Commentary / Japan

Fathers remain missing in the educational puzzle

by Shihoko Goto

The hallmark of the Heisei Era has been peace. Yet the past three decades have been rattled by a quiet revolution in social norms, from a steady decline in the allure of marriage to a rise in the number of households with only one person.

Yet amid such changes, educational values have seemingly remained largely unchanged, not least in the hierarchy of schools and the path for being accepted into those vaunted institutions of learning. What’s more, the way to climb up Japan’s educational system remains unchanged and biased against working mothers. That may well be the Achilles’ heel of the country as it looks to be competitive in a new era.

The belief in “Todai First” is undoubtedly one value that has remained unshaken over the decades. One of the best-selling educational books over the past year is by the principal of Kaisei Academy, an all-boys school that has steadfastly remained one of the top feeder schools to the University of Tokyo. Over 50,000 copies of Yuko Yanagizawa’s 2017 book have been sold to date, tapping into the anxiety parents have about getting into the right college.

That said, Japanese parents are no different from parents anywhere in the world in wanting to get their offspring into a competitive college as a means of getting a leg up in life.

In fact, with the acceptance rate to Ivy League universities now in the single digits, American parents, too, are increasingly mired in the race to get their kids into a brand-name institution, just like their Japanese counterparts. From hiring pricey college guidance counselors to lavishing money on piano lessons and private sports coaches, there is no shortage of ways to invest in the path to college admissions in the United States.

Yet Japan continues to expect mothers to be the primary caregiver and educator within the family. In his book “If Mothers Don’t Know This About Raising Boys,” the principal of the celebrated Japanese high school demonstrates his deep understanding and appreciation of the challenges of raising teens in the digital age. Don’t tell kids to study, listen to what they have to say in their own time, let them read manga if they want to, and expect adolescents to rebel.

All that Yanagizawa suggests makes perfect sense to parents of teens everywhere. But his focus on the role of mothers diminishes the part that fathers play in the family dynamic simply to that of the breadwinner who is largely absent on a daily basis. Rather, the principal assumes that mothers of upper middle class families that send their sons to elite schools are stay-at-home moms, just like mothers of the decades past.

That assumption continues to prevail across the educational spectrum, including among mothers themselves. Granted, it is never easy to balance family and work commitments in any country. Yet expectations from educators for mothers to stay home make it all the more difficult for women in Japan to challenge social norms, and seek more opportunities for professional advancement in the workplace.

That psychological barrier remains as big a hurdle as any public policy obstacle in pushing Japan in the global ranking of female empowerment. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest global gender gap report, Japan ranked 110th out of 149 countries in 2018.

A step forward could be to have a companion piece to the Yanagizawa book, perhaps by the principal of Oin Academy, a girls school where nearly a quarter of the students get into the University of Tokyo each year, about the role fathers play in encouraging teenagers to excel. Fathers can and must do more than simply pay the school fees. They are critical in making sure girls are confident about their abilities, and that they can be as ambitious as or even exceed their brothers.

Great strides have been made in promoting young men as caregivers to babies and toddlers through the Ikumen campaign. It’s now time to appreciate the role that middle-aged men can play in encouraging their daughters to become confident, articulate young women.

Shihoko Goto, the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, is a leading expert on economics and politics in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.