The vast majority of Japanese schools are publicly run and are free of charge with the exception of expenses for textbooks and the like. The school year begins in April and lasts until March. Educational years are divided as follows:
- Kindergarten (“yochien”), which is not mandatory, can begin as early as age 3.
- Japan mandates education beginning at age six with elementary school (“shogako”).
- Junior high school (“chugako”) begins at age 12 and last until age 15.
Junior high is a very important period during a student’s life as preparation begins to be admitted to the best high school possible. As such, children regularly stay late at school or attend cram schools (“juku”) in preparation for the high school entrance exams. That’s not to suggest that the education system in Japan is lacking, but that these exams are crucial to a student’s future, hence the additional studies.
- From age 15 to 18, students attend high school (“kouko”) – the most important time in a Japanese student’s life.
Everywhere around the world, performance in junior high school dictates the high school a student can attend. Subsequently, how well a student performs in high school (combined with the results of the all-important university entrance exam), determines to which university the student gains acceptance. What appears somewhat unique to Japan, however, is how this is all intertwined, and how going to the “right” university can lead to a successful career. While going to an “Ivy League” or similar school like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge, certainly helps graduates seek out some of the best job opportunities the world has to offer, Japan’s equivalents (Tokyo University, Waseda University, Kyoto University, etc.) almost assure secure and successful careers within the marketplace, and allow for seemingly more rapid ascension up the employment ladder.