The year in education: After all the talk, can Japan walk the walk in 2015?

Globalization and increasing pressure ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were among the tailwinds buffeting education in Japan over the past year, with shifting demographics and a surprise snap election among the headwinds slowing things down.

On the globalization front, 2014 saw its share of the perennial grumblings about the scope and pace of English-language education reform. At present, English is offered to children once a week from elementary grade-five level, increasing to four times a week from junior high. However, an English-language reform committee set up by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) came up with a number of recommendations this year about how Japan can do better — namely, by elevating the importance of English listening and speaking; starting English in grade three of elementary school and making it a formal subject by grade five by 2020; modifying English assessments on high school and university entrance exams; and improving teacher training and classroom instruction.

MEXT also conducted a survey of students that revealed elementary students enjoy English language education more than their junior high school counterparts, and that students who started learning English younger perform better in Japanese-language arts subjects as well. Meanwhile, though there was a steady decrease in the number of government-sponsored assistant language teachers (ALTs) in the decade prior to 2011, there has been a steady increase since, with the number now sitting at just under 4,500 participants, representing 42 countries.

At the same time, MEXT has been focused on cultivating gurōbaru jinzai, or “global human resources” — in other words, Japanese citizens with a more international outlook. As part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Japan is Back” strategy, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been introduced in 19 schools to date, with the goal of reaching 200 by 2018. The hope is to promote entrepreneurial thinking, increase the use of IT in the classroom, and allow students to earn an IB diploma that is recognized by the world’s top universities in their admissions processes. However, though the true IB is required to be taught entirely in English, the program in Japan has been modified to be taught in Japanese because there is a shortage of qualified English-speaking teachers.

Also to address globalization, MEXT implemented the Super Global program at both the high school and university levels this year. MEXT designated 56 schools out of 246 applicants from 32 prefectures as Super Global High Schools that will receive a subsidy of ¥15 million annually for the next five years. The program aims to nurture a more global outlook through cooperation with colleges, corporations and international organizations.

To create world-class educational and research institutions, MEXT also selected 37 universities to be Super Global Universities. The ministry will give an annual subsidy of ¥100-400 million to each successful candidate over the next 10 years to support globalization projects, invite international researchers and improve university facilities. Criteria for selection included commitments to raise the percentage of foreign students and instructors, reform admissions standards and provide housing where international and Japanese students live together.

At present, only the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto place in the top 50 of higher education institutions globally, according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai Jiaotong University. Only the University of Tokyo ranks in the top 50 in the Times Higher Education global rankings. The U.S. holds the majority of places on both lists.

To double the number of Japanese students studying abroad, MEXT began the “Tobitate! Ryugaku Japan” campaign in late 2013, sending its first sponsored students overseas this year. In its first term, 1,700 students applied and 323 were accepted, a majority of whom went on to study in North America and Europe. By 2020, MEXT aims to have sent 120,000 university students and 60,000 high school students abroad. The program has received the support of Japanese corporations such as Mitsubishi, SoftBank and Toyota, and from individuals including Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani and former New York Yankees star Hideki Matsui.

Between 2006 and 2010, Japan’s outgoing study-abroad numbers fell 10 percent annually, dropping to 40,000 by 2010. Though data is not available for the years since, it is believed that the numbers have continued to fall. For instance, the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. has plummeted in the past decade from just under 40,000 to less than half that figure.

Domestically, there have been efforts to modify the configuration of the education system. The Finance Ministry has proposed elementary school first-grade class sizes be increased from 35 to 40 students to free up funding to provide universal education to 5-year-olds before the onset of elementary school. This is envisaged as the first step toward lowering the start of compulsory education by one year. Teachers, parents and MEXT are opposed to this idea, citing the likely deterioration of the education environment, as well as teachers’ working conditions.

In addition, the Chukyoshin, or Central Council of Education, an advisory board to the minister of education, has proposed unifying the existing elementary and junior high school system, at the discretion of municipalities. This system would encourage continued student support in a familiar environment and offer a more cohesive curriculum in subjects such as English, the argument goes. Schools could operate under single or dual school heads; a single junior high school could be associated with multiple elementary schools; teachers may need to have credentials in both elementary and junior high school education; and schools could be divided into more balanced and developmentally appropriate grade groupings, such as 4-3-2 or 5-4, to replace the traditional 6-3 model.

And as student numbers continue to fall as a consequence of the low birthrate, there are proposals afoot to fund school closures and integration while increasing support to schools where integration is impossible due to geographic limitations. In such situations, transportation costs, teacher training and building repairs and modifications would need to be covered. Technology would also need to be employed to promote collaborative learning for students in more remote locations with fewer facilities.

At the university level, the population of 18-year-olds has declined by more than 40 percent since the early 1990s, from over 2 million to 1.18 million in 2014. As a result, half of private universities are suffering from low enrollment.

MEXT is also having to grapple with the mass retirement of the baby-boomer generation of teachers. By 2020, it is believed that almost 200,000 teachers — about one-third of the entire teaching population — will have been replaced by “inexperienced, young teachers,” according to the Central Council for Education. MEXT is making efforts to create programs to properly recruit and train this next generation of instructors. At the same time, of the OECD’s 34 member countries, Japan’s teachers already work the longest hours, at 54 per week, well above the average of 38.3 hours.

Regarding educational outcomes, though the employment rate among college graduates dropped to 61 percent in 2010, it has steadily risen since, andstood at just under 70 percent for this year’s graduates. At the same time, although the educational attainment of its women is on par with that of their male counterparts, Japan has ranked below 100 for three consecutive years in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, placing at 104 out of 142 participating economies in 2014. This is mainly due to women’s low participation in the economy and a lack of representation in politics.

And no conversation about Japanese education in 2014 would be complete without mention of dōtoku, or moral education, and how history is retold in Japan’s textbooks. MEXT is considering upgrading moral education to an official course in elementary and junior high school in an effort to curb bullying and to address perceived shortcomings in social and emotional development among Japan’s youth.

How and whether textbooks’ descriptions of Japan’s World War II war crimes, including the Nanking Massacre and the “comfort women” issue, will be modified under the proposals is yet to be seen. Many on the right wing, including the prime minister himself, believe that existing school textbooks are misleading and offer a masochistic view of Japan’s behavior in the 1930s and ’40s. This is of course a huge diplomatic issue between Japan, China and South Korea.

To be sure, the results of educational reforms may not be felt for an entire generation. However, in the case of Japan, issues of scale in both financing and participation continue to be a challenge. Without societally well-supported and -funded educational initiatives, such as in the areas of studying abroad and speaking English, efforts at reform may make tweaks at the periphery but will do little to fundamentally raise the bar.

Having been handed another four years to implement changes to set Japan on a sustainable growth path, and with the parliamentary opposition in complete disarray, much will depend on how highly Abe prioritizes the raft of educational reform proposals left in his in-box from 2014. Depending on his government’s commitment to change, the past year’s proposals could prove to be little more than hot air or, conversely, wind in the sails of a resurgent Japan.

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