Why do Japanese children lead the world in numeracy and literacy?

Writing in the Guardian, Tokyo-based Justin McCurry says an emphasis on rote learning, theory and compulsory study to age of 18 pays off but, he adds, critics say it stifles critical thought…

Japan‘s state education system is often criticised for quashing original thought among pupils in favour of rote learning, and for placing an emphasis on theory rather than practical skills, especially when it comes to English. But it is this traditional approach that has helped Japanese pupils easily outperform their counterparts in England and Northern Ireland.

Formal, intense instruction in maths and the Japanese language begins at the age of six and continues through to 15, the earliest age at which pupils can leave school. Those who elect to go on to senior high school – the rough equivalent of an English sixth form college and a traditional route to higher education – through to age 18 must study an eclectic range of subjects, including maths, Japanese literature and English.

Japanese senior high school teachers, and their pupils, are often incredulous when they learn that 16- to 18-year-olds in England can drop maths and literature and study just three A-level subjects of their choice. Japan’s approach – rote learning accompanied by regular reviewing and testing – has proved hugely successful in establishing basic academic skills among pupils. The country’s literacy rate is frequently put at 99%.

According to guidelines introduced by the education ministry, Japanese children should have learned how to read 1,006 kanji – Chinese characters used in the modern Japanese writing system – by the time they leave primary school, and a further 1,130 characters by the time they end their compulsory education at the age of 15.

Those who continue to senior high school are expected to be able to write all 2,000-plus characters – considered the minimum requirement to function in Japanese society.

Japanese children are thought to develop a working knowledge of basic mathematical patterns early on, thanks to the use in primary school classrooms of the soroban, a type of abacus based on the Chinese suanpan. Most young children in Japan own a soroban, and it is not unusual for older shopkeepers, schooled in the art of the abacus before the spread of electronic calculators, to use one to tot up bills…

The stress on memorising information and passing exams, which begins in primary school and continues through to senior high, has been blamed for stifling critical, independent thought and placing too much pressure to succeed on children as young as five…

More at:  Why do Japanese children lead the world in numeracy and literacy?

Should we worry about our latest OECD ratings and try to be more like the Japanese or are the downsides such as the claimed stifling of creativity too high a price to pay? Please give us your views in the comments or on twitter… 

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Categories: Overseas.


  1. LearnWLesley

    SchoolsImprove please let’s not copy other countries. As a nation we have a different way looking at things. There is no quick fix

  2. SianColbourne

    SchoolsImprove-Rote learning of tables is essential. Children struggle with multiplying & dividing as a result of not knowing their tables

  3. pompeyanne

    The Japanese number system is more logical than ours. And rote learning has its place but there is no point of learning in rote if they don’t know understand what and how to do the multiplication and also how to apply it!

  4. pompeyanne

    SianColbourne SchoolsImprove and rote learning is useless if they have no idea how to multiply and divide and how to use and apply it.

  5. MinoHedgehog

    LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove yes, good education takes investment, commitment, time and a good dose of common sense. No quick fix, allright

  6. changepatriot

    LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove If we have Asia in mind for comparison purposes, their cultures aren.t remotely like ours

  7. teacherwhispers

    SianColbourne SchoolsImprove I wasn’t able to ‘rote’ learn my tables; it was only when I understood what they were about that I remembered

  8. changepatriot

    SchoolsImprove My one extended visit to Japan revealed an otherworldly culture which you wouldn’t want to emulate here. Not unlike China

  9. changepatriot

    LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove I agree withyouThe ongoing privatisationof NHS,Education welfare parallels with USA far too closely & swiftly

  10. changepatriot

    MinoHedgehog LearnWLesley SchoolsImprove In70s ourschool systemwasenviedProblemsyes&employerscomplainedthen.Butprivatisation notsolution

  11. biscuitsarenice

    SchoolsImprove the English language is so differently to Japanese. You can’t compare then adapt to suit

  12. covrules

    SchoolsImprove I’m sure I’ve also seen research somewhere that Japanese teens have higher rates of depression & suicide

  13. CliffSeggie

    SianColbourne SchoolsImprove rote learning is demoralising to those who cannot learn that way. I still can’t ‘recite’ my times tables !!

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