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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Stability or Stagnation?

As stated at the start of this chapter, what has changed over the last quarter-century in Japan's schools is less striking than what has not. Efforts to promote more exploratory, interdisciplinary, and self-motivated learning at elementary and junior high schools have met with some success in elementary schools, but at the junior high level the response of teachers has generally been tepid or worse. These reform efforts coincided with slippage in the performance of Japanese students in the Pisa (Program for international student assessment) academic attainment tests, providing ammunition for criticisms of the reforms and demands that schools get “back to basics” (Cave 2007, 20–21; takayama 2008); in consequence, the revised school curriculum implemented from 2011 onward has cut back on hours for integrated studies, which was intended to promote independent thinking and self-motivated learning. Funding smaller class sizes in selected subjects has probably helped students who struggle academically by allowing them more teacher attention, but teaching methods may not have changed. At the high school level, meanwhile, there have been even fewer changes for most students, though the introduction of programs that allow some students to specialize in particular subjects has had a limited effect in increasing diversity. In part, this lack of change can be seen as recognition of the real strengths of the existing education system in combining solid academic training with attention to human development. Yet Japanese education can also be strongly criticized, especially at the secondary level, for failing to develop students' particular strengths and for neglecting inquiry learning and the development of analytical, critical, and creative abilities (Cave 2011a, 253–254), while foreign language education remains a disaster area (aspinall 2011). The limited attempts to tackle these problems over the last two decades have suffered from poor implementation, but there are more fundamental reasons for their lack of success and, indeed, for the fact that more ambitious measures have not been considered. At the junior high level, teachers are so busy fulfilling the heavy institutionalized demands upon them to provide academic basics, pastoral care, and discipline that they have minimal time or energy for pedagogic innovation (Cave 2011b). The same is true at high school, where the university entrance exam structure—which is largely outside state control—also stifles curricular or pedagogic change. Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the relative lack of change, however, is uncertainty on the part of the government and nation about what kind of society and state Japan should become in the twenty-first century. This uncertainty Has been strikingly reflected in the dramatic changes of direction in education policy over the last two decades. Increased emphasis on individuality, autonomy, and exploration, focused on Japan's envisioned future needs, was first modified in the light of a “moral panic” about the supposed threat of social and moral disintegration to emphasize community and “education of the heart”; then, after a fierce debate about standards of academic attainment, came a partial reversion to the educational content and methods of earlier decades. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of these decisions, they are evidence of powerful nostalgia for the values and practices of the past—a past differently constructed by different people but generally featuring a highly selective and idealized picture of well-socialized, energetic, and bright-eyed youngsters full of motivation, living in warm families, and spending their free time exploring the natural environment or interacting with the local community.7 in short, there is a desire to return to the imagined “glory days” between the start of the “high-growth period” in 1955 and the bursting of the bubble economy in 1990, and it is this desire—albeit generally unexpressed in such direct terms—that has been most influential in driving the actions of teachers and the arguments of pundits. What this fails to recognize is that schools alone cannot adequately provide the resources for human development that used to be provided by children's social and natural environment, especially without a significant change in the proportion of national wealth that goes into education.8 the resulting lack of vision or direction, moreover, leaves education in danger of aimless drift and unable to equip Japan's children as might be desired for the challenge of adapting to a fast-changing future. Arguably, what children are likely to need are habits of inquiry, exploration, and proactive problem solving, along with the creative ability to come up with new ideas and the critical rigor to test such ideas to destruction. In the existing education system, such habits and abilities are not as well developed as they could be. Moreover, the system as it stands is also failing to equip children to operate internationally, even though it is now twenty-five years since Prime Minister nakasone yasuhiro's education Council made “internationalization” a key goal of educational reform (Goodman 2007).

I would suggest, therefore, that the state of education in Japan is an index of the state of Japan itself. In many respects school education continues to be excellent, developing children's social and emotional capacities alongside their intellectual abilities. Yet like the wider society, schools are grappling with problems of increased inequality, and a loss of confidence about Japan's future has resulted in inwardand backward-looking tendencies that have strongly Affected education. School education in Japan has a stability and strength of quality that many other countries might envy, but without greater willingness to confront the challenges of the future, this stability stands in real danger of turning into gradual stagnation. The extent to which it changes will tell us much about what kind of country Japan wants to be.


1. The Japanese public school system is noted for a relatively high degree of nationwide standardization of facilities and academic attainment within compulsory education (elementary and junior high school) (Okano and tsuchiya 1999, 60). In the Ministry of education and science's 2007 national academic achievement tests in Japanese and mathematics, for example, average total scores for junior high students in forty-one of Japan's forty-seven prefectures were within 10 percent of the average total score nationwide (286.1 out of a maximum 400). Scores were not generally affected by degree of urbanization, though the top scores were in rural prefectures (Fukui, toyama, and akita) (“Osaka 45-banme, akita, Fukui toppu” 2007).

2. The details of the curriculum revision are available on the Ministry of education and science web site: main4_a2.htm. Accessed January 3, 2013.

3. Sakura is a pseudonym, as are the names of schools and teachers. Like many “cities” (shi) in Japan, sakura includes an urban core and suburban and semirural surrounds. Income in its prefecture is close to the national average, and education levels a little higher. Eighty percent of the city population live in owner-occupied dwellings, higher than the national average of 60 percent. The Kansai region includes the six prefectures around the major cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe.

4. At the schools studied by shimizu (2004, 2008) and Boocock (2011), there are significant numbers of children from the burakumin community, “a castelike minority group” (nabeshima 2010, 109) that has suffered from severe discrimination and whose children have academic achievement well below the national average.

5. For examples, see the web sites of ina Gakuen High school in saitama Prefecture ( and Kokusai Jōhō High school in shiga Prefecture (

6. For example, in a letter to the asahi shinbun (July 7, 2011), one 2007 university graduate tells how her year's study abroad made job-hunting harder, as companies saw her delayed graduation at the wrong time of year (september) as problematic.

7. For examples of significant documents infused by such nostalgia for an imagined past, see the 2000 report by the national Commission for educational reform, set up by former prime minister Obuchi Keizō ( education/report/report.html; accessed May 17, 2012); Fujiwara Masahiko's (2005) best-seller Kokka no hinkaku; Prime Minister abe shinzō's (2006) book Utsukushii kuni e; and the First report of the education rebuilding Council (2007), set up by abe during his first administration. Much of the debate about educational reform since 1989 has also critiqued the present by contrasting it with a supposedly better past (Cave 2007, 14–23).

8. According to the OeCD (2011, 221), in 2008 Japan spent $8,301 per student in primary, secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary education, slightly above the OeCD average of $8,169. Its spending was very similar to that of Canada ($8,388) and Finland ($8,068); lower than the netherlands ($9,251), the United Kingdom ($9,169), and the United states ($10,995); but higher than Germany ($7,859) and south Korea ($6,723). According to the Japanese Ministry of education and science (Monbukagakushō 2011b, 36), in 2009 there were 14.5

Children per teacher in lower secondary education (12.2 in upper secondary) in Japan, compared to 16.6 (14.7) in Canada, 10.1 (16.6) in Finland, 15.1 (13.9) in

Germany, 19.9 (16.7) in south Korea, 16.1 (12.3) in the United Kingdom, and

14.3 (15.1) in the United states (OeCD average, 13.5). Thus Japan devotes similar levels of resources to school education as do comparable countries. Japan may

Be unusual, however, in the very high expectations on its teachers to provide substantial guidance and support for human development, an effort that takes time away from pedagogical engagement (Cave 2011b). In short, Japan may be expecting much more than other countries from similar levels of resources, and these expectations may be unrealistic.

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