Life Environment Studies and Social Studies in Japan

Masato Ogawa, Pat Nickell, and Sherry L. Field

Japanese Elementary Schools

The present Japanese school system was established after World War II, between 1947 and 1950, using the American school system as a model. Schooling in Japan is based on a single-track, 6-3-3-4 system that comprises nine years of compulsory education: six years of elementary school (shogakko) and three years of middle school (chugakko), followed by an optional three years of high school (kotogakko) and two or four years of college and university (daigaku). The 1946 New Constitution guaranteed compulsory education and instituted the right of every citizen to receive education, for the first time in Japan’s history.

The Japanese elementary and secondary school year extends from April 1 to March 31 and includes three terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March. Three extended holidays break up the school sessions, the longest being the summer break, generally from late July to the beginning of September. Japanese children traditionally attended school five and one-half days a week. In 1992, a five-day week was piloted once a month and now elementary schools have the shorter five-day week every other week. In April 2002, the five-day week school system will be introduced as the norm.1

In Japan, the curricula for elementary, middle, and high schools is based on the regulations of the School Education Law. Each school organizes its own curricula in line with the relevant laws and in accordance with the Course of Study (Gakushu Shido Yoryo), prepared and published by Monbusho, The Ministry of Education (now reorganized as Monbukagakusho, or the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science, and Technology). The Course of Study, revised approximately every ten years, contains the government’s standards for the various subjects and activities of public school education and includes grade-by-grade guidelines. Textbooks must include no more and no less than the content specified for a particular grade. The standards and guidelines are strict, more so in social studies than in other subjects, such as music and art.2 In the United States, textbooks are often approved by state governments or agencies, but not by the federal government. Japanese textbooks are authorized and must be approved by the national Ministry of Education. The use of authorized textbooks is mandatory for elementary and secondary schools.

Children between the ages of six and twelve attend elementary school, where they are taught general elementary education, suited to the relevant stage of their physical and mental development.3 The subjects taught in elementary school are Japanese language (kokugo), social studies (shakai), arithmetic (sansu), science (rika), life environment studies (seikatsuka), music (ongaku), drawing and handcrafts (zuga-kosaku), home making (kateika), and physical education (taiiku). Moral education (dotoku) and time for special activities (tokubetsu-katsudou) are included in the elementary school curriculum. Special activities include classroom and school assemblies, student councils, club activities, ceremonial events, and others. Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students will have what is called “integrated study” (sougou-gakushu) beginning in April 2002. Integrated study will include “international understanding” (kokusai-rikai), mainly learning English. Some elementary schools have experimentally introduced integrated study.

In Japan, “one class hour” is defined as 45 minutes; a 15-minute recess separates classes. The number of prescribed school hours is also precisely defined, increasing from 850 per school year in the first grade to 1015 in grades 4 through 6. However, the new Course of Study to be implemented in April 2002 reduces the number of class hours: 782 in first grade and 945 in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades because of the introduction of the five-day school week and the promotion of “flexible and liberal education” (yutori no kyouiku).4 Thus, some course content will be reduced or moved to the upper grades or upper levels. Although the total class hours are reduced, the elementary school curriculum historically gives considerably more time to Japanese language and arithmetic than other subjects such as social studies and science.


Social Studies (Shakai)

Social studies as a school subject was introduced in 1947. It followed the social studies model existing in the United States. The subject of social studies may be divided into five historical periods according to the main revisions of the “Course of Study.”5 The first is the immediate post-war period (1947-1955), associated with the need for reconstruction of the national economy and for forming a modern democratic society. During the second period (1955-1968), the Course of Study was revised in 1955, 1958, and 1960. The 1955 and 1958 revisions adapted social studies to the Japanese social climate by strengthening systematic learning with an emphasis on experience and problem solving. The 1960 revision was influenced by Jerome S. Bruner’s book, The Process of Education.6 “In it, concept development was a central focus. Additionally, four themes were identified: 1) the role of structure in learning and how to use it; 2) readiness for learning; 3) the role of intuition in learning; and 4) the desire to learn and how one is motivated to learn.”

During the third period, 1968-1977, the Japanese economy grew rapidly. Knowledge about the interrelationships between the national economy and the international economy and politics was required. During the fourth period (1980s), social studies emphasized various aspects of a post-industrial information society including both positive and negative prospects. Finally, the 1989 revision of the Course of Study (first implemented in 1992) created a new subject referred to as life environment studies, which combined social studies and science for grades one and two. Thus, the subject of social studies does not exist as a separate area of study in the curriculum for first and second graders. (Life environment studies will be discussed below.)

The current curriculum allocates 105 hours in social studies in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. However, the 1998 Course of Study to be implemented beginning in April 2002 reduces the amount of time devoted to social studies: 70 hours in third grade, 85 hours in fourth grade, 90 hours in fifth grade, and 100 hours in sixth grade. The fundamental objective of social studies in Japanese elementary school is “to make students understand social life, to encourage students to understand and care about the nation’s land and history, and to cultivate a fundamental awareness of being a citizen in an internationalized, democratic, and peaceful nation and society.”7 The new social studies curriculum aims to make students think and learn problem-solving skills rather than simply memorize facts.8 The objectives of social studies at each grade in the new social studies curriculum are:


Grades 3 and 4

1. To make students understand that there are regional variations in production activities and consumer life, that there are various activities to protect people’s health and safety. To help students develop an awareness of being members of a community.

2. To make students understand that the conditions of life have changed historically over time and that many generations have contributed to the development of the communities and society. To encourage students to appreciate their communities.

3. To have students observe and investigate social phenomena in the community, to efficiently use maps and other concrete documents and materials, to speak out about their investigations, and to encourage students to think and learn about social phenomena and interrelations in the community.


Grade 5

1. To make students understand the characteristics of manufacturing and industry in our nation and the relationship between productive activities and national life, and to promote their interests in the development of manufacturing and industry in our nation.

2. To make students understand natural land features, to deepen students’ interest in the preservation of the environment, and to encourage students to care about the country’s land.

3. To have students make effective use of the basic learning documents and materials such as maps and statistics pertaining to social phenomena and to develop students’ ability to think about the meaning of social phenomena.


Grade 6

1. To make students understand and appreciate more deeply the achievements of our predecessors who contributed to the development of the nation and society and our cultural heritage, and to cultivate an attitude and feeling of valuing the history and traditions of our nation.

2. To make students understand the functions of our political system, our country’s policies, the life of other countries having deep relations with our country, and the role of our country in international society, and to cultivate students who live peacefully with other countries’ people.

3. To have students make effective use of basic learning documents and materials such as maps and timetables pertaining to social phenomena and to have students examine the meanings of social phenomena from a broader point of view.9


Third and fourth graders are taught local physical and cultural geography, local businesses and industry, community services and organizations, public utilities (water, electricity, and gas), region’s emergency services, local daily life (past and present), the structure and function of city and prefecture governments, and local famous ancestors and cultural heritage. Students can learn about their local communities through the two-year curriculum.

Fifth graders learn about Japan’s agriculture and fishing industries, manufacturing industry, communication and transportation system, geography, environment and related problems, and natural resources (such as ocean, lakes, rivers, and forests). In this grade, the use of maps, documents, and statistical data is encouraged. Sixth graders are taught
Japanese history from ancient to contemporary, famous historical figures, the nation’s government and political system, the Japanese Constitution, the connection of the nation’s economy to that of the world, the need for international exchanges and cooperation, and the role of the United Nations.


Life Environment Studies (Seikatsuka)

Life environment studies is a relatively new subject replacing and combining the subjects of social studies and science for first and second graders. Seikatsuka was introduced in April 1992. The Japanese curriculum allocates 102 hours to the subject in first grade, and 195 hours in second grade. Although the 1998 Course of Study implemented from April 2002 reduces the number of total class hours, the amount of time devoted to life environment studies has not changed. The objectives of life environment studies are:

1. To encourage the development of young children who are well equipped to contribute to society by teaching them about their neighbors and communities. To encourage students to care about their neighbors and communities, as well as other young children. To promote in children an increased awareness of themselves as members of a community and society.

2. To encourage young children to be interested in animals and plants and to preserve the environment. To provide children with skills for arranging their daily life.

3. To encourage young children to express their feelings by using words, art, action, and drama through interacting with people and learning about society and the environment.

First grade students are taught about the schoo#146;s physical plant and equipment, surrounding parks, family, neighborhood, Japanese traditional games (for example, spinning top, takeuma), daily-life responsibilities, and friendship, as well as science topics such as plants and animals. Second grade students learn about neighborhood businesses, daily communication (for example, telecommunication and computers), mapping, public transportation (bus and train) and safety, the four seasons and regional activities, making toys, local natural resources, plants and animals, and dependence on and gratitude toward other people.



Since its beginning as a school subject following World War II to contemporary times, Japanese elementary school social studies has seen many changes such as the reduction of total class hours, the introduction of the five-day week system, and the introduction of integrated study. At the same time, Japanese elementary school teachers have had to consider major pedagogical issues, such as:

1. a challenge to change from “old” lecture-centered teaching to student-centered or project-centered teaching;

2. a move to encourage students to think by themselves and to cultivate their problem-solving skills;

3. a challenge to teach social studies beyond textbooks; and

4. a concern over reduced class hours and the integration of other disciplines such as science and the new integrated study.

We believe that Japanese elementary school teachers share similar concerns with other teachers around the world, as might be seen in this issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner. G



1. Ministry of Education, Shogakko Gakushu Shido Yoryo: Seikatsu (1998). (Available at

2. M. Tani, M. Hasuko, D. Lankiewicz, S. Christodlouus, and S. J. Natoli, “Textbook Development and Selection in Japan and the United States,” Social Education 57, no. 2 (1993), 70-75.

3. Ministry of Education, Formal Education: Elementary and Secondary Education (2000). (Available at

4. Ministry of Education, Shogakko Gakushu Shido Yoryo: Seikatsu (1998) (Available at

5. Social Studies Development Center, Japan/ United States Textbook Study Project, (Bloomington, IN: ERIC: ED200500, 1981); P. L. Thomas, “Social Studies in the Japanese Elementary School,” Horizon 23, no. 2 (1985): 21-27.

6. Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

7. E. R. Beauchamp, “Education,” in E. R. Beauchamp, ed., Education and Schooling in Japan since 1945 (New York: Garland, 1998); Ministry of Education, Shogakko Gakushu Shido Yoryo: Seikatsu (1998). (Available at; T. Kita, Syakaika no Sekinin: 21 Seiki wo Hiraku Jyugyouron (Responsibilty of Social Studies: Teaching Theories Pioneered in the 21 Century) (Tokyo: Toyokan Shuppan, 2000); Ministry of Education (1998).

8. Kita (2000).

9. Ministry of Education (1998), translated by M. Ogawa.



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Masato Ogawa is a doctoral student of Social Science Education at The University of Georgia. His home country is Japan. Pat Nickell is an assistant professor and Sherry L. Field is an associate professor in the Department of Social Science Education at the University of Georgia.