In-depth Japan’s Drifting Education System
University Reform and the New Basic Act on Education

Yūki Akio [Profile]

[2012.04.24] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

Yūki Akio, a civil service veteran with a scientific background, introduces the reform initiatives he has promoted since becoming president of a national university. He also discusses issues in elementary and secondary education, calling for a renewed focus on “education of the heart.”

National Universities Gain a Degree of Autonomy

A major problem with Japanese universities these days is the decline in their international competitiveness, as has been noted by many informed observers. Even the top institutions like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are dropping in the international rankings. Another source of concern is the increasingly inward-looking posture of Japanese students, reflected in the declining numbers of those heading overseas to study.

We need not be overly concerned about the short-term ups and downs in international rankings, but I will say that when I visit universities in places like China and Singapore, I am struck by their energy levels, which are quite unlike what we see in Japan. Japanese universities, especially the national ones, have been subjected to ongoing budget cuts, partly because the government is in severe financial straits. I am serving as president of Yamagata University, one of Japan’s regional national universities, and it is my job to find ways of energizing an institution such as ours. Here I would like to explain how I have been working to reform the university since assuming my current post four years ago.

In 2004 Japan’s national universities were all incorporated, becoming “national university corporations,” a form of organization similar to that of incorporated administrative agencies. Up to that time, the universities had been integral organs of the government. As such, they were unable to undertake major innovations even if they wanted to. And the status of their faculty members as civil servants involved various restraints.

The incorporation of the national universities and elimination of faculty members’ status as civil servants resulted in greater freedom to maneuver. Now these universities can implement original ideas as long as their president displays leadership and their faculty members are able to change their mind-sets. In my own case, I took on the presidency of Yamagata University with the idea that I could exercise leadership based on my many years of experience in the national government, including service as the administrative vice-minister (senior civil servant) directing the extensive Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).

As university president, I began by addressing two tasks: speeding up the university’s decision-making process and simplifying its office procedures. The process of reaching a decision at a university often takes more time than at a government agency or private corporation. This is probably a result of the customary approach of carefully heeding the opinions of everyone present at meetings, discussing the matter at hand exhaustively to build a consensus, and not making a final decision in principle unless unanimous consent can be achieved. This approach is highly democratic, but it is liable to leave universities unable to keep pace with the times.

Setting aside issues requiring extensive discussion, such as the university’s overall educational policy, I felt that for matters requiring prompt action the president should make decisions and then assume responsibility for them. In addition, I reduced the number of meetings and rigorously sought to ensure that meetings held arrived at a conclusion within their allotted time. The number of meetings is now down to about half of what it was before I took office.

Spotlight on Fundamental Education

One specific accomplishment on the educational front at Yamagata University worth mentioning here is the introduction of “fundamental education” (kiban kyōiku). Starting with students admitted in the 2010 academic year, we implemented a new system to address the decline in the level of general education—a problem widely noted in Japan alongside the fall in the global competitiveness of its universities.

Naturally, a university must offer specialized education at an advanced level. The faculty of engineering, for instance, needs to produce graduates capable of working as engineers, just as the faculty of medicine has to prepare students to pass the national examination for qualification as medical doctors. But the role of the university does not stop there. Our graduates, regardless of the career paths they pursue, need to have basic abilities as human beings and a character fostered by a rich liberal arts education. The task of the university’s general education program is to ensure that students acquire these essentials. But many universities have paid little attention to this facet of education.

The previous approach to general education at Yamagata University was to have students choose from a curriculum of about 700 courses. You could say it was like a restaurant with only an a la carte menu. This approach had the advantage of flexibility, offering students many options, but the downside was that they tended to pick courses promising easy credits or ones on subjects they happened to be interested in. And faculty members, in deciding what subjects to offer, seemed to gravitate toward subjects they were good at or that were easy for them to teach.

General education, properly speaking, does not consist of the courses that faculty members want to teach but rather the material that the university thinks students need to learn. Our “fundamental education” program was so named because its aim is to serve as the foundation not just for the four years of undergraduate learning and further studies in graduate school, but also for lifelong education.

In designing this fundamental education program, we reconsidered our compulsory subjects and regrouped them into five categories. For our curriculum, we also switched from the “a la carte” approach to what might be called a nutritionally balanced “set meal” approach. This program has attracted the attention of other universities, as reflected in a recent survey of university presidents in which Yamagata University ranked sixth nationwide and first among national universities in response to the question: “Which university [other than your own] are you watching most closely with respect to education?”

Nationwide Ranking of Universities Based on University Presidents’ Assessments

Survey question: “Which university [other than your own] are you watching most closely with respect to education?”

1 Kanazawa Institute of Technology
2 International Christian University
3 Akita International University
4 J. F. Oberlin University
5 Ritsumeikan University
6 Yamagata University
7 Ehime University
8 Waseda University

Source: Daigaku rankingu (University Rankings), 2012 edition, Shūkan Asahi Shingaku Mook (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun, 2011).

Aiming to Lead the World in Organic Electronics

I also believed that, as a national university, we should have a field in which we could compete at the international level. We decided to focus our efforts and funding on organic electronics research, a field in which we already had a proven track record. I believe we are already at the top in this field within Japan, and we are aiming to become the world’s top research center for this subject. In addition, at the start of the current calendar year we established the Institute for the Regional Innovation in response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. We hope to make this a center for the future development of the Tōhoku region, which includes the areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and of which Yamagata is also a part, through interdisciplinary research on the region’s potential and the implementation of model businesses.

In seeking to build a bright tomorrow for Tōhoku, it is important of course to rebuild its industries, but what I see as the region’s future nucleus is scientific and technological innovation. After the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, Hyōgo Prefecture, which bore the brunt of the damage, emerged as the site for various types of scientific and technological endeavors. The K computer (currently the world’s fastest supercomputer) was built there, as were the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology and the large-scale synchrotron radiation facility SPring-8. These facilities have been producing major results. Advanced science and technology should also be able to serve as a steppingstone for recovery in Tōhoku.

In specific terms, we are aiming to establish a heavy particle radiotherapy facility and a three-gigaelectron-volt synchrotron radiation facility. I am hoping that we can firm up the plans for these two facilities during the remaining two years of my term as university president. Currently in Japan there are only five heavy particle radiotherapy facilities and just two synchrotron radiation facilities, and they are concentrated in the areas of Kantō (greater Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). If we can set up new facilities of this sort in Tōhoku, I am sure that they will act as catalysts for regional recovery and growth.

Problems in the Postwar Approach to Education

As we work to reform universities, we must clearly improve Japan’s elementary and secondary education at the same time.

The fundamental purpose of elementary and secondary education is to foster the balanced growth of children’s minds, hearts, and bodies. This is a universal and timeless imperative. In Japan these three types of education have long been referred to as chiiku (intellectual education), tokuiku (moral education), and taiiku (physical education).

The biggest problem with education in Japan today, I believe, is the lack of tokuiku, or moral education. Much attention is focused on the decline in academic levels, a problem in the area of intellectual education, but there is no reason to be too pessimistic in this regard, considering the fact that Japanese children on average have a high level of academic proficiency. The decline in children’s physical fitness has also been a source of concern for some time, but recently the slide seems to be slowing. The real problem lies in the area of moral education.

The basic legal grounding for Japan’s system of education is provided by the Basic Act on Education, which is supplemented by about 30 other laws stipulating what the children of Japan are to be taught. The original version of the basic law was adopted in 1947, shortly after Japan’s defeat in World War II, and its content was deeply colored by the nature of the times. It was based on the same sort of thinking that went into the postwar Constitution of Japan, adopted around the same time, with a strong emphasis on individual dignity and on personal freedom. It was a total rejection of the prewar thinking grounded in the Imperial Rescript on Education (issued in 1890), which was seen as having driven children toward war with its excessive emphasis on selfless public service and love of country.

As a result of the sharp reaction against the prewar and wartime thinking, the 1947 Basic Law tilted sharply toward the individual at the cost of the “public” or “civic” element. It thus failed to satisfy the crucial requirement of balance between individual rights and duties, and between personal freedom and discipline. The outcome of this was the distorted tendencies of the postwar educational system.

This point is well illustrated by the shift in the handling of moral education. Under the prewar system children had been taught a subject called shūshin, meaning “morals” or “ethics,” but this subject was eliminated from the curriculum in 1946. In 1958, moral education was reintroduced as part of the standard curriculum, and children started having classes on this subject once a week. But it seems to me that these classes did not adequately function as a means of education for the heart. For one thing, some educators and others were opposed to the reintroduction of moral education. There were no textbooks, and the classes were conducted in a homeroom-like atmosphere, involving activities such as reading biographical stories. And for many years the teachers were unable to teach the courses with confidence, since they themselves had never received instruction in this subject.

I believe that this led to what we might call the “collapse of the heart” among postwar children, as seen in their inability to cope with their own troubles, their thinking without a consistent core, and their lack of emotional moorings. It is probably also at the root of problems like bullying, truancy, and the collapse of classroom order. These issues have their origin in the neglect of “education of the heart” since the time that the parents of today’s schoolchildren were themselves students. If we hope to stave off an overall collapse of Japanese society I earnestly believe that we must correct the imbalanced approach of the past 60 years in Japanese education and reestablish “education of the heart.”

The New Basic Act on Education: A Revival of “Education of the Heart”?

Over the years, as awareness of this set of issues spread, there was increased debate over how to deal with them. After considerable discussion in forums like the Ad Hoc Council on Education (established by Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro in 1984) and the National Commission on Educational Reform (set up under Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō in 2000), a completely redrafted version of the Basic Act on Education was enacted in December 2006.

The biggest single change in the new basic act is in its definition of the objectives of education, contained in Article 2. These include references to “public spirit” and to “a spirit of autonomy [in other words, self-discipline],” items not seen in the previous version of the law.

The portion that took the most time to agree upon was this one: “to foster an attitude to respect our traditions and culture, love the country and region that nurtured them, together with respect for other countries and a desire to contribute to world peace and the development of the international community.” The phrasing of the reference to love of country was an issue on which many opinions were expressed, but I believe that the final result was a balanced wording to which nobody can take exception. And the provisions were also carefully crafted to express the balance to which I referred above between public and private, and between freedom and discipline. I was involved in the drafting process as the administrative vice-minister of MEXT, so I know that this wording is the fruit of the tremendous efforts made by national legislators, academic experts, and civil servants. What comes next will depend on how this law is implemented in the classrooms on the front lines of the educational system.

Objectives of Education Under the Revised Basic Act on Education

Article 2. To realize the aforementioned aims, education shall be carried out in such a way as to achieve the following objectives, while respecting academic freedom:

(1) to foster an attitude to acquire wide-ranging knowledge and culture, and to seek the truth, cultivate a rich sensibility and sense of morality, while developing a healthy body.

(2) to develop the abilities of individuals while respecting their value; cultivate their creativity; foster a spirit of autonomy and independence; and foster an attitude to value labor while emphasizing the connections with career and practical life.

(3) to foster an attitude to value justice, responsibility, equality between men and women, mutual respect and cooperation, and actively contribute, in the public spirit, to the building and development of society.

(4) to foster an attitude to respect life, care for nature, and contribute to the protection of the environment.

(5) to foster an attitude to respect our traditions and culture, love the country and region that nurtured them, together with respect for other countries and a desire to contribute to world peace and the development of the international community.

Note: Underlining marks newly added portions.
Source: Provisional English translation from MEXT website.

Putting the New Philosophy into Practice

In 2007, the year after the new Basic Act on Education was adopted, the School Education Act and two other laws relating to education were revised. There was also a revision of the Courses of Study, the curriculum standards specifying what content is taught in each particular school year. New textbooks were produced to match the new Courses of Study, and they went through the authorization process. The results of these revisions were implemented in elementary schools in the 2011 academic year, and they will be implemented in junior and senior high schools in the 2012 and 2013 academic years, respectively.

Much of the discussion of the new Courses of Study has focused on the shift away from the earlier yutori kyōiku (“room to grow”) approach of reducing school hours and making the curriculum less rigorous. But what is even more important than this change is the restoration of “education of the heart” as one of the items stressed by the new basic act. It will take considerable time, however, before education actually changes. The process will take place gradually as today’s children, who are just starting to receive the new sort of education, grow up and become teachers and parents themselves. So we must be prepared for a long wait.

Even so, we need not be pessimistic. After the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11 last year, practically every Japanese person felt a desire to do something for the victims, and many people became directly involved as volunteers. In the disaster area almost noone displayed selfish behavior, and the prevalent mood was one of helping those in greater need. It seems to me that the earthquake revealed the goodness at the core of Japanese people’s hearts—goodness that had been hidden during the 60 years spent in the pursuit of economic rationality and efficiency. And it served as evidence that the spirit of mutual aid, kindness, and solidarity that had been cultivated since prehistoric days is still alive. Let us hope that under the new Basic Act on Education these wonderful elements of the Japanese spirit will see further development.

(Originally written in Japanese. Compiled by from an interview with Yūki Akio on March 6, 2012.)

  • [2012.04.24]

President of Yamagata University since September 2007. A native of Yamagata Prefecture, born in 1948. Graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1971 and earned his master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan in 1976. Joined the Science and Technology Agency in 1971. From 2005 to 2007 served as administrative vice-minister of MEXT, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.

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