Commentary / Japan

Japanese education for Egyptian kids?

by Kuni Miyake

I am writing this article aboard a flight from Cairo to the United Arab Emirates. It was too late to regret that I had stupidly agreed to visit four Arab countries — namely Oman, Tunisia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — in just seven hectic days. This is a tour of lectures and media interviews arranged by Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

Although I was a Middle East hand in the ministry, I haven’t been back to the region as often as I wanted since I left the government. Luckily in this tour, I could go back to my favorite cities, like Muscat, Tunis and Abu Dhabi, where I gave lectures on “Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy” from a geopolitical viewpoint.

Muscat, the capital of Oman, is a land of conscience in the gulf. Omanis are open, kind, friendly and modest, probably because they once were a maritime empire whose sphere of influence covered not only the southern coasts of the Arabian Peninsula but also the African and Indian coasts and even parts of the island of Java.

Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, is the land of experimental democracy in the Arab world. The Tunisians are struggling hard to develop their economy by stabilizing domestic politics. Strategically located Tunisia also was a great maritime empire of Cartage, which dominated the Mediterranean during the first millennium B.C.

But to tell the truth, the city I really wanted to visit this time was Cairo because it was the first foreign city I visited as a diplomat. I came to Egypt in 1979 for my linguistic training, but it was almost torture for me to study Arabic in English at the American University in Cairo as neither was my native language.

I had a chance to walk around the center of downtown Cairo as I did 40 years ago, taking in the noise on the streets, drivers’ greetings by honking, and the scent of the city. As I expected, Cairo hadn’t changed a bit, even after the 2011 revolution and 2013 counter-revolution. Egypt has been and will be the eternal gift of the Nile River.

Why hasn’t Egypt changed much, even though many younger Egyptians have since 2011 dreamed of a freer, more democratic and more prosperous Egypt? Why hasn’t the economy of now-democratic Tunisia not grown, like Japan’s, the way they wanted? The latter question was one that I was asked by a university student in Tunis.

My answer was cruel. I said, “To make your capitalism succeed, your people need to be able to do the same things at the same time in the same manner with the same quality. That’s what Japan, South Korea and Taiwan did with their education. That is the only way in capitalism to concentrate capital and labor for growth.”

The student was silent probably because Tunisian education system is so different from that of Japan. I regretted my answer since I was afraid such an idea may not be accepted in the Arab world. I was pleased, however, to find this wasn’t true when I arrived in Cairo and learned that the Egyptians are trying to change their education system.

When Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi visited Japan in 2016, I was told, he insisted that Egypt and Japan should work closely together on educational partnerships by implementing the Egypt Japan Education Partnership (EJEP) in which Egypt introduces Japanese-style educational concepts into its education system.

In Egypt, EJEP encompasses not only early childhood and basic education, but also technical and higher education. In this ambitious program, the Egyptian elementary and secondary school kids are taught under the Japanese concept of “whole child development,” also known as “tokkatsu,” or “special activities” in Japan.

Can you imagine kids in Cairo study at a Japanese-style school to develop academic, social, emotional as well as physical skills by encouraging team work or creative thinking, or by unique Japanese practices such as cleaning the classrooms together or assigning students to be class leader for the day?

Each nation has its own educational philosophy. Japan seems to focus on social harmony while ensuring that each member’s individual values are duly protected. In this regard, the implementation of EJEP does not mean that el-Sissi is interested in introducing military-style discipline in Egyptian education.

An Egyptian visitor to Tokyo once said that the “Japanese are a walking Quran.” One time he saw an elderly Japanese lady waiting to cross a road at midnight. She had stopped at the crosswalk because the crosswalk light was red, even though there was no traffic, and nobody was watching her. El-Sissi might have heard this story somewhere.

Rome was not built in a day, and we should not expect that the Egyptian kids will soon start behaving like their Japanese counterparts. However, if some of them start cleaning public places together or doing community services in their neighborhoods, that could trigger a revolution in the social behavior of Egyptian youth.

There is another story about education and Arabs. A rich, young Arab student in a gulf state decided to study in the United States and went to the U.S. embassy. When the consul asked him to submit application forms, he told the consul, “Why should I do it? Isn’t that what you are here for?”

This was not a joke. It was a true story. The Arab student may never learn anything important in life because nobody learns anything unless he or she is willing to learn from others. Proper education, however, may change the way people live their lives. Egypt and other Arab countries are no exception.

Japanese-style education for Egyptian kids just started. Recognizing the program’s importance and its responsibility, the Japanese government — especially the Japan International Cooperation Agency — has been doing its best to make this ambitious joint project successful. May Allah bless the Egyptian children!

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.