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Japan's schooling system: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
12 March 2024

If you’re embarking on a global move, getting to grips with a different schooling system can be a challenge. To help, we’ve unpacked the international schools market to bring you everything you need to know about a child’s educational journey in Japan: find out more below, then read our insider reviews to compare and contrast schools across the country and the rest of the world.    


Japan is renowned for its sky-high standards of education. Its system is considered one of the best in the world, and an extremely strong work ethic leads to impressive results. However, the flipside of this is the immense pressure many pupils feel to succeed – and a teenager’s future job and life prospects often rest on the outcome of just one exam.  

Japan’s schooling system is broadly split into three categories:

  • Public schools. These are free (bar a few additional expenses such as uniform and books) and open to all, including expats and non-native Japanese students. All classes are taught in Japanese, and there is a strong emphasis on Japanese culture, with formal timetabled classes in haiku and Japanese calligraphy, and lessons in respect, morals and ethics. Class sizes can be huge (sometimes up to 40), but the quality of education is high.  
  • Private schools. Fee-paying private schools may teach in English (or another language) if they wish. They are expensive, but pupils are welcome to attend any private school of their choice, meaning they are not restricted to the public school in their local district. 
  • International schools. Most expats choose to send their children to an international school. These tend to be British or American (so the language of instruction is almost always English), but a growing number are affiliated with other nationalities too, such as French or German. International schools offer a much more bespoke curriculum, smaller class sizes and more specialised SEND support. There is also considerably less pressure piled onto students.   


There are about 40 international schools in Japan. These tend to be concentrated in large cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.   

There are three main stages of schooling in Japan: Elementary (Grades 1-6); Middle/Lower Secondary (Grades 7-9) and High/Upper Secondary (Grades 10-12). Many children also attend nursery or pre-school between the ages of one and five, although this is not compulsory.  

Most international schools are co-ed and day, although a small minority also offer boarding.  

The academic year runs from the start of April until the end of March, with a two- to three-week break between terms, and a longer break in the summer.  

The school week runs from Monday to Friday, but many schools offer optional additional academic and co-curricular classes on Saturday.  

More and more Japanese students are enrolling in international schools, leading to a healthy mix of nationalities. International schools offer greater global opportunities and networks, and provide children with strong prospects for future studies and careers.   


Schooling is compulsory from the ages of six to 15. However, 99 per cent of pupils stay in education beyond this age, enrolling in high school.   

Japan is home to a number of Asia’s top universities, and a large number of students go on to higher education both in Japan and abroad.  


Almost all international schools in Japan require pupils to sit a competitive entrance exam in order to obtain a place.   

Families should expect to pay a registration fee.  


International schools tend to follow the curriculum of the country with which they are affiliated. Some teach according to a specific method, such as Montessori.  

The most common curriculum at international high schools in Japan is the IB, a highly transferable and hugely popular qualification amongst expats. Many also offer the IGCSE.   


It is worth knowing that international schools do not put the same academic pressure on their students as you might find at a public school. The Japanese curriculum is very taxing and exam-focused, and public-school pupils work incredibly hard (sometimes to the point of burnout or, tragically, even suicide), signing themselves up to intense late-night and weekend cramming courses several years before the exams themselves. For many, this can be reason alone to choose an international school.