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The Impact of Culture on Japanese Mathematics Education

by Aurelia E. Skiba
November 2001resources 

The superior performance of Asian students, as opposed to that of students in the United States, especially in mathematics, is often a topic of discussion. In 1997, I read The Open-Ended Approach: A New Proposal for Teaching Mathematics, by Jerry P. Becker and Shigeru Shimada (Reston, Va.: NCTM, 1997). After reading the book, I believed that this type of teaching could have considerable merit. As I became more intrigued by this process, I implemented it in my honors geometry classes with the teaching of formal proofs. With this approach, which poses problems formulated so that they have several correct answers, students are asked to develop a method for arriving at a solution to a problem. They work together, combining their knowledge and mathematical skills to justify conjectures. I find this method superior to the methods currently presented in textbooks. Students "buy into" the methodology and "own" the information that they have derived through their discussions more readily than with material that the teacher has presented.

In November 1998, I was part of a Fulbright Teacher Award Program, which took me to Japan for a cross-cultural exchange of educational views in all types of schools, ranging from kindergarten to the university level. My group stayed in the Sayama Prefecture, where we met many teachers during our visit. I was eager to see whether examples of this open-ended approach to teaching had found their way into the system. I was hoping to see this type of teaching in action to confirm my premise and expand my understanding of the process. However, the classes that I visited were traditional and were similar to those in the United States. When the different Fulbright groups, in which there were approximately 40 mathematics teachers, returned to Tokyo, we discussed our observations and experiences. Everyone seemed to have visited comparable school systems, and no one saw outward examples of the open-ended educational approach in use. While our experiences did not invalidate this forward-thinking educational vehicle, I now believe that Japan's educational strengths emanate essentially from societal attitudes, family involvement, and teacher preparation.

The basic tenet of Japanese education is to "educate the whole person," so learning throughout life, at any age or stage, is of primary importance. The Ministry of Education places a strong emphasis on this lifelong pursuit of learning. Adults and children are encouraged to have hobbies and to take formal lessons in sports, crafts, arts, language, and so on. The Japanese people believe that everyone must share in the effort to educate their children. When a problem arises, everyone is expected to help in its resolution, with teachers and schools bearing the main responsibility. Parents work with the children every night and often send them to gakushu-juku, or cram schools, which help them prepare for the entrance exams given at various levels in the school system.

This shared responsibility carries over into the care of the school building by teachers and students. At the end of the day, students mop, dust, and clean their classrooms and halls. I was impressed when I witnessed this activity, noting the pride that students took in their school. A group project in which all are involved emphasizes social concern for all.

The Japanese celebrate education in a very real sense. Every first grader is given a sansu setto, or a math set. It contains the manipulative materials that the student will need in the first two years of his or her mathematics education. Interestingly, it is wrapped the same way important items, such as wedding gifts, are wrapped in Japan. Since it comes as an adult gift and since it is presented in a group ceremony from guardian to child, the important connection of home to school is made and ownership is established.

Teachers are highly respected members of the community. They have a longer workweek than teachers in the United States and spend approximately 20 more hours at school than we do. The school year has 240 days, compared to 180 days in the United States. Teachers are responsible for assisting in the development of students' good personal habits, their appearance, and behavior, and teachers are expected to make home visits. Also, they are not permitted to do any other paid work. Professional growth is of utmost importance to the Japanese. In addition to salary, teachers are paid a variety of allowances, including cost-of-living adjustments and housing and commuting allowances, as well as a bonus. The most important of these enhancements is the bonus, which is paid to all teachers three times a year.

It has been said that the Japanese classroom is the domain of the students and not of the teacher. This statement does not necessarily imply that the Becker-Shimada approach is in operation, but it does mean that teachers are facilitators who guide the children in peer supervision, peer teaching, and group learning. In this respect, the setting is designed to foster a nurturing environment in which the student learns through required participation in school events, athletic meets, and outings. Attendance at formal graduation ceremonies is required, and students are expected to behave in an organized adult manner, thus instilling an awareness of the importance of the group.

I believe that all these factors contribute to the success of the Japanese student. The sense of self-identity was as evident as the contentment demonstrated by all the students with whom we spoke with in schools, in the malls, on the streets, and on the trains. Although the high suicide rate in Japan has been publicized, it is actually far lower than the rate in the United States for comparable groups of society. Such reports cause people to believe that students in Japan feel great stress. Yes, there is stress, but with parental and teacher support students know they can succeed … and they do.


Aurelia E. Skiba has been teaching at Resurrection High School in Chicago, Illinois, for 30 years. She is interested in non-Euclidean geometries, mathematics history, math anxiety, and writing in the mathematics curriculum.



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