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A History of Learning

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As viewers of the television mini-series Shogun learned, Japan's first taste of European culture was bittersweet.

To the 17th-century samurai, the ruling class of gentleman-warriors, the new knowledge Europeans brought was not enough to offset their other baggage--the insidious New World values of greed and competition. To protect the cohesion and moral fiber of their feudal kingdom, they closed its door and kept it shut for the next 250 years.

Not until 1854, when Commodore Matthew Perry used gunboats from the U.S. Navy to make a persuasive case for free trade and cooperation, did the Japanese take a second look at Western civilization. What they saw was enticing enough to help spark a succession of events that ushered in the beginning of Japan's modern era.

In the short span of 18 years, the island nation fought an epoch-ending civil war, reinstated its Imperial dynasty, entered a period of enlightenment, and set its sights on Western advancement. By 1872, it had abolished feudalism and was ready to culminate a dramatic turnabout in world perspective with the enactment of a modern "Education Act,'' creating a Western-style system of compulsory education.

Recurring Cycle of Adaptation

Japan's headlong rush to adopt the trappings of 19th-century progress did not, however, signal an abandonment of its cultural roots. Quite the contrary. The first stirrings of modern Japan marked not the end of a way of life but its masterful adaptation for progress.

The island's uneasy accommodation with Western values would continue in a recurring cycle of social adjustment--a reaching abroad for new ideas, then a recoiling from outside influence, then a harmonizing of the new elements with traditional values. The result would be a dynamic, though often paradoxical, blending of the best of two cultures.

Nowhere is this adaptive process more evident than in the development of the Japanese education system, where Western methods of schooling have been carefully chosen, then honed to meet the particular needs of the society at large.

The structure of modern Japanese education has emerged from two major periods of reform, both strongly influenced by the West. The first was the mid-19th-century adaptation of Western educational models as a way to meet the country's need for modernization. The second was the forced acceptance of Western reform measures after World War II.

Harmony, Hierarcy, and Ranking

Those most familiar with the development of Japanese education say the country's debt to the West is solely one of impetus. They point to the amazing speed and proficiency with which the Japanese mobilized around the idea of education. And they say the system that mobilization has created is uniquely Japanese.

The Harvard University sociologist Merry I. White is one of many Western scholars who marvel at the ease with which Japan, a group-directed, egalitarian society, has been able to incorporate the competitive aspects of Western schooling into its system. Remarkably, she says, the Japanese have been able to balance "the ideology of harmony and the interest in hierarchy and ranking."

This social balancing act--the struggle to achieve rapid economic progress while keeping alive the deeply held traditions of an ancient culture--has been a constant in Japan's educational evolution. Even today, the cycle of change, reaction, and social adjustment continues, as reform-minded educators debate how much more of Western individualism can be tolerated for the sake of creativity, and how much of Asian tradition must be restored to stem the tide of delinquency and social unrest.

On balance, it seems to most observers that what is best about Japanese education has come not as a gift from the West but from an indigenous love of learning.

Foundations Centuries Deep

Long before Perry set sail for Japan, the foundations of a modern system of education already had been laid. Even in feudal times, a surprisingly broad segment of this isolated population--a segment that included all social classes--had mastered the basic tools of literacy.

By the time the door to the West was reopened in the 1860's, a rich variety of Japanese schools, many paid for by parents eager to give their children a better life, was educating about 50 percent of the male population and 15 percent of the female population. The Columbia University sociologist Herbert Passin cites these forerunners of the modern Japanese school:

  • Shogunal or domain schools, established by military leaders and feudal lords on their property, educated the sons of the upper-class samurai. More penmanship than swordsmanship was taught from the 17th century on, with Confucian principles, patriotic and moral themes, etiquette, and "the arts of peace" dominating course content.
  • Shijuku, private academies established by independent scholars to pass along their views in their fields of expertise, were attended mainly by samurai children, but were also the first schools to accept a mix of samurai and commoner classes. By 1870, they enrolled about 121,000 students.
  • Terakoya, or so-called parish schools, were originally founded by Buddhists. They soon lost their religious connection, but remained housed in local temples. Here, the sons and daughters of commoners were educated for three or four hours a day in the three R's. Their number increased dramatically in the 19th century, rising from fewer than 600 in 1788 to more than 6,000 by 1850. When the restored emperor took the throne in 1868, there were 14,000 terakoya educating more than 900,000 Japanese children.
  • Gogaku, a group of small "local schools" educating both commoners and samauri, were first established by feudal lords to improve the quality of local leadership.

The feudal culture was so imbued with the Confucian love of learning that teachers were revered. They prospered without salaries, solely from the generosity of parents and former students. Writing in the early part of this century, the Greek-born Japanese journalist Lafcadio Hearn, a teacher himself, noted that the bond between teacher and student during feudal times was second only to that between parent and child.

"A general, upon the eve of an assault, would take care that his former teacher would have an opportunity to escape from the place beleaguered," wrote Mr. Hearn. "The teacher sacrificed everything for his pupil; the pupil was ready at all times to die for his teacher."

The Push for Universal Schooling

The Meiji period (the name means "enlightened rule") took this indigenous love of learning and gave it the structure and form it would need for 20th-century progress. The Meiji reign began with the restoration of Imperial government in 1868, in the person of a 15-year-old emperor. It ended with his death in 1912. But the system of education created during this enlightened rule has been remarkably durable, with its major features remaining more or less intact until the end of World War II.

And although postwar reforms changed some of the structure and emphasis of this early system, according to the educational sociologist Hidenori Fujita, many of the delineating characteristics of Japanese education were set in the Meiji era and have not changed. These include its meritocratic orientation, the comprehensiveness of its curriculum, and its hierarchical nature.

The Meiji leaders wanted to create a society that could boast, "No community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person." And to fulfill this longing, their government abolished feudalism in 1871 and wrote the nation's landmark Education Act the following year.

A Pyramid System

Government officials had searched the West for educational models adaptable to Japan's needs. The result was a plan calling for universal schooling based on a pyramid system of education. Features of the system were borrowed from the French (a centralized ministry of education), the American (the coeducational common school as basic unit, the inclusion of teacher-training schools and vocational education), and the German (university structure) systems.

At the top of the pyramid would be eight university districts; in the middle, 32 middle-school districts feeding their best graduates to the university; and at the bottom 210 primary districts.

Emperor Meiji ambitiously planned to construct universities, agricultural colleges, middle schools, and nearly 55,000 elementary schools. But his vision proved too grand for its time. By the turn of the century, little more than half of his elementary schools and only two government universities (those at Tokyo and Kyoto) had been built.

It was a majestic failure, however, for the Meiji era had left a legacy more lasting than institutions: the notion that educational achievement, and not birth, should determine status in the society. This would be the basis of Japan's modern meritocracy.

The Education Act and its implementation had also shown how quickly the country could embrace the idea of universal public education. A year after its enactment, only 28 percent of the Japanese school population was enrolled; by 1904--30 years later--the enrollment stood at 98 percent.

The Inevitable Backlash

But after the emperor's Education Act was replaced by an even more liberal Education Ordinance in 1879 (calling for greater decentralization of the school system and stricter compulsory-education requirements), Japan entered a period of conservative backlash. For the next two decades, educators would reject the overwhelming Westernization of learning and devote their energies to restoring the society's Confucian values of piety, loyalty, and obedience to superiors.

Around the turn of the century, this reactionary period produced the Imperial Rescript on Education, a document written by the emperor's Confucian tutor, Eifu Motoda. It would remain the basis of Japanese moral doctrine--recited every day at school--until the end of World War II.

Wrote Motoda: "Although we set out to take in the best features of the West and bring in new things in order to achieve the high aims of the Meiji Restoration--abandonment of the undesirable practices of the past and learning from the outside world--this procedure had a serious defect: It reduced benevolence, justice, loyalty, and the filial piety to a secondary position."

Thus, an increasingly Asian tilt in the curriculum was supported, a direction that was to coexist for four decades with attempts to broaden both the scope and the availability of education.

New Century: Growth, Nationalism

At the turn of the century, the government began paying for all compulsory education, which it extended to six years in l907. World War I, with its opportunities for industry to increase its industrial competitiveness, shifted the focus in education to providing more advanced training and, as high-school and college enrollments grew, the practice of selecting top students by competitive examination became an ingrained feature of the system.

Gradually, the growing power of the military was felt in education. Nationalistic principles infused the curriculum at all levels, and, when war came in l937, schooling was altered to suit the needs of the state. Boys who once sought industrial jobs now attended compulsory "youth schools" (supplementary vocational and training centers) until the age of conscription, and all schools provided military training of some kind.

Education American-Style

The postwar Occupation force under General Douglas MacArthur directed major reforms in most areas of Japanese political, social, and economic life. Education policies called for the introduction of American-style education, complete with individualized instruction and student counseling.

The Allies' overall plan for education recommended these features: decentralization, with greater local control in such areas as school construction, teacher licensing, and textbook selection; a democratic curriculum geared to "a pupil's mental and physical activities" and not to "an accepted body of knowledge"; introduction of a new teacher-training and certification system; and the replacement of Japan's multi-track school system with a single-track, 6-3-3-4 system, including six years of compulsory primary education, three years of compulsory lower-secondary school, three years of high school, and four years of college.

The report of the Occupation force's education mission also said that higher education should be changed, to be "an opportunity for the many, not a privilege for the few."

In 1947, a new national constitution and "Fundamental Law of Education" were drafted. Article 26 of the constitution says: "All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law. The people shall be obligated to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary education as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free."

The Fundamental Law lays out in detail the specific aims of the democratic education called for in the constitution and outlined in the Education Mission's report. It adopts the 6-3-3-4 system, extends compulsory education from 12 years to 15, and makes coeducation mandatory in all schools.

Moreover, the Fundamental Law sets the tone for education in a democratic Japan:

"Education shall aim at the full development of personality, striving for the rearing of people sound in mind and body, who shall love truth and justice, esteem individual value, respect labour and have a deep sense of responsibility, and be imbued with an independent spirit, as builders of a peaceful state and society."

Modifying an 'Alien' Idea

In the 1950's, however, the Japanese took another look at their new, Western-inspired system of education and, once again, modified it. Their first alteration was to return the decentralized system imposed by the reforms to central control.

As one Japanese education dean explains, "The whole idea of layman control after the American model had been alien to the Japanese."

During the Occupation, they elected mainly educators and teachers'-union members to the local school boards and allowed the central ministry de facto to "advise and assist" the local authorities. But in 1956, the National Diet abolished the law calling for election of local boards and replaced it with a new law making the boards subject to appointment by prefectural governors.

The Diet, controlled by conservative forces, also tried, but failed, to abolish the country's left-leaning teachers' unions. It would be the first volley in an increasing politicization of education in postwar Japan.

Charting the 'Economic Miracle'

By far the most important education modification in the modern era has been the governmental linkage, through centralization, of education with economic planning. The postwar miracle of Japan--the country's industrial renaissance--has not been accidental. Over the last 30 years, every stage of economic development has been carefully charted, with future educational needs assessed and planned for in advance.

Education became an instrument of Japanese economic policy almost on the day the Allied forces left. Only a month after independence, the Diet passed an "Industrial Education Promotion Law" stressing the role education would have to play in economic growth. Soon after that, the nation's private business organizations were publicly urging revisions in schooling to meet industrial needs. In particular, they wanted to see an expansion of scientific and technical education.

The government responded systematically. An economic planning agency within the Prime Minister's office coordinated all government efforts in the economic field. By 1957, this office had begun to estimate, with the help of the business and scientific community, such future educational needs as numbers of engineers and technicians and to plan the government's responses to these needs with the Ministry of Education.

The education ministry, now administratively geared for a direct exchange of views and information with the scientific community, became the locus of wide-ranging industrial planning. It instituted curricular revisions at the elementary- and secondary-school levels as part of the government's five-year plan to increase the production of science and technology graduates.

Japan spurred the production of engineers with the planned introduction of new college- and university-level programs, with additions to engineering faculties, and with expanded enrollments. By 1967, the nation was producing more engineers each year than the United States, with half the population.

In 1962, Japan created a system of five-year technical colleges, which combined three years of high school with two college years, as a means of producing more mid-level technical workers for industry. Then, working in 1970 with an expanded definition of education's role in the nation's life, it responded to the increasing internationalization of industry by boosting the role of international studies, especially foreign languages, in the curriculum.

Competition Means Education

As early as 1960, the government had pointed to the growing importance of education to the nation's future. In its "National Income Doubling Plan" of that year, it said: "Economic competition among nations is a technical competition, and technical competition has become an educational competition."

So far, Japan appears to be leading in that competition. The 10-year goal of doubling the national income was reached in only seven years, and the "economic miracle" only gathered momentum in the 1970's. And now once again, as the nation and its economy face what Prime Minister Nakasone has called "a major turning point," the populace is turning to education as a starting point for change.

Whatever course corrections result from the current round of education reform, the system that emerges will most likely represent a continuation of the adaptive blending of goals so crucial to Japanese success. As Lawrence P. Grayson writes in a 1983 examination of "Japanese Technological Education" for Engineering Education, "While the size, direction, and rapidity of Japan's educational developments are due to economic and political imperatives, the educational system that has evolved has been shaped by the culture of the country."

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