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Published in Print: September 25, 2002, as North Wind Bows to the Rising Sun

North Wind Bows to the Rising Sun

Japan is transforming its famously rigorous education system and, in a switch, taking notes on the U.S. along the way.

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The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do.

The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.

—Aesop's Fables

Japan is transforming its famously rigorous education system and, in a switch, taking notes on the U.S. along the way.

It has been with the resolve of the North Wind that Japan has educated its children for generations. Steady and fierce pressure, it was believed, would push children to learn what was necessary to survive in a world filled with struggles. The philosophy served the island nation well. It helped prepare a diligent and capable workforce for the industrial boom that eventually, albeit briefly, propelled Japan to economic dominance. Japanese children have been among the leaders in the world in mathematics and science achievement, making the nation's schools the envy of larger and more powerful nations, particularly the United States. Schools here have earned an international reputation for efficiency and success by managing to educate the majority of students to high levels, and avoiding large gaps in achievement between the highest and lowest performers.

But parents and policymakers here have grown weary of the gale and increasingly are concerned that the system's high expectations are taking their toll on children. The North Wind, in the view of some government officials, has blown the Japanese education system off course, as far as to the brink of a crisis. Rising reports of teenage suicide and violence, dramatic increases in the number of students dropping out or refusing to attend school, a decided disconnect between the country's fact-based curriculum and the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in an era of innovation—while exaggerated in the view of some experts—are grounds for significant change, government officials say. So, after more than a decade of debate on how to alter the system and several years spent preparing for the changes, schools will now look toward the Sun for inspiration and purpose.

A Look Back:
Schooling in Japan, 1985

In 1985, Education Week Staff Writer Sheppard Ranbom spent three months in Japan investigating its educational system and the increasingly loud calls for reform there. Read the fascinating three-part series that resulted.

"So far, we've given them the North Wind, we trained them by force, and they've grown resistant," Ken Terawaki, the deputy director-general of the Lifelong Learning Policy Bureau, the policy and research arm of the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, Culture, and Technology, says through an interpreter. "Instead," says the man who is one of the chief architects of the reform initiatives that are being implemented in Japan's 35,000 primary and junior high schools, "we want them to take their coats off under the warm sunlight."

The plan is controversial in a society that has long expected children to toil at schoolwork well beyond the school day, six or seven days a week. The promise of a better life and the disgrace associated with academic failure have proved powerful motivators for generations of students anxious to please parents and teachers.

Now, the culture of this disciplined, hard-working society is at odds with what officials say is a new vision of academic achievement. Although Japanese citizens and leaders have bemoaned the flaws in the nation's education system for more than 20 years, the "relaxed" education solution offered by the government has sparked fierce debate over how to improve the educational experience for children without compromising academic performance.

Intrinsic motivation, in Terawaki's opinion, will inspire children to learn more, and more deeply, than the rigors of a rote curriculum.

"We expect children to take initiative with regard to their learning so they can enjoy and choose what to learn," says Terawaki, who has been preaching his message to thousands of teachers and parents over the past few years. "We have discovered it is not a matter of quantity and how many classes are offered. What makes the difference is the style of educating: if you choose the North Wind or the Sun."

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Teacher Akito Fukuda, left, takes pupils off the Shiroyama campus for hands-on science classes.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

The new school year, which began in April, ushered in historic changes to the school calendar, the curriculum, and the nation's educational objectives. The national course of study, which broadly outlines the content that every public and private school in Japan must teach at a given grade level, was trimmed by about 30 percent. The reduction coincides with the elimination of Saturday school, a fixture in the academic calendar that stretched the school year to upwards of 240 days. A new course, sogo gakushu, or integrated-study period, fills the curriculum gap, allowing student-directed, project-oriented lessons on such nontraditional topics as coexisting in a diverse society and taking care of the environment, as well as core subjects. At the same time, more control in this centralized system is shifting to local boards, school administrators, and teachers.

While the government has been preparing school leaders, teachers, students, and the public for the changes for several years, this school year marks full implementation in the primary schools and junior highs. At the more pressure-driven high school level, the changes will commence in the 2003-04 school year.

The restructuring is intended to de-emphasize memorization and tests and cultivate a passion for learning. In a country that once placed the weight of its future on schools—education was critical to reconstruction after World War II, a partner in ensuring a reliable and capable industrial workforce— the nation's current relative prosperity has changed perceptions about what schools should do.

Government pamphlets explaining the transformation promote the development of "open and warm-hearted Japanese" and an academic environment that is "enjoyable and free of worries." Schools should, the pamphlets exhort, foster in their students a "zest for living." According to a national survey conducted two years ago, about half of elementary school pupils said they found school enjoyable. Fewer than one-fourth of older students reported that they enjoyed school. More troubling, the ministry notes in informational pamphlets, only one in five children said they understood what was being taught. An international survey of students in 37 countries ranked Japan 36th for students' interest in and enjoyment of math.

Three dozen students squeeze through sliding doors to escape the crowded classroom at Fujimidai Elementary School in Kawasaki City. They spread out on the floor in more manageable small groups, called han, to examine the 6-foot maps they've made of the nearby Tama River. The 4th graders' faces are steamy from the humidity of the rainy season, and their voices compete with the piercing music of cicadas that drifts through open windows. They are deep in discussion over the natural and man-made features along the waterway. Similar projects are taking place elsewhere in the country, such as north of here in an elementary school in Inagi City.

As part of the sogo gakushu, the integrated-study period that allows student-centered lessons and a diversion from the national course of study, the pupils explore topics of interest to them. Teachers step out of their traditional role of teller to act as guides, helping students with research and in making connections with content in the core subjects.

Down the hall, art class in this urban school has been transformed as well. A 5th grader is blocking out the chatter of friends as she concentrates on her current project—her dream house. The cardboard structure is spacious by scale, dressed in bright colors, and surrounded by a white picket fence.

"In art class, we used to emphasize technical skill and reproduction of [famous works]," says Fujimidai Principal Hiroshi Nagai. "Now, we want children to make their own artwork and develop each child's creativity and artistry."

The principles, some observers say, are oddly American, reflecting the progressive educational values that have long characterized schooling in the States. Japan's new wave of reform seems contrary to the back- to-basics school improvement efforts under way in the United States.

"I have this image of Japan and the U.S. as ships crossing in the Pacific Ocean in opposite directions," says Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington- based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "Eventually, we are going to pass each other in our way of organizing education."

Some U.S. experts are perplexed about why an academic powerhouse might look to American schools for clues to educational improvement. But Japanese leaders say the United States excels in several areas of education that Japan so far has neglected.

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The schoolhouse doors have been opened to enhance relationships with the community. Students at Ogawa Elementary School learn the fine art of the tea ceremony from a local resident.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

"As far as providing a standard minimum education, ... we have a good compulsory education system," says Kakutaro Kitashiro, the president of the Tokyo-based Asia Pacific headquarters of the International Business Machines Corp. "But once we move students into creative [areas] and solving new problems or taking their own initiative, we are recognizing that this is a problem."

While Japan is known for its superior math curriculum, business leaders and education officials often deplore students' lack of essential life skills. Students seem helpless in the face of challenges that require them to think for themselves, one college instructor reports. Another college instructor at a private university frets that students are not resourceful, that they tend to seek the one "right" answer, and that they look for guidance in solving relatively simple, everyday problems.

Others, though, say the shift in philosophy between Japan and the United States is nothing new. The two countries have long swapped course on education policy, often coinciding with shifts in economic prosperity or the release of international comparisons of student achievement, according to Thomas Rohlen, a prominent researcher in comparative education and an expert on Japanese schools.

"In the 1980s, of course, the economic incentives of what might be termed educational envy shifted the focus to the Japanese side," Rohlen writes in National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States. The book, which includes a compilation of articles by prominent researchers from both nations, was published by Teachers College Press earlier this year.

During the 1990s, Asian students' superiority in mathematics and science achievement drew greater attention to the region. All the while, Japan was crafting a radical plan for changing its own schools. Even as the results of international tests sealed the country's image as an educational leader, a consensus emerged here that the schools were inadequate for preparing students for postindustrial challenges. As American scholars and lawmakers embarked on study tours of Japanese schools and conducted research probing the reasons for the country's academic dominance, committees were fine-tuning the plan for bringing Japanese schools into the 21st century. The Diet, Japan's highest legislative body, adopted amendments to several education laws in 2001, endorsing a march toward the Sun for the nation's schools. Changes to the Fundamental Education Law are expected next year. But the reforms are just part of a larger agenda for transforming society to reflect better the informational and international challenges of the new century.

Most citizens recognize that their country's fabled rise from ruins after World War II will not carry them through Japan's current economic difficulties. Now in a decade-old recession, Japan has turned envious of the United States' reputation for innovation and business success, a course it is hoping to duplicate through an educational conversion.

The Education Ministry's Terawaki says schools must focus on building students' basic capabilities: to have their own ideas, to think for themselves, to communicate ideas effectively, to be creative and collaborate creatively with others. "These are things you just may take for granted in the U.S.," he says. But such ideals have been given low priority in a land that values conformity and minimizes individual accomplishments.

Nations throughout Asia have had similar revelations. In response, they've been turning away from their teacher- centered traditions to incorporate more active learning for students. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand have all begun refashioning their pedagogical approaches in recent years, de-emphasizing lectures and the use of textbooks and shifting from memorization to more analytical tasks.

While even critics may agree with the need for change, adapting innovative concepts or best practices from elsewhere is bound to chafe.

"Whatever looks better and we don't have in our own countries, we want, and we don't step back and consider the context," says Hidenori Fujita, a professor of education at the University of Tokyo, Japan's equivalent of Harvard. Fujita is writing a book chronicling his observations in 70 schools in a number of countries. "It's as if any kind of good practice is applicable. But we will have problems in application."

Moreover, criticism has been widespread among scholars, business leaders, parents, and pundits that the focus on motivation, self- esteem, and individual needs will undermine content and achievement.

"The reforms are dumbing down our education system," says Yoshiaki Obara, the president of Tamagawa University here, which operates a private K-12 school. "We will be losing in our comparison with other nations. [Eventually] someone will say this is a nation at risk, like we've seen before on the other side of the Pacific."

The transformation in the classroom, however, has outpaced changes in other essential elements of Japanese education, experts say. Entrance exams for top high schools and universities, for example, are still content-laden and rely on intensive memorization.

Most teacher education programs still prepare their students in traditional pedagogy, leaving new teachers at a loss for how to deal with the instructional challenges of the new curriculum.

As a result, many parents have expressed concern that the schools will be less able to prepare students for the rigors of college entry.

"Parents are pretty anxious, and they are worrying about the academic standard," says Makoto Sano, the principal of Inagi Junior High School No. 4. "Most of them think this academic reform is pretty much a discount of their child's education. I tell them their worry will be short- term. They are not looking far enough into the future."

Reworking the university system, which will result in the privatization of many national universities and the closure of others, is planned over the next few years. Some observers say that the restructuring, and the realities of a declining school-age population, will force the universities to change as well.

Students in Akito Fukuda's class are used to getting their hands dirty on their way to learning the facts and theories outlined in the 5th grade science curriculum. The class at Shiroyama Elementary School in Inagi, a Tokyo suburb, is studying the life cycle of plants. Each child sits with a thriving potted beanstalk he or she has nurtured from seed as the children watch a short video demonstrating the reproductive process of plants.

Next, they spill outside and make their way to a nearby park. Here the children begin their hunt, determined to identify some of the indigenous flora and fauna.

The notion of science class has changed radically in a system that has long equated learning with the memorization of facts. Fukuda became something of a pioneer after initial changes in the course of study 10 years ago outlined a progressive new approach to science teaching.

"It's changed to a discovery process, where students are exploring and trying to find truths," Fukuda says.

While most science teachers failed to diverge from traditional teaching methods, the teacher says, the latest course of study contains more concrete suggestions for transforming science instruction.

The Ministry of Education, or Monbusho, has long been the target of critics and harsh media coverage for its centralized authority and top-down management of schools. But the government plan actually relinquishes some control to local school leaders. And administrators appear satisfied that they can adapt the national guidelines to fit the individual needs of their own schools and students.

"The Ministry of Education has only a broad mission statement," says Yukie Matsuozawa, the superintendent of the Inagi City school district, an upscale jurisdiction on the outskirts of Tokyo.

"The details have to be determined," Matsuozawa explains. "The district has a plan, and each school also has to have their own program for meeting the ministry's mission."

Farther away from Tokyo, Hajimi Funakawa, the superintendent of schools for a remote cluster of small districts four hours west, agrees.

"As superintendent here, I have no chance to listen directly to the ministry," he says. To comply with new national policies, "the state board offers a plan, but the school district makes its own plan according to the different needs of this community," Funakawa says.

Just months into Japan's school year, many elementary school educators throughout the country have seemingly embraced the new government guidelines after attending professional-development workshops and informational seminars over the past two years. But the reality of primary schooling here is a stark contradiction of the stereotype that casts the Japanese classroom as a drab place where strict discipline and regimented instruction render learning joyless.

In fact, elementary pupils appear at ease, confident, and happy.

At Sakiyama Elementary School in Ichijima, a rural region in the western mountains of Hyogo Prefecture, teachers bow and await permission before entering the office of Principal Shigeaki Saiki. But rambunctious students pound the windows and throw open an office door to yell greetings to the kindly leader and his visitors. The children romp in art-lined hallways and make jokes during a literature lesson.

At recess, the warm sun reflects off wind-blown rice paddies, drawing squints from dozens of children playing soccer on a dirt field. Inside, other children practice origami—the art of paper-folding—or play traditional Japanese games.

Younger students are less apt to feel the intensity of this society's strict social and academic expectations.

But students start to feel the pressure by the 4th or 5th grade, when many begin taking supplementary lessons in "cram" schools to prepare for entry exams that determine which high schools and universities they can qualify for, and ultimately their professional futures. In the urban districts in particular, children begin their daily routine around 8 a.m., then remain till the end of the school day, around 4 p.m., to participate in sports and clubs. They may stop home briefly in the evening before marching off to cram school, or juku, several nights a week. Home again after 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., many still have homework to attend to.

At Kawasaki Junior High School, the North Wind still ripples through gaping windows. Secondary schooling is taken far more seriously among students who are closer to realizing their future prospects. The students sit close together in crowded rows, uniform in their dark pants and skirts and crisp white shirts. The teacher stands in front of the classroom, clearly in charge. Discipline is a priority, and the nation's junior high schools have been portrayed as harsh places, where students who do not conform are ostracized, even bullied. In this aging building, the clattering of a nearby train and the burnt whiff of the neighboring incinerator hint of the modest dreams of the school's 300 students. Many go home alone, their parents busy on the late shift at their factory jobs.

Teachers here, now commonly dressed in gym clothes and casual attire, have tempered the atmosphere with a somewhat softer approach, using engaging projects and lessons and reducing the dependence on drills and textbooks. But teachers are feeling pressure to continue focusing on the basics. Many students will go on to vocational high schools or into labor- intensive jobs. So part of the integrated period is used for drills and worksheets in the hope of improving the youths' mathematical proficiency and other practical skills.

A new emphasis on daily evaluation of each student has increased paperwork for teachers, who now must arrive at school earlier and leave later each day, says Kashi Shimomura, a veteran English teacher. Even with the elimination of Saturday classes, teachers often return on the weekend to supervise clubs, attend workshops, or prepare lessons.

"The integrated period means hours taken away from regular subjects," Shimomura says. "We have to think of how to respond to this new trend without lowering scholastic achievement."

Despite the difficulties, he adds, "the pillars of the reform are credible."

Some experts agree. Even a reduction in the "well-integrated" and "well-articulated" Japanese curriculum is unlikely to compromise its quality, says Gary DeCoker, the director of the East Asian Studies program at Ohio Wesleyan University.

"Looking at it from here, their curriculum still looks rather rich in content compared to ours," says DeCoker, the editor of National Standards and School Reform in Japan and the United States.

Many parents are not so sure. They are wary that time trimmed from the school week, and the addition of the three-hour-a-week integrated period, will take away from subject matter. No question. Multiplication tables and other mathematical principles that have long been a staple in the 2nd grade curriculum will be pushed to higher grades. Children will now have an extra year—until 6th grade—to learn some 1,000 kanji characters in Japanese- writing classes. And some elementary biology lessons will be delayed until junior high. At the secondary level, the number of compulsory courses will be reduced, and students will have a greater choice among elective classes.

Consequently, a majority of parents continue to open their wallets to pay for juku. Those who can afford it send their children to private schools, where enrollment is expected to grow should overall student achievement drop. Although private institutions are also bound by the national course of study, they have been given some options in continuing Saturday school and have greater resources than most public schools for enhancing instruction beyond the government's minimum standard.

Teachers at Sakiyama Elementary School are dedicated and enthusiastic toward their work. They stay well after the school day has ended to prepare lessons that will both inform and interest the school's 116 pupils.

Preparing lessons has become a bit more challenging with the implementation of the new national course of study and the elimination of Saturday school. The teachers must find ways to pare the curriculum without risking quality, while adapting their teaching style to encourage more student participation and enjoyment.

To do so, they rely on each other for ideas and feedback. On one recent day, the teachers put their colleague Katsumi Inatugi under a microscope. Known as Lesson Study, the collaborative practice among teachers throughout Japan—and making inroads into some U.S. schools—aims to promote best practices and improve instruction. As many as six teachers and administrators in this tiny school find seats in the back of Inatugi's classroom, armed with pens and notebooks, video and still cameras. While they observe, the sensei, a term of admiration and respect for a teacher here, engages his students in a lively discussion about the co-dependence of hermit crabs and the parasitic sea anemone.

The group of teachers and administrators will meet later to review the videotape and discuss ways of improving the lesson.

Teachers throughout Japan have been combing the Internet, attending seminars and workshops, visiting pilot schools, and huddling with colleagues in a scramble for ways to advance their teaching to fit the Education Ministry's vision.

New textbooks reduce the number of lessons in each subject, eliminating repetitive and unnecessary information from already slim volumes. But they require teachers to prepare more supplemental materials, custom-made handouts that explain the content and provide examples. The recent introduction of technology throughout Japan's school system has made it easier in some ways to incorporate a broader array of materials and educational experiences for students, but computers may also require more time for instruction in technical skills and application.

Novice and veteran teachers alike feel overwhelmed by the challenge. Takashi Ya-maguchi, a first-year teacher at Inagi's Shiroyama Elementary School, says his preservice preparation focused on traditional teaching methods and left him unprepared for the new classroom requirements. After 30 years in the classroom, Hiroshi Motohashi is no more confident than his younger colleague that he can adequately address the individual needs of his 40 students.

"I used to have to say to students, 'Do this, and do this.' Now, we have to take care of each child," he says. "Now, I spend one and a half times as much time preparing lessons. ... It takes continuous effort."

But while teachers toil at making school meaningful and enjoyable, they must also address the competing demands of parents and upper- school-admissions policies.

As typhoon season kicks up, it is difficult to tell how quickly the North Wind will relent in its pressure on Japan's classrooms. Despite the tension, many teachers and administrators understand they are in the midst of a major transition and anticipate that it will get easier with time.

For now, they are approaching their task as they, and generations of Japanese before them, always have.

"There are difficulties, but that doesn't mean the reforms shouldn't take place," says Shimomura, the Kawasaki teacher. "It is the duty of the teacher to embrace [the changes] and make education better. So that is what we do."

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

Vol. 22, Issue 4, Pages 28-35

Web Resources
  • Read more about Japan's reform plan, from the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, Culture, and Technology. The Ministry publishes a summary of educational reform efforts and the "Seven Priority Strategies." Also: find resources to a variety of topics about Japan's educational system (scroll down page); read about the organization of Japan's school system and view an accompanying organizational chart; and browse statistics on Japan's schools.
  • Japan Online provides a wealth of links to all things educational and Japanese, including a list of all primary, secondary schools and higher and continuting education opportunities.
  • Kids Web Japan provides a wealth of resources for kids eager to learn about daily life in Japan.
  • Read a biography Thomas Rohlen, a prominent researcher in comparative education and an expert on Japanese schools. Includes a list of his publications.
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