Japan Facing Mixed Future on Education Policy


Education policy makers in Japan are undergoing something of an identity crisis as the country is in the process of integrating nationalism and cosmopolitanism simultaneously.

Textbooks are being rewritten to be more in line with “patriotism”, but this process is alienating their Asian neighbors, says Michael Fitzpatrick of The New York Times. Yet, policy makers are also promoting Japanese universities as “globalized and open” in order to compete worldwide. Thomas Berger, a professor at Boston University and an expert in Japanese politics, says there is an obvious contradiction between Japan’s shift to the right with its education policies and its moves toward internationalizing.

“Japanese textbook policy is increasing tensions with Asia, undermining the willingness of Japanese to study in neighboring countries and of foreigners to come to Japan,” Prof. Berger said. “Education policy is caught on the horns of a dilemma: On the one hand, there are powerful economic and political pressures that favor internationalization — yet, in reality, Japan has been moving in the opposite direction.”

Japan’s conservatives returned to power last year with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose agenda was to “recast wartime history with a less apologetic tone”. Instead of casting Japan as an aggressor in World War II, that material has been replaced with more “patriotic” material. As an example, new state-sanctioned textbooks diminish the death toll of the Nanjing massacre in China, which they now refer to as an “incident”.

For the most part, Japan’s education boards are accepting the changes, with one of the first to adopt the new texts being Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city.

At the same time, Mr. Abe wants ten Japanese universities to rank among the world’s top 100 institutions and be more competitive globally. Only the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University make the cut now.

There is also a push to improve relationships with the very countries that the new textbooks have vexed: the US, China, and South Korea. China and Japan, since the tampering with  history textbooks and education began, along with face offs over territorial disputes, are at odds. As a result, the over 50 years of peace between the two countries is being threatened.

“History has positive and negative aspects,” Mr. Hakubun Shimomura,education minister, said in an email. “We believe it is important to teach a balance of the good as well as the bad parts so that children can be proud of and have confidence in our country’s history.”

In April, Abe outlined plans to reform English-language education and expressed a desire to have more Japanese students attending institutions of higher education in other countries and to recruit more foreign students to study in Japan, writes Julian Ryall of Deutsche Welle-Tokyo. Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, says that junior and senior high school teachers will be under pressure to stick closely to what the state tells them to teach.

“So instead of learning about the importance of freedom of speech and independent thinking, as well as developing an international mind-set, the education will become even narrower,” Makoto Watanabe stressed.

In a commentary by Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, for the Japan Times, Sawa proposes three steps to elevate the educational and research standards of Japanese universities, if indeed five of them are to rank among the world’s top 100 by 2020 — still only 50% of Abe’s target.

First, Japan needs to increase the number of professors from other countries. Japan does not pay professors as much as the US and many other countries, so Sawa says universities should recruit older researchers who are near retirement age. Even if they represented only 10% of the teaching staff, research and citations would rise dramatically.

Next, she adds, make teaching at a university an attractive choice of professions. Encourage well-qualified students to pursue a career in teaching. Finally, says Sawa, the education ministry must be warned that its policy of minimizing the  importance of humanities and social sciences must stop.

Japanese and American educators shared information and culture during a visit to several Ann Arbor, MI schools this month, according to Lindsay Knake, reporting for MLive Media. Ann Arbor’s Japanese sister city, Hikone, sent Yuko Watanabe and Masaru Yoshia bearing gifts and questions for Ann Arbor principals and teachers. Three students from Hikone are studying at Forsythe Middle School this year.

The educators discussed technology in education, school choice, the fact that state funding follows a student to the school a student chooses, and visited several classrooms before leaving for a visit to City Hall.

10 23, 2014
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