Commentary / Japan

It’s time to bring Japanese schools into the 21st century

by Yumiko Murakami

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, after its landslide victory in the October general election, is moving to make good on its campaign promise. The Abe administration has adopted a policy package that seeks to provide preschool education for children age 3 to 5 free of charge and public support for higher education for students from low-income families — using part of added revenue from the consumption tax hike planned for 2019. The rhetoric heard on the LDP’s campaign trail focused on investment in Japan’s future generations, calling for a more balanced budget allocation for the younger population.

Studies have shown that equitable education plays a crucial role for sustainable prosperity in an economy. Prioritizing education for Japan’s youth will, without a doubt, help the nation address the demographic challenges it faces. After all, the viability of Japan’s aging society depends on how well the country can equip younger individuals of all backgrounds with the skills to obtain decent jobs and become more productive and innovative. The emphasis that Japanese politicians place on equal access to education is sensible and admirable for these reasons.

In fact, Japan has already created one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, providing its rich and poor students equal educational opportunities. According to the OECD, approximately 9 percent of a student’s overall academic performance is attributed to that student’s social and economic background. This compares with the OECD average of 14 percent and 17 percent in the United States.

While Japan deserves an A in the equality department, whether its school system has been keeping up with an increasingly digitized and interlinked global economy is a different story.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that 15-year-olds in Japan are ranked among the top in academic performance. However, those same students rank among the bottom in self-efficacy, or simply put, self-confidence. Compared with other countries, fewer Japanese students believe education will help their future career. Japanese youths also rank quite low when they are asked about their interest in entrepreneurship. Studies suggest a great deal of emphasis is placed on rote memorization in the Japanese education system, rather than critical thinking and proactive, participatory learning.

Similarly, alarming trends are evident among our adult population. Despite the fact that Japanese possess a very high level of literacy and numeric abilities, based on the OECD’s adult skills survey, the same study suggests they are not using other skills to their full potential in comparison with people in other countries. In addition, more Japanese feel “over-educated” for tasks demanded by their jobs.

The survey shows that problem-solving skills of the Japanese in technology environments are barely at the OECD average level. This remains a sharp contrast with the highest levels of literacy and numeracy the Japanese adult population demonstrates in the proficiency survey.

Universal access to education focused on memorization has indeed created a stable, consistent workforce. This approach served Japan well when the country’s highly regarded manufacturing industries needed uniformity and quality-controlled labor for their production process.

However, companies competing in today’s digital and global economy face a much different challenge. The human capital needs of globally competitive companies are far from being characterized as a need for homogeneously standardized workers. Instead, these companies share a common need for people with interpersonal and communications skills, and an ability to contend with new information and solve unstructured problems. Moreover, people are expected to work in a multicultural and international environment.

This is precisely why the OECD has recently announced they will start assessing global competence in their PISA survey. As a compliment to core academic performance and skills, the most useful and recognized skills in the 21st century will be the ability to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the global perspectives of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and finally, to act for collective development.

Nearly all countries participating in the PISA survey have endorsed and expressed support for this global competency assessment. However, the Japanese government has yet to announce a decision on whether it will participate in this global competency assessment.

Access to education is important, but that is not enough. Even more critical is access to an education that assists people become relevant in the future economy. Investment in our next generations will reward Japan in this regard.

Yumiko Murakami is head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, where she engages in policy discussions between the OECD and governments, businesses and academia in Japan and Asia, covering a wide range of economic policy issues.