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Despite all the talk about the need for educational reforms, little serious attention is being paid to a fundamental way in which Japan’s schoolchildren are being shortchanged. Except among the educators directly involved, few have expressed concern over the Education Ministry’s announcement that libraries in elementary and junior high schools nationwide are lacking the astonishing total of more than 65 million books — books they should have if they were following the new standards set by the ministry in 1993.

This means that, on average, each school is short 2,600 library books that could be providing a wide range of information and knowledge to the nation’s children. The 1993 standards were intended to raise the number of books on school library shelves by 1.5 times, on the basis of the number of pupils enrolled. Yet fully 70 percent of the elementary schools and 80 percent of the junior high schools acknowledged in a survey conducted in May 1999 that they have fewer books on their shelves than are recommended. This is so even though the Education and Home Affairs ministries together have been allocating some 10 billion yen a year to municipalities to help them meet the new targets.

Too many schools are failing to do so, since some 14 percent of elementary school libraries and nearly 22 percent of junior high school libraries have fewer than half the books they should. The reason for this is not because enrollments are down, but because in the face of budget shortfalls some schools are using the funds for other purposes. Local school boards are entitled to do this, but it strongly suggests that the invaluable role school libraries can play in supplementing textbook education is still not sufficiently recognized or appreciated.

This is regrettable at a time when so much attention is being focused on the global information-technology revolution in which Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori wants Japan to play a leading role. The great advantage that good books can provide in stimulating young imaginations and encouraging the development of natural curiosity is still minimized by an educational system that emphasizes textbook learning above all.

School library-book shortages also stem in part from the fact that such libraries, and indeed all libraries for the general public, are a recent historical development here. Japan’s literacy rate rose to nearly 100 percent after school attendance became compulsory in the Meiji period (1868-1912), but the achievement was reached largely through textbooks authorized by the Education Ministry. That suited the political and military leaders of the time.

When the first public library in the country opened in Tokyo in 1872, a few private schools had modest libraries, but most schools’ book collections were negligible. A greatly different situation began to develop soon after the end of World War II. Under the guidance of Occupation authorities, the Education Ministry issued a School Library Handbook in 1948. Two years later, in 1950, the Japan School Library Association was established, and this was followed by enactment of the School Library Law in 1953, authorizing funds to support public school libraries. Since all schools in the country now have libraries, why are so many of them still failing to adequately provide the supplementary resources that pupils need?

One more reason is that it is not only books that are in short supply. Japan also suffers from a severe shortage of trained librarians. When Education Ministry officials surveyed the schools last year, only 574 registered librarians were recorded nationwide.

The ministry is now calling on prefectural boards of education to train and hire more school librarians. Any school with more than 12 classes will be required to have a trained librarian on the staff from the start of fiscal 2003. That means the hiring of some 24,000 librarians by elementary and junior high schools around the country. They are needed, but the aim is realistic only if bureaucrats and the public are made aware of the vital role they can play.

Qualified librarians could help to stem the premature predictions being heard in some quarters of the imminent demise of the printed book. It is true that publishers are lamenting falling book sales and their lists are increasingly heavy with “manga” comics for adults. It is equally true that the Internet and other communications advances are creating new ways for books to reach the hands of readers. None of this means that the book is dead. A nation that does not promote reading will never be able to take full advantage of the IT revolution. One way to ensure that books do not disappear is to ensure that school libraries are able to fulfill their promise.

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