After sudden shutdowns and a scramble to teach classes online, Japan’s educators are facing the prospect of another big coronavirus adjustment: starting school in September instead of April.
Although authorities are still weighing the change, which could happen next year, teachers and principals are baffled by the abrupt emergence of an idea that could dramatically alter how the country learns, lives and works.
September starts are a throwback to the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Calls to revert have been considered and shelved in the recent past.
With most schools shut since early March as a precaution against the virus, some students and governors are calling for the start of the academic year to be pushed back to fall, rekindling the debate.
Proponents see the pandemic as a chance to break with the modern calendar. But others warn that’s not simply a matter of changing the date anymore, given the way academic life is structured and how job recruitment revolves around it.
“There would be a lot of complications” if other adjustments weren’t made too,” said Satoshi Hagiwara, principal of Tokyo Metropolitan Nishi High School in Suginami Ward. He said hiring and retirement timetables, as well as the April-March fiscal year itself, might need to be rescheduled. But he is skeptical such sweeping changes can be made just for the sake of the school system.
Takamichi Nakamura, director of career counseling at Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya High School, said he is worried about where the university entrance exam season would fit into the proposed calendar. Yet he also thinks there might be some “educational benefit” from conforming to the global schedule.
“It would raise students’ motivation to go abroad,” said Nakamura, who also heads the school’s English Department, since it would allow Japanese to seamlessly slide into academic life in another country and vice-versa.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura emphasized this potential benefit in an online meeting Thursday. In a joint statement, the governors said the time had come for “bold” change and a “paradigm shift” in society that would incorporate the shift to September school starts.
“It’s important we make it easier for our youth to be active in the world,” Yoshimura said.
Over 20,000 people have signed an online petition calling for a shift to September school starts. The movement, launched on April 19 by two high school students in Osaka, is aimed at ensuring all students remain on an equal educational footing and reclaiming school days lost to the pandemic.
“Of course, it is uncertain that the coronavirus will subside by September,” the petition says. But if the current schedules are retained and schools remain closed, the students will have to graduate in March without being able to enjoy school life in full, it says.
Individual students left comments on the petition as well.
“The significance of school lies in a variety of things, such as building connections with new people and doing extracurricular activities, let alone studying,” one university student said. “I don’t think online classes can completely replace them.”
“I’ve been wondering why school starts in April,” wrote another supporter, noting that another drawback of the Japanese educational cycle is having to take exams during the cold and flu season.
Another online petition opposing the proposal has drawn more than 2,000 signatures since it was launched on April 28.
“For now we should focus on measures against the coronavirus,” rather than a change in the school calendar, one said. “If they want to eliminate the educational inequality, it would serve their purpose better to think of ways to study while schools are closed.”
The September start proposal has been an option discussed especially for universities.
Back in 1987, an advisory panel on education reform set up by late Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made a recommendation to shift the school year to September, but cautioned against an immediate transition in light of the need to build public consensus. In 2007, a legal revision gave university presidents the power to determine when to kick off their own academic years.
In 2012, University of Tokyo President Junichi Hamada attracted national attention by announcing a plan to make a full transition to the September school year, leaving a gap between acceptance in spring and enrollment in autumn. The goal was to bolster international competitiveness. But the nation’s most prestigious university soon abandoned the plan due to resistance from within. Doubts also emerged about how students would spend their “gap period.”
In its final report in 2014, an education ministry panel discussing the issue with Hamada’s participation reviewed the pros and cons of shifting to September.
On the bright side, the switch would “enhance the international flow of students by staying in line with the school year calendars in the U.S. and Europe,” the report said.
The new calendar would also, obviously, change the timing of graduation to summer — affecting the many companies that hire fresh graduates each year. The report warned that both hiring and certification exams, like those for doctors, would fall out of sync because they hinge on graduation being held in March.
But the latest debate on the issue includes not only universities but elementary and secondary schools — though details remain scant.
Government officials are divided: While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is positively considering it, the education ministry is taking a more cautious stance.
At a news conference Tuesday, education minister Koichi Hagiuda said, “It is not an issue that can be managed only by the education ministry. Because it affects the whole of society, adjustments are needed accordingly.”
For now, there is little that families and educators can do but wait to see what the Abe administration has in mind. The government is reportedly aiming to announce guidance early next month.