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Integrating "Zest for Living" in Japan Education Policies

“Please calculate the area of a parallelogram with a height of 6cm and a width of 4cm.” Given this task, 96% of the 6th graders in Japan responded correctly. When given the same task as part of an applied question (see diagram right) only 18.2% of the same 6th graders responded correctly.

Professor Shinobu Yamaguchi, Global Scientific Information and Computing Center, Tokyo Institute of Technology, cites this example to show that students in Japan are strong at answering simple questions, but relatively weak in applied thinking.

In addition, the 2007 International Comparison on Math and Science (TIMSS) found that the percentage of Japanese students who enjoy math and science drops dramatically between grade 4 and grade 8, far below the average of other TIMSS participating countries.

In this context, the Government of Japan embarked upon an ambitious education reform programme, “Zest for Living,” focusing on competencies required in a knowledge-based society. Such skills, they suggest, include the capacity for lifelong learning, problem solving skills, strong communication skills and global awareness.

"Zest for Living” consists of three pillars: solid academic prowess (e.g., basic knowledge, ability to learn and think themselves); healthy body (e.g, physical and mental health); and well-rounded character (e.g, self-control, teamwork, and empathy) (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology, MEXT, 2011). This is Japan’s interpretation of “transversal/non-cognitive skills” which had been increasingly recognized as a key to success in a knowledge-based society.

The concept of “Zest for Living” was first introduced in 1996 in response to growing concern over what has been considered a highly competitive education system in Japan and its arguably negative impact of the well-being of students. Some have also criticized an apparent overemphasis on factual knowledge and rote learning.

Based on this concept, the Course of Study was revised in 1998 with three major changes: (1) a shift from 6-day school week to a 5-day school week; (2) reducing the total lesson hours and the curriculum items; and (3) introduction of “the period of integrated study” which can be used for cross-cutting learning focused on key competencies of “Zest for Living” including problem solving, international understanding, community studies, and the environment.

For some, however, this reform was considered as “downgrading” to the education system given substantial reduction of the curriculum content. In fact, this reform has for some been associated with Japan’s declining “ranking” in international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS. In response to criticisms, the new Course of Study was issued in 2011, emphasizing a balance between acquisition of knowledge/skills and sense of judgment/critical thinking. The lesson hours were once again also increased.

However, “Zest for Living” remains central to the new Course of Study (2011) which further emphasizes eight areas: think, express and make a decision; Japanese culture and tradition; moral education; health; awareness of social and global issues; experience-based learning; math and science skills; and foreign language skills.

Based on the experience of previous reforms, MEXT launched a series of reforms in line with the new Course of Study. They are: special assistance for learning; textbook reform; student assessment; and introduction of ICT to the teaching/learning process. MEXT also further defines family as core to education while the community as co-educators. These changes are generally welcome by parents and some positive impacts are now being seen. For instance, when the new pedagogy is implemented with support of ICT, teachers feel that students are more active in communicating their own opinions and their presentation skills are improving.

Nonetheless, challenges remain. Experiences in implementing the “Zest for Living” policies identified several issues to be tackled in order to fully implement the “Zest for Living” policies. They include: lack of shared understanding among stakeholders; lack of integration of problem-solving approach to subjects, and; insufficient lesson hours for experience-based learning. More research is needed as the implementation of the 2011 Course of Study moves ahead.

Japan will be participating in the 2013 ERI-Net regional study on “Integrating Transversal/Non-cognitive Skills in Education Policy and Practice (Phase I).”

For more information, please contact Satoko Yano [s.yano(at)] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.

Written by Satoko Yano [s.yano(at)]

Related links:

•  ERI-Net

•  TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center