Global Issues: Japan/Children and Education
This chapter was written with regard to education in Japan and its effect on the children reliant upon this system. Covered is a brief review of current history regarding education, how Japanese education is organized and conducted, Japan's continued high TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) scores, concerns and controversies regarding textbook censorship, and problems with bullying ("ijime") as an overall reflection of Japanese society. Following the chapter will be a brief 5-question quiz.
Children and Education in Japan
A Brief History
After WWII, Japan sought to catch up economically, scientifically, and technologically with the Western powers of the world and thus structured their educational system in such a way as to meet these goals in as little time as possible. Doing away with a former track system in which students' education was geared toward specifically preparing them for a set career path early in their education (near impossible to change once decided upon), education became available to all Japanese in a seemingly equal and fair manner: advancement through individual standardized testing scores.
These tests, usually consisting solely of multiple choice questions based on factual and memorized information, are used primarily for placement of children into senior high schools as well as universities, though some private elementary schools are known to use them for enrollment as well, testing children as young as 5 and 6 years of age.
The more prestigious the school is, the harder the test, the more students competing to get accepted, and the more difficult it is for any one of them to gain entrance. Some students wishing to seek an advantage over their peers may attend cram school ("juku") in the evenings several times a week in addition to their normal school schedule. Even without cram school, this can be quite a stressful experience for students as well as a huge letdown if they do not get accepted into their school of choice. Related suicides are not unheard of. Incredible pressure is placed upon children to excel at these tests because their futures vastly depend upon which schools they are allowed to attend.
It is a common policy amongst Japanese corporations when making hiring selections to place an exorbitant amount of importance on the university which their candidates graduated from. The better known and prestigious the university was, the better the candidate's chances are of getting a job with a prestigious company. In fact, some corporations are known for only hiring graduates from select schools. Thus, by not placing a huge emphasis early on in one's educational upbringing, they cannot attend a high school which will adequately prepare them for passing the entrance examination into their college of choice, thus helping to ensure a future career.
Thus, by creating this highly competitive educational system where only those attending certain schools can get the best jobs, it can be questioned as to whether they really eliminated their old track system at all.
In 2002, reforms were enacted in which to combat these gripes, hoping to relieve some of the stress on students' daily school lives as well as to foster a love and enjoyment of learning within them as many Japanese children and adolescents in recent years have become uninterested in school, thus affecting their performance. Among the most noticeable changes, the school week was cut from 6 days to 5, 30% of the yearly curriculum was cut, and a new program called IS (Integrated Studies) was created in elementary and junior high schools; a time of study with no text books and no specific subjects to learn except that which the class themselves, small groups within the class, or individual students choose as a topic to study. The effectiveness of these reforms will be discussed in more detail further on.
Before going any further, a brief explanation of the dynamics of the Japanese educational system will be helpful.
Modeling the US education system after WWII, the Japanese created a 6-3-3 program: six years of elementary school (not including preschool or kindergarten), three years of junior high, and three years of senior high. Following this are 2- or 4-year universities. Only elementary and jr. high are compulsory in Japan, however 93% of students enter high school and 95% of those students graduate from high school. Comparatively, in the United States it is only 80%. For those who know they are not college-bound, they can opt to attend a trade-school high school which will prepare them for a job upon graduation. Those choosing to attend a university will choose to attend a high school oriented toward preparing them for the university entrance exams.
In Japan, there is a central governmental department of education known as The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or MEXT. MEXT controls curriculum for both public and private elementary schools and has a strong say as well in the jr. high school curriculum. Senior High Schools are typically run by prefectural boards of education, however the Ministry still has a say in much. For instance, any textbook used in Japanese primary schools must be approved by MEXT first. Thus, they are able to censor just what the youth of Japan learns and believes.  This will be discussed more in depth later.
Typical class sizes in Japan are quite large compared to the standard US class, yet where the US sees large class sizes as a problem, in Japan it is seen as an effective and sought after method. Drawing from my own personal experience in Japan, after joining Dr. Takeshi Ueki, Professor of Anthropology for one of his classes at Tokyo's Kyoritsu University in June of 2009, one of the first things that struck me was the 70+ students in his class. From my own experience in schools within the United States, I had only experienced such numbers in college and university lecture hall classes. When I asked Dr. Ueki if that class were a lecture class and explained to him my surprise, he said that it was not a lecture class (as I had meant it, anyway) and in actuality was one of the smaller classes he was teaching during the semester. He confirmed that such a number is not atypical for many Japanese classes.
Effectiveness of 2002 Reforms
There's no beating around the bush: few teachers or parents like the reforms. Despite the 30% cut in curriculum teachers are finding it extremely difficult to prepare their students adequately enough for entrance exams. Parents feel that their children are not liking school any better nor are they as well prepared for entrance exams as they should be. Even a great deal of students say that new programs such as IS (Integrated Studies) which were designed to help foster a love for learning in them are a waste and take precious time away from their preparation for entrance exams.
The bottom line: With everyone so focused on Entrance Exams, it is difficult if not impossible to make any real changes to the curriculum! Since it is the entrance exams which are the cause of such stress for students, it will only be when they and they and the system surrounding them are reformed that any real progress will be made. Until then, reforms such as those made in 2002 are merely bandages on a wound that needs stitches. Though the IS program seems to be effective enough in elementary school, by the time children reach junior high it becomes near worthless.
IS is a class period designated to a class or group project in elementary school in which the students are encouraged to choose a topic they believe pertinent to current issues such as the environment or economics. No textbook is assigned and instead the students are encouraged to research on their own and submit a paper or project at the end of the class. Little supervision is given by the instructor. In jr. high, the experience changes from the more hands-on approach they experienced in elementary and instead they are now expected to write a research paper. They still must find a topic of their own choosing, however it is rarely seen as fun anymore. Typically, only those students who are thriving anyway do well with jr. high IS. Those who the system wishes to target the most to instill a love for learning continue to flounder.
Teachers, especially those specialized ones of the junior high schools, tend to despise IS as it comes without any guidance from higher up and leaves all the planning to them. Since every student works on a topic of their choosing, it is difficult for a Mathematics major homeroom teacher to help and support a struggling student seeking guidance on his paper regarding deforestation in the Amazon. This removed the teacher from their regular comfort zone in which they are the experts in their field and places them into a field of uncertainty. Many teachers admit that since the grading for IS is obscure and not necessarily required, they instead use the time allotted to work on other subjects in which the students are behind.
Hopefully MEXT will begin to understand that if their goal is to decrease the stress of students then they need to reform the matter which is stressing them. If they wish to instill a sense of love for learning in the youth of their country, they will need to either come up with a different method or better train their teaching staff to deal with it accordingly.
TIMSS Test Scores
Japan continues to excel in international standardized tests, especially in the departments of Mathematics and Science. TIMSS is given every four years and tests fourth and eight graders' Math and Science knowledge. Japan, as with most Asian countries, continues to rank highly. The most current results from the 2007 TIMSS show that among the world's 4th graders, Japan is 4th in both Math and Science knowledge and their 8th graders are 5th in Math and 3rd in Science. Comparatively, the United States 4th graders placed 9th in Math and 8th in Science and the 8th graders placed 10th in Math and 11th in Science. Those differences may not seem too dramatic, however when one looks at the actual variance in scores between the Asian countries and the US, the gap is quite considerable indeed.
As for why Japan does so well, it is speculated that since the Japanese education system focuses so heavily upon preparing students to take standardized tests (entrance exams), they are also able to excel at other similar tests such as the TIMSS.
Textbook Revision and Censorship
Since MEXT, a department of the Japanese government, has the ability to determine which textbooks are permissible for the Japanese primary schools to use, it would stand to good reason that they would choose those books which support their governments' and party's beliefs. This is exactly what is being argued and attacked by many Japanese citizens as well as foreign countries including United States, China, and both Koreas. In terms of history texts, much revision has recently occurred regarding WWII and Japan's aggression, countless war crimes, and atrocities around and during that time.
Some of the largest controversies regard the almost or complete omission from newer texts on the issue of sex slaves, termed "Comfort Women", during WWII. If mention of them does exist in a text, it is very brief, ill detailed, and/or vastly understated.
Likewise, mention of the incident known as "The Rape of Nanking" or the "Nanking Massacre" is being kindly retitled the "Nanking Incident" and the countless atrocities and deaths which took place are either not being mentioned or kindly understated using choice words and phrases.
Amongst other word choice edits are changes of the terms "aggressive," "aggression," and "invasion" when referring to Japan and their past military. So a sentence such as "Japan intensified its invasion of Korea" becomes "Japan intensified its advance into Korea."
Also being understated and forgotten are the Chinese victims of horrible Japanese medical experiments. Issues such as these which the Japanese government have admitted to and have (debatably) apologized for make it seem that MEXT means for the youth of Japan to never to learn about the severity of their country's past mistakes, if they encourage them to learn about them at all.
Japan, like any nation, needs to portray both sides of the war and not forget their history, no matter how horrible. If these revisions continue to happen, the chances of the past repeating itself only increase. Considering that WWII was mere decades ago and given the many acts of violence perpetrated by Japan and their military, there are many foreign countries, especially those victimized by the Japanese during that time, which are very angry and disturbed by these changes.
"Ijime" is the Japanese word for "bullying" yet the meaning is a bit different than the one typically thought of in Western Europe or the United States. In the West, bullying is generally defined by children as one larger child threatening, taking advantage of, or physically or emotionally abusing one weaker child. The key word to look for in that description was "ONE." Being individualistic societies, this makes sense. However, Japan is a collectivist culture and thus being part of a group and a team player is seen as more important than one's own personal opinions, needs, and desires. Those who don't conform to the standards of the majority, who are seen as "different"--whether it be in a good or bad way--are prone to being victimized by "ijime."
In Japan, bullying is described as being a group vs. one event. A group of those in the "normal" majority will single out and target an individual who, for whatever reason, does not fit in with the group. The forms of attack which these bullies use can vary but physical violence is generally a rare occurrence, though it is not unheard of.
Bullying in Japanese schools gained large public awareness as a problem in the 1980's when an unprecedented number of child and teen suicides plagued the country. The victims generally left notes claiming that due to constant bullying at school they had lost their will to live as their everyday life had become a living hell. Parents, outraged by these deaths, blamed teachers and the education system which supported them for not doing enough to prevent or stop such attacks, yet the teachers claimed that they were unaware of any such goings on or that if they had noticed, they thought that the kids were simply joking around or playing games. Since bullying such as it is today was very rare in post-war Japan, and given that the Japanese have a belief that meddling too much in the affairs of children will hamper their growth into responsible adults, it is easy for teachers and parents alike to remain blind to subtle acts of hate, violence, and aggression which, over time, can chip away at a victim's overall well-being. Sometimes the victim becomes so hopeless that they resort to drastic means of escape such as suicide.
Forms of bullying by Japanese students tend to be primarily relational, using indirect aggression tactics such as spreading rumors about or ignoring the targeted child. Other tactics include theft or defacement of their property (i.e. shoes, backpacks, books) or forcing the victim to perform an illegal or embarrassing act by means of either force or threat of force, then capturing the deed on photo or video and using the evidence as blackmail against the victim. The blackmailed victim is then forced to perform other unwanted deeds for their bullies such as homework, chores, stealing for the bullies, or even being physically violent against other victims of the bullies. If caught, the original bullies are hard to blame since they never actually got their hands dirty, and the caught victim is usually unwilling to explain the true situation out of fear that the blackmail material will be released to their peers, school faculty, or families.
Attempting to take some ownership of the bullying problem, MEXT has attempted to implement measures to decrease its occurrences, however thus far they have been relatively unsuccessful, if not outright ineffective. It has been pointed out that since the bullying behavior is so prevalent in their own society it is hard to stop the kids when they are merely imitating what they see corporate CEOs and politicians do every time there is a scandal: pretend to be unaware of any wrong-doing and then mysteriously find that a secretary or other underling was responsible for whatever they are being accused of, letting them take the fall instead.
With over 80% of students in schools being exposed to "ijime" either as a bully, a victim, or a witness by the junior high level, it is undeniable that there is a serious problem in Japan, extending outward to their society at large. In this "survival of the fittest" society, it does not pay to be different.
Japan, a world leader in international test scoring, and an education system envied in many countries, is not without its flaws. Despite attempts at reform, Japanese students are increasingly becoming disinterested in school. From the moment they are born, the students who stand the best chance at being successful are the ones whose parents send them to private preschools in which they will gain instruction on how to pass the entrance exam to a prestigious elementary school which will prepare them to pass the entrance exam into their junior high of choice, onward to their high school and eventually their university of choice. All of this will hopefully allow them the opportunity to be hired by their corporation of choice so they will be able to live a happy and productive adult life and be able to take care of their own children and aging parents. However, such stresses are unhealthy for anyone, and knowing this system as a small child and growing up with it can and has led some to the breaking point.
Japan's centralized education system has stated that they wish to reform their curriculum in order to instill a sense of love of education in their country's youth in order to provide young adults with the abilities to compete in the global market, however by controlling so strictly what they learn and editing textbooks, it has been argued as to whether they are practicing what they preach.
With all of the stresses the children of Japan experience with regard to studying, succeeding on tests, and conforming to group and societal standards with little direct guidance from adults, bullying has become prevalent and almost an accepted and excepted act.
Should the Japanese education system wish to change such as MEXT has stated, drastic measures must be taken.
1) The Japanese education system is a _____ model.
- A) 5-3-4
- B) 6-3-3
- C) 6-2-4
- D) 5-3-4
2) According to the 2007 TIMSS test scores, Japan's 4th grades ranked _____ in Science whereas the US ranked _____.
- A) 4th; 9th
- B) 5th; 10th
- C) 4th; 8th
- D) 5th; 11th
3) _____% of Japanese students attend high school and _____% of those students graduate.
- A) 95; 93
- B) 99; 95
- C) 95; 99
- D) 93; 95
4) Explain the difference between bullying in Japan vs. Western countries.
5) Why is there so much stress surrounding the entrance examination process for students?
- Berman, David M. (1987). Educational Reform in Postwar Japan: A Case Study of the High School Entrance Examination in Chiba Prefecture. Retrieved May 16, 2009.
- Japanese Education. Japanese Education and Literacy: Japan's Educational History, Schools and Curricula, Issues in Education (2000). Retrieved 28 June, 2009.
- ERIC Development Team (2001). Japanese Education in Grades K-12. ERIC Digest.
- Education Japan. Japan Guide: Japanese Education System (2001). Retrieved 28 June 2009.
- Bjork, Christopher (2009). Local implementation of Japan's Integrated Studies reform: a preliminary analysis of efforts to decentralise the curriculum. Comparative Education, 45(1), 23-44.
- Highlights from TIMSS 2007. Highlights from TIMSS 2007: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context (2008). Retrieved 28 June 2009.
- History Textbooks. Tawaea, Yoshifumi. Junior High School History Textbooks: Whither "Comfort Women" and the "Nanking Massacre"? (2001). Retreived 28 June, 2009.
- Maeda, Rie (1999). Ijime: An Exploratory Study of a Collective Form of Bullying among Japanese Students.
- Kobayashi, Futoshi (1999). Bullying in Japanese Schools.