Commentary / Japan

Crisis offers an opportunity for radical educational reform

by Elliott Silverberg

Contributing writer

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 outbreak, and having just declared a state of emergency, the Japanese government is now deliberating whether to extend its February guidance for the nationwide closure of schools beyond the usual start of the academic year early this month.

For the Japanese school system, however, the crisis offers an opportunity for more radical reform: Japan’s education ministry could shift the start of this year’s school calendar to September, thus giving the nation an extra summer to weather the new coronavirus.

Schools around the country have already begun to extend their closures.

Last week, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike decided to shutter all metropolitan schools till after the Golden Week holiday ending in early May, urging all ward and city governments within the area to follow suit.

Several of the Japanese capital’s elite private institutions, including Keio, Meiji, Sophia, and Waseda universities, have postponed their spring semesters till later this month or next. The University of Tokyo, the nation’s premier public university, is transitioning to online instruction indefinitely.

But nobody has yet considered revamping the entire Japanese school calendar of 2020-2021.

At first glance, the unknown benefits of moving up an entire school year by some five months would seem hardly worth the accompanying administrative headache.

Advocates of fall enrollment point to the benefits of aligning Japan’s education system with most overseas school calendars, thereby facilitating study abroad activities as well as cooperation with foreign universities — two areas where Japan is seen as lagging.

However, critics argue that businesses’ hiring patterns would be thrown out of whack, and that students would need to plan for the extra time between graduation and college admission. From an administrative perspective, there is also an argument for keeping Japan’s academic and fiscal calendars fixed together.

History is not without precedent for such a restructuring, to be sure.

An autumn cycle was employed by Japan’s first universities for over 40 years during the Meiji and Taisho eras until 1921, at which point university enrollment was fixed with the start of the fiscal year in April. (Secondary schools had previously been aligned with the fiscal calendar from 1886 onward.)

Over the years, various prime ministers have considered returning to a Western-style academic calendar commencing in the fall.

Between 1984 and 1987, a temporary education council under the administration of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone considered readjusting the school year to September.

In 2006, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Education Rebuilding Council, dissolved in 2008, similarly recommended revising the academic calendar.

The Democratic Party of Japan government of Yoshihiko Noda issued instructions for the matter to be discussed at the Council on National Strategy and Policy established in late 2011. Noda’s national strategy council was a brief precursor to the National Security Council and other Cabinet-level structures established after Abe’s return to office.

In 2011, the University of Tokyo announced that it was weighing a switch to flexible autumn or spring enrollment, in an effort to align itself with universities overseas. Aiming to finalize the transition by 2015, the University of Tokyo sought to pave the way for the Japanese education ministry’s efforts — formalized at the time in its Global 30 initiative — to internationalize the higher education system.

At the time, Todai’s plan was to leave its springtime entrance exam unchanged, and to encourage admitted students to use the extra time off after their high school graduations for study abroad, language study, internships, or volunteering — a practice often encouraged in other countries where pre-college “gap years” filled by apprenticeships and vocational training are commonplace.

Todai’s example was considered by a number of other former teidai , or imperial universities — Japan’s equivalent of the U.S. Ivy League.

Coupled with the growing interest among Japanese businesses in attracting foreign talent, the idea remains very much alive today — albeit socialized mostly at the working levels of government.

In January 2013, Abe, then-newly re-elected, recommenced Cabinet discussions on education reform, which he underscored would be critical for Japan’s long-term strength.

Later that year, education minister Hakubun Shimomura convened a new study group on the question of fall enrollment and so-called gap terms. The study group, which coincided with Abe’s announcement in June 2013 of a new “revitalization strategy” (as well as Abenomics’ third arrow of structural reform), was additionally tasked with examining the implications for private-sector recruitment cycles.

This has been a recurring anxiety for companies uncertain about the implications of an adjusted school calendar, or more flexible study schedules, for the nation’s annual post-college job-hunting rituals culminating at the start of every fiscal year.

Still, public opinion on fall enrollment has been mixed, though improving. Cabinet polling on the question in 1988, the year after Nakasone left office, found that most people were unenthusiastic about the switch.

In 2001, public views on the matter were more evenly split. Critically, more university and secondary school administrators were for it than against.

The business community was less enthusiastic, with only 33 percent of managers backing the idea.

However, polling in 2012 by HR Pro, a popular industry resource for Japanese HR professionals, found that 38 percent of new college graduates favored a switch to fall enrollment, while an additional 26 percent supported the University of Tokyo’s push for flexible enrollment. Only 12 percent outright opposed the initiative.

At a time when governments around the world are taking radical action to combat COVID-19, Japan might want to revisit this proposal.

Switching to fall enrollment would give Japan’s school administrators a much-needed interlude in their efforts to help fight the virus’ spread.

More broadly, it would also fundamentally realign the Japanese academic year with a common model embraced by the likes of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, China and Vietnam.

Reforming the school system thus could be an additional way of bolstering global interest in studying in Japan, at a time when experts say luring international talent, especially in high-skill domains like artificial intelligence, will be critical for its long-term competitiveness.

Finally, reducing barriers to study abroad could spur young Japanese to develop their minds overseas, an objective often given a national security spin in Tokyo.

In the mid-1990s, the Defense Agency, the antecedent to the Defense Ministry, ordered a series of reports on core strategic themes relevant to its future national security — one of which was cultivating “internationalized” talent.

National security expert Kuni Miyake, writing in these pages last November, expressed dismay at Japan’s recent efforts to reform its English education.

One step to the international education system that Japan deserves may be transitioning to a fall enrollment cycle.

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow in Korean studies at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. He currently resides in Tokyo.

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