May/June 2013

Linda Dawson is IASB director/ editorial services and editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.

Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can” represents just a portion of Richard Lynn’s 1988 book, Educational Achievement in Japan. When published in National Review, the excerpt of the Northern Ireland author’s work punctuated what had been touted when A Nation at Risk was released in the United States in 1983: students in the U.S. did not measure up to some other foreign students, especially those from Japan.

In his writings, Lynn said evidence of high Japanese education standards began to appear in the 1960s and that students schooled in Japan consistently scored first on science and math tests, while American students were consistently last or next to last. Most European students fell somewhere in between.

“There can be no doubt that American schools compare poorly with Japanese schools,” he wrote. “In the latter, there are no serious problems with poor discipline, violence or truancy; Japanese children take school seriously and work hard.”

Lynn went on to say that the U.S. could emulate success in Japan by instituting a strong national curriculum, strong incentives for students and stimulating competition between schools.

So why, if these things have been evident for 25 years or more, do many American students still seem to struggle and Japanese students still seem to excel? Is it as simple as Lynn’s diagnosis? Or do more factors come into play?

Is public education in foreign countries — especially in Japan — better than that in the U.S., or is it just different?

One teacher’s journey

Marlin Hughes, a native of Nebraska, went to Japan in search of a change. What he found was a wife, a daughter and a business life that has put him in a good position to see the differences between education in Japan and his homeland.

Hughes currently teaches English privately to Japanese students as the head of English Traveler Fukuoka ’95. In addition, his 16-year-old daughter Aika has been educated in the Japanese system and is now an exchange student at the high school Hughes attended. He has also taught in public junior high and elementary schools in Japan, as well as public/private kindergartens and nurseries.

A resident of Itoshima City, Fukuoka prefecture, since 1995, he has logged more than 25,000 class hours and has taught more than 5,000 children and adults from all walks of life.

Hughes initially wanted to go to Africa with the Peace Corps after he graduated from Hastings College, now the University of Nebraska at Hastings. But during his interview with a Peace Corps agent in Lincoln, he found himself unable to commit to giving up a dating relationship in order to leave.

While dating in general wasn’t bad, the agent told him, the notion of maintaining a relationship while serving in a host country would only prove to be a mistake and lead to many problems. “He said that being a Peace Corp volunteer means a 24/7 job the entire time you serve,” Hughes recalled.

Still thinking about working overseas, Hughes had the good fortune in 1991 to run into a fellow York High School graduate who advertised in the local newspaper for help with running an English school in Japan. With support from family, co-workers and friends, he boarded a plane for Japan on February 13, 1992 … and has lived there ever since.

“I worked with Michael ( Connely) for two and a half years, learning the tricks and trades of teaching English as a foreign language,” Hughes said, “then I branched out during my days off, found students, found supporters, found offices, and split from Michael’s school in the winter of 1995.”

At first he thought he was crazy for such an undertaking, but after starting out with just four students, he expanded to more than 50 within months. He has become a student of Japanese culture even as he teaches his native English.

The Japanese system

Some things about education in Japan are very similar to that in the United States, Hughes said.

“The Japanese have a similar system in regards to when children start school, pre-K through grade 12, and a nursery system that takes kids as young as three months,” he said.

The pre-K system in Japan “entertains kids so that they can enter elementary school somewhat prepared,” and is for children ages 3 to 6. The big difference is who can attend public pre-K/kindergarten and who attends private … and the cost.

Public pre-K/kindergarten costs about $200 a month, while similar private schools cost about $350 a month. While the private pre-K/kindergartens are superior, both systems require that the mother be a stay-at-home housewife and not work.

“If this rule is broken,” Hughes said, “the family will be asked to change to a nursery system.”

The nursery system, on the other hand, takes children from 3 months to 6 years, and those moms must be employed. Cost of the nursery system ranges from $120 to $500 a month, depending on the age of the child. Babies get almost a 1:1 ratio of teacher and child, Hughes said, so the cost is greater.

Children reaching age 6 are enrolled in primary school. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Hughes said, students must be in school from the primary grades (1-5) through junior high (6-9) or age 15. These are generally neighborhood schools and attendance is compulsory.

The school day in Japan is based on a seven-period day; it begins at 8:40 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., with 40 minutes for lunch. Students in grades 1-3 only have six periods, while grade 12 students may have as many as nine periods.

The school year generally runs from April through March and is broken into three terms, with brief spring and winter breaks as well as the month-long “summer holiday,” according to This holiday coincides with the height of cherry blossom time, which is considered a time of renewal in Japan.

Other than the longer school year, another big difference is the way schools are funded in Japan.

Everyone in Illinois is familiar with the basic way public schools are funded. The bulk of tax money for education comes from local property taxes, with additional funds from the state and federal government. All real estate is taxed to support schools, regardless of whether the property owner has children in school or not.

In Japan, Hughes said, funding comes from the prefecture, which is comparable to state government in the U.S. However, only those with children in the system pay taxes to support the schools. The elderly and single adults are exempt.

Private schools, he said, run on the same guidelines as those in the U.S., i.e., hefty tuition with no government assistance.

The high school experience

While the primary system is similar to the U.S., things start to change at the junior high level.

“When high school rolls around,” Hughes said, “all students must take an entrance exam to get in … and the high school doesn’t always lie within the boundaries of their neighborhood to town.”

The competition for spots in many of these high schools is fierce, he said, and the competition to attract students can even get a little dirty.

Hughes said he and his wife feel fortunate that their daughter tested well and was accepted at a private high school once she finished junior high. Her placement is what has allowed her to study in the United States this year.

In terms of cost, the Hughes may pay more dearly, however, for choosing a private school. Costs range from a low of $250 a month to as much as $3,000 a month. However, the advantage of a private high school is that it often is paired with a university.

Successful completion of the private high school can give a student a “green light” for college entrance exams, which Hughes described as a “bearcat” compared to the ACT/SAT system used in the United States.

In the U.S., a student can still be admitted to college, even with a low score. In Japan, “if one can’t score high enough in the preliminary rounds, they are rejected and told to either try a lower ranked school or not even go to school at all after graduating high school.

Much pressure is endured during the senior year, and Hughes acknowledged that the country experiences higher student suicide rates as a result.

And that brings us to another twist in the Japanese system: the “cram school.”

According to the education in Japan website, many students attend private afterschool study sessions ( juku or gakken) while they are in junior high and high school. A separate cram school ( yobiko) operates for those students looking for help before they take university entrance exams.

These schools come with yet another extra cost beyond the cost of attending junior high or high school; the yobiko can cost as much as $10,000 a year, Hughes said.

In a paper written in 1995 at Carnegie Mellon University, James Kim compared Japanese and American education systems and cultures and theorized that the only reason Japanese students are more successful is because of these cram schools, not because their public schools are so much superior.

“The sole purpose of a juku school is to provide the student with the information and knowledge in order to pass the entrance exam and be accepted into a top university,” Kim wrote. “Americans need to pay closer attention to where Japanese students acquire their much admired education.”

By securing a spot in a top Japanese university, Kim wrote, such a student also “guarantees a job for life.”

Dropouts, GEDs and testing

Once a Japanese student has completed junior high, he or she has the right (with their parents’ permission) to leave school, although data shows that 95 percent of students go on to high school and graduate.

While this graduation rate is high for a major power, Hughes said the number is deceiving.

“Most think that all Asians, especially the Chinese and Japanese, are superior in academic talent than their western neighbor,” he said, “but one teacher told me, ‘a fifth of these students might as well not have attended because during classroom study, they were in a different world and because of this thinking, the country will be in turmoil in the not so distant future.’”

Japan does have a system similar to the General Education Development (GED) test used in the United States, but it’s rarely used just because its purpose is counter to everything in Japanese culture.

Hughes said children are taught at an early age to be part of the group. “To be singled out in Japan means that one is not in acceptance of the group’s decision and therefore is cast out so that group cohesion will not be interrupted.”

In other words, students are not held back, nor are they put into accelerated classes.

All curriculum in Japan is nationalized for the public schools, but private institutions follow their own guidelines, and are often a grade above public schools in what students are taught, Hughes said.

In the public primary grades, he said, the emphasis is on basic mathematical thinking and building strong group cohesion. As students advance, more emphasis is placed on taking pride in Japanese cultural tradition: diet, self-control and nature.

Once students enter junior high, they are constantly tested to find out where they rank in the class — even though they are taught not to draw attention to themselves. A typical junior high testing schedule for a seventh grader might look like this:

• National placement test

• Book company test

• Book company test

• A-JHS placement test

• A-JHS mid-term

• Book company test

• Prefecture test

• A-JHS final

• National placement test

Of these, Hughes said, only two are used to determine a student’s grade.

Editor’s note: Marlin Hughes acknowledges the input from Tomoko Shojima, a teacher at Nijyo Junior High School in Itoshima City; Yukiko Murakami, a cram school teacher; Yukiko Satoh and Fumiko Yoshida, both retired junior high school teachers; and Atsuko Yamaguchi, a cram school teacher and school organizer for Maple English, Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture.


Education in Japan, http://www. education-in- sub1.html

James Kim, “Japanese Education vs. Amerecan Edukashun: A Comparative Account of Literary Education between Two Cultures,”

Richard Lynn, “Why Johnny Can’t Read, but Yoshio Can,” National Review, October 28, 1988


Education Statistics Japan US
Duration of education 12 years 12 years
Compulsory education 10 years 12 years
Secondary enrollment 7,894,456 24,185,790
Secondary teachers 612,629 1,615,032
Primary enrollment 7,257,223 24,559,490
Primary teachers 378,950 1,728,192
Total expenditure % GDP 4.6 7
Spending per secondary student $5,890 $7,764
Spending per primary student $5,075 $6,043
Math literacy 557 493
Science literacy 550 499
Reading literacy 522 504
% primary PE instruction 10 12
% primary arts instruction 11 7
% primary language instruction 14 17
% primary for. lang. instruction 13 7
% primary math instruction 12 16
% primary science instruction 11 14
% primary social studies instruction 12 12
% primary technology instruction 8 3

Source: NationMaster                      

How does Japan govern its schools?

The Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture represents the central educational authority in Japan. It gives assistance to all levels of education throughout the country. Japan is composed of 47 “prefectures” (prefectures are similar to U.S. counties). Each prefecture has a board of education that coordinates education in that geographic unit. Each school board is comprised of five members who are appointed by that prefecture’s governor, approved by the legislative assembly and serve a four-year term.

While some of the duties of the board are similar to school boards in the United States (such as overseeing the drafting of budgets), other duties far exceed those of school boards domestically. Such duties include issuing certificates to teachers, promoting events and activities related to physical education and managing the wide variety of educational units in the prefecture, including museums and public libraries.

Public education is also handled at the municipal level by a municipal board of education. Each board, consisting of five members selected by the mayor, holds office for four years. They have the responsibility of selecting a municipal superintendent of education from among their own membership, managing the educational institutions, and selecting textbooks.


A Japanese student in America sees school with different view
by Aika Mishel Hughes

Aika Mishel Hughes, 16, is the daughter of Marlin and Takiko Hughes of Itoshima City, Japan. She is a foreign exchange student at York High School in York, Nebraska, for the 2012-13 school year. She wrote this to accompany the cover story, which features her father, Marlin Hughes.

My life in a U.S. high school has had some very interesting turns, including attending the Japanese Tea Ceremony and being part of two sports teams that have gone to a state tournament.

I have also had the privilege to be a part of a unique system only approached by a few: an International Exchange program. You see, I am of a mixed race, my father is an American and my mother is a Japanese national. Let me tell you what I have perceived as good and bad about the programs in the U.S. and my homeland.

Academics have been encouraged by both my own parents and my current homestay parents. As a Japanese high school student, I was very busy studying for my classes and had no time to think about anything else, even on the weekends. You see, in Japan you don’t have small quizzes like in the U.S., so we have to take care of our own grade.

In Japan, we have mid-terms and finals, and that’s it! If you get a bad grade on your mid-terms or finals, you will fail the class.

Also, in Japan, you have the same class schedule for a whole year. Even if you fail the semester test, you still have a chance to get the grade back by scoring better on the next test. In the U.S., students change their schedules when the semester is over. That is fun, but also troublesome.

If you scored badly on tests during the first semester, you don’t have a chance to bring your grade back up. I have noticed, though, that not all classes in the U.S. have quizzes. The teacher either chooses to have them or chooses to primarily grade students from their tests. 

Both Japanese and American students learn from teachers, but how classrooms are set up differ quite a bit.

In the U.S., students don’t have their own textbooks, but in Japan we do. This expense is picked up by our parents, and textbooks can get quite costly at times. But they are ours to write in, rather than texts in the U.S. that are turned back to the school at the end of the semester.

But Japanese students are careful what they write in their textbooks, because their teachers sometimes ask to see the students’ books. If they drew pictures rather than take neat notes, students are reprimanded for keeping a sloppy book.

Teachers in Japan not only grade you on what you score, but also how you did on worksheets that are constantly handed out every class. They also grade you on how your textbook looked. Bad notes — not-so good grade.

The good thing about having your own textbook is you can use this note taking/classroom text to prepare for upcoming mid-terms or finals and that makes test prep easier. On the other hand, when you have your own textbooks, you have to carry them home every night and that is a pain.

In Japan, we don’t have the same schedule every day. My dad told me that in U.S. colleges they do the same as we do in Japan, regarding daily classes. A negative about studying in Japan is that students don’t have the freedom to choose their own schedules — the schools do it for them.

Another difference is that Japanese teachers come to the students’ classroom, not the other way around like here in the States where the students change classrooms.

In American high schools, many students get involved in sports and other after-school activities that make life more interesting. In Japan, we have fewer chances to participate in these things because we are programmed to primarily study.

Here, students seem to really enjoy school because they have the freedom to choose what they want to study for a semester, and they have the chance to get involved in many things that make a teenager’s life more enjoyable.

In Japan, it’s very important to have a good grade and keep it. While Japanese schools do have sports teams, it is hard for the student to do both because of the homework load they have every night. Students go to school early and come home late from studying. So if you play a sport, you come home even later, like 9:30 p.m. or even 10 p.m.

Playing sports in America requires students to try and mix both fun and competition. In Japan, fun is for another time. Japanese students practice sports all weekend, too. Because uniforms are owned by the students in Japan, parents must also pick up this fee. Like I said, it can get quite costly.

We also play the same sports in Japan the year round, not like the U.S., which switches according to the season. I love this system here in America. I think a lot of my friends in Fukuoka, where I go to school, would like this, too.

The last thing that I’d like to talk about is the thing I miss most about student life in Japan.

In Japan, it is important to have events that make parents want to get involved along with their kids, and one of them is the annual school festivals/sports festivals. These require students to practice weeks before the event in order to look good in front of the parents, because some schools ask parents to run, jump or even dance right along with the kids.

If sporting events aren’t your thing, then you can participate as a cheerleader to help your class team out. This is something that I have really missed, because I feel that students really get close to each other at this time. It is however, one of the few times we do get this close.