Category Archives: Education

Plus ça change…

Exactly a year ago, Feb 3, 2012, I published an editorial in the Japan Times. I didn’t come up with the title, but it was called “Exam Forces Students to Cram Irrelevant Facts” [note that the Japan Times seems to have changed its archiving, but for now the article continues to be available].

Today, Feb 3, 2013, the editors of the Japan Times wrote a piece entitled, “Entrance Exam Change Needed“. Sounds like similar arguments? Yup, the thrust of the argument is virtually the same as mine, i.e. university entrance examinations in Japan test “test-taking skills at the age of 18 will be of little help later in a fast-changing society”.

While I could flatter myself that the editorial writers of the Japan Times re-discovered my year-old editorial, or that “great minds think alike”, what’s really going on here is that nothing has changed in the past year regarding the main problem with entrance examinations to Japanese universities, namely the fact that they don’t test anything particularly useful, interesting or relevant to future learning or societies real and imagined needs.

When I had published that editorial a year ago, most colleagues and other readers reacted with, “You’re totally right, but nothing is ever going to change anyway.”

I’m afraid that my reaction to today’s editorial would have to be the same at this point.

There are a number of reasons for this pessimism and no single factor prevents changes to the entrance examinations.

Obviously, Japanese politics and policy-making is not exactly in a particularly dynamic area in any policy area.

More specifically to education policy, any attempts at changing content are probably doomed as reformers have clearly been burnt by the fate of the yutori reforms ten years ago. These reforms had been motivated in part by a desire to make space in teaching for just the kind of things that one might see as more useful through project learning. To create this space, the volume of multiple-choice-testable “knowledge” was reduced. It’s this reduction that has inspired years of talk about the decline of academic abilities and led to a reversal of the reduction of content.

Reforms of this kind are thus currently not to be expected from MEXT or from national politicians.

What about the universities that actually set the exams? The multiple-choice format is obviously so well-institutionalized that no one can quite imagine an alternative or that everyone would be too scared of looking like they’re “soft on knowledge”.

An oft-repeated objection to test-formats that would focus more on analytical skills and understanding is that the setting and correcting of such exams is too costly given that university personnel is centrally involved in this process.

Where else could pressure come from? With declining student numbers due to demographic developments the funnel into tertiary education has grown wider and wider. Other than at the very top (national public universities, nationally prominent private universities) entrance to university is becoming less and less competitive. Ultimately, that might make the entrance examinations even less useful and thus exert pressures on universities to drop them entirely in favour of some other mechanism.

It could also be imagined that some of the best students and their families may recognize the futility of 受験 (entrance exam study) and opt out to pursue higher education abroad. This, however, does not appear to be happening given the many laments about the inward-looking focus of university-aged Japanese students.

All this leaves me thinking that we’ll continue to read editorials of this kind for the foreseeable future, even when most academics, analysts, and perhaps even readers might agree with the analysis.


Book Review: Mary Brinton, “Lost in Transition. Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan”

I recently published a book review in Economic Sociology – The European Electronic Newsletter 13 (2), March 2012: 50-51. While the book doesn’t directly discuss juku, it is highly relevant to an understanding of the educational and career trajectories that contemporary Japanese youth pursue.

Book: Mary C. Brinton, 2011: Lost In Transition. Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In the comparative welfare state and varieties of capitalism literatures, Japan has played a curious role. Its rapid post-war growth entitled it to membership in the OECD and inclusion in purportedly widely-applicable theories about labor, industry, the (welfare) state and interlinkages between these elements that were assumed to constitute a “normal” developed market economy. Some elements of Japanese capitalism endured as distinctive features in many different middle-range theories and their application. The transition from school to work that Mary Brinton writes about with such depth of knowledge is one of these distinctive features.

Brinton focuses on the cultural, social, and human capital carried by organizations rather than individuals. The transition to work is highly structured and involves taken-for-granted understandings of the role of the student, school, and prospective employer. These understandings specifically emphasize the role of the school as a broker in placing students. The central question of the book becomes whether this brokering role has been made obsolete by the end of the labor shortages of the high-growth era and what the school-to-work transition looks like in post-industrial Japan. The surprising answer that Brinton provides is that the institutionalized roles of schools in brokering employment offers continues to serve students in vocational secondary schools well, but it is students at the middling to lower-ranked academic high schools that are turning into the “lost generation” that academics, commentators and policy-makers are increasingly concerned about in Japan.

The book makes a great virtue out of the fact that it resulted from a multi-year process of different research projects that were somewhat interwoven around the central theme of the school-to-work transition from the mid-1990s until the late 2000s. The evidence presented is based on a multi-method approach that is not only convincing in providing readers a glimpse at similar empirical questions from different perspectives, but also in offering a portrayal of the contemporary situation that seems as complete as it could be in just under 200 pages.

The opening chapter sets the stage by discussing the Japanese discourse on the “lost generations” that resulted from several years of a very low intake of new employees into the most desirable and stable jobs in the Japanese economy. Because several cohorts of the mid-1990s faced general hiring freezes at their single point of entry to stable employment, these cohorts are moving through the lifecourse with a significant bulge of unemployment or underemployment, lower job security, fewer benefits and all the social, psychological, and economic challenges that attend the status of being a “lost generation”.

The second chapter discusses the historical roots and institutionalization of the school-to-work transition as it emerged to address severe labor shortages during Japan’s high-growth period. Chapter 3 focuses on the extent to which not just the transition to work, but the entire employment trajectory as it is experienced by men in Japan revolves around attachment to a specific context, or ba. The following chapters continue this focus on the institutional context of the transition to work and present data from a variety of angles including an extended argument for why participants place such great trust in the institutionalized employment system. Chapter 6 as the final empirical chapter presents the life histories of three young men as they have experienced their membership in the lost generation. The conclusion then refocuses insights about the school-to-work transition on the growing awareness of socio-economic inequality in Japan.

The great merit of Brinton’s model is her ability to adapt prominent, predominantly North American theoretical concepts from the sociology of work and education to the particular context of Japanese employment relations. For example, she repeatedly returns to questions raised by Mark Granovetter’s strength of weak ties argument and examines it in the Japanese context.

As I progressed (easily, for it is well-written) through the book, my anticipation continued to build as to what other interesting data Brinton would be able to analyze. Data sources stretch from the census level to illustrate the portrayal of the “lost generation”, to smaller scale surveys that Brinton conducted jointly with some of the most prominent contemporary Japanese sociologists. Because her data collection and conceptualization of her analyses were interwoven with the social scientific discourse in Japan, and perhaps also because this book was originally published in Japanese and thus aimed to connect with this discourse more explicitly than many works, Brinton does an exceptional job at bridging scientific debates between the North American and Japanese contexts.

Brinton is not shy about “revealing” the sometimes haphazard routes by which data presented themselves to her. The story she recounts on pp. 55-56 of how she happened to come into possession of the entire trove of job offers in a local employment office was not only a light-hearted but telling insight into the difficulties of obtaining data. This will be a welcome pointer to some of the graduate students who will undoubtedly read this book that good things will come to researchers who engage a topic with in-depth fieldwork in the actual context of their chosen topic.

I found some aspects of Brinton’s argument less convincing than the overall thrust and structure of the presentation. For example, I am not sure that we need yet another version of what seems like a definition of “institution” in another context, namely Brinton’s use of the term “ba”. While this is a term with many complex connotations that I also encounter in my research on supplementary education in Japan, something as simple as “institutional context” would have served Brinton well. The life histories presented in Chapter 6 do round out the mix of methods employed by including in-depth interviews, but they seem to add very little to the overall argument.

I will be relying on the central empirical chapters of this book in an upcoming seminar on economic and social change to examine education(al policy) as a crucible of the organization of work and society in the Asia Pacific myself and recommend this book not only to readers interested in the specifics of the Japanese case, but to the broader audience of scholars working on employment systems and the welfare state. Brinton will provide you with an engaging overview of the Japanese employment system, but also many insights into the operation of social institutions and individuals’ choices in the context of this system.

Obsessing about Finland

Does the (success of) the Finnish education system have any relevance for Japan?

The degree to which some of my interlocutors in Japan obsess about Finland and see Finnish education as a panacea for all that is wrong (presumably, but see my argument for the central importance of perceptions) with Japanese education has puzzled me for some time. The somewhat less urgent interest in Singapore falls in the same category, I think.

Now, Keita Takayama who has been doing some terrific work on the place of Japanese education in a comparative and global context, makes the case that the reference nation status of Finland (and the lack of such status for E Asian education systems that perform equally well in PISA and similar comparisons) is due a) to the proximity of Finnish policies to OECD precepts, and b) to Finnish pre-PISA status as a “tabula rasa” among education systems that is not burdened by any of the preconceptions about E Asian education systems. Takayama makes this case in an Asia Pacific Memo on February 16, 2012.

Takayama makes his case very succinctly, but Finland’s status as a reference nation has come up in N American debates as well.

See for example:

If I were to start from the premise that there are things about Japanese education that could use reform, what countries would I look to? Or, what countries might I not look to?

I do think that education systems vary significantly by scale. According to Eurostat, the total number of primary and secondary students in Finland is about 1.2 mio. Japan’s comparable figure is 18 mio. This reflects the ratio of the two populations with about 5.3 mio Finns in 2010 and 127 mio Japanese. Clearly, an education system that is fifteen times as large in terms of the number of students enrolled involves different complexities than a smaller counterpart. That is not to say that there aren’t aspects of Finnish education that are worth examining in considering reforms for Japan, I’m just not convinced that Finland is the most relevant example in this regard.

Why not pick more proximate comparators? While South Korea is not even half as populous as Japan its education system operates on a scale that is much closer to Japan. Likewise France which would be an example of an education system that has some structural similarities (high degree of centralization, for example) and operates on a similar scale, though a comparison between Japan and France on comparative educational achievement would likely lead to a large-scale visitation movement from France to Japan, not the other way around.

What about Canada? Again, not quite on the population scale of Japan, but similar success to Japan…

I see the interest in Finland as primarily a faddish one will raise some questions that are wonderful raise about education elsewhere (including in all the countries mentioned in the above), but will not provide panacea.


The センター試験 as the Linchpin of Educational Reform

An edited and more concise version of this post appeared as an editorial in the Japan Times on Friday, February 3, 2012, entitled “Stocking up on useless facts to pass an exam“.

I have been studying 学習塾 for over six years and have visited more than 50 individually-operated throughout Japan. I have been thrilled by the dedication of charismatic educators, and dismayed by the relentless focus on standardized test results and by the lack of a diversity of offerings beyond the narrow confines of the curriculum in an era of hypereducation.

Recently, thousands of students sat for the central university entrance examination (センター試験, see National Center for University Entrance Examinations). For ambitious students, the exam is merely a requirement to check off on their way to the entrance examinations for specific fields of study that follow later. For others, the exam is a convenient way to avoid multiple examinations if they are not opting for entrance to university via the increasingly common recommendation route (推薦). The exam is one of the ultimate goals that supplementary education through primary and secondary schooling focuses on.

When I read the exam questions that were reprinted in newspapers last week, I felt great dismay and a concern for Japan’s future. Despite the tremendous resources that the state, students, and parents invest in education, the linchpin of the education system tests knowledge that I – as a university professor – am not looking for in my students and that is unlikely to serve the Japanese nation and Japanese businesses in the postindustrial era.

Yes, for a student who will go on to a doctorate in literature, it is important to know whether Erasmus wrote before or after Cervantes and Petrarch (Q9 in the World History B portion of this year’s test). But this knowledge is only relevant in rare circumstances and does not speak to any kind of skill. The very nature of the exam – short answers selected from a list of options – pushes the education system towards a pursuit of only variously useful factual knowledge that is rarely linked to any communication and analysis skills. It is one of the great strengths of juku that they seem to prepare students well for this kind of exam. This may also be at the root of the consistently high ranking of Japanese students in international comparisons of educational achievement like PISA.

To make education more relevant to the skills of the 21st century, the core of its content has to be reformed. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) should initiate an experiment with a limited essay format that requires students in social studies’ subjects, Japanese, and English to provide an analysis of a topic discussed in a short reading or through the presentation of specific data. This experiment should be announced ahead of its implementation initially without an impact on students’ results in the first two years.

During this period of experimentation, MEXT and the National Center for University Entrance Examinations might also consider various options to provide the labour to mark essays, a process that is highly labour intensive, even for a short essay. Given the number of out-of-work PhDs, perhaps there could be a system of fellowships at participating universities that required fellows to participate in the marking of the central examination. It should be noted that many universities already provide the labour to grade the university-specific entrance examinations that come after the central exam, and these often include essay formats.

After some tweaking of the essay format, this critical thinking skills portion of the exam could be gradually expanded to take its place alongside the current focus on knowledge acquisition. The English portion of the exam should be shifted from testing arcane grammatical knowledge (受験英語) to an emphasis on communication paralleling the introduction of an essay format. With a long-term plan in hand, current elementary students could be told that the central exam will have changed by the time they will sit for it and this will allow them, parents, teachers and even juku teachers to adjust their teaching methods accordingly.

Through such a gradual transition, the central exam as the linchpin of an exam-oriented Japanese educational system could be transformed from its current role as an enforcer of test-taking English, arcane knowledge, and cramming strategies into a meaningful test of relevant skills and knowledge.

Entrance Examinations and How They Distort History Education in Japan

Before I refocused much of my research on supplementary education, I conducted a lot of research and wrote a dissertation on history education in Japan and the Germanys. I published this research as a book last year, “Guilty Lessons? Postwar History Education in Japan and the Germanys“. While I don’t discuss supplementary education in that book at all, my research on history textbooks was in part an inspiration for my current focus on juku.

In the course of a major research project, there are a number of questions that get asked time and again, some virtually every time one presents on a given topic. For my research on history education, especially in the Japanese context (the book was comparative in nature and included a discussion of history textbooks in East and (West) Germany as well), one of the questions I frequently heard was, “Yeah, but no one reads the textbooks anyway, students only study for the entrance examinations and thus rely on juku materials to study history.”

As you can see right away, this was not really a question and it was typically posed in that dismissive “so what?” manner that we academics unfortunately pose so often to each other. Nevertheless, I took this question seriously and after having heard it a couple of times went looking for research on the portrayal of national history in juku materials/instruction hoping to be able to add citations for this literature in footnotes to at least address this question even if I would not be able to answer it properly.

Note that this is also a question that Philip Seaton raises in his review of my book for Monumenta Nipponica.

As I went looking for this literature, it quickly dawned on me that there was no such literature. While I found this astonishing – given the frequency with which this question was posed -, I assume that it was a bit of an oversight in the larger literature on juku and on Japanese students’ sources of knowledge in different elements of their education. No such luck, there is no sustained engagement with these topics in any social science literature in Japanese or other languages. This observation was one of the central insights that propelled me toward juku research.

 Kazuya Fukuoka’s Research on the Reception of History Textbooks and the Role of Juku

Kazuya Fukuoka is a political scientist at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia (U.S.) I met him some years ago at a conference that was hosted by the Hiroshima Peace Institute and organized by Mikyoung Kim and Barry Schwartz. Kazuya co-authored a chapter with Barry Schwartz that appeared in the edited volume that resulted from this conference, Northeast Asia’s Difficult Past (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2010), “Responsibility, Regret, and Nationalism in Japanese Memory”.

Kazuya has also just published a new article in the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, “School History Textbooks and Historical Memories in Japan: A Study of Reception“. In October 2011, the article was available on the Springer website as an OnlineFirst publication. Through in-depth interviews, Kazuya determines that the reception of materials presented in school, especially textbooks, is not a straight-forward mechanistic process, but that it varies significant across individuals.

One of the aspects that Kazuya focuses on in particular (yes, I’m finally coming around to the juku link in this whole discussion), is the role of “entrance examination hell” (no page# given in the PDF I obtained through my university’s subscription). In his interviews, Kazuya heard reports from his interviewees that contemporary history was rarely discussed in the upper years of high school because it rarely appeared on university entrance examinations, and that history/social sciences is primarily perceived as a subject that requires memorization.

Social Studies in Juku Instruction

What Kazuya reports on the basis of his interviews here confirms my experience in juku as well. First of all, social studies is relatively rarely requested by students/parents. The dominant subjects continue to be Japanese, mathematics and – in middle and high school – English.

When I have observed 社会科 classes in juku, they have largely reflected that same kind of encyclopedic quality that Kazuya’s informants mentioned and that also corresponds to the empiricism that I found to characterize history textbooks.

The one notable exception I have come across in my fieldwork is a small juku in Chiba where the 塾長 (who is very active in juku association circles centred on Tokyo) spends a fair amount of time using coverage of a specific theme in newspapers to explore current events and their linkages to the three social studies subjects.

An Era of Hypereducation?

In 2010 I wrote an Asia Pacific Memo that argued that “hypereducation” was the way of the future. In this Memo, I was primarily referring to contemporary education in South Korea as a hypereducation system, but also predicting that China was heading in this direction.

What do I mean by hypereducation?

Here are some aspects that define hypereducation:

  • private investment that approaches or surpasses public investment in education even when this public investment is substantial
  • a strong, collectively-agreed upon belief in the importance of education/educational credentials for intergenerational social mobility
  • a highly institutionalized supplementary education sector that goes beyond immediate and short-term concerns with remedial efforts or exam preparation
  • a broad lack of trust in conventional schools (including private schools) that flies in the face of empirical evidence that suggests a high level of achievement

What societies have entered this era of hypereducation? In East Asia: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. If you agree with my Asia Pacific Memo argument, then China is not far behind? Elsewhere? The island of Manhattan, clearly. I still know too little about non-Asian cases like Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Portugal and Turkey to be able to judge whether hypereducation is also developing in these countries. 

Abacus Education

The first time I encountered a juku was when I returned with my 上智大学学生寮 roommate (I spent my 3rd year in university on exchange at Sophia) to his home in Shimane Prefecture. Shinji’s parents ran an abacus juku. I thought to myself, “An abacus juku? In 1991? In Japan, where the pocket calculator was invented in the 1960s? How bizzare!”

Over the years, I have visited the 瀬川塾 many times and have been fascinated and impressed by the success that abacus education can have with some kids. Children who enjoy computation (I was one of those myself) can get a real kick out of the speed with which the abacus lets them perform calculations, especially once they graduate to methods where they’re only visualizing the abacus not actually using it.

My former roommate is now involved in a larger-scale effort to introduce the abacus more formally into math education, not as a calculator, but rather as one more way to introduce elementary school students to different math concepts. See Shinji’s blog for more information on SSKClub and their efforts.

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.

June 2010 Asahi Editorial: Education Reform from Below

Last year (2010/06/16) I wrote an editorial for the on-line English edition of the Asahi:

POINT OF VIEW: While Policymakers are looking elsewhere, Japanese education is being reformed from below

Japanese elementary and high school education seems to have been lurching from one crisis to the next over the past 10 years.

From fears during the dot-com era that Japanese children were not being prepared for a post-industrial economy, to the apparent disaster caused by the implementation of “yutori” education, to the steady stream of social ills discovered in the nation’s schools–“ijime” (bullying); “gakyu hokai” (dysfunctional classrooms); “gakuryoku teika” (declining academic ability); and “futoko” (refusal to attend school)–politicians and the media continue to identify aspects of the decline of Japanese education.

By contrast, foreign observers might point to near-universal high school graduation, literacy and numeracy, as well as high rates of participation in higher education, as characteristics of the education system that call claims about a long-term decline into question.

Regardless of the empirical reality of a decline, the solutions to this decline are constantly sought outside of Japan.

Over the past five years, a number of models have been discussed at near-obsessive levels. From Indian arithmetic to the Finnish and Dutch education systems, pundits, academics and politicians seem to be travelling the world to find solutions to perceived Japanese problems at the national level.

Yet, few conclusions from these travels seem to get serious consideration by the apparently paralyzed Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Few politicians have the substantive expertise on education or the interest that would be necessary to evaluate claims of decline or alternative models to the extent that they could be implemented.

While a general sense of malaise permeates national discussions of education, local boards of education and schools are beginning to experiment with some very significant changes to public education, especially in Tokyo. Given the rarity with which political reforms in Japan bubble up from grass-roots experimentation, such efforts ought to be recognized, publicized, and considered for scalability to the national education system.

One of the areas of greatest experimentation has been emerging public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the schools of Tokyo’s wards. Originally pursued in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, PPPs strive to harness private investments in public (infrastructure) projects and constitute an element in the so-called third sector. Toll roads are the paradigmatic examples of infrastructure PPPs. In Japanese education, PPPs are emerging where ward boards of education are signing contracts with supplementary education businesses (juku) to provide additional instruction to public school students on school premises in the afternoons and on weekends.

These “konai juku” are a daring experiment in that they are breaking with a decades-old attitude of confrontation between formal education and the shadow education world of juku and “yobiko.” The opposition to the existence of the juku system has been one of the few areas of policymaking where the formerly powerful Japanese Teachers Union (Nikkyoso) found itself in agreement with education ministry bureaucrats.

However, as the perception of significant shortcomings in public education has spread, local officials have increasingly looked to the supplementary education industry as a possible source for solutions.

Education PPPs now operate in all wards of metropolitan Tokyo. They have been created in the context of school choice that has been pushed down to the elementary school-level and encourage principals to seek distinguishing features for their schools that might stem the tide to private education in the capital. Coincidentally, the introduction of school choice has also been spearheaded by local efforts, most notably in Shinagawa Ward.

These PPPs take many different forms, some specifically targeting students who are underperforming, some aiming at the average students who have been somewhat neglected in public discourse, while others are providing the accelerated education and exam preparation for which some of the larger juku schools are famous.

Activities span from test-taking services, to classroom or individualized instruction, to teacher education seminars. While teachers and union officials are opposing these experiments in some schools, others are welcoming juku into the school for what they offer at the moment, a constructive experiment. One of the ironies of the entry of juku into publicly-run schools is that this signifies the re-introduction of Saturday school by stealth.

Juku are clearly not the panacea to end all educational ills that some proponents make them out to be. The scarcity of any research on juku means that claims of their efficacy and superior ability to tailor educational content to individuals and their learning needs, remain just that, claims. Whether or not one accepts the pessimistic view of contemporary Japanese education, however, experimentation with alternatives is an element that has long been missing in the highly-centralized education system, and these grass-roots efforts should be encouraged, nurtured and taken seriously.

While experimentation is to be welcomed, it should also be supervised and held accountable. Obviously, long-term contracts between private education providers and schools or boards of education have significant fiscal implications. They also bear the potential for creeping privatization of public education.

Boards of education should monitor these experiments very carefully and should themselves be held accountable for their experimentation.

I’ve written about the shift of power to grass-roots level in Japan on this blog as well.

Special Needs Education in Juku

During the course I taught through UBC’s Continuing Studies, the topic that engaged the participants most (perhaps because I was deliberately provocative) was special needs education. When asked about the availability of special needs education in Japan, I replied that “There are no special needs.” Obviously, that is quite untrue on many levels.

However, as far as perceptions by most stakeholders are concerned, that provocative over-simplification seems to describe the state of affairs reasonably well.

Before I get myself into really hot water in an area that I have only looked at through the words/eyes of my interview informants, let me stick to the juku perspective on special needs.

I’ve only seen one child with an obvious physical disability in my 45+ juku visits. Obviously, I may not have spotted disabilities that are less visible.

I would, however, include school refusal in the category of potentially requiring special needs attention. 不登校 (school refusal) has emerged as a major  concern in Japan over the past several years. As far as I can tell, this term encompasses a whole range of behaviours that fall along a continuum stretching from mild (“I don’t like my teacher, so I don’t want to go to school”) to more severe (mental health issues, including agoraphobia, etc.).

I have encountered school refusers in virtually all the juku that I’ve visited. Somewhat embarrassingly to me as a researcher, the jukucho will often point these students out to me quite explicitly. Beyond their presence in all juku, I have also visited two juku that specialize in the more severe cases of school refusal.

Initially, I was astonished to learn that there are school refusers who are attending juku instead of conventional school. If you come to this situation with notions of exam hell structuring the school experience of secondary school students, and of juku focusing on cramming for entrance examination, then one might not expect students to “flee” to juku away from the senate.

At the milder end of the school refusal spectrum, some students may simply not be getting along with fellow students or teachers. For this category, juku attendance would seem to make sense, as switching schools is very unusual in Japan, so that juku presents itself as a ready alternative. As authorities are clearly tolerating juku attendance (or even complete school refusal by staying at home) as an alternative to compulsory education, juku may really be the obvious solution. That would also explain the fact that a significant number of school refusers at the lower secondary level, re-enter school for senior secondary schooling. Clearly, these have to be relatively mild cases of school refusal.

Towards the other end of that spectrum, I visited two juku that specialize in special needs students. One of them was even more unusual in that it is run on a volunteer-basis, i.e. not-for-profit. This is in part possible because the jukucho owned a large apartment building that a) provided him with an income, and b) made some basement space available for the use of the juku. This was probably also the juku that had the coolest (or any) toys available for students in the form of constructor-set-like things.

The other juku is also in metropolitan Tokyo and caters more specifically to students who are challenged by social interactions. I had obviously read about otaku and even about hikikomori (shut-ins), but this experience at this particular juku definitely gave me a new perspective on these phenomena.

There were only five students (all middle school) in this classroom, but it was very clear right away that these students were different from the students I usually saw in Tokyo juku. There was something very physical about their social interaction disability, the way they held themselves and held their body when interacting with others. Then, during class, some of them would simply seem to clam up, turn inward and tune out, even when simple questions were addressed to them. Coupled with the dinginess of the juku surroundings, this visit was pretty eye-opening.

Interestingly, even these students (who looked to this layman like they fell in the mental health portion of the spectrum of behaviours), were planning to re-enter high schools through entrance examinations to complete their education.

It also turned out to be a mouth-watering visit, however, in that the jukucho had returned from a trip to Denmark (if I recall correctly) some years earlier where he had visited a program that offered vocational training to at-risk youths. He had been impressed and subsequently opened a Ramen shop that is staffed by his students. The noodles were actually quite good.

To return to the question of the absence of special needs education, the current post-triple-disaster fiscal situation probably makes a large-scale public investment unlikely, especially since this would most likely come in local budgets, rather than national MEXT contributions.

Given that fiscal constraint, but a growing awareness of the desirability of special needs services (social interactions, Japanese-as-second-language-learners, otaku/hikikomori, etc.) among parents, perhaps the juku industry will respond to this more flexibly than conventional schools are able to (especially in the current context).

If the fairly unusual juku that I mention above are ahead of the curve on this topic, then we might expect not only a growing awareness of special needs, but also a growing servicing of these needs as juku turn themselves more and more into more comprehensive education providers and consultants.