Japan struggles to meet teacher quotas

Japan creates a heavy workload for teachers, elementary schools typically employ a single teacher per classroom who is responsible for teaching four main subjects—Japanese, mathematics, science, and social studies—as well as other topics like ethics, physical education, calligraphy, and foreign languages.

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Japan faces a teacher shortage despite its low birth rate, with the number of teachers assigned to schools not meeting local quotas and temporary assignments unable to fill gaps.

Primary, middle, and high schools nationwide faced teacher shortages at the start of 2021, with 0.26 percent, 0.33 percent, and 0.1 percent vacancies respectively. However, by mid-2021 the issue was largely resolved.

In the early 2000s, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi introduced decentralization reforms to Japan’s education policy. These allowed local governments to determine teacher numbers, salaries, and conditions within a predetermined budget.

But local governments, facing no rise in national funding and an expected drop in birth rate, have opted to cut regular teacher numbers and salaries while hiring more non-regular teachers at a cheaper rate. This has led to situations in which temporary staff and managers are taking the place of full-time elementary school teachers.

Japan’s baby boomer generation is retiring, and with the nation’s already low birth rate declining, its workforce is stretched thin. This has increased the demand for non-permanent teachers and created a shortage of temporary appointments.

Hiring nannies and outsourcing household duties are uncommon in Japan. Traditional roles of mothers as caregivers remain largely intact. Government policies promoting three-generation cohabitation have sought to reinforce the idea of family self-help, but this needs to reflect the reality for younger generations who often move to urban areas.

Japan creates a heavy workload for teachers, elementary schools typically employ a single teacher per classroom who is responsible for teaching four main subjects—Japanese, mathematics, science, and social studies—as well as other topics like ethics, physical education, calligraphy, and foreign languages.

In addition, teachers are in charge of organizing morning and “goodbye” meetings, weekly class meetings, school lunches, and classroom cleaning. During breaks at lower grades, they also play with students in the schoolyard.

Elementary school teachers rarely get a break, while middle and high school teachers often coach clubs on weekends. As a result, most primary and secondary school teachers work more than 60 hours per week, with 57.8 percent of primary teachers and 74.2 percent of secondary teachers exceeding that amount.

Exam competitiveness for teachers has dropped sharply since 2000. The government deregulation in 2005 has boosted the number of universities offering teaching qualifications, leading to a dwindling interest in teacher exams as fewer academically underqualified students can now gain certifications. 

Amid a severe teacher shortage, special licenses have been overused to address the issue. However, full-time teacher quality has become increasingly concerning together with the lack of non-regularly employed teachers.

The government is recruiting for multiple years to address teacher shortages in Japan and removing age limits. These efforts are hindered by exploitative working hours and a lack of quality teacher training, both of which stem from Japanese society’s poor work-life balance.

Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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