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International Baccalaureate - Japan's Pursuit of International Education


Have you heard of "IB"? It's a bit of buzz word in Japanese education these days.


IB stands for International Baccalaureate, a non-profit organization that offers international education programs for students aged 3-19. IB offers the Primary Years Programme1 (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), the Diploma Programme (DP) and the Career-related Programme (CP). The organization was founded in 1968 and as of September 2016, 39 Schools in Japan are authorized to offer one or more of these programs. Globally there are 4,639 "IB World Schools" offering at least one of the IB programs.2


In 2013 Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology (MEXT) announced their cooperative efforts with IB to expand the programs in Japan, in particular by supporting schools to implement the DP. The DP is taken in the final two years of high school, and is recognized as a rigorous curriculum preparing students for success in tertiary education. DP is accepted worldwide by almost all major universities as entry qualification, and some universities give priority to DP students. Traditionally in Japan, IB programs were offered mostly by international schools, but there are now 13 Article 1 schools3 in Japan offering the IBDP4.


The DP involves a lot more discussions, debates, lab reports and research projects that add up to the final score. This is markedly different from the Japanese high school system where university entrance hinges almost entirely on exam scores. DP students are also required to write a 4,000 word Extended Essay in their chosen subject. They are further required to participate in CAS (creativity, activity and service) where they get involved in their community for various projects and activities throughout the two-year program. To pass the DP students must be independent, critical thinkers who can also excel in traditional subjects.5


DP is usually only offered in English, French and Spanish, but since IB's collaboration with MEXT many subjects have been translated into Japanese and in some schools students can take the full diploma in Japanese. This poses an intriguing question: does it make sense for Japanese high school students to study an international curriculum in Japanese? IB has the potential to open the door for Japanese youth to venture overseas where they can be exposed to the kind of diversity and rich learning experiences lacking at home. But if they only take Japanese subjects (plus one mandatory foreign language) is that really giving students the international mindedness intended by IB?


Another issue that needs to be addressed is the university programs. Many universities are now offering alternative examinations to a small percentage of students in which they evaluate non-academic aspects such as experience and character. IBDP (in whatever language taken) will add more diversity among university students with the skills, character and experience that can be gained through the program. But universities in Japan are still heavily focused on one-way lectures where students move little more than the furniture. Can universities adapt their instructional approach to recognizes and credit students who bring different qualities that are not measured in traditional exams?


Even if we turn a blind eye to the purpose and direction of IB implementation, there are still many obstacles for DP to work in Japan. How many teachers and school administrators are willing to abandon the traditional exam-focused system in favor of something that can give students practical lifelong skills? The will need enough teachers with an international awareness who can prepare lessons with purpose and creativity instead of following a prescribed curriculum geared towards a final exam. How many such teachers are there in Japan? How long will it take to nurture enough of them? If schools are going to teach DP in English can Japanese schools change their recruitment policies and offer packages that are attractive enough for professional foreign teachers who can teach DP? Will the government cooperate by giving such teachers permission to teach without a Japanese license?


It is a welcome change to see Japanese education incorporate international programs and offer more options for students ahead of tertiary studies. We just hope that there is enough substance for sustainable progress where we will see more and more young men and women equipped with the skills to succeed globally, not just more and more catchy newspaper headlines with katakana program names


1The article is written in American English but the British spelling is kept for the official program names

2From the official IB Website:

3Article 1 Schools are schools recognized by the Japanese government under Article 1 of the School Education Act. These are schools that cater for Japanese learners and do not include international schools.

4The number of authorized schools in Japan is updated on the MEXT website IB section:

5For further details about the DP see the IB website:

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