High School: The Great Divide

Though the Japanese high school system differentiates students according to academic performance (Okano and tsuchiya 1999, 62–109; rohlen 1983), within each high school there continues to be great stress upon the solidarity of all, with little or no differential treatment (tracking or setting) within programs. Most high schools offer a regular academic program. Nominally, all such programs follow the same curriculum, but there are large differences between the level of difficulty of regular programs at higher-ranking and lower-ranking schools. Students generally choose either the arts stream or the science stream from the second year onward. Besides regular academic programs, there are also vocational programs, usually provided by dedicated vocational high schools (most commonly commercial, industrial, and agricultural). Vocational programs and schools have been a feature of the Japanese education system for over a century. While such schools used to be a popular choice for students, producing well-trained graduates who went on to good careers, their popularity has declined in recent decades as credential inflation has taken place, and more and more students aspire to progress to university (Okano and tsuchiya 1999, 65–66, 101–108). It has become much more difficult for vocational high schools to attract academically able students, although The best still occupy a mid-ranking place in the high school hierarchy; there is regional variation here too, with technical high schools stronger in Kyushu than in the tokyo region, for example (Hida et al. 2007). A small number of high schools also offer specialized programs in subjects such as science and mathematics, english, music, and art. Such programs are an innovation of the last twenty years, part of the attempt to offer a more diverse range of educational options that allow students to develop individual interests and strengths (Okano and tsuchiya 1999, 214).

The extremes of high school education can be illustrated by history lessons observed at three tokyo schools. The first takes place at perhaps the most academically successful school in Japan, a national high school for boys that is attached to a national university. A high proportion of its students enter tokyo University, Japan's most prestigious. During this lesson, the teacher gives an interesting and intellectually sophisticated lecture on how historians have dealt with the Meiji period, when Japan modernized in the late nineteenth century. The lesson ignores the students' history textbook; later, the teacher tells me that the students are bright enough to understand the textbook content without any extra explanation, allowing him to treat more advanced topics in the lessons. Some of the students seem interested, others less so; the teacher does not engage them in discussion or invite their questions, nor do they offer any. There is no school uniform, and the school buildings are unremarkable; judging from externals only, a visitor would never guess that this is one of the nation's academic powerhouses. (table 11.2 summarizes the high schools i discuss.)

The second lesson takes place at ikegaoka, a private school for boys that is only slightly less academically successful than its national rival but shares the features of a somewhat shabby school building and no school uniform. In fact, one of the boys taking the history lesson in the hot summer weather wears nothing more than a pair of shorts. There is no reprimand; ikegaoka is well known for its liberal ethos. This lesson deals with the ancient civilizations of the indus valley. Unlike the lesson at the national school, this lesson deals with a textbook topic in a relatively orthodox way; similar lessons on this subject, taught in a similar lecture style, could be observed at other high schools throughout Japan, though not necessarily as well taught and at such a high level. The teacher is a graduate of tokyo University and himself a contributing author to a high school history textbook. Though ikegaoka is one of Japan's top private schools, the fees are relatively modest—less than ¥800,000 yen ($9,600 at $1 = ¥80) annually—though still unaffordable for a low-income family. Table 11.2 List of high schools discussed in the text




Tokyo national

Central tokyo

a national boys' “laboratory” high

school with a liberal ethos; among

the most academically successful

schools nationwide.


Central tokyo

a private boys' high school with a

liberal ethos; among the most

academically successful schools



Tokyo suburbs

a public co-educational high school

of below average academic level.


Kansai suburbs

a public co-educational high school;

among the most academically

Successful in the prefecture.

The third lesson takes place at shimoda, a low-level tokyo public school. The topic is the 1815 Congress of vienna. It is clear that the subject holds little or no interest for many of the students. Two girls have large mirrors open on their desks; with their lightly tanned skin, dyed brown hair, short skirts, and loose socks, they follow the then fashionable style for more rebellious high school girls. Five minutes after the lesson starts, another girl arrives and unceremoniously takes her seat at the back, sitting cross-legged on her chair (she is wearing tracksuit bottoms underneath her skirt) in a style that is decidedly not approved as feminine in Japan. She takes from her bag another large mirror and an equally large makeup case and spends the next twenty minutes carefully making herself up. After about ten minutes, the teacher comes by her seat and rather feebly suggests that she attend to the lesson, but his presence is ignored, and he moves away. It seems clear that this teacher, at least, has more or less given up the struggle to capture or compel all his students' attention in the somewhat recondite subjects that the curriculum obliges him to teach them, though in another lesson that i observe the same day, i see a politics and economics teacher who is much more energetic and successful in engaging His students. Nonetheless, the episode vividly illustrates two important aspects of education in Japan. The first is the inflexibility of the curriculum and the paucity of choice for students. Even at high school level, teachers' ability to decide what they will teach is significantly limited by the constraints of a one-size-fits-all national curriculum designed on the assumption that all high school students should learn roughly the same content. The exceptions are those teachers (probably rather rare) who are sufficiently strong-minded to skip over parts of the textbook and focus in more depth on other parts. The assumption underlying the high school curriculum is that all students require education in certain basic subjects—including mathematics, english, science, and (as we have seen) world history; moreover, the content of the curriculum should fundamentally be the same for all, even down to what might seem unlikely topics, such as the Congress of vienna. This assumption may have made sense when the national curriculum was first enforced at the end of the 1950s, when less than 60 percent of students went on to high school, but since the proportion of students going on to high school exceeded 90 percent in the mid-1970s (Monbukagakushō 2011a), it has become much more questionable, and it means that significant numbers of students are forced to endure lessons in subjects regarding which they have little or no aptitude or interest. This also means that students who really want to study particular subjects are hindered from doing so because teachers are obliged to tailor their lessons to the entire class of 30–40 students, including those who are only there on sufferance.

The second point illustrated by this episode is the reluctance of teachers to exert stringent discipline. This may seem an odd comment, given the common reputation of Japanese schools as places of strict control (Kerr 2001, 282–306). Certainly, in some respects Japanese schools do pay significant attention to discipline. At junior high school, in particular, there are generally thoroughgoing efforts to ensure punctuality, dress codes, and good order in general. Many high schools also pay attention to these things, especially those below average in the hierarchy. Yet if students remain unresponsive to teachers' cajoling, berating, visits to parents, and so on, there is generally great reluctance on the part of the school to take the final step and expel the student (a step that is in any case illegal during compulsory education). As slater (2010, 154–158) illustrates, teachers at low-ranking high schools generally do all they can to enable students to graduate, and strive against daunting odds to maintain a sense of the school as a “moral community” and a place of meaningful learning. Schools tend to take the view that because exclusion will benefit neither An individual student nor society in the longer term, such an extreme measure should only be taken when a student is so disruptive as to cause serious problems for the education of others. Teachers tend to consider that as long as a student is connected to the school and the social network that it represents, there is a continuing chance that he or she will reform. This may be a sensible view, given that some criminological theories argue that disaffection and delinquency among young people are often a passing phase from which they can emerge given time and patience (Downes and rock 2003, 148–149; sato 1991, 157–177). Certainly the approach has been linked with continued low crime rates throughout the post–world war ii period (Hamai and ellis 2006). As shown by Kariya and Dore (2006, 143–147) and slater (2010), socioeconomic status and high school attendance are strongly related. According to one study, 76 percent of students at top private schools like ikegaoka had professional and managerial parents, and only 6 percent had parents who were manual workers, while at the lowest-ranked high schools, the proportions were 35 percent and 22 percent respectively (Kariya and Dore 2006, 144). This relationship between social class and academic attainment seems to be

Strengthening, as discussed below.

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