Japan’s education policy is in a perennial state of disarray. Education from kindergarten to graduate school is subject to constant tinkering reforms by the cumbersomely named Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, or MEXT for short. Each new intervention adds to the mountain of incomprehensible and counterintuitive regulations, and with each reform the quality of education only deteriorates further. It is time to begin questioning the whole raison d’être of Japan’s Ministry of Education.
From “No Pressure” to Mandatory Jūdō
From the 1980s on, the Ministry of Education implemented a series of incremental reforms designed to lighten the load of academic study and shift the emphasis from rote memorization to creativity—a policy known as yutori kyōiku, or “education that gives children room to grow.” By the turn of the millennium, the curriculum had been whittled down to the extent that students were being taught that the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was “about 3.” And while there is no evidence that this approach did much to increase Japan’s supply of creative talent, it does appear to have produced vast numbers of young people disturbed by their own ignorance of the world. This generation is now beginning to enter the workforce.
By 2008, the domestic backlash over the declining performance of Japanese children on international tests could no longer be ignored, and the ministry made changes to its “Courses of Study” curriculum guidelines. The appearance of new textbooks notably thicker than their predecessors—introduced into elementary schools in 2011 and middle schools in 2012—promised a return to more rigorous standards. Yet now it seems the government has merely lurched from one brand of foolishness to another. As of the start of the 2012 academic year in April, all Japanese middle school students are required to take classes in martial arts and dance.
The basic options in martial arts are kendō and jūdō, and since kendō requires bamboo swords and protective gear, the vast majority of schools are opting for jūdō. But jūdō, if taught incorrectly, can be not merely dangerous but fatal. When it comes to dance, meanwhile, the schools are showing a marked preference for breakdancing, a popular style of urban dance associated with hip-hop and the low-hanging-pants crowd. On the one hand, we have a physically dangerous combat sport; on the other, a frivolous waste of taxpayers’ money. A lot of Japanese parents must be wondering, “What on earth were they thinking?”
Misguided Moves Toward “Internationalization”
MEXT has also embraced policies designed to increase the number of college courses taught in English and the number of non-Japanese instructors at Japanese universities with the goal of “internationalizing” higher education and attract talented students from overseas. Since the government has dangled generous grants before schools that adopt the new measures, universities are rushing to jump on the bandwagon.
As someone who has taught classes in English at a Japanese university, I can testify to the tragicomic outcome of this strategy. Unless requirements are relaxed significantly, the Japanese students simply drop out, and the only ones who are left are the international students. And often a majority of these are Chinese and Koreans, most of whom would probably have had no problem taking the course in Japanese.
Too many government agencies and officials feel compelled to earn their salaries by fixing what is not broken and adding things we would be better off without. At the same time, they lack the courage to undo the work of their seniors and predecessors. The result is that each reform adds a new layer of policies and regulations without scrapping the old ones. This approach has brought Japanese education to its current sorry state.
The Ministry of Education has never been able to identify and foster the qualities and talents that people will need in contemporary society, and that task has only become more difficult. We need a serious debate on whether Japan really needs the Ministry of Education at all.
(Originally written in Japanese on May 24, 2012.)
Born in 1957. Graduated from the University of Tokyo. Was editor of Nikkei Business before serving as deputy press secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has been a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Princeton, a visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, and a special guest professor at Keiō University, as well as a member of the Nippon.com editorial committee from 2011 to 2013. Publications include Tsūka moyu: En, gen, doru, yūro no dōjidaishi (Currency Drama: A Contemporary History of the Yen, Yuan, Dollar, and Euro).