Earlier this month, four teachers at an elementary school in Kobe were accused of repeatedly bullying four other teachers, as well as mistreating students. The alleged bullies have been suspended and at least one of the victims has taken sick leave because of the persecution. As a result, the school is short five full-time teachers at a time when public schools nationwide are suffering staff shortages.

The Asahi Shimbun has been publishing a series focusing on the teacher shortage. A Sept. 1 article outlined the history of public education in Japan, which started in 1871 when the Education Ministry was established. Until World War II, teachers were trained at dedicated teaching colleges and accredited by the central government. The postwar government endeavored to put local governments in charge of teachers. Universities launched education departments to cultivate school teachers and a new teaching credential system started in 1949. There was no blanket national test for teachers, who instead accumulated university credits and were then licensed at a local level.

But as Japanese growth increased after the war, young university graduates flocked to the private sector and it was difficult to assure a sufficient number of teachers nationwide, so the government passed laws guaranteeing competitive salaries and benefits. They also banned overtime pay for teachers. Instead, teachers automatically receive an “adjustment” equal to 4 percent of their basic pay that is meant to cover any extra work they do. And, starting in 2009, teachers have been required to renew their credentials every 10 years by attending lectures on new teaching techniques. The teachers themselves have to pay for these lectures.

Central to teacher training is a two- to four-week internship period in actual public and private schools, during which aptitude is supposed to be evaluated. Since credentials are issued by local governments, the terms are different from one place to another, but many do require some kind of test. In the Sept. 1 Asahi article, Tokyo Gakugei University professor Yasuyuki Iwata says there should be a common test, like those for lawyers and physicians. Until 2004, most teachers graduated from national universities, all of which followed a unified curriculum policy, but now private universities have education departments and each follows its own policy, thus producing a wider range of teacher types. Iwata thinks the absence of unified standards leads to more credentialed teachers with little common knowledge of pedagogy.

A different Asahi Shimbun article explained how the number of public teaching applicants at elementary and junior high schools has been dropping. The education ministry reported that 122,000 teachers applied for jobs in 2012. That number dropped to 105,000 in 2018 and, further, to 98,000 this year. More to the point, the ratio of applicants to positions is dwindling. In 2000, the nationwide average for elementary school teaching positions was 12.5 applicants for each position and 17.9 for junior high schools. This year there were only 2.8 applicants per elementary school position and 5.5 for junior high. Almost 70 percent of local education committees contacted by the Asahi Shimbun said they think these rates are insufficient to assure that schools get the most dedicated and gifted personnel. In addition, new graduates again have more job opportunities, and public schools have garnered a reputation for being difficult and frustrating places to work. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japanese teachers at public elementary and junior high schools work the longest hours of any in the world and, because of the no-overtime rule, they don’t get paid more than the 4 percent adjustment rate for all that extra work.

On a recent edition of the TBS radio program “Session-22” hosted by Chiki Ogiue, Keio University education professor Aki Sakuma referred to the Asahi Shimbun series, implying that the newspaper was doing something the education ministry should be doing. And while the Asahi reports represent just the tip of the iceberg, she stressed, as one of the reports did, that the problem isn’t regular (seiki) teaching staff, but rather temporary, nonregular (rinji, hiseiki) teachers.

As workplace regulations have eased in the past two decades, local governments have increasingly relied on nonregular teachers to fill staff positions. They work the same hours as regular teachers and mostly bear the same responsibilities, but earn less and have no job security.

In 2001, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gave local governments greater discretion over budgets. Since education is one of the biggest financial considerations for local governments, many targeted teacher salaries to save money. Baby boomers were retiring en masse, and instead of only hiring regular credentialed teachers to fill staff vacancies, they also hired temp teachers on yearly contracts that relieved them of the obligation to provide raises and promotions. Education costs are fixed by the central government, which pays for half of teachers’ salaries. Temp teachers make less, so the difference could be used by local governments to fund other budget items.

But the central government has added to the burden of teachers in recent years, mandating so-called moral education and English classes for elementary schools. Some of these activities cannot be covered by temps because their limited credential doesn’t allow for it, and regular teachers’ workloads have increased as a result.

So while student numbers are dropping, more nonregular teachers are needed in their traditional roles as temporary substitutes, because regular teachers are taking maternity leave — the teaching stock is increasingly younger and female — and job pressures are causing stress-related illnesses that force full-time workers to take sick leave, as in the case of the Kobe bullying victim, who said publicly that getting a teaching job for him was initially “a dream come true.” Unfortunately, it was a dream that turned into a nightmare.

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