Fascinating discussions on contemporary Japanese education with a specific focus on educational policy over the last two days in Montreal.
12 researchers gathered by Chris Bjork (Vassar College) and Gary DeCoker (Earlham College) to talk about “Japanese Education in the Era of Globalization: Enduring Issues in New Contexts”. Lots of specific points to write about from the presentations and discussions, but one of the main themes that struck me in the course of discussions was the changing role of the Ministry of Education in Japan.
While the pre-Asia Pacific War ministry was almighty, its postwar reincarnation was initially limited in its policy-making power by the U.S. occupation. With the end of the occupation, the Ministry was able to pull some of its administrative and policy-making power back into the centre in Tokyo (this is a crucial part of my analysis of postwar history education). Over the postwar period, the only significant opposition to the Ministry was 日教組 (Nikkyoso, the Japanese Teachers’ Union). I have thus been accustomed to characterize the Japanese education system through the high growth era as highly centralized with the Ministry representing the pinnacle of decision-making, as well as the source of policy initiatives.
This does not mean that the Ministry tightly controlled all aspects of education. History education might provide an example here. While textbook approval is supervised and organized by the Ministry (this has led to the frequent mistaken perception that Japanese textbooks are “government textbooks”), this approval process generates a list of approved textbooks that are then selected by prefectural and local authorities.
However, most of the discussions across a great variety of aspects of education (making these past two days fascinating, especially as they followed on a similar gathering with some overlap in the participating scholars at the AAS meetings) suggest that more and more policy initiatives originate in local efforts at the school or community level. The Ministry thus continues to set the context for education throughout Japan, but the leeway for local experimentation is expanding. And, some of this experimentation is leading to change in national policies or recommendations as well.
Beyond the examples discussed over the past two days, one of the most striking examples of this is the introduction of school choice in the past decade. While limited choice had been available to high school students in the past, enrollment based on catchment areas has been supplemented with various means of choosing an elementary and middle school as well.
This development was clearly spearheaded by authorities in Tokyo’s 品川区 (Shinagawa Ward), though with the approval of Ministry officials. After the introduction of school choice in Shinagawa in 2001 (I think), the system has spread to many other jurisdictions, though it has not become national policy as such. (For a discussion of the impact of these changes, see my article “Japanese Shadow Education: The Consequences of School Choice” [in Forsey, Davies & Walford, eds. The Globalisation of School Choice?. Oxford: Symposium Books, 2008.]