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Redefining the role of education in Japan

by Florian Coulmas

THE JAPANESE MODEL OF SCHOOLING: Comparisons with the United States, by Ryoko Tsuneyoshi. New York and London: Routledge Falmer, 2001, 219 pp., $80 (cloth)

What role should schools play? Should they reflect the existing social order, or should they be active agents that set a course for social transformation? As cracks appear in the Japanese educational system and a sense of crisis grows, these questions are being asked with increasing urgency by educators and policymakers.

“The Japanese Model of Schooling” by Ryoko Tsuneyoshi, a professor of comparative education at the University of Tokyo, is a timely contribution to this debate. How does the Japanese school system work? What are its essential features? How does it differ from other school systems? And where does the system fail where it used to work? Tsuneyoshi tries to answer these questions by providing an in-depth review of Japan’s approach to education, focusing particularly on elementary schooling.

The Japanese elementary school, as she describes it, is based on an egalitarian philosophy that rewards effort rather than achievement. The focus is on the whole child, not just on his or her intellectual development. Character formation and social skills are considered as important as progress in academic subjects. Empathy with other children, cooperation, integration into groups, hygiene, table manners, cleaning and other aspects of classroom management are all part of the holistic effort of elementary education.

Since everything of importance happens in the classroom under the supervision of a single teacher, the present system has often been labeled the “classroom kingdom” (“gakkyu okoku”). The idea is to keep classroom members, including the teacher, constant over a certain period of time and thus provide stability and cultivate a sense of responsibility.

Differences in children’s aptitude and alacrity are acknowledged, but not regarded as reasons for differential treatment, by, for example, pulling slower or faster learners out of the classroom for periods of special instruction. Integration and the ability to interact in small groups within the class are considered more important than fostering individual achievement.

Tsuneyoshi refers to the American model for comparison, thankfully avoiding unwarranted generalizations about “Japan and the West.” Not unexpectedly, she finds that American schools put more emphasis on accommodating individual differences, with a strong orientation toward cognitive ability. Many American educators agree that students’ varying interests, backgrounds and levels of aptitude not only justify, but require, differentiated treatment. The American model also differs from the Japanese one in not expecting the school to educate the whole child. From an American point of view, that is primarily the parents’ responsibility.

Many of the differences between the Japanese and the American model of schooling appear to derive from the fact that the former embraces a groupist approach with strong central guidance, and the latter a free-market approach premised on uncompromising individualism. This is hardly a penetrating revelation. More interesting are the many similarities and commonalities that Tsuneyoshi uncovers beneath the seemingly very different surfaces of the Japanese and American models. All things considered, the question of which system is more strictly regulated, and which shows more respect for individuality, is not easily answered.

In recent decades, the Japanese model has moved in the direction of the American model in certain respects, and reforms underway at present suggest that this tendency will continue. Reversing the perspective, the American school 100 years ago had many features of the Japanese school today, emphasizing, for example, civil virtues and moral education.

Is, then, the Japanese model of schooling outdated? Is Japan’s educational system lagging behind? To be sure, there have been indications that the Japanese model is no longer as well adapted to society’s needs as it used to be. The classroom kingdom threatens to break down, absenteeism has steadily increased for a decade, and teachers feel overburdened. Why? And what are the recipes for repair of what has gone wrong?

More emphasis on achievement, recognition of differences and support for individual growth are recommended by some Education Ministry officials. By turning away from egalitarianism and fostering individual creativity instead, reform-minded educators hope to bring the Japanese school system back on track.

Tsuneyoshi deals at length with certain social developments that are forcing schools to change. Internationalization and globalization pose new challenges. A growing influx of returnees, children of different race and ethnicity, and the emergence of substantial numbers of children who do not speak the language of instruction seem to make more differentiation inevitable; in other words, further adjustments in the direction of the American model.

However, in view of its well-known problems, such as violence and enormous disparities in achievement rates, the American approach to schooling cannot be held up as a shining example. Tsuneyoshi argues quite convincingly that the hallmark and supposedly the strength of the American system — its respect for individual differences and readiness to deal with a highly varied population — is also at the root of its many problems.

At the same time, in American education renewed emphasis on social values and “emotional intelligence,” reminiscent of the Japanese whole-child approach, has become visible as a response to the system’s problems. This raises the interesting question of whether the difference between the Japanese and the American models of schooling is one of development, or of culture and philosophy. In the former case, we could expect the Americanization of the Japanese school to continue; in the latter, the coexistence of competing approaches would seem to be possible.

Tsuneyoshi’s well-researched and readable book shows that the answer to this question is not a foregone conclusion. It is a significant contribution to the ongoing search for a better school.