Guest post: The real reason behind Asian education success – a perspective from Japan

Manabu Watanbe is a Japan-based educational author and blogger who contacted us because he is concerned many in the west are missing the point about education in Asia where, he says, success is largely because of the ‘shadow education system’ (made up of paid-for after-school groups and private tutoring) rather than the school system…

If you were the secretary of state for education and interested in the high performance of Asian countries in the latest PISA study (Programme for International Student Assessment), you would read official reports, have some briefings by professors of education, or attend some conferences held by the governments of those countries. And the result is that you would be doomed to miss the point, because most young Asians put their passion and energy not in school, but in shadow education (supplementary education or private tutoring after school).

The Asian Development Bank in 2012 reported stunning facts:

*In China, the 2004 Urban Household Education and Employment Survey of 4,772 households indicated that 73.8% of primary students were receiving supplementary lessons, including in non-academic subjects. Proportions in lower and upper secondary were 65.6% and 53.5%…

*In Hong Kong, a 2009 telephone survey of 521 students found that 72.5% of upper primary students had received tutoring; and a survey of 898 secondary students found that 72.5% in lower secondary had received tutoring, while proportions in middle and senior secondary were 81.9% and 85.5%, respectively.

*In South Korea, in 2008, 87.9% of elementary school pupils were estimated to be receiving tutoring. In middle school the proportion was 72.5%; and in general high school it was 60.5%.

*In Singapore, a 2008 newspaper report stated that 97% of students polled at the primary, middle, and senior secondary levels were receiving tutoring.

These surveys are not necessarily large in scale but the results are too strong to be neglected.

Shadow education in Japan, which is usually called juku, is probably the most sophisticated and well-developed amongst the Asian nations.

According to the Ministry of Industry of Japan, there are more than 50,000 juku companies and the industry has already grown to a 10 billion US$ market. Several big companies have set up their own publishing houses and some launched satellites for their distance learning about fifteen years before the Internet video-on-demand system came into use.

Nowadays the business has penetrated into the school activity. Some jukus provide remedial courses in public [state] schools and some hold training courses for school teachers.

However, the near  half-century of history of jukus is tainted with criticism and hate speeches from those within the school system and other opinion leaders, probably because they feel that school education is threatened by them.

Thus, despite its enormous popularity and impact, the jukus phenomenon has never been sufficiently studied as a research subject, though the commercial guide books and magazine articles on the juku service are abundantly available in Japan.

Shadow education has hardly been mentioned in official documents, because, perhaps, it is difficult to grasp the actual situation in some countries and, in Japan, because of the reluctance of the authorities to discuss it openly.

Both the UK education secretary and the shadow education secretary have strongly suggested learning from Asian experiences of education, but it is unlikely that they have learned about the real situation. However, this is not their fault: it is due to the lack of research and the reluctance of the authorities to discuss the role of the shadow education system.

International educational assessments are obviously designed to gauge how effectively the school system functions in each country. However, considering the fact that all the high-performing Asian countries see this proliferation of shadow education, the latest PISA results unwittingly highlight the impact of this every bit as much as the impact of the school system and should be judged accordingly.


Shadow Education: Private Supplementary Tutoring and Its Implications for Policy Makers in Asia

Japan’s cramming schools. Testing times.

Juku – the Stealth Force of Education and the Deterioration of Schools in Japan

You can see more from Manabu Watanbe at

Let us know what you think of this insight into Asian education – please share in the comments or via Twitter…

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Categories: Guest Post and Overseas.


  1. JeniHooper

    SchoolsImprove if parental aspirations drive educational results then the government is looking in the wrong place.

  2. anthonysappong

    SchoolsImprove I think this is evidence of an even more deeper issue. Asian families generally value education more than we do and invest..

  3. k_m_almazroui

    التغريدة السابقة حول درجات الاختبار العالمي بيزا وأسباب ارتفاع درجات الطلاب في الدول الآسيوية من وجهة نظر يابانية.

  4. cazzwebbo

    SchoolsImprove in china it’s also because of the communist work ethic, where students believe performance equals duty. I know. I’ve been!

  5. acet2001

    SchoolsImprove Gove wouldn’t take any notice of this because it doesn’t back up his right wing hatred of the teaching profession.

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