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Hey bureaucrats, leave those kids — and teachers — alone

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A while back I attended yet another symposium on the ever-popular theme of internationalization in education and employment. It was a high-powered event, with corporate backers, a classy venue and guest speakers flown in from abroad. The place was packed.

One speaker was an executive from one of the top research universities in the United States (and the world). I am working from memory, but he said something like this: “Every month I get visited by a delegation from China. Each one asks the same question: ‘We have $10 billion and want to replicate [name of institution] in China. What should we do?’ I give them all the same response: ‘It’s actually quite easy but you probably can’t do it. Because you have to be willing to invest a lot of money in really talented and creative people and not tell them what to do.’ ”

The speaker was followed by a Japanese bureaucrat who talked about higher education. Again, I am working from memory, but he prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer: “I have never taught at or held a position of responsibility at a university, but in the course of my career I was appointed as vice-principal of a junior high school for three years.”

Perhaps he was just trying to appear humble, but it was hard to listen to anything that followed; the contrast was so depressingly stark, particularly when you consider that he had almost certainly been air-dropped into the vice-principal post from an elite perch at the education ministry, rather than having put in years of service in the trenches of middle school education. Even more depressing was the knowledge that the foreign speaker would jet back to the heady task of funding brilliance while the bureaucrat would soon be back at his desk in Kasumigaseki, doling out modest amounts of money to just about everyone while micro-managing what they did with it.

People often use words to mask their areas of insecurity. If you have ever found yourself at a party trying to politely disengage from someone who insistently describes themselves as “emotionally stable,” it’s probably because their very need to do so suggests they have issues. The late political scientist Samuel Finer noted a comparable phenomenon with political names: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a totalitarian hellhole, and Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is — well, you get the picture. Anyway, once you have seen a certain number of conferences and programs about “excellence,” “globalization” and “innovation,” you start to wonder how deep this particular seam of insecurity runs.

Japan’s government has been flogging various forms of these agendas for rather a while. Yet, according to recent surveys, the number of recent college graduates who want to work abroad or start their own companies has actually decreased. Perhaps no policy can counteract the powerfully rational desire to seek a predictable, safe job (government service being a dependable favorite). Or perhaps the string just needs to be pushed a different way: Maybe a new exam will do the trick. Committee of experts ahoy!

To look at educational policy in action, you can’t help but wonder if insularity and mediocrity might actually be the goal. Not just any mediocrity, mind you, but high-quality, world-class mediocrity that performs well on standardized tests. Everyone says they want to encourage creativity and innovation, but “not telling them what to do” makes it hard to justify your budget if you can’t measure performance through objective, predictive systems that can squeeze the fun and creativity out of just about any learning (or teaching) experience.

I have a bias, of course, having spent the past decade in Japan’s law school system watching ambition, initiative, community service, innovation, creativity, internationalization and just about any other positive-sounding aspirations unintentionally (I hope!) stymied by perverse regulations and the hugely burdensome requirements of the national bar exam.

The bar exam is intended to filter out people who fail to achieve a pre-assumed “correct understanding” of the law. It involves a lot of memorization for the students, and requires all law schools to teach to a government-sponsored set of common curricular goals. This essentially puts the government in the position of telling law schools what is worthy of student attention in subjects such as constitutional and administrative law. Granted, I seem to be the only person who finds this even conceptually problematic, but the requirements of the exam render innovative thinking about law a waste of time for just about everyone involved. Perhaps the whole point is to ensure that anyone likely to challenge the conventional wisdom is branded a failure and kept away from the cockpit.

Anyway, mediocrity may not be all so bad; after all, it’s probably a lot easier to control than excellence and creativity. Encouraging people to have realistic, mediocre ambitions may well be a factor in Japan’s social order, and perhaps even contributed to its past economic success. Americans famously tell their children that anyone can become president but, of course, it’s usually a lie. Most Japanese learn pretty quickly that they are objectively average (just like most people in the world!), with evidence supporting the proposition — over and over through the constant cycle of standardized exams. If you have ever listened to a Japanese parent talk about their child’s prospects — with the child present — you can see how many people might accept their lot from an early age: “Hiroshi will never get into a school like Keio, because he is only getting X on his exam scores.”

As for the “telling them what to do” part of the educational process, that exerts itself long before university. Compulsory schooling has probably always been as much about control as quality. In the past it played a key role in the nation’s unification, modernization, militarization for war and mobilization for achieving the postwar economic miracle.

The Americans administering Japan during the postwar Occupation regarded educational reform as critical to democratizing the defeated nation. They introduced a U.S.-style system of elected school boards. These were easily dominated by vote-mobilizing teachers’ unions and by 1956 were replaced by the current system of more pliable appointed boards at both the municipal and prefectural level.

As often becomes the case with deliberative bodies in Japan, much of the actual control has come to be exercised by the jimukyoku, the bureaucracies that perform the administrative functions of each board. These are staffed by promising young teachers from the top educational faculty of their prefecture’s national university.

While designed around prefectural and local governments, the system has evolved into one that minimizes the autonomy of individual boards. Prefectural governments make personnel decisions about local schools, and the national government has a range of direct and indirect means of imposing policy.

For example, local school boards are supposedly free to choose the textbooks used in their schools. Restricting this freedom involves turning the constitutional right of children to be educated on its head and using it for control: Textbooks must be free, but since they are paid for with tax money, they must also be certified for “quality.” Moreover, it is more economically efficient if as many schools as possible use the same text. Quality and efficiency can thus be used to ensure schools use only a limited range of similar texts.

In 2013 the government ordered the school board of the town of Taketomi in Okinawa to use a right-slanted text it had previously rejected. The rationale was that schools in neighboring towns were using it so they should too. In reality the dispute was about how approved textbooks characterized the conduct of the Japanese military during the Battle of Okinawa, a sensitive subject in the prefecture.

The government also provides detailed curricular guidelines that schools are required to follow. Although not “law,” the Supreme Court in 1990 helpfully found that a teacher’s failure to follow the guidelines was analogous to a breach of law and thus suitable grounds for firing them.

So, students are told what to do by educators who are told what to do by bureaucrats who are told what to do by other bureaucrats: Respect other people’s views; the Constitution is wonderful; eat all your school meals; we need to change the Constitution. Everything is a certain way and much of it will be on the final exams. The multiple-choice questions have only one correct answer but you can be creative on the essay so long as you write it the expected way — the way you learned at cram school.

Somewhere along the line, children and adults alike may rationally conclude that it is just easier to stop asking “Why?” and learn to live with ambient cognitive dissonance: “Why do schools force their students to make human pyramids?”; “Why is it wrong for me to copy-paste big chunks of other people’s work into my Ph.D. thesis?”; “Why does my scientific research institute have so many ex-bureaucrats on its board of directors?”

Stop. Just asking “Why?” all the time can get annoying, and many of those to whom the question is directed may themselves have stopped thinking outside of the comfy, safe box that the system puts them in. How else can they respond except with some unsatisfying variant of “That’s just the way things are”?

Recently leaders have rightly taken to bragging about “Cool Japan” and the global appeal of their nation’s manga and anime. Perhaps they could spend some time reflecting on the likely correlation between the globally acknowledged creativity in such forms of expression and their relative freedom from government control. Such unbridled creativity could help Japan stay ahead in a world where it is becoming harder to compete in areas such as engineering skills and heavy industry.

Unfortunately, creativity may be fundamentally incompatible with the bureaucratic urge to quantify and control. Moreover, despite optimistic talk about innovation, entrepreneurship and recreating Silicon Valley in Japan, the forces behind this creativity-smothering urge will likely grow stronger.

For example, educational laws were recently amended to make individual university faculties weaker in relation to their deans. Supposedly about enhancing top-down innovation, it is a change that renders academia more amenable to centralized control. A proposal has also been floated by the LDP to subject schoolteachers to a national licensing requirement — another exam! Most recently, the government has announced that national universities should start preparing to shrink or even abolish their liberal arts faculties. Nothing innovative comes out of those disciplines, right?

Apparently Japan should have more engineers who can make things such as smartphones and robots. Perhaps the robots will become smart enough that they can take over innovation as well. They will certainly have the advantage of being numb to the relentless accumulation of small, petty, boring, illogical requirements that are such a powerful factor in stifling creativity, not to mention the human spirit itself.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. The views expressed are those of the author alone. Law of the Land appears on the second Monday Community Page of every month. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • montaigne1

    Nice article. As far as me, you’re preaching to the choir.

  • kyushuphil

    Colin P.A. Jones nicely gets the institutional rot.

    He doesn’t, however, mention perspectives from the humanities.

    If teachers felt more free, or more morally impelled, to have students write essays — lots of essays, essays feeding off of each other — they would not be “expressing themselves” so much as getting more insights into and appreciation of each other.

    And if the essays were indeed tools to see more dimensions of those around us, everyone would soon, too, be quoting lyrics from hard rock songs, drivel from girl pop groups, noir novels such as by Miyabe Miyuki and Kirino Natsuo, and essays by Haruki Murakami.

    The failure to quote more widely, more humanly (which affects our Mr. Jones, too) comes from a three-fold assault on Japanese society: 1) the patriarchy, which not only infantilizes women, but, worse, more infantilizes men; 2) the consumerism, which infantilizes all; and 3) the inane, ritualized regimentation of schools, which of course also feeds the infantilizing.

    Essays. Lots of them. Quoting off of each other. Quoting more largely, more widely, for people learning to locate themselves among good other people.

  • Literary Guy

    The problem with this essay is that it is written in the vacuum of assumed superiority by someone who has presumably passed through the halls of education in the US made available to the privileged. For example, the essay begins with a contrast between the “good” speaker from the US, and the “bad” speaker from Japan. In all likelihood, the “good” speaker is from one of those elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale or Columbia that reproduce privilege in the US and typically border slums whose situation they make worse by depriving the local communities of tax revenues. The “creativity” and “innovation” purportedly fostered in such US education seems completely incapable of slowing down the growth of the military-industrial complex, or even good old naked aggression throughout the world. The fact that “No Child Left Behind” is an attempt to instill greater nation-wide testing throughout the nation is never mentioned. If names inadvertently reveal insecurity, how about US boasts of freedom, democracy, equal opportunity and tolerance? Do not these also reveal the contrary–an increasingly paranoid, oligarchic society that sees threats and the need to establish dominance all over the world?

    Is ignorance the main criterion necessary to spout unsupported generalizations about Japan’s education system? How does working at a law school enable the writer to comment comprehensively on how education works at ever level in Japan? Is primary education more rigidly taught than in the grossly unequal schools in the US, which are increasing subject to funding-linked testing, and which are severely segregated with many students never making it through high school?

    I realize that this is an editorial, somewhat in the Maureen-Dowd School of ranting without the need to support statements with research, but still, you would like to see a modicum amount of evidence supporting one or two points.

    Consider the following paragraph, which seems really nothing more than imperialist, ethnocentric blather:
    Anyway, mediocrity may not be all so bad; after all, it’s probably a lot easier to control than excellence and creativity. Encouraging people to have realistic, mediocre ambitions may well be a factor in Japan’s social order, and perhaps even contributed to its past economic success. Americans famously tell their children that anyone can become president but, of course, it’s usually a lie. Most Japanese learn pretty quickly that they are objectively average (just like most people in the world!), with evidence supporting the proposition — over and over through the constant cycle of standardized exams. If you have ever listened to a Japanese parent talk about their child’s prospects — with the child present — you can see how many people might accept their lot from an early age: “Hiroshi will never get into a school like Keio, because he is only getting X on his exam scores.”

    Jones seems to be alluding to the class system, which is again needless to say immensely more rigid in the US. Even the quickest glance at the gini index ranking should prove this beyond dispute, but hey, don’t let facts cloud your stereotypes.

    As we move to the US occupation, we might want to mention that the US heavily suppressed Japan’s teachers as it went into full-scale cold-war mode, doing everything it good to protect and extend the established bureaucratic control. If there is a lack of creativity in Japan, perhaps it should be connected to living in a client state where true attempts at democracy, such as the resistance to the new military base in Henoko, Okinawa, are thwarted in Washington. Those are the bureaucrats and corporate elites we should be targeting.

    In sum, this editorial should please its target readers, foreigners eager to read a condemnation of Japanese education that indirectly supports the superiority of their own educational systems, based on assumptions that their personal educational experiences are somehow typical and not a reflection of comparative advantage. If you believe this essay demonstrates a high level of creativity and exceptional talent, by all means throw in with the author.

  • xperroni

    “enhancing top-down innovation”

    I cannot imagine a person who understands both “top-down” and “innovation” honestly buying that idea.

  • Toolonggone

    Fabulous article. You have every reason to be skeptical about the troupes appeared in the government-led reform policy, such as “creativity,” “innovation,” and “globalization.” Colin is spot-on. Japan is slowly following the US and other western countries as the national government is beginning to chase the rainbow of ‘education-economic growth’ in the illusion of ‘global competition.’ Their sudden announcement of national English language assessment test for junior high school from 2019 just reminds me of US DOE’s endorsement of Common Core Standards in 2009 (and its subsequent disastrous PARCC test) without field test.

  • tisho

    Good luck in the fight against bureaucracy.

  • wind

    Some constructive criticism by NJs of the Japanese educational system may have some place up to a point – depending on whether or not genuinely motivated for the well-being of the country. But when it gets to NJs congratulating each other over knocking the system in its entirety, and getting into drivel such as the country of Toyota, Shinkansen, Nintendo, plenty of cool VR stuff, the Daiba and other neat modern architecture/landscaping,and tons of medical research and technology breakthroughs etc. lacking “innovation”, we’re well into the Theatre of the Absurd. Not to mention the increased unlikelihood that anyone we might want to positively persuade would either pay attention or care.

  • Clickonthewhatnow

    But… the teachers ARE bureaucrats. Rules, baby, rules. And when it doesn’t make sense, if it’s in the rules, do it anyways. Heck, half the students are already bureaucrats. Because the rules say so!

  • zer0_0zor0

    The answer clearly is not a more neoliberal approach, which appears to be the elephant in the article, so to speak.

    Japan’s law schools are dysfunctional because the legal system is dysfunctional. Of course, you can blame the bureaucrats for the fact that the damages in civil suits are too low to enable the system to serve the deterrent function it’s supposed to–and also to provide adequate income for attorneys and enabling litigants to pursue cases and the law to be upheld. The real problem for that, however, is in the neoliberal wealthy class represented by the LDP that don’t want to enable the plebeians to have equal access to the legal system, because that would subject the LDP oligarchs to being held to account by the judiciary, and weaken their power in a corrupt system of crony capitalism.

    Maybe the article makes a reasonable point or two, but it neglects the fact that the status of higher education in the US is also deteriorating, with the exception of the most privileged schools. And at secondary and below that privatization is taken a toll. So is centralized control in China and (purportedly) Japan really worse, overall, for the people? This article doesn’t provide enough information to answer that question.

  • Ben

    a very well-written piece. i think the problem stems from the concept that the defined ‘experts’ know what they’re doing. i’ve seen it countless times myself. the pervading sense is that there are masters, and if students do as the master does, they too will become masters. asking about cases where the students turn out better than the masters always provokes the same response: a solid stare, followed by a few quick blinks as the brain is reset and the same line is then repeated – the students must do as the master instructs or they won’t be any good.
    this sense also actively stymies any possibility of improvement. if a student fails, they themselves will firmly place the blame on themselves, they just didn’t follow the guidelines well enough. the possibility that the guidelines may not be suitable doesn’t even exist as a concept. suggest methods be experimented with and you are automatically wrong, you don’t understand how things are done in japan. why is the way things are done so set in stone? because japanese students “won’t be able to understand”. what is so important about understanding? why not give them the skills to figure things out for themselves? stare, blink-blink, “in japan, we don’t teach like that.” sigh.