Japanese Cram Schools Are Not What You Think

Takahiro Goto is the director and a teacher at the cram school “GS Shingaku Kyoshitsu” in Hachioji City in the Greater Tokyo Area. Cram schools (“juku” in Japanese) are schools where young students study hard to prepare for their desired school or university entrance exams. 

Before talking to Mr. Goto, I did not quite understand why Japanese kids had to study there for hours after school (sometimes even on weekends and during the holidays). However, after this interview, I grasped why these schools are now necessary for Japanese kids and how they can make them grow and be happier. Read on to know from the inside what these schools actually are.

How the Japanese Educational System Creates the Need for Cram Schools

For our readers who may not be familiar with it, could you please explain how school education in Japan works?

The first difference with the Western system is that school starts in April and ends in March. Most entrance examinations usually take place in February. 

In Japan, compulsory education includes a primary school and middle school. Children enter primary school when they are seven and study there for six years. Then, there is junior high school for three years. 

Some kids take entrance exams to enter combined junior high and high schools. Combined junior high and high schools are mostly private, but the number of public ones is increasing. However, the percentage of kids who take exams in big cities is very different from more rural areas. For example, in Tokyo, 25% of the kids take such exams and go to cram schools to get prepared. The exam results select the best scores, so not all kids can enter combined junior high and high schools. In the end, a little more than 10% of them succeed. However, since junior high school and high school are combined, the kids will not have to sit for high school entrance exams.

Since high school exams are very difficult, the majority of kids prepare for them by going to cram schools.

75% of Japanese kids do not take exams and enter public junior high school. Compulsory education lasts for nine years and ends with junior high school. Still, the percentage of Japanese kids who go to high school is 97% or 98%, depending on the year. There are public high schools and private high schools. It also varies depending on the area. In regional Japan, most kids aim at public high schools. In Tokyo, it’s fifty-fifty. Since high school exams are very difficult, the majority of kids prepare for them by going to cram schools. 

After that, there is university. The main difference with the West is that entering university is very difficult. Still, after that, if you study normally, it is not very hard to graduate. After four years, you graduate from university—the number of young Japanese going to university increases every year. When I took exams to enter university 30 years ago, only 25% of young people went to university. Today, it is more than 50%. It has become evident for kids who study seriously to go to university.

Two Japanese high schoolers studying
The percentage of Japanese kids going to high school is close to 100%.

Based on my experience, I have found out that most kids study without having a clear objective or dream in mind.

As I said, in Japan, you graduate from university after four years. Still, the timing for finding employment is also different from the West. Students start looking for a job in their third year of university. There is a custom called “new graduate recruitment” when you enter a company just after graduation. It is becoming more difficult, and young people find it hard to join their preferred company. 

So, most Japanese kids go to primary school for six years, junior high school for three years, high school for three years, and university for four years. However, based on my experience, I have found out that most kids study without having a clear objective or dream in mind. They all want to enter a good high school or a good university, but when asked what they want to do after that, most of them cannot answer. To me, this is a big issue.

It is impossible to succeed at entrance exams by only attending regular school classes.

What is the place of “juku” or cram schools in the Japanese educational system?

First, it is essential to understand that the regular school classes and school life do not match the entrance exams. I am not saying this because I own a cram school myself, but it is impossible to succeed at entrance exams by only attending regular school classes. It is impossible to answer the questions. That is why cram schools become necessary. 

In Japan, there are two types of “juku.” The first one is “shingaku juku,” like mine. It is a cram school where you study to enter a difficult junior high school, high school, or university.

The second type is called “hoshuu juku” or supplementary school, for kids who have trouble keeping up with the regular classes. 

An entrance door with a sign in Japanese
The entrance door of Mr. Goto’s cram school reads “GS Shingaku Kyoshitsu,” stating that it is a cram school to prepare for entrance exams

So, why did such juku become necessary? First, there are too many kids in a class. Usually, there are more than 40. Some kids can study well, while others have trouble following, so the schools have no choice but to adapt the classes’ content to the average level. Then, kids who are good at studying find the classes boring, while those who have difficulties still find it hard to follow. The juku takes care of both profiles.

The main problem is that even if you study well in school and at home, you cannot pass the entrance exams. The programs decided by the Ministry of Education only dictate the minimum level the students are supposed to reach.

Why Japanese Kids Must Prepare for Entrance Exams That Keep Getting Harder 

Doll representing a Japanese junior high schooler traying to reach a high school above him on wooden blocks
For Japanese junior high schoolers, aiming at their preferred high school requires effort.

In my school, the whole junior high school program is covered during the students’ first and second years.

So, the classes taught in cram schools are more difficult than regular school classes? 

The pace is faster. For example, in my school, the whole junior high school program is covered during the students’ first and second years. So during the third year, we do special training to answer the exam questions.

Does this mean that the kids already know what is taught to them during their third year in school?

Yes, especially for English and mathematics. They study the subjects again after having done lots of exercises about them in cram school. So, I think they must find it easy.

Do the kids not get bored in class?

Some kids do make fun of regular school classes by saying it is too easy. However, in Japan, there is something called “naishinten,” a grade from one to five that evaluates the student’s level in junior high school and sent to high schools. Public high schools especially require a high naishinten. Kids do not want this grade to be bad, so they try to take regular school classes seriously. 

The entrance exams for highly ranked schools become harder because there is a lot of competition.

On your school’s website, you mention that the entrance exams get harder and harder. It surprised me. Since the number of children in Japan is decreasing, I thought entrance exams would become more accessible because there would be less competition.

It is true the number of children is decreasing and will decrease even more in the future. It is especially true for regional areas of Japan. In Tokyo, the number is more stable. You will find it surprising, but even if the number of children going to cram school decreases, the profit cram schools make as a whole is increasing. Since people have fewer children, they invest more in their education and take more classes. Grandparents also invest in their grandchildren’s education.

Now, let us talk about the difficulty of the entrance exams. Private establishments’ entrance exams have always been difficult. Their level of competition is four or five times higher. If the exam is too easy, too many kids will get a grade close to the maximum, and it will not be possible to judge which kids have the best potential. Difficult tests allow us to make a difference.

A significant change in Tokyo recently is that some public high schools’ entrance exams have also become difficult. Especially for “shingaku shido jutenko,” high schools that focus on university entrance instruction. Their entrance exams are especially challenging. In comparison, entrance exams for other public high schools are easy, and kids who study correctly will usually get a score of at least 90/100.

So, the entrance exams for highly ranked schools become more demanding because there is a lot of competition, and they need to select only the best students.

The Current Situation for School Teachers in Japan

ダイニングとキッチン

自動的に生成された説明
A typical Japanese classroom

Regular school teachers are very busy with tasks other than teaching. They do not have time to answer questions or take care of their students outside of class.

What is the difference between a regular school teacher’s work and the work of a cram school teacher?

To tell the truth, for school teachers, the teaching part of their job is increasingly becoming smaller. Of course, there are classes, and the teachers do their best to teach kids. But, as I mentioned earlier, they cannot prepare the kids for the entrance exams. Also, they are very busy with tasks other than teaching. They do not have time to answer questions or take care of their students outside of class, but cram school teachers can do that.

So, what kind of tasks are regular school teachers busy with? Things like “everyday life guidance,” for example, checking if the students are dressed correctly or do not infringe rules. They are also busy with extracurricular activities, which is another significant difference with schools in the West. In Japan, after classes are over, students participate in sports and cultural clubs for several hours every day. Each club has an assigned teacher. School teachers also do a lot of administrative tasks, take care of the Board of Education… They often work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and lack time to be more involved in teaching. 

In Japan, if a kid creates some trouble outside of school, the teacher is also considered responsible.

I have heard that Japanese teachers also have to visit their students in their homes. Is this true?

Yes, there are one or two home visits per year. The teachers talk with each kid’s guardians and see the kid’s room. However, many schools are starting to abolish this system, mainly due to privacy concerns. 

Another problem is that the kids’ guardians tend to rely on the teachers for everything. Some of them will phone the teacher if their kid cannot wake up in the morning! It sounds crazy, but it is true. Some of them will also ask for the teacher’s help if they cannot find their kid at night. In Japan, if a kid creates some trouble, the teacher is also considered responsible. If a kid gets caught for shoplifting, their parents will be called, but their teachers will be called as well.

Teachers can’t do their job correctly in such conditions! It is just starting to get better. People are beginning to realize that teachers deserve regular working hours and should not be involved in extraneous matters. 

A Place to Grow and Be Rewarded

人, スーツ, 部屋 が含まれている画像

自動的に生成された説明

Are there specific subjects that Japanese kids are good at and bad at? I have an image of Japanese kids being good at mathematics. 

I think Japanese kids are pretty good at arithmetic and mathematics. They are good at calculation and resolving problems following a typical pattern, which is expected at entrance exams. However, Japan is not a leader in mathematics in the sense of winning the International Mathematical Olympiad or receiving a Fields Medal. On the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, Japanese kids are not very good at writing problems or exercises that require imagination to be solved. That is why entrance exams are going to change to integrate more writing problems.

Another of my worries is the English language. Japanese kids study English for more than 10 years, but almost none can speak English in the end. There is a problem somewhere. That is because they learn it to succeed at tests. I have a few kids who can speak English like natives in my cram school because they have spent time abroad. They sometimes have trouble getting good grades in tests. They will tell us, “Nobody talks like that.” The English studied in school is far from natural. In times of globalization, Japanese companies will have to deal with overseas more and more, and I think the way to teach English must change. There were talks about integrating the TOEIC or the TOEFL to university entrance exams, but they abandoned the idea because they were judged too difficult.

Many people may think that cram school is only about intensive learning and getting a good grade, but it is not how I feel. For me, growing as a person has the same level of importance.

Among all the kids you have taught, are there kids whose progress left an impression on you?

There are several kids every year. Some of the kids mature mentally by preparing for entrance exams. For example, some kids in the sixth year of primary school or the third year of junior high school lack confidence and are not able to say which junior high school or which high school they are aiming at. At first, their grades are not good, but after studying and training well, they get better and gain confidence. Before going to the exam, they tell us, “Teacher, I’m going to make it!” They become stronger mentally. I think it comes from all the energy they put into studying. During the summer holidays, the kids spend hours doing exercises here. They are conscious that all their efforts are not in vain. 

They also grow up as a person. They become more grateful toward the people around them, their friends, or their parents. These kinds of kids tend to have good results. On the morning of the entrance exam, some kids who kept rebelling and arguing with their parents will suddenly tell them, “Thank you for everything you did for me. I’m going to do my best today.” It usually makes their mother cry [laughs]. They tell us, “My kid has matured so much!”

Many people may think that cram school is only about intensive learning and getting a good grade, but it is not how I feel. For me, growing as a person has the same level of importance. Kids who do not get some kind of maturity along the way have few chances to succeed at the final exam. Some people see cram schools negatively, but to me, it is a place where you can develop both your skills and your character.

An empty classroom with individual tables
A classroom at Good Smile Shingaku Kyoshitsu

The cram school is like a community. A lot of kids have parents who both work, and for them, it is more fun to come to the cram school than to stay alone at home.

I must admit I have a severe image of cram schools myself. I see it as a place where you must make great efforts and study hard, and I worry about the kids being under pressure. However, on your website, you state that you do your best so that the kids are happy to come to the school every day. How do you make cram school more fun?

The perception of a cram school is very different when you are outside of it and inside it. The kids have fun studying, especially in my school, called “GS” for “Good Smile,” because we want the kids to smile even when things get hard. Frowning will not help them get better. 

The main reason children have dark expressions on their faces when they struggle is their parents. If they have parents attached only to the grades or put pressure on them, saying, “You must succeed!” the kids will put a lot of pressure on themselves and become dispirited. But if parents consider it an opportunity for their child to grow and tell them that if they fail, they should just try again, then the kids will make progress at ease.

The cram school is a place where the kids can realize their full potential, and where their efforts are acknowledged by their friends and teachers.

Also, I think there are two meanings to the word “fun.” One is the community side of the cram school: a place to be in the evening to meet your friends and talk with your teacher. Many kids have parents who both work, and for them, it is more fun to come to the cram school than to stay alone at home. 

But “fun” can have another meaning. When I meet former students 10 or 20 years later, they often tell me, “The year I spent here was really fun.” When I ask why, they tell me they felt a sense of accomplishment by doing their best.

I think that cram schools and entrance exams are the few opportunities for kids to give their everything to achieve something. Their efforts are rewarded eventually. A cram school is where they can realize their full potential, and where their friends and teachers acknowledge their efforts. And they realize their own growth. I think it is fun for them; some view the grading system as a game. I wish that people could know more about this aspect of cram schools.

Mr. Goto’s Take on Education and Other Societal Problems

メガネをかけた男性

自動的に生成された説明

One of the things I want to do is help the kids be happy in their lives in the long term, not only help them for the entrance exams.

Initially, why did you decide to open your own cram school?

I started being a cram school teacher as a side job when I was a university student. I was working in a major cram school, and at first, I chose that job because the pay was more than double that of other part-time jobs. But I got addicted to it! The kids’ innocence, the fact that the help you give a kid comes back to you in the end, the real-life drama of laughing or crying together depending on the exam results. I fell in love with the job, so when it came time for me to look for employment, I decided to keep working there, and it lasted for 20 years.

Then, my mother’s health got worse, and she became bedridden. Since I could not conciliate this situation with my work, I decided to quit. I took care of my mother for a year, and after that, she finally could enter institutional care. I had to start working again, and since I could not see myself not being a cram school teacher, I decided to start my own. That was about eight years ago. 

Now my school is smaller, and I still have to care about making money, but I am 100% free to do what I want, which is almost impossible when you work in a big company. One of the things I want to do is help the kids be happy in their lives in the long term, not only help them for the entrance exams. 

The most important thing parents should be careful about if ever their children fail is their attitude. They should not be angry or depressed, rather act as allies and cheer them up.

In 2017, you published the book “Kodomo no Shiawase wa Oya Shidai”  [“Children’s Happiness Depend on Their Parents”]. What do you think parents should do to support their children’s studies?

I think they should adopt the right distance. During the first years of schooling, I think it is good for parents to help their children with their studies if possible. Of course, it may be hard to help them once they prepare for the high school entrance exams. As a cram school teacher, I would like parents not to be too close nor too far from their children’s studies. 

As I mentioned earlier, parents should not concentrate only on the score, but on how their children are studying, putting effort, and the progress they are making. Some mothers will get very angry if their children get a bad grade on a test, but it is better not to do that. 

It is also true for the day of the entrance exam. Children say the pressure they feel comes from what their parents will think if they fail. Instead of saying something like, “You must succeed!” it is better to tell them, “You have made so many efforts so far, today you just need to do your best!” 

And the most important thing parents should be careful about if ever their children fail is their attitude. If their grades are becoming lower or if they fail the exam of their preferred school, children cry and are mortified. In such cases, parents should not get angry or be depressed, along with their children. It is when parents should act as allies and cheer them up. 

A Japanese primary schooler

For example, what words should parents say if their children failed an entrance exam?

They should compliment them on all their efforts so far, mostly if the kid has made a lot of progress during the year and was not lucky during the real entrance exam. It is better to remain positive and tell them they will have another chance at other entrance exams later in their education. 

One out of five people ends their life without ever getting married.

You do not only have your cram school but are also running a marriage counseling office. Could you please explain what it consists of and why you decided to start this activity?

In Japan, there are many marriage counseling offices, but I think mine is the only one to be linked to a cram school [laughs]. 

Some time ago, many students I had known 10 or 20 years ago would come to me seeking help because they wanted to get married. They were mostly women. We would have a drink together, and they would complain they could not find a suitable partner and would ask for my advice. I would introduce them to ex-students of the opposite sex. I got more and more requests like that, so I decided to make it part of my job.

You may have heard about it, but the number of Japanese people who get married is decreasing year after year. 40 years ago, the percentage of Japanese people who never got married was 3%. Today, it is 20%. One out of five people ends their life without ever getting married. I wanted to help young people who want to get married but fail in doing so. 

My marriage counseling office is part of a bigger organization with tens of thousands of members. In the Tokyo area, there are a few thousand. There is a website on which we can look at profiles and set up a meeting if the other person agrees. They meet in a public place like a hotel lounge, and if it goes well, they start a relationship and get married.

But the job does not end at introducing people to one another. When they date, I ask them to phone me after and tell me where they went, what they did, how it went. I advise on the right timing to make their marriage proposal. When the meeting does not go well, we think about the reasons together. It is a bit the same process as in cram school [laughs]. Sometimes the student talks too much about themselves, or on the opposite, they are too shy and cannot have a smooth conversation.  

The percentage of people who manage to get married through my counseling is relatively high, so now my customers are my ex-students, my ex-students’ friends, or their parents who have divorced.

I want to be a cram school teacher until I die.

What are your objectives for the future?

I run my cram school, but I also teach a lot of the classes. I teach everything except English, for all levels. I want to keep doing this as long as my health will allow. I want to be a cram school teacher until I die.

I also have a dream to create a cram school with a dormitory system. I want to help the kids shape good everyday habits and help them grow as a person. In Japan, dormitory schools exist, but not dormitory cram schools. I am sure some parents would like it, though, especially those who do not know how to motivate their kids anymore. 

How Talking to Mr. Goto Changed My Vision of Cram Schools

Paper figures of people with a heat drawn on them. Above them, a speech bubble says "study"

I come from a country where entrance exams exist only after high school for specific schools like business schools, journalism schools, engineering schools, etc.  Before living in Japan, cram schools were kind of a mystery to me, something I had read about in books about Japanese culture. However, after moving here, I got many Japanese friends whose children were going to cram schools. And I came to understand that they were necessary for the kids’ education in Japan—but I did not fully understand why.

After my talk with Mr. Goto, I was able to see cram schools under a new light. Not only have I understood why they are necessary, but the perception I had changed as well. Until now, I saw it as a place where kids may feel the pressure of competition, even more, a strict environment where they had to spend hours studying. To me, they could come into bloom doing something more fun.

Now I understand that “having fun” and “blooming” can have many faces. I have discovered the joy of sports and competition a bit late in life. Now, I can undoubtedly identify the feelings of “giving your best for an objective” and “being rewarded for your efforts” that kids can experience in cram schools. In Japan, adults work until very late hours. More and more children find themselves alone in the evening. So, the cram school community aspect also seems very important. A Japanese friend told me that while she did not get along very well with the other kids in her junior high school, she made great friends in her cram school, and it made her life more enjoyable. 

My friend’s story and talking with Mr. Goto has given me a new perspective on how to make judgments. They reminded me that even if we feel we are very informed, our perception of societal matters cannot be complete without knowing how people from the inside actually think and feel.

Amélie Geeraert

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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