Early Japanese education was profoundly affected by the Chinese, and the culture of Japan derives from contact with the early civilizations of both China and Korea.

From the Chinese, the Japanese acquired new crafts and, most important, a system of writing. The acquisition of writing cannot be precisely dated, but by about ad 400 Korean scribes were using Chinese ideographs for official records at the Japanese imperial courts. Education in ancient Japan, however, was more aristocratic than in the Chinese system, with noble families maintaining their own private schooling facilities. During the medieval military-feudal period, Buddhist temples assumed much responsibility for education.

With the onset of the rule of Emperor Meiji (r. 1867–1912), Japan in 1868 underwent a radical transformation in education as well as in social and economic matters. A ministry of education was created in 1872, and in the same year a comprehensive educational code that included universal primary education was formulated. The government sent missions to Europe and America to learn new educational approaches; it also invited foreign educators to carry on educational programs and initiate changes in Japanese schools. In 1877, during this period of innovation, the University of Tokyo was founded. As a result of these reforms, Japan emerged as a modern nation with a full educational system that was in line with much of Western practice.

The defeat of Japan in World War II resulted in educational changes, many of which were recommended in 1946 by a U.S. educational mission; some of these changes were discontinued when Japan regained sovereign status as a nation in 1952. The teaching of nationalistic ideology was banned, greater emphasis was placed on social studies, and classroom procedures were redesigned to encourage self-expression.

Education in Japan is centralized under the ministry of education. Its school system operates under the Fundamental Law of Education of 1947 and subsequent legislation, and enables all students to compete for admission to institutions of higher education.

With its highly developed educational system, the literacy rate in Japan is virtually 100% for the entire nation. English, as a chief language for foreign contacts, is a required course of study in secondary schools. One of the continuing problems facing Japanese educators, however, is the teaching of the complex Japanese language, which utilizes several scripts.

Elementary and secondary schools.
Education is free and compulsory for nine years, that is, six years of elementary school and three of junior high school. Beyond the junior high school level, education is optional, and a small tuition fee is charged, even in public senior high schools and public institutions of higher learning. In the early 1990s Japan had about 24,730 primary schools annually attended by some 8.9 million students and about 16,800 secondary schools with about 10.3 million students. Elementary school teachers numbered about 441,000, and there were some 567,000 secondary school teachers. Technical, commercial, and vocational schools are also maintained in the country, as are schools for the physically disabled.

Universities and colleges.
Japan has more than 500 public and private universities. Of some 65 national (formerly called imperial) universities, the biggest include Chiba University (1949); Hiroshima University (1949); Hokkaido University (1876), at Sapporo; Kobe University (1949); Kyoto University (1897); Kyushu University (1911), at Fukuoka; Nagoya University (1939); Okayama University (1949); Osaka University (1931); Tohoku University (1907), at Sendai; the University of Tokyo (1877); and the University of Tsukuba (1973). Major private institutions include Hosei University (1880), Nihon University (1889), and Waseda University (1882), in Tokyo; Fukuoka University (1934); and Kansai University (1886), in Osaka. Japan also has numerous junior colleges and technical colleges. In the early 1990s, institutions of higher education in Japan had a combined yearly enrollment of more than 2.8 million students.

Classic influences of ancient China are found in Japanese literature, art, and music. Religion, especially Buddhism, has played an important role in the cultural life of Japan. Western influences, which began in earnest during the 19th century, exist side by side and often intermingle with the traditions and stylized forms of Japanese culture. See JAPANESE Art and Architecture; JAPANESE Drama; JAPANESE Literature; JAPANESE Music.

Tokyo outranks all other Japanese cities in the number of its important libraries. Among the most important are the National Diet Library, an international book exchange and information center of Japan; its combined collections exceed 10.4 million volumes. The Cabinet Library in Tokyo contains about 549,000 volumes. Among the important university collections in Tokyo are those at the University of Tokyo Library with more than 6 million volumes, Meiji University Library with about 1.4 million volumes, and Nihon University Library with more than 4.4 million volumes. Major collections are also housed in the libraries of the provinces. The Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library contains more than 913,000 volumes, and Kobe City Library has more than 240,000 volumes. Important university libraries are located throughout the country.

The museums of Japan, with the exception of several modern galleries in the large cities, represent treasure halls and are usually found in temples and shrines. Among the most famous of these is the Myohoin Temple in Kyoto. Tokyo contains several important museums and art galleries. The largest art museum in Japan is the Tokyo National Museum (1871). Major specialized collections in Tokyo are in the Calligraphy Museum (1936), the National Museum of Western Art (1959), the Meiji Shrine Treasure Museum (1921), and the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum (1936). Other notable museums include the Shitamachi Museum (1980) in Tokyo, the Miho Museum (1997) outside Kyoto, and the Asakura Choso Museum, also in Tokyo, which is located in the former house and studio of sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883–1964). The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo is of interest for both its permanent and its temporary collections. Important museum collections are found in virtually every major city.