A sociocultural comparison of Japanese and American high schools

Any anime appreciator has surely asked themselves: “Are Japanese high schools really like this?” After reading Thomas P. Rohlen’s Japan’s High Schools, I would be inclined to respond, “yes.”

In 1983, Rohlen published an anthropological study of the Japanese high school system based on a year’s worth of fieldwork across five different Japanese high schools in the city of Kobe. Upon reading this account of Japanese high school life, I could not help but draw comparisons to the American high school systemーcomparisons which are deeply unflattering to America! Despite wide criticism of its inflexible, exam-focused educational system, the portrait of Japanese students in Rohlen’s study was striking in its description of their independence and extracurricular engagement.

High school is typically considered to be a formative gateway into the adult life of a university student. This is all the more true in Japan, where the admissions process sorts students into tiers of vastly differing abilities, in stark contrast to the robust mixing of socioeconomic classes in elementary and middle schools. I summarize some particular areas of interest below, which I hope to be of as much interest to my reader as they were to me.

Overall scope

Rohlen studies the Japanese high school system from the perspective of five separate high schools in Japan, ranging from the very elite to the bottom tier. In order of descending prestige, these high schools are: Nada (with its own Wikipedia page, the Japanese equivalent of Exeter or Eton), Okada, Otani, Yama, and Sakura (a technical night school where the bottom 10-20% of talent ends up).

Beyond pure descriptive fieldwork of these five schools, he also presents the more general framework in which these schools operate: the historical context of Japanese education, the national college entrance examination system which guides the paths of nearly all students, and how these schools fit into the overall Japanese social and political system.

Many fascinating details are presented which I will not discuss, and the full book is strongly recommended; at about three hundred nontechnical pages it makes for wonderful afternoon reading.

Healthy relationships between students and faculty

One of the most striking and unexpected observations was that the student-faculty relationships in Japanese high schools seem far healthier than those in America. For example, at Otani (the mid-ranked school among the five studied), Rohlen describes an incident where students playfully locked a teacher out of the classroom for five minutes. Subsequently, upon being chastised by the teacher, the students agreed to send off a delegation to the teachers’ room for a formal apology. To my American ears, this sounds like a fairly wild oscillation between misbehavior and compliance; however, Rohlen instead comments:

The students neither fear their teachers nor do the teachers take such pranks very seriously as a threat to their authority or to the order of the school. Occasional outbursts and little jokes are not viewed as part of a discipline problem. The students’ normal good conduct and regular study habits have established a basis for faculty tolerance.

Quite frankly, it is hard to imagine a student-teacher attitude with such a high level of mutual tolerance and respect in America. In an American high school, such an incident would not only reflect a severe level of misbehavior and rowdiness among the student body but also almost certainly trigger some sort of resentment or long-lasting anger on the part of the teacher. What Rohlen describes seems almost alien in its civility and the cordial simplicity with which the matter was settled.

One differentiating aspect is of course the underlying culture from which these relationships are formed. For example, in pre-Meiji Tokugawa Japan, the student-teacher relationship was highly Confucian in nature, meaning that students were expected to learn from and obey teachers, while teachers were expected to instruct students not merely via the transmission of pure information but also via their actions, through which they modeled an exemplar of the ideal scholar. Even after many decades of wild reform, this attitude likely still persists on in modern-day Japan: precisely because the students and teachers both naturally recognize their differing roles in the societal hierarchy, mild transgressions are considered as categorically different from fundamental upendings of the social order. There are moments of play and misbehavior, to be sure, but at the end of the day everyone knows where they stand in the larger hierarchy and is willing to act accordingly.

Even at Sakura, the equivalent of an American inner-city vocational high school, students have a jovial relationship with their teachers:

During class breaks, many students gather in the teachers’ room to talk and joke in a pleasant, informal manner with the teachers. When it is time to leave for the next class, both students and teachers linger too long and are often late. In no other school I visited is there as close and friendly an atmosphere. There is more humanity and more candidness all around. The proverbial Japanese propriety and restraint are not much in evidence here.

What a striking difference from, say, the typical high school in Flint or Detroit! One cannot help but wonder as to why even the lowest rung of Japanese students can maintain friendly, rather than antagonistic, relationships with their teachers.

This deeply Confucian ordering of Japanese society is further exemplified by a remarkable anecdote from Rohlen:

Otani’s principal is addressing the students during the ceremonies opening the new school year. “You may have seen me going around the school with a knife last month. I spent a lot of time scraping gum off chairs and desks.” He lifts up a paper bag and tells everyone that it is filled with gum.

The principal proceeds to elaborate on his motives:

I did this because a parent mentioned to me that Otani students do not care for their school as much as those at X High School [a grade above on the academic ladder]. I decided to see for myself, and he was right. I felt rather ashamed going around collecting this stuff, but I can tell you the gum is pretty much gone now.

I know many of you love this school and I want you new students to learn to love it. We are starting a new year and I want the older students to offer good guidance to the new students. Can we all agree to take better care of our school, just as we would our own homes? That is how we will show our love for the school.

Again, this is not a situation that one can readily imagine playing out in any American school, and that applies not only to troubled urban schools but even to the more selective private academies and magnet schools. Here, the principal shows his parental devotion for the student through a humble display of unpleasant labor. In ideal Confucian form, he models proper behavior for the students, and similarly exhorts that the older students guide the behavior of the younger students, framing this service as an expression of service and devotion to the institution of the school itself. Notably, the principal does not attempt to impose rules to ban the sticking of gum beneath seats and tables. Instead, he relies wholly upon an appeal to “moral example and group sentiment.”

Beyond adherence to prescribed roles, it is also notable that the principal offers up his own personal labor, taking on a thankless task that would typically be relegated to a janitor. Yes, there is something ritualistic and performative about itーbut the fact that this is even conceivable strikes a jarring contrast with American schools, where (in my own personal recollection) the higher administrative tiers were little more than shifting agents of a large and faceless bureaucracy, paid to shuffle between different schools and handle trivial disciplinary problems with little alignment with the goals of students themselves, and consequently deserving of less respect than even the service staff of the cafeteria. Even in Japanese schools, of course, there is a large practical gap between the administrative duties of principals, who are “frequently away” and have an “irregular” relationship with the daily teaching staff, and the lives of the students. Still, there is something special about the personal nature of the principal’s appeal which seems unthinkable in the context of the American system.

Naively, one might initially believe that this focus on the proper roles and relationships between different segments of Japanese society might lead to the development of vast, unbridgeable distances between students and faculty. However, to me, it almost appears as though the frank acknowledgement and consummation of roles which are otherwise left implicit serves as a solid foundation for the development of more complex social relationships. To be sure, there are many things one can criticize about Confucian social relations, and I myself find more inspiration from Legalist theories of human nature than from Confucian theories; yet I cannot deny that the examples supplied by Rohlen exhibit a depth of humanity which I found to be wholly lacking in the vaguely antagonistic relationships characteristic of American schools.

Finally, one other point of difference between the Japanese and American school cultures, which I will highlight in more depth later, is the explicit focus on entrance exams as the sole determinant of college admissions. In America, “holistic” college admissions routinely include the solicitation of “letters of recommendation” from high school teachers. Naturally, with two or three required letters per student and a much larger number of students than teachers, this is a rather farcical endeavorーfor the vast majority of students, it is little more than a perfunctory statement about their course grades. Still, it introduces an explicit incentive for students to curry superficial favor with teachers, and I would not be surprised if this had the net effect of degrading the quality, depth, and maturity of student-teacher relationships overall. It is already intrinsically challenging for two people of vastly different age, experience, and maturity to communicate with each other; even more so when every interaction is very plausibly little more than an attempt at flattery in service of self-interest.

Social benefits of stratifying students by ability

Unlike American high schools, which (setting aside a handful of well-known magnet or boarding schools) are largely regional, admit based on geographic area of residence, and occupy places in city-wide or district-wide hierarchies, it is far easier to rank all Japanese high schools on the same ordinal scale, namely via the performance of their graduates on college entrance examinations. Nada High School, one of the five schools that Rohlen profiles, sat at the very top of this ranking. Correspondingly, it only admitted the most talented students from across the nation.

I was struck by Rohlen’s description of the (1) independence and (2) peer-to-peer intellectual engagement among the student body. One should note that these traits are especially remarkable in light of the dominant focus on preparing for rigid entrance examinations into the top universities. For example, with respect to after-school extracurricular activities, students were largely capable of “carrying on club activities without teacher guidance.” Even in class, Rohlen notes that students were routinely given the opportunity to debate, for example, “the merits of several different interpretations of the history of the [Meiji] restoration”ーsomething that was never observed at lower-tier schools.

It is not a stretch to imagine that these students greatly enjoyed these opportunities for independence and self-expression! Crucially, it is likely these opportunities would simply not have existed with a student body containing a higher level of variation in ability; for example, students at Otani (a mid-ranked high school) are described as generally being at a total loss to answer simple questions about a history lecture, let alone engage in peer-to-peer discussion with any interpretive depth. Similarly, students at the other four high schools do not seem nearly as capable of handling club activities without explicit teacher guidance, with the necessity of such guidance increasing as one progresses down the rankings.

This stands in quite stark contrast to the American ideal of high school, where “a mixing of students of all ability levels [nurtures] an egalitarian spirit of community and mutual respect.” One wonders if this really happens! Put a top 10% student in the same classroom as a 50th percentile student; is it not more likely that the stronger student finds themselves bored by the pace of the curriculum and resents the presence of the weaker student for holding them back, while the weaker student similarly resents the stronger student for raising the standard well above what they can hope to achieve? That was certainly my own experience. If anything, this “mixing” resulted in the development of a far more profound misanthropy than would ever have taken hold in a system with more ability streaming.

The aspect of student motivation is similarly interesting. At every high school described, the level of the curriculum, while nominally covering the same topics, is clearly adapted so as to challenge the majority of the students, with great variation between the best school (Nada where students are actively debating historical interpretations) and the worst (Sakura, where students struggle to read a one-paragraph passage in an entire half-hour of class). Tailoring curricular material to specific levels of student ability seems to be an obvious “win” in terms of generating student motivation.

Thinking back to my own, personal experiences in high school, I found the mismatch between my own level of intrinsic ability and the typical level of my peers to be profoundly depressing. Even at a relatively competitive public high school in a wealthy suburb, it was a deeply unpleasant experience to feel, on a daily basis, as though my own intellectual stimulation were effectively being held back by my own “peer group”ーand yet, at the same time, be forced to spend eight hours a day with them while playing along with transparently false notions of equal potential and camaraderie. Ultimately, I believe that being situated among an appropriate group of similar-age peers, matched in both intellectual and emotional development, is crucial for the nurturing of a prosocial attitude. Feelings of mutual respect and admiration fundamentally begin not from the imposition of abstract democratic ideals but from the formation of actual relationships with close friends, and only from those relationships do people start to generalize to the broader part of humanity.

Japanese society clearly views group membership as the cornerstone of a healthy society:

Full participation is another important value taught by school events. […] Teachers work to bring nonparticipatory students back into the fold […]. Participation in groups is assumed to be natural, healthy, and proper. Nonparticipation, it is assumed, is accompanied by loss of self-confidence and self-worth. To pull back is an act of protest, but also a cry for help. Restitution to the group is often a process akin to psychotherapeutic acceptance.

One imagines, perhaps, that such a strong level of group integration among high school students, given the competitive pressures and the stark differentials in ability and motivation which emerge with increasing clarity at those ages, is only really made possible because of the high level of sorting that occurs at the high school admissions level.

Entrance exams as a clear objective function

There is much that one can criticize about entrance exams. However, they appear to me to serve substantial utility in providing a single, clear objective function that students and teachers alike can directly optimize toward.

Stepping back, one might argue that an exam-focused culture causes students to spend all their time studying rather than enjoying youth in a more “natural” manner. However, it is not really clear to me that this is true. Rohlen comments, for example, that the level of competitiveness generally increased with the prevalence of high school and university attendance, because the signalling value of attaining any given level of education is diminished by broader access to credentials of that same level. It appears that the exactly the same trend plays out in American high schools.

Although Americans do not have university-specific entrance exams, and the “skill cap” of standardized exams like the SAT, ACT, or AP exams is embarrassingly low, students desperately try to find other ways to distinguish themselves. Perhaps an American student might not spend as much time studying math and literature as a Japanese student; however, they will instead join five different vacuous “volunteering” clubs, aim for meaningless distinctions like becoming President of the local National Honor Society, or even wash dishes in a university lab under the guise of “research” if their parents have the right connections. It is not really clear to me that this can strictly be considered an improvement over a counterfactual world where students simply spend that time learning factual content.

American students engage in these absurd, farcical attempts to pad their resume largely because their is no single body of examinable content which can clearly differentiate between students of different ability levels. In contrast, Japanese students, while they may spend more time studying overall, have a very clear and singular aim: to learn the content that will be examined so as to maximize their score on the entrance examinations.

I suspect that this difference is an extremely strong contributor to the vibrance of interest and engagement that Rohlen observes in Japanese high school extracurricular activities. Even at the most exam-obsessed school, Nada, Rohlen describes the extracurricular life of Japanese students as extremely popular, ranging from “an active use of the library” to “broad participation in the student literary magazine.” A particular highlight is his recollection of the annual student cultural festival at Otani, with an entirely student-run skit that reached “a high point of creative exuberance.” Even at Nada, where Rohlen admits that he expected a “more docile and serious” sort of performance, the cultural festival there was nevertheless characterized by “a side of Japanese adolescence that fit [his] own best memories.” Perhaps it is precisely the explicit separation between college admissions and extracurricular activities that allows students to choose activities in which they hold genuine interest and to pursue them wholeheartedly, without keeping in mind how to best gun for leadership positions or optimize club activities toward the aims of a vague, amorphous, “holistic” college admissions policy. The contrast with American high school clubs is strikingーin my experience, I would say that the majority of students participated purely for resume-padding purposes, not just diluting the quality of any individual club and massively distorting students’ incentives but leaving behind a somewhat sour taste toward the totality of extracurricular involvement in general.

One final point is that when students and teachers are both optimizing toward the same, clearly measured objective goal, it is not just easier to assort students of similar quality together but also easier to measure teacher quality (in part because student quality is better known and in part because the quantitative measure of success is more directly visible). This aids, for example, in the recruitment of the most competent teachers to the best schools in the prefecture or even in the entire nation. In contrast, my impression is that such “shuffling” of teachers between American high schools is fairly uncommon, let alone active attempts to recruit better teachers to schools on the basis of their performance alone. It is my suspicion that a good match between the basic ability levels of students and staff is an essential component that reinforces the healthy student-teacher relationships in Japanese high schools, for many reasons too obvious to enumerate.

Memorization-heavy nature of entrance examinations

Another much-criticized feature of Japanese entrance exams is their dependence upon rote memorization of massive quantities of information, a quality which is often presumed to trade off against measurement of abstract reasoning and the development of more generally applicable skills. For this reason, I was quite interested to see explicit examples given for questions in the entrance exam of the most elite universities. For example, consider the following question about Western social studies:

In a criticism of this question, Rohlen comments that the American system prefers to “focus on the essence of what we think the Greeks valuedーindependence of thought and rationalityーtwo items that tests do not reliably measure,” as opposed to mastery of the “names, dates, places, eras, schools of philosophy, and philosophical lineages involved.”

First of all, I would comment that it is relatively unclear to me that the American college admissions system actually manages to measure “independence of thought and rationality” in any particularly distinct way, and that any high school senior in America capable of filling in half the blanks in the question above would be considered exceptionally bright. More importantly, however, I believe that he falls into a common fallacy of underrating the importance of rote memorization.

Step back for a moment and consider the challenge of learning a foreign language. When tasked with reading a paragraph of standard, adult-level prose, almost any American student, even those who may have studied this language for years in university, will struggle immensely with recollection of the relevant vocabulary. They will be forced to consult a dictionary every two seconds, immensely hindering their comprehension and enjoyment of the subject matter. Crucially, this does not just affect the speed at which they read that particular passage; it means that they will consume an overall much lower volume of reading material, ending up farther and farther behind in overall fluency compared to a student who has memorized tens of thousands of words and can read the passages five times as fast. In this sense, we can intuitively see how rote memorization is fundamentalーintrinsic, evenーto efficient mastery of a complex subject in a way that American education does not seem to appreciate.

One can very well make the same argument with history or philosophy. How can a student even possibly begin to appreciate the interplay of thought between different Greek philosophers if they are unaware of the basic vocabulary of the era, the names of different schools of thought, and the times in which different philosophers lived? It seems particularly true of all studies of human culture, which is intrinsically “messy” and lacking in clean, abstract structure, that it is nearly impossible to attain any measure of depth without first reaching a basic and extremely broad level of fluency with the surrounding context of a given topic. In this sense, it seems clear that the Japanese method is far better at equipping its students with the building blocks of complex understanding than the American method.

To be sure, it is not as though there is nothing to criticize about rote memorization. Consider the following question:

Even I will agree that it is not particularly useful for students to know that the Rhine connects with Paris via the Marne-Rhine Canal specifically. Still, I would prefer that students gain some obscure knowledge about European geography rather than halfheartedly fill up clubroom seats for hundreds of hours purely for the purpose of recording one or two nominal contributions on their “holistic” college application.

Ironically, the real fruits of the memorization-heavy approach are inadvertently demonstrated by Rohlen’s critique that “most educated Japanese can read English with amazing skill but hardly speak a word.” That is an astonishing and incredible accomplishment! The most educated Americans remember almost nothing of the language they studied in secondary schoolーto imagine them seriously attempting to read even, say, the national paper in French or Spanish brings to mind an image both hilarious and sobering.

Rohlen posits a fundamental difference between the values that underlie Western versus Eastern education:

We encounter here a basic cultural difference. Schooling in logic is as old as Western civilization itself. By contrast, the Japanese tradition is heavily dependent on mastering foreign subjects and languages. It has long emphasized memorization and imitation. The assumption has been that wisdom would come slowly.

Yet Rohlen himself admits that in mathematics and science, much unlike the example questions shown above, “theory, problem solving, and logic are central […] and the exam system buttresses this emphasis in Japanese education.” Nor can one deny that mastery of Greek and Latin were, up through the first part of the 20th century, considered essential parts of a classical Western education. Even in my own recollection, teachers’ attempts to engage students in discursive reasoning were often hindered by a lack of mastery of basic details. There are of course differences in educational practice that surely arise from differences in our basic cultural values, but I cannot help but wonder if Rohlen, in some part, drawing comparisons between the practical reality of Japanese education and an idealized and somewhat ahistorical notion of Western education.

In the end, nobody can seriously claim that modern American education totally eschews memorization. To perform well on certain standardized exams, students must occasionally retain content about the dates, persons, events, etc., of history, biology, and other subjects. That is an inevitable outcome; after all, how can one purport to examine students in basic biology without assessing their recall of the basic organelles of the cell and their function? However, it often feels as though the entire American educational system is embarrassed to admit that rote memorization is useful or desirable. In my mind, this is a great disservice to the nation’s youth.

Brutal honesty about the aim of schooling

Walk into any modern American school and you will find colorful banners, creatively renovated buildings, technological innovations like electronic blackboards, and garish displays of “school spirit” aimed to foster the development of an esprit de corps among the student body. Japanese schools, in contrast, are almost depressing in the uniformity of their dull, concrete architecture. In fact, Rohlen recounts a friend of his noting that “for Japanese students the seriousness of education is undermined if the surroundings are attractive.” All in all, an ascetic environment is taken to be a sign of serious commitment to the substance of education.

Rohlen describes the monotonous construction of Japanese schools in several scant pages, as though he were simply setting the stage for a more thorough description of the configuration of a Japanese high school within the dimensions of space and time. However, to me, these observations seemed to be part of a broader, unrecognized trend, namely a sort of “frank honesty” that Japanese society seems to have with respect to the ultimate goal and end purpose for which high school students attend classes.

Students, teachers, and parents in Japan are all aware that the entirety of the educational apparatus is aligned toward a singular and dominant goal: preparation of students for university entrance exams. There is no pretense that students attend school for the purpose of having a fun time. To be sure, there is clearly a great deal of opportunity to express themselves creatively, especially via school festivals and extracurricular activities; however, one gets the sense that everyone explicitly understands there is a certain level of hardship intrinsic to the educational pursuit.

Ultimately, American high schools are often effectively aligned toward that goal as well. In fact, ironically, one can still guarantee admission to all but the most elite American universities simply by scoring well enough on an assortment of standardized exams and scoring well in high school classes. As the prestige of a university degree has declined, so has competition to distinguish oneself via admission to stronger institutions, and in the end Americans have some sort of implicit understanding that numerical outperformance is one of the dominant goals of high school attendance. At many high schools, among the more competitive students, it simply is the dominant goal. Yet ask any given participant in the American educational system what the purpose of high school is, and I suspect you will receive quite a wide array of responses, with many referencing some vague concept of student “experience” presumed to be distinct from educational attainment alone.

Much as with the Confucian influence upon Japanese social roles, one might naively speculate that the explicit brutality of the Japanese educational system has a rather depressing effect. However, is this truly the case? In both Japan and America, the degree of competitiveness has increased steadily throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. However, in Japan, all parties involved have a clear and unvarnished understanding of what sort of system they are participating in. The intrinsically challenging nature of student learning is laid bare, both literally (in the brutal architecture of the typical high school) and figuratively. In America, however, there is something deeply dystopian about the colorful banners and school mascots, which appeared to my adolescent eyes to be bizarre, ill-conceived attempts at distracting students from the harsh and competitive nature of the real world. Perhaps in the America of the ’70s and the ’80s, economically dominant against the backdrop of a world still recovering from the scars of World War II, high school was truly a laid-back affair, where competitive impulses were secondary to reveling in a world of “dances, rallies, sports contests, election campaigns, [and] club-sponsored assemblies.” The modern era is much different, and these traditions now seem, at best, vaguely anachronistic.

What I call the “blunt frankness” of the Japanese school system manifests itself in many ways. For example, rather than the American system where students transit between different classrooms every hour, in Japan, teachers are the ones who rotate between different classes of students. This may be interpreted as an expression of the broader philosophy behind Japanese education:

If, as in Japan, the crucial motivating force is the next entrance examination, then the primary purpose of teachers, by implication, is to disseminate information to students. It is the duty of the students to absorb the information in preparation for examinations. For this arrangement to work most efficiently, students should be passive and teachers active.

The exact merits of having students remain in the same classroom for hours on end are perhaps debatable, but, remarkably, the underlying logic has a beautiful sort of crispness to it. There is a goal that everyone is aiming toward, and even if teachers might in principle prefer to have quasi-private office space as they do in America, those preferences simply do not matter. They rotate between classes and work in the communal teachers’ room because that is the efficient way to orient the overall system toward its end goal.

This “directness” about social roles seems to come hand-in-hand with Japan’s Confucian traditions, which enable an explicit recognition of the hierarchical structures of status and power that shape everyday life. In actual fact, no high school student, whether in America or in Japan, enjoys a high degree of autonomy; they are subject to the arbitrary power of their teachers, parents, and society at large. Notably, Rohlen expresses a remarkable degree of astonishment that the Japanese have no qualms about saying so directly. I have reproduced most of this passage in full, because I found Rohlen’s attitude so revelatory in its surprise:

One of the most profound discoveries for me when I began visiting Japanese high schools was that teachers regularly refer to students as kodomo, “children.” I was surprised not only by the idea, but also because in spite of four previous years in Japan, I had not realize that to Japanese the category kodomo extended to sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds. That high school students might no longer be children or that they should be treated as adults are not ideas consciously considered. The official age for adulthood in Japan is twenty, and cities across the land have public ceremonies (seijin-shiki) celebrating the transformation to adult status. Perhaps this is an explanation, but the crucial point is the basic cultural difference between Japan and the United States.

The implications are truly profound when we compare this sense of age in Japan to the American understanding that high school students are, if not adults, largely adult and properly viewed and treated as adults. Teachers as a rule lean quite readily to the point of view that extending the rights and duties of adulthood to teenagers is sound educational practice. […]

Japanese high school teachers in no way encourage their students to regard themselves as adults. In fact, it is their duty to prevent them from experimenting with adult pleasures and vices. Students are reminded of their obligation to family, school, and society. No one suggests they have rights.

It is a teacher’s job to assume a parental attitude. The ideal teacher is one who is devoted and involved but not an equal or a pal. […] Teachers are encouraged to be close to students, but not as friends; and teachers are rarely interested in being popular with students.

Imagine, if you will, a Japanese sociologist visiting American high schools and performing much the same type of socio-anthropological study which Rohlen is now performing. This Japanese sociologist might very well comment: “In actual fact students’ lives, although freer than those in Japan, are still subject to vast arrays of arbitrary rules and regulations constricting their movement through both space and time. Yet despite this, Americans claim that their students are ‘largely adult.’ Can you truly say that someone is ‘adult’ if they cannot even stand up and use the toilet without politely asking for permission? Is it not rather disturbing to with one hand offer the superficial guise of adulthood while chaining them with the other? Japanese schools are certainly strict, but we make no pretense of not being so.”

Within my own memories of American high school, I can recall any number of peculiarities arising from the confusion of the proper status of teacher against student. There was, for example, the notion of a “popular teacher,” typically someone young, light on discipline, and somewhat inclined to fraternize with students as equals. At the same time, though, they were endowed with substantial authority over students as part of their role as a teacher. It always struck me as odd for people to play along with some make-believe notion that these differences in power did not exist, and I never really held such teachers in very high regard.

In Japan, however, the formal delineation between the positions of teachers and students seems to allow for the growth of deeper, more socially productive relationships, in which both parties see themselves as occupying a small place in a broader system with attendant duties. For example, it is not uncommon for teachers in Japan to visit the homes of students who appear to be struggling, and to discuss potential resolutions with parentsーa remarkably high level of effort and care in comparison to American high school teachers! The explicit recognition of the social role of teachersーas standing above students as authority figures, but then consequently assuming, in part, the holistic responsibilities that should naturally accompany such a positionーseems to play a large part in enabling such a remarkable phenomenon. One may draw a contrast to the American situation, where both students and parents alike are forced to seek out teachers in their own classrooms should they wish to make even simple inquiries. The overall feeling is that American teachers enjoy substantial authority, both moral and explicit, without making any of the self-sacrifices that would be considered part and parcel of that authority in Japan, and ultimately occupy a world optimized for their comfort rather than for nurturing the growth and development of the nation’s youth.

In sum, it is typically well appreciated that an essential part of the foundation of a strong relationship between two peopleーparent and child, husband and wife, and so onーis clear communication of the expectations that each person holds of the other. I hope the reader will not protest if I say that one might apply the same principle to society at large, and that the brutal frankness of Japanese society in regard to the hierarchical sorting of entrance exams and the challenges involved in preparing to them are, ultimately, far healthier for the psychological development of their students than the American style, which seems to almost take pride in a persistent infantilization of its hapless subjects.


After reading through Rohlen’s entire book, I could not help but think to myself: “If only I had grown up in such a system! I would have flourished so much more than I did. Perhaps I would be able to think back upon my adolescent years with fondness rather than disdain.”

I do not mean to say that the Japanese system is perfect. However, it clearly comes with a number of strong points: the maturity of students’ relationships between themselves and with teachers; the whole-heartedness with which students can focus on extracurricular activities, untainted by any need to pad their “holistic” admissions profiles; the refreshing honesty with which Japanese society faces a brutally competitive world; finally, the assortment of students into well-matched peer groups, which forms the foundation for healthy, positive relationships with each other and consequently with the world at large. Even the entrance exams themselves, while perhaps a little overly focused on the acquisition of geographic trivia, nevertheless equip students with a breadth of knowledge entirely unheard of at the most prestigious Western institutions. Although many of these differences arise from deep and fundamental differences between Japanese and Western culture, I suspect that at least some of them could be translated over to a Western context with moderate success.


Assorted observations, each too minor to warrant its own section, are collected below…

Mastery of two instruments, including the keyboard, appears to be universal: “Children can all play two simple instruments, one wind and one keyboard, by the end of sixth grade.” One wonders if this contributes to the notable strength of modern Japanese musical composition.

Unlike American schools, which are very strongly segregated by income and therefore race, Japanese elementary and middle schools are highly socioeconomically integrated and bound to centrally planned divisions that cut across demographic lines. Interestingly, the “problem schools” in Kobe apparently offered teachers extra pay for serving in what was basically considered to be a “hardship post,” which is quite different from the incredibly low pay and status of teachers in American inner-city schools.

November 5th, 2022 | Posted in Japanese

9 Responses to “A sociocultural comparison of Japanese and American high schools”

  1. Kenneth Says:

    Very interesting read:)

  2. Literally me Says:

    What a great read.

    A lot of this is explained by the erosion of the unwritten social contract between students and teachers and the moral deterioration of the american society.

  3. Harvey Bungus Says:

    Fascinating to read. I went to a school that I consider to be nearly best of both worlds – the schoolwork was hard, but people were friendly, including teachers, since the work was getting done. My classmates were also uniquely nerdy in our school’s history, so we had a good cohort, with some school pride.

    As one of the resume-builders (debate/NHS) I think that American schools tie themselves into knots when confronting their relationships to admittance exams (SATs, APs). I also think that in many ways, the denial that school would be about admittance exams is devastating to morale, and lets schools off the hook re: preparing students for exams. My least favorite memories of school are asking teachers for letters of rec, and realizing that one of our best teachers, who loved the class, hadn’t covered an exam topic.

    I chuckle to think of what our school would have been like without extracurriculars. While almost every extracurricular had resume-padders, almost every person in the top 25% of the class had one extracurricular that they poured their soul into, with the express purpose of winning a competition solely for winning’s sake. Debate and robotics proved to be the most prominent venues for nerd-on-nerd warfare, both something that adults praised for their real-world applications, but even volunteer clubs were run by people who genuinely wanted to be competent at managing orgs. If the nerds hadn’t had something other than grades to win at and compare themselves against one another, the self-ranking thru grades would have been worse than it already was. Were these venues more political and less inspired than the literary magazine, probably, but the creativity and ingenuity of the schemes concocted in these clubs have seemed to be excellent lessons in the kind of politicking that comes up in places where everyone wants to rise above their current station.

    Yours is a fantastic blog. I am glad to have found it via MarginalRevolution, adding to the bookmarks for sure 🙂

  4. Tina Mouse Says:

    Thank you for addressing the very real lack of investment in education in the US in your closing. All extracurriculars activities are not created equal. The centering of sports in US education is an example where the lack of focus on academics is expensive and counter-productive.

    “The overall feeling is that American teachers enjoy substantial authority, both moral and explicit, without making any of the self-sacrifices that would be considered part and parcel of that authority in Japan,”
    given the attacks on teachers (including as “groomers”), low pay for level of education, and lack of support in the classroom is simply inane.

  5. Soredemos Says:

    There’s a ton about this that is bullshit, but the part about how most educated Japanese can competently read English is a real howler. They can ‘read’ it in that they can comprehend the Latin alphabet; it isn’t just meaningless scribbles to them. They also use a substantial number of loanwords…often wrongly. But no, they cannot read and comprehend it in any systemic way. This makes it seem like they can read and write English, but perhaps not speak it because, what, their accent is too bad or something? All Japanese take at least some mandatory English classes, but the quality is generally poor, but even when it isn’t, a few hours a week is nigh useless. They learn just enough to be notoriously terrible at it, to the point that Engrish is a well established point of mockery.

    Japanese who get competent, or even rudimentary, at English expressly take English courses in college. And only a minority ever do that.

  6. Victor Says:

    I believe that there are two mistakes (which are Rohlen’s fault, not yours, of course) in the answers regarding the Western social studies exam:
    4. ee is Socrates, when it should be ff: Thales (ee, Socrates, is also mentioned, this time correctly, as the answer to 9);
    6. ii is Protagoras, when it should be jj: Persia.

  7. Victor Says:

    I forgot to mention that the answer to 15 is also wrongly attributed.
    Polybius (kk) wasn’t emperor, but Marcus Aurelius (ll) was.

  8. Victor Says:

    Of course the main reason why Polybius is not the correct answer to 15 is because it was Marcus Aurelius the one who wrote a famous Stoic book, his “Meditations”.

  9. Heike Says:

    Let’s do an exchange program – we send them a ton of students from our inner cities and they send us the equivalent from their country. What would happen? How would they change, and how would we?

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