27/02/2012 09:45 GMT | Updated 28/02/2012 04:01 GMT

Education In Japan: Repressive, Stifling And Akin To A Communist Regime, So Why Does It Work?

Japan has already made its name as one of the world's leading economies and now the country is rapidly storming ahead in the international league tables.

In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Oliver*, a former teacher in Japan, explains how discipline, exams and dedication is driving Japan to be the best.

Oliver taught at a state school in rural Japan for a year in 2009 as part of a JET scheme.

"In a year of teaching I never witnessed anything worse than a student nodding off in the middle of lesson (not unsurprising considering their day may have started before 6am and may not finish until past 11).

"Bad behaviour in class would reflect badly on the teacher. Indeed parents’ evenings were not so much feared by the students but the teachers who were held personally accountable for the bad behaviour of the student, even if that behaviour took place outside of school."

And it is not only their good behaviour which impressed Oliver.

"The first thing one notices when working in a Japanese school is the level of commitment shown to activities undertaken by the students," he says. "Whereas British students may leave school as soon as the bell sounds after the last lesson, Japanese students will stay in school for their 'club activities', even though they may have been in school since 6.30am."

"When most UK students would be straight out of the door 99% of Japanese students will stay late into the evening honing the skills of their club activities. My school was famous for art and these students would stay until 10 or 11 at night, and on weekend creating works of art of an incredibly high standard, as was the case with most of the school clubs."

After-school orchestra club

But it is not the cultural activities that are holding Japan back from realising its full potential.

Despite being the wealthiest country in Asia, it is estimated less than 10% of Japan's population can understand English - far less than developing neighbours such as Thailand or Philippines.

"Thus," Oliver continues, "the need for an English education is becoming increasingly important."

The 25-year-old explains those without schooling beyond the compulsory years find it difficult to secure jobs above the station of blue collar work.

"High school education alone is often insufficient in supplying the the student with the skills required to pass these exams. School are simply not equipped to cater for the diverse range of differing skills required by each university.

"Therefore students will also often go to ‘cram schools’, private institutions attended by students after their normal schooling and club activities have finished.

Even once an individual has attained good grades from a top university, there is still "no guarantee" of working in one of Japan's many prestigious firms.

"These companies still prefer to source their graduates from institutions with which they have historical ties."

But its not only a system steeped in cultural tradition Japanese pupils have to face.

"Japanese schools are strongly focused around exams, with constant tests being a method to instill discipline. It is believed Japanese students rank among the best in the world when it comes to technical, number orientated subjects which require the understanding and implementation of set methodologies.

"However, it is with creative subjects that Japanese school students tend to struggle.

"Japanese society is strongly collectivist."

Although this attitude enabled Japan to make a miraculous recovery since it was left in ruins after World War Two, Oliver adds, there is criticism it stunts creative innovation.

"Indeed there is a saying in Japanese which reads 'the nail that sticks out gets hammered down' which epitomises the problems that young Japanese face in trying to break free from their set path.

"The level of individualism repressed is sad. Students have to fall in line with the common consensus. Watching sports day where they march around the track in perfect unison was more akin to a communist regime than the most successful proponent of capitalism in Asia."

A typical Japanese sports day

So were there any light moments of relief?

"There were a couple of very bizarre incidents. As with English schools, they have school uniform and the students can only differentiate themselves with accessories.

"I was surprised to see the number of playboy bunnies and Jamaican flag coloured marijuana leaves on their stationary. But it did not take long for me to to realise the students had little to no idea what these symbols represented.

"In a country where all drugs are classified as ‘A’ and a zero tolerance level taken, drugs are extremely rare. The students nor the teachers seemed to know what the leaf was while the playboy bunny was simpy ‘kawaii’ (cute)."

And if you can bring one thing back from their system what would it be?

"The level of respect shown to teachers and each other.

"This is a societal issue, which despite the negatives of the Japanese society is something that they cannot be faulted on. There is no graffiti on the walls in stations, no litter on the streets. Teenagers are more likely to bow and apologise if they are in your way rather then shout threatening abuse as may be the case in the UK.

"An egalitarian society Japan is not, but incredibly safe, clean and highly functional it most certainly is."

*Oliver's name has been changed as he did not want to disclose his identity.