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Contemporary Research in the United States, Germany, and Japan: Japan

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Secondary Education in the Life of Japanese Adolescents

Kazuo Kato, David Crystal, Gerald LeTendre, and Douglas Trelfa

Use of Time

One way of understanding Japanese students' daily life is to examine how students spend their time. The Japan Broadcasting Association's (Nippon Hoso Kyokai [NHK]) Survey of Japanese People's Time Use (Kokumin Seikatsu Jikan Chosa) provides perhaps the best overall picture of the use of time among a nationally representative sample of Japanese students. These NHK surveys are conducted every 10 years; the last survey was conducted in 1990. Below are discussed the major findings of the 1990 NHK survey that are of interest to researchers in Japanese education (NHK Seron Chosabu 1992b).

The subjects of the NHK survey included Japanese students in junior high school who were at least 10 years of age. Of the 90,240 students selected, 75.2 percent responded to the NHK survey. Respondents were mailed diaries, and were instructed to indicate the amount of time spent on various activities for 2 consecutive days. One of the strengths of this survey is that respondents are asked to indicate activities that are done simultaneous with other activities, such as homework that is done while watching television.

This section summarizes the relevant data gleaned from the 1990 NHK survey. Sunday and weekly average time spent on these activities is not provided, nor is an attempt made to compare or contrast use of time by Japanese students with time use by students in other countries. Primarily, these data reflect only how time is used by Japanese students from junior high to high school.

Overall, the survey found that school and school-related activities occupy the vast majority of Japanese students' time. In comparison, relatively little time is given to leisure activities such as reading, sports, and socializing with friends.

Schoolwork: Class Time, Extracurricular Activities, and Activities Outside School

In 1980 Japanese junior high school students spent an average of an hour more per weekday (9.2 hours) in school and on school related activities than did their high school counterparts (8.23 hours); however, this larger amount of time may be almost wholly attributed to a slightly longer school day in junior high than in high school. In addition, the percentage of students participating in nonacademic activities, such as school clubs, decreased, from 38 percent in junior high to 19 percent in high school. A decrease was also observed in the percentage of students who undertook extracurricular schoolwork on weekdays, such as attending juku or receiving private tutoring.

The finding that high school students spent less time in school and school-related activities overall, and slightly more time in learning outside of school, might be interpreted as a response to the university entrance examination system. As students make the transition from junior high to high school, those who still feel capable of entering prestigious universities may begin to study more, while those who are less hopeful may begin to study less. According to the NHK studies, the proportion of students engaged in homework outside of school for all types of students in the last 10 years has decreased.

Commuting to school also begins to take up more of students' time as they move through the levels of schooling. The average junior high school student commuted 46 minutes, and the average high school student 78 minutes on any given weekday.


Overall, work does not seem to be a major drain on Japanese students' time. In fact, part-time jobs (arubaito) and full-time jobs are both prohibited by school rules. In reality, however, some students work without interference from school authorities. Only 3 percent of junior high and 8 percent of high school students had part-time or full-time jobs. The average amount of time that employed students spent working on any given workday was 2.25 hours for junior high and 3.75 hours for high school students. Since such a small proportion of students work, Japanese high school students work on average 18 minutes on any given weekday.

Leisure, TV, and Sports

In contrast with the trend found in the percentage of students who were employed, neither the percentage of students who indulged in leisure activities nor the amount of time devoted to leisure activities changed appreciably from junior high to high school. Nor did the 92 percent of students who watched television on weekdays change from one educational level to another. In both junior high and high school, students watched television on average approximately 2.5 hours per day. The percentage of students who engaged in sports decreased from 8 percent in junior high to 4.9 percent in high school, mirroring the drop in participation in extracurricular activities noted above. For most Japanese students, leisurely sports activities do not play a large role in their lives.

Books, Comics, Magazines, and Newspapers

Approximately 21 percent of students in junior high and high school read books for about an hour per day on average. After books, the highest percentage of students read comic books (14.2 percent in junior high, 10.7 percent in high school). Newspapers were read by only 6.6 percent of junior high and 14.9 percent of high school students. Magazine reading also more than doubled, from 2.8 percent of junior high to 7.4 percent of high school students. Although the percentage of students who read these different publications changed from junior high to high school, the average time spent reading each type of publication each weekday did not change.


Relationships with peers also compete for students' time, although in Japan that competition seems minimal. On average, Japanese junior high school students spent 23 minutes on any given weekday interacting with friends, and Japanese high school students spent 39 minutes in such interactions. Time spent in conversations on the telephone was quite limited. The average student spent less than 10 minutes on the phone on any given day. However, these overall averages are low since many students do not use the telephone at all. High school students who use the telephone to converse with friends spent an average of 45 minutes on the telephone on any given day.

The Social-Psychological Environment Surrounding Japanese Junior High and High School Students

Credentialist Society

In a 1987 report on Japanese education put out by the Keizai Kyoryoku Kaihatsu Kiko (Sengoku et al. 1987), the authors made a statement to the effect that social classes in Japan are not determined by birth but rather by the college entrance examination taken at age 18. Such a statement reflects the importance given to academic credentials in Japan, specifically, the fact that one's social and financial status are closely related to the status of the university from which one graduates. For Japanese, entrance to a prestigious university virtually guarantees future employment in a large company, providing lifetime financial security and social prestige. Due to the great emphasis placed on gaining a credential from a top-ranking university, rather than on the quality or content of the education actually acquired in that university, Japanese social scientists and educators have coined the term credentialist society (gakureki shakai) to describe modern Japan.

Competition for admission to a good university begins before students enter high school. Since compulsory education in Japan ends in the ninth grade, all students must pass an entrance examination to obtain admission to high school. Therefore, the junior high school a student attends and the training provided there determine the high school that the student will enter. The high school a student attends, in turn, strongly affects the kind of preparation received for the college entrance examination, which subsequently determines the college the student will attend. Thus, the college entrance examination exerts a powerful influence on students' daily lives at an early age.

The competition is compounded by the fact that Japan is a society where it is difficult to reverse one's choices. As described above, choices made before one enters high school affect employment potential. Even after entering the job market, workers must make wise choices from the outset. Due to the pervasiveness of the seniority system, persons who start a job at one company and then move to another company must begin again at the bottom of the ladder. Such a system strongly discourages people from moving from one employer to another and rewards those who stay for a long time at their particular companies. Because of the relative inflexibility and narrowness of the paths to social and financial success, Japanese parents socialize children to make informed choices as early as possible, encouraging them to develop concrete career goals early rather than explore several career options.

Guidance for School Selection (Shinro Shido) and T-Scores

Junior high school students are under great pressure to make critical choices. Usually in the ninth grade (or late in eighth grade), students will have discussions with teachers, parents, and peers about which high schools will be most compatible with their abilities. Students are allowed to apply to only one public high school, although they may apply to more than one of the considerably more expensive private high schools. Therefore, the teachers' role is to bring reality into students' choices, carefully guiding them to apply only to a public high school where they are assured of admittance.

Until recently, students had been urged to take achievement tests put out by private educational companies. These tests were thought to provide a fairly accurate measure of how the students would perform on the actual high school entrance examination and were used to assess their chances for entering a certain high school and help guidance counselors determine which high schools to recommend, The student's score on this achievement test is known as a T-score (hyojun hensachi) (Nihon Seishonen Kenkyusho 1984).

Unfortunately, the T-scores are based solely on achievement and thus fail to take into account personal characteristics, such as motivation or personality attributes. The majority of teachers and parents believe that, although not particularly desirable, the system of T-scores is something of a necessary evil. Most teachers and guidance counselors disapprove of the fact that the T-scores play such a strong role in determining the nature of the recommendations they make to students about their future high schools, but they claim that the situation cannot be helped (Nihon Seishonen Kenkyusho 1984). Parents' attitudes are also mixed, as can be seen in the results of a study by the NHK Seron Chosabu (1987). For example, more than half of the parents believed that the use of T-scores was not desirable but could not be helped. Less than 20 percent believed that T-scores were completely undesirable.

In modern Japan, students have become extremely preoccupied with their test scores because of the implications they have for the future. Such intense concentration on test scores is seen as establishing a social position for students early in their lives. As a result, there is a separation between the few elite students who are admitted to top schools and the rest of the students. The elite students believe that their success is due to their ability; they feel that they are superior. Students who receive lower scores may have feelings of failure that result in a negative self-image and loss of motivation to meet challenges (see Iwase 1982; Kajita 1992; Sengoku et al. 1987).

This focus on test scores tends to create homogeneous ability groups, especially in high school, that deprive students of the chance to interact with others of different achievement levels. The tests are also criticized because they are composed typically of scantron/multiple-choice type questions that do not measure students' unique abilities or tap their creativity. It has been hypothesized that the limited view of the student as a person, as reflected in the narrow focus on T-scores and academic achievement, may be causing severe stress among junior high school students, leading to maladjustment and problem behaviors (Chuo Kyoiku Shingikai 1991; Iwase 1982; Sengoku et al. 1987). Consequently, education reformers have urged that greater emphasis be placed on providing opportunities for the expression of individual differences among students so they might become better rounded (Chuo Kyoiku Shingikai 1991).

Students' and Parents' Perceptions of the Entrance Examination System

Once students enter junior high school, they become very conscious of the entrance examination system-first, the examination to get into high school, and then the examination to get into college or university. A study by the Japanese Center for Research on Children and Youth [Nihon Seishonen Kenkyusho] (1984) indicates that Japanese students have a realistic view of what they can achieve and what kind of future they are likely to have depending upon the high school they enter. The high school they enter is likely to determine the university they will go to, which, in turn, will set the course for the rest of their lives. Thus, by the age of 16, when Japanese students enter high school, they are already forced to face the reality of their future.

Because the college entrance examination exerts a powerful influence on students' lives as early as junior high school, and is thought to result in considerable academic and psychological pressure, there is much debate among Japanese students, parents, and educators as to the advantages and disadvantages of the present entrance examination system. To identify some of the elements in this debate, researchers of the NHK Seron Chosabu (1992a) asked students whether or not they agreed with the statements presented in table 6.

Table 6—Percentages of students in agreement with the following statements about the entrance examination

"Studying for the entrance examination is a good opportunity to integrate what you have learned in school."

Males Females
Junior high school 65.2 61.6
High school 55.3 56.9

"Studying for the entrance examination is a good opportunity to improve yourself as a human being."

Junior high school 43.2 42.1
High school 41.0 44.7

"The only purpose of studying for the entrance examination is to get into a good university, not for really educating yourself."

Junior high school 30.8 28.3
High school 43.9 38.9

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SOURCE: Adapted from NHK Seron Chosabu 1992a.

Between one-half and two-thirds of the students believed that the entrance examination was useful in integrating an individual's academic knowledge, and only about one-third of students perceived the examinations to be nothing more than a way to get into a university. Such results indicate a positive, or at least neutral, attitude toward college entrance examinations among Japanese adolescents.

Similar findings appeared in an earlier study by NHK Seron Chosabu (1987) as well. Researchers asked the opinion of junior high school students and their parents regarding the value of studying for the entrance examination. They found that 60 percent of students believed that studying for the entrance examination is helpful in reviewing material that one learns in junior high school. Forty-five percent of both students and fathers, and 50 percent of mothers, thought that studying for the entrance examination was helpful for building personal attributes such as persistence. Twenty-nine percent of students and 52 percent of parents thought that studying for the entrance examination was not "real" studying but just a perfunctory means of gaining admission to a better school.

The data suggest that students generally have a positive attitude toward studying for the entrance examination. Such an attitude among students may be seen as evidence of a sense of acceptance of a system that students can do little to change. Parents, in contrast, seem to have somewhat more ambivalent feelings toward the entrance examination system.



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[The Perception of Ability Differences in Japan - References] [Secondary Education in the Life of Japanese Adolescents - Part 2]



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