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This is the last in a two-part series on how the nation’s schools continued their in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many schools overseas only recently returned to full-time in-person classes, or are still struggling to reopen, in Japan it’s been nearly a full year since elementary, middle and high schools welcomed back their pupils.

This week, with the start of the new academic year, schools in Japan are bracing for the continuation of a raft of restrictions, rules and compromises they have been coming to grips with over the past year as they sought to coexist with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan’s situation contrasts sharply with those of the United States and other parts of the world, where the question of whether to reopen schools has evolved into a hot-button political issue.

While many Japanese universities still conduct a good chunk of their classes remotely, elementary, middle and high schools have remained largely open since the end of a monthslong, nationwide school closure requested by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year.

Unlike in the U.S., where teachers’ unions have spearheaded a vociferous pushback against the unsafe resumption of in-person classes, such a strong movement against school reopenings has been almost nonexistent among educators and parents in Japan, and has seldom entered public discourse.

The question of why Japan has been able to maintain in-person instruction without major setbacks is a rather tricky one, considering the nation is home to some of the most crowded classrooms among developed countries. But a relatively low number of cases nationwide, pervasive unpreparedness for remote classes and a lack of political pressure from the nation’s largest teachers union may be among factors that have kept classes in-person, experts say.

“Japan’s class sizes are really big compared with other developed countries, so from the viewpoint of social distancing, Japanese classrooms might actually be at a higher risk of spreading the virus than those overseas,” said Masatoshi Senoo, a freelance adviser and consultant on school management.

A teacher greets students at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo' Edogawa Ward in March. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
A teacher greets students at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo’ Edogawa Ward in March. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show Japan had the second-largest average class size at the primary level in 2018, at 27.2 pupils per classroom — well exceeding 23.5 in Australia, 20.9 in the United States and 19.0 in Italy.

Amid growing calls for less full classrooms in the wake of the pandemic, the Diet passed legislation last Wednesday capping the number of pupils per classroom in public elementary schools at 35. Currently, up to 40 pupils are legally allowed to be in each classroom for second through sixth grades in elementary schools.

Given the difficulty of keeping children separated in classrooms, “it can be said that Japanese schools have been holding up just barely, thanks to the great efforts and sacrifice made by teachers and children, such as wearing masks all the time, eating school lunches in silence and keeping everything sanitary,” Senoo said.

Selfless teachers?

In a nation where classrooms are this packed, some might expect teachers to resist the idea of going back into school buildings. In fact, what is unfolding in Japan is the exact opposite: throughout this time, the Japan Teachers’ Union (JTU) — the nation’s largest educational union — has made no protest whatsoever against school reopenings.

This situation differs starkly from the U.S., where many teachers, fearful of contracting the virus at work, have said they don’t want to be back. Unions in some states have exercised outsized influence in delaying what they see as the hazardous resumption of in-person instruction.

In response, President Joe Biden, for whom teachers’ unions have been key political allies, has pledged to prioritize the vaccination of pre-K through 12 educators and school staff nationwide, treating them as essential workers. This is despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines saying that inoculating teachers doesn’t need to be a prerequisite for school reopenings.

But in Japan, where teachers have not been prioritized for vaccinations, the lack of a strident pushback from unions has been conspicuous in its absence.

“It hasn’t even occurred to us that we should protest against the resumption of in-person. Being close to kids is what schools are all about. … Our basic stance is that schools should remain open as much as possible,” JTU spokesman Nobuyuki Uchiyama said, adding that the union is more concerned about detrimental effects school closures could have on the mental health and educational progress of children.

“It’s true that there are some teachers — especially those pregnant and with pre-existing health conditions — who are worried about getting infected at work. They are having a really hard time,” said Hisashi Tanno, director of the JTU’s Policy Bureau.

Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo study in a classroom, with their desks spaced apart as much as possible. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo study in a classroom, with their desks spaced apart as much as possible. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

But still, the union says it has never received any major reports of its members complaining about in-person instruction due to concerns about their own safety.

In what Tanno called a possible reflection of that mindset, a survey by JTU found in March that of the 245 institutions where teachers had been saddled with the hazardous task of disinfecting school buildings after either their colleagues or pupils tested positive, nearly 50% said no concerns or dissatisfaction had been voiced by teachers.

“I would have expected far more teachers to complain about them having to tackle disinfection, which shouldn’t really be their responsibility,” Tanno said.

Behind such an attitude may be the almost pathologically altruistic mindset that is pervasive among Japanese teachers, who spend notoriously long hours outside lessons tending to the needs of students and parents, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being and health, the JTU officials said.

“Japanese teachers have a soft spot for the idea of ‘for the sake of children,’” said spokesman Uchiyama, who himself was teaching at elementary and middle schools before his stint in the union.

Tanno, who taught at middle schools for about 20 years before taking up a union position, agrees.

“When I think about the question of why teachers in Japan haven’t voiced opposition to school reopenings, I feel like there is this thinking at play that they ‘want to do something for the kids,’” he said.

“This huge sense of mission and responsibility — which I know isn’t always a healthy thing — is at the core of Japanese teachers. When we see kids in trouble, we feel compelled to take care of them, no matter when.”

Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo practice their gymnastic skills in a physical education class. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo practice their gymnastic skills in a physical education class. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

Sudden closure

Another possible factor behind the general complacency over school reopenings is the relatively low community spread of the virus, which has allowed Japan to escape the kind of city-wide lockdowns other nations have struggled with.

There is also little evidence that suggests schools are chiefly to blame for the emergence of virus clusters: of the 4,164 reported positive cases among elementary school children from June 1 to January 31, only 4% have been traced back to schools, versus the 79% found to have stemmed from families in the home, according to a survey by the education ministry.

The same trend was true of middle school students — although high school students, of whom there were 4,897 cases, saw 25% of their infections originate from schools compared with 33% from families. Still, of the total 12,107 schoolchildren who tested positive, none became seriously ill, the survey showed.

Ironically, some also believe that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden request for school closures is responsible for having made the public almost allergic to the thought of in-person education coming to a screeching halt ever again — and, in turn, swaying them in favor of it.

Abe’s abrupt announcement on Feb. 27 last year, in the early days of the virus outbreak, led to a prolonged shutdown of schools — for as long as three months in some regions — throwing teachers and parents into disarray as they scrambled to squeeze out some form of remote learning and accommodate the presence of children at home.

“Back then many parents said that they couldn’t go to work if children needed looking after at home, or that their presence at home disturbs their concentration,” Senoo said. “It probably generated more confusion than Abe thought, and impressed upon parents the chaos that arises from schools shutting down.”

Digital desert

The shutdown request also caught schools off-guard, with few able to make a swift transition to fully online tuition, resulting in a huge educational crisis for many children.

A nationwide survey of public schools conducted in June by the education ministry found that only 8% and 10% of the elementary and middle schools, respectively, were able to use digital tools to teach students in real-time during the period of closure.

That low rate may be little surprise given the traditional fragility of digital infrastructure in schools: 15-year-olds in Japan, for example, spend the shortest amount of time using digital devices during classroom lessons among their OECD peers, according to a 2018 study by the Program for International Student Assessment.

The percentage of those who told the survey they spend “no time” using digital tools for language-of-instruction, math and science hit 83.0%, 89.0% and 75.9%, respectively, far exceeding the OECD average for each subject.

Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo study in a classroom, with their desks spaced apart as much as possible. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Second grade pupils at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo study in a classroom, with their desks spaced apart as much as possible. | TOMOHIRO OSAKI

A mother of two in the city of Shizuoka, who wished to be identified only by her last name, Ishikawa, knows first-hand how the education of her children was upended by the closure saga, which she said highlighted the inability of their schools to switch effectively to remote learning.

During the shutdown, her then 14-year-old daughter who goes to a public middle school, for example, was merely handed worksheets as a take-home assignment. She would then make a biweekly visit to her school to get the next batch and briefly interact with her teachers, so they could at least be reassured that she was alive.

“There were virtually no classes,” Ishikawa recalled. “Schools didn’t have the ability to teach remotely. So I feel like the reason Japan has been doing in-person all along is in part because there has just been no alternative. In-person has been the only way to go.”

Unpopular technology

It’s not that officials are unaware of the problem. Even before the pandemic, the education ministry, mindful of how significantly Japan has been lagging other developed countries in digital instruction, was pushing to digitize classes through an initiative called GIGA School.

But the pandemic underscored anew the importance of using technology to secure education for children in the event of a drawn-out school shutdown, resulting in the program being drastically expedited, the ministry says.

As a result, budgets have been set aside to speed up by several years a plan to hand out devices such as tablets and personal computers to every single pupil in elementary and middle schools — both public and private — nationwide.

According to an education ministry poll released last month, 97.6% of municipalities across the nation said they were set to complete the distribution of devices to students by the end of March.

It remains to be seen, however, how soon online teaching will become a viable alternative to in-person instruction in many public schools in Japan.

Even with the distribution of devices, some municipalities, for example, are against activating apps recommended by the education ministry, such as spreadsheets and cameras, or hesitant to let children bring them home due in part to concerns that they might “watch inappropriate content on YouTube or browse suicide-related websites,” said ministry official Toru Kubota of the Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau.

For teachers long accustomed to in-person instruction, it might be a difficult transition, too.

“I personally don’t think teachers in Japan are particularly opposed to in-person,” said Sachika Sato, a teacher at Funabori Elementary School in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward.

“If anything, I actually appreciated being able to return to in-person (after the school closure), which is what I’m used to and which I think is characteristic of Japan’s traditional school education,” she said. “Once online teaching becomes an option, I might start thinking differently. But at the moment, I like in-person better.”

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