History of Education in Japan

Formal education in Japan began with the adoption of Chinese culture, in the 6th century. Buddhist and Confucian teachings as well as sciences, calligraphy, divination and literature were taught at the courts of Asuka, Nara and Heian. Scholar officials were chosen through an Imperial examination system. But contrary to China, the system never fully took hold and titles and posts at the court remained hereditary family possessions. The rise of the bushi, the military class, during the Kamakura period ended the influence of scholar officials, but Buddhist monasteries remained influential centers of learning.

In the Edo period, the Yushima Seidō in Edo was the chief educational institution of the state; and at its head was the Daigaku-no-kami, a title which identified the leader of the Tokugawa training school for shogunate bureaucrats.

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the daimyō vied for power in the largely pacified country. Since their influence could not be raised through war, they competed on the economic field. Their warrior-turned-bureaucrat Samurai elite had to be educated not only in military strategy and the martial arts, but also agriculture and accounting. Likewise, the wealthy merchant class needed education for their daily business, and their wealth allowed them to be patrons of arts and science. But temple schools (terakoya) educated peasants too, and it is estimated that at the end of the Edo period 50% of the male and 20% of the female population possessed some degree of literacy. Even though contact with foreign countries was restricted, books from China and Europe were eagerly imported and Rangaku ("Dutch studies") became a popular area of scholarly interest.

Meiji Restoration
After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the methods and structures of Western learning were adopted as a means to make Japan a strong, modern nation. Students and even high-ranking government officials were sent abroad to study, such as the Iwakura mission. Foreign scholars, the so-called o-yatoi gaikokujin, were invited to teach at newly founded universities and military academies. Compulsory education was introduced, mainly after the Prussian model. By 1890, only 20 years after the resumption of full international relations, Japan discontinued employment of the foreign consultants.

A modern concept of childhood emerged in Japan after 1850 as part of its engagement with the West. Meiji period leaders decided the nation-state had the primary role in mobilizing individuals - and children - in service of the state. The Western-style school was introduced as the agent to reach that goal. By the 1890s, schools were generating new sensibilities regarding childhood. After 1890 Japan had numerous reformers, child experts, magazine editors, and well-educated mothers who bought into the new sensibility. They taught the upper middle class a model of childhood that included children having their own space where they read children's books, played with educational toys and, especially, devoted enormous time to school homework. These ideas rapidly disseminated through all social classes.

After the defeat in World War II, the allied occupation government set an education reform as one of its primary goals, to eradicate militarist teachings and "democratize" Japan. The education system was rebuilt after the American model.

A number of reforms were carried out in the post-war period. They aimed at easing the burden of entrance examinations, promoting internationalisation and information technologies, diversifying education and supporting lifelong learning.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) is responsible for educational administration.

In successive international assessment tests, Japan's fourth- and eighth-grade students have consistently ranked in the top five globally in both mathematics and science (see TIMSS).

Despite concerns that academic skills for Japanese students may have declined since the mid-1990s, Japan's students showed a significant improvement in math and science scores in the 2011 TIMSS survey, compared to the 2007 scores.