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On Students' Mathematics Achievement in Japan

by Yoshishige Sugiyama
November 2001

issues A number of factors must be considered when trying to understand why Asian children, especially those from Japan, score higher in mathematics than children from the United States. No single crucial factor can be found that explains this phenomenon. Instead, it is an outcome of a complicated mixture of various factors, some of which I discuss in this essay.

The level of education in Japan has traditionally been high. Missionaries dispatched to Japan from European countries during the seventeenth century reported a high literacy rate and positive attitudes toward education among the Japanese people. Strong emphasis on education is also demonstrated by the fact that the Meiji government took swift steps to establish an institutional framework of education and made great efforts to broaden the benefits of education among the people. In the period immediately after World War II, when extreme poverty pervaded this country, the strong emphasis on education never waned. At that time, most people believed that only through education could Japan pave the way to reconstruction. Indeed, this kind of thinking seems to have been with the Japanese people for a long time.

The high regard for education is reflected in peoples' attitudes in daily life. Influenced by Confucianism, Japanese people tend to be polite, loyal, and diligent, and to have deep respect for their elders. In many cases, children nurtured with this mentality tend to be more receptive to what they are told by parents. This kind of philosophy, in which receptiveness and diligence are considered virtues, helps Asian children more easily become accustomed to studying mathematics.

A high level of education often produces a good educational environment, which in turn has a good influence on children. Almost all households subscribe to newspapers. Children are often exposed to situations in which they must express and deal with something using numbers. Nurtured in a situation where adults are very good at counting and computing, children feel a strong desire to emulate them. The more they are exposed to situations that use numbers in daily life, the better the environment is for mathematics education. Thanks to this environment, most Japanese children can count to one hundred and tell time on clocks even before they enroll in elementary school.

The relatively easy system for reading numerals helps Japanese children learn to count to one hundred early, a benefit that extends to other Asian children. In the Japanese system, all we need to know to count from one to one hundred are the numerals from one up to ten and a simple rule. For example, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fourteen translate as ju-ichi, ju-ni, ju-san, and ju-yon, which mean ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, and ten-four, respectively. Also, twenty, thirty, and forty translate as ni-ju, san-ju, and yon-ju, which mean two-tens, three-tens, and four-tens, respectively. So one only needs to learn to count to ten to be able to count to ninety-nine, which greatly lessens the amount of memorizing number names. Additional benefit can be found in the current measurement system, which also uses base ten. Also, early mastery of multiplication facts, facilitated by linguistic characteristics, helps improve the level of young children's arithmetic skills and leads to a higher level of skill among junior high school students. For example, all Japanese students are supposed to learn multiplication facts, ku-ku, by heart in second grade. Colloquial phrases help them memorize the eighty-one multiplication facts, from one-one to nine-nine (ku-ku). For example, "two times three equals six" is said as, "Ni-san-ga-roku," which just refers to "two-three-six." A song further helps students memorize ku-ku. 

A policy of promoting students who have not performed well in a particular grade is another benefit. Regardless of the level of understanding of each student, Japanese students of the same age are exposed to the same level of mathematics. Students with less understanding are allowed to become familiar with that level of mathematics. Thus, all students of a given age, even those who have not performed well, have been exposed to the same mathematics. This exposure to mathematical concepts and procedures helps Japanese students outperform students from other countries in International Educational Assessment (IEA) surveys, which are conducted by age levels.

Of course, a no-failure policy means that teachers must pay special attention to low-achieving students. The attention paid by teachers to students with less understanding also contributes to higher average scores in international comparisons.

Despite all these positive features, the Japanese system must deal with various problems. In particular, we are concerned about the current situation in junior high school, high school, and even in tertiary institutions.

Because of the preoccupation with entrance-examination scores, mathematics education in Japan has not been successful in incorporating new technologies into its instructional methodology and curriculum, whereas the trend of mathematical education in many other countries is to incorporate various technologies in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, this situation is likely to continue as long as the primary goal of teaching and learning mathematics in school is considered to be nothing more than getting higher marks on entrance examinations. It is very disturbing to think about the long-term impact of this failure to acknowledge the potential value of technology in mathematics instruction.

Japan will be able to remedy this situation only when the Japanese people realize the dire implications of failure to change. Unfortunately, I fear that this realization will not happen soon. After all, anticipating failure and doing something about it are two different things.


Yoshishige Sugiyama is a professor of mathematics education in the Graduate School of Education at Waseda University, in Tokyo. He is the immediate past president of the Japan Society of Mathematical Education. His interests include problem solving, proof, and curriculum theory.




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