Monthly Archives: August 2011

Matsushita Seikei Juku

So – once again – Japan has a new prime minister. There’s nothing in particular about Yoshihiko Noda that makes him terribly interesting, he certainly does not look likely to emerge as the kind of integrative, innovative leader that the country could need following the ‘triple disaster‘. There’s also nothing that’s known about Mr. Noda that would make him of particular interest in terms of educational policy. The rollback of ゆとり教育 was completed this year in terms of curricular content, as was the abolition of school fees for high school and there are no large items remaining on the DPJ agenda. Given his age, I suspect that Mr. Noda might well have attended 学習塾 in his own educational career, but I don’t even know that.

What I do know and what was noted in the press in the election for the DPJ presidency and thus the prime ministership was that Mr. Noda is a former student at the Matsushita Seikei Juku (松下政経塾). And in the party election, he was not alone in this, Seiji Maehara, former foreign minister, is also a former student of the Seikei Juku.

I had previously heard about the 松下政経塾 from a number of juku operators in Tokyo. They often cite it as an example of the kind of transformative ambition that many of them have regarding the role of juku – as private initiatives – in the education system.

Interestingly, the Seikei Juku does not have a Wikipedia entry in English, though the Japanese entry is comprehensive in its information, and intriguingly, the German entry seems to have been recently deleted.

The Seikei Juku’s website as well as the Wikipedia entry both write about the Juku as the “Matsushita Institute of Government and Management“. This certainly makes it sound much greater than the more common translation of juku as ‘cram school’. The terminology is thus of some interest to me.

What makes the Seikei Juku a ‘juku’ as opposed to an ‘institute’ or ‘school’? Clearly, the Seikei Juku is meant to be a “private academy” of the kind that Richard Rubinger wrote about in his 1982 book Private Academies of Tokugawa Japan. It is also a ‘juku’ in the way that Keio University’s formal name at foundation and even today is 慶應義塾.

As an aside, I recently learned that the president of Keio University continues to be addressed as 塾長 not 学長, emphasizing the private roots and links with Keio’s founder Yukichi Fukuzawa.

The Seikei Juku was founded by Panasonic founder and CEO Konosuke Matsushita in 1979 and continues to be supported by various corporations in the Matsushita stable of firms. It was founded in part as a counter to the emerging tendency among Japanese politicians to be inheritors of their political office, i.e. the sons (rarely daughters), nephews or grandsons of major politicians, 世襲政治家. Both Mr. Noda as well as Mr. Maehara are good examples of this intention of the Seikei Juku in that neither are examples of such dynastic politics.

There are other aspects of the Seikei Juku that make it quite different from the typical academic juku that I focus on in my research. As far as I can tell, the Seikei Juku serves primarily as a meeting place for ambitious young men and women (though only an 8th of the students are women) who live in a dormitory together, receive some funding and attend invited lectures. There appears to be no permanent faculty/teaching staff nor a set curriculum, though activities are prescribed broadly and ‘enrolled’ students seem to sometimes attend the Juku as a gap-year activity (the gap year is also becoming more popular in Japan at the moment, by the way), but as a gap year between university education and entry into a corporation or while they are attending a university, most likely a well-known private or national university. Jukusei are between 22 and 35 years of age and they are enrolled in the Juku for four years.

Much more information on recent alumni, selection, and other features of the Seikei Juku can be gleaned from the Japanese wikipedia entry and the Juku’s webpage, so I won’t paraphrase that here.

Impressions from Tohoku

On Aug 18, I made my way to Fukushima City and then headed toward the cost with Billy McMichael from Fukushima Univ. After some hours of volunteering, Bill was kind enough to drive me to the cost to see some of the devastated communities there. I felt a bit uneasy as a bit of a “disaster tourist”, but I’ve spoken to several people from Tohoku since then and they are actually very eager for visitors to see the current situation which made me feel a bit better about visiting.

Before I even arrived in Fukushima, I noticed from the Shinkansen, especially in Koriyama, that many of the houses looked like they had blue tarp “band-aids” on their roof. I first couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, especially since I kept seeing more and more tarps weighed down by big rocks, but one particular house made the explanation quite obvious, i.e. individual roof tiles that had been dislodged in the earthquake or aftershocks and holes that were now covered up to keep the rain out. Billy confirmed that Koriyama had seen  much more severe shaking than Fukushima City, due to differences in the rockbed in their specific locations.

The next things I noticed in the drive toward Soma city that Japan really is quite jungly in the summer. I had not been here in July-August since the late 1990s, having simply avoided travel to Japan during this hot and humid season. With frequent visits in the late Fall and early Spring, my mental image of Japan had slowly become that of dry rice paddies or bare trees. Summer is not that by any stretch. I mention this because the verdant growth everywhere clearly has begun to cover up some of the earthquake/tsunami scars. This vegetation cover lends some areas an immediate air of normalcy as it requires at least a second glance to notice signs of the recent destruction.

I saw an unusual number of freshly planted sunflower beds. It appears that the fast weed-like growth of the sunflower means that it absorbs some of the cesium out of the ground (can anyone speak to this with any expertise?), but I wonder what will happen to the dry plants at the end of the Fall. Certainly no dumping of radioactive sunflowers in my backyard!

When we came closer to the coast in Soma (some 15km or so from the radiation exclusion zone), some大 震災 damages became more visible quickly. It was very obvious quickly that a massive clean-up effort is under way on the Tohoku coast. Backhoes dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see in affected areas. Clearly, construction and clean-up crews are busy and this must be an economic relief as it also must offer employment opportunities to local residents who may have lost their livelihood in the 大震災. For example, towns that are within commuting distance from the No. 1 nuclear plant may be suffering from the after-effects of the 大震災 and the on-going nuclear crisis, but their harbours as well as the many jobs associated with the two large nuclear complexes in Fukushima have also been eliminated.

Most of the clean-up effort currently seems to be directed at scraping debris together into large piles for later disposal. In residential areas near the cost, this means that all that remains are foundations. Having visited coastal towns like Soma and Shinchi in the past, I can imagine what these residential areas may have looked like before the 大震災, but entire streets with mere foundations in place certainly do not look like vibrant coastal towns.

In most areas, there are often individual structures that remain standing, though typically with broken windows or otherwise damaged. I can only imagine that specifics of topography may have redirected Tsunami water masses away from such structures to allow them to remain standing. Clearly, some houses have chunks taken out of them where something else must have smashed into them.

The closer to the shore and the further up north, the more visible debris and damage I saw. We ended up driving past Sendai to Natori (名取) where the clean-up is in full swing but hasn’t progressed as far as further South. There are still lots of boats and other debris in rice patties and some neighbourhoods are still standing in their destroyed states.

Near the Ocean in Natori (名取)



We got out of the car near this spot to walk around a little and apart from the obvious destruction to houses, a lot of the human losses were also immediately visible when walking around. We found house keys, toys, and insurance ID of some kind, simply strewn about, who knows where it was from the immediate area or from much further away. While the immediate visible impact of the destruction is already powerful, it is when thoughts turn to the people and their suffering that it becomes quite overwhelming.

名取, August 2011

One of the more startling visual clues to the power of the tsunami is the highly compacted cars that can be found everywhere. The car in the picture was a ミニカー as made clear by the yellow plates, but that refers to the size of the engine, not necessarily of the car body.

Driving toward Sendai we saw lots of stretches of dry, salty rice paddies with the earth cracking is is usually seen in pictures of droughts. The contrast with the jungly vegetation everywhere else was particularly stark in these areas.

Clearly, the on-going clean-up and reconstruction on the Tohoku coast will take years. What long-term damage has been caused to the local population beyond their immediate material losses, we’ll only likely know in decades.

Volunteering for the Day in Fukushima

I had grand ambitions for a kids’ summer camp co-organized with juku in Tokyo earlier this year. Unfortunately, my limited organizational resources prevented this from becoming a reality.

However, through the facilitation of Billy McMichael of 福島大学 I was able to make at least a tiny contribution to the much larger volunteering effort.

Billy picked me up in Fukushima and we drove to a town called Soma towards the cost and in the general direction of the No. 1 Nuclear Plant in Fukushima. On the way, I was able to lean a lot about developments in Fukushima since 3•11 and on the current situation from Billy.

Due to accidents of wind directions and rain, Fukushima has been the hardest hit by radiation. This has meant for kids, for example, that parents are generally not letting them play outside. Favourite summer pasttimes like swimming in the rivers (which accumulate radiation due to the soil and other sediments being washed down from hills and then deposited in the river). This lack of outdoor play is compounded by the fact that children who live in coastal towns are additionally hit by a number of circumstances.

Virtually everyone lost a car or cars that were swept away by the Tsunami. Many people have lost their livelihoods and compensation claims seem to be relatively slow in making their way to affected families. Many children have lost a friend or relative in the disaster. For families who lost their homes, they have generally moved from evacuation centres to temporary housing, but this temporary housing is often far removed from their original home. Many families have also left the area to stay with relatives elsewhere in Japan if only temporarily. Children have thus been separated from their friends, their schools are damaged, destroyed or had been evacuation centres until recently, their are living in remote locations with parents who are struggling with their own post-traumatic stress and don’t have cars to take kids anywhere, AND they can’t play outside. This is obviously a pretty devastating mix of circumstances for most children.

Billy and his fellow volunteers are trying to remedy this situation at least slightly by offering to host children in community centres for a day of games and hanging out. This strikes me as a really low-key but very important effort and I was thrilled to be able to contribute in a tiny way by joining Billy.

The group of volunteers consists of Fukushima-based JET teachers from around the world and a group of lifesavers from around Japan. It is particularly good to see the JETs volunteering to make up for some of the perception that non-Japanese residents of Japan abandoned their fellow citizens after the disaster struck.

The lifeguards had planned a series of games, most of which involved Janken in some way. After that there was some free play time that led to a lot of balls being kicked around, face-painting (one of Billy’s friends was terrific in drawing Totoro, Pikachu and other characters), and some lunch. About 25 children, mostly of elementary school age, participated, and days like this were going to be offered to the children (who were picked up by a community bus and brought to the community centre from their temporary housing) on a regular basis, certainly throughout the summer vacation.

Note that the situation for many of these children will most likely not improve for some years. I am therefore hoping very much that the failed effort to organize some kind of camp will be more successful later this year or next.

Meiji University National Application Leader

For many years, Waseda received the most applications for its undergraduate program. Recently, 明治大学 has surpassed it (over 113,000 applications in 2011, with only 1 out of nearly 25 students being offered admission), mainly based on its decision to open up as many application channels as possible. That means that prospective students can apply on the basis of recommendations, the センター試験, and many other categories.

I can only assume that this is a strategy to stave off the decline in student numbers that private universities are facing throughout Japan based on demographic developments and their dependence on tuition payments for funding.

Another case further down the prestige hierarchy is Toyo University (東洋大学) which has parlayed success in the (often televised) Ekiden (駅伝) long-distance races into national prominence and an increase in application.

Juku in Post-Disaster Reconstruction

As I return to Japan for the first time since the March 11 “triple disaster”, I am considering what role juku can play in the reconstruction of local communities and economies.

Many of the affected areas in Tohoku were already suffering from demographic and economic decline. With depopulating coastal communities the widespread absence of children must have already had a significant impact on the density of supplementary education offerings prior to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear accidents. I have seen this impact vividly on the West coast of Japan, in rural Shimane Prefecture (島根県). Here, high schools are being merged, but even the merged high schools get so few applicants that admission to the high school of choice is virtually guaranteed; the much-discussed competition for spaces in desired educational institutions has waned significantly. This lack of competition continues on to higher education, in part due to the MEXT policy of continuing to open local/regional public universities such as 島根県立大学. In the time of just a few years I have just witnessed the decline in student numbers at some of the local juku. I imagine that the same thing was already happening in coastal communities in 東北 as well.

Some of the questions that I would have regarding the role of juku in the revitalization of affected communities would thus be focused on the more general role of small and medium-sized enterprises in reconstruction efforts. Juku are a particularly interesting case of such enterprises as the capital investments are generally low (though buildings and classrooms are obviously required) and because many small juku are often somewhat of a community hub, deeply rooted in their neighbourhoods and towns.