Public Employees in Japan

One of the most unique systems I have ever heard of for public workers takes place in Japan.  With the recent turmoil in America between States and Public Employee Unions brought the difference to mind.  In America, teachers often are hired at specific schools, and can stay at the same school for 10 years or more.  Some might migrate through districts, but generally they teach the same subject for an extended stay.  They have (in the past) had the right to unionize and negotiate their health, pay, and retirement benefits.

Japan is very different.

In Japan, public employees generally work within a specific prefecture.  In the case of teachers, they rotate schools an average of every 3-5 years.  They have little say in their placement.  Every year in March the school year ends.  As much as a third of a school’s teachers will pack up their materials, clean their desks, and move.  Sometimes the move requires a physical move as well, such as to another city or even island.  In April, the new Japanese school year starts with the fresh faces struggling to memorize their student’s names by looking at pictures while acquainting themselves with their new jobs (sometimes they are required to change subjects or be a home room teacher).

This does not end.  Even a school’s principal will rotate out after about three years.  Unlike America where a principal is hired by the school board, teachers have to pass qualification tests throughout their careers that will allow them to advance in both pay and position.


  • Teachers get a wide range of experience working at different locations and with different students.
  • Students get a wide variety of teachers, and overall the curriculum within a prefecture should be relatively similar.  Since teachers are always moving there is less likely to be huge variations in school achievement due to the staff (variation by focus and students still occurs).
  • Teachers advance based on merit.
  • Even in difficult situations, there can be a hope for a better placement in the future.
  • Low income areas do not have to compete with high income areas for the best teachers (at least within a prefecture).


(may also be advantages depending on your point of view)

  • Teachers do not have the benefit of knowing their students and co-worker long term, which may (or may not) allow them to improve the quality of their course work.
  • Teachers must work extremely hard to pass difficult qualification exams.  Their reviews may affect their future placement, so they often work long into the evening to ensure their hard work is noted.
  • Teachers have little say in where they (and their families) will end up living from year to year.
  • Teachers’ children often have to move from school to school along with their parents.

This unique system does not apply to only teachers.  Doctors, city workers, dentists, and policeman also routinely change location in Japan.  Whether you judge it good or bad, it is an interesting system that provides an element of vitality to a system that lacks the competitive edge of commercial markets.  As an American looking forward to his first personal experience of the system, I find it both exciting and scary.  I will keep you posted on how the benefits balance with any drawbacks!

Note** Based only on my own unique observations.  Post comments, questions, or corrections in the comments section, or email me.