Education Commentary

Probing ‘Myths’ About Japanese Education

By Peggy Lukens — November 09, 1988 13 min read

A funny thing happened on the way to America’s trade deficit: Schools became responsible for the country’s economic ailments. Recent political rhetoric would have us believe, for example, that Panasonic outsells General Electric because “American education” isn’t producing “competitive workers.”

As they praise the Japanese educational model, many politicians, media commentators, and educators denigrate the very system that has provided them, for the most part, with their analytical skills: “We buy more from the Japanese than they buy from us. Japanese products are better made. This is because Japanese education is superior to American education. If American schools became more like Japanese schools, our products would become better and the Japanese would buy more from us.” Or so their false syllogism has it.

But few of these “experts” have seen Japanese schools from the inside. To learn about Japanese classrooms from curriculum guides and from reports written by visiting American dignitaries is to limit understanding to the information that Japanese administrators want to disseminate. And schools in Japan- as everywhere-treat visiting V.I.P.'s to tours designed to display the system at its best.

Nine months of teaching In Japanese secondary school showed me that the academic wonders I had been led to expect were, to a large extent, a product of hyperbole. The “superiority” of Japanese education vanished for me when I got close enough to probe beneath the surface.

From September 1986 through June 1987, I taught English in three public high schools in Kawaguchi, an industrial city of 500,000 in the greater-Tokyo megalopolis. I took with me 23 years of teaching experience from a variety of American schools--including classrooms in affluent Wilmette, Ill., in problem-riddled secondary schools of Cincinnati’s inner city, and in Cincinnati’s select, college-preparatory high school.

This experience was my most important luggage: It gave me the confidence to feel I could ''belong’’ in a foreign school--and that I would recognize the plot. Teaching day by day, you see through the myths.

The schools in which I taught were, according to my Japanese colleagues, not the ''best’’ in Japan but were “typical.” And in Japan, “typical” means standard-model conformity: Curricula are set by the national education ministry; texts are approved on a national basis; reform is handed down from the minister to local school boards. High schools have the same administrative structure, the same daily schedule, the same classroom and office layout, the same class sizes, even the same seating arrangements from school to school and class to class.

Among the most commonly accepted myths about Japanese schooling is that the students there receive a superior education because they spend more time in school. The extra days and hours on the Japanese academic calendar provide T.V. commentators with a convenient 15- second electronic explanation with which they can close their white papers.

Quick to point out that we lazy Americans loll about for three months in the summer, the experts wave the Japanese calendar--indeed ''longer” than ours--and admonish us to lengthen our school year if we would “catch up.”

But during a period spanning early December through early April, the calendar for the schools where I taught included 21 “in school” days on which no classes were taught and no exams given. In addition, we had winter recess (Dec. 25 through Jan. 7) and a break between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next (March 25 through April 7).

Counting five days for a school week, that’s eight weeks of no classes in a 16- to 17-week period.

What was going on during those 21 “in school” days with no classes? Three of the days were devoted to intramural competition in a variety of games. No classes; just intramurals. Another day was set aside for a musical concert: All students reported directly to the concert hall first thing in the morning, listened to the performance, and went home.

For the closing ceremony before winter break, students and teachers gathered in the gym at 8:50 A.M.; while they stood at attention, the principal made a speech admonishing students to behave over recess and reminding them that they were not allowed to hold part-time jobs. The assembly was over by 9:45, and the students went home.

At the end of the recess, there was an opening ceremony. Same process. Both days counted as “in school.” Such ceremonies occur whenever Japanese schools close for an extended break--at year’s end, in the spring, and at the beginning of summer vacation (from mid-July through August).

On another “in school” day, teachers recorded student health data. No classes. And there were special cleaning days: Students clean the school but attend no classes.

Japanese students do go to school for half a day on Saturday. But this part of the calendar is also misleading. The regular Monday-through- Friday schedule consists of six 50-minute classes plus homeroom and lunch: 30 instructional periods in five days .. But three or four of those periods are set aside--every week--for nonteaching purposes, such as club activities, faculty meetings, and “special” cleaning. On Saturday, the students make up those non-academic activity periods with three or four regular classes. Their six-day week, in fact, has as many class hours as the five-day week in my Cincinnati school.

Another myth holds that Japanese students know more than their American counterparts because they must study harder to master a rigorous curriculum. But in the courses I taught-under Japanese supervision-neither the demands placed on students nor their levels of mastery exceeded those commonly found in American schools.

What would appear a fairly elementary question about geography, for example, was too tough for a group of seniors--according to their regular Japanese teacher of English.

Two classes were to view a travelogue--with narration in Japanese--depicting a bus trip from New York City to Key West, Fla. After the film, I was to ask the students questions--in English--about the places they had seen, and they were to answer in English. The lesson was planned by the Japanese teacher of English; I was to keep my questions in simple English and to speak slowly. Fair enough.

Generally, the students in the first group could answer such queries as, “Where is the Statue of Liberty?” and “What American writer lived in Key West?” (The film included a visit to Hemingway’s home.)

Before repeating the lesson with the second group, I turned to the Japanese teacher to show her that I had more questions. She pointed to one item and said, “This is too difficult. It is geography They will not know.” The nixed question was, “New York City is next to what ocean?” Both classes consisted of seniors in their sixth year of English.

The Japanese teachers of English made it clear that I was of use primarily as a native speaker. And certainly it is useful for foreign-language students to hear a native speaker. But the limits placed upon me by my hosts meant that I never taught a single work of literature or assigned a piece of written work-not a sentence. I graded not one paper.

I was allowed to design crossword puzzles using the current vocabulary lesson. These I helped the class solve by circulating among the students and acting out hints. Yet I was teaching high-school students in their fourth, fifth, and sixth years of English study.

After five years of English, seniors in Japan use texts with “stories” reflecting about the same level of sentence structure and content as the 6th-grade Weekly Reader. Forget the notion of their reading a short story in English.

At the end of the year, I was asked to give seniors oral exams. I was to speak slowly--" . . . very simple English, please"--and the students were to respond in English.

The Japanese teacher of English sat beside us to grade each student’s performance. I asked you?” ’'Are you in a school club?”

Most of the students could comprehend and answer. “My name is Mie.” “There are four in my family.” Frequently, they responded with a word rather than a sentence. Some needed my question translated into Japanese. With only four or five students did the “conversation” ever extend beyond the short question-short answer level. Yet all of them had completed six years of study.

To be sure, the Japanese and English languages have little in common, and English is extremely difficult for Japanese students. Small wonder that mastery, much less fluency, is rare.

But Japanese educators claim that their students do poorly in English (the required foreign language) because they have “no chance to use English with native speakers.”

Perhaps. Yet most American students achieve foreign-language mastery at least comparable to that of my Japanese seniors in three years’ study-without benefit of native-speaker teachers. Nor do they “use” their French in the byways of Cincinnati or their German in the streets of Nashville.

A third myth has it that Japanese teachers--with 45 students in a class--work harder than their American counterparts. It is true that secondary-school classes in Japan number from 42 to 45 students and that teachers there work hard.

But the typical schedule for a full-time secondary-school teacher calls for teaching three classes per day--15 50-minute classes spread over a five-and-a-half-day school week.

In those two, three, or sometimes four periods per day in which he has no teaching assignment, the Japanese teacher stays in the central faculty workroom, where each staff member has a desk. Here he grades papers, smokes, prepares, chats, reads the newspaper, drinks tea, and even naps.

It was the exception, not the rule, to see teachers carry papers home at night. The Japanese supervisor of English teachers in Kawaguchi asked me to describe an English teacher’s working day at my Cincinnati high school. I told him that we teach five 50- minute periods per day and supervise a study hall during another period. One period- for preparation-remains unassigned. Classes number just at 30. Senior-high English teachers, in particular, have endless papers to mark each week. On a voluntary basis, we may stay after school to help with some student activity.

“You have about 150 students every day?” he asked.

“That’s right--in English classes. But you try to arrange things so you don’t have 150 papers to grade at the same time. It’s the paper load that wears out American English teachers.”

''We also have about 150, but only three classes. When do you grade these papers?”

''At home and at night mostly.”

His eyebrows shot up. ''In your private time?” he asked.

Japanese high-school teachers simply do not carry work home as American teachers do. Nor do they slave over stacks of papers during their free bells. I watched. Closely.

But perhaps Japanese teachers do not spend hours over papers and grades because high-school records carry little significance in Japan. For students’ academic future, the university entrance exam is everything; high-school grades per se carry no weight in the application process.

Indeed, many Japanese believe that it is hard to enter a Japanese university but easy to enter an American university. According to those who accept this myth, the Japanese college applicant endures great pressure; the American applicant, none.

When asked whether, in fact, it is easy to enter an American university but difficult to graduate, I tried to explain that American colleges set their own entrance requirements and that the requirements vary from school to school. Some schools screen applicants through essays they must write, I pointed out. Some look seriously at teacher recommendations; some do not.

I tried to make clear that across the country the two most heavily weighed factors were students’ scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or American College Testing program examination and their high school grades.

Simplifying, I explained that the S.A.T. and A.C.T. were our version of a “nationwide entrance test” and that the more rigorous the college’s requirement, the higher the applicant’s score had to be.

And I added that some schools supported by state taxes were required to admit graduates from any high school accredited in that state and that weak students might be admitted on probation.

When I had come to the end of my tale, my Japanese teacher colleague nodded vigorously. ''Ah, yes, we know about this. It is easy to enter an American university but difficult to graduate.”

Japan’s “examination hell” is intense, but the stress arises as much from the Japanese system as from the difficulty of the tests.

Applicants must take the entrance exam at each university to which they apply; all exams are administered during a 7-to-10-day period in the spring.

This process limits the number of applications a student can make. Students applying to more than one school hop aboard a train and zip from test to test and city to city--all within a week or so. No wonder the students collapse.

Imagine America’s young people crisscrossing the country to take tests at the universities to which they are applying--all during the same short period of time. Would they be tense? Would the T.V. news show scenes of teenagers sleeping in airports? Would we tell the world how tough our college- admission process was?

Finally, according to a fifth myth about Japanese education, there is no tracking in Japanese schools. Every student there, we’re told, is a “blank sheet"--each equally ready to receive what is taught.

Yet the organization of high schools suggests that students are in fact sorted by their perceived aptitudes. Pupils are assigned to homerooms within designated “programs": homemaking, commercial, general (academic). As the names indicate, the schedule of classes a student takes differs according to the classification of his homeroom.

At a public high school for girls in Kawaguchi, for example, students in homemaking homerooms had English four times per week in their first year, three in their second, and two in their third.

But girls in homerooms General-7 and General-8—“smartest,” according to faculty members--had English five classes per week in their first year, seven in their second, and seven in their third. There were similar differences in mathematics.

Students in homemaking homerooms took sewing classes; girls in general homerooms did not.

This system--by which homeroom assignment dictates course of study--also operated in the coeducational high schools where I taught. Back in Cincinnati, we’d call that tracking.

With these myths about Japanese education, grains of truth have flowered into a faith. Do Japanese students behave in a more orderly, cooperative fashion than American students? Yes. Do Japanese students sleep in class? Yes. Do Japanese students talk back to their teachers? No. Do Japanese students neglect their homework? Yes. Do Japanese students know more than American students? Not necessarily.

Ironically, the most essential truth about Japanese education in comparison with American schooling is almost lost amid all the hoopla over the wonders of the Japanese system: Japanese education is designed from the top down to suit Japan’s society- a society different from ours in most significant ways. While democratic forms may have arrived in Japan in 1945, it remains at its core a hierarchical, authoritarian, conservative, and largely homogeneous society.

How do we identify “superior education”? Who of us would say education in Utah is superior to education in New Jersey? Schools in Sacramento superior to schools in Memphis? We recognize the fallacy of such comparisons.

Yet such examples would at least compare like to like. The daily internal workings of these systems would be as similar as old erasers.

But who would say that the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team was superior to the Washington Redskins football team? Would even the most ardent fan advise the Redskins to adopt the Lakers’ game plan as the key to a national title? Too ludicrous? Yet metaphorically, that’s the very message about Japanese education that American teachers and administrators are hearing

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 1988 edition of Education Week