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21st Century Skills and Learning in Japan: Will Japanese school children be equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

My concerns over the future of Japanese children stemmed from a lecture on "21st Century Skills and Learning" by the technology director of the American school in New Delhi that my 8-year-old son attends. In a room packed with parents from various nations, he explained that the phrase "21st Century Learning" was first reserved for the tech education world, but now it has become the latest buzzword in education. While there is no consensus on what it exactly means, the idea is to prepare today's children to live and work in a rapidly changing world due to globalization and ICT advancement. A set of 21st Century Skills proposed by various individuals or organizations overlaps in large part, ranging from critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and communication to collaboration skills.

A parable in one of the books that the speaker introduced depicts how the concept "21st Century Skills and Learning" caught the world's attention. In an international bestseller, "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," Thomas L. Friedman (2005), American author, notes that his parents used to tell him, "Finish your dinner - people in China and India are starving." But now his advice to his daughters would be, "Finish your homework - People in China and India are starving for your jobs." Then Mr. Friedman emphasizes the importance of doing the right kind of homework for youth to get the right skills to thrive in a "Flat World."

Inspired by the lecture, I attempted to find the equivalent information on Japan, as I assumed that the skills needed for Japanese children would be somewhat different from those of other children because the nation faces a set of domestic and global challenges of its own; foremost, an aging society with a declining young and working population. As it turns out, the Japanese education system is going through two major flip-flop education reforms to cultivate the Japanese version of 21st Century Skills called ikiru-chikara (zest for living) in children, rendering its educational scene in chaos filled with inconsistency and anxiety. I am worried. Will Japanese children be equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

To answer the question, I start with a rundown of the on-going reforms which bred the notion of ikiru-chikara, followed by a discussion of the term and the reforms in light of 21st century skills and learning. I conclude my paper with some suggestions in an attempt to invigorate Japanese education, which has the potential to make a comeback as an exemplary model for 21st Century Learning.

The reforms in progress: how did the Japanese version of 21st Century Skills and Learning emerge?1

Ikiru-chikara (zest for living): the Japanese version of 21st Century Skills
Currently, the Japanese education system is in transition as it goes through the third major education reform2 which has evolved since 1980s with the notion of yutori (pressure-free) education3 to lessen children's pressure from examination hell and cram-style (tsumekomi) education that were blamed for a range of prevailing problems of the time, such as bullying, truancy, dropouts, and school violence. The pivotal initiatives of the third reform concomitant with the Japanese version of 21st Century Skills, "ikiru-chikara (zest for living)," originated in the report by the Ministry of Education (1996),4 "The Japanese Education in the perspective of the 21st century," describing ikiru-chikara as follows:

"We believe that children of today and future need the capacity to identify a problem, learn and think proactively, make judgments autonomously, take action, and find better ways to solve a problem, no matter how society changes; we also encourage them to become well-rounded human-beings who can collaborate with others while controlling one's ego, and have empathy for others as well as a mind that is sensitive yet vibrant. Needless to say, it is imperative to have a healthy and strong body to live robustly."5

The report emphasized the importance of cultivating ikiru-chikara in children in line with the ongoing yutori-oriented education to break away from the conventional cram-style education.

The Yutori Education Reform of 2002: The first trial to foster ikiru-chikara in children
Consequently, a landmark reform known as The Yutori Education took off in 2002, one of the objectives of which included fostering Solid Scholastic Competence (tashikana- gakuryoku). The pivotal changes made in the National Curriculum Guidelines are: reduction in class hours by 20% (e.g., the total number of class hours6 in elementary school decreased from 5,785 to 5,367 and the respective figure for math decreased from 1,011 to 869); reduction in school days to 5 days per week; reduction in curriculum content (quantity of knowledge) by 30% which is reflected in thinner textbooks (e.g., the area formula for a trapezoid is omitted from the 5th graders' math textbook) ; introduction of Integrated Studies7 class from Grade 3 to Grade 12.

Yutori Education and ikiru-chikara, then, become the buzzwords in Japanese education. Note that ikiru-chikara has been commonly equated with part of the above excerpt, "the capacity to identify a problem, learn and think proactively, make judgment autonomously, take action, and find better ways to solve a problem," which is almost equivalent to another coined term "New Perspective on Scholastic Competence (shin-gakuryoku-kan)" proposed by the Ministry in 1989.

Controversies over "The Yutori Education" and "Scholastic Competences"

The Yutori Reform of 2002 had an enormous impact on Japanese society, partly owing to the sensational media coverage blaming yutori education for ruining Japan's academic competitive edge. Furthermore, some cram schools took advantage of the trend and fueled parents' anxiety by posting misleading advertisements such as "No kidding!? Radius x radius x 3 (as opposed to 3.14),8 " or "The future of your children is at risk (because of yutori-education)!"

Concurrently, the 2002 Reform intensified controversies over declining scholastic competence (known as gakuryoku teika ronso) among critics and scholars, primarily due to the plunging performance of Japanese students in two international standardized tests: PISA and TIMSS.9 In particular, the ranking in PISA, known to assess so-called ikiru-chikara, fell from 1st in 2000 to 6th in 2003 (then 10th in 2006) for math literacy and from 8th in 2000 to 14th in 2003 (then 15th in 2006) for reading literacy, igniting another heated debate over the muddling term "Solid Scholastic Competence"(e.g., ikiru-chikara or new perspective on scholastic competence vs. orthodox scholastic competence), and cornering the Ministry to reconsider The Yutori Education as early as 2005.

While deterioration in the overall performance of Japanese students is of concern, the citizenry become equally apprehensive about the collapse of egalitarian education of which the nation once was proud. For instance, the PISA results show a disparity between those students who did well and those who didn't (discrepancy of scholastic aptitude known as gakuryoku kakusa). Since growing unrest over public education has accelerated the number of parents who opt for sending their children to cram schools as well as to private schools, which are free from abiding by the National Curriculum Standards (a phenomenon known as kouritsu banare, or pulling away from public schools), some scholars regard disparity in scholastic aptitude as a byproduct of class society (kakusa-shakai), correlated to the socio-economic backgrounds of the parents.

Upcoming Education Reform: the second trial to foster ikiru-chikara in children
In 2008, the Ministry enacted a revised National Curriculum Guidelines which will be fully in effect from April 2011 for primary schools and 2012 for junior high schools. Many people call this reform "datsu-yutori (breaking away from pressure-free)" education but according to the Ministry, it is neither yutori nor tsumekomi (cram-style), but balanced education, continuing to nurture ikiru-chikara in children. The major characteristic of the revision is "the back to basics," which includes the following: increase in class hours; increase in curriculum content (quantity of knowledge); reduction of class hours for the Integrated Studies; introduction of English activities in elementary schools.

Prior to full launch of the revision, the Ministry has prepared brochures entitled Ikiru-chikara for parents and teachers, attributing a part of the 2002 Reform failure to a lack of understanding on ikiru-chikara among the general public. The brochures reiterate ikiru-chikara as consisting of the three components (Solid Scholastic Competence, Sound Mind, and Sound Body), and explain the Solid Scholastic Competence as follows: The skills to deal with various issues and solve problems through proactive thinking, judgment and communication by applying the acquired basic knowledge and skills. Aspirations for learning are also included in this category.


Ikiru-chikara (zest for living): a philosophical statement without future perspectives
By and large, Japanese discussions on 21st Century Skills or ikiru-chikara are limited to "Scholastic Competence" within the education disciplinary. I believe it is primarily due to the way ikiru-chikara came into play; unlike the US where the notion emerged as a preventive measure for future threats,10 ikiru-chikara popped out as a justification for the notorious The Yutori Education of 2002, because the generic idea behind 21st century skills happens to go hand-in-hand with the concept of yutori education (e.g., fostering individuality). As a result, there is no explanation of how each skill would be needed in specific contexts, making ikiru-chikara more of a philosophical statement.

Apart from the validity of ikiru-chikara, however, Japanese should mull over their version of 21st Century Skills based on an analysis of the future to prepare themselves for the anticipated challenges and opportunities; foremost, the aging society with fewer young and a smaller working and total population necessitates that Japan have a huge number of foreign workers, most of them from or in Asia, to fill jobs (e.g., nurses, elderly-care workers, off-shoring, outsourcing) for the nation to survive and thrive.11

When I attempt to imagine Japanese society in 30 or 50 years, ikiru-chikara leaves me with more questions than answers. What are the implications of these demographic and labour market transformations for children and schools in Japan? What occupations will be available to Japanese native children? Given that most Japanese are not competent in English, can Japan attract the world's best and brightest to come to work or study, or is it only the low-skilled jobs that will be replaced by foreign workers?

Peter Drucker (1999) writes in his book, "Management Challenges for the 21st Century," that one cannot manage change, but change can be led and the future can be made. But what sort of future does the Japanese government envision through education? I can see the virtue of Japanese education in ikiru-chikara, but not a future vision of Japan.

Current education trend: regressing to 20th century education and the real obstacles of the Japanese education
Despite the Ministry's denial, the forthcoming reform resorts to conventional teaching and learning by putting more emphasis on how much to teach/learn as opposed to how to teach/learn. In particular, I am puzzled by the reduction of class hours for the Integrated Studies, since I don't see any other countermeasures (e.g., introducing smaller class size) that can foster children's "quality of learning/knowledge (e.g., self-directed learning)."

To begin with, albeit the shortcomings of 2002 Reform, the two consecutive flip-flop reforms, the latter one merely reversing the former without a full review, do not seem to offer solutions but only confusion and anxiety among the population. Worse still, the policy makers are so worked up to be accountable that they have lost sight of children and teachers, reverting to the test-driven and rigid national curriculums. The Ministry must have forgotten that the genuine validity of on-going reforms, ikiru-chikara in particular, cannot be measured by the paper standardized test but only by how these students play a role as a productive and responsible citizens of the nation and the world in the future.

On second thought, however, I have come to think that it is not tsumekomi (cram-style), yutori, or even balanced education that matters to prepare Japanese children for the 21st century, at least for the moment. What matters is to think beyond the current reform framework to reshape education, as I believe that the real obstacles are embedded in the education structure (e.g., inflexibility, the entrance exam system, top-down decision-making for the matters that directly affect each classroom) and the Ministry's lack of 21st century skills to guide the children and youth toward the future (e.g., inconsistent band-aid policies, ambiguous objectives, lack of assessment capacities, lack of future vision).

In the following, I conclude my paper with suggestions, some of which lead to overcoming the obstacles mentioned above.

Conclusion with suggestions

The Ministry's trials and errors end up throwing the Japanese education scene into a muddle, depriving the citizenry of hope or "can-do" attitudes for the future. Whereas the forthcoming reform doesn't appear to be an effective vehicle to put the nation's education back on track, I believe that Japan has the potential to reinvent its education to be an exemplary model of 21st Century Learning.

Foremost, Japanese education still upholds fundamental virtues inherited from the past. On a positive note, ikiru-chikara continues to value the Japanese holistic approach to education to create a "whole child/person" (i.e., solid academic competencies as well as sound mind and body). In fact, it is imperative to develop a sound mind and body for children to prepare themselves for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Furthermore, the Ministry can turn the challenges facing the nation to educational advantage by reshuffling its resources. For one, the decrease in the number of children makes it easier to realize smaller class-size in response to teachers's outcries, thereby catering to the needs and talents of each student.12 Similarly, to assure that classroom teaching/learning is responsive to the changing environment (e.g., education for non-Japanese speakers), it makes more sense to empower teachers in class management and curriculum development while reducing their administrative tasks which take a high toll on them.13 In turn, the Ministry can put more energy into delivery of uniformly quality teachers instead of quality uniform curriculum. Equally important, the change in the hiring practice of companies coupled with the collapse of life-long employment may increase the pool of talented aspiring teachers, should teaching gain recognition as a prestigious profession.

Better still, albeit Japan's renown as a high-tech country, its schools lag far behind in the use of technology. Since the nation already has the world-class knowledge and skills in content and system development, if done properly, Japanese schools can boost efficacy and create a vibrant and interactive state-of-the-art classroom, elevating the quality of children's learning experiences as well as their motivation for learning. The possibilities are even beyond my imagination.14

So here is my ultimate wake-up call to the Japanese government and its constituents: invest in (and support) education15 and give students the best of what the nation can offer. By orchestrating all the resources (e.g., longstanding practices, new features, cross-sectoral efforts, financial resources), not only will the nation have the potential to make an exemplary education model for the 21st century, but today's children and youth will be equipped to realize another Japanese Miracle, overcoming the demographic challenges of the nation, to thrive in the 21st century.

1 There are a number of academic articles for further information on the recent Japanese education reform in English, including the following: Motani, Y. (2005). Hopes and challenges for progressive educators in Japan: assessment of the 'progressive turn' in the 2002 educational reform. Comparative Education, v41 (3), 309-327: Christopher Bjork, C. & Tsuneyoshi, R. (2005). Education Reform in Japan: Competing Visions for the Future. The Phi Delta Keppan, v86 (8), 619-626.

2 The first reform was during the Meiji Restoration period and the second reform was right after the World War II.

3 Other common translations of "yutori" education are "room to grow," "less pressured," or "relaxed" education.

4 Before 2001, it was the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Science. From 2001, it has become the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Throughout the essay, I use the term the Ministry of Education, or the Ministry to refer to either one.

5 The original document is available at the following Japanese website.

6 In reality, each class hour is 45 minutes not 60 minutes.

7 According to the Ministry, Integrated studies class introduces experimental and problem-solving learning approaches (e.g., experience in nature, real-life experience, field study, observation and investigation) for students to have better understanding of cross-sectional issues such as environment, foreign cultures, public health and social welfare, thereby encouraging children's ability to find an issue, think, judge and solve a problem on their own. For further information, please see the following:

8 It meant to say that the circumference ratio is now taught as 3 not 3.14 in elementary school, which was not quite true. Please refer to the Ministry's response to this topic (in Japanese)

9 PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) is conducted by OECD (The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) to measure how well the students can apply knowledge to solve problems upon completion of compulsory education. TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is conducted by IEA (The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) to measure the conventional math and science aptitudes of the 4th graders and the 8th graders.

10 For instance, the US Secretary of Labor appointed a commission in 1990 to determine the skills that US young people need to succeed in the world of work. The SCANS (the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) Report for America 2000, titled "What work requires of school" is available at

11 The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts that Japanese total population will decline from 127.40 million in 2009 to 89.93 million in 2055; the corresponding productive population (15-64); from 81.64 million (64.1% of the total population) to 45.95 million (51.1%); people aged 65, however, increase 28.99 million (22.8%) to 36.45 million (40.5%).

12 A recent study shows that the teachers prefer to have a smaller class size.

13 Japanese schools generally have only few non-teaching personnel. Hence, teachers cover extensive administrative tasks.

14 Please refer to the following CSR initiatives of Intel and IBM to get some idea of what I envision. Intel Education initiative: IBM Corporate citizenship and Corporate Affairs

15 According to OECD (2009), Japan had the second-lowest expenditure on education in 2006 among the 28 member states of OECD in terms of state spending to gross domestic product.


Teruko Kagohashi

Teruko Kagohashi is a Transcultural Education/Parenting Consultant who has extensive overseas studying and/or working experiences, including Japan, the United States, Germany, Australia, Bolivia and India. She currently resides with her husband and a son (elementary school age) in New Delhi, India. She has a dual master’s degree from the Teachers College and the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University in New York.
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