Current concerns (8)

42. Poll: Bullying linked to bad parenting  Daily Yomiuri 11/19/2006 Sixty-five percent of people polled believe that bullying at school, which is suspected to have driven some children to commit suicide, is caused by parents failing to teach their children social rules, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey. Japan Times 

43. School Shakeout Return to Rigid School System Hit School Shakeout Return to Rigid School System Hit 

46. The Wrong Plan for Schools? Newsweek

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking heat over his new school-reform plan, because teachers and parents say it fails to address the real issues of concern, including the need to promote more creative thinking among students.

47. Japan grapples with student suicides

A rash of student suicides since October has prompted Japan’s government to call for clearer disciplinary standards for bullies. One Korean father with a son in a Japanese school says the Japanese culture’s emphasis on non-confrontation makes it tough for bullying victims to get help from their peers.

Young teen suicides up 22.7% in 2006 Kyodo News
Suicides in Japan topped 30,000 for the ninth straight year in 2006, although a slight drop was seen from the previous year, the National Police Agency said Thursday, adding, however, that young teen suicides surged.
A total of 32,155 people took their own lives last year, down 1.2 percent, or 397, from 2005, the report said.
The NPA said Japan’s economic recovery contributed to the decrease. The number of people who took their lives due to economic hardship went down by 10.1 percent, or 787, to 6,969 in 2006.
But suicides by students rose 2.9 percent, or 25, to 886, the worst on record, which the NPA started keeping in 1978. Junior high school student suicides saw a 22.7 percent increase, to 81, reflecting several attributed to bullying last fall.
By age, suicides by people aged 60 or older and those aged 19 or younger both saw an increase, while a decrease was seen in all age groups among those in their 20s to 50s.
Suicides committed by people aged 60 or older accounted for 11,120, or 34.6 percent, of the total, and those by people aged 19 or younger rose by 15 from the previous year to 623, comprising 1.9 percent of the total.
Men still accounted for about 70 percent of the total, but female suicides rose by 330 to 9,342.
Health problems were seen as the most common presumed reason behind suicides, accounting for 15,402, or nearly half, followed by economic and livelihood difficulties, the NPA said. Family troubles accounted for 2,960 and work problems 1,919 deaths, it said.
The NPA said 32.5 percent, or 10,466 people, left suicide notes. Of them, the number of those who cited school-related problems, including bullying and academic performance, rose 28.2 percent to 91, the highest since the survey in this category began in 1998, it said.
With or without suicide notes, the number of suicides police attributed to school-related problems totaled 242, up by nine from the previous year.
By profession, suicides by the self-employed went down 3.6 percent to 3,567, followed by salaried workers, which were down 1.8 percent, to 8,163. Suicides by the unemployed and homeless stayed about the same level, at 15,412.
The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said Wednesday that suicides dipped below 30,000, but the ministry’s data only cover those deaths reported to government offices.
The NPA suicide data tend to be higher than the ministry’s because they include unsolved deaths that are later deemed suicides, along with suicides committed in Japan by foreigners. Japan Times Friday, June 8, 2007

48. Suicides shift attention to Japan’s education system Financial Times November 30 2006

A rash of student suicides in Japan over the past two months has prompted a government advisory panel on school reform to take the unusual step of announcing emergency policies that put the onus on teachers and principals to address bullying. Critics complain a government school reform bill that promotes patriotism doesn’t address bullying and other problems plaguing the country’s school system.

49. Japan scandal leaves 84,000 students without credits to graduate IHT/Associated Press 2006/11/02/

Roughly 84,000 Japanese seniors hoping to graduate this year likely will have to take scores of makeup classes after school or during vacation breaks, following the Education Ministry’s announcement Wednesday that 540 high schools nationwide had secretly dropped some required courses to give students more time to prepare for the high-stakes college entrance exams. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki blamed the schools involved but noted further review into the matter likely would take place.

50. Kids weak at explaining essays, math Japan Times Monday, July 17, 2006

Japanese elementary and junior high school students are not very good at writing logical essays or explaining how they have solved mathematical problems, a study by the National Institute for Educational Policy Research has found.

The study, covering about 37,000 children in fourth grade in elementary school through students in their final year in junior high, revealed weaknesses in logical and mathematical thinking — findings also attested to in a 2003 international achievement survey by the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development.

The study, the first of its kind by the institute, aims to lead to improvement in teaching methods by examining how thoroughly children have absorbed the education ministry’s requirements.

In the essay category, 61 percent of elementary school fourth-graders and 74 percent of third-year junior high students were able to express what they think, but only 32 percent of the younger kids and 69 percent of their older counterparts were able to compose logically organized sentences using paragraphs.

Students also showed poor abilities in creating graphic representations of everyday phenomena, with more than 40 percent of fourth graders unable to illustrate the movement of a swing.

They had difficulties solving a problem in which they were asked to explain how to measure the area of a diagram using figures or formulas, according to the survey.

Based on its findings, the institute has proposed having children keep diaries or observation logs to logically explain why and how they have come to certain conclusions.

In the 2003 OECD worldwide achievement survey, Japanese 15-year-olds ranked sixth in applied skills in math, down from the No. 1 spot in 2000, while placing 14th in reading comprehension, down from eighth.

51. How Low Can Japan Go?

A multimillion-dollar boom in preschool English tuition is exposing a rift between parents and state educators wary about adding more English to the primary curriculum, reports Justin McCurry

Friday February 17, 2006
Guardian Weekly

Japan may have one of world’s most elderly populations, but the face of the country’s English language education is younger than ever. Students in business suits are being joined by those in nappies, and teachers accustomed to dealing with sleepy heads in class must now put up with learners who dribble and cry for their mothers.

Japan is in the grip of a boom in preschool English learning. Parents, frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the formal education system, are exposing their children to English before they can even walk, driving a multimillion-dollar industry in materials and instruction in the process.

According to the Yano Research Institute, a private thinktank, the English conversation market for preschoolers through to 15-year-olds was worth $768m in 2004. The same year parents spent $388m on books, cassettes, games and other materials.

A recent survey by Benesse Corp, which runs the Berlitz chain of language schools and produces learning materials, found that 14% of households with children of preschool age sent their offspring to English lessons. An estimated 21% of Japanese five-year-olds are studying English – the figure was just 6% in 2000 – and have a choice of 140 schools around the country.

While education officials and teachers continue to resist calls for more English instruction at the preschool and primary school stages, parents must rely on private schools that, at their worst, use a mishmash of homegrown methodologies and operate without inspection or regulation.

The education ministry does not inspect private language schools or check that staff are qualified to teach very young children.

52. Japanese teacher fights “untruths” about World War II
Miyako Masuda, a normally reserved teacher from Tokyo, has found herself at the center of an ideological battle with Japanese nationalists after opposing a city councilman’s assertion that Japan never invaded Korea during World War II. Following the official’s statement, Masuda and her social studies class wrote a letter of apology to Korean President Roh Moo-hyan, a move that got her fired.
The Christian Science Monitor


Japanese schools shun contentious textbook Sept 1, 2005
A China Daily editorial notes that by Wednesday’s deadline, only 48 of Japan’s 11,035 schools had ordered a controversial history book that downplays Japan’s 20th-century wartime atrocities. The newspaper accuses Tokyo’s education board of approving the book for “vicious” political reasons, rather than for educational ones.
People’s Daily (China)


53. Japanese cram schools promote reading through games

In Japan, teachers at the Grimm School network of cram schools (after-school tutoring facilities), use 72 different games to help children master and retain what they’ve read. Hiroyuki Tsuneishi, vice president of the education company that launched the chain, says today’s children are accustomed to fast-paced entertainment media and need the games to maintain their interest in reading. The Daily Yomiuri (Japan)

54. Japan’s six-year schools offer new options for parents

In Japan, public six-year schools, which combine middle and high school in one facility, are attracting much interest, due to their well-equipped buildings, cheaper costs and unconventional screening tests. At some schools, applications for spots have been running at a ratio of 15- or 20-to-1. The Daily Yomiuri (Japan)

55. In Japan, English learners flock to perfect replica of British village
In the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima, students of English can visit a bucolic British village built with materials and furnishings imported from the U.K. and staffed by Commonwealth citizens. High school students make up the largest proportion of visitors to British Hills, which features a croquet lawn, manor house and pub. The Daily Yomiuri (Japan)

56. Publisher Gakko Tosho is to publish the country’s first math textbook for primary students written entirely in English, according to the Daily Yomiuri. The company is confident that the growing number of schools and districts introducing English in elementary schools will ensure the book’s success. The Japanese version of the textbook has an almost 13% market share. The English version, translated by Chuo University professor Michimasa Kobayashi, will not be offered as an official, education ministry-approved textbook, but will be sold through regular bookstores. The books feature colorful cartoon-style illustrations, as well as dialogs and hints from child characters. The company is also considering publishing English versions of texts for other subjects. (December 16, 2004 ) Source: ELT News

57. PRIORITY FOR ABE: Education reform proposals draw praise, criticism

Recommendations by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s advisory panel on education reform has drawn praise from some quarters, but other experts are questioning whether the proposals will be effective in improving the quality of public education. 

The Education Rebuilding Council, comprising 17 experts from business, academia and government, proposed in its report released Friday such measures as upgrading moral education as a special subject and giving schools the option of holding Saturday classes.
It said teachers at public schools should work under a performance-based salary system. Also, universities and graduate schools should accept more foreign professors and students, and some some classes should be conducted in English.
The report embodies policies in the panel’s first set of recommendations compiled in January, including increasing class hours by 10 percent at public schools and taking measures to instill discipline in students.
Abe, who has placed education reform high on his agenda, wants to adopt the proposals identified as urgent by changing related laws and academic guidelines, according to panel members. Based on some proposals in the first report, the government submitted some revisions, now before the Upper House, to education related laws.
Jun Yoshinaga, an associate professor of educational methods and content at Kobe University, said the council’s recommendations are needed.
Bringing back Saturday classes would help teachers who already face a heavy workload to better prepare for classes, he said. In his opinion, two Saturday classes a month would be appropriate.
Reinforcing moral education at elementary schools and junior high schools is necessary, Yoshinaga said, although teachers will have to get behind the proposal if it is going to be a success.
Summary of proposals
Kyodo, staff reports
* Allow public schools to offer Saturday classes. Local boards of education and schools would decide whether to have such classes.
* Make moral education a special subject at elementary and junior high schools. Students would not be evaluated by numerical assessment.
* Introduce an evaluation-based pay scale for public school teachers.
* Set up support teams consisting of retired police officers, lawyers and clinical psychiatrists to help solve problems at the local level.
* Promote introduction of a system allowing parents and children to choose which school to attend, and allocate funding for schools in line with a school’s achievements, such as the number of students choosing to enroll there.
* Instruct universities to allow more students to enter in September.
* Set a goal that at least five Japanese universities and graduate schools should make it into the world’s top 30 within the next 10 years, with at least one making it into the top 10.
“The panel’s proposals aim to improve students’ academic performances and enhance their respect for social morality as a member of a community, which I think have been lacking due to excessive individualism,” he said. “I support the (panel’s) ideas.”
However, critics of the panel said its ideas could harm the quality of public education.
Takaji Asakura, a high school teacher in Kanagawa Prefecture, is concerned that resuming Saturday classes would increase the burden on educators.
The five-day school week was introduced in schools in phases starting in September 1992, reaching full implementation in April 2002 as part of a more “relaxed” education policy.
“If one school (in a local area) begins Saturday classes every week, others would follow. Then our burdens would increase unless more teachers are provided,” he said. “I wonder if the panel looks at the reality facing teachers.”
Criticism of the Education Rebuilding Council has also come from within the Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe heads.
A group of six Lower House members published an essay in the June issue of Sekai magazine that states the council failed to review the relationship between the relaxed education system and academic performance, or to examine whether and why students’ morality has declined.
Currently, elementary and junior high schools have a class on morality once a week.
However, the panel, which sees bullying and crimes committed by children as a sign of a loss of morality, argued the current setup is insufficient because many schools use ethics classes for other purposes, such as school events, and that government-authorized textbooks should be used with supplementary materials to teach morality.
Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of educational sociology at Nihon University in Tokyo, said strengthening moral education may result in students being forced into one particular standard of morality — set by the government.
“If citizenship would be taught in morality classes, I support (the panel’s idea.) But the panel seems to be proposing ethics education to teach students particular moral values that the government prefers,” Hirota said. “Such a direction is the opposite of a multicultural society, in which people live with diverse values.”
He said the most important measure to improve academic performance and morality would be to allocate a bigger budget for education so more teachers can look after students more carefully.
Japan’s percentage of government spending on elementary, junior high and high school education to gross domestic in fiscal 2001 came to 3.5 percent, far below the 5.1 percent average ratio among the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to government data.
According to its latest report, the panel is not seeking a major spending increase for education.
“What the panel has proposed is to reform (public education) by asking (teachers and schools) to make more efforts and increasing competition among them,” Hirota said. – Japan Times Sunday, June 3, 2007
58. Academic societies team up to enhance influence, bolster performanceAcademic societies in Japan, which are often derided as lacking international competitiveness and the ability to effectively transmit information to society, are teaming up to create larger entities and to improve the quality of their journals.

The move coincides with the Science Council of Japan’s first survey of academic societies in 13 years.

The reform attempts will be closely watched to see whether they can halt a decline within these organizations.

The council surveyed about 1,760 academic societies nationwide during February and March, and 942 responded.

Of these, 57.6 percent had up to 99 members, with only 1.1 percent boasting 30,000 or more affiliates. Small-scale academic societies are especially active in the humanities and social sciences.

In recent years, large-scale federations of academic societies in the fields of natural sciences and engineering studies have emerged.

The trend is attributed to the desire of societies to cut costs by standardizing administration for better management, and the digitalization of academic journals. The teaming-up move is aimed at tackling a sense of crisis induced by a fall in the number of students shying away from scientific studies, and a possible decline in societies’ memberships after the retirement of postwar baby boomers.

The Liaison Council of Institutes for Electrical, Information and Communication Engineers, established in 2003, has five academic societies under its umbrella, with a total of 94,000 members. The five societies do not levy joining fees on members who belong to any of the societies under the council’s umbrella.

Nobuaki Ieda, chief of the secretariat of the Institute of Electrical, Information and Communication Engineers, one of the five groups, said: “Our membership has decreased from 40,000 to 35,000, perhaps because people can now easily obtain information from the Internet that was previously only available through academic societies. As revenue from membership fees decreases, we’ll streamline our operations in line with the scale.”

Another reason for forming larger entities is to strengthen academic societies’ ability to effectively transmit information to the public.

The Japan Geoscience Union, established in 2005, comprises 46 academic societies with a total of 53,000 members. The union’s proposals include improving the way the ocean is studied at primary and middle schools, and reviving science study classes in the first and second years of primary school.

On June 29, 15 chemistry-related academic societies–led by the Chemical Society of Japan with 33,000 members–will form a federation called the Japan Union of Chemical Science & Technology. The federation will have 104,000 members.

The president-elect of the new federation, Prof. Hiizu Iwamura of Nihon University, said the new entity is modeled on the American Chemical Society, which has 34 independent suborganizations in specialized fields, but which manages administration and budgets in an integrated fashion.

“A large organization is necessary to convey researchers’ opinions to citizens in a systematic way, and to make policy proposals. We’ve tried to promote green chemistry–which aims to reduce negative impacts on the environment–as a key government policy, but the effect on policymakers has been weak because the academic societies are divided across numerous disciplines,” Iwamura said.

According to the survey, 14.3 percent of academic societies have formed federations, and 6.7 percent plan to do so. But hurdles must be cleared when forming federations due to different goals and intentions among industrial sectors that support academic societies operating in respective fields.

Gaps in the way academic journals are evaluated in Japan and the United States have been widening in terms of the number of academic reports referred by researchers. Academic experts also pointed out that about 80 percent of academic reports by Japanese researchers are sent to foreign journals, shunning domestic publications.

To stem this trend, the Japan Society of Applied Physics will from next year establish an independent English version of its journal, which is highly regarded by researchers.

The Institute of Electronics, Information and Communication Engineers began producing a wholly electronic version of its journal in 2004, a key selling point being that researchers’ reports can be carried within 10 days of submission.

However, Prof. Koichi Kitazawa, executive director of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, expressed a different view, saying: “Present-day Japanese academic societies have to publish English journals that accept even low-quality academic reports to help students obtain doctor’s degrees. We should consider whether these academic journals are really necessary.”

He believes Japanese academic journals will never be able to compete internationally unless exclusively-staffed editorial systems are established under a long-term policy remit.

“Academic societies exist to allow researchers to have in-depth discussions via study meetings and journals, and to decide the merit of academic activities,” said Prof. Masaru Kono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, deputy chairman of the Science Council of Japan’s committee for improving the functions of academic societies. – Daily Yomiuri (Jun. 14, 2007)


Abe on the wrong tack Relaxed education advocate says

Japan Times, Friday, Jan. 5, 2007Terawaki, 54, who quit the ministry in November, is not buying into Abe’s reforms and still believes an unhurried approach is the best way to build a more mature society, even though parents and others have been complaining about what they see as declining student performance.

“The uniform education system was effective in producing people who could support Japan’s rapid economic growth,” Terawaki said. “But the times have changed. We need a system that helps children establish their individuality.

In 1987, after three years of discussions, a government panel on reform proposed relaxing the education system, which for a century had placed emphasis on uniform rote learning.

The new system was deigned to motivate children to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and flexibility to live in Japan in the 21st century — a time of globalization, advanced high technology, widespread information networks and an aging society.

Class hours for core subjects — Japanese, mathematics, social studies, science and English — were gradually reduced. In 2002, Saturdays were dropped from the school week and textbook content was cut by 30 percent to round out the relaxed system. Schools introduced “comprehensive studies” courses that allowed students to carry out their own research projects.

“It’s natural that children in a rich society lose motivation to learn. So the comprehensive studies course is offered to stimulate children’s curiosity through academic projects,” Terawaki said, noting that because kids have no Saturday classes, they can have more time to spend with their families and friends and to engage in other pursuits, including sports, music and art.

The relaxed system bore other fruit — more youths got involved in volunteer activities, began actively expressing their opinions and started up businesses, he said.

“I realize parents want their children to have better academic foundations. But if children devote themselves only to studying, can they become attractive adults?” Terawaki asked.

“People used to feel they had a happy life if they went to a good school and landed a job at a good company. But that formula no longer works,” said Terawaki, himself of an elite background. The Fukuoka native went from the prestigious La Salle High School in Kagoshima to the University of Tokyo before he became a high-ranking education ministry bureaucrat.


In the relaxed system’s fall from favor, parents and business circles point to data showing deteriorating academic achievements. The 2003 Program for International Student Assessment test by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development showed Japanese 15-year-olds fell from the top spot for math in 2000 to sixth place and fell to 14th from eighth in reading.

To improve academic levels, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry plans to introduce nationwide academic achievement exams in April, the first such tests in 40 years.

Local governments have meanwhile been trying to fuel competition by introducing a system under which children and their parents can select their school of choice.

But Terawaki feels excessive concerns over children’s academic performances are unnecessary because education has changed from merely requiring students to memorize history, kanji and English vocabulary into a system that encourages youths to think about pertinent issues and express their opinions logically.

But Abe is pursuing a different course. He formed the Education Rebuilding Council with the goal of improving students’ academic levels and the quality of teachers. He is also bent on restoring discipline in the classroom and instilling a notion of patriotism among the nation’s youth.

Terawaki is skeptical of Abe’s reform push.

“Abe wants to make Japan ‘a beautiful country’ that respects its culture, but it contradicts business circles’ demand for (young people) who will pursue economic development,” he said. “I wonder if those who criticize the relaxed education system have conservative, nationalistic views and yearn for (a return to) 20th century Japan?”

44. Unwise gantlet for teachers, Jan 1 2007 Japan Times

Certain professionals must pass state examinations to obtain licenses for their jobs. They include medical doctors, dentists, jurists, certified public accountants, architects, pharmacists and registered nurses, as well as primary, middle and high school teachers. Amid the severe employment situation, it is becoming harder for students to pass university entrance examinations for medical and law departments that provide education for aspiring licensed professionals.

The government-commissioned Education Resuscitation Council (ERC), created under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiatives, is discussing, among other things, periodic renewal of teaching licenses. My reaction to that is, why only teachers?

Courses of study taught at primary, middle and high schools do not change much over the years. As time goes on, their content tends to become easier rather than more difficult. Thus these teachers are among the rare professionals whose qualifications are most likely to remain valid even if their licenses were obtained many years earlier.

By contrast, medical technology is making fast advances, increasing the necessity for medical license renewal.

Strangely, university teachers in Japan do not need licenses for their jobs. To become a professor, one must have a doctorate — or “its equivalent.”

In hiring a university teacher, the most important factor is gyoseki (academic achievement). The word gyoseki was coined by the novelist, critic and army doctor Ogai Mori (1862-1922). The narrow meaning of gyoseki is to have had one’s research papers or books published. These days, however, television appearances, memberships in government committees and other social activities are often regarded as part of academic achievements.

For the sake of publicity, many universities hire famous personalities as professors, based on the expanded interpretations of academic achievement.

In my opinion, university teachers must be professionals in education and research. Former bureaucrats, news commentators and journalists hardly qualify for such posts.

Abe is pushing a plan to expel unqualified teachers from primary, middle and high schools to improve the quality of education. The majority of ERC members reportedly agree that teaching licenses should be renewed every five years and that the probationary period for new teachers should be extended to three years from the present one year.

One big question is: What criteria should be used for license renewal?

According to news reports, ratings by outside people such as parents as well as ratings by principals will be decisive. The proposed extension of the probationary period seems to reflect the view that to improve the quality of teachers, new recruits should be subject to close, extended scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the council has reportedly agreed that 20 percent of newly recruited teachers should be from among nonteachers. The council is thinking of using the current system under which prefectural boards of education can grant teaching licenses to nonteachers with expert knowledge on the basis of written examinations or recommendations by outsiders. As of last April, only 195 applicants had been granted licenses under this system.

Some members of the council reportedly have argued that half of all newly recruited teachers should be from the noneducational sector.

I oppose the recruitment of people from the noneducational sector as schoolteachers for the same reason I’m against employing people from the nonacademic field as university teachers.

At U.S. universities, a Ph.D. is required for university teachers. Assistant professors are hired for an initial term of several years — the equivalent of the probationary period for Japanese school teachers proposed by the ERC. After serving the probationary period, one may be promoted to a tenured associate professor on the basis of the number and quality of academic papers published by him or her.

Scholars with good achievements are likely to receive offers of teaching positions from higher-ranked institutions; those with poor records must take offers from lower-ranked schools.

All universities have a probationary period for assistant professors, who can expect to take appropriate posts for associate professor or researcher, depending on their achievements. Even scholars with mediocre achievements are unlikely to go jobless.

As for the probationary period for teachers at Japanese primary, middle and high schools, extending the period to three years could create a new problem: What to do with teachers who were judged unfit for the teaching profession? Such people will have difficulty finding employment outside school in light of their age.

In Japan’s rigid employment environment, a system of dismissing teachers judged unfit for the profession after three years would be too severe and would not function properly.

I believe that more caution should be exercised in employing new teachers in the first place. Whether a recruit is fit for the profession should become clear in a year, so the probationary period should remain unchanged at one year.

What to do about the renewal of teaching licenses poses another problem. Rating by outsiders such as parents is easier said than done. What happens when disagreement arises among examiners on the fitness of certain teachers? Should renewal be subject to consensus or to approval by a simple or two-thirds majority? What do you do with a teacher who loses a license at the age of 28?

45. Science education in need of rejuvenation Special to The Daily Yomiuri 



How can Japan maintain its competitiveness with interest among young people in decline? By Masaharu Asaba

Special to The Daily Yomiuri

This year, Japan marks the 50th anniversary of the start of three big science and technology projects–Antarctic observation, space development and nuclear power generation.

Half a century ago, these particular fields had yet to be seriously tackled by this country. Nevertheless, the projects allowed people to dream and filled them with hope.

There is no denying these disciplines have changed everyday life and affected all facets of society and the economy over the past five decades.

With the passage of time, however, interest in science and technology–particularly among young people–appears to be waning. Looking ahead to the next 50 years, the country must rise to meet many new challenges if it wants to secure the necessary manpower to expand the boundaries of science and technology.

In February 1957, Japan started building Showa base, its Antarctic observation post, which has been playing a key role in international efforts to understand global warming and ozone layer depletion, as well as working toward finding viable preventative measures.

Science education in need of rejuvenation Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan‘s first nuclear reactor, in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, went critical in August 1957. Now nuclear power generation accounts for more than one-third of the country’s overall electricity output.

In October the same year, the Soviet Union rocked the world by launching man’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit around the Earth. Also in 1957, in a far less conspicuous project, Tokyo University successfully launched Japan’s first mini two-stage rocket, K-2.

Since then, the country’s technology has advanced to such a stage that Japan can help build the International Space Station in conjunction with the United States, Europe and Russia.

In retrospect, Japan’s miraculous revival after the crushing defeat of World War II, was spearheaded by science and technology.

In 1956, The Yomiuri Shimbun established a science news department, emphasizing its support for science and technology. The move was imitated by The Asahi Shimbun and The Mainichi Shimbun, which set up science news departments in 1957.

At the time, the three major dailies recognized the importance of science and technology news, in the same way as city and national, political, economic and international news.

Fifty years later, newspapers, magazines, television stations and the Internet provide in-depth science and technology news reports and analyses, using plain language and colorful illustrations. But the effectiveness of such efforts is open to question.

According to a series of surveys conducted by the then Prime Minister’s Office–now the Cabinet Office–on society’s perception of science and technology, 52 percent of respondents, in the latest poll in 2004, said they were interested in topics related to science and technology–a decline of 10 percentage points from the inaugural survey conducted in 1976. The downturn was particularly conspicuous among those in their 20s and 30s.

In the early 1980s, there was a science magazine boom, in which new science publications were launched in quick succession. At the time, the country had about 300,000 natural science researchers. The number of natural science researchers has since more than doubled to 640,000. However, the readership of science magazines has shrunk by two thirds during the last two decades. In contrast, computer-related magazines have gained in popularity.

Observers attribute the low turnover of science magazines to the fact that many researchers concentrate on narrow fields and pay little attention to events not directly connected with their particular discipline.

According to a famous proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention.” But invention requires imagination based on scientific facts. Some people say affluence leads to lack of interest in science and technology. However, even if this is true, those in leadership positions must not sit idly by while waiting for necessity to occur.

In a 2001 Education, Science and Technology Ministry survey, 14 percent of those polled thought the average research ability of young researchers had improved compared to 10 years earlier, while 30 percent of them answered otherwise. The majority of respondents acknowledged improvements in specialized knowledge, international views and planning skills among younger people. But they pointed out a decline in the ability of younger scientists to pick research subjects, solve problems, create new ideas, compete with others, work in new fields, and to persevere.

The findings are disappointing given that the nation spent almost 40 trillion yen in taxpayers’ money during the same 10 years on science and technology projects.

How did this happen? It may be because Japan has traditionally viewed science and technology as a means for boosting economic growth. The country’s use of science and technology since the Meiji era (1868-1912) as a tool for enhancing wealth and military power has begun to backfire.

Today, children should learn from textbooks authored by prominent scientists, as commonly seen in Europe and the United States. In Japan, few prominent scientists become directly involved in primary and secondary education, because doing so earns them little credit from society. This must change.

I propose that scientists’ academic merit be recognized when they publish books or write in ordinary magazines. At university level too, there should be an increase in literary activities linked to science and technology to help stem the decline of science and technology in society.

This is a goal of the utmost importance, and we must strive toward it during the next 50 years.

(Apr. 6, 2007)

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