Recently, my son ran an 800-meter “marathon” at his local elementary school. He received a congratulatory “certificate of achievement” noting his participation and the fact he placed 79th. He has come to dread this annual ritual. It is damaging his fragile self-esteem and emerging identity by blatantly focusing on his physical condition. While students cheer him on at the finish line, inside he is hurting.
Many of my university students have shared in this humiliation — one indicated the marathon was her worst memory of kindergarten! While proponents argue it builds character and is a motivator for improving physical fitness, most educators agree such methods are questionable in their efficacy. Thus, I hope my students, many of whom plan to become teachers, will lobby to abandon this practice.
Nevertheless, school marathons continue throughout Japan and are a long-standing tradition. They won’t disappear without controversy. Like undokai (sports day), it takes on Olympic proportions, involving the entire school, and is widely attended by parents wielding their video cameras, cheering their children on to victory. However, unlike undokai, the focus appears to be on winning rather than participation and physical fitness.
What is the purpose of the marathon? According to the ministry of education, policy goals of physical education include “achieving a society that is active in sports throughout life by giving everybody the opportunity to engage in sport anywhere, anytime and forever, regardless of physical strength, age, capability, interest and purpose.” But the marathon doesn’t achieve these goals. Rather, it further alienates the physically challenged or average students, while glorifying the few winners. Why rank students? Wouldn’t it be much better to have students run in heats with others of similar qualifying times? Then individuals could compete against themselves and aim to improve their personal best.
Are public displays of ranking of students done in other subjects? Imagine, if you will, an English essay competition where all students are ranked and those ranks clearly posted. My bilingual and highly literate son would easily come first — others wouldn’t stand a chance. That is unethical and unfair, you say! Well, it is analogous to the marathon race. Furthermore, this is also painfully similar to the race to enter the best universities, the ranking of institutions and applicants, and the posting of entrance exam results.
Throughout the world, there is a perceived crisis of “falling behind” as international achievement tests become standardized measures of success. Teachers are increasingly under pressure to cover “core” content at the expense of global citizenship education and social issues. Teaching to the test is becoming more common at all grade levels. But teachers should look beyond the curriculum to gain a broader international perspective and to achieve a deeper cross-cultural understanding of our niche within the global village.
Finally, wealthy parents send their children to the best juku (cram schools) from an early age, giving their children an unprecedented edge. The super-elites literally buy a spot for their children into the best universities, bypassing university entrance exams.
The Japanese education system is in effect helping to reproduce socioeconomic inequities. But isn’t Japan supposedly a meritocratic country built on social mobility and principles of equality? Unfortunately, high-stakes testing and marathons perpetuate the class discrepancies and systemic inequalities within Japanese society. It’s time to change these traditions. Who is up to the challenge of educational reform?
Submissions to Hotline to Nagatacho should address issues that affect your life in Japan or be in response to government policies. Please imagine you are actually writing to a government official — be it a local school board head or the prime minister himself — to bring attention to an important matter. Send submissions of between 500 and 700 words to email@example.com