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2 April 2001

It’s the schools, stupid

While Japan's education remains in crisis, its economy won't get any better

By Victoria James

Japan’s school system, once the envy of the west and model of the east, is falling apart. International headlines focus on Japan’s tumbling shares, rising unemployment and currency deflation. However, it is the country’s education crisis that threatens to keep Japan’s economic woes on the world’s front pages for years to come.

On any high street, any day of the week, children in school uniform can be seen chatting in Starbucks or giggling outside clothes shops. They are not on some free-style field trip, but are contributing to statistics that, in 1999/2000, recorded about 128,000 pupils skipping school for more than 30 days. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has risen to 4.9 per cent of the population, with 10 per cent of young men out of work.

Fingers of blame point in all directions: at parents, at mondai kyoshi (problem teachers), at undermotivated students and uncommitted young workers. The line-up of suspects was completed on 2 February, when the education minister, Nobutaka Machimura, accused the favourite whipping-boy of Japan’s conservatives, America. The US-devised postwar education system, he alleged, encouraged Japanese students to cut classes through its “misplaced respect for individuality and misplaced freedom”.

In his influential Parasite Single no Jidai (The Era of Parasite Singles), widely covered by the media last year, Masahiro Yamada laid the blame firmly on feckless young things – ten million of them, according to one census – content to live at home, sponging off mummy and daddy. By indulging in “luxury unemployment” and job switching, he claimed, they “cast a long shadow over the Japanese labour market”.

A study since published by the Japanese Institute of Labour, however, contends that the shadow falls in the opposite direction. Professor Yuji Genda argues that the emergence of the “parasite single” phenomenon is “not a cause but rather a consequence of the rise in the unemployment rate for young people”. The salaryman on the scrapheap is still the exception rather than the rule, and companies remain fundamentally committed to the prerogative of seniority and the belief that redundancies entail loss of face. To check spiralling labour costs, recruitment is scaled back. The resulting decline in employment opportunities for Japanese youth becomes a “long-term structural problem”, according to Genda, “attributable to the vested rights of middle-aged and older workers”.

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It doesn’t take an expert to see how poor job prospects are a powerful disincentive for those fighting their way through Japan’s famously tough education system.

Foreign nations, in awe of the dedica- tion of Japanese schoolchildren and the performance-driven system whereby selection begins at elementary level, generally overlook the psychological toll on the pupils themselves. Describing her educational experiences for the benefit of Japan Times readers, the columnist Kaori Shoji introduced a whole unsuspected lexicon of schoolday sufferings: “My school was an areta gakko (wild and ungoverned school), rife with konai boryoku (in-school violence), attended by furyo (good-for-nothing kids) and instructed by taibatsu kyoshi (teachers who believe in physical punishment) . . .”

There is certainly evidence to reinforce Shoji’s bleak picture. The latest “problem teacher scandal” broke when a Kumamoto teacher made nine-year-old girls strip naked in front of him as a punishment; and World Health Organisation figures for 1997 showed that 53 pupils under 15 and 1,478 students under 24 had killed themselves. But there are also positive stories: for example, profiles of innovative educators such as Keio University’s Masahiko Sato; the news of tenacious teachers in the city of Shizuoka appealing, successfully, to absent students via mobile phone e-mails; and laudatory write-ups of so-called “alternative” or “free” schools.

Ryoji Yoshino runs a school in the depressed region of Kita-Kyushu. The Hiraodai Alternative Learning Laboratory (HALL) has one teacher for every three pupils. There are no uniforms, rules or school events, and attendance and time-tables are decided by pupils and staff in joint consultation. The students, those “barred from or who can’t adapt themselves to” regular schools, all emerge from HALL with a high-school equivalency qualification. The majority go on to university or a specialist college.

Not content with the success of his school (and the estimated 200 like it across Japan), Yoshino is looking at further development of the “free school” system: “I’m interested in elementary-level education projects and the future establishment of alternative junior high schools.”

It is significant, however, that the free schools and smaller initiatives such as Job Revolution have arisen outside the official framework. While criticism is now strong, those in a position to instigate reform hang back. Companies maintain traditional employment practices, rather than implement restructuring programmes that are seen as both alien and alienating.

Parents are confused as to their children’s best interests. Most refrain from criticising failing schools and poor teachers because they fear their children will be victimised. In a recent poll, 48 per cent of parents opposed any relaxation of either the curriculum or regulations, lest it deprive their children of discipline and competitiveness. The government, meanwhile, continues to focus on the plight of Japan’s economy, seeming not to realise that today’s educational collapse is tomorrow’s economic catastrophe.

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