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How egalitarian is the Japanese education system? Consider factors such as class, gender, age and/or ethnicity and identify the major problems you believe contemporary Japan is facing.
Education plays an exceptionally vital role in the lives of Japanese people, determining social standing and ultimately gauging the 'successfulness' of the individual. But do all Japanese have the same opportunities to gain this elite status through the education system? This paper aims to examine how egalitarian the Japanese education system is with particular reference to class, gender and ethnicity as well as investigating the major problems contemporary Japan is facing.
In order to understand the current education system it is important to investigate the history and beginnings of its modernisation. In the year 1868 was the Meiji Restoration, during which the current government was overthrown and a new government urged for education reforms. The new Meiji government put in place the Ministry of Education in 1871, which advocated three main points; (1) that education become available to all citizens, (2) to 'learn practical science for the benefit of the people' (Modernization of Japanese Education, 1986) and (3) that the cost of education be borne by the people. This dramatically changed the ideology of class and status is education, which before this time was only available to the wealthy and prestigious. This change was based largely on the opinions of Yukichi Fukuzawa, a social theorist responsible for many of the social changes during the Meiji period.
From the beginning of the 20th century, industry in Japan grew at an alarming rate, introducing a need for vocational education, which is still prevalent in today's society, and almost all school age children were enrolled in a school. At this time there were complaints about the quality of education; that the knowledge gained was forgotten after graduation. This sparked reforms in the educational system. During the war the education system was controlled by the government and democratic educational movement was oppressed. After the war educational policy became a legal matter and any changes to it were in the hands of the people. One large change under the new Constitution was the right to equal education and from this point coeducation became the norm. Compulsory education was also extended from three years to nine years, which is still in place today.
'Japan is a country lacking natural resources and must therefore rely on the quality of its human resources' (Ushiogi 1997, p. 238). This emphasises the importance for education in a 'successful' life that contributes to the improvement of the nation. Every society has a different education system based on social structure. Japan, through reforms after the Second World War, has aimed to reduce inequality and discrimination in schools and universities. In 1871 the Ministry of Education changed the idea of class and status in education in becoming available to all citizens, including the introduction of coeducation and compulsory schooling. With higher education comes higher social status. Due to these Ministry of Education reforms, this has become available to all citizens of Japan on meritocratic basis. The egalitarianism of the democratic Constitution enables people to have an equal chance at an equally successful life.
The 'efficiency and excellence of the Japanese educational system' (Shimizo 1992, p. 109) has been praised by many scholars and experts over the world. There is both a high level of accomplishments in science, mathematics and musical instruments as well as an egalitarian teaching system. This teaching system has come under scrutiny, however, as there is little room for improvement above the current level of study.
'Under no circumstances do the teachers consciously form groups stratified by ability as is the practice in growing numbers of American schools. Although the teachers recognise difference in ability among their students, they feel it is their responsibility as public school teachers in a democratic society to try to bring all the students to a common level; rather than promote the bright students at the expense of the slow, they seek to channel the energies of the bright into pulling their slower fellows up. Groups are conceived of as educational vehicles in the broadest sense rather than as mere instruments for rationalising cognitive education.' (Cummings 1980, p. 127)
Unlike the education system in the United States where children may advance in their learning, no such advancement is offered to the 'brighter' students. This lack of flexibility is due to the national curriculum, however it may be argued that this further emphasis the egalitarianism of the education system. Students advance from grade to grade 'virtually automatically' (Shimizu 1992, p. 113) unless they have not attended the required number of classes, therefore enabling all students to progress equally with one another regardless of them falling behind or having achieved a high enough standard that would otherwise have them in an above grade.
Social stratification can be seen within the classroom and student groupings. Pupils generally mix with others from similar socio-economic backgrounds; this is usually decided by their parent's occupations or the area they live in. Children are not aware of these social boundaries at first, but are taught by their parents and even at times the attitudes of the teachers at school. This is often learned at a very early age.
One class that has received steady prejudice since the feudal times is the burakumin people. This group was identified doing the social stratification into several classes during feudal Japan. Ancestors, or those who carried the burakumin bloodline, were considered 'outcasts' and often lived in separate communities, sharing similar occupations. These included funeral workers, tanners and butchers, all of which were thought to be 'unlcean' occupations according to the Shinto religion. Although the feudal social stratification system was abolished with the Meiji reform, the prejudice towards the burakumin people is still prevalent today. The present policies, which aim to legally erase discrimination against the burakumin, are based on a movement formed in 1965 which offered a number of different services to these communities including proper guidance and education and to secure regular school attendance. As can be seen through this movement, Japan's education system has aimed to make education available to all citizens regardless of class, however due to the Shinto beliefs behind the burakumin discrimination on a smaller scale, such as within the classroom, is unavoidable.
Despite being known as a 'mono-racial nation,' (Kobayashi 1976, p. 141) there are a few ethnic minority groups currently in Japan. One of Japan's main principles of education is 'to develop a proper understanding of the actual conditions and traditions both of children's native communities and of the country, further to cultivate the spirit of international co-operation,' (Kobayashi 1976, pg. 58) however in practice this is not often obtained. The discrimination and inequality amongst students is due to the fact that different races make up such a small percentage of students in Japanese schools. This is consistent with Japan's fear of standing out, which is consistent with the proverb 'the nail that sticks up will be hammered down'.
One of the ethnic groups that suffer from this discrimination is the native Japanese people, or Ainu, who for the most part have been assimilated to become more 'fundamentally Japanese'. Most of the Ainu culture has ceased to exist due to this assimilation process; however there are still colonies that exist in the northern island, Hokkaido. There has been little to no effort put towards preserving this culture, especially in the education system. Ainu families who have not assimilated fall through the cracks in the education system.
Koreans living in Japan have also been faced with assimilation. A large number of Koreans were forced to immigrate to Japan as a means of cheap labour during the colonial period and to this day many Korean children are not familiar with their native culture and practices, having been subjected to such strong Japanese influence. As a means of holding on to their cultural identity, there are a number of Korean schools that exist throughout Japan which teach their students Korean language and cultural heritage, however these schools are not recognised in Japan. The majority of Korean children attend Japanese schools, and many even adopt a Japanese name. As far as the education system is concerned, Koreans who have assimilated or adapted to Japanese lifestyle have the same opportunities for university. The problem lies beyond higher education, however, with Koreans finding difficulty in obtaining jobs 'suited to their education and training because of their status as foreigners and because of the prejudice against them' (Kobayashi 1976, p. 141). This, therefore, deters some Koreans from trying to pass university entrance examinations without the hope of gaining a successful job.
Although the Constitution of Japan offers education for all, some children are 'de facto underprivileged for different social reason, one of which is poverty' (Kobayashi 1976, p. 136). Educational assistance is offered to younger children who have been brought up in poverty such as transportation costs, school meals, school supplies et cetera. For high school and university students, scholarships are available based on achievement or merit.
Children who live in rural areas that can't afford education in larger, more prestigious schools are sent to country schools, sometimes with only a handful of teachers. They therefore do not receive the same education as those who grow up in the city and are considered 'under-achieved'. Due to their financial circumstances these children are also generally physically underdeveloped and therefore find it more difficult to fit into society or high-earning jobs. The Ministry of Education does, however, conduct regular studies of these rural areas and it also publishes guidebooks for the teachers working there. It can therefore be seen that the Ministry of Education does offer education to all citizens though it can be seen that in these rural areas the standard of learning is significantly lower and therefore students who attend these schools are less likely to pass university entrance examinations and achieve the desired social status or financial security of a career.
Japan, who rely so heavily on their educated citizens and workforce, have an alarmingly high rate of suicide among students due to the stress and pressure applied by their parents and teachers to succeed. Japan's 'zeal for education', as described by Tetsuya Kobayashi, is responsible for an outstanding industry workforce as well as the evils associated with the education system such as school rejection and suicide cases among young people due to the competitiveness of entrance examinations. Although suicide, bullying and school rejection are prevalent in today's schooling system, this problem needs to be addressed as the number of reported incidents arises.
An NHK (Japan Broadcast Corporation) survey conducted in 1962 disclosed that people were just as concerned with education as with health and living. This cultural mentality can be seen in recent suicide surveys that ranked Japan sixth in the world for female suicides and eleventh for males. According to the Japan Times people aged 19 and younger mainly kill themselves over health or school problems. The 2007 survey also reveals that suicide rates dropped overall in 2006, they made a 3.6 percent increase in young women and a 3.4 percent increase in young men. It also states that Hokkaido University found '4.2 percent of students between the fourth grade and the first year of junior high school struggle with either depression or manic-depression' (Prideaux 2007). The same survey also showed that suicides among those aged 19 and under jumped 2.5 percent each yeah to reach 623 total suicides in 2006. These staggering figures prove that the pressures and today's youth and their alarming rates of depression and suicide have not improved.
The main contributing factor to this pressure is the method of entrance into high schools and universities. If a student does not pass an entrance examination or they are not selected, they may spend the following year preparing for the next test. Kobayashi describes this as a 'symptom of over-zeal for education'. Most failures changes their objectives and apply for different universities or explore different options, however many reapply and it is a 'great waste, both socially and individually that a large number of youths should spend one year or more just preparing for admissions tests' (Kobayashi 1976, p. 119). Thus, stress and pressures related to the zeal for education have caused a number of problems in Japanese society, and do not appear to be improving. These increasing effects may potentially damage the number of university graduates and therefore affect the workforce.
Citations and References
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