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Japan’s Data + Sports

Swimming education and facilities in Japan - Historical background and current challenges

June 24, 2024

Swimming is one of the most popular and widely practiced sports in Japan. In addition, unlike other countries around the world, most elementary and junior high schools have swimming pools on their premises. This article explores the historical background and current challenges related to swimming education and facilities in Japan.

1. Historical Background of Swimming Education

Around 60 years ago, elementary and junior high schools in Japan began installing swimming pools on their premises. Today, many schools still offer swimming classes in their own facilities. According to the 2021 National Survey,*1 there are 29,412 elementary and junior high schools in Japan, including national, private, and branch schools. These schools have a total of 22,036 indoor or outdoor swimming pools.*2 Assuming that no school has more than one swimming pool, approximately 75% of elementary and junior high schools in Japan have a swimming pool.

FY 2021*2 FY 2002*3
  Elementary Junior high Total Elementary Junior high Total
Number of schools* 19,336 10,076 29,412 23,808 11,159 34,967
Total number of pools 15,926 6,110 22,036 20,080 7,653 27,733
Number of indoor pools 278 151 429 742 263 1,005
Number of outdoor pools 15,648 5,959 21,607 19,338 7,390 26,728
    Proportion 75%   Proportion 79%

*Including national, public, private, and branch schools
The number of pools represents the total number of swimming facilities, not the number of schools.

Apart from swimming classes in schools, a large number of children across the country take swimming lessons after school, as shown by SSF’s survey.*1

Most popular after-school activities among children aged 4 to 11 (Multiple answers allowed)*4

2023 (n=1,394)
Ranking Type of Activity %
1 Swimming 23.7
2 Tutoring school 18.3
3 Piano 14.3
4 English communication 13.1
5 Football 9.4
6 Japanese calligraphy 9
7 Gymnastics 8.7
8 Dance (Hip hop, jazz, etc.) 5.6
9 Abacus class 4.1
10 Basketball 3.5
11 Karate 2.9
12 Baseball 2.4
13 Tennis 2.1
14 Badminton 1.7
Ballet 1.7

 blue =Sports activity

It is believed that one of the reasons for the introduction of swimming as part of the physical education curriculum in Japan was two tragic water accidents that occurred in 1955, in which many schoolchildren lost their lives.

One of the water accidents that highlighted the need for swimming and self-lifesaving education was the Shiun Maru disaster,*5 one of the worst maritime disaster in Japan’s history, which occurred in 1955. The passenger ferry named Shiun Maru was sailing across the Seto Inland Sea when it collided with another Japanese ferry named Uko Maru in dense fog on May 11. A total of 168 people, including 100 elementary and junior high school students from several different prefectures who were on school field trips to Kyoto, lost their lives in this tragic accident. If they had been able to swim and stay afloat for a few minutes until they were rescued, they might have survived.

The other accident, which later became known as the “Kyōhoku Junior High School Water Accident,”*6 occurred on July 28, 1955, while over 600 junior high school students were participating in an annual summer swimming lesson near Nakagawara Beach in Mie Prefecture. 36 girls lost their lives and some sixty others nearly drowned due to abnormal currents. Following the accident, the beach was permanently closed for swimming and remains closed to this day.

These two accidents led to rapid progress towards the installation of swimming pools in schools. Of course, such progress was driven by the Sports Promotion Act, which was enacted in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the financial support provided by the government. Subsequently, swimming was added to the regular curriculum following the 1968 revision of the curriculum guidelines.*7 By the 1990s, more than 80% of elementary schools and 70% of junior and senior high schools had swimming pools on their premises.

Although environments conducive to swimming were prepared, it is a fact that water-related accidents have not been completely eradicated, and accidents in school pools still occur. Unfortunate mishaps and accidents involving water, ranging from minor injuries to drowning, occur in schools every year. According to the latest statistical report released by the Japan Sport Council, there were 1,573 water-related accidents in elementary schools and 1,085 in junior high schools in 2022.*8

2. Current Challenges for Swimming Education and Facilities*9

The number of swimming pools in elementary and junior high schools has been declining over the last 20 years, partly due to a decline in the youth population in Japan. Specifically, Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has released data showing that the estimated population of children under 15 in Japan stood at 14.01 million as of April 1, 2024,*10 marking the 43rd consecutive year of a decline. Other issues contributing to this trend include the deterioration of swimming facilities that were built around 60 years ago, and the burdens placed on teachers for the operation and maintenance of school swimming pools.
The number of public-sector swimming pools has been declining even more significantly due to the increase in the number of private sector swimming facilities, including recreational water parks, which has reduced the demand for public-sector facilities. In addition, more cost and demand analyses became required after the new “Designated Administration System” came into effect in 2003. This has accelerated the shift in the maintenance and operation of public facilities toward the private sector.

3. Measures

To address the challenges mentioned in the previous paragraph, the Japan Sports Agency, the national agency under the Ministry of Education, has been taking measures such as organizing workshops and seminars to facilitate collaborative efforts between public and private sectors in utilizing existing school and community facilities.*11

Furthermore, the Agency provides guidelines*12 for safety measures to enhance safety and prevent incidents and injuries at these facilities. The swimming section of the guidelines includes the proper installation of anti-entrapment drain covers to prevent suction entrapment, the allocation of a sufficient number of lifeguards, the provision of adequate training for individuals who work at each facility, and other measures.

A growing number of local governments in Japan are forgoing the renovation of their aging public-school pools. Although the challenges they face vary, they are opting to outsource swimming classes to the private sector to reduce maintenance and operation costs and to ease the workload of teachers. Additionally, using private-sector indoor swimming pools allows swimming classes to be held year-round without being affected by weather conditions. Another notable benefit of outsourcing swimming classes to the private sector is that students can improve their swimming skills under the guidance of highly trained professional instructors.

4. Summary

While swimming is a popular activity in many other parts of the world, the policies and environments regarding swimming education seem to vary from country to country. We are certain that Japan is particularly aware of the importance of maintaining and/or improving children’s swimming skills as part of their motor skills. We will continue to closely monitor the progress of swimming education in Japan and how the outsourcing of swimming classes is implemented in the face of various challenges.


*1) 2021 Basic School Survey by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

*2) Number of Sports Facilities in Japan (Slide 5 & 6)

*3) 2002 Basic School Survey by Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology

*4) The 2023 SSF National Sports-Life Survey of Children and Young People (Original Japanese ver., Page 128)

*5) Shiun-Maru Disaster: Court Record of The Japan Marine Accident Tribunal

*6) Kyōhoku Junior High School Water Accident: Article by The Oceanographic Society of Japan.

*7) The 1968 Curriculum Guidelines by The Ministry of Education

*8) Accidents in schools

*9) Article by SSF’s Senior Special Researcher Satoru Kumagai

*10) Number of children in Japan

*11) Details of the seminars organized by the Japan Sports Agency

*12) Sports Facility Safety Management (Page 6)


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