There is a driven, compulsive quality to Japanese education, which emerges clearly in a report by Shukan Toyo Keizai magazine titled “Schools are breaking down.”
Technological progress has a side-effect: an economy that demands higher and higher education as the price of admission into it. Children struggle to learn, and teachers to teach, more and more. Two resulting symptoms are overworked teachers and bullied, or bullying, children.
Karōshi (death from overwork) is a familiar phenomenon in the private sector but not one commonly associated with the teaching profession. And yet 60 percent of public junior high school teachers are “borderline karōshi,” Toyo Keizai says, meaning they work at least 60 hours a week, though contracted to work only 38 hours, 45 minutes. The overtime hours, largely unpaid, are spent preparing lessons, grading assignments and tests, supervising extra-curricular activities, counseling, dealing with concerned and/or obnoxious parents, attending meetings, handling administrative chores and so on.
One teacher, in November 2011, actually did work himself to death. He was 26 and in his second year of teaching junior high school in Osaka. He was dedicated. He thought his students deserved everything he had to give, and he gave everything. He collapsed one day in his apartment. He’d suffered a stroke. It took three years for his death to be officially recognized as karōshi.
Bullying is an old story, hardly confined to Japan, seemingly impervious to decades’ worth of measures to reduce it. In fact it’s rising. In extreme forms it amounts to nothing less than torture, physical and psychological. The ubiquitous smartphone makes the latter easy. You can say anything you like about anyone you don’t like. Smearing a classmate all over the net is an easy way to vent stress you can’t cope with otherwise — partly caused, maybe, by classmates smearing you all over the net.
In 2015, there were roughly 220,000 officially recognized bullying episodes in elementary, junior high and senior high schools nationwide — the most ever, nearly double the figure for 2006. Part of the increase is due to stricter reporting requirements. Schools were too apt to turn a blind eye. They had reputations to protect. A notorious instance, the immediate cause of the heightened requirements, was the suicide in 2011 of a boy in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture. It took the school two years to admit the boy had been bullied. Over 300 children a year in Japan kill themselves — 320 in 2016. The overall suicide rate is declining, but not the under-18 suicide rate, unchanged over the past decade. School can make childhood a living hell, unknown and unknowable to adults.
Toyo Keizai fears schools are going “black.” The reference is to burakku kigyō (black companies) that overwork and underpay employees to the point of neo-slavery. In the private sector, one-third of the workforce is officially part time — which is to say, paid like part-timers, though often worked like full-timers. Public elementary junior and senior high schools seem to be moving in that direction. As of 2013, one-sixth of their teaching staffs nationwide were part time. It saves money. A 41-year-old part-time teacher in her seventh year earns ¥2.46 million a year — roughly a third of a veteran full-time teacher’s salary, and little enough, ironically, to make her eligible for limited welfare assistance. Adding insult to injury, she never knows from one year to the next whether her contract will be renewed.
What, one wonders, of the quality of education in such a cauldron as the public education system seems to be, if Toyo Keizai’s picture is anything to go by? Much is made of international rankings, specifically those of the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and Japan doesn’t fare too badly: second among OECD advanced nations in “science literacy” in 2015, up from fourth in 2012; fifth in “mathematical literacy,” up from seventh. The weak link in the chain is literacy literacy — more literally, reading comprehension — in which Japan ranked eighth, down from fourth.
Maybe science and mathematics are enough. Who needs words when you have numbers? This or that individual, or this or that employer, might not, but civilization as a whole might. The education ministry seems to think it does. Its introduction of moral education as a formal subject, effective next April, suggests as much.
An episode that occurred in Okinawa last month will bolster the view that a moral vacuum exists, which moral education must fill. Four teenagers allegedly vandalized a memorial in a cave in which civilians were forced to commit mass suicide in the closing days of World War II.
Teens do crazy things; it’s part of growing up, and maybe too much shouldn’t be made of it. But this particular stunt suggests a blindness and deafness to tragedy that Okinawa International University professor emeritus Masaie Ishihara, for one, sees as an education problem.
“I suspect,” Ishihara told the Mainichi Shimbun, “that history, and what happened during the Battle of Okinawa, are not being passed down to younger generations in education.”
It’s hard to “pass down” the past to a present in such rapid flux. Toyo Keizai mentions yet another burden on educators. Traditionally, school was one of three “pillars” in a child’s education. The other two were family and community. Career-oriented parents and weakened community ties leave school shouldering a near-monopoly that would strain it even under ideal circumstances, which present ones are not. Schools have their hands full keeping kids technologically primed. Kindergartens are teaching computer programming. The past? Who needs it? Who has time for it?
“Who needs it?” is a good question. There’s the all-to-oft-quoted line about those who forget the past being doomed to repeat it. If George Santayana, whose line it is, meant war, his thinking is open to question. Historical memory, and the resentments it breeds, have caused at least as many wars as historical forgetfulness. North Korea seethes not because it has forgotten the Japanese occupation but because it remembers it.
What to teach, how and to whom are permanent questions, increasingly urgent as postmodern civilization careens into an unknown future. If Toyo Keizai is right about schools “breaking down,” it’s a bad time for it to be happening.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”