Japan has one of the most successful education systems in the world, as well as one of the most unique. But can its methods for attaining academic excellence work in British schools, or are the cultural differences between the two nations too vast to broach?

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, followers of the Japan men’s national football team earned admirers across the globe for steadfastly cleaning up their section of the stadium after games. With such a high degree of respect for their environment, these supporters certainly set a benchmark for fans of other nations. What was less apparent, however, is that such fastidiousness stems directly from the influence of Japan’s education system. 


In Japan, all students are required to clean the school themselves — including the classrooms, food hall, and toilets. Students are divided into small groups and assigned cleaning tasks on a rota. The reason? To nurture a sense of duty, responsibility and perseverance in young people. As a result of this distinct cultural trait, most Japanese schools do not feel the need to employ caretakers.


This level of discipline may seem excessive to casual Western observers, especially those from countries where individuality is a defining aspect of national culture.  

Japan’s global standing


According to the OECD’s influential PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test rankings, last conducted in 2015, Japanese students ranked second in scientific literacy and fifth in mathematical literacy among 72 countries or regions — up from fourth and seventh, respectively.


As for reading, however, Japan dropped from fourth to eighth, suggesting that the rapid digitalisation of the learning environment has had a negative impact on linguistic abilities. 


It’s important to take this drop in rankings with a pinch of salt. Unlike smaller countries that rank higher in the PISA test, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, Japan has 18 million young people enrolled in schools to tailor a curriculum towards (roughly equivalent to the total population of Chile).  


What’s more, Japan spends less on education than most other developed nations. In 2016, 3.5% of government expenditure was spent on education — less than the United States (5.0%) and United Kingdom (5.5%). Far from representing underinvestment, this figure actually denotes a well-developed strategy for allocating financial resources. Japan spends its money wisely. Given the size of the population and the relatively low amount spent on schools, the success of Japanese education seems all the more remarkable. As we will see, elements of this success stem from Japan’s unique history. 

Looking to the future


In schools, innovative teaching methods have been introduced as a way to harness critical thinking and improve performance. For Japanese teachers, it’s common to spend time studying and discussing lesson plans at lesson study conferences, and books full of lesson plans are sold in commercial bookstores around the country. 

The Japanese system of lesson planning is known as jugyou kenkyuu, and involves teachers meeting regularly to collaborate on the design and implementation of lessons.  One unique teaching method for nurturing creativity in children is Nameless Paints — an innovative product which consists of ten tubes with coloured paint inside. Instead of being labelled with the names of the corresponding colour, only primary colours (red, yellow and blue) appear on the tubes. To get green paint, for example, children therefore have to find the tube adorned with a yellow dot and a blue dot.  


Unpacking the Japanese model


Unlike schools in the UK, which begin their academic year in September, the Japanese academic year starts on April 1st. As well as core subjects like maths, language the sciences and physical education, traditional Japanese calligraphy (shodō) and poetry (haiku) are taught on the curriculum — highlighting a strong sense of connection to cultural and artistic heritage.

Japanese school rules


In Japan, all students are also required to wear school uniforms. This is intended to eradicate social barriers among students and promote a sense of community. For comparison, only 82% of UK state schools have a compulsory dress code. In Japan, uniforms typically follow the military style, including blazers for boys and sailor suits for girls. 


Discipline is reflected in the school’s attendance rate, which is about 99.99%. Pride around education is so deeply embedded across all areas of Japanese society that foregoing school represents a huge stigma — across all generations and social groups. 


What it’s like to teach in Japan?


Teaching is a popular, well-respected profession in Japan — so much so, in fact, that there is currently an oversupply.  


As such, most teachers go through an intensive selection process, including rigorous school board exams and evaluations. For those who make the cut, there is plenty of room for professional development (kounaikenshuu) throughout their career in education, and young teachers are expected to learn from and interact with their more experienced peers. 


The remit of teachers is often expected to reach beyond the classroom, with many teachers greeting children at the school gate, helping out at sports clubs, and even visiting their students’ parents to get a better sense of nuanced family contexts. By taking extra-curricular attention in their students, teachers aim to foster a sense of community. 

The takeaway


As with the UK, education in Japan is complex, multifaceted, and difficult to summarise in sweeping statements. There are two key successes of the Japanese education system that the UK can learn from:


  • Japan spends its education budget wisely. Despite the UK investing a greater proportion of GDP into education, British state schools are chronically underfunded, while regional councils are overspending on education. Spending is inherently lopsided, and thousands of schoolchildren are suffering as a result. In Japan, funds are distributed in a way that mirrors the country’s concept of educational equality. 


  • Teachers have greater control over lesson plans. Though education in the UK has undergone years of reforms to structures, exams and accountability measures, the style of classroom teaching has changed little in the past hundred years. In Japan, teachers are given primary responsibility for moulding teaching methods in the classroom — giving students access to more innovative and bespoke ways of thinking and learning. 


Of course, with a vastly different history, contemporary culture and demographic makeup, the political climate for the large-scale development of a uniform, Japan-like education system simply does not exist in the UK. However, by redistributing funding and giving teachers greater autonomy in the classroom, Japan’s influence can help the UK take steps to reduce systemic inequality in its education system.