Table Speech

“Education Policy in Japan”

September 2, 2009

Mr. Masami Zeniya
Executive Director, Tokyo National Museum

 1.The history of post-war educational reform
The Fundamental Law of Education and School Education Act were enacted in 1945, with the goal to establish a democratic educational system. Based on the principle of equal opportunity, the school years were stipulated as 6 (primary), 3 (lower secondary), 3 (upper secondary), and 4 (university) years, with compulsory education extended to 9 years. The newly established Board of Education became the administrative body.

 Challenges met in education policy shifted in the course of time. During the 1950s to 1960s, the greatest challenge was how to respond to the growing needs of baby-boomers. Focus was placed on how to correct defects in the systems and to systematize and update the educational contents. In the 1970s, the “knowledge cramming and standardized education” came under criticism, while entrance examination wars and students’ behavior problems, such as violence or bullying, intensified. To meet these challenges, careful selection of educational contents and cut in number of classes were introduced. In 1984, the so-called “third educational reform,” a three-year-review by the newly-established Ad Hoc Council on Education, got started. Members held extensive discussions over how to 1) respect the individuality of each student, 2) shift to systematic life-long learning, and 3) improve the educational system to meet changing needs of the time. Measures were taken to make education receptive to global changes and the age of instant information as well as to promote deregulation and decentralization.

 In 2000, the People’s Educational Reform Council was summoned to discuss educational policies for the 21st century. The Council came up with 17 proposals, which include the reform of Fundamental Law of Education and mapping out of the Basic Plan of Promotion of Education.

 In 2006, the Fundamental Law of Education was revised after 60 years. Its new basic policies are; 1) empower people to achieve their goals throughout life, by well-balanced intellectual, moral and physical education, 2) foster a sense of public duty through active participation in events for the benefit of the country and society, and 3) promote the spirit of membership in the international community, based on respect for Japanese tradition and culture.

 The basic educational promotion plan formulated last July clarified measures to be taken in the coming 5 years (2008-2012) for Japan to become an education-oriented nation.

 2.Elementary and secondary education reform
2-1. Foster sound academic ability
OECD conducts the PISA survey every three years to assess the 15-year-old students’ key competency based on knowledge. Japan ranked No. 3 for scientific literacy among OECD nations, mathematics marked higher than average, while reading comprehension was just average. Another survey by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) evaluates students’ mathematical and scientific competence. In the 2007 survey, Japan ranked No.4 for mathematics and science for elementary school (4th graders), No. 5 for mathematics and No. 3 for science for junior high school (2nd graders).

 Japan used to occupy superior rankings in previous IEA surveys, but other Asian countries have overtaken Japan.

 National achievement exams are conducted every year for elementary (6th graders) and junior high (3rd graders) schools. The latest results were announced last week, indicating only half of the students answered correctly to questions testing application ability. What is noteworthy is that a distinctive academic gap, which used to exist between urban and rural areas in the 1950s, was not observed. The Curriculum Guidelines were revised last March, reflecting the survey results. The main points are: 1) foster “zest for life” through well-balanced intellectual, moral and physical education, 2) keep sound balance between acquiring knowledge/ skills and nurturing ability to think/judge, and 3) nurture both mind and body, through upgraded moral and physical education. The curriculum has been revised accordingly, with more classes allocated for science and mathematics, introducing foreign language lessons at elementary schools and emphasizing learning through practical experiences.

 2-2. Nurture inquiring minds and healthy bodies
 We still have many incidents of juvenile violence, a social issue since the mid-1980s, with 52,000 cases recorded in 2007. Bullying and truancy are also rising, while those quitting high-schools are slowly decreasing. Programs to nurture inquiring minds are essential without which fundamental lessons including moral education embracing to “know good from evil” cannot be made.

 The physical size of students is improving, while their physical strength or athletic performance is declining. The latest Curriculum Guidelines increased PE classes and introduced compulsory martial arts lessons at secondary schools.

 2-3. Establishment of a trustworthy schooling system
 As “education depends on teachers,” it is essential to secure good teachers. From this year, a teacher’s license will be renewed, after receiving 30 hours’ lectures every 10 years.

 2-4. Education expenditure
 Public expenditure on education in Japan accounts for 3.4% of GDP, lower than the OECD average of 5.0%. For higher education, it accounts for 0.5%, only half the level of the OECD average of 1.1%. What is more, ratio between private expenses vs public expenditure (44.3% vs 55.7% at pre-schools, jumping to 66.3% at higher education) calls for more public expenditure allocation.

3.Higher education reform
 In Japan, as many as 77.6% students go to universities, junior colleges or technical schools. Higher educational institutions must maintain quality through specialization to survive the international competition.

 Career education must focus on equipping the working population with a sound view on career/ work and the practical expertise needed in society.

 That concludes my speech on the history of education reform and major changes taking place now.