Are Japanese Teachers Less Competent than their Foreign Counterparts?

Incompetent teacher... you didn't use the method I showed youI know what you’re thinking – how could you suggest that the average teacher in any country is incompetent? Such things depend on the way you define “competence,” and how you measure it. How could you suggest that one of the most advanced countries in the world be considered “incompetent in their ability to educate? Of course, I certainly don’t want to say that they are incompetent, but according to a new survey, Japan’s teachers would agree with me if I did.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is a group of 34 nations that was created in 1961 in order to stimulate the global economy and international trade. This is the group that publishes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – the controversial “smartest countries” ranking that I argue is taken far too seriously.

They publish lots of materials on education, and they recent released the results of an interesting international survey on teachers. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) involved over 100,000 teachers of children aged 11-16. The teachers surveyed were not new teachers, but generally with a decade or more of experience.

TALIS General Results

Most teachers – about nine out of ten – reported that they enjoy their job, and eight out of ten would choose teaching as their profession again. Almost 7 out of ten teachers are women, a great deal of them are in their forties, and 90% have university education.

Many have questions about using technology in the classroom, and how to deal with children with special needs, but feedback is usually considered beneficial. Six out of ten teachers also mention that they have made changes in the classroom that yielded positive effects.

Unfortunately, many teachers feel unsupported and unrecognized in schools.

Most teachers enjoy their job, despite feeling unsupported and unrecognised in schools and undervalued by society at large, according to a new OECD survey.

Japan is a Bit… Different

The Average Japanese Teacher

A total of 3,484 randomly sampled teachers (and their principals) from 192 schools throughout the country returned valid answers to this survey. Interestingly, only 39% of teachers were women – the lowest among all OECD countries (the second lowest was Mexico, at 53.8%). This means that Japan is the only country in which there are more male than female teachers. The average age of teachers was 41.9, with 17.4 years of experience. However, the experience of the Japanese teachers equates to many more actual hours of work than your average non-Japanese counterpart.

I have had many opportunities to meet teachers from a large number of countries, and I can say without a doubt that Japanese teachers work the longest hours. It’s common to hear teachers complain about long hours on administrative tasks, and how many of them are required to stay late (sometimes 3:00, 3:30, 4:00). The life of a Japanese teacher, however, is far more demanding. The average weekly hours worked by a teacher in the OECD was 38.3 hours. Japanese teachers averaged 53.9 hours per week. Allow me to remind you that this is average – many teachers do not even leave their schools until the evening.

You may be surprised to hear that the classroom time, as well as the lesson preparation time, did not vary significantly among the countries. So what else is happening in Japanese schools?

Where Did All the Time Go?

First of all, Japanese teachers are required to stay after school well after classes end (often 90 minutes after). To be precise, they are almost always required to stay until 5:00 PM at their schools. This is regardless of whether or not they have work to do – and sometimes they don’t, so they chat like everyone else does – but it’s safe to assume that they are at least somewhat busy, with administrative work if nothing else. In fact, five and a half hours are spent each week on administrative tasks by Japanese teachers, compared to an average 2.9 in the rest of the OECD countries.

Second of all, Japanese teachers are required to help out with activities outside of regular work hours. This is especially true for new teachers and skilled ones. For example, new teachers may be roped into coaching or running a sport or activity that they have never experienced before, which would include traveling with a team to events outside of the school, and outside of school hours (such as a weekend). As for a skilled teacher, someone who is good with computers may be in charge of IT for their entire school for the whole school year (or several years, depending on who else is on staff).

Considering Japan’s schools has a huge list of extracurricular activities, a large percentage of the teachers are affiliated with such activities. Japan averaged 7.7 hours on such extracurricular activities and student clubs, compared to 2.1 in the other countries.

There are solutions, but considering the fact that they work an average of 54 hours a week, there are serious limitations to such solutions. According to the Japan Times:

The OECD survey also showed that the proportion of teachers who participate in professional development programs outside school is low in Japan. More than 80 percent of teachers said they can’t take part in such programs due to their heavy workload.

No Confidence in Japanese Schools

The Numbers

When it comes to self-efficacy, Japanese teachers are seriously lacking. The Asahi Newspaper reports:

In one section [of the survey,] respondents were asked to indicate to what extent in 12 areas of teaching and classroom management they felt they were proficient. The questions asked if they could “craft good questions for their students” and “help their students value learning,” among other topics.

They were asked to choose between “not at all,” “to some extent,” “quite a bit” and “a lot.” [. . .] Japan ranked the lowest in the ratio of respondents who chose “quite a bit” and “a lot” in all 12 areas. [. . .]

Asked if they could “motivate students who show low interest in school work,” 21.9 percent of the Japanese teachers responded with either “quite a bit” or “a lot,” while the average percentage of the total of those two answers was 70.0 percent. [. . .]

Only 17.6 percent chose “quite a bit” or “a lot” on the question if they could “get students to believe they can do well in school.”

At this last statistic, I am surprised that not so much that Japanese teachers feel unconfident to motivate students, but that others are so confident in their abilities to do so. However, the next statistic (about critical thinking) is absolutely no surprise to me.

Asked if they could “help students think critically,” 15.6 percent of the Japanese teachers responded that they could. This compared with the 80.3 percent average.

The Explanation

Japanese people, in general, lack critical thinking skills because the Japanese education system does not cultivate – much less value – creativity. In Japan, there is only one correct answer. In fact, the correct answer might not even be good enough.

I am not exaggerating.

For example, students are often punished (i.e., not given full points) on tests and assignments for reaching the correct answer in a math class (hence the picture above, which I found by searching Google for “incompetent teacher”). The reason is simply because the math utilized by the student was not the same as taught by the teacher. This is just one example of some of the ways Japan is beating the creativity out of their youth.

It’s no wonder that Japanese teachers don’t have confidence in their students’ critical thinking skills – they probably haven’t learnt critical thinking skills themselves.

The Japanese education system is so wrapped up in these “one correct answer” and “memorize everything for the upcoming test” philosophies that even if teachers recognize it – or better yet, even if teachers are willing to do something about it – they are not often able to do so. For example, a high school might decide to implement mandatory classes that cultivate creativity (for example, drama, art, music, debating, etc.). Unfortunately, though, if a student wants to go to a competitive university, they will have no chance to enter if they don’t study for the entrance exams the same way others who are competing for the same spot are.

Therefore, there are several factors beyond the teachers’ control which make the situation what it is.

The Number of Students

Another factor beyond the teachers’ control is the number of students in the classroom. This may be hard to believe, especially when so many people are hearing about a plunging birth rate in Japan, but Japan has a little-known student population problem: Too many students. The average number of students, according to the TALIS, was 31.2, which I was surprised to see was not the highest (Singapore topped that list, at 35.5 students per average class).

Don’t let “31.2” fool you – it’s certainly common to see classes in Japan with over 40 students. In fact, I have even seen one with 45 students. Such a high number of students results in several logistical limitations. Depending on the subject, you can’t simply do the same things you would with a class of 10 students, providing more attention for personal needs.

For example, if a teacher wants to call upon each student to give an answer, consider how long that would take in a class of 45 students. This is to say nothing of the additional fact that Japanese students are inherently reluctant and hesitate (i.e., they take a long time) to answer, even if they know the correct answer. The culture has bred them to act this way, and it’s very difficult to assign blame on something so culturally wide-spread.

This is why almost every junior high and high school class in the entire country is conducted in the same format – the teacher speaks, and the student (theoretically) listens. As far as I’m concerned, if the country wants to continue to be a serious player on the global stage, the educational cycle of memorizing facts and theoretical knowledge has to be broken. Students need to learn how to think, not what to think.

An Alternative Explanation?

It’s worth mentioning the argument that Japanese people generally talk about themselves in a way that demonstrates their humility, generally by putting themselves down. It’s hard to say whether the students actually believe what they are self-reporting; and many people believe that if someone says “I am so bad at math…” or “I don’t have any money so I can’t go…” then they are actually the best at math and actually have the most money. I personally believe this is a major explanation for recent surveys which suggest Japanese teens are not interested in sex.

This argument supposes that Japanese people rate themselves lower as a social function. They don’t want to be seen as complimenting themselves, or otherwise as something that the culture considers bad.

However, such cultural expressions are hardly the data that good arguments are based on. Therefore, another argument and example should be raised. In February of 2011, a survey by the Japan Youth Research Institute looked into the lifestyles of high school students in Japan, China, Korea, and America. Japanese participants were the most likely to identify themselves as fat, and only 26% (the lowest of all four countries) were satisfied with their bodies. This example is meant to support the argument that Japanese people may not be reporting low numbers as a social function, but genuinely believe in things that most people (i.e., non-Japanese) would consider to be false. Namely, despite being the skinniest (or one of the skinniest) people, Japanese are the most likely to say they are fat than others – even more than Americans, which we know has more obese people than any other nation on earth (except, maybe, for Mexico).

With all of that said, might it be true that the Japanese respondents were just being humble, or that the situation is not as bad as they make it sound? Perhaps they are just lacking in the confidence that others have, resulting in the differences we see from the survey…?

While these arguments are interesting, and I do believe that there is an alarming lack of confidence among the population of Japan. I can certainly imagine that teachers from other cultures are more confident and therefore reported higher self-efficacy, but many of results from the survey were what I would expect to see, so I don’t think this these arguments are good enough explanations. Japanese teachers’ lack of confidence likely becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that contributes to the reality of an unbalanced education.


We must not be too quick to blame Japanese teachers for not expanding their methods of education. There are many factors beyond their control, and they have many hurdles themselves. For example, many have not appropriately learnt things that they are expected to teach (i.e., critical thinking), and the working hours are more than any other country, limiting options to improve their ways. However, as time goes on and the excuses are gradually reduced (e.g., the population is rapidly shrinking, and large classes will no longer be an issue in a few decades), there may be even more performance pressure on teachers.

Tokyo Gakugei University professor emeritus Yasuhiko Jinnouchi says “As the public increasingly looks harder at education, teachers are losing confidence and sight of their social roles.” I suspect that their roles will be drastically changing along with the demographics; but unfortunately, no one can anticipate what those changes will be. Lots of books and articles have been written about the subject, but something that Japan needs to consider is that while the country tries to figure out what to do about its population, every other country will be advancing their technologies and economies.

The Bottom Line

I think what this survey really indicates is something I have said for years – the Japanese education is in desperate need of drastic changes. Fortunately, the current administration is actually making good changes. Let’s just hope the next TALIS has better news for the future (i.e., the youth) of Japan.

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4 Responses to Are Japanese Teachers Less Competent than their Foreign Counterparts?

  1. Malaz says:

    Hi Skeptikai,
    Wanted to say I’ve been reading your articles for over a year..roughly 1 out of 4 catches my interest. I’m a foreign teacher, living in China. I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years, 9 of those here in Beijing. I made the decision to stay in the Chinese system, rather than teach at the high-end, international schools because I came here to be here…not be in a “home away from home” type environment. I can tell you it’s been tough…really tough to stick with it but I have learned a lot about the Chinese people and their educational system. I’m commenting because your article, while being true from a certain standpoint, doesn’t really take the Asian mindset into account. Your comment on creativity is true but that’s only the tip of that horrible iceburg. It’s not simply a lack of creativity. Asian people (Chinese even more so) in general are so discouraged from standing-out, having independent thought or a difference of opinion…that if faced with almost any problem-solving situation, their minds literally go blank. If you ask a random person on the street what they’re thinking…the answer will almost always be “nothing” and it’s true. They’re literally thinking about nothing at all. This enculturated “no mind(set)” promotes communal harmony and lack of violent behavior. Unfortunately as you can see in Japan and is ridiculously prevalent in China, that mindset is also ripe for the use of leaders who govern on a “you think what we tell you to think” basis. In China, most elementary schools teach Math,Chinese and English…every other discipline is considered secondary or is non-existent. While I can certainly agree that Japan needs to begin the process of re-inventing creativity and problem solving skills for it’s people, I’d like to point out that the recent 2014 Pearson Group Global Study on Quality of Education ranked Japan #2 in the world (With S. Korea on top as usual)
    (If you scroll the pdf to page 10, you’ll see the list, also, it does a comparrison between this years rankings and the study from 2012)
    While there is obviously a disconnect between how foreigners view Asian education, (ie…we can only observe from the viewpoint we have) having spent almost a decade inside the system and trying vehemently to change it I can tell you that while Japanese education has its flaws…it does not begin to compare to what’s happening in China…

    Also skeptikal,

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Malaz,
      Thank you very much for your insightful comment, and thanks for your continued reading of my blog!
      Thanks also for that 2014 Learning Curve investigation by Pearson. I really didn’t want to make this article about bashing Japan or the educational system – and, in fact, I think the current prime minister’s efforts to change the education system are REALLY fantastic! – but I looked into the study, and was less than surprised.

      If you read my article The Ten Most Educated and Smartest Countries in 2012, you’ll notice that the scores used to define an intelligent country was based on an international aptitude test by PISA. There are many issues with this test, but the main thing I dislike about it is that it takes 14-year olds and gives them tests that are supposed to, in theory, generalize to the rest of the population. Do you want to know what the test actually measures? It measures how well you can take tests. Considering the current Japanese system is about 95% geared entirely towards “taking the test,” it’s no wonder they’re so high up on that ranking.

      In fact, the Learning Curve study is even worse, because it took takes into account the scores of even younger students. From the study itself: “For cognitive skills, the Index uses the latest reading, maths and science scores from PISA (Grade 8 level), TIMSS (Grade 4 and 8) and PIRLS (Grade 4).” From personal experience, I don’t believe that test scores in primary or secondary school can genuinely say anything about the intelligence of an adult population, which is what those scores always reflect. Honestly, I don’t know why the hell they don’t just test adults.

      Your comments on the “no mind(set)” were very interesting. That kind of thing is similar to how it is here in Japan, but I think the most painful example of Japan’s education system is the Japanese student’s unbelievable ineptitude at expressing their own opinion. It’s incredible. “Why do you like this?” “I don’t know. I just like it.” “Yes, yes… but… why?” “…Just because.” Japanese students definitely know a lot of things that other nationals don’t, so you can say it’s somewhat equal in that they both (Japanese and non-Japanese) know things the other doesn’t. However, something as fundamentally important to everyone as expressing their own opinion just has to be taught in school. With some of the responses people give, you would think they’re from North Korea or something. But once again, I don’t so much blame the students, or even the teachers, but the system itself and the curriculum.

      I didn’t know that English, math and Chinese were some holy grail of Chinese education, but what you said rings true from my experience (not just personal). Math classes are always apparently populated almost entirely by Chinese students, and indeed Japanese students are also light-years ahead of their Western counterparts, which is why Asians are always stereotyped in the West as the math geniuses ‘whose tests you had better cheat on in order to pass the exam.’ But at least many Chinese students are coming out of China relatively fluent – in Japan… oh, don’t get me started on the English education system here!

      Well please feel free to let me know more about the Chinese system at your convenience, because I’m always interested in various education systems around the world.
      Thanks again for the comment!

      • M says:

        Hi Ryo,
        Thanks for your reply. Just wanted to mention that the Pearson study measures things like “student freedom”, “teacher satisfaction” and “graduation rates”
        …I was skeptikal as well but I read another article which was an interview with some Finnish teachers (sorry couldn’t find it again) where they basically said “Yah…we’re consistently on top because we get paid well, our kids get a lot of recess and we have no standardized testing” I wish China and Japan (actually… the whole world…)would get on board with this idea. As the Japanese are famous for taking an idea and “making it smaller and more efficient”, I would love to see them do the same in the educational sphere. You and I should definitely continue this conversation into the ESL realm. If you’d like to do a piece, I’d be glad to collaborate. Meanwhile, let’s see if we can cast a spell on our respective host guvts. to reform their wicked educational ways. 😉

        • Ryo says:

          Hi Malaz,
          I’d love to collaborate on a piece with you! I was actually going to ask you that myself, but I was planning on waiting about another month, because I am going to be really busy until I get some stuff figured out around mid-October. Let’s keep in touch about this.

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