‘Terakoya’ schools’ literacy drive in 20th year

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo News

The National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan has marked the 20th anniversary this year of its launch of “terakoya” schools to promote literacy and vocational education in developing countries around the world.

Since the introduction of the education facility modeled on that for illiterate children during the Edo Period, the federation has supported some 1.22 million people in 43 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America by spending around ¥2.1 billion, financed mainly by donations and cashing in unused postcards contributed by the public.

An unused ¥50 postcard can fetch ¥45 in cash.

“We have been aware that basic education is the significant factor to enable people in the recipient nations to lead independent lives,” said Chiharu Kawakami, the director of the federation’s education and culture division.

“We have also aimed at providing programs in line with the conditions of each region, as there are social disparities among developing countries or within a recipient nation.”

As of 2007, the federation, a private body supporting UNESCO, operated around 90 terakoya in five Asian countries — Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Laos and Nepal — with more than 10,000 people studying at the schools.

Ahead of the anniversary, two local staffers of the Afghan facility visited Japan in December to report on the terakoya operations to donors in Japan.

“The terakoya is a place to learn and also (for people) to get together in a community, which will also lead to peace-building,” the two program officers said in a statement.

They said they expect Afghans to operate terakoya by themselves in the future so they can secure the “sustainability” of the program.

Illiteracy was eradicated in Japan after the launch of terakoya several hundred years ago, and hopefully every Afghan will be literate in the future as well, they said.

The literacy rate among Afghan adults stands at around 28 percent, according to a federation document.

In Cambodia, the federation’s Takashi Kase has been working to promote the World Terakoya Movement since taking up his post last May to work with local staff.

“I have told the local residents that a terakoya is their joint property and that we expect each of them to engage in its operation on their own initiative,” Kase, 29, said.

Three terakoya are operating in Cambodia, at which basic literacy education is provided.

Those who have completed the initial courses can attend advanced literacy classes and the vocational education courses, including agriculture, poultry farming and handicrafts, according to Kase.

A music course enables local residents to play instruments so they can earn money by playing at wedding ceremonies and other events, said Kawakami, the division director.

Kase also plays a role in cultivating mutual understanding between Cambodia and Japan by inviting groups of visitors from Japan to terakoya in Cambodia for exchanges.

Last year, some Japanese high school students visited Cambodia to meet with terakoya students and to observe operations to remove land mines.

“I hope terakoya will serve as contacts between Cambodian people and the rest of the world,” he said.

He also said it is his future mission to further promote cooperation with the education ministry in Cambodia, other nongovernmental organizations and local institutions to have terakoya take root in the country.

Looking to future operations of terakoya, Kawakami said there is a need to promote “postliteracy” education, “as we are not required to meet the diverse needs of recipient countries.”

The federation is seeking public donations to maintain and develop terakoya facilities.

More information can be found at www.unesco.jp/