Selective Secondary Education for Boys, 1900-1945

Boys who aspired to a selective secondary education after graduating from ordinary elementary school could enter a five year middle school (chūgakkō) or else one of several types of vocational school (jitsugyō gakkō), including commercial, agricultural, or technical schools. The vocational school system was quite complicated, as there were two different levels of school ( [A] and otsu [B]); programmes ranged from two to five years in length, generally lengthening as the decades went on. Commercial schools became very popular, as did technical schools as Japan’s heavy industry expanded during the 1930s.

To enter a selective secondary school, students had to pass an entrance examination, which usually involved a written test in Japanese and mathematics, and an interview. The proportion of applicants who passed fluctuated; nationally, it was 48 percent in 1915 and 39 percent in 1920, rising to 69 percent in 1930 and then falling back again to 51 percent in 1940. These figures were greatly affected by the state of the national economy and the number of available places. In times of prosperity, there were more applicants and more competition. Attending selective secondary school was not cheap, so some able students were unable to enter. Even so, the proportion of boys who went on to some form of selective secondary school rose from roughly 15 percent in 1915, to about 33 percent in 1940, indicating the increasing numbers who could afford to give their sons an education that might improve their career prospects and provide entry into the middle class.

Concerns about the bad effects of excessive exam competition on children were strong even in the 1920s. The Ministry of Education was worried enough to ban written entrance exams for secondary school in 1927, although the ban proved impractical and was lifted in 1929. In 1940, the same concerns led to the abolition of secondary school entrance exams for secondary school; thereafter, until the change in the education system after the end of World War Two, selection took place on the basis of a report from elementary school, and an interview.

The middle school curriculum was dominated by Japanese, classical Chinese (kanbun), and English; these three subjects took up half the lesson hours in students’ first two years. There were seven hours a week of English for the first four years at middle school. There were fewer hours of science, history, and geography. Even at vocational schools, whose students took specialist commercial, industrial, or agricultural classes, most of the curriculum was taken up by general academic subjects. Study at all these selective secondary schools was demanding.

Most middle school graduates aimed to go on to higher education of some kind. This could be a higher school (kōtō gakkō), followed by one of the seven Imperial Universities; the Army Academy (rikugun shikan gakkō) or Naval Academy (kaigun heigakkō); a private university; or a specialist training college. Only 30 percent of middle school graduates went into employment in the mid-1930s. However, many were unsuccessful in entering their preferred college first time around, and spent an extra year studying after they graduated from middle school. Exam preparatory schools (yobikō) provided tuition for such students, as they do today. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, therefore, the fever for education and credentials was strong in Japan.

Selective secondary education for boys also contained a significant element of military education. Military drill (kyōren) was part of the curriculum throughout the first decades of the twentieth century up to 1945. Training camps several days long gathered older students from several schools for more intensive exercises, including shooting practice. Secondary school students might undertake long marches of perhaps 40 kilometres, and visited army camps to witness military life and receive lectures from military officers. From 1925, a serving military officer (haizoku shōkō) was assigned to each school to supervise and evaluate military drill by conducting regular practical inspections.

Outside regular class hours, selective secondary schools ran a variety of extra-curricular clubs. Sports clubs were particularly popular with students, and their performances were written up in the school magazines that schools generally issued annually, along with essays and poems by students, and lectures given by visiting speakers such as college professors and military officers.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, ‘Selective Secondary Education for Boys, 1900-1945’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].