Japanese Teachers at the Breaking Point: Long Hours Blamed for Growing Shortage

Society Education Work Lifestyle

Spotlighting grueling working hours as the key factor behind Japan’s mounting teacher shortage, an education expert calls for new legislation and funding to head off a looming public school crisis.

Senoo Masatoshi

Educational researcher and school management consultant. Worked at Nomura Research Institute before going free-lance in 2016. Provides consulting services and gives lectures and workshops at schools nationwide. Has been dispatched as a MEXT “school business improvement advisor” and has served on various government panels, including the Central Council for Education’s special subcommittee on school work-style reform. Publications include Kyōshi hōkai (Teacher Breakdown) and Sensei o shinasenai: Kyōshi no karōshi o kurikaesanai tame ni ima dekiru koto (Don’t Let Teachers Die: What We Can Do Now to Prevent More Teacher Deaths from Overwork) (coauthor).

Japan is facing a shortage of teachers, with schools around the country struggling to replace retiring educators and find substitutes for those on leave. Daunted by reports of ever-expanding duties and long hours without overtime pay, college students are shying away from teaching careers. We talked to an expert about the factors behind the worsening shortage, its repercussions, and the reforms needed to address it.

Tracking the Teacher Exodus

On January 16 this year, the daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported a nationwide shortfall of 2,778 teachers affecting 2,092 Japanese public elementary, junior high, and high schools—about 6% of the total—as of May 1, 2022. The figures, based on the newspaper’s own survey, represent about a 30% increase from the shortages recorded a year earlier (2,064 teachers across 1,519 schools) by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).

The trend mirrors an ongoing decline in the number of college students sitting for the selection examinations administered to aspiring teachers. According to a January 20, 2023, report in the Asahi Shimbun, 38,641 college students around Japan sat for the most recent exam to teach in public elementary schools, 2,000 fewer than in the previous academic year. In Ōita Prefecture in Kyūshū, there were fewer examinees than vacancies. The drop in candidates has also affected the availability of long-term substitutes tapped to fill in for permanent teachers on sick or maternity leave, since the substitutes are typically chosen from the pool of aspiring teachers who failed the examination but plan to give it another try.

In academic year 2021, according to a MEXT survey on school personnel management, a record 5,897 public school teachers—including 2,937 at the elementary level—took leaves of absence for mental health reasons. As of the start of the 2022 school year on April 1, fewer than half of the 5,897 had returned to work; 2,283 remained on leave, while another 1,141 had left the profession. What is behind this exodus?

Dark Side of Holistic Education?

According to education researcher Senoo Masatoshi, few workplaces have made less progress in reducing working hours—a stated priority of the government’s “work-style reform” campaign—than Japanese schools. In its 2018 Teaching and Learning Survey, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that on average junior high school teachers in Japan worked 56.0 hours a week and primary school teachers 54.4 hours, by far the longest among the 48 countries surveyed. According to an online survey conducted in 2022 by the union-affiliated JTUC Research Institute for Advancement of Living Standards, Japanese public school teachers put in an average of 123 hours of overtime a month. This is far in excess of the 80-hour “karōshi line” defined by MEXT, beyond which employees are considered to be at risk of death from overwork.

In the past four or five years, Senoo says, most public schools have installed time clocks or other systems to keep track of employee hours. But teachers’ timecards rarely reflect all the hours they put into their jobs. It is common for educators to continue working at school even after clocking out or to take their work home with them. The substantial time they devote to supervising sports and other club activities on weekends and holidays often goes unrecorded.

Senoo believes that a basic factor underlying this phenomenon is the Japanese schools’ vaunted “whole child” approach to education.

“One of the strengths of Japan’s high-performing public school system—according to both MEXT and such international organizations as the OECD—is that it provides a holistic education that prepares students for life through extracurricular activities, as well as strong academics. There’s been a lot written overseas about the ‘Japanese model’ and its emphasis on tokkatsu [tokubetsu katsudō, or special activities], including school clubs and events like class trips and sports days.”

In the context of this holistic approach, says Senoo, teachers are responsible not just for classroom instruction but for the healthy physical and mental development of the whole child. “The problem of excessive overtime in our schools today is a by-product of this distinctive Japanese approach.”

A Supply-and-Demand One-Two Punch

“It’s only in the past couple of years that the teacher shortage has surfaced as a public concern, but the problem has been brewing for longer than that,” says Senoo. A father of five, he has children at every level of the system, from daycare through high school. “About five years ago, one of the teachers at my daughter’s elementary school took a medical leave of absence, and they couldn’t find a substitute, so the vice-principal had to take over the class. Another elementary school nearby was reportedly having staffing problems as well.”

MEXT conducted its first survey on teacher shortages in the 2021 academic year, but Senoo maintains that the government has been aware of the problem for years. Why, then, has it failed to act?

“Since the end of World War II, the trend in Japanese education has been toward decentralized control, with an emphasis on local autonomy. Public school teachers are hired and assigned by the prefecture, or by the city in the case of government-designated cities, and MEXT is strongly inclined to view personnel issues like staff shortages as the local government’s jurisdiction.”

However, it is difficult for prefectures and cities to recruit more teachers without support from the central government. “Additional hiring incurs huge labor costs,” says Senoo. “And given the declining birthrate, local governments are afraid they’ll end up with a teacher surplus.”

But while the number of schoolchildren may be dwindling, the need for teachers continues to rise.

“There’s a growing number of special-needs children who require closer attention owing to some disability,” Senoo explains. “While an ordinary Japanese class will have around thirty-five students, the maximum for special-needs classes is eight. And if there’s even one child with a different type of disability, they need to add a new class, which means additional instructors.”

Meanwhile, the supply of teachers is dwindling, resulting in a “one-two punch.”

“Fewer college students are sitting for the selection exams, and many of those who do are just using it as a backup in case they fail to qualify for a job in private business or government, so they don’t end up teaching after all. A decline in the number of examinees also means fewer people failing, so the pool of substitute teachers is shrinking as well.” Meanwhile, a large number of educators are reaching retirement age, and the young ones who replace them are more likely to take maternity or childcare leave, increasing the need for substitutes.

“Telling teachers they can’t take maternity leave or limiting the number of special-needs classes isn’t an option. The only answer is to attract more people to the profession.”

That could be a tall order, given the schools’ growing reputation for intolerable labor conditions.

Hidden Casualties of Overwork

Charged with overseeing children’s growth and development from all angles, Japanese teachers may be the world’s busiest multitaskers, says Senoo.

Inside the classroom, their burden has increased substantially over the past decade or so owing to an ever-expanding curriculum, including compulsory English and computer programming at the elementary school level. Many teachers say they are too busy preparing lessons to take breaks during the day.

During recess and after-school activities, teachers must be alert to any signs of bullying. Food allergies require constant vigilance as well. The growing number of students with special needs has made their job that much more challenging.

“Even when they’re off work, teachers are always getting calls from concerned parents. If students cause trouble after school, as by loitering in convenience stores, people complain to the school. The roles and responsibilities that we impose on our schools and teachers are just too broad.”

Amid these pressures, death from overwork is a real but often unrecognized problem, according to Kudō Sachiko, with whom Senoo coauthored the 2022 book Sensei o shinasenai (Don’t Let Teachers Die).

In 2007, Kudō’s husband, a junior high school teacher, died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 40 after months of overwork. In addition to teaching health and physical education, Kudō Yoshio was responsible for dealing with problems like bullying and school refusal. Dedicated to his job, he worked late into the night on weekdays and helped coach the soccer team on weekends. After his death, Sachiko filed for compensation, arguing that her husband died from overwork, but it was more than five and a half years before her claim was recognized. Although she acknowledges that the government is working on the issue, she is frustrated with the pace of change and believes that teacher deaths resulting from overwork and suicide are grossly underreported.

Teaching was one of the jobs targeted for government study and information management under the Act on Measures to Prevent Death and Injury from Overwork, which went into effect in 2014. But it has been six years now since the government published its first survey on teacher working conditions. Moreover, Kudō is concerned that such studies fail to gauge the full extent of the problem. As she explains it, many educators feel their work is a sacred mission. Steeped in an ethic of selfless service, the most hardworking of them are also the least apt to complain about their sacrifice or suffering. As a result, physical and emotional problems tend to remain hidden from view. Kudō is convinced that the handful of teacher deaths and suicides officially reported as job-related in recent years represents only a small fraction of the total casualties from overwork and stress.

A Need for Legislation and Funding

“If we want the schools to keep doing their job of supporting our children’s physical and emotional health and growth,” says Senoo, “then we need to lighten the brutal load of multitasking our teachers bear.”

Senoo argues that society needs to “take an inventory” of teacher duties and narrow the scope of schools’ and teachers’ responsibilities. “At the same time, we should gradually increase the number of teachers and reduce their average class hours. Ideally, we should beef up non-teaching staff as well and transfer some of the workload to them. There’s a particular need for more full-time school counselors and social workers, assigned on the basis of each school’s size and needs, to work with parents and deal with problems like school refusal.”

A boost in teacher hiring will require action from the central government, says Senoo, starting with a revision of the Compulsory Education Standards Act, which prescribes matters like the number of teaching staff and class size. An increase in the education budget is also essential, he says.

“There’s only so much local governments can do on their own. The central government needs to set the basic policy, design the systems to implement it—including training for non-teaching staff—and allocate the necessary funding.”

Reduce Teacher Workload to Save the Public Schools

At the junior high and high school levels, extracurricular activities account for much of the excess workload, says Senoo. With this in mind, MEXT has instructed local governments to gradually transfer the management of weekend and holiday sports activities to other community entities, including private clubs.

But Senoo is most concerned about the plight of elementary school teachers.

“It’s not uncommon for elementary schools to immediately put new teachers in charge of their own homerooms. Suddenly they have to handle a whole range of tough challenges, from communication with parents to bullying. Other faculty and staff are too busy to help out, so struggling young teachers often feel isolated.”

As a consequence, exhaustion and mental illness are on the rise among teachers in their twenties and thirties. “A lot of them quit at that stage,” says Senoo.

He warns that unless steps are taken to create a more teacher-friendly work environment, the profession will have a hard time attracting new college graduates, let alone people in other lines of work.

In fiscal year 2022, MEXT embarked on a survey on teacher working conditions for the first time in six years. The results will be used to inform deliberations on a revision of the special measures law governing teacher salaries. Under the current law, teachers receive a special “adjustment payment” equivalent to 4% of their monthly salary in place of the overtime premiums required of most employers under the Labor Standards Act.

Senoo agrees that teachers are not paid enough for the work they do. But he feels strongly that the first budgetary priority should be adding teaching and non-teaching staff. “I think aspiring and current teachers are more interested in improved working conditions than in a hike in their overtime pay,” he says. “They need more time to prepare for classes, and they surely want more time to themselves.”

Senoo believes that a lighter workload will not only make the profession more attractive but also improve the quality of teaching.

“Sleep-deprived teachers can’t be expected to perform well in class, and they don’t have the time or energy to give individual students the advice and support they seek. Furthermore, at the elementary school level, the teacher shortage is creating a situation where homeroom teachers keep changing. In the end, it’s the children who suffer the most.”

Many believe that school personnel problems are at least partly to blame for the rise in school violence and classroom chaos reported at elementary schools nationwide. For anyone worried about the breakdown of public education in Japan, measures to improve school working conditions and address the teacher shortage should be an urgent priority.

(Originally written in Japanese by Itakura Kimie of Nippon. Com. Banner: © Pixta.)

education elementary schools education system teacher work-life balance mental health Rowing