A Japanese education: persistent myths, changing realities

Peter Cave
27 February 2008

Education and youth are topics of endless concern in most societies today - and discussion of them is often filtered through the nostalgia of jaundiced elders who lament the perceived decline from the good old days of polite children and high academic standards. What is unusual about Japan is the extremely polarised views that its children and schools have attracted from foreign observers. Many have praised Japanese pupils as hard-working, well-disciplined, and pleasant, pointing to Japan's schools as a key factor in both socialising children and teaching them so effectively that Japan has consistently come at or near the top of international academic achievement tests since the 1960s. Others, however, havecondemned Japanese schools as dominated by rote-learning - regimented institutions churning out blinkered, docile clones to become cogs in the corporate wheels of Japan, Inc. Who is right?

Behind the formula

Within Japan itself, dissatisfaction with the education system has been reigning for years, although thePeter Cave is lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester reasons for public discontent seem to shift like the four winds. Concerns date from at least the 1970s, as competition to enter universities intensified, and was accompanied with outbreaks of indiscipline and violence against teachers. By the 1980s, there was a widespread feeling that narrow, exam-focused study was placing children under too much pressure, warping them into listless, desk-chained conformists who relieved their stress by bullying less popular classmates - an image that dominated popular consciousness until the end of the century, and continues to have significant influence.

Dismay about education and youth had other causes too. The late 1990s saw seemingly endless media headlines about uncontrollable children and immoral, sick, or dangerous youth. Worries about bullying subsided as concern rose about "classroom chaos", caused by primary children who couldn't shut up or sit still. A number of horrifying murders by teenagers shocked Japan - notably aAmong openDemocracy's work on educational themes:

Yasemin Soysal, "Teaching Europe" (5 December 2001)

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument" (19 April 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan's education gamble" (13 October 2006)

Susan Bassnett, "The education revolution" (19 February 2007)

Li Datong, "Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

Jeffrey N Wasserstein, "One, two or many Chinas?" (19 February 2008)

Dougald Hine, "Nonline community: freedom, education, the net" (20 February 2008lower-secondary boy who cut off the head of a mentally handicapped child, and another boy who stabbed and killed a female teacher after a reprimand. Across Japan, older teenage girls dyed their hair blond, tanned their skin, and raised the hemlines of their school uniforms, binning the traditionally approved model of modest Japanese femininity. It was claimed that many girls were engaging in "compensated dating" (with or without sex), arranged with older men through the ubiquitous new technology of the mobile-phone. Media coverage gave the general impression that children, teenagers, and young people were rapidly becoming out of control, adding to a public sense of malaise and plummeting confidence in the school system.

Yet the reality of education and young people in Japan today is far less sensational than the media headlines might suggest, or so it seems to me. Having spent thousands of hours in Japanese primary and secondary schools between 1987 and 2007, what strikes me most forcibly are the features that have not changed. Japan's education system continues to have many admirable features, as well as some serious shortcomings.

Reform and reaction

The perception of the country's pupils as robotic, unimaginative automatons that had grown in the 1980s was the major trigger for a series of curricular reforms in the 1990s that aimed to give children more contact with the local environment and community, and encourage individuality and self-motivated learning. Teachers were told to assess children's interest and motivation, not just their achievement on tests. The culmination of the reforms came with a revised national curriculum published in 1998, which introduced "integrated studies" (focusing on cross-curricular, self-planned, and experiential learning), as well as increased hours for elective subjects in lower secondary schools. It was claimed that the content of conventional subjects was being cut by 30%, partly to make way for these new study areas, and partly because of the implementation of a five-day school week and the end of Saturday lessons - part of government attempts to cut Japanese working hours.

Since worries about narrow, over-pressurised education had dominated public consciousness for over a decade, it might have been expected that the reforms would have been welcomed, especially after the lengthy public consultations. In fact, however, the curriculum revisions touched off a storm of criticism. University professors wailed that their students were already incapable of dividing fractions. Sociologists argued that the reforms would widen the gap between children from motivated homes, who could study independently, and children with less fortunate backgrounds, whose achievement would drop. Educational consultants pointed to declining test results over two decades, and warned of worse to come. A variety of other vociferous pundits pointed to the dire examples of countries like the United States and Britain, which had supposedly wrecked their education systems with misguided "progressive" reforms before seeing the error of their ways and getting back to basics.

Japan's ministry of education responded by stressing that the new curriculum was only a minimum, and set up a nationwide academic achievement test to monitor standards. In late 2007, the first of these test results revealed that standards were remarkably similar nationwide, and seemed to have risen since the last such tests in the early 1960s. Worries about falling standards had already been intensified, however, by the results of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) international academic achievement tests in 2003, which showed that Japan's 15-year-olds had slipped to sixth of forty countries in maths (from first place in 2000), and from eighth to fourteenth in reading. World-leading scores in science and problem-solving got less attention from the Japanese media, which seemed to be focused on the bad news.

The test of an ethos

It is not always appreciated that until age 15, Japanese public education has very little streaming or setting by academic performance, and takes 92% of Japan's children. Since 2003, there have been some experiments in setting, almost entirely confined to maths and English teaching, but some of these experiments seem to have been abandoned - and even when they continue, children usually choose their set themselves. The curriculum and the textbooks are designed to enable all children to advance at the same pace, and classroom teaching has the same aim. At primary school, there are many opportunities for children to take the initiative to study on their own or in small groups, but the entire class almost always comes together again after a while to discuss findings and conclusions. Indeed, Japanese primary classrooms are very impressive for their emphasis on inquiry and explanation.

What helps to underpin the combination of energetic inquiry and discussion is the unremitting effort to develop a classroom community. All children take turns in leading the class, and all participate in a great variety of small groups for organising everything for chores (including cleaning) to fun and games. This is often very effective in developing a sense of mutual consideration and respect.

At lower-secondary school, the commitment to have all children master learning continues, along with emphasis on instilling good basic study and life habits. Throughout the entire education system, and especially at primary and lower-secondary schools, teachers are expected to fulfil a very broad remit in overseeing children's socialisation. Japanese children usually hand in daily diaries or study schedules, both as a channel of communication with the teacher, and as a way of developing a sense of the need to regulate and reflect on one's own behaviour. At secondary school, most children join after-school clubs, mainly run by teachers, which offer sporting or cultural activities, usually almost every day of the week. Sports clubs in particular play an important role in instilling an ethos of effort and self-discipline, as well as enabling children to develop non-academic abilities and experience camaraderie outside the classroom. All in all, Japan's schools have been remarkably good at enabling their charges to develop all-round mental and social capabilities that stand them in good stead as individuals and contributors to society.

Japanese schools' shortcomings are in some ways the mirror-image of their strengths. The emphasis on community and learning together sets limits on the freedom that children can have in exploratory learning. The amount of time that lower-secondary teachers commit to students' non-academic development restricts the time they spend on lesson planning and marking. Japanese children do remarkably little extended writing, either creative or critical. A major reason for this is that university and high-school entrance examinations do not test these skills - even exams in subjects like Japanese or history are focused on reading comprehension and factual knowledge. But another reason is because school teachers have no experience of assessing essays, and no time to mark them. Science and maths education can thus be world-class, while education in the arts and humanities remains underdeveloped at upper-secondary and university levels. There is real substance to the criticism that Japan's more able children are not given the environment to stretch their wings and soar, and this is probably detrimental to the country in the long run.

Some have raised concerns that Japanese young people, supposedly inadequately educated in the history of pre-1945 Japanese imperialism, are easy prey for recent nationalist agitation. It is certainly true that Japan's history textbooks could say more about military atrocities and colonial oppression, yet they contain more on such topics than critics abroad often think - and this is often supplemented by teachers. In fact, the scanty available evidence indicates that Japanese university students, at least, overwhelmingly reject nationalistic historical views.

Perhaps a more serious concern is the recent growth in the proportion of children who not only perform poorly but also study very little outside school. There is now a dramatic gap between the top 20% of pupils, who still study far harder than their counterparts in countries like the United States and Britain, and the bottom 20%. The reasons for this may partly be due to less pressure to study from teachers. However, they probably also involve widening inequalities in financial and cultural capital, as well as the increasing accessibility and allure of consumerism and fun as alternatives to deferred gratification. The school system is currently trying to address these issues using dramatically smaller class sizes in selected subjects, mainly maths and English, but it is too early to say how effective this may be.

The everyday reality

Major changes to educational structures and practices are never easy. Integrated studies and electives have proved hard to implement at lower-secondary level, due partly to practical difficulties facing cross-curricular study in a subject-centred school system, as well as the reluctance of teachers to move away from "the basics" as traditionally conceived. Government proposals for the next curriculum revision, planned for 2011, slim down integrated studies and abolish lower-secondary electives, in order to increase hours for Japanese, maths, science and English.

Yet this is unlikely to be a straightforward return to the past. After the 2007 results of the OECD's latest Pisa achievement tests, which saw Japanese 15-year-olds' performance slip to fifth of fifty-seven countries in science and tenth of firty-seven in maths, it seems widely recognised that it is precisely in the area of thinking about and applying knowledge that Japanese students need to improve. (It is also worth noting that the "league-table" ranking is a crude one that ignores the Pisa organisers' warnings about statistically insignificant differences between country scores.) The ministry of education seems to have decided, probably wisely, that exploratory, analytical learning can be better promoted within the traditional subject framework.

To achieve an education that would more fully develop Japanese students' abilities to articulate critical analysis with confidence, however, much more radical changes would be needed at upper secondary and university levels - notably, wholesale revision of established forms of learning and assessment, and a corresponding shift in the use of teachers' time away from non-academic guidance. Such changes would need little less than a well-coordinated revolution in educational structures, practices, and expectations, and so it is hardly surprising that they are not on the horizon.

This is a shame, but not a disaster. I confidently expect continued sensationalist deploring of the shortcomings of Japanese schools and young people - either as undisciplined know-nothings or fact-stuffed robots - because "crisis" makes copy that sells. But the more mundane reality is that Japanese education does a pretty good job of turning out young people who are thoughtful, hard-working, energetic, knowledgeable, and often, remarkably creative - even if it could do still better.

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