Japanese High School Class System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

American students have specific ideas about what it means to be in high school. Most Japanese children will attend high school, but are these expectations the same? In this lesson, we'll talk about secondary education in Japan.

High School

In the United States, high school is treated as a special time. We think of football games, marching bands, the acquisition of a driver's license (and perhaps the subsequent getting into trouble as a result of that license). Oh, and I guess high school classes are somewhere in there, too. The point is, we think of all sorts of things beyond education when we think of high school in American culture, but this period in life can mean something different in other parts of the world.

Take Japan, for instance. In Japan, education is only mandatory through 9th grade. After that, it's optional, but about 98% of Japanese schoolchildren go on to complete 10th-12th grade voluntarily. That number is significantly higher than the 81% graduation rate in American high schools. So, it's fair to say that high school education is taken very seriously in Japan. Despite the differences, high school is still a special time in Japan...just in different ways.

High school is an important part of Japanese teenage life
Japanese schoolchildren

Types of High Schools in Japan

In the United States, we expect secondary education to look a certain way. In Japan, secondary education actually takes two forms. Let's start with junior high school. Junior high school, or chugakko, covers grades 7, 8, and 9. From elementary school through junior high, students attend classes on set schedules and as a cohort, similar to American schools. In schools, a cohort is a group of people, usually around the same age, who share similar education experiences. (Your classmates in school are your cohort.)

Since 9th grade is the last required level of education in Japan, after this year things can change a bit. For one, nearly all Japanese high schools require that students take an admission exam in order to get in. Like I said, the vast majority of Japanese students will make it to 10th grade, but this does change junior high education. Just imagine if you had to earn the right to finish high school. I don't know about you, but I probably would have taken 9th grade a little more seriously.

A high school in Japan
Japanese high school

Students who pass the entrance exams may move on to high school, or kotogakko, and there are actually two forms of high schools for Japanese students to explore. The most common is the school year system. This is basically the same as American high schools: students attend a set schedule of classes together as a cohort throughout the year for 10th-12th grade. Standard subjects include Japanese literature, history, math, science, physical education, arts, home economics, and foreign language (generally meaning English or Chinese).

The other form of high school is not so familiar to American teenagers. In the credit system, students are given three years to take a number of classes, each of which is worth a certain number of credit hours. The student must complete a minimum number of credits in three years in order to graduate. This may be preferred by students who want/need to work while in school, and many of these schools operate mainly through night classes. This system is very similar to the ways that both American and Japanese universities work. You are much more in charge of your own schedule and your own education. Many high schools that operate like this are focused on a specific professional or vocational field.

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