Higher education in Japan

Passing the entrance exam to a university is a major life step for a young Japanese.

Higher education in Japan is provided at universities (daigaku), junior colleges (tanki daigaku), colleges of technology (koto senmon gakko) and special training schools and community colleges (senshu gakko). Of these four types of institutions, only universities and junior colleges are strictly considered postsecondary education providers.[1] Although inspired by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the Japanese higher education system differs from higher education in most other developed countries in many significant ways. Key differences include the method of acceptance, which relies almost entirely on one or two tests, as opposed to GPAs (Grade Point Average) or other methods of assessment used in Western countries. Because students only have one chance to take this test each year, there is an enormous amount of pressure to do well on this test, and the majority of senior high school education is dedicated to doing well on this single test.

Another major difference is graduate school, as very few non-science undergraduate students go to graduate school in Japan. This is because graduate schools for non-science students are generally considered useful only those who want to work in academia. This has changed a little since the turn of the 21st century. The law has changed to require those who want to become lawyers to attend a graduate school the Japanese government has designated a law school. Previously, lawyers only had to pass the bar exam, which undergraduate students could take. Major universities have also opened business schools, though few Japanese students attend these because most Japanese corporations still don't regard graduate students as much more qualified than undergraduate students. For this reason, they are mostly attended by foreign students from neighboring Asian countries, particularly South Korea, Taiwan, and China. Unlike higher education in some other countries, public universities are generally regarded as more prestigious than private universities, especially the National Seven Universities (University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Tohoku University, Kyushu University, Hokkaido University, Osaka University, and Nagoya University).

As the Japanese economy is largely scientific and technological based, the labor market demands people who have achieved some form of higher education, particularly related to science and engineering in order to gain a competitive edge when searching for employment. According to the MEXT, about 75.9 percent of high school graduates attended a university, junior college, trade school, or other higher education institution.[2]



University entrance is the traditional route taken by Japanese students to enter the gateway of higher education as it is by far the most prestigious form of higher education in Japan. Unlike the usage of grade point averages and test scores used in Western countries as a yardstick for eligibility, entrance to universities based largely on the scores that students achieved in entrance examinations (nyūgaku shiken (入学試験)). Private institutions accounted for nearly 80% of all university enrollments in 1991, but with a few exceptions such as Waseda University and Keio University, the public national universities are more highly regarded. Especially, National Seven Universities are the most prestigious. This distinction had its origins in historical factors—the long years of dominance of the select imperial universities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto universities, which trained Japan's leaders before the war—and also in differences in quality, particularly in facilities and faculty ratios.

In addition, certain prestigious employers, notably the government and selected large corporations (e.g. those listed in Nikkei 225), continue to restrict their hiring of new employees to graduates of the most esteemed universities. There is a close link between university background and employment opportunity. Because Japanese society places such store in academic credentials, the competition to enter the prestigious universities is keen. A common custom practiced by Japanese employers is simultaneous recruiting of new graduates.

Students applying to national or other public universities take two entrance examinations, first a nationally administered uniform achievement test (senta shiken (センター試験)) and then an examination administered by the university that the student hopes to enter (niji shiken (二次試験)). Applicants to private universities need to take only the university's examination.

Such intense competition means that many students can not compete successfully for admission to the college of their choice. An unsuccessful student can either accept an admission elsewhere, forgo a college education, or wait until the following spring to take the national examinations again. A large number of students choose the last option. These students, called ronin, meaning masterless samurai, spend an entire year, and sometimes longer, studying for another attempt at the entrance examinations. In 2011, the number of ronin who took the uniform test is 110,211, while the number of high school students who took the test is 442,421.[3]

Yobikou are private schools that, like many juku, help students prepare for entrance examinations. While yobikou have many programs for upper-secondary school students, they are best known for their specially designed full-time, year-long classes for ronin. The number of applicants to four-year universities totaled almost 560,000 in 1988. Ronin accounted for about 40% of new entrants to four-year colleges in 1988. Most ronin were men, but about 14% were women. The ronin experience is so common in Japan that the Japanese education structure is often said to have an extra ronin year built into it.

Yobikou sponsor a variety of programs, both full-time and part-time, and employ an extremely sophisticated battery of tests, student counseling sessions, and examination analysis to supplement their classroom instruction. The cost of yobikou education is high, comparable to first-year university expenses, and some specialized courses at yobikou are even more expensive. Some yobikou publish modified commercial versions of the proprietary texts they use in their classrooms through publishing affiliates or by other means, and these are popular among the general population preparing for college entrance exams. Yobikou also administer practice examinations throughout the year, which they open to all students for a fee.

In the late 1980s, the examination and entrance process were the subjects of renewed debate. In 1987 the schedule of the Joint First Stage Achievement Test was changed, and the content of the examination itself was revised for 1990. The schedule changes for the first time provided some flexibility for students wishing to apply to more than one national university. The new Joint First Stage Achievement Test was prepared and administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations and was designed to accomplish better assessment of academic achievement.

The Ministry of Education hoped many private schools would adopt or adapt the new national test to their own admissions requirements and thereby reduce or eliminate the university tests. But, by the time the new test was administered in 1990, few schools had displayed any inclination to do so. The ministry urged universities to increase the number of students admitted through alternate selection methods, including admission of students returning to Japan from long overseas stays, admission by recommendation, and admission of students who had graduated from upper-secondary schools more than a few years before. Although a number of schools had programs in place or reserved spaces for returning students, only 5% of university students were admitted under these alternate arrangements in the late 1980s.

Other college entrance issues include proper guidance for college placement at the upper-secondary level and better dissemination of information about university programs. The ministry provides information through the National Center for University Entrance Examination's on-line information access system and encourages universities, faculties, and departments to prepare brochures and video presentations about their programs.


In 2010 more than 2.8 million students were enrolled in Japan's 778 universities. At the top of the higher education structure, these institutions provide four-year training leading to a bachelor's degree, and some offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree. There are two types of public four-year colleges: the 86 national universities (including The Open University) and the 95 local public universities, founded by prefectures and municipalities. The 597 remaining four-year colleges in 2010 were private.[4] <sup class="noprint Inline-Template "noprint Inline-Template"" style="white-space:nowrap;">[check quotation syntax] The overwhelming majority of college students attend full-time day programs. In 2005 the most popular courses, enrolling almost 38% of all undergraduate students, were in the social sciences, including business, law, and accounting. Other popular subjects were engineering (17,3%), the humanities (16,%), and education (5,7%).

Truancy among Japanese university students, even at expensive private institutions, is extremely high. Roll calls are perfunctory or easily avoided.[5]

The average costs (tuition, fees, and living expenses) for a year of higher education in 1986 were 1.4 million Yen(US$10,000), of which parents paid a little less than 80%, or about 20% of the average family's income in 1986. To help defray expenses, students frequently work part-time or borrow money through the government-supported Japan Scholarship Association. Assistance also is offered by local governments, nonprofit corporations, and other institutions.

In 2005 there were approximately 89 females for every 100 males enrolled in post-secondary education in Japan, and their numbers are still slowly increasing.[6] Women's choices of majors and programs of study still tend to follow traditional patterns, with more than two-thirds of all women enroll in education, social sciences, or humanities courses. Only 15% studied scientific and technical subjects, and women represented less than 3% of students in engineering, the most popular subject for men in 1991.

The quality of universities and higher education in Japan is internationally recognized. There are 11 Japanese universities in the 2006 THES - QS World University Rankings, with the University of Tokyo 19th and Kyoto University 25th.[7] In 2010 the QS Asia University Rankings Top 20 included eight Japanese universities, with the highest ranking, the University of Tokyo, in 5th position.[8] Out of the top 100 Asian universities in 2011's Times Higher Education - QS World University Rankings, 33 were Japanese.[9]

Postgraduate education

Graduate schools became a part of the formal higher education system only after World War II and were still not stressed in the 1990s. Even though 60% of all universities have graduate schools, only 7% of university graduates advance to master's programs, and total graduate school enrollment is about 4% of the entire university student population.

The pattern of graduate enrollment is almost the opposite of that of undergraduates: the majority (63%) of all graduate students are enrolled in the national universities, and it appears that the disparity between public and private graduate enrollments is widening. Graduate education is largely a male preserve, and women, particularly at the master's level, are most heavily represented in the humanities, social sciences, and education. Men are frequently found in engineering programs where, at the master's level, women comprise only 2% of the students. At the doctoral level, the two highest levels of female enrollment are found in medical programs and the humanities, where in both fields 30% of doctoral students are women. Women account for about 13% of all doctoral enrollments.

The generally small numbers of graduate students and the graduate enrollment profile results from a number of factors, especially the traditional employment pattern of industry. In the private sector, the demand for students with advanced degrees (especially in the non-hard sciences) is low compared to other developed countries. This is because private sector companies frequently prefer to hire new university graduates and train them to operate according to company guidelines. Stated negatively, this is because the skills generally associated with postgraduate education in the West (especially independent thinking) make the employee resistant to homogenization. Thus, students avoid taking graduate work unless in the hard sciences.

Vocational education

Junior colleges

Junior colleges (短期大学 tanki daigaku) — mainly private institutions — are a legacy of the occupation period; many had been prewar institutions upgraded to college status at that time. More than two thirds of the students in junior colleges are women as many attend them as a form of preparation for a short-term career before marriage. Students who complete the course of study at a junior college are awarded an associates degree or a diploma. Though the enrollment number of women going to junior colleges is decreasing as more desire to gain access to more professional careers and have been choosing to attend universities in greater numbers.[10] Junior colleges provide many women with vocational credentials to help them navigate through Japan's job market. These colleges frequently emphasize home economics, nursing, teaching, liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences in their curricula.[11]

Special training schools and community colleges

Special training schools and community colleges (senmon gakkō (専門学校) in Japanese) offer advanced courses for vocational careers that require upper-secondary school completion. These schools offer training in specific skills such as computer science, engineering, business administration, hygiene, foreign languages, therapy and medicine. These institutions enroll a large number of men. Some students attend these schools in addition to attending a university; others go to qualify for technical licenses or professional certifications. The prestige of special training schools is lower than that of universities, but graduates, particularly in technical areas, are readily absorbed by the job market.[12]

Colleges of technology

Colleges of technology in Japan are trade and technical schools offering apprenticeships and diplomas for skilled trades and technical careers. Colleges of technology also offer certifications for workers in support roles in professions such as engineering, accountancy, business administration, nursing, medicine, architecture, and law. The five-year programs are offered within a number of fields such as broadcasting, business, computer science, arboriculture, medical care, web design, graphic design, industrial design, robotics, biotechnology, environmental technology and engineering. For the industrial trades, students can also take courses in subjects such as industrial chemistry, public works, merchant marine shipping, drafting, construction management, landscape horiculture, land surveying, city planning, interior design, and food inspection.[13] Other trade specialties offered by colleges of technology include the culinary arts, appliance and HVAC servicing, steel fabrication, plumbing, electrical works, masonry, warehousing, carpentry, machine operation, welding, aviation maintenance, auto mechanics, and power equipment servicing.[14]

Colleges of technology were established in response to serve Japan's growing need for vocational education as well as changing industry needs across the Japanese economy. While university is by far the most prestigious form of education in Japan, many Japanese students choose to attend colleges of technology as an alternative route. These schools allow them to gain job skills without the intense pressure of the university admissions process. Many students attend specifically to get professional certifications and then proceed to enter the workforce afterwards. However, its also common for university graduates to attend colleges of technology if their efforts to secure a job with a university degree comes to no avail.[15]

70 trade and technical schools have been operating since the early 1960s.[16] A small percentage of college graduates transfer to universities as third-year students, and some universities such as the University of Tokyo and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, earmarked entrance places for transfer students of colleges of technology in the 1980s. Students are eligible to enter colleges of technology halfway through their senior secondary years. College of technology programs usually last for 5 years. This system of institutions were founded in 1961 and they have enjoyed increased popularity as an alternative route besides the traditional path of going to university. Graduates of technical schools have successful in navigating Japan's high-tech labor market as they been swamped with job offers during Japan's sluggish economy during the 1990's.[17] Graduates of trade and technical schools are awarded associate degrees or diplomas, which are respected by employers but are below bachelor degrees in terms of prestige. Nevertheless, technical graduates usually find employment immediately upon graduation. Technical education in the skilled trades continues to be a solid option for students who enjoy working with their hands and have no plans of attending university.[18]

One of the leading trade schools in Japan is Nihon Kogakuin College, which is part of the Katayanagi Institute group. The school has offered industrial education for skilled trades and technical careers since its establishment in 1947. The school today proactively accepts foreign students due to the country's labor shortage of skilled technicians in Japan's information technology industry.[19]

A 2004 white paper from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology indicated that the colleges of technology are leaders in the use of apprenticeships and internships, with more than 90% of institutions offering this opportunity compared to 46% of universities and 24% of junior colleges.[20] As of 2008, 23.1% of high school graduates study at vocational schools with 99.6% being employed after graduation.[21]

Miscellaneous schools

In 1991 there were about 3,400 predominantly private "miscellaneous schools," whose attendance did not require upper-secondary school graduation. Miscellaneous schools offer a variety of courses in such programs as medical treatment, education, social welfare, and hygiene, diversifying practical postsecondary training and responding to social and economic demands for certain skills.


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  3. National Center for University Entrance Examinations
  4. 私立学校の振興", Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 1 May 2010
  5. http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/markets/japan/article6390772.ece
  6. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR/countries
  7. A 2006 ranking from THES - QS of the world’s research universities.
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  13. "Japan - Higher Education". State University. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  14. Benjamin, Gail (1997). .Japanese Lessons. New York University Press. p. 205.
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  16. "School-to-Work Transition". Center For International Education Benchmarket. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  17. "Alternatives to university Vocational and technical schools". Japan Guide. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  18. "Alternatives to university Vocational and technical schools". Japan Guide. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  19. Taro Fujimoto (21 July 2008). "Vocational schools on the move". Japan Today. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  20. http://www.mext.go.jp/english/news/2004/05/04052401.htm
  21. Taro Fujimoto (21 July 2008). "Vocational schools on the move". Japan Today. Retrieved 26 October 2016.


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