The schooling years in the Japanese education system are segmented along the lines of 6-3-3-4: 6 years of primary or elementary school; 3 years of middle or junior high school; 3 years of high school; and 4 years of university. However, the government has just announced (October 2005, Daily Yomiuri) that it is intending to make changes in the Education Law to allow schools to merge the 6-3 division between elementary and middle schools. The key purpose for this change is to allow elementary and middle schools to pool or share their resources, with special regard to making available specialist teachers of middle schools to elementary schools.
Many private schools, however, offer a six year programme incorporating both junior high school and high school. Specialised schools may offer a five year programme comprising high school and two years of junior college. There are two options for tertiary education: junior college (two years) and university (four years).
A school year has three terms: summer, winter and spring, which are each followed by a vacation period. The school year begins in April and ends in March of the following year.
An elementary school (from 6 years) and junior high school (3 years) education, i.e. nine years of schooling are considered compulsory (see pages on legality of homeschooling).
This system, implemented by the School Education Law enacted in March 1947 after WWII, owes its origin to the American model 6-3-3 plus 4 years of university. Many other features of the Japanese educational system, are however, based on European models.
Compulsory education covers elementary school and junior high school. A break from the past, modern public schools in Japan today are mostly co-ed(more than 99% of elementary schools). The Japanese school year begins in April and students attend school for three terms except for brief spring and winter breaks and a one month long summer holiday.
Japan has already begun to experience a population decline, with the result that many universities are already having difficulty maintaining their student populations, although entry into top ranks of the universities remains hugely competitive. The emerging and foreseeable trend is that many universities will have to try to attract large numbers of foreigners or diversify or face closure. It is also now said that a university education in Japan is within easier reach of students today, but that the quality of that higher education is now in question despite the many educational reforms that have been set in motion.
In his book Challenges to Higher Education: University in Crisis Professor Ikuo Amano noted that the critical public is far from being satisfied with these series of reforms. The reason is that the selection process of old for entry to the so-called 'first-tier universities' remains fundamentally unchanged. That is, there has been nothing done to ameliorate the entrance war for entry into these most notoriously difficult to enter institutions that are at the nucleus of an examination based on numerous subjects. Furthermore, in a society that places more importance on 'credentialization' or labelization or branding (gakkooreki) of the name of the school from which one graduates, than on simply possessing a university education, no matter how much the selection process of the university applicants is reformed, students will continue to strive to enter a small number of 'top-tier' or 'brand-name' universities (gakureki) and the severe examination war will not disappear. In this sense, the university entrance reform is a permanent issue for Japanese universities.
Each academic year begins in April and comprises of two semesters. Basic general degrees are four-year degrees, a feature adapted from the American system. Undergraduate students receive instruction via the lecture and seminar group method. The general degree may be followed by two-year Master's degrees (generally a combination of lectures and guided research) and then a three year Doctorate (largely based on research) where these are offered.
Graduate education in Japan is underdeveloped compared to European countries and the United States with only slightly more than 7 percent of Japanese undergraduates going on to graduate school as compared to 13 percent of American undergraduates. Postgraduate educational offerings are weak and the number of universities offering postgraduate programmes or a wide variety of programmes, is small, compared to that in other industrialized western countries.
Japan has about three million students enrolled in 1,200 universities and junior colleges and consequently the second largest higher educational system in the developed world. Japan also has one of the largest systems of private higher education in the world. The 710 odd universities in Japan can be separated into 3 categories: highly competitive, mildly competitive and non-competitive (the schools that are first-tier being the infamously difficult to enter ones). Public universities are generally more prestigious than their private ones with only 25 percent of all university-bound students being admitted to public universities.
More than 65 percent of high school graduates continue their studies; of these, over 70 percent are enrolled in private colleges and universities. Only about 10 percent of private institutions receive their financial resources from public funding, with most public funds on higher education being spent on the national and local public universities. Despite the impressive statistics, Japanese universities are considered to be the weakest link in the country's educational system.
While many western writers have, time and time again, attributed the economic success of Japan to the well-educated and highly literate population of Japan, recent writings and studies tend to be far more critical, lamenting the deplorable state and quality of higher education in Japan today. Despite the famed exam rigors and competitiveness, declining standards in education and the high school student's lack of interest in studying have lately been under spotlight. Some attribute this disinterestedness to the fact that academic effort no longer assured automatic rewards with the disintegration in the formerly stable and guaranteed lifetime employment system.
Japanese students are also widely known to traditionally consider their university days to be a social playground, a reward for the hard work and having made it there, and, as many critics have recently pointed, professors demand relatively little from their students. Brian McVeigh in his book Japanese Higher Education as Myth indicts the local university system as a de facto system of employment agencies or at best a waiting room before students hit the assembly line working world.