11 Nov 2016

Values education in Japan

I went for a coffee with Susan, an assistant language teacher, in the Starbucks of a small Japanese town. She apologised for the typical ex-pat location of our meeting and introduced me to her partner, Liam, as we queued for Matcha Lattes (a mistake; they look and taste like pond water). Susan and Liam have a son of primary school age and have both worked in the public school system in Japan for years, giving them an insight into the differences between Japanese and Western approaches to schooling.

Matcha latte: don’t go there.

Socialisation in elementary schools

The thing that first struck Susan when she began teaching here was the behaviour in primary schools. “The behaviour in primary schools seems really bad. At first I thought it was just the teacher I was with who was letting them get away with it, but then I saw the same thing repeated in classroom after classroom. They’re allowed to get up and wander around unchallenged during lessons, and generally do what they like unless it’s dangerous.”

This obviously took me by surprise, as I hadn’t yet visited a primary school myself. It certainly doesn’t fit in with the stereotype of Japanese students being obedient and studious, nor did it fit in with my experiences in Junior High Schools and High Schools, where the students had indeed been obedient and studious. But allowing what we in the West would see as ‘bad behaviour’ is actually quite a deliberate policy in the early years of primary schools.

Rather than seeing the first few years of school as a time for the teachers to establish the importance of following teacher instructions and focusing on school work through reward and punishment, the Japanese see it as a time for the children to come to realise these things for themselves. They believe that children naturally desire to be part of the group, so if most of the group is focused on work, those that aren’t will eventually get bored of whatever else they are doing and want to join in.

Most of the work the children do in primary school lessons is carried out in ‘han’ (groups), so learning becomes a social activity. If a particular child is out of her chair and not taking part, the teacher might say something like ‘yellow han group isn’t ready yet’. This of course has the effect of making the rest of the yellow han berate the wayward individual and implore her to come and take part so that they can finish their task. This way children learn that they are needed by the group, and learn to take pride in achievements accomplished as a group. These feelings and beliefs are very important in Japanese society, and stay with individuals through secondary school and adulthood.

Moral education lessons

Other values are more explicitly taught by their form teachers through their hour long moral education lessons. Children have this lesson once a week for the whole of their compulsory schooling, the aim of which is to:

“develop a Japanese citizen who will never lose the consistent spirit of respect for his fellow man; who will realize this spirit at home, at school and in other actual life situations in the society of which he is a member; who strives for the creation of a culture rich in individuality and for the development of a democratic nation and society; and who is able to make a voluntary contribution to the peaceful international society.”

It is largely up to the individual teacher to decide how they deliver these lessons. Most lessons I saw in Japanese Junior High schools followed a fairly traditional pedagogical style of teacher-delivered content, but the moral education lessons were quite different. Students would read a story or hear a scenario, discuss the actions taken by the protagonists in their groups, and come up with their own opinions/decisions on what they would do and why, which they then shared with the class.

Although the style is up to the teacher, the content isn’t, and a list of the goals of moral education are provided by the Ministry of Education. These goals come under four broad areas, but the contents are much broader that what we in the West would typically consider to come under the term ‘moral education’, and include goals around individuals’ attitudes to work and learning (‘always maintain a studious attitude’) and to personal grooming (‘to keep oneself neat’). A list of the goals of moral education in Japan can be found here.

Goal driven activities

A class motto displayed on a class flag

Rather than being something confined to this one lesson a week, the development of students’ non-academic traits and behaviours is something that is the explicit goal of several major events throughout the school year. Every school has a sportsday and a cultural festival each year (and these are a big deal, involving weeks of feverish practice), the goals of which are to ‘build class and school solidarity and to encourage wholehearted individual effort and perseverance’. Trips and outings organised by the school are designed to ‘broaden student knowledge about nature and the world around them in an enjoyable, memorable fashion, as well as to train students in appropriate public behaviour’.

Even smaller events and regular school days have goals associated with them, which are discussed and decided upon by the students themselves. A significant amount of time is dedicated to this in form periods, and students make banners and slogans to remind them of the goals agreed upon as a group. Not only that, there is a culture of checking at the end of an activity whether they met the goals they set out to achieve as a group or class. For example, all students spend 20 minutes a day cleaning the school together (so that they learn to respect their environment). At the end of this session, teams of students will come together and the team leader will read back the goals: “Did we work together well?” “Yes!” “Did we use our time well?” “Yes!”

Students cleaning their classroom together

Is it worth it?

The effects of values education are not easily measurable. In data-driven education systems, this can mean that these effects are not valued, and so less time is spent thinking about and developing students’ traits and behaviours. Some say that this is how it should be – school is about making kids cleverer, and nothing else.

I think this is an oversight, for two reasons. The first is instrumental; that by deliberately developing student traits of studiousness and resilience, and visibly valuing effort and perseverance, you can increase those more measurable things like grades. Of course there are better and worse ways of doing this, and research should inform the introduction of any such programmes. But unless you believe that studiousness and resilience are 100% genetic, you will agree that there is potential for them to be influenced by a child’s environment, which is at least partly within our control as educators.

The remains of a school shirt belonging to Nobuku Oshita, who was 13 at the time of the Hiroshima bombing.

The second is more fundamental. While I was in Japan, I visited the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. As you can imagine, this was an immensely moving and troubling experience, and it made me reflect on the goals of education. Nuclear technology is sophisticated, and was invented by learned individuals that would have scored highly on Maths and Science exams. But what good is knowledge if it is used for destructive purposes? And what good is it for a child to know all their times tables if their house is destroyed in a nuclear blast? We need to talk about these things with our children so that we avoid the mistakes of the past. Moral education is important, even if the effects of that education are not seen until many years later, when someone decides not to push the big red button.


    Lucy Crehan 26 Sep 2018

    Hi Katina, I’m so sorry for the slow response, my website has been sending updates to the wrong email address! The quote is from the Japanese Education Ministry website –

    katina 14 Jun 2018

    I was wondering who said this quote in your blog? If you could please tell me I would appreciate it as I am using your blog in a college a paper. Thanks, Katrina
    “develop a Japanese citizen who will never lose the consistent spirit of respect for his fellow man; who will realize this spirit at home, at school and in other actual life situations in the society of which he is a member; who strives for the creation of a culture rich in individuality and for the development of a democratic nation and society; and who is able to make a voluntary contribution to the peaceful international society.”


    Name (required)

    Email (required)