A Look Back: Schooling in Japan, 1985

September 25, 2002 4 min read
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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. Just two years earlier, a panel appointed by then Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell had released the landmark indictment of American education, A Nation at Risk. But “Even as alarmed U.S. reformers urge adoption of such Japanese tactics as longer school hours and stricter adherence to basics,” we wrote in 1985, “the Japanese are looking to the American educational model as a better guide for producing the kind of creative ingenuity that many Japanese now argue their country needs for its future growth. . . . From an American perspective, what is most astonishing about Japan’s scrutiny of its learning system is that our biggest economic competitor is worried at all.”

The visit spawned a three-part in-depth series covering just what the Japanese did to achieve their success, how the system differed from U.S. efforts, and the discontent it bred. The series gives an insightful look at issues plaguing Japan’s education system 17 years ago—many of which are being fiercely debated today. The more things change...

PART ONE: February 20, 1985 Schooling in Japan: The Paradox in the Pattern

“Harnessing Education for Growth.” Schools cultivate the human talent that powers an awesome industrial engine, but now the Japanese say they need a new breed of unorthodox, creative students as well.

“A History of Learning.” For centuries, Japan has been dotted with schools symbolizing the indigenous love of learning that has produced the world’s highest literacy rate.

“The ‘Total System.’” Japan’s precollegiate curriculum is designed to produce a high minimum level of learning in all students and at teh same time to imbue them with the historic moral and social values of the culture.

“‘Enter,’ not ‘Invade': The Ministry and Text Selection.” The Ministry of Education authorizes all textbooks for elementary and secondary schools. But from thousands of applications from authors and publishers, the government approves relatively few.

“School Plus.” So intense is the pressure to succeed academically that the majority of students also go to one or more supplementary schools—the burgeoning and “cutthroat” juki business.

“Politics of Change.” Prime Minister Yashuhiro Nakasone has taken on the issue of school reform and is attempting to build a national consensus on changes, but critics say some intractable problems have yet to be addressed.

“Report to the Prime Minister.” Excerpts from the recommendations of a seven-member panel, the Conference on Culture and Education, appointed by Prime Minister Nakasone in June 1983 to examine problems in schooling.


PART TWO: February 27, 1985 High School: Cultural Values in Conflict

“High School:
Cultural Values in Conflict: Introduction”
In Japan, as in the United States, high schools have become the prime target for much of the rhetoric surrounding educational reform.

“‘Examination Hell.’” Being accepted by the right university assures later success, but the struggle for admission dominates students’ lives and distorts, many argue, the content and purpose of high school.

“‘New’ Minds for Business.’” Corporate leaders’ new call for innovative employees may not be easily answered by a system designed to produce waves of what one city official calls “yes men.”

“Classroom Rebels.” A surge in youth violence, including attacks on teachers, has shocked the Japanese public and intensified the debate over how to adapt schools to rapid social change.


PART THREE: March 6, 1985 Change and Constancy

“Change and Constancy: Introduction” A venturesome blending of old cultural values with new and foreign ideas has given Japanese education its dynamism. A cautious insistence on planning has given it stability. As the pressure for reform mounts, will the old patterns hold?

“Little Power, Many Demands.” Teachers have a union but little legal power to enforce better working conditions, and the union’s appeal is slipping.

"''The Hidden Law’.’” Centuries of custom have perpetuated an unwritten social code that assigns women the roles of “good wife and wise mother,” but economic and social forces have begun—slowly—to alter the pattern.

“Education’s ‘Wave of the Future.’” Adult-education centers are springing up in communities across Japan. The centers are not only a cultural oasis for home-bound women but also a source of pleasure and stimulation for the country’s growing population of retirees.

“‘I’m Not Very Optimistic About Change.’” An interview with Nobuo K. Shimahara, professor of educational anthropology in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education, where he was participating in the Japan-America collaborative study initiated by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

“OTHER VOICES. Some Perspectives on Reform.” Comments from a broad range of interested parties on how, and whether, the Japanese education system should be changed.


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