Something's Strange: (Special Needs) Education in Japan - Director's Blog



TOP > Director's Blog > Something's Strange: (Special Needs) Education in Japan

Director's Blog

Something's Strange: (Special Needs) Education in Japan


In the world of medicine and medical care, which is my specialization, two catchwords have become popular in recent years. The first is EBM, or evidence-based medicine, which refers to treatment that is not simply based on what one doctor prefers to use, but rather a method that is supported by scientific fact-based evidence. The other is tailored medicine which is a method of treatment that is "tailored" or made to suit the particular individual and his or her characteristics. It is known that the same anti-cancer drug can have different results or side-effects depending on the patient, but laboratory procedures, etc., have been developed to calculate the risk in advance, and tailored medicine is one typical example.

At a meeting of the Japan Ad Hoc Council on Education in 1985 to set guidelines for education in Japan, a policy was drawn up that emphasized the importance of respecting and valuing the individuality of each person in education. The first section entitled "Basic Policy of Educational Reform" begins with Section 1 entitled "Principle of Respect for Individuality." It declares that "respect for individuality is a basic principle of the educational reforms, and it must be reflected in all areas of education including content, methods, systems, and policies in order to undertake the fundamental reform of education."

After the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in Japan announced its policy of "reasonable accommodation" for children with disabilities. On its website, the Ministry defines "reasonable accommodation" as decisions that are made with consideration given to the condition, educational needs, etc., of each individual. This is also in line with policies that respect the particular nature (individuality) of the child's disability.

So, is the individuality of each child really valued and respected in the classroom? I have the feeling that the classroom has not caught up with the policy of the Ministry. Let me relate an experience that I had recently.

One male student with high functioning autism wished to enter a Japanese school abroad and made an inquiry. This is the reply that he received from the principal: "In principle, education in this school is given in group lessons. This means that all the students learn the same content at the same speed. As it appears that you will not be able to progress at the same speed together in groups, we will not be able to accept you at this school." (Note: At his previous school, the student had the support of a care worker.)

Furthermore, when one of my child patients with hyperactivity disorder was reluctant to attend school, I asked if the student could be allowed some flexibility regarding the time to arrive at school. The teacher, however, replied "I can't give that student special treatment. That student should attend a special class for children for truant children who refuse to attend school." The child felt rejected by the school and had a temporary panic attack.

And there was a boy who was highly intelligent with a hyperactive tendency--someone you might call "a gifted child." The school offered a variety of hands-on learning programs ranging from making things to social studies field trips, and the boy chose shigin, chanted traditional Japanese or Chinese poetry, but because he was the only one to make that choice, the school suddenly decided to cancel the selection. The boy was dejected and his parents couldn't bear to see him that way so they asked the school if something could be done, but the answer was "We cannot give special treatment only to your son."

Among the children I see with developmental disorders, a number of them have received negative replies from the school telling them "we cannot provide special treatment." Are these decisions in line with the stated policies to respect and provide reasonable accommodation?

Does this mean that the idea of tailored medicine made to fit the individual is becoming common sense in the medical field, but not in education? I am inclined to say that something is strange not only in the field of special education, but also in the field of general education in Japan. Doesn't the practice of valuing individuality mean that we give each person "special treatment"?

sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.