In Japan, education has traditionally been linked with the ruling class. The link between knowledge and power was established with the early Chinese texts that introduced literacy to Japan. These texts often discussed Confucian ideas and Buddhist theology. In the early centuries, familiarity with Confucian ideas and Buddhism was considered a prerequisite for leadership. The court aristocracy took pains to ensure that they and their offspring would be literate and knowledgeable in the Confucian and Buddhist texts.
The first evidence of secular education in classical Japan appears in the Taiho Code of 701. The code mandated the creation of an imperial university. The code outlines the administrative structure and composition of the university faculty and curriculum. Enrollment was restricted to the children of high-ranking families.
However, by 1177, this education had lost its luster. The system reeked of favoritism, and success in the university was dependent on class and family and not on labor and talent.
By the end of the 12th century, the aristocratic hegemony had lost its power, and the samurai ruled the land. The lack of a strong central government negated the possibility of a secular school system. Instead, the local religious Buddhist institutions offered a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic in exchange for economic support.
Beginning in 1580, Christian missionaries opened a number of seminaries with higher educational opportunities for those willing to enter the priesthood. The principal subjects at these institutions were theology and philosophy.
At the end of the 15th century, Japan was racked by constant warfare, with rivals seeking to extend their power. Eventually Tokugawa Ieyasu ascended to power. To establish control, he limited the peasants' right to education. Parents interested in providing an education for their children would teach them on their own. In addition, a wide variety of small terakoya and tenaraisho (writing schools) sprung up. This state of education remained in effect until 1868.
In the Meji era (1868–1912) education was a much-discussed agenda among those vying for power. During this time, it was generally accepted that education should be accessible to all classes of people. The Fundamental Code of Education, which mandated central governmental control of the rapidly proliferating schools, was issued in 1872. In 1879, the New Education Law was instituted to allow more freedom to the schools, but it was quickly replaced in 1880 by the Revised Educational Law that reversed the liberalizing trend.
Throughout all the changes, the Meji reformers insisted that the Japanese adopt Western education. Therefore, the Japanese instituted a system with a centralized administrative structure, higher education rooted in elite public universities, preparatory schools stressing moral discipline and elementary education. During this push to reform the educational system, young Japanese students were sent abroad to study while foreign experts were hired as teachers and advisors until the young Japanese could be trained to replace them.
Japanese education underwent another set of quick reforms during the American occupation from 1945–52. The Americans attempted to institute laws that would align Japanese education with the American version. Without any other choice, the Japanese introduced coeducation, comprehensive schools and local controls. However, these ideas were anathema to the Japanese. As soon as the occupation ended, many of these ideas were discarded.
In the postoccupation period, Japan's educational system gained its own identity. Japan is noted for its juku schools, literally meaning cram schools. Students attend these schools in order to prepare for tests that will allow them admission into elite universities.
Japanese education includes an emphasis on self-discipline, which is woven into the Japanese concept of self. This concept includes a combination of elements such as "vitality to live" and a "sympathetic and empathetic soul." Schools also focus on the importance of commitment and of trying one's hardest even if one is not capable of reaching the highest level of success. Students are encouraged to develop kokoro, which encompasses spiritual, mental, emotional and physical heart.
In modern Japan, job placement, promotion and income are strictly tied to educational attainment, university prestige and test scores. These job-market practices encourage the Japanese to do well in school.
The Japanese school year is 240 days long, 60 days longer than the United States school year. However, the Japanese school calendar includes many nonacademic activities. The school year is divided into three semesters. The first semester ends with a six-week summer vacation, the second with a two-week holiday break and the third ends with another two-week break. During their summer vacation, Japanese students are expected to do homework. Some schools even have required activities such as swimming lessons, which are provided by the school staff.