Costs of Education in Japan

Danny Choo is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. Danny resides in Tokyo, and blogs about life in Japan and Japanese subculture - he also works part time for the empire.

When I first started to follow Japanese culture back in the UK, I saw these bags in anime (Japanese cartoons), manga (comics) and in magazines. I then came over to Japan and started to wonder why all the kids had one and why there were all the same shape n size.

These bags are known as "Randoseru" which is the Japanese pronunciation of the Dutch word "Ransel" meaning "Backpack" and are used by elementary school children in Japan.

They were first introduced into Japan as a backpack for commissioned officers in the imperial army during the Meiji period and then used in governmental schools as the standard commuting bag.

A randoseru is a compulsory school item that ones grandparents usually buy for their grandchildren and usually cost 2 kidneys and a bladder - the most expensive one in this store cost 628 USD! The most expensive randoseru that I've been able to find online costs 1805 USD from Rakuten. Some modern schools these days don't enforce use of the randoseru but those are still the minority. An ad for randoseru below.

So now we know how much it costs to buy a randoseru for elementary school children, I thought we'd look at how much more it costs to send children to school in Japan - costs converted to USD.

-Kindergarten (3 years - public): 7,943 USD
-Kindergarten (3 years - private): 17,536 USD
-Elementary (6 years - public): 21,798 USD
-Elementary (6 years - private): 89,675 USD
-Junior High (3 years - public): 15,392 USD
-Junior High (3 years - private): 41,360 USD
-High School (3 years - public): 16, 995 USD
-High school (3 years - private): 34,078 USD
-Total for all public (15 years): 62,130 USD
-Total for all private (15 years): 182,651 USD

University is not compulsory but for those wishing to go would spend an average of 54,412 USD for the 4 years.

Schooling free or cost a few limbs in your neck of the woods? More photos and sources of figures in the Randoseru article.


  1. I can’t imagine having anything in elementary school that was 6 years old. In my time, you would have been made fun of for such a thing! However, these backpacks are really cool. I totally want to get an adult sized one to bring to work.

  2. University is not compulsory but for those wishing to go would spend an average of 54,412 USD for the 4 years.

    Actually, unless I’m mistaken, high school isn’t mandatory in Japan either. Although you must send your child to school through junior high, you can skip high school if you want. In fact, I’m told you even need to take an entrance exam to get into the high school of your choice, much like you would a university.

  3. I remember going to a supermarket in Tokyo and taking a look at these randoseru. They all looked pretty alike but were in different colours. I thought, cute! maybe I should buy some like a memento. And then I saw the prices… 30,000 yen – 60,000 yen. O_O;;;;


  4. Public schooling is free in the UK to age 18. Private secondary day schools around US$20,000 per year. Public universities (there are essentially no private ones) have fees capped at US$4,500 per year for EU citizens (free at Scottish universities to residents of Scotland or citizens of EU countries that are not the UK).

  5. Yeah, but you only really see the randoseru with the yochien and ichinensei [kindergardeners and 1st graders…] And even around my way they’re kinda the generic yellow plastic-y kind.

    My Jr High has their own school-name-branded bad, kind of a messenger bag style, but all the “cool” kids want the Nike and Adidas ones anyways.

    And school’s only compulsory through Jr High, so that can skew the costs…

  6. #2, that’s correct. High school is not mandatory, though something like 97 percent of students do go on to high school (not as many graduate).

    The entrance examinations for high school are a really big deal and they spend most of their third year in junior high school preparing for them. Virtually every parent in Japan spends thousands of dollars a year starting in about eighth grade for private tutoring and cram schools.

    Also, private junior high schools and private elementary(!) schools also have entrance examinations and the elite schools require you to know quite a bit of math, science, Japanese and social studies before you can even get into junior high (the high school entrance exams add English).

    I’m not sure if the figures posted include the cost of sending kids to juku (cram schools), but very few kids don’t go to juku, so I think it’s just kind of a given.

  7. Cramped spaces, high costs of living, and a general lack of females tends to drive a dropping birth rate than any cost of education.

    Those costs are WHY Japan’s lower education schools don’t suck. They have the free market deciding prices for the private schools and since they don’t have the costs of public education hidden in local taxes, families tend to not put up with bs from bad teachers.

    If I were paying that much money, I’d definitely not put up with any teacher unions protecting bad teachers. Heck, I’d love to be able to choose my schools rather than having my house’s location determine the quality of my children’s education.

  8. The pricing is a bit
    As for the bags I have had to purchase two so far and have paid less than 60,00Â¥ each.

    Yes I paid for city sponsored preschool/kindergaten but very little compared to what we had to pay in the US for the same thing and as for public elementary school I have not incurred any direct costs with the exception of incidentals.

    I feel that these are extreme examples and not the norm of the day to day.

  9. Even worse if you want to send your kid to an international school. In the Tokyo area we looked at Nishimachi, American School in Japan, British School in Japan, Tokyo International and a few others. At most of these places, it seems to cost almost $30,000 per year…and that would include kindergarten.

    Forget it. We’re sending our kid to the local Japanese school, and it is very good.

  10. Now that’s the kind of detail about overseas living you would normally hear about.

    Any chance we can see Lisa Katayama wearing one of those backpacks?!!!

  11. Whoa, that is sooooo expensive for sure!

    But I once read that in Japan, education is very important because the graduates usually work for a company for a lifetime. So, imagine if they don’t have good education, they wouldn’t be able to get higher position in the company.

    So, expensive fee for schools becomes rational.

  12. Honestly the undergrad postsecondary is downright affordable compared to a lot of countries…also I’d like to see the breakdown of income tax set aside for education vs. other industrialized nations…because on the surface that does seem a little high for grade school…but I’d be interested to see what my parents paid for me to go to school as a kid in the 80s…

  13. In German that kind of school bag is called a “Ranzen” or “Schulranzen”. The Dutch word clearly has a German origin. Most kids will wear one to go to school, although soft-sided backpacks are becoming more popular.

    They are also inexpensive in Germany (the bags as well as the education). Maybe 30-40EUR, although if you want to spend more I’m sure you will find somebody willing to take the cash.

  14. Folks, education in the US is NOT free, you support it through your taxes. The cost per year of education in Michigan (in the middle of a depression) is a minimum of $7,500 per year (public school).

    The prices noted above are not unreasonable.

    My daughter just completed an undergrad degree at a private university, cost was about $45,000 per year (tuition only).

    Given this, what is the point of this post? There is NO free lunch.

  15. Wait, I don’t get it. Why are/were these compulsory and why do they cost so much? What’s the justification? They just look like an ordinary backpack.

  16. I work in the Japanese education system. The amounts you mention might be related to what the government spends per child in public schools, but parents don’t pay fees. There are expenses like uniforms and school lunch, but no “fees” as such that I know of. That comes out of taxes.

  17. No tutition fees here in Sweden (where I’m currently living). Not even for exchange students. Government will also give you a small sum of money while you’re studying so you don’t have to work so hard to support yourself. There is a student union fee but I pay 300kr (35USD) per semester that includes a card that gets me discounts with public transportation and stores. You also have to pay for books. Amazingly, there are exchange students that complain about having to pay for books.

    I’m looking into studying to become a dentist. 5 years of university. If I were to do this in Canada (where I’m from), I’m looking at dropping at least 500 000CDN.

  18. So in Japan they directly charge you to send your kid to a state school?

    That doesn’t sound right, are you sure?

    Japan has an allinclusive social security programme, whether you agree or not you are in it.

    So it would be abberant for elementary/primary school education to be a direct up front payment in crisp new yen in a brown paper bag.

    It may cost that much per pupil per year but that is worked out in the tax they pay.

    And I know that there is no free anything but we have a choice in how we organise things, we can tax directly and use the money to set things like education health care defence or have no taxes and place payment up front in it’s stead.

    I did my degree in Scotland and paid nothing, because all the other people had paid thei taxes, now I pay my taxes and this generation is doing their degrees for nothing.

    Let’s call this …cooperation.

  19. @15

    Financing the education through taxes or by direct billing makes a difference into who has access to it. It is not the only factor for everybody but it can make all the difference for a good many people wouldn’t you say?

  20. Private Schools in the UK are just about as expensive.

    £15,000 – £27,000 per year from the age of 11 until 18.

    Then there are all the other bits you have to buy, like uniform etc…

    Of course you can always go to the local state school which is paid for by everyone else’s taxes…

  21. I know you posted the most expensive, but what kind of kick backs are the schools getting from that company. I went through 2-3 backpacks a year starting in 3rd grade because I had so many books. On year my book bag weighed as much as my sister that was a year younger then me. My aunt broke down and spent a lot of money on a good bag that I used all through 6th grade until junior year in high school. It was so frayed around the edges it didn’t look professional when I started interviewing for jobs and internships so she bought me another one. I can see how you’d spend that much over time, it’s just kind of appalling to see all that cost up front. Plus they have to buy uniforms as well =/

  22. As JESSEINJAPAN mentioned, the estimate doesn’t take into account the cost of jukus (cram schools), tutoring and so on without which there is no way a Japanese kid would make it to a “decent” university unless he’s really, really bright or has a photographic memory. I’ve no idea what these costs are but they are enormous.

    There is much to say about what passes for education in Japan. There is no real discussion of anything, and students don’t express themselves in any way, no essays, no opinions, pretty much from Junior High School on up.

    It’s a kind of filter system. It filters out those with different points of views, those with opinions, and creative types. What remains are mostly very malleable, obedient automatons who make excellent government workers and politicians.

    It’s also highly elitist, as only those with rich parents can go to the schools and jukus that will get them into “top” universities.

  23. I wanted to get one myself as well when I was in Japan, just for fun, and then found out the shocking high price.
    But I asked my japanese friends about it and they explained that the bags will last forever, and often the grandparents will buy them for their grandchildren.

  24. Book bags! Soon they’ll be junk bags. Every textbook should be online. Kids should carry cheap workhorse laptops and little else. Coincidentally, my dreams last night were about me working away at a goddamned classroom blackboard and griping at my students about the lo-tech bullshit we still have to put up with.

  25. What is the point of these backpacks? I can see the point of spending money on teachers and classrooms and textbooks, but why are these ugly little backpacks compulsory?

    Obviously somebody is making a shitload on them. It is total gov’t corruption. That is not unusual. But that nobody kicks up a fuss over it is really weird.

  26. Huh? 21,798 USD for 6 years of elementary school education? News to me! My girl is 3rd grade in Tokyo and it’s maybe $60 a YEAR for materials. At most. Regular ward (“ku”) operated school.

    AND they don’t REQUIRE the randoseru but basic peer pressure means that every kid carries one. (The weird thing about those randoseru is they hold up so well – still looks great after 3 years. )

  27. Ah, Rantzen. I had one too in elementary school. Of course it didn’t cost such absurd amounts of money, but it had Knight Rider on it. Later I discovered the joys of backbags (some Eastpack – indestructible)

  28. OK – those figures sounded so fishy and so far off my first hand experience that I googled around.

    Go here: (Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology)

    Page 86 bottom. Those per year figures are what it costs to RAISE a kid. The amount for “Expenditure on education” is JPY 13,581 – tuition/textbooks etc. (maybe US$140 per year). As far as I can tell that would also include private lessons in whatever – say swimming or English or piano. JPY 22,356 is for ‘Education related expenses” like school lunches.

    Most of the rest is ‘consumption expenditure’ (JPY 304,203) is “everyday living expenses, such as payment for necessary goods and services”

    So – please review your figures which were from a commercial site that raison d’etre is to scare new parents into buying expensive life insurance investment products – many of which are specifically designed to come to term as kids enter Jr Hi or Hi School.

  29. i wanted to get one of those randoserus for my kid when we were in Tokyo in January .. Muji has nice basic ones for 150USD (and even that I found expensive) … but wife was against it, stating very clearly that these things are darn heavy …

  30. Pretty pricey for a kid’s backpack. Here’s what I don’t understand: Since the packs are a standard size, what’s preventing some upstart company from going to market with much less expensive models?

  31. I’m happy to see this post becuase I now understand the bags my neighbor’s twin’s use. They had them as Pre-K students and they looked so huge! But they finally seem to fit now that they’re in Kindergarten but they actually look too small to fit a binder in.

  32. My cousin has 3 kids, the oldest in her first year of kindergarten at Marin Country Day School, a well regarded private school in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    By his liberal estimate, it will cost 5.5 M in 2030 or so dollars to put his children through college.

    Just FYI if you want to give your kids the best, spare no expense. Otherwise, if you’re American and you can afford it, get a job in Connecticut if you like good value public schools. Just avoid New Haven and Bridgeport.

  33. Where did the education cost figures come from? How were they computed? Sourceless figures are unconvincing.

  34. Slight correction: Now that I can get a webpage from the server as opposed to a server error, I see the article. Unfortunately, the source articles are in Japanese (automated translations: 1 and 2 aren’t very helpful; it certainly would have helped for an English-language blog like BoingBoing to have something in English describing what we’re looking at). The first article cites figures without explanation or source and the second article from points to more articles in need of human translation, which brings me back to the same question and point I raised earlier—part of convincing people of your figures is showing them exactly where you got them and how they were arrived at.

  35. Of course, if you home educate you do without the schooling… and schooling *is* entirely different from education. It’s free, although you don’t get any materials, text books or activity subsidies. Oh, and one of you needs to be at home, which cuts the income in half.

    Japanese schools seem to be very high pressured, and one of the people who campaigns for the freedom to home educate in Japan is constantly posting distressing stories about the number of teenage suicides there.

    Unfortunately they are held up as an example to the UK on a regular basis.

  36. “Ransel” is a very old-fashioned word in Dutch. It is rather 19th century sounding and no longer in common use today. It has strong military connotations, a soldier could have a ransel, a trader would rather have a ‘mars’ (hence marskramer).

    Up until Perry “opened” up Japan, Dutch and Chinese were the only foreign languages known in Japan. Chinese historically, Dutch through the trading post at Deshima (Nagasaki). Since the 17th century the only Western trading post in Japan. As a result of this, all western science came to Japan in Dutch and quite a number of Dutch words have found their way into the Japanese language.

    Fun Fact: the treaty of I-forgot between Comodore Perry and the Japanese government that opened up Japan for foreign trade was written in Japanese, Chinese, Dutch and English, because Dutch and Chinese were the only languages both parties understood: no American knew Japanese, no Japanese knew English

    @14 I suppose you believe all Dutch words derive from German? Quatsch! (bullshit -german)

  37. Of course, I’m pretty sure a lot of people pass their used ones on. The things are built to last forever.

    And, as the commercial says – randoseru are angel’s wings.

  38. BadMigraine: Wow, it’s weird to see the name of Nishimachi school again. I went there for 4th & 5th grade. I don’t know how my parents afforded it, but I think my dad had a Fulbright grant, and of course the exchange ratio was very different in the ’60s.

  39. I’m just gonna highlight comments 23 and 25 by cedar… The first impression I got from those figures was that that’s what parents pay in tuition and fees upfront to the schools… And that can’t be right.

  40. When I went through university is Scotland, not only was there no direct cost to me but the Government paid me an allowance (not a loan in any way) that was generous enough to cover housing, travel, and (of course) lots and lots of partying. The simple rational: a worker with a degree will earn more when they become employed, and pay back more in taxes.

    Personally, I also chose to work in the Health Care and Local Government fields for around six years: paid in full.

  41. Norway:
    Education is free.
    Pre-school to junior high: No fee.
    Senior high: No fee, students must buy own books.
    College, univesity: Students must buy own books, sometimes there is a ‘copying fee’, about USD100/year.

    There are virtually no private schools or universities. If you went to private school, it is assumed that you are a member of some sort of weird cult. If you went to private college/university, it is assumed that you were not bright enough to join a free one or studied a topic that is utterly useless.

  42. Danny, high school isn’t compulsory either. Japanese students can go out into the world and get a job at the ripe old age of 15, a whole five years before they are considered adults by Japanese law.

    Ditch diggin’, here we come!

  43. The costs are way off: we pay around ¥70,000 a year at a public elementary school in Shibuya with most of this going to school lunches and without any of the subsidies that are available for lower income families.

    That’s around US$760 a year or US$4,560 for 6 years which is far less than the US$21,798 quoted.

    I doubt we could make bento for less and we escape the competitive bento making stress every morning ;)

    Randoseru are expensive but they do last the whole six years which is more than I can say for the typical school bag.

  44. #39: What about school trips, club activities (which don’t necessarily have that many costs, depends on the club), school supplies, PTA fees and the like?

    Those school trips can cost a pretty penny and the school doesn’t exactly pick up the tab on all of that.

  45. Me again. Let me word this a bit more strongly. The figures are bogus as an indicator of amount spent on EDUCATION. Not Danny’s fault but the site he sourced. It’s for a product called “Education Endowment Insurance.” Insurance products are the no. 1 investment vehicles for Japanese families. These products are designed to be sold to worried new parents and they come to term either as the kid enters jr hi or hi school, or uni take your pick, and you get a cash payout. They use tricky wording – to the point of misleading.

    They also cite the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology I noted above. The figures are slightly off – English has only been updated til 2004 but it’s roughly the same. The US$21,798 Danny quoted above works out to US$3,633 per year. I bet most US parents spend more on their kids.

    Clothes? Toys? Cold medicine? Notebooks & pencils? HELLOOO!! HEALTH INSURANCE??? Here (Japan) it’s frigging FREE for kids under 12. Bottom line – average (because we are talking averages here) TOTAL EXPENDITURE per kid is the figure cited in the link.

    The last US Census data (2000) has expenditure per child anywhere from US$6,000 to $13,000 depending on income bracket. However these figures included housing, which the Japanese figures do not.

    Danny, you really should do an update. It’s completely misleading.

  46. Disclaimer- I have taught in Japanese public schools, in elementary & middle schools. Visits to High schools for meetings. I teach in a small private “eikaiwa” in the countryside now.

    @ #8- Yes, you are correct. These backpacks are ONLY seen for kindergardeners, and in elementary schools. Beyond elementary school (which usually goes up to 6 years here in Sapporo), you’d never be caught dead with these things. The kids are malicious over such things, and would harass you to the point of fighting if you wore one of these to middle school. Every kid in middle school has a “normal” western style backpack, and/or a sport bag by Nike/Adidas/Puma. That’s fashionable here.

    Wearing one of these to middle school or highschool would be like wearing a propeller beanie as a normal adult hat. People would make your life hell!

    I never knew their background until Danny spelled it out, and I’m a Japanese specialist. There’s still some stuff I don’t know, that’s what makes it fun.

  47. If Cedar is right it is not cool to have such misleading information up on Boing Boing for this long. Credibility is everything.

  48. Reply to @43, Nope (not that I wouldn’t have minded) — Paisley College of Technology (now Paisley University). I don’t know if this is a good indicator of standards or not, but we had a 50% kick-out rate in years one, two and three (year four was spent in industry, and was hard to fail).

    I guess that would be the downside to the gubmint funded education: if you couldn’t learn, your ass was grass.

  49. One of my students accidentally yanked the strap on his randoseru off the body while trying to pull it out of his cubbyhole a few months back. Poor kid was absolutely inconsolable, wailing about how indescribably furious his mom would be when she found out. I was actually sort of impressed he’d managed to hurt it. Randoseru are expensive, but they’re incredibly sturdy.

    My kids invariably use their randoseru right up until they leave elementary (so until 6th year), but after that it’s a mix of their junior high schools’ own schoolbags and gigantic vinyl Nike/Adidas/Puma sports bags. I guess it varies from board to board.

  50. I went to a public high school in Koufu for 3 years. The costs were way lower than what I see here.

    I paid (not my parents) about 150000-200000 yen per year (in the mid eighties). Most of that was uniform, school trips, club fees (soccer) and whatnot. The cost of just attending school was practically nil.

    Nowadays – that city (Koufu) is paying parents to have children and then providing free day care.

    It doesn’t mean that having children in Japan has ever been cheap. It’s very expensive because Japan is a high cost of living country. For a long time, this also mean that you got fantastic customer service and excellent quality while you were being overcharged for everything. However, this has been in steady decline for almost 3 decades now.

  51. I thought I had gone crazy the first time I looked at those prices. I thought American textbooks were a racket! How could anyone justify those prices?

    I ended up finding one at a second hand store for 1000 yen, so for those of you looking for one as a souvenir, keep your eyes open!

    Also, I never knew where the name came from – I was told that it was from English “Land-Cell” by Japanese folks. So, thanks!

  52. #41 That’s for everything including an after school club but doesn’t include the initial eandoseru and uniform costs.

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