Ninety-five percent of Japanese schools are owned and run by the state up to Junior High level. Children attend the school that lies within their catchment area, although Senior Schools have overlapping catchment areas so access to the best schools involves a degree of competition. Competition is even greater when it comes to Senior High schools, over one-quarter of which are private and often expensive. Indeed Japanese parents are usually prepared to make a substantial financial investment in their children’s schooling, and Japan's education system is one of the best in the world. It has been suggested that the high pressure on Japanese school children has led to higher levels of psychological problems than in other developed countries, although there is no scientific evidence to support this. Changes in diet and social behaviour have contributed to increasing levels of obesity among Japanese children, but this is still lower than in Europe or North America.
The university entrance exam is of enormous importance; it’s not an exageration to say that performance in the exam pretty much determines the course of a young person’s life since the key to getting a well-paid job in a large firm is greatly dependent on being accepted to the right university.
For the majority of Japanese their school life begins at kindergarten, or Yochien. This is optional but about two thirds of children are sent there. The government is keen to support kindergartens, partly because it helps working mothers, but statistics suggest that due to demographic challenges this will never be an option for all Japanese children. Compulsory education in Japan begins at six years of age with elementary school or Shogakku. Uniforms are standard in Japan, with girls still dressing in sailor outfits reminiscent of an earlier era. Junior High School, or Chugakku, follows at age twelve and it is at this point that pupils begin to feel the pressure since good results at junior high are needed to enter one of the better senior high schools, in turn a good university, and ultimately a good job. Children typically remain at school until well into the evening, taking part in after-school clubs and activities. At age fifteen students move on to senior high, which although not compulsory is attended by almost everyone.
An important part of Japanese school life is the cram school, or Juku. These institutions provide extra lessons, either to help under-achieving students catch up, or to allow the more gifted students to develop their talents. Such classes run late and a twelve-hour school day is not unusual in Japan, with homework to follow.
Apart from the schools mentioned above there are many other options open to young Japanese students, such as Senmon Gajkkou (technical or vocational schools), or Junior colleges which offer two-year degrees something along the lines of a university degree. One of the regrettable imbalances in Japanese society is that men continue to outnumber women in Japanese universities.