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Education chief takes liberal path

Kawabata wants to shift power over schools from central government to local level

by Mariko Kato

New education minister Tatsuo Kawabata says he will give more control of schools to local governments and increase practical learning, indicating a turn away from the conservative policies of previous administrations.

“The central government is there to maintain a certain level of education and an appropriate environment, but there should be plenty of freedom for local governments to execute policy,” Kawabata, 64, the new minister for education, culture, sports, science and technology, said in a recent group interview.

This suggests a reversal of policies implemented by the conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who in 2006 got a controversial law passed giving the central government more control over schools.

“I think schools should be run by a kind of school council of teachers, students, the PTA and the community,” said Kawabata, who joined the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama after the Democratic Party of Japan won its landslide victory Aug. 30, wrestling power from the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

As part of Abe’s education reform, laws were revised to instill patriotism in children, and “yutori” (“relaxed”) education policies were reversed amid concerns over declining academic levels.

While concerned about academic performance, Kawabata suggested his priorities lie more in hands-on experience and social awareness.

“Increasing numbers of children cannot apply knowledge in a practical way,” the Shiga Prefecture native said. “There are fewer opportunities to go out into the community or nature, and fewer children have experienced camping or fishing.

“Although they are in better physical shape than their parents, they do not have as much strength, and there are social problems where children lack kindness and basic knowledge,” he added.

His own fascination with practical experiments stems from his family owning a pharmacy, Kawabata said. He studied engineering at Kyoto University’s graduate school and later worked at chemical manufacturer Toray Industries, Inc.

One of the main policies on the DPJ’s campaign platform was the abolition of high school tuition. Despite drawing criticism about the cost and administrative difficulties, Hatoyama has promised the new system will be in place next April.

“The basic philosophy is that children are key to the country’s future so society as a whole should support them,” Kawabata said, noting high school education is free in most parts of the world.

He also stressed the need to improve the skills of teachers by extending their training period to six years from the current four. “Qualified teachers must also attend training to improve their skills to the postgraduate level,” he said.

While displaying a more liberal approach to education than his LDP predecessors, Kawabata was cautious in commenting on the controversial rules implemented by local governments over the last few years that punish public school teachers for refusing to stand for the national anthem at school ceremonies.

“It is important for citizens to treasure the flag and the anthem as national symbols, as the law indicates, and that goes for teachers, too. But at what point it becomes coercion is a sensitive issue,” he said at his first news conference at the education ministry last month.

Kawabata also agreed in principle with the ambitious plan set out by the administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to attract 300,000 foreign students a year as part of an initiative to make the country more international.

But he stressed that it needs to be executed efficiently, suggesting that like other projects, this may undergo revision as part of the administration’s bid to cut wasteful spending.

In science and technology, Kawabata said significant developments are required to achieve the government’s goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2020.

Kawabata announced upon his appointment last month that he will scrap plans for a controversial, ¥11.7 million national media arts center that was to exhibit “manga” comic books and animated films, a pet project of Hatoyama’s predecessor, Taro Aso of the LDP.