Issues | LEARNING CURVE

Teachers and schools in Japan brace for icebergs in 2018

by James McCrostie

Contributing Writer

With the leaves from the cherry trees growing on the grounds of schools across Japan now littering the ground, it means the end of the year has arrived, and with it an occasion to reflect on 2017’s most significant events in Japanese education.

S is for scandal

This year saw twin school scandals threaten to bring down Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Allegations the government granted favors to two school operators because of their connections to the prime minister finally scuffed Abe’s Teflon sheen and slashed his approval ratings.

The first scandal centered around an exceptionally sweet land deal between the Finance Ministry and the owner of an ultranationalist kindergarten. The Asahi Shimbun broke the story Feb. 9, reporting that kindergarten operator Moritomo Gakuen purchased land to build an elementary school for a fraction of the appraised value. Japan’s first lady had been listed as honorary principal for the planned school.

Finance Ministry officials claimed that they sold the land in suburban Osaka for ¥134 million, rather than the appraised ¥956 million, due to the cost of removing industrial waste. Construction halted after doubts were raised about how much waste needed to be removed and the actual costs involved. Abe denies having any connection to the land deal.

Often overlooked in the media’s focus on land prices is the kind of education that Moritomo Gakuen’s Tsukamoto Kindergarten provided to its pupils. The “Japan first” curriculum has the 3-to-5-year-olds reciting the 1890 Meiji Imperial Rescript on Education. It contains instructions for the Emperor’s subjects such as “Should emergencies arise, offer yourselves courageously to the state.” The kids also make field trips to Self-Defense Forces bases.

Osaka Prefecture officials had investigated the kindergarten principal and his wife for hate speech in January after a school newsletter to parents said Koreans and Chinese had “wicked ideas” and referred to Chinese with a derogatory Japanese term usually translated into English as “Chink.”

At least five families withdrew their children. One, who often vacationed in South Korea, removed their son after a teacher told him South Korea was a “dirty place” and to travel in Japan.

Is there a vet in the house?

The Asahi Shimbun landed another scoop in May when it reported on government approval for university operator Kake Gakuen to open a new veterinary medicine college in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. Kake Gakuen’s chairperson, Kotaro Kake, just happens to be friends with the PM. The two met in the 1970s while studying in the U.S.

According to leaked documents, “the highest levels” in the Prime Minister’s Office urged officials from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to approve Kake Gakuen’s veterinary school application. It was the first time in 52 years a new university veterinary department had received approval. But according to a MEXT vice minister, the proposal didn’t meet any of the four approval criteria set out in 2015. Abe denies intervening in the case.

The scandal also turned into a teaching moment for bureaucrats. The vice minister who confirmed the authenticity of MEXT documents had his reputation smeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun due to the type of bar he visited. Next, a senior education ministry official warned underlings that the whistleblowers leaking documents to the press could be punished for violating the National Public Service Law.

The promise of free education

The two scandals damaged Abe’s popularity, but his Liberal Democratic Party’s landslide victory in the Oct. 22 Lower House election proved that opposition parties still have lots to learn about building a credible alternative to Japan’s natural governing party.

The election led to another huge education story. Abe’s campaign promises to provide free education might even be the biggest story of the year, especially if one measures size in terms of yen.

In September, Abe made a ¥2 trillion early childhood education and university spending package a key plank in his election campaign. He promised to make pre-school and kindergarten free for all children aged 3 to 5 and free for children under the age of 2 from low-income families. Abe also vowed (again) to cut waiting lists for these facilities.

The promises will be funded using ¥1.7 trillion from the 2019 consumption tax hike and ¥300 billion in employer contributions paid by companies. But small- and medium-size companies seem less than enthusiastic about paying their share. Other critics point out that children from low-income and single-parent families can already enroll in pre-school for free, so the plan mainly benefits higher-income families.

Children at day care in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture.
Children at day care in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. | KYODO

Still waiting for less waiting

Parents with young children living in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka probably remember that the government already made similar promises to cut child care wait times. After a 2016 blog post written by a furious mother who didn’t win a day care slot went viral, the government announced a plan to achieve full enrollment by March 2018.

But parents know finding day care space got more difficult in 2017, not easier. The waiting list for public day care grew for a third consecutive year, with 26,081 children on waiting lists at the end of April. A further 69,224 children weren’t counted because their parents sought enrollment only in a day care center of their choice. Thousands more children who attend uncertified centers or get looked after by relatives or friends because a space couldn’t be found also don’t appear in official statistics. In May the government extended its full-enrollment deadline to March 2021.

Cutting the cost of college

Abe’s pledge to make university more affordable received less press attention than his day care promises. But ¥800 billion of the ¥2 trillion in new education spending will increase the grants paid to university students from low-income families from ¥480,000 to ¥1 million and expand a tuition reduction program. However, only certain students from approved universities will be eligible. How bureaucrats will establish the selection criteria hasn’t been finalized.

The government also announced an idea to cover the expense of university admission fees and tuition up front and have graduates repay the cost in installments based on their income. Details, such the cost and where the money will come from, still need to be worked out before deciding whether to approve the plan.

More of the same on bullying

MEXT’s bullying survey, released annually in October, showed reported bullying incidents at elementary, junior high and senior high schools broke the record set only last year. Bullying cases reached a new high of 323,808 in the 2016 academic year, up nearly 44 percent from 2015. Elementary schools had the most problems with 237,921 cases, an increase of 86,229.

The survey also found that the number of elementary school students who stopped attending classes for more than 30 days exceeded last year’s record by nearly 13 percent for a new record of 31,151. In junior high, 103,247 students didn’t attend classes for more than 30 days, marking the first time the figure exceeded 3 percent of the nation’s total number of junior high students.

Last year, MEXT officials blamed the record number of bullying cases on increased reporting rather than any rise in actual harassment. This year the new record got chalked up to efforts to detect early signs of bullying. Despite these efforts, about 30 percent of schools claim that they didn’t find any instances of bullying.

Staff and schools at the edge

Way back on April 1, 2013, the government claimed a new labor law would increase job security for the growing number of workers hired on temporary contracts. The law allows workers to declare themselves permanent employees after working five consecutive years on fixed-term contracts.

The five-year clock runs out for many workers on March 31, 2018, so this year saw school operators introducing a plethora of procedures to dodge treating teachers as permanent employees. Schools of every type have been introducing six-month layoffs or contract nonrenewal clauses. Some even planned mass dismissals. These and other attempts to shirk the law had varying degrees of success, depending on the number of unionized teacher at the school.

“There’s a major trend among language schools and universities to evade the five-year rule by getting rid of teachers before they reach the five-year mark,” Louis Carlet, senior organizer for the Tozen Union, explains by email. He calls the practice “really shameful.”

On the same subject, Chris Flynn of the Fukuoka General Union says, “We’ve been very careful with our members, advising them to check their 2017 contracts to make sure there was no ‘no-renewal’ clause.”

Adding to the confusion is a separate law for universities with a name best described as a crime against clear language. Translated as the Act on Improving the Capacity, and the Efficient Promotion of Research and Development through Promotion of Research and Development System Reform, it extends the five-year rule to 10 years for university “researchers.” Flynn says he’s heard of universities suddenly introducing research requirements for jobs that were previously teaching-only positions.

“This is pretty hard for such teachers who have suddenly been given the ultimatum that they need publications to renew their contracts next year,” he explains.

Using cooling-off periods or nonrenewal clauses to prevent employees from gaining unlimited-term employment is illegal. According to the General Union’s website, bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare promised union officers that the ministry would “strengthen their guidance” to schools, and work with Labor Bureau offices to ensure employers obey the law. Teachers, or any other workers, experiencing employer attempts to evade the rule, should consult with their local labor bureau.

New University of Tokyo students attend their entrance ceremony in April.
New University of Tokyo students attend their entrance ceremony in April. | KYODO

Perfect just the size you are

Universities sailing towards Japan’s demographic iceberg approached full panic mode this year, with the number of 18-year-olds projected to start falling next year, dropping below 1 million by 2031 — less than half of 1991’s peak of over 2 million. MEXT preoccupied itself with making new rules governing where the Titanic’s deck chairs can be placed.

In September, MEXT announced that from next April, private universities in Tokyo’s 23 wards won’t be allowed to increase their enrollment quotas. Nor will the ministry approve the building of any new universities or junior colleges in Tokyo.

This year MEXT reluctantly approved increased enrollment quota requests from 12 Tokyo-based private universities. These requests to raise quotas were a response to the cutting of government subsidies to medium-size and large universities that exceeded their official admission capacity announced by MEXT last year. Previously, schools could exceed their intake quotas by 20 percent without penalty. For some universities, a 20 percent reduction in students means school accountants will need so many red pens that there might not be any left over for teachers to grade student work. Universities that didn’t apply last year for increased enrollment quotas lost their chance.

The government believes too many young people are moving to Tokyo for university and not returnin home. The number of university students in Tokyo has increased 18 percent in the past decade to 530,000. As a result, MEXT and the Cabinet Office coordinated the crackdown on Tokyo universities in order to try and help universities located outside Tokyo attract more students. The government hopes support for universities in less-populated regions will help those areas thrive — or at least survive.

Showing schools the red card

While many recent MEXT policies have been designed to help smaller regional universities, some in the ministry appear ready to bring out dunce caps for struggling schools. In September MEXT released a preliminary report looking at financially stressed universities. In 2015, 243 universities operated in the red. MEXT officials plan to introduce a ranking system for universities at the highest risk of financial failure, labeling them as yellow-zone or red-zone schools.

At the same time, the government is reviewing the way it distributes the ¥320 billion in subsidies annually paid out to private universities. Some schools not meeting their intake quotas may have their subsidies cut, essentially forcing them to close. In 2016, 43 percent of Japan’s 604 private universities failed to meet their intake quotas, with those in rural regions and smaller cities suffering the most.

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¥134 million
Price paid by Moritomo Gakuen for patch of land in Osaka for planned elementary school

¥956 million
Market price of the same patch of land

26,081
Children on waiting lists for day care spaces at end of April

323,808
Record number of school bullying cases registered in 2016 academic year

30%
Percentage of schools that reported zero cases of bullying in 2016 academic year

1 million
Projected number of 18-year-olds in Japan in 2031

2 million
Number of 18-year-olds in Japan in 1991

18%
Rise in number of university students in Tokyo over the past decade

243
Japanese universities that were operating in the red in 2015