A bureaucrat in the education ministry had a brilliant idea.
Education is at a crossroads. Change of dizzying rapidity prods a creaky mechanism to adapt or die. Schools struggle to stay relevant. Digitalization proceeds, but not apace. Content revision is ongoing but halting.
Teaching, once an attractive and honored profession, is today neither. Perceptions of it have sunk to the point of coloring it “black,” meaning its working conditions are seen to approach those of slave labor. Few young people aspire to be teachers. Last year there were fewer applicants per job opening — 2.7 on average nationwide — than ever before.
That’s the situation the ministry confronts. The luminous idea that arose in March to meet it was dubbed the Kyōshi no Baton (teacher’s baton) project. Let teachers take to social media to express the rewards of their chosen career. As a teacher, you play an invaluable role in society. You shape young minds. You light sparks in them. You set them on the path to happy, productive adulthood. The future will be in your debt.
Get that across, the ministry urged teachers. Convey your professional passion. Make it infectious.
And teachers responded — en masse.
Only they didn’t follow the script. Their passion proved a bitter brew. Shukan Diamond magazine last month printed a sampling. Grievances poured in — or out — of low pay, long hours, increasing pressure and decreasing quality. The acute personnel shortage means teachers being forced to take on administrative tasks in addition to their classroom duties. It also means slackening hiring standards, opening the profession to newcomers of whom one veteran teacher tweeted, “What kind of people are these?”
What kind? Persistent media reports of teachers bullying and sexually abusing their students and each other suggest one answer. The other side of the coin is the record number of teachers – 5,478 in 2019, the education ministry records — taking sick leave for depression.
“Eighty hours of overtime a month — the karōshi line — is normal,” tweeted a teacher. “Karōshi” means death from overwork; “line” means you’re at risk of crossing it. Adding insult to injury, the overtime is largely unpaid.
The thought occurs that the bureaucrat whose “Baton Project” detonated this outburst has shot himself or herself in the foot, career-wise. Maybe not, however. The ministry is not so hopelessly out of touch with reality as not to know that teachers are and have reason to be discontented, former ministry bureaucrat Kihei Maekawa assures Shukan Diamond in an interview. Behind the project, he says, lay an ulterior motive — bringing that discontent out in the open as a necessary preliminary to addressing the root problem: namely, the ministry’s low status within the government, specifically vis-a-vis the Finance Ministry, which doles out cash and keeps the education budget low.
A possible culprit is an aging society that has neither time nor money for its children. Maekawa’s perspective is historical. His explanation goes back to the early postwar years. There were plenty of children then — the nation swarmed with them; but teachers — and their biggest union — tended to be left-leaning and therefore anathema to a right-leaning government. Education starved in consequence.
Then came the prosperous 1980s and ’90s. Education, like everything else, fattened. The American newsweekly Time, in an August 1983 special edition on Japan, spoke approvingly, even a little enviously, of Japan’s public spending on education — 10% of the national budget, versus 6% in the U.S. (and roughly 3% in Japan today).
Time’s article, titled “Education: Schooling for the Common Good,” opens with a glowing encomium: “Americans, impressed first by the quality of Japanese cameras, then TV sets, then cars and stereo equipment, are now beginning to hear about another top-quality product: the education system that has produced so much success.”
The cost was high: relentless drills, rote learning. The article quotes a Japanese proverb: “Sleep four hours, pass. Sleep five hours, fail.” Students rose to the challenge. Passing was everything. The future depended on it. “Teachers,” Time said, “are greatly respected, and although their average salary is (low), the job is much sought after by top college graduates.”
Those were the days! Two ominous expressions, buzzwords today, were all but unknown then: gakkyū hōkai (classroom breakdown) and persistent futōkō (truancy). The first describes a breakdown of classroom order, the teacher helpless to restore it. It’s a leading cause of burgeoning clinical depression among teachers. The second is at record levels nationwide, affecting 181,272 elementary and junior high school students nationwide in 2019, education ministry statistics show.
Often, but not necessarily, there’s a clear root cause: bullying, falling behind academically and so on. Alternatively, the decisive factor is nothing specific, just a vague feeling of repugnance; the child can’t put it into words and mutely withdraws into a shell. That this is rising at a time when Japan’s schools, though arguably still behind the West in this regard, are showing more respect for individuality than ever before is curious.
Aera magazine last month reported at length on alternative schools, few in number but slowly taking root. Their model is the Jena Plan, conceived in the 1920s by German pedagogue Peter Petersen. Classes are small and of mixed ages. Older children guide younger ones in discussion, independent study, play that feeds curiosity that sparks research that leads who knows where? The underlying theme: “Each human being is unique.” Easily said — less easily applied. It’s a work in progress.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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