Current concerns (1)

This is our compendium of posts as we attempt to capture and track key educational concerns that have hit the press and media spotlights. We try to discuss issues that touch our community at our discussion group. Sometimes we take micro-level personal looks, at other times, we try to look at a macro-level to see where events are directing overall educational policy or at the major problems with education in Japan.


1. Nanking Massacre controversy. 2007 brings a potential new controversy with the documentary that director Satoru Mizushima says he is working on. The movie “The Truth About Nanking” is said to be based on testimony from Japanese veterans, archival footage and documents that will allegedly prove that accounts of the killng of some 150,000 civilians by Japanese troops are nothing more than Chinese propaganda. The director says “This will be our first effort to correct the errors of history through a film”. Since the movie addresses the longstanding debate and controversy called the Nanking Massacre – it has the potential rile a political hornet’s nest meaning strong diplomatic objections from China. The film is regarded abroad as part of a gathering trend or wave in Japan of “massacre demial” projects, mostly involving books, that refute that the Nanking Massacre of 150,000 civilians ever happened. A related issue is that many public school history textbooks do not mention the Nanking Massacre. This issue also adds to the strong criticism from foreign quarters that the Japanese are unable to face Japan’s wartime past. Source: Associated Press Japanese director announces production of Nanjing film to deny massacre Jan 27, 2007

2. Legislating patriotism in schools. Is there a gap between the country’s politicians’ and the Japanese people’s perceptions? Are most Japanese patriotic, do they want their country to reflect on its past wartime past and colonial rule over its neighbours?

A Dec 2-3 survey by Asahi Shimbun daily found that:

– 78% of 1,805 Japanese polled felt they were very patriotic or patriotic to some degree. But…while 20% of the respondents were strongly patriotic, only half of the respondents in the 20s-40s age-group were strongly patriotic.

– 88% of the “patriots” said that there was a need to reflect on Japan’s ugly wartime past. However, only 32% of the respondents felt that Japan should reflect strongly on its past, with 53% feeling that some dose of reflection was in order.

Key educational implications: At the end of 2006, the Japanese Parliament approved a Bill to change the basic educational law. It directs teachers to instil in children a love for hometown and country. News reports continually show though that only about half of Japanese are supportive of the instilling of patriotism in schools. Many criticisms have been voiced within the nation on the dangers of legislating patriotism, fearing the familiar propensity of patriotic education to blind the pre-war Japanese to the excesses of the military, and to lead the country down the path to war. It should be noted that many Japanese teachers are still against the compulsory singing of the national anthem and standing at attention to the Japanese flag at school events – both considered to be symbols of Japan’s militarist past.

The issue of legislating patriotism in schools seems to be causing pM Abe’s popularity to sink from 45% to 39%, as many Japanese prefer the PM to concentrate on the widening income gap issue than on cultivating patriotism. Source: Straits Times Jan 26,2007 Poll: Most Japanese want ugly past told.

3. Bullying issue hogs media spotlight in Dec 2006 through to Jan 2007. Reversing the Education Ministry’s findings that student suicides for the period 1999 and 2005 academic year were not due to bullying, after reinvestigating 37 cases, the ministry now says that at least 12 of those students committed suicide were bullied and that in two of those cases, bullying was the primary cause of death.

Why was it so difficult for the ministry to establish whether bullying was a cause of the suicides?

We might be clued into the answer by looking at the process of the investigation and subjective nature of the findings: the ministry asks the local boards of education to provide details on the circumstances surrounding the deaths, including whether the bullies were bullied and what they thought the cause of death was. The school selects one of 15 possible cuases listed in a questionnaire which include “bullying” and “other”. As a result, the original causes of the 12 students’ death (in the reversed findings) were initially reported as “falling out with friends” and “other”. In 2 cases, the ministry concluded that bullying was the primary cause of death; in four others, bullying was a causal factor but there were other contributing factors; and in the remaining six cases, bullying occurred but recognized as directly related to the suicides.

Another point to think about the reason behind the seeming difficulty in finding the direct cause or causal relationship between the suicides and bullying – schools and the education ministry are now targets in legal suits – it was said that in the six cases where bullying was found to have occurred but not deemed as directly related to the suicides, the basis for that decision was that such a causal relationship between the suicides and bullying was not recognized in court when the bereaved families filed damages lawsuits. Parents also criticize the investigations and findings as lacking detailed investigative efforts and for having excluded hearings from bereaved families.

Anybody else there thinks that maybe independent investigative and inquiry bodies would be in order here? Source: Bullying behind 12 suicides: Education ministry does about-face after reexamining 37 cases. Source: Daily Yomiuri, Jan 20, 2007

4. Police step in on bullying incident… The police in Fukuoka have sent papers on three middle school students to prosecutors for suspicion of violation of the Punishment of Physical Violence and Others Law, that is, on suspicion of physically abusing Keisuke Mori who committed suicide on the day they allegedly bullied him. Two other classmates were reported to a child guidance center since the students were 13 years old at the time and criminal laws can only be applied to those aged 14 and older. According to the police, the victim was allegedly held by the five students in a school lavatory and had the fastener of his trousers forcibly undone and his shirt unbuttoned. The five admitted the charges but told investigators they were just fooling around and did not mean to bully Mori. The investigative committee of the Board of Education had concluded earlier that bullying was the primary cause of Mori’s suicide and that classmates had used abusive language such as “Drop dead” and “You liar” to Mori and mocked him for an extended period of time and concluded that the incident in the lavatory was the “one that caused Mori immense mental suffering.” Police said they decided to proceed to build a case after concluding the boys’ lavatory behavior was a violation of the law and went beyond the level of fun and agames as the bullies forcibly restrained Mori when he resisted. The police explained their reason for sending the case to the prosecutors, as concern over the youths’ sound development based on the principle of the Juvenile Law and the need for them to receive proper treatment at specialized institutions such as a family court and a child guidance center.

The police case is unusual because police rarely intervene to build a case in relation to bullying when obvious criminal acts, such as threats or assaults resulting in injury, are not involved.

Source: Daily Yomiuri, Feb 20, 2007 Police act on bullying suicide

5. Educational policy: One step backward and one step forward OR one step forward and one step back?

In its report on education reform, Education Rebuilding Council (headed by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ryoji Noyori) has proposed that the government reform the current system of a 5-day school week for public schools.

In 1992, a five-day school week was introduced gradually and came into full effect in 2002. However, this policy has since been perceived as contributing to the drop in academic ability of students nationwide.

It appears that the Education minister Bunmei Ibuki is supportive of such a move, he had commented after a visit to a Tokyo middle school that provided supplementary lessons on Saturdays, that he believed the five-day week needed to be reformed. “When the five-day school week was implemented, the number of summer vacation days was supposed to be reduced accordingly,” he said. “But in the end just a five-day week system has been put in place.”

The report also includes 7 other proposals – the establishment of an independent institution to assess the academic level of schools; measures to tackle bullying including the introduction of a system to stop bullies from attending school and increase cooperation with police; introduction of a teacher’s license renewal system; a drastic reform involving education boards; a revision of curriculum guidelines.

Source: Daily Yomiuri Jan 20, 2007 Panel proposes reform of 5-day school week

Remarks by me:

– What parents and teachers can expect: If the government accepts the proposed reforms, schools may either shorten the summer vacation or increase the number of daily class hours before finally doing a complete overhaul of the five-day school week.

– Why is this news remarkable? It marks the first changes in education policy in about 15 years.

– This represents a u-turn on previous official policy. Problem redressed by previous policy: students needed to spend more time at home with parents and in the community forging stronger family and communal bonds and allowing students to relax and pursue creative leisure activities – (thereby impacting creativity and sound social development of children). Problem redressed by current policy: decreasing academic abilities of Japanese students has been attributed to the reduction in classroom hours. So what do we do about promoting creativity less-stressed out students

– Most private schools went on with their six-day classroom schedules, ignoring the national directive, and so are not affected by the ding-donging national educational policy.

– See the carts before the horses? Before policies are put in place, shouldn’t they study the causes for the decline in academic ability AND which segment of the student population isn’t doing well? And all the whys? My juku teacher sources tell me that there is a growing gap in income levels and hence in academic ability – between students from the higher and lower income families. Teachers say kids are polarized into two groups in public schools – kids who attend jukus are bored in school because they know the stuff taught already and kids who are bored because they are too far behind academically already (a situation that often results in classroom collapse). Students who do well in schools do so regardless of school hours, are those who have financial backing of their wealthier families and hence are the recipients of additional educational resources and support of cramschools (juku), and those who don’t do well, come from families not backed with similar financial resources for juku spending or from lower-income families that don’t have impart the same values of pursuit of academic excellence through hard work. Perhaps the need is to teach teachers how teach using more creative teaching methods that allow multi-level teaching of the curriculum to kids of varying abilities?

The other possible contributing factor? Growing lackadaisical parenting attitudes towards traditional academic discipline and laxer or changing attitudes on the need for disciplined rote study (as opposed to the need for a perceived need for a more relaxed and creative atmosphere at home).

6. More on the proposals… the education reform panel called for increasing classroom hours at public schools by 10 percent, a move that would reverse the current policy of encouraging a lighter curriculum; All high school students should be compulsorily involved in community services to learn social norms; Review of directives issued in the 1940s to ban physical punishment of students so teachers can control problematic behavior and curb bullying from the beginnning of the next academic year, which begins on April 1; Educational authorities are urged to allow students with remarkable academic performance to skip grades.

Source: Daily Yomiuri, 25 Jan, 2007 Education panel urges longer classroom hours. See also…

School Educational Law on Corporal Punishment, Articles 11, 13;

Guidelines on Discipline Corporal Punishment

Remarks: Will introducing physical punishment of students control problematic behavior and bullying? Experts have noted that the unique difference between bullying phenomena in Japan and that in other countries is that bullying grows more severe in its forms and increases as students get older, whereas bullying incidents decrease with age of students in other countries. Will corporal punishment work on older kids then? Middle and high school kids may be beyond corporal punishment. Shouldn’t there be comparative studies on other countries’ schools be carried out on the effectiveness of corporal punishment, suspension of school attendence, and other zero-tolerance for bullying school policies to see which are most effective? One more thing… reports suggest that bullying usually goes undetected by teachers and parents anyway, perhaps penultimate studies ought to be conducted highlighting the real fundamental causes of bullying behavior in Japanese kids, before deciding which is the best cause of action for the prevention of bullying. I say penultimate, because the problem is old and studies have been done before, but never before linked to appropriate measure-making proposals.

7. Japanese parents displaying laxer ethical and moral standards? Dig this headline: 2.23 bil. yen in lunch fees unpaid: Parents of 1% of students not forking out for children’s meals.

Education ministry’s surveys’ findings:

– School fee nonpayment occurred at 40% of all primary schools and 51% of all middle schools in the year to March 2006.

– Due to non-payment, free lunches were provided for some 61,000 primary school kids, 0.8% of the total and 38,000 middle students 1.3%, (averaging out to 1% of total or 99,000 students in all receiving free lunches).

– School operators say about 60% of nonpaying parents don’t cough up the lunch fees due to “a lack of responsibility or moral awareness” and 33% don’t pay up due to “economic problems”.

Source: Daily Yomiuri Jan 25, 2007 2.23 bil. yen in lunch fees unpaid: Parents of 1% of students not forking out for children’s meals

Remarks: Maybe that’s a clue to Japan’s educational problems – parents falling through the cracks? 33% of 99,000 families with school-going kids in financial difficulty. The others, well, lax attitudes, do these suggest anything?

8. The problem with the Japanese way of dealing with bullying and the role of educators

Two articles below discuss the Japanese way to dealing with bullying as follows:

– After much soul-searching, the Education Ministry has finally admitted that schools and teachers have been inclined to ignore or conceal bullying cases because they fear looking bad. The standard reaction of teachers whenever a child is found to have been the victim of bullying, has been: “We saw nothing amiss.”

– Teachers and principals are not being subjected to actual disciplinary action for ignoring, lying about, or even participating in bullying. They’re being reprimanded. Not fired, not prosecuted. Reprimanded./Counseling for victims is being discussed. But not counseling for bullies. This makes sense because it is the victims’ problems that cause bullies to pick on them. The bullies are just normal, well-adjusted kids who are apparently instinctively reacting to a stimulus. (It’s sad when The Simpsons puts forth, in twenty-two minutes, a more in-depth and nuanced view of bullying than the education ministry can figure out in, oh, sixty years.) /Teachers, to repeat a point, are sometimes participating in the bullying. Not only should they be fired, they should be prosecuted and spend many years in prison. If a kid bullies another kid, the victim is traumatized and the bully probably has issues of his own. If a teacher bullies a kid, that’s child abuse. That’s assault. Teachers are not only adults, but adults whose job it is to take care of children, at a minimum. Ideally they should instruct kids and act as role models for them. / The root of the problem is that students are expected to obey, to toe the line, they are expected to do well on tests, and be visible only for outstanding achievements. They are expected to move in the same direction and want the same things. If they’re not sure what they want, their teachers will tell them. If they drop too far below the norm or, just as bad, rise too far above it, they are set right. They are hammered down. /Teachers tend not to take deviation lightly, it is not necessarily bad behavior that is punished, it is deviation. The teachers have an unwitting, but effective ally in the student body. Deviation warrants bullying. When the bullying gets out of hand, even stricter rules are laid down, thus putting the victims of bullying even farther from the expected norm, which begets yet more bullying. / If a student creates a problem by being bullied too much, he may be moved to a different school, his family may move to a different town (bullying is not limited to the halls of the school.) Bullies, though, are not really punished, much less counseled or transferred. Of course not, the teachers themselves are not rarely bullies. And why not? Their job is to enforce the norm. This is how Japan condones, even encourages bullying./ It’s not malicious, though, it’s a lack of imagination, a lack of effort. It takes more work to deal with kids who have different abilities or need help. It takes more work to deal with people of different backgrounds, body types, physical abilities, and personalities. It takes effort to accept what you don’t understand and even more effort to understand it. /Japan has a massive bullying problem because it is not willing to put effort into stopping it. Because it is easier to react to bullying with more bullying and to try to drive the victim, intentionally or not, out of the sphere in which one might have to deal with him.

Sources: The first quote comes from Japan acts to put bullies in their place, Straits Times Jan 3, 2007; The second comes from Bully, knock it off. Teacher, Wake Up Trans-Pacific Radio, Shasetsu – Op/Ed Tuesday, November 21, 2006




9. Patriotic education – why now?

Ian Baruma suggests the reason why it’s slipped its foothold into the national educational policy now – is not due to militarism (because militarism is dead in his view) but due to the fact that history education has become the tangled tug-of-war rope between the political factions that control foreign policy and military defence; between the losing left-thinking pacifist segment of society and the winning cultural conservatives who are trying to bolster national identity and fill up the moral vacuum left by US imperialism.

“Those who stood on the left of the political spectrum, which included much of the Japanese intelligentsia, had no problem with these policies. Like most Japanese they were glad to be rid of the oppressive wartime regime and embraced democratic change. / Such teachers had a strong influence on the Japan Teachers Union, whose institutional power only began to crumble in the 1980s. Many school textbooks reflected their views, even though leftist biases were almost invariably watered down by conservative education ministry bureaucrats. As long as the majority of the Japanese people still held on to the pacifist ideal and resisted a revival of old-style moral education, rightwing nationalists had little room for manoeuvre. /Prime- ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of imperial soldiers including quite a few war criminals are enshrined, are symbolic gestures that please Japanese veterans and other conservative voters at the cost of irritating Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese liberals, but they cannot restore Japan’s right to go to war again. And neither can public remarks about the justness of Japan’s war, the moral decadence of the young or the negative effects of masochistic history teaching. / What has shifted, though, in the wake of the Cold War (which is not really quite over in East Asia), is the public consensus that official pacifism is a realistic or even desirable option in the long run. It was humiliating for Japan to write cheques for the Gulf War in 1991 while being forced to be a passive bystander. Since Japan is so dependent on the US for its security, most foreign policy simply follows the dictates of Washington DC. Many Japanese people who hold no brief for wartime imperialism feel that it is time for a change. Not a few also feel that the time for apologising is over. / Cultural conservatives, not unnaturally, took a very different view of the US occupation. They felt robbed of their national identity. Even though American censorship was minimal compared with Japanese wartime censorship, some writers and thinkers felt deeply humiliated by foreigners telling them what to think. And conservatives, who deplored the “moral vacuum” that replaced emperor-worshipping nationalism, have tried to fill this vacuum with the old patriotic spirit ever since. A rosier view of the wartime past is part of this effort, which has found support among many conservative politicians, including prime ministers. / The issue of moral education and patriotic history is closely linked to the postwar constitution. To leftists and liberals, official pacifism has always been seen as a way to atone for the militarism of the past…”

Source: Ian Baruma: Why the Japanese are now receptive to patriotic history

10. Competition among public primary and middle schools?
The education ministry will use for the first time a five-rank scale as an objective unified criteria for third parties to evaluate class content and teaching competence at 124 public primary and middle schools on a trial basis this academic year. It will begin evaluating in September public primary and middle schools in 47 prefectures and a primary and a middle school in each of the 15 cities that enjoy administrative rights on a par with prefectures. More schools will expanded the next year, and the ministry plans to include private and state-run schools as well as kindergartens and high schools in the future.

Teachers and parents have previously been able to evaluate school performance (introduced since Apr 2002), but the new five-rank scale system will enable third parties to check each school’s performance in a bid to improve the quality of education, the sources said.

The ministry established 18 evaluation categories in three fields–school education,
school management and collaboration with parents and local residents with 10 indicators that will be used to evaluate the teaching of each subject, including each teacher’s instruction methods, such as explanations given to students, use of the blackboard, one-on-one teaching and teaching appropriate to the learning level. A rating of three will be given if a school has many students concentrate on studying and the classrooms are well cleaned, things are neatly arranged and notices on the bulletin board are appropriate and practical.

A five rating will be awarded if a school uses brilliant teaching methods
that can be used as reference for other schools.

Daily Yomiuri Aug. 28, 2006 Public schools to be given grades

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