principals, they have to resign their union membership.

From the inception of the JTU, internal tensions between the pro-JSP faction and the pro-JCP faction in the JTU were a consistent problem at the national level until the withdrawal of pro-JCP faction in 1991.  The JSP faction supported strikes, as one of the most effective strategies of union workers, while the JCP faction was unenthusiastic about strikes.  By 1962, Socialists had won the majority at the national level of the organization.  At the prefectural level, most prefectures had two teachers’ unions affiliated with the JTU: one for elementary and middle school teachers and the other for high school teachers.  At the school level, JTU teachers and non-union teachers avoided ideological battles, and compromised on practical matters.

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In 1989, the JTU joined the Rengō when its parent union federation, Sōhyō was absorbed into the Rengō.  The Rengō, which had been formed by the private sector unions, sought more conciliatory approaches than the socialist-dominated Sōhyō (comprised mainly of public sector unions).  As a result, in 1991, pro-JCP union members, a non-mainstream faction, left the JTU, and established another national teachers union, the Zenkyō.  The Zenkyō belongs to the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenrōren) and is affiliated with the JCP.  At the prefectural level, JTU members voted on what directions to take, and the dissidents created an alternative union.  The JTU had 48.5 percent of educational personnel as members in 1987.  After the split of the Zenkyō from the JTU, in 1992, 35 percent of teachers belonged to the JTU, 11 percent to the Zenkyō and 13 percent to other teachers unions, while 41 percent did not belong to any union.  Some prefectures had strong ties to the JTU, some had with the Zenkyō or other unions.  For example, 85 percent of teachers belonged to the JTU, and other 15 percent did not belong to any teachers union at all in Fukui prefecture, while 46 percent of teachers belonged to the Zenkyō, 11 percent to other unions, and only one percent to the JTU in Kyoto prefecture.  In Ehime prefecture, 62 percent of teachers belonged to other unions and only 1 percent to the JTU and another 1 percent to the Zenkyō (Aspinall 2001:48, 60-61).  In 2004, 29.9 percent of all teachers belonged to the JTU and 7.6 percent belonged to the Zenkyō (Monbukagakushō 2004g).

In 1989, the MOE implemented a mandatory one-year probationary internship program for all new teachers under the supervision of experienced or retired teachers, in order to improve the quality of instruction and to undermine the authority of the unions.  The JTU, the JSP and the JCP opposed this program because new teachers would miss the opportunity to join unions while they were under the direct supervision of a principal and the board of education in the first year.  However, the JTU could not block the internship program because of the JSP’s weak political stance, declining membership in the JTU, and internal conflict within the union (Miyake 1994:71).  It is very possible that new teachers would hesitate to join the union for fear that their union membership might pose an obstacle to being offered permanent teaching positions following their internships. 

In 1990, after the political power of the JTU had declined, the JTU decided to abandon its long-standing radical stance in favor of a more conciliatory approach under the new slogan, “Participation, Proposition, and Improvement.”  In its 1990 platform, the JTU avoided mentioning controversial subjects such as the Hinomaru (national flag) and the Kimigayo (anthem), internships, and the shunin system.

In 1995, the JTU reconciled with the MOE, and joined in the educational policy-making process of the MOE.  This change in the JTU followed a historical compromise of the JSP to the LDP in 1994.  The JSP formed a coalition government with the LDP under Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama of the JSP, and dropped its opposition to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Japan Self-Defense Force.

When the JTU declared its partnership with the MOE, it modified all oppositional positions, such as the forced use of the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo, the internship program for new teachers, and the shunin system.  The JTU participated in policy-making agencies, such as the influential Central Education Council of the MOE in 1996.  It became hard for the JTU to keep its previous role as an influential critic of the MOE once the two began to collaborate.  However, the JTU has a chance to affect the educational policies more pragmatically and efficiently by cooperating with the MOE.

The declining number of JTU members threatens the survival of the JTU, although the JTU remains the most popular teachers’ unions.  The factionalism among union leaders in the 1980s alienated many ordinary teachers who were more concerned with their day-to-day professional responsibilities than politics.  The ideological class-based approach does not attract young, non-political teachers.

In light of the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialism, communism, and even unionism have lost their appeal to most Japanese people.  All unions are plagued with declining membership; union members comprised only 19.6 percent of the workforce in 2003 (Kōseirōdōshō 2003a).  Most teachers are not affiliated with any political parties, and are more involved with daily schoolwork.  Since teachers have already won relatively good salaries, secure pensions, maternity and childcare leave, better working conditions are less of an issue than in previous years.  However, teachers still need to fight for the educational environment and for better working conditions.  The JTU and other teachers’ unions need to devise more practical plans and proposals in order to regain their popularity among new teachers.  Otherwise, few teachers will pay the monthly union dues of 10,000 yen.

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In the United States an estimated 3.4 million elementary and secondary school teachers were engaged in classroom instruction in the fall of 2002 (NCES 2004a).  The average age for both American and Japanese teachers is rising, and currently the average teacher is over 40 years old.  In the United States, the average age of full-time teachers is rising as the large pool of teachers hired in the mid-1970s has aged.  In the spring of 2001, 79.0 percent of public school teachers were women, and their median age was 46.  The median number of years of teaching experience was 14 years.  Teachers were 84.3 percent whites, 7.6 percent blacks, 5.6 percent Hispanics, 1.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders and 0.9 percent American Indian/Alaska Natives in 1999-2000, while the student body in public elementary and secondary schools consisted of 61.2 percent whites, 17.2 percent blacks, 16.3 percent Hispanics, 4.1 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 1.2 percent American Indians/Alaskan Natives in the fall of 2000 (NCES 2003a).  In Japan in 2001, 61.6 percent of elementary school teachers were women, but less than half of middle school teachers (39.5%) and one-fourth of high school teachers (25.2%) were female (Monbukagakushō 2003a).

Educational qualifications of teachers are one of most important determinants of the quality of the instruction that they deliver.  Almost all teachers in the United States and Japan have at least a bachelor’s degree.  In 2001, 56.0 percent of all American public school teachers had a master’s or specialist degree, and 0.8 percent had a doctoral degree (NCES 2004a).

Only a small percentage of Japanese teachers have any graduate degree.  More new teachers have master’s degrees.  Until recently, only students who sought careers in colleges and research institutes went to graduate school.  Currently, more graduate courses are available to a growing number of college graduates and people who have been out of school for years.  Also, since 1989, students with a master’s degree can receive the highest class of teaching certificate, and have a better chance at passing competitive prefectural examinations.

Becoming a teacher is far more difficult in Japan than in the United States.  Teaching jobs are one of most popular choices among college graduates in Japan.  A new public school teacher had to pass prefectural examinations whose passing rate was one out of every 8.3 in 2003 (Monbukagakushō 2004e).

Becoming a teacher in the United States is relatively easy because of the shortage of teachers, and the unpopularity of teaching jobs.  About 55,000 teachers were expected to retire in 2001.  More teachers will be needed to meet increasing enrollment – a total of 2.2 million new teachers by 2010 (TIME April 9 2001).  Most public school teachers in the United States had state certificates, or advanced professional certificates.  However, because of the nationwide teacher shortage, more new teachers hold temporary certificates, emergency certificates, or waivers, especially in schools with high minority enrollments and with many children living in poverty.  Many teachers can go into the classroom with an emergency or temporary state certification, or a state test of basic skills.  For example, more than 42,000 teachers in California who lack full credentials account for 14 percent of the workforce; they are concentrated in the lowest-performing schools with many minority children from impoverished or low-income families (Los Angeles Times December 12, 2001).

The teaching profession cannot attract top students because of low income and low occupational prestige, in contrast with other white-collar jobs such as engineering.  The occupational prestige score of public school teachers (Score 80) is lower than that of civil engineers (Score 86) (Treiman 1977:318-329).  Among college-bound seniors in California in 1997, the SAT scores of those who intended to major in education were the lowest (949) among the academic majors, lower than students planning to major in languages and literature (1141) or mathematics (1149) (Los Angeles Times May 19, 1998).  Teachers tend not to remain long in the profession because of the low salary and the demanding nature of the work.  According to the California Teachers Association, 20 percent of new teachers quit within three years, and half of them quit within five years (Los Angeles Times January 7, 2000).

Teachers’ salaries in the United States are lower than those of any other white-collar professionals.  The average salary for public school teachers reached $44,604 in 2001-2002.  After adjustment for inflation, teachers' salaries increased 2 percent between 1991-1992 and 2001-2002 (NCES 2003a).  Many teachers take summer jobs or teach summer sessions.  Wage increase for teachers in the United States is an important means for attracting and retaining qualified teachers.  Approximately one-third of American teachers “moonlight” in jobs that are unrelated to education (Satō and McLaughlin 1992:362), while Japanese public teachers are legally forbidden to do any other type of paid work.  Japanese teachers are not well paid at the beginning of their careers, but their salaries are paid every month, and are automatically increased every year.  Middle-aged teachers can enjoy a comfortable professional lifestyle.

In the United States, prospective teachers are encouraged to earn degrees in academic subjects as well as in education.  Among high school teachers, 90 percent of mathematics teachers, 94 percent of science teachers, and 96 percent of teachers in English, social studies, and foreign languages have an undergraduate or graduate major or minor in their main teaching field (NCES 1999).

In Japan, most elementary and middle school teachers have a bachelor’s degree from the Department of Education, which has a subsection for each subject.  Middle school teachers usually teach a subject in which they majored in the subsection of the Department of Education.  Almost all high school teachers teach a subject in which they majored.

Both American and Japanese teachers claim that one of their main reasons in becoming a teacher is because they liked working with children.  Four out of five American teachers said that “the desire to work with young people” was the most important reason for going into the profession (Wray 1999:229).  Many Japanese teachers think that the teaching job requires much self-sacrifice and dedication, but that teaching is fun and “it is worthwhile to spend time with children” (Kudomi 1994a:247).

American teachers have more classroom teaching hours than Japanese teachers, but they teach smaller classes, often with classroom aides.  The average number of students per class is higher in Japan, though that number has been decreasing.  In 2001, the average number of students per class was 27.3 in elementary classes and 32.7 in middle school classes, compared to 21.1 in public elementary schools and 23.6 in public secondary schools in the 1999-2000 school year in the United States.  In 2000, the ratio of students to teachers was 18.1 students per teacher in elementary schools, 15.9 in middle school, and 15.5 in high schools in Japan, compared to 16.3 in public elementary schools, and 16.6 in public secondary schools in the United States in the fall of 2001 (Monbukagakushō 2002a; NCES 2004a).

In the United States, teachers’ aides entered classrooms more than 40 years ago.  In 1999, there were more than 500,000 full-time para-educators.  They are not only engaged in record keeping, preparing materials, and monitoring lunch rooms and study halls, but also in instructing students.  Under the supervision of teachers, teachers’ aides tutor individual students or small groups of students during classes, help teachers evaluate the students, and even participate in program planning (Pickett 1999).  In 2001, the MOE introduced the teachers’ aides, and started to hire 50,000 temporary teachers without the requirement of teaching certificates for the next three years to deploy at least one teacher’s aide in each school.

American teachers teach the same subjects to the same grades every year.  American teachers tend to stay in the same school as long as they wish, and only transfer to other schools by their own accord.  On the other hand, Japanese teachers are rotated to different grades every year, and in general, they teach all three grades in middle and high schools every three years.  In elementary schools, teachers teach two to three grades in the rotation.  All public teachers are transferred to another school in the same school district every three to five years.

According to cross-cultural surveys taken in 1989 and 1991, Japanese teachers spend at least 20 more hours a week at school than their American counterparts, because they have to deal with administrative paper work, counseling work, and extracurricular activities (Satō and McLaughlin 1992).  American teachers do not have to take on administrative, counseling, or extracurricular work.  Japanese teachers visit the home of students at the beginning of each school year, and supervise student behavior and extracurricular activities, even during summer vacation and on weekends.  Many male teachers in Japanese middle and high schools supervise extracurricular clubs after school and on weekends.  Many teachers in charge of sports teams do not go home until 7:00 to 9:00 at night.  Even outside of school, teachers are held responsible for behavioral problems and the delinquency of students.  The police inform schools as well as parents when they have to take a student into custody.  In the United States, the behavior of children is considered the parents’ responsibility, not the responsibility of the teachers.

Japanese teachers regularly and voluntarily spend more time on professional development.  Japanese teachers participate in municipal and prefectural workshops, in-service training and meetings, and informal study groups.  Teachers themselves form many associations for their teaching interests and subjects, and publish their own pedagogical journals.

Almost all American teachers have participated in at least one formal professional development activity and one teacher-cooperation activity.  Teachers were more likely to participate in professional development on topics that emphasized curriculum and pedagogical issues, including new state or district curricula, the use of technology in classroom, and new teaching methods (NCES 1999).  However, American teachers report little involvement in professional organizations, and spend little of their personal time on professional development (Satō and McLaughlin 1992).

American teachers spend most of their time in their own classrooms, and do not interact much with other teachers, as they lack a common space for socializing during recess (Satō and McLaughlin 1992:364).  Japanese teachers discuss problem students, teaching and school events with each other and prepare for their classes in the teachers’ lounge during recess.

According to a cross-cultural survey of high school teachers in 1989 and 1992, American principals have more influence and authority than Japanese principals do.  American teachers were more likely to claim that the advice and support from their principals has improved their classroom management and the resolution of problems.  In contrast, Japanese teachers rely more on their colleagues.  Japanese teachers also believe that they have more influence than principals over school policy (Ito 1994:150-154).

In the United States, there are two large teachers’ unions: the National Education Association (with 2.7 million members) and the American Federation of Teachers (with 875,000 members), as of 2004.  In Japan, there are two main teachers’ unions: the JTU (with 29.9% of public teachers) and the All Japan Teachers and Staffs Union (Zenkyō) (with 7.6%), as of 2003 (Monbukagakushō 2004g).

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One of the main determinants of educational quality is the competence of the teacher.  The high quality of Japanese education owes much to highly qualified teachers.  Teaching jobs attract many college graduates because teachers have higher occupational prestige, higher salaries, and generous pensions.  Furthermore, teaching is one of the few occupations where people can apply what they have learned in college.  Moreover, teaching is one of few professions in which women can build lifelong careers, and simultaneously keep their family commitments.  This is why teaching jobs are very competitive, and only one out of every five to eight applicants will eventually become a teacher.  The majority of teachers work for almost forty years, until they retire at the age of 60. 

Almost all teachers report that they are always busy, and spend much of their time on paperwork and extracurricular clubs.  Smaller class sizes for English, mathematics, and science, more team-teaching, and additional teachers have been proposed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in order to ease the workload of teachers.  If schools take on classroom aides and volunteer teachers, teachers would be more effective in the classroom and after school, without massive increases to the educational budget. 

The Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) is composed mostly of leftist unionists who have fought the conservative MOE for control of the educational system since 1947.  There is no question that the JTU has promoted peace education, student-centered education, teacher autonomy, higher salaries, and education for minorities, the poor, and low-achievers.  However, after losing its political power, the JTU needed to adopt a more moderate strategy.  JTU members who opposed the compromise with the MOE left the JTU, and formed the All Japan Teachers and Staffs Union (Zenkyō) in 1991.  The JTU finally compromised with the MOE in 1995.  Even after adopting more conciliatory approaches to the MOE, the JTU is still struggling to attract young teachers.  

Both American and Japanese teachers are growing older, with the average teacher now over 40 years old.  Japanese teachers have larger classes without classroom aides than do American teachers; however, they will have smaller classes soon.  Unlike American teachers, Japanese teachers spend much more time dealing with paper work, counseling, and student activities.  Despite demanding work, the majority of both American and Japanese teachers entered the profession because of a love for children. 


1.    There are many English-language works on Japanese teachers concerning teacher profiles (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999), teacher education (Shimahara 1991; Shimahara 1995b; Shimahara and Sakai 1995; Shimahara 2002), the history of the JTU (Japan Teachers’ Union) movements and conflicts with the MOE (Duke 1973; Thurston 1973; Rohlen 1984; Ota 1989; Miyake 1994; Aspinall 2001), and comparisons of teachers in Japan and the United States (Satō and McLaughlin 1992; Wray 1999).  In Japanese, teacher profiles and their cultures are analyzed through sociological data (Kudomi 1990; Inagaki and Kudomi 1994) and interviews (Moriguchi 1999).  Information on the JTU and union activities are published by the JTU in Nikkyōso Fujinbu (1977); Nihon Kyōshokuin (1989); Nikkyōso (1995).  Information on the JTU leaders (Iwai 1994; Kimura 1996), and critics (Ishikawa 1985) can be also found.

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