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Overworked: Teaching in Japan

The burden of Japan’s high performance rests on its teachers.

Junior high school teacher Hiroko Yamashita is at her second school in nine years, a 70-student school in the Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The longest any teacher in Kumamoto can stay at a school is seven years. Then they are reassigned and must leave behind colleagues, community, events and local friends. “I feel the area is my second hometown,” she says, “so it always is hard to move to a new school.”

Mandatory moves ensure no school stockpiles all the good, veteran teachers; the policy guarantees quality teachers for students in less-desirable areas and schools. Japan divides itself into 47 prefectures and metro districts for which teachers work. In Yamashita’s prefecture, the largest school has 1,000 students, the smallest only one student. The mandatory reassignments can mean an hour commute for teachers who don’t want to relocate. “If our new school is on a small island, we need to move there,” Yamashita says. In the Gunma Prefecture northwest of Tokyo, one school is so remote it has a teacher dorm.

Few countries beat Japan in academic performance. In country-by-country comparisons, Japan’s youth always score at or near the top. The results are egalitarian, too. A given Japanese student’s performance has very little to do with economic background. But, as the mandatory reassignment policy shows, the success comes on the backs of Japan’s teachers.

The statutory-required work hours for Japan’s teachers are the highest in the developed world. According to an OECD survey, Japan’s teachers work longer hours — 54 hours weekly compared to an average of 38 — than their peers in other countries.

Interestingly, Japan’s teachers spend less time actually teaching — 17.7 hours a week vs. 19.3 — than their peers globally. The rest of their hours are a function of the Japanese teacher as human community hub. They are expected to be mentors, chaperones, coaches, guidance counselors and admissions advisers, largely on their own time. They even make house calls; teachers routinely schedule home visits to meet student families. And at the end of the school day, Yamashita and other teachers supervise as their students clean classrooms, stairwells, halls and toilets. Adding to all, teachers spend afternoons, evenings and weekends on student extracurriculars, from baseball and badminton to brass bands and flower arranging, a labor of love for many but unpaid labor nevertheless. Japan’s teachers put in quadruple the hours on such activities that other teachers do globally.

Anastasia Letcher, an expatriate Floridian who teaches in the Gunma Prefecture, says she has colleagues who put in 45-plus hours a month on student activities. Any session under three hours is considered voluntary and unpaid. “I have co-workers with young children who don’t really get to see them because they are asleep when they return home each night and their weekends are filled with extracurriculars,” she says. “There’s no doubt teachers would be judged by their co-workers for slacking and putting themselves before their students. The idea of persevering through an unpleasant situation is a virtue of sorts in Japan and something expected of any mature adult.”

Good pay and benefits

Teachers do have society’s respect — though teachers say that is eroding — and take satisfaction in their work. Says Takahito Sunaga, a junior high school English teacher in a prefecture where teachers move at least every eight years, her time spent with students is the best time of her day. “I really like children,” Sunaga says. “I love to see their effort and how they improve their skills. I feel really happy when my students achieve their goals.”

Teachers in Japan teach in classes that are among the largest in the developed world, but Japanese children are so well disciplined that teachers spend little instruction time on maintaining order. The kids also are homogenous. Only 0.2% of Japanese 15-year-olds are foreign born. In Florida, the figure is nearly 10%.

Pay and benefits are good. Maternity leave is up to three years per child. Japan teacher pay is below the global average — adjusting for currency and local purchasing power — for starting teachers but by year 15 eclipses it.

On the surface, says Kei Lino, 28, a part-time teacher and university student, Japanese teachers earn well and have good benefits, but there’s a “hidden” story. “If you go inside, there’s a lot of depression for teachers, early retirement.” According to an OECD survey, only 58% of Japanese teachers say they would choose to teach if they had it to do over again — compared to 78% in the rest of the OECD.

Lino is from a family of educators. After graduating from a university with an education major, he became a second-grade homeroom teacher. He says he wasn’t one who desired to be the last to leave but even so usually got to work around 7 in the morning and left at 8 at night. “The teacher-principal relationship was the biggest stress for me,” he says. His principal came into his classroom daily, stood in the back for several minutes grimacing over how he managed the class, and then left. She scolded him but gave no advice. Indeed, Japan’s principals, in international surveys, score low against global averages in providing leadership in instruction and are less likely to help teachers improve their teaching. Lino quit after one year in public school, completed a one-year English language program at the University of West Florida and then a master’s at Florida State University in education in 2017. He returned to Japan and is at Sophia University in Tokyo working toward becoming a university professor with expertise in international and multicultural education.

Beyond memorization

Japan sees a need to reform its teaching profession. At what would seem to be the height of its educational success, Japan last year brought in an OECD panel for advice on how to move from producing graduates skilled at soaking up and regurgitating knowledge to graduates adept at critical thinking and problem-solving, something at which Japanese students don’t score well. In one international measure of problem-solving and learning to learn, U.S. students come in sixth among 34 developed and developing countries; Japan comes in last. The hurdle for Japan in changing that statistic is that only 16% of Japan’s teachers told researchers they feel equipped to teach critical thinking skills to their students. Globally, 80% feel up to it.

Japan’s education ministry has articulated a need for teachers to shift how they teach and how teachers are chosen and trained. Teachers, however, already report in assessments that their existing duties leave them little time for learning new ways themselves.

The face of Japan’s future teachers might be Yuko Ohira, who taught for seven years — she’s been on maternity leave since August 2017 — at a progressive private junior and senior high school in Toyko. After disillusioning years as a student, Ohira became interested in teaching after a teacher encouraged her to try new things and she went on a cultural visit to China. She came back on a mission to create a “peaceful and sustainable society” and now enjoys making a “positive change” in students.

One thing she dislikes: Grading. She teaches English and says the tests don’t serve students who give great presentations and think creatively but do poorly on tests. It makes them feel “inferior,” she says. “English lessons should be a great opportunity where students can know global issues and exchange ideas, but in many schools students are just forced to memorize vocabulary and grammatical rules,” she says. “I believe it is important to nurture students who are aware of social problems and can take actions locally and globally.”

Hoping to be an agent of change, Ohira leaves later this year to study for a master’s in New Zealand, a country with a reputation for teaching creative and critical thinking.

Education in Japan

Japan has an oversupply of teacher candidates. Higher education institutions for training teachers must have their syllabuses approved by the national ministry. Teacher candidates must pass a national exam to get into a teaching program, complete their bachelor’s, including practical training, and then pass a locally administered hiring exam with multiple levels, including a demonstration lesson. Candidates are ranked on a list by exam score and hired in score order. In 2013, only one in five candidates got hired. Candidates who aren’t hired must retake the exam to go back on the list. A teacher is supposed to be paired with a mentor the first year. There are various levels of teachers — temporary or contract vs. permanent. Pay is similar across the nation. Concerned after World War II about a potential shortage of teachers, Japan mandated that teachers be paid better than comparable civil servants. That margin has eroded over time. Japan’s teachers with 15 years of service make $47,561 in U.S. dollars, well above the $40,569 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average.


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