Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education

Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education

by Peter Cave


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226367866
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/13/2016
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Peter Cave is a lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester and the author of Primary School in Japan

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Schooling Selves

Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education

By Peter Cave

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36805-4


Individuals, Autonomy, and Society in Japanese Education

How children should develop into adult human beings is a universal concern, and in modern industrialized societies, it has become a subject of almost incessant attention, if not anxiety. In Japan, school education has been a subject of intense concern for the nation-state and for individuals from the beginning of the modern period in 1868, and it has also been a topic of perennial contention, especially since 1945. In the Meiji period (1868–1912), the establishment of an effective national education system was a government priority and was designed to shape good workers and obedient imperial subjects, as well as develop a highly qualified elite to lead the nation (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999, 17–19). The system established at the end of the nineteenth century endured until 1945, but was blamed thereafter for its role in creating the conditions that led to Japan's invasion of China in the 1930s and its entry into World War II. After 1945, a thoroughgoing reform of the education system under the American Occupation emphasized the development of democratic citizens. The education system became much more egalitarian, as all children were given a largely undifferentiated education in coeducational classes for nine years between ages six and fifteen, in place of the multitrack, single-sex secondary education system of the pre-1945 years.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the major debates within Japanese education centered on politics and ideology. Conservatives, who dominated government, sought to reintroduce greater stress on academic differentiation and what they saw as traditional Japanese values and opposed teaching with a left-wing slant. Liberals and leftists, whose numbers were strong among teachers, fought against what they saw as the conservatives' attempts to return to ideologies and practices that had dominated the pre-1945 education system and against increasing academic demands in the school curriculum (Cummings 1980, 54–75). In the meantime, the number of children going on to high school, which was not compulsory, increased continuously through the period, reaching 82 percent by 1970 (Monbukagakusho 2014), and Japanese students performed outstandingly in the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS), conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in 1964 (Husen 1967). Despite political and ideological struggles, problems within school education were not a subject of major public concern.

However, this was to change during the 1970s. To some extent, the problems that came to a head in that decade resulted from the successes of the preceding years. Aspirations rose with incomes and living standards during Japan's economic "high growth period" from 1955 to 1973. Confidence in meritocratic credentialism meant that better educational qualifications were seen as the high road to success and security. The best jobs went to graduates of the best universities; and to have a chance of entering the best universities, it was necessary to enter the best high schools. The result was increased educational competition (Kariya and Dore 2006, 134–41). To ensure the best chance of entering a good high school, it was believed that children needed extra tuition outside school, either from a private tutor or at a juku (tutorial college) offering classes in the evenings and on weekends. Contemporaries labeled the 1970s the "ranjuku jidai" (age of excessive tutorial college attendance) (Mainichi Shinbun Shakaibu 1977), though, as it turned out, attendance at juku was to become a permanent feature of Japan's educational landscape. The 1970s was also the decade in which Japan's students were subjected to the most academically demanding curriculum in the country's postwar history (Cummings 1980, 155; NHK Shuzaihan 1983, 128–36). Much criticism was leveled at what was labeled "cram education" and "bullet train lessons" that covered so much material so fast that many students were left hopelessly at sea as ochikobore ("the left behind"). The term "shichigosan (7-5-3) education" encapsulated the assertion that 70 percent of students understood what they studied at elementary school, 50 percent at junior high, and only 30 percent at high school (NHK Shuzaihan 1983, 131). As the late 1970s also saw rising rates of juvenile delinquency and school refusal, critics of contemporary schooling, particularly progressives, often linked this disaffection among the young to educational competition and pressure to cram. A 1978 report issued by the main opposition party of the time, the Japan Socialist Party, summarizes many points of the progressive perspective.

Education is increasingly becoming a scene of desolation as a result of government policy. The evidence can be seen in low academic attainment, the ranjuku jidai, ochikobore, "7-5-3 education," the "four nos" [yonmushugi] among students (no interest, no energy, no responsibility, no emotional reaction), universities becoming leisure lands, juvenile delinquency, and the rapid rise in suicides....

Failing to respond to the desire that children be taught until they understand, government policies result in the creation of textbooks that cram in increased knowledge that results from social change, without any clear order. Along with difficult exam questions designed to sort students hierarchically, the result is students who get left behind, and an extreme drop in basic academic attainment [kiso gakuryoku]. This in turn produces the ranjuku jidai and a situation where school education becomes controlled by the examination industry. Children are robbed of their play, their physical strength fails to develop, they lose any latitude to do other than they have to [yutori], their sense of solidarity [rentai] disappears, and the development of their social nature as human beings becomes difficult....

The victors in the entrance exam competition find their motivation to study easily dissipate at university thanks to the relief they feel at having obtained the passport to a good life in the credentialist society, resulting in a tendency for university to be a "leisure land" that they can enjoy until they take company entrance exams, rather than a place of learning where they can discover their true reason for living [ikigai]. The losers see themselves as failures and are filled with a sense of inferiority, with the result that they lose the motive power to live lives true to themselves. (Sengo Nihon kyoiku shiryoshusei henshu iinkai 1983, 32–33)

From the second half of the 1970s, a further issue hit the headlines: violence by students against (especially) teachers (konai boryoku). Not only did the number of incidents soar (by 50 percent in 1981, according to National Police Agency records), but particularly horrifying incidents such as fatal attacks on homeless people by junior high students and the stabbing of a junior high student by a teacher in self-defense left the public shocked (Schoppa 1991, 48–49). After incidences of violence in schools started to subside from their peak in 1982–1983, a new worry emerged — bullying. Again, the causes of alarm lay both in the number and severity of incidents. A Ministry of Education survey indicated over 150,000 reported incidents of bullying in 1985 (Yahisa 1991, 17). In 1986, several student suicides were linked to bullying and received wide media coverage (Yoneyama 1999, 158–60).

Though such problems affected the entire school education system, they were particularly acute at the junior high school level (Schoppa 1991, 49; Fukuzawa 1994, 68; Sato and Sato 2003, 12). This was perhaps not surprising, given junior high schools' pivotal position in the education system as the institution where children prepared for the extremely high-stakes high school entrance exams. Ministry of Education surveys indicated that 45 percent of junior high students attended juku in 1985, rising to 60 percent in 1993 (Dawson 2010, 16); meanwhile, junior high school refusal rates as measured by the Ministry reached 1.42 percent of students in 1995 (Okano and Tsuchiya 1999, 203). Annual ministry surveys repeatedly showed that incidents of student violence were most frequent in junior high school too; in one of the peak years, 1982, ministry statistics indicated that nearly 1,400 junior high schools (13.5 percent) experienced such an incident (Yahisa 1991, 11). Bullying was also reported most often in junior high school in most years (over 15,000 incidents every year from 1985 to 1989) (Yahisa 1991, 17), and the most shocking and widely reported bullying-related suicides occurred in junior high school, as well (Yoneyama 1999, 158–61).

Public perceptions that junior high schools were both crucial and particularly problematic were reflected, as well as fueled, by dramatic portrayals on television. The most widely watched of these was the series Sannen B-gumi Kinpachi-sensei (Mr. Kinpachi of Class 3-B), written by Osanai Mieko and starring the actor and singer Takeda Tetsuya as teacher Sakamoto Kinpachi. The first two Kinpachi-sensei seasons were broadcast in 1979–1980 and 1980–1981, with twenty-three and twenty-five episodes, respectively, and attracted huge viewing figures. The first season dealt with subjects like exam pressure, suicide, and teenage pregnancy; the second with school violence and exam pressure (again). The long-haired and unorthodox Kinpachi-sensei is portrayed as the ideal teacher, whose caring and readiness to listen persuade his troubled students to absorb his lectures on life and change their view of themselves and others for the better. As a whole, the Kinpachi-sensei series lean strongly to the view that education is about healthy personal development above all, and that too much exam pressure has a thoroughly bad effect on students.

Thus, by the mid-1980s, there was a widespread perception within Japan that education was in crisis. Kohai (desolation) was the term repeatedly used about education (NHK Shuzaihan 1983). It might well be argued that this perception was somewhat exaggerated. Ironically, the 1980s was also a period when Japanese education attracted much favorable attention among scholars, government officials, and journalists from the West, particularly the United States (Cummings 1980; Duke 1986; White 1987). International tests indicated that Japanese students' academic attainment was excellent, and from an American perspective, at least, the problems faced by Japanese schools seemed comparatively minor (Duke 1986, 188; LeTendre 2000, 113–15), even though some analyses of Japanese schools by American scholars were more critical (Rohlen 1983). Nonetheless, within Japan, perceptions of crisis were intense and widely shared. Into the resulting debate strode Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro.

Educational Reform Debates from the 1980s On

Nakasone Yasuhiro was prime minister between 1982 and 1987. Hailing from the Liberal Democratic Party, a conservative and business-oriented party almost continuously in government between 1955 and 2009, he was considered a nationalist and an economic liberal and had long been interested in education (Schoppa 1991, 214). Seizing the opportunity presented by the perception of crisis to attempt to shape the educational debate, in 1984 Nakasone set up the high-profile Rinji Kyoiku Shingikai (Ad Hoc Council on Education) — Rinkyoshin for short — directly under the prime minister's office rather than under the Ministry of Education. The backing of the prime minister ensured the council enormous publicity.

The Rinkyoshin issued four reports before winding up in 1987. The council's immediate impact in policy terms was limited, but it established some key ideas as guiding principles for educational reform, notably "stress on individuality" (kosei jushi). "Stress on individuality" became a key piece of rhetoric, indicating a desire to move away from "one-size-fits-all" education where all children until the end of junior high school were learning the same things and pursuing the same goals in classrooms dominated by whole-class teaching.

However, the precise meaning of "individuality" (kosei) was unclear. An important 1995 monograph showed how protean the concept had been in twentieth-century Japanese education; it had been used in the service of very different agendas, depending on its interpretation (Katagiri 1995; Sato 1995). Sometimes it was primarily understood in terms of "individuation"; that is, treating individuals as units with different levels of ability. It could then support agendas of educational efficiency and ability grouping. At other times, it was understood in terms of "singularization"; that is, treating individuals as unique possessors of special qualities. It could then support cooperative forms of education (Sato 1995). Educational sociologist Fujita Hidenori argued that the broad appeal of "individuality" masked sharp differences between those who used the word. Being a nebulous term on to which different groups could project their own interpretations, it united idealizers of free schools and child-centered education with critics of egalitarianism and uniformity in education (Fujita 1995).

The implications of "stress on individuality" for educational policy and practice were as unclear as the concept itself. Many to the political left warned that "individuality" could be interpreted simply as "differing ability" and used to justify earlier tracking of children into elite and nonelite school programs (Hamabayashi 1987, 24–25; Fujita 1997, 48; Saito 2004, 25–39). However, other progressives welcomed greater emphasis on children's own interests and inquiry-based learning (Kyoiku Mondai Kenkyukai 1986; Yoshimoto 1992), because they understood "stress on individuality" to mean allowing each child's special abilities and aptitudes to flourish (Hamabayashi 1987, 24–25). Those to the political right were often ambivalent, too; some saw opportunities for more academic tracking, but others wanted more teaching of morals and "Japanese traditions and culture" (Yayama and Kato 1985; Schoppa 1991, 57–59, 223–28; Nijuisseiki Bijon Ju-iinkai 1993). The debates thus highlighted the ideological ambiguity of emphasizing the individual, which could be progressive or neoliberal; it could give children greater autonomy and develop their unique qualities, or throw them on their own resources and force them into competition with others.

The years after 1987 saw the new agenda of individuality repeatedly promoted by the Ministry of Education and translated into policy measures. In 1989, the ministry issued a new school curriculum that placed greater emphasis on individuality and the individual. It featured what became known as a "new view of academic attainment" (shingakuryokukan), focusing on students' interests and motivation (kyomi, kanshin, iyoku) alongside the knowledge and understanding (chishiki, rikai) that had hitherto been understood as the core of academic attainment (Hirahara and Terasaki 1998, 33). The revised curriculum's tone was marked by the new paragraph introduced at its start:

When advancing the school's educational activities, efforts must be made fully to realize education which gives thorough guidance on basic content and makes the most of individuality [kosei o ikasu. Also to be fostered are motivation to learn for oneself, and the capacity to cope as an independent subject with changes in society [mizukara manabu iyoku to shakai no henka ni shutai-teki ni taio dekiru noryoku] (Monbusho 1989, 1).

Then, in 1996, came the first report of the fifteenth session of the Central Council for Education (Chuo Kyoiku Shingikai, or Chukyoshin), the ministry's main advisory council (Monbusho 1996). The unusual significance of this report lay in its comprehensive critique of the Japanese educational scene. Its analysis was broadly twofold. First, the council argued, the social and emotional education of Japanese children was inadequate, largely because children were no longer learning such skills naturally in their families and neighborhoods, as they supposedly had in the past. Second, the model of education designed to help Japan catch up with the West, based — it was argued — on learning and understanding existing knowledge, was now inadequate for a new century when Japan had itself become a world leader and could no longer rely on the acquisition of knowledge from abroad. In the fast-changing future the council envisaged, the key would be the ability to learn and to create by oneself, and consequently, education had to nurture people of initiative who could identify and tackle problems themselves.


Excerpted from Schooling Selves by Peter Cave. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on Conventions

Chapter 1.       Individuals, Autonomy, and Society in Japanese Education
Chapter 2.       Reshaping Reform: Discipline, Autonomy, and Group Relations
Chapter 3.       Classes, Clubs, and Control
Chapter 4.       Mass Games and Dreams of Youth
Chapter 5.       Changing the Classroom? Autonomy and Expression in Japanese Language and Literature
Chapter 6.       The Challenges and Trials of Curricular Change
Chapter 7.       To Graduation and Beyond: High School Entrance and Juku

Fieldwork Appendix

What People are Saying About This

Roger Goodman

“In this wonderfully detailed ethnography, which draws on over a dozen years of fieldwork—often visiting the same event many years apart—Cave robustly challenges the persistent view of Japanese junior high schools as unchanging institutions that serve primarily to prepare children for a life focused on group rather than individual activity. In doing so, Cave shifts our understanding of some of the key topics not only in Japanese studies but also in anthropology more generally, such as personhood, autonomy, creativity, and how social change both occurs and is resisted.”

Christopher Bjork

“A nuanced look at recent efforts to alter the context for teaching and learning in Japan. Not only does Cave’s analysis deepen our understanding of the education system, it also raises some pithy questions about social change in Japan and the tensions that have surfaced as government leaders attempt to convince citizens to adopt behaviors that often clash with established practices.”

Kaori H. Okano

Schooling Selves is an insightful longitudinal ethnographic study of how Japanese junior high schools have interpreted, and struggled to implement, national reform policies to promote individual autonomy. Its outstanding feature is the extensive coverage, exceeding any previous studies, of aspects of daily schooling that Cave devotes to examining this process, including extracurricular clubs, the subjects of Japanese and integrated studies, sports days, choral contests, cultural festivals, and assessment. Readers can unpack the complexity and underlying reasoning for the contradiction-ridden policy implementation process through the author’s thick description of everyday schooling; and in so doing, they gain an insight into how individual autonomy, interdependence, and the social whole are conceived by teachers, parents, and students, and in the wider society.”

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