Japan and her Standardized Test Based Education System

by Kevin Burns
(Machida, Tokyo )

For some positives in Japanese education, one need look no further than the local kindergarten or elementary school. For most subjects, they are doing a good to great job of educating the children of Japan. The classes are creative, the teachers are caring and on the whole, the students are happy and learning.



Were the whole education system to be like this from kindergarten to the end of university, the Japanese people would be happier, healthier and more productive, both in GDP and creative terms in my opinion.


Unfortunately, this all ends at age 12. Those are the years that exam hell starts and from which students never really recover. The standardized test-based education system of Japan that starts in the junior high school years kills any kind of initiative, creativity and especially thinking outside of the box. Unfortunately, these last three are what Japan especially needs in the 21st century; perhaps Japan`s most challenging 100 years yet.


For many years now, Japan has employed this test-based education system and passing the all important tests is what educators and students―not to mention parents, are focused on. The result of all this test-taking and stress, is a nation of order takers who have trouble making decisions, let alone stating an opinion.



Don’t believe me? When you next meet a Japanese, just for fun, ask them their opinion on something. If they are able to give an opinion, then do this: Ask them why? Why do they feel that way? In many cases, they will be stumped.



In spite of this standardized test hell that most Japanese find themselves in during their school years, a few would-be Michelangelos manage to slip through. Most, however, have their creative thoughts stripped from them or numbed into oblivion.


Recently, one of my bright Japanese students returned from North America to once again study at his old university in Japan. He was shocked at the passivity of the students. He hadn’t realized how passive, non-responsive and void of opinions Japanese university students were.



He said that in America, he studied with students from all over the world and he enjoyed hearing and expressing his opinion with others. He couldn’t understand how the students of Japan were so passive and quiet. He expressed the desire to go back to America as soon as possible to study there. Many Japanese who have lived abroad have said the same thing.


Yukio Hatoyama

During the time of Yukio Hatoyama`s rule as prime minister of Japan, the news media dubbed him as "loopy." This was especially due to his lack of decision-making on the Okinawa base issue. Once he made a decision, he then turned around and reneged on it, and apologized to Okinawans for his backslide. But this lack of decision-making ability is not restricted to the general populace; it occurs in all ranks of Japanese society. Hatoyama, of course, is a product of this education system.


It is not only the students who are having a difficult time; the teachers are too. Many have to take time off work due to stress, while others create a life of drudgery for their pupils. Many Japanese seem to have lost their love for education and learning once they enroll in junior high school. Indeed, too much test-taking may result in shallow learning and a negative feeling toward school.

For the future, Japan needs to ask itself:

Are we creating the people we need to solve the problems of the future? If the answer is no, then this is a recipe for disaster


In Japan, we do not need more and more testing!


Japan needs creative thinkers, people who can think outside of the box to solve the problems of whether or not to allow immigration, how to deal with an aging population, unemployment, how to deal with increasing numbers of Japanese who engage in off-shore employment, trade, and, of course, the environment. However, perhaps the most pressing problem is the psychological health of the citizens.


For this latter, and the other problems mentioned above, I think there are valuable lessons to be learned in kindergarten.

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About the Author

Kevin Burns, formerly from Vancouver, has lived in Japan nearly 30 years and owns an English School and two guest houses in Japan, and teaches English at a Japanese university. He is the main writer and the editor of the website you are now reading. He believes that education should be as fun and interesting as possible, and fears that it is becoming less so worldwide.

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