The Economist on Supplementary Education

The week, The Economist’s Kenneth Cukier published an article entitled “Japan’s cramming schools – Testing times: A controversial institution has some surprising merits”. I was thrilled, of course, that he quoted me in the article as a “rare expert on juku”.

Great to see the 塾 character in the accompanying cartoon as well.

As is almost always the case with press and media accounts, the article is relatively short and thus has to gloss over some of the complexities of the phenomenon of supplementary education in Japan and elsewhere. I’ve been struggling with this myself all along in that there are some relatively simple (and thus short) messages I like to offer as conclusions from my research on 塾, but even these are necessarily simplifications (see the categories on the right to explore some of my research on hypereducation in Japan). The Economist’s Japan correspondent also picked up on some of these message, for example by referring to the variety of different juku that exist. While this is not the kind of variety that proponents of the privatization or liberalization often expect (i.e. a flowering of pedagogies and pedagogical innovations), some of the “immobilist politics” in Japanese educational policy (Len Shoppa of the Univ of Virginia used this term in a book on Nakasone educational reforms) is being unsettled by innovations in the supplementary education industry.

The scene Kenn recalls from Seiran Gakuin in his article is one that I have witnessed in many of the almost 50 juku that I’ve visited in Japan. Seiran Gakuin happens to be one of my favourites and is led by  林 政夫 who is one of the great examples of charismatic educators in the juku world.

When Kenn refers to surveys in Japan that attribute juku attendance to shortcomings in education systems (an element of the article that has been picked up by some Twitter reactions to it already), I would offer a qualification – an important qualification, I think – that it is perceptions of shortcomings in Japanese education that seem to be driving parents and students to juku. Whether such shortcomings exist in an empirically demonstrable way is much less clear, and it is always interesting to note that it is not only perceived shortcomings in public education, but in private schools as well. Private school students in Japan also attend juku in large numbers after all.

The Economist on hagwon

Note that The Economist ran an article about supplementary education in Korea in its Christmas special. I have previously written about South Korea as the paragon of hypereducation.

Much of what this article writes about Korea is also true of Japan, of course.

Japan is also a “one-shot” society in that there are few alternative educational or career transition tracks other than graduate from high school, sit entrance examinations, repeat with intensive preparatory study if necessary, graduate from university, apply for jobs during recruitment season, live happily ever after.

While the school-to-work transition is not as smooth as it was in high-flying economic times (I’m currently reading Mary Brinton’s “Lost in Transition” on just this topic), there still are very few re-entry students or alternative routes to higher education in Japan.

The discussion about the costs of the university entrance exam focus in Korea are mirrored more or less in Japan, though the concern with equity via for-profit supplementary education (hagwon) has historically been much greater in South Korea. Unlike the article on Japan (which ends with a note about broken government systems), the article on Korea ends on a more hopeful note focusing on young Koreans as a generation that might bring about/force change. There is little of such a dynamic visible in Japan…

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