Education deserves more attention

This past year saw significant changes in Japan’s social attitudes toward government policies. The conflict between those attitudes and the government’s policies, though, was just as significant. Ongoing problems remain unaddressed as the central government concerns itself with its conservative agenda rather than solving issues that directly affect people’s lives.

The attitude of the central government is exemplified by the amount of money it will put into education in fiscal 2016 — no more than it was in fiscal 2015. Defense spending, though, will increase. Japan already spends less on education as a percentage of gross domestic product than all other member states of the OECD. Class sizes remain large and teachers’ salaries have decreased in real terms.

The increase in defense spending without any increase in the education budget accentuates the fact that higher education has increasingly become unaffordable for low-income families.

An education ministry report in the spring found that English proficiency at the high school level in 2014 fell far short of the ministry’s goals. The English skills of third-year high school students in listening, speaking, reading and writing were far below government targets.

These poor results stand in contrast to Honda Motor Co.’s announcement that it was making English its official language for meetings and documents related to its international business operations. And e-commerce giant Rakuten reported its employees increased their scores on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) from an average of 526 in 2010 to 802 this year, out of a possible 990 — an impressive improvement in a relatively short time.

The education ministry was also out of touch with social changes in another incident involving sex education in public schools. Materials given to students contained falsified and incorrectly labeled data to make it appear that 22 years old is the peak age for women to bear children. The incorrectly cited information was a dramatic example of government propaganda edging into classrooms. One hopes that the upcoming classes on the electoral process, now that 18-year-olds will obtain the right to vote this year, will not be run as poorly.

One positive change in education was a significant drop in corporal punishment at schools. An education ministry survey found 1,126 cases of corporal punishment in fiscal 2014, a decrease of some 3,000 from the previous year. The decline can be attributed to an emergency survey conducted after a student in Osaka committed suicide after suffering repeated beatings by a teacher in 2012.

Though schools may have cracked down on corporal punishment, the number of reported child abuse cases in Japan continued to rise. The police referred a record 17,224 suspected child abuse victims aged under 18 to child consultation centers across the country in the first six months of 2015. That was the highest number since officials began compiling this statistic in 2011 and a 32 percent rise from the same period in the year before.

The number of children living in poverty has continued to increase, now reaching the highest level ever. The welfare ministry’s statistics show that 16 percent of children under the age of 18 live in households that earn less than half Japan’s median income. The child poverty ratio skyrockets to a shocking 55 percent in single-parent families.

The government claims an increased defense budget is necessary to keep Japan safe, but it should also be safeguarding the nation’s future by ensuring that all households have a high enough income to adequately care for their children and provide them with a good education so they don’t get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.