The saga of scandal-plagued, Osaka-based Moritomo Gakuen, which advocated a nationalist education, has thrown the spotlight on private educational institutions in Japan and how they are operated.

While Japan’s public elementary, junior high and high schools are often praised internationally for their quality, especially in math and sciences, many parents in Japan have long complained about a decline in standards and look to private schools to provide the type of education they feel their children need.

How many private elementary, junior high and high schools are there in Japan?

Education ministry statistics show there were 20,601 elementary schools in Japan as of fiscal 2015. Of these, only 227 were private. That same year, out of a total of 10,484 junior high schools, 774 were private. But among Japan’s 4,939 high schools, 1,320, or 26.7 percent, were private.

The trend over the past two decades shows that the number of private elementary and junior high schools has increased, while the number of private high schools has remained virtually unchanged. Education experts attribute this to a number of factors, including an increased demand among parents for better education at a younger age.

Does Japan have a long tradition of private schools?

Yes, very long. In a 2016 book on education and private schools, Masahiko Suruga traces the first private school in the country back to about 828, when the monk Kukai established Shugei Shuchi-in in Kyoto to teach Confucianism and Buddhism to ordinary people. A millennia later, during the 19th century, private education for a select few was offered to a closed Japan by the Dutch, who taught Western medicine and science.

At the end of the Tokugawa Period, in 1858, the Shoka Sonjuku private school, run by famed intellectual Shoin Yoshida, was established in Yamaguchi Prefecture to teach young men military tactics and politics. Many of those who attended his school would go on to become leaders of the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

In the post-World War II era, legal changes allowed for the rapid development of private schools. The Association of Private Universities of Japan notes there were three reasons for the spread of so-called incorporated educational institutions (gakko hojin) that manage private schools. First: to emphasize the value of diversity, in recognition of the narrow value system that brought Japan to war. Second: to help educate workers in the postwar period when the central government could not provide the necessary investment.

The third reason is that while national universities trained the nation’s top government and business leaders, private universities could educate a broad range of specialties to create a large middle-management sector.

Do those who set up educational institutions need to have an educational or academic background?

No special training or advanced degrees are necessary. A private school operating as a business can be established by entrepreneurs regardless of their academic pedigree.

However, what is required is a solid business plan and assurances that there will be a certain number of students and a certain teacher-to-student ratio. The education ministry is responsible for evaluating applications to start a private university or technical school. Prefectures are responsible for applications from entities wishing to establish private kindergartens, elementary, and junior high and high schools.

So, legally, these incorporated educational institutions are similar to other incorporated businesses?

There are many similarities. The Private Schools Act of 1949 is the fundamental legal instrument that establishes and regulates private schools in Japan.

Prefectural governments have private schools councils that set out the frameworks for K-12 private schools. Council members are chosen by the governor for their relevant knowledge and experience in education. The law says the council should comprise between 10 and 20 members.

What is the key barrier to gaining approval to set up a private school?

In a word, money. Article 25, Section 1 of the Private Schools Act says that “an incorporated educational institution shall possess the facilities and equipment necessary for the private school that it establishes or the funds required therefor, as well as the property necessary for the management of the private school that it establishes.”

The requirement to show that one has the necessary property, in particular, is one of the origins of the current problems with Osaka’s Moritomo Gakuen. The school has claimed that if it only rented, rather than purchased, land, its application to run a new elementary school might have been frowned upon by Osaka Prefecture. The land was later drastically, and suspiciously, reduced in price.

In addition, ensuring prefectural officials that the necessary funds to operate have been secured is believed to be a reason why Moritomo submitted a low-cost construction estimate to the prefecture, one of three different estimates that the prefecture is now investigating.

What does the future of private schools in Japan look like?

With the number of children under the age of 14 expected to decline from about 15.5 million at present to about 13.2 million by 2030, the number of potential applicants for private kindergarten, elementary and junior high schools is clearly shrinking.

While that will spur competition and force struggling private schools to close or merge, educational experts warn a balance needs to be struck between private education, which is profit-oriented and often emphasizes specific training and advocates specific philosophies, and the broader concept of a public education to create well-rounded citizens in a diverse society.

Some worry over-privatization of schools will imperil the right to equal education opportunities, which are supposed to be free of charge under Article 26 of the Constitution.

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