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The Potential of Education in Japan


1999 is about to come to an end. For me, this final year of the millennium has been one during which I have been absorbed in "problems of declining academic standards." I have written and spoken at various meetings concerning these problems, and very often I am asked, "why do you now treat the decline in academic achievement as a problem?" Often, I answer, "Because carrying out reforms without data on academic achievement is a problem." But why is it a problem if children do not adequately acquire the "zest of life" or if basic, fundamental academic ability is neglected? I did not always convey my personal opinions deeply enough on these issues.

At the risk of being slightly abrupt, the starting point of my own theory is the question of how the recent history of Japan as a nation-state is being perceived. Following the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese state was the earliest of the non-Western countries to become "modernized." In addition to the disadvantages of being a developing country, various "harmful side effects" accompanied the process of pursuing modernization at a frantic pace. There was aggression towards various Asian countries, war, and militaristic oppression. Then, after the Second World War, there was environmental pollution and the destruction of nature as a result of the high economic growth, and the era of "overwork," where the word "karoshi" (death from exhaustion) entered foreign languages without translation. No doubt there are many other problems that I could offer as examples of "harmful side effects." We have come through our past grappling with these problems--some of which have been solved, and some unsolved--up until the present. Our present is built upon this historical heritage.

As members of the nation-state of Japan that was late in developing, and yet strived toward modernization as an entire country, what can we learn from these harmful side effects, and what can we teach to the people of other countries especially many which are undeveloped like Japan was, and caught up in the race towards modernization? In so far as we must live in the nation-state, it is now the responsibility of the Japanese people to deepen understanding of the harmful side effects suffered by a country late to modernize, to put this understanding definitively into words, and share it across our borders. For this purpose, knowledge of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities must be utilized, and as much as possible "intellectual reflection" must occur. This "intellectual reflection" will no doubt become a major key to the solutions of the problems of the next millennium also.

With such an idea in mind, education that emphasizes "yutori" or "flexibility", no matter what its intentions, ultimately seems very much like a suddenly-affluent "nouveau riche" person allowing his children to run wild. As long as "intellectual reflection" is lacking about the costs that have been paid for by the process that created wealth, there is the danger that this wealth will end up simply being taken for granted.

In order for what I call intellectual reflection to take place in adequate measure, it would be desirable if, alongside broad knowledge of nature, history, society, science, technology, and human beings, we could also add the ability to think profoundly about problems (we might well call it cultivation). However, as I have mentioned in this column before, this is exactly opposite of the intentions of the current progressive educational reforms, and proper cultivation of this ability would be unthinkable.

However, the amount of money spent in Japan in a year on education from kindergarten to graduate school is some 25 trillion yen. If we calculate what is spent in one year from kindergarten to graduate school per student, it comes out to 1,200,000 yen. There are some 190 countries in the modern world, only about 30 whose per capita gross domestic product exceeds 1,200,000 yen. That is, the amount of money that is spent on educating a single pupil in Japan is greater than the per capita wealth of most of the world's countries.

Viewed in this way, what can one think about education in the "prosperous nation" of Japan? Is it enough to let Japanese children lead an "enjoyable school life" in the name of "flexibility"? Or can we not suppose that the potential of Japanese education is something that is much, much greater?

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. The Potential of Education in Japan (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 248 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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