Business / Tech

Computer programming seen as key to Japan's place in 'fourth industrial revolution'

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The life of Emi Morikawa, 17, changed dramatically after she learned computer programming.

Morikawa was just another high school student who liked to study English. But now the young programmer runs her own web venture, which she founded after graduating from high school.

“As I studied programming, I realized that starting my own company would be a better choice than going to a university,” said Morikawa, who is currently preparing to launch an online business-matchmaking service. “Many students my age go to universities without knowing what they are interested in. I thought it’s more important to pursue what you really want to do.”

In today’s fast-paced world, where almost everything is digital, programming has gained significant attention both as a career and as an educational tool.

Earlier this month, the government adopted new policy strategies, including a plan to make computer programming compulsory at all public elementary schools from 2020.

The goal is to secure workers who can support the so-called fourth industrial revolution, a paradigm shift set to be triggered by growing industries such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

An education ministry panel examining programming also concluded this month that teaching coding could be effective in encouraging students to develop the ability to set goals and think on their own.

Morikawa may be an example of what the government is aiming for — a blooming computer programmer-entrepreneur who started learning coding early on.

Morikawa started studying programming last June, while at high school in Turlock, California. There, she was inspired by many students her age already achieving success as computer scientists.

“At the beginning, it was all Greek to me,” she said. “But once I reached the level where I could develop my own programs, I realized it was much more interesting than just memorizing what’s written in school textbooks.”

Inspired by her progress, Morikawa decided to become a freelance web developer — a career she believes is much more fascinating than going to a university.

“Ultimately, I believe it’s all up to you to decide what you want to do,” she said, adding that she would not have considered starting her own company if she hadn’t studied programming.

And it’s not just students that are benefiting from this shift. Private companies, also, are cashing in on the trend by offering programming lessons for adults who want to learn about coding quickly.

Shibuya, Tokyo-based Tech Camp, a cram school that offers intensive courses for people who want to master coding as quickly as in a week, has produced about 3,000 programmers since it was opened in November 2014.

The school now has about 400 students — double the number from last June — including university students and businesspeople.

Learning how to code, or at least how software works, will be essential knowledge in the fast-changing information society, as many tasks will be automated by IT, said Yukinari Mako, who heads div Inc., which runs Tech Camp.

“Many analog jobs will eventually be replaced by digital,” said Mako.

In a society where almost all industries involve the use of IT, knowing how software works will be as important as basic reading and writing, he added.

Mako, himself a programmer, said teaching coding at elementary schools will also be necessary if Japan wants to raise its web industry to a global level.

“Popular web services like Google, Twitter and Facebook … they are all American companies. That means the advertising income that comes from those services is flowing into the U.S. That does not contribute to Japan’s economic growth,” he said.

An expert on programming education also said teaching programming at elementary schools can also help students learn how to think independently.

Kazuhiro Abe, a visiting professor who teaches programming education at Aoyama Gakuin University, said learning coding may help elementary school students acquire what he calls a “programmer way of thinking.”

“Writing a code is a process to seek the best solution to an issue that doesn’t have a definite answer. This is fundamentally different from conventional paper exams, in which students are required to come up with the one correct answer,” he said.

Despite such positives, Abe said he is worried that the government initiative may end up focusing too much on teaching code writing, undercutting the educational value of programming.

Abe said another issue was whether elementary school teachers can teach programming at schools, adding that teachers should not pursue a top-down approach but instead help children work on their own.

“Children today are much more familiar with digital products than many teachers. They will automatically figure out how to make things work once teachers allow them to freely express their creativity,” he said.

“What teachers need to realize is that students should be at the center of the lesson, not the teachers.”

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