This past fall I was part of a group of educators who were awarded fellowships to travel to Japan and learn about the country’s education system. During my three-week stay in Tokyo and the southern prefecture of Yamaguchi, I met administrators, teachers, and parents and observed a variety of school environments. As a special education professional, I was interested in seeing how students with disabilities were being taught. Japan is widely known for its challenging academic standards and I wanted to know how its educational culture affects students with diverse educational needs.
I found that the Japanese education system unfortunately trends toward providing segregated instruction to students with disabilities. This can mean being taught in a self-contained classroom within a general education school or attending a separate school away from peers altogether. As I talked to teachers, administrators, and parents, I was also struck by the absence of uniform special education services among school districts and the lack of legal safeguards, like the individual education programs that define America’s special education system. I did, however, encounter an attribute of the Japanese perspective on disabilities that was very encouraging: a genuine acceptance of students with special needs as valuable members of the community.
The success or failure of any country’s system of educating children with disabilities hinges on whether the model translates into those students having access to meaningful adult lives. Japan certainly trails the United States in special education policies and the necessary legal frameworks that advocate for the fulfillment of those mandates. I believe, however, that Japan exceeds the United States in accepting that students with disabilities have a right to become successful participants in their own communities. During my trip, I discovered that this is accomplished because Japanese schools concentrate on creating collective prosperity through a sense of community harmony and mutual responsibility that is inclusive of people of all ability levels.
The town of Sanyo Onoda City is a prime example of this philosophy. Sanyo Onoda City is a working class town, comprised of tight-knit neighborhoods and families that encompass several generations. Throughout my weeklong stay, I saw citizens, from children to town elders, engage in activities aimed at securing the future prosperity of the community by ensuring a meaningful educational environment for all students. I observed town elders standing on street corners each morning to greet every child and ensure their safety as they walked to school. Parents were engaged in an ongoing dialogue with town officials about the composition of the curriculum. Students took time each day to clean and beautify their school grounds. After-school programs staffed by a disparate group of community members were available to all students for completing homework, practicing art and music, or fine tuning trade skills. I was most impressed to learn that industry coordinated with the high schools to ensure that students had opportunities to be appropriately trained for the local job market. Throughout the town, young people and their education were cared about and celebrated, and barriers of ability were broken down in favor of community cohesiveness.
The town’s mayor, Mr. Hirofumi Shirai, met with our group of educators and expressed his belief that public schools should be a viable resource for everyone and serve as a means to renew and build up the life of the community. He explained his mission to better the community by bettering the schools. Disabled students, in particular, are a concern of his because he wants these more vulnerable students to have a secure place in the fabric of the town. His aim has been to promote instruction that can realistically translate into successful occupation for all students. He stressed that whether they end up working in the factories and businesses of the town or in sheltered workshops that provide niche product manufacturing, everyone must have a place in the community. Together with his superintendent of schools, he has sought to underscore that Sanyo Onoda City is a place where everyone feels they can build their lives and participate as citizens.
This clearly articulated vision, aimed at providing a place at the table for everyone, was a perspective I found to be more the rule than the exception in talking to fellow American educators who had traveled to other parts of Japan during our program. This vision stands in contrast to what I find complicated about the American education system. The United States spends large amounts of money and numerous resources on students with disabilities from pre-kindergarten through high school, but then often turns these same students loose into intolerant communities and inaccessible job markets that ignore their ability to contribute. After their years in public education, many disabled people in America are simply left to fend for themselves.
What I observed of Japan’s community-oriented culture is that it may provide for disabled students to move beyond their American peers when it comes to attaining meaningful lives. Time will tell whether Japan retains its status as a world leader in education as a whole. But if the country can maintain a culture of shared responsibility while continuing to meet the needs of students with disabilities like those I observed in Sanyo Onoda City, Japan is likely to surpass America’s best intentions for ensuring quality of life for people with disabilities.