The Orientation of Japanese Education

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Does the long tradition of Japanese learners cleaning their own schools prove the Japanese educational system is much more community oriented rather than being self-oriented?

It is true that in Japan learners are responsible for cleaning the classrooms and rest of school. It is also true of Korea and China.

As far as Japan goes, this provokes two responses from me. First, the Japanese education system is more a reflection of the state and its designs for the wider Japanese society. Second, there is an ethos held in Japanese society, a reflection of oneness and conformity more so than community. A familiar refrain in Japan is detteiru kugi wa utareru(the nail that sticks out will be hammered in). In Japanese schools conformity is coerced by, for example, requiring the wearing of school uniforms, rules that stipulate length of hair, color of hair, prohibitions on wearing make-up and jewelry. Self-expression and diversity are marginalized.

Is this all bad? Socioeconomic disparities tend to be masked by such measures. This creates an illusion of socioeconomic oneness.

Another illusion is that Japan differs from other societies in the proportion of Japanese identifying as middle class, usually given as 90 percent. Such a professed view is criticized for bias in how surveys are conducted and interpreted. Using similar methodologies, Japan is found to differ little from other industrial societies.1

Another illusion is that the Japanese form a monoethnic society. There is a great deal of homogeneity, and it has led to Japanese identifying themselves as nihonjin (Japanese people) and non-Japanese as outsiders, gaijin. Gaijin also translates as foreigner, but literally it translates as “outside person,” and in common usage this holds. For instance, Japanese who are abroad, and hence foreigners, will still refer to the citizens of their host country as gaijin.

Nevertheless, even within Japanese society there are schisms beyond Japanese and gaijin. For example, there are stories told of prejudice faced in Japan by mixed-blood Japanese and even pure-blood Japanese who were raised outside of Japan. Particularly egregious is the case of Japan-born descendents of Korean slave laborers brought to Japan to serve Japanese imperialism who still find themselves subject to racism in Japan. The indigenous Ainu struggled until 2008 to be recognized in Japan.

A topic shunned in Japan is the prejudice shown to burakumin. Burakumin are the descendents of people who engaged in occupations considered unclean.2

Of course all this reflects a general, superficial overview of views held by a segment of society which to some degree is reflected within the education system. Consider the ongoing history textbook controversies in Japan. Japan as an aggressor country during World War II has never come clean about its war crimes, thus it guards the government historical narrative within Japan to the ire of the nations it victimized.3 The controversy shows no signs of abating soon.4

There is much to like about the Japanese education system. I like that no one fails; I like that sensei (teachers) are respected; I like that learning is valued and cooperative learning strategies are encouraged; I like that schools provide affordable lunches and dinners because no child should be hungry. I like that elementary and middle school education is tuition-free.

However, after middle school education becomes a competition. There are high school entrance exams –juken jigoku, examination hell. Free time is cut into as youth go to juku, cram schools, to  prepare for the exams. After high school there are university entrance exams. As with high schools, the universities in Japan are ranked in a hierarchy. Job placement after graduating from university is based upon which university one graduated from rather than what one learned or even the extent of one’s learning.

Consequently, rote learning is the focus. Know the facts to succeed on the entrance tests, the connections among facts is secondary. This leads some to be concerned for the development of critical thinking skills in Japan.5

David Rear, currently a faculty member in the economics department of Nihon University,  sees critical thinking as posing a quandary for Japan:

On the one hand, independent and nonconformist thinkers may open a path to innovation and creativity, vital for economies in the modern post-capitalist world. On the other hand, they may seek to use their skills in opposition to established authorities, leading to social dislocation or organisational disharmony. Thus, educational systems (and societies themselves) often seek to thread a line between the two: that is, to permit frank and open debate on some issues while strongly discouraging it on others.6

It is a curious conclusion. An open mind and openness to information and opposing views is a sine qua non to critical thinking, and critical thinkers would surely concur. A so-called educational system that would attempt to control the inflow of information and manage the discourse exhibits authoritarianism. This would more accurately be termed a doctrinaire system.

Authoritarianism is still very much in existence in modern Japan. For example, although corporal punishment is illegal in Japan, it is still practiced.7

Robert Stuart Yoder, an instructor at the Japan Branch of Lakeland College in Tokyo was unequivocal in his assessment:

Schools are hierarchical and authoritarian, a chain of command that begins at the prime Minister’s office and flows downward to the Ministry of Education, then to school authorities at the prefectural level, next to the school principals and then finally to the ranks of teachers…. The purpose of education is to both comply with state objectives and adapt to the local educational and socioeconomic needs of students and the community.8

Radical pedagogy, however, identifies authoritarianism as anathema to learning.9

So, yes, the learners do clean their schools, although in my experience the level of hygiene is often lacking. And the learners even exchange their outdoor footwear for indoor sandals when inside the school building.

One should not deal in absolutes when discussing people. In Japan the system is geared toward uniformity. Many Japanese do bend and conform, nevertheless, among the Japanese there is a panoply of expressionism.

Critical thinking is a buzzword within western educational circles. There is a movement opposed to standardized testing. Diversity is openly embraced. That might seem to differentiate western education from Japanese education. But does it really on an emphatic level?

What then is the orientation of the Japanese education system? This writer sees the orientation, just like in much of the West, as determined by control. Control is intrinsically hierarchical. In the nation state, control resides with the government. Elitist persons in government, those who exert influence and wield power, will determine the orientation that emanates from the state apparatus down to the schools and ripples throughout society.

Nonetheless, there are always some people that question the state and its directives, and fortunately for society, there are always some people who will forge another way. This bodes well in the long run for society.

As for a fruitful orientation for education, I submit that American polymath John Dewey identified that a long time ago:

The business of the educator—whether parent or teacher—is to see to it that the greatest possible number of ideas acquired by children and youth are acquired in such a vital way that they become moving ideas, motive-forces in guidance of conduct. This demand and this opportunity make the moral purpose universal and dominant in all instruction—whatsoever the topic.10

  • First published at American Herald Tribune.
    1. See Kenji Hashimoto, Class Structure in Contemporary Japan, Trans Pacific Press, 2003, p. 27-33. []
    2. See Ian Priestley, “Breaking the silence on burakumin,” Japan Times, 20 January 2009. []
    3. An informative, concise overview is provided Yoshiko Nozaki and Mark Selden, “Japanese Textbook Controversies, Nationalism, and Historical Memory: Intra- and Inter-national Conflicts,” Asia-Pacific Journal, 15 June 2009. []
    4. Mina Pollmann, “Why Japan’s Textbook Controversy Is Getting Worse,” The Diplomat, 8 April 2015. []
    5. 絶滅の危機に瀕するクリティカル・シンキング [“Critical Thinking Endangered”], SEO Japan, 1 August 2012. []
    6. David Rear, “Critical Thinking and Modern Japan: Conflict in the Discourse of Government and Business,” electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies, 4 March 2008. []
    7. See “Corporal Punishment Getting Punished in Japan; Don’t throw pens at the kids!” Japan Subculture Research Center, 15 March 2013. []
    8. Robert Stuart Yoder, Deviance and Inequality in Japan: Japanese Youth and Foreign Migrants, Policy Press, 2011, p. 28. []
    9. See Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Delacourt Press, 1969; Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, continuum, 1970, 2000; and psychologist Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Students for Life, Bantam Books, 2013. []
    10. John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909, location 92. []
    Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.