Secrets of academic success in a rural prefecture in northern Japan

September 09, 2012

By Noboru Abe: Professor at the Faculty of Education and Human Studies, Akita University

Japanese parents who want to give their kids a head start in life might consider educating their children in the far northern prefecture of Akita.

For five years in a row, the academic performance of its elementary and junior high school children in subjects like Japanese and arithmetic has come out tops in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s “Academic Ability Survey.”

Noboru Abe chaired a committee that looked into Akita’s academic achievements and came up with proposals for improving education.

Here, he divulges the three “secrets” to raising academic standards.

* * *

In 2007, following a half-century hiatus, the education ministry revived its Academic Ability Survey.

Decades ago, Akita invariably scored low in the rankings.

But since 2007, it has constantly topped the academic charts, a development that has surprised many people, not least Akita’s educators.

How did this come about?

The first secret is “shared learning.”

In Japanese classrooms, it is customary for the teacher to lecture and then guide students to the right answers. Schools in Akita, though, often adopt a trial-and-error approach that encourages students to work together.

Under this approach, the teacher poses a problem and the students consider it by themselves before gathering in groups to talk about their ideas. Their conclusions are then discussed by the class as a whole.

When it comes to tests like the Academic Ability Survey, Akita’s students have a very low “unanswered questions” rate. In short, they rarely leave the answer blank.

In classrooms that focus only on producing the right answer, students worry about making mistakes in front of the class and, as a result, are often reluctant to express themselves.

Students in “trial-and-error-type” classes, though, don’t feel embarrassed when they get the answer wrong. It is precisely because they get to hear so many different opinions that the students feel they are really learning.

Shared learning and “group study” are also key components of education in Finland, which is known for its globally-high academic standards. Students there learn the importance of discovering things for themselves.

The tutor, meanwhile, lends a guiding hand, leading the students toward the information the students need.

This is not to say Akita copied Finland. Rather, Akita’s educational methods happen to resemble those of the Finns.

At the same time, this approach relies on the expertise and knowledge of the teachers. It is not just a case of letting the students talk endlessly among themselves.

Akita has an excellent teacher training system whereby educators brush up their skills by watching other teachers in action.


The second secret lies in the close connections between schools and the local area.

Akita’s communities and households have traditionally held schools in very high regard.

Our schools often try to involve local communities and households in their activities, sending out frequent school newsletters, for example, or calling on local residents to take part in dance classes or farm trips.

Through these interchanges, Akita’s schools have earned the trust of local parents and communities.

However, it is not just regular school lessons that are raising the academic level of students.

This brings us to the third secret: Akita has a well-developed system of after-school classes and home study.

Most teachers in Akita give their students a “home study notebook.” This is just a regular notebook that the student fills in according to a carefully prepared “home study plan.” The notebook gets handed in to the teacher each morning and is marked before the end of the day.

Problematic students get extra correction and, if necessary, are given extra print-outs to take home with their notebooks. Some teachers do this kind of thing on a daily basis.

Rather than entrusting everything to a child’s homeroom teacher, it is also important that the head of year, the vice principal and the teachers all work together as a team to maintain confidence and raise academic standards.

The impact of school learning is magnified greatly if a child reviews these lessons at home. Akita doesn’t have that many cram schools and the ratio of cram school students is low compared to the rest of the country.

In urban areas, cram schools are often places where students go to revise schoolwork, so it is hard to make any simple comparisons.

Nonetheless, the percentage of Akita children who review their schoolwork is still considerably high, even when compared to other areas with similar cram school attendance rates.

Home study is, in turn, backed up by after-school classes, where teachers work together to help students who don’t know how to study or who are having trouble learning.


So far I have been listing the good points of Akita’s educational system.

But it should also be pointed out that Akita’s rise up the national rankings has been helped by a comparative slide in the academic levels of other prefectures.

Japan has traditionally done well when it comes to compulsory education, so why are educational standards falling now?

If one looks at the situation of schools across Japan, some things become apparent. Japan’s teachers are just too busy, for example, and class numbers are just too high.

Teachers are snowed under with club activities and other miscellaneous tasks, not to mention the time spent on school administration. They simply have no time to prepare for classes or research teaching materials, let alone attend study groups or academic meetings to polish their skills.

It should be the job of a teacher to learn about the latest teaching methods and the most up-to-date knowledge in their specialist subject.

Unfortunately, they simply don’t have the time to keep up. Furthermore, the greater the number of children in a class, the harder it is to give detailed instruction.

While classes in Finland usually have about 20 children, most classes in Japan still have around 30 to 40.

Behind these trends is a lack of funds earmarked for education. There are just not enough teachers or school staff.

The education budget in Japan as a proportion of GDP is currently the lowest among all the developed nations. If academic standards slip, this will come back to haunt us in 10 to 15 years through a decline in our national strength. Though Japan is facing tough financial conditions, we need to seriously think about our priorities when it comes to spending money.

(This article was compiled from an interview by Takeshi Yamawaki, former Editor of Asahi Shimbun’s GLOBE)

* * *

Noboru Abe

Noboru Abe, who was born in 1954, specialized in Japanese Education and served as headmaster of the Elementary School Attached to Akita University. His published works include “The daily habits of clever children: Why Akita tops the nation in academic ability.”

By Noboru Abe: Professor at the Faculty of Education and Human Studies, Akita University
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