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Education and inequality in Japan: Takehiko Kariya

Just Talk: Voices of Education and Justice

Education and inequality in Japan: Takehiko Kariya

Conference Panel

In late October, John Rogers and Oxford University Professor Takehiko Kariya met in Seoul for a conference on education and inequality. Professor Kariya is a sociologist who studies education and social stratification in Japan. His new book, Japanese Education and Society in Transition: A Sociology of Education Reforms, Opportunities and Mass Education, will be available in December 2016.

John Rogers: Professor Kariya, in the United States we often point to the Japanese educational system as a model for equality and high performance. Yet your research suggests that, in recent years, inequality has been growing in Japanese education. Could you begin by describing the ways in which you see inequality growing?

Takehiko Kariya: Until the middle of the 1990s, Japan seemingly succeeded in producing both high quality of education and equality. This is the story of William Cummings’ 1980 book, Education and Equality in Japan. It says quality and equality came together. That's unusual when compared to many other western countries. But now, many studies describe a clear correlation between students’ family background and their educational attainment. By the early 2000s, this relationship received growing attention from the Japanese public and policymakers.

Why do you think that, sometime in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the performance gap between children from low SES families and high SES families was growing in Japan?

There was, of course, the long lasting economic slump in Japan that started in the early 1990s, following what we called the “bubble economy.” It hit a lot of family income, employment, and all aspects of our society.

Are there direct through lines from the economic downturn to growing educational inequality? What would those be?

After we experienced economic stagnation and global pressure for several years, the Japanese way of business was seen as very much outside of the global standard. Of course, the idea of neoliberalism, or a new economy, that was developed in the U.S., created all kinds of global fissures, and these forces also changed Japanese points of view.

Attacks on our education system began too. As part of an economy in a society like Japan that has no natural resources, human resources were seen as the primary way to boost the economy. Really radical curriculum and pedagogy reforms started in early 2000. For example, it cut about 30% of content in textbooks, particularly in math and the sciences. The people who supported this idea saw a need for improved technology, and saw science as a way to maintain our economic standing in the worldwide context.

Reduction of the curriculum content aimed to create more time for new and more meaningful activities. Rather than students being forced to study particular content determined by national curriculum and teachers, the reforms directed us to be more independent. The idea was for students to learn what they want to learn. That was the philosophy of course, and quite often Japanese educators and policy makers looked at so-called child-centered ideas in the U.S., and a more experiential kind of learning where students commit to more daily phenomenon as they go. For students to do that, they needed some space and additional time for these activities and new learning. If they maintained the same amount of content and curriculum, it's almost impossible. That's why they first cut the content, and then introduced the new ideas.

The new ideas that you're speaking of about opening up spaces for inquiry and more student directed learning are ones we often hear in the United States, and to some extent are seen as cutting edge today. And yet, again, you see that in Japan this new emphasis has increased inequality between students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students from high socioeconomic backgrounds.

I think I should explain a bit more about what teachers in Japan did before these new reforms. In the 1990s, policymakers saw Japanese teachers as doing just a “talking head” type of education, but in reality, this was not true. Teachers tried to combine teaching the content of textbooks, and helping students understand the material, while also using group work for students to support each other.

In fact, the mathematics education experts in the United States who emphasize student thinking and co-construction of knowledge have long looked to Japanese mathematics education for just those sorts of stories. In mathematics education, Americans have been more like the caricature that the Japanese educational reform was trying to overturn in Japan.

Ironically, we’ve found that Americans are more likely to follow the talking head type of model for teaching.

Historically, teachers in Japan faced large classrooms—50 students in a classroom, say, until the late 1960s. If you had 50 students in your classroom, you needed to develop some skills to manage that size, and Japanese teachers became very skilled in managing large classrooms through group work. They developed their own strategies for how to organize students, how to organize group or individual work.

Until the end of the 1980s, Japanese education was respected in the United States, and the Japanese way of managing companies and business models overall were very respected by prestigious business schools in the States. After the long slowdown, the different economic experiences stopped that way of thinking. I think we lost confidence in what we did. We could never go back to what we did before, because it was said to become obsolete. The new idea of neoliberalism and American standards arrived along with a focus on individualization. Educational reformers thought we lacked such individuality or independence.

Some critics of neoliberalism, particularly political theorists, describe the neoliberal subject as homo economicus—the isolated individual who pursues only narrow economic interests. This model, then, is carried forward into the ideals of education. Is that what you see in these reforms, or would you make a different argument?

I think to explain that we need to understand who was attacked by the new ideas. In the UK, for instance, which had a typical welfare state, when Thatcher arrived people reasoned that the British economy was suffering because too much money was put into welfare, and inefficiency throughout the public system resulted from the labor parties nationalizing, among many other things.

All of which were seen as subverted by unions.

Right, and of course, they're meant to protect people under the so-called welfare state. However, when Thatcher came in, that became the starting point in preparing the ideas of neoliberalism. In America too, President Reagan started with these ideas and our prime minister at the time, Nakasone, also joined that circle. These leaders recognized these protections as “problems” in welfare states. Japan's society and state had not yet at that time been a welfare state in the same sense as Scandinavian countries, or even the UK. It was more what one might call a developmental state. States initiated actions or intervened in those areas to develop their economies first and then, later on, other areas of society could be developed such as education, social welfare, and child services. The developmental state was very efficient in Japan, to the point where it reflected what I call a “catch-up modernization” model. The way for Japan to modernize our society and economy was to catch up to the American and Western countries, and this meant that one of the things that led to Japan’s success in terms of organization became obsolete. Now, it became not just out of fashion, but a hazard.

So by the late 1990s, our standards became set by American standards and the neoliberal model, in the classical sense of liberals criticizing state control. They criticized even those successes that resulted from state interventions, reasoning that they were not always good for individuals. That's why proponents of this model attacked the developmental state. This occurred at the same time as the arrival of new ideas to develop individuality and independence of kids. Of course, that might have sounded good to some liberals because the education was so strongly controlled by the state; the national curriculum, for example, or the class size was decided by government policy. Much of the central government’s control in education closely detailed teaching styles, which had been criticized a long time. I think all those backgrounds conflated and amounted to very strong forces to change education in the country.

Let me get to this very provocative claim, that the turn in Japanese educational reform toward more attention to individualism, and more time for complex problem solving tasks, has exacerbated inequality between students from high SES and low SES homes. Part of the reason why it's provocative is that those strategies are talked about today in the States as strategies for equalization, in part because people in the academy look to inquiry based learning as a highly esteemed value. In your view, what mechanisms of these curriculum reforms have deepened inequality?

I think there are two sides we need to pay attention to. First, the knowledge, cultural and economic resources are different for children of more affluent families. That kind of family environment probably makes it easier for kids from middle or upper class families to succeed with experiential types of learning, to find what they want to know and how to solve those kinds of things even outside of school. This is not the case for children from lower socioeconomic status. The other side is, as I already mentioned, the class size of Japanese schools is much larger than American schools. Japanese teachers historically had developed teaching skills to manage big class sizes. They didn't just act as a talking head, but tried to use group dynamics to teach. Japanese teachers know very well how to do this.

With the new reforms Japanese teachers are now called upon to use more student centered learning in large classrooms. This approach obviously conflicts with former ways of teaching. That’s not always easy and may make teachers uncomfortable as they react to being forced to change their way of teaching. It’s not easy to make a transition from a way of teaching that worked very well in teaching very large class sizes to a new sort of individualized teaching. If class sizes became smaller it would be all right, but that was not the case.

I'm wondering if part of the dynamic is similar to what Barbara Rogoff, the social psychologist at UC Santa Cruz, describes as a mismatch between the experience of immigrant working class families and U.S. middle class norms that are advanced in schools. For instance, in the immigrant Latino families that she has studied, children are engaged in complex tasks, though a different sort of complex task than what is presented to them sometimes in schools. Does that argument cohere with your sense?

Within our culture, you could probably find different families from lower and upper classes that might be different in dynamics, as naturally kids are at that age. I think more modern Japanese culture probably does not appreciate the way an individual stands up, so that group work is more efficient. Of course you can tell your own ideas and opinions, but only if you do not stray too far outside.

That example seems to resonate with Rogoff’s argument in the sense that very complex ideas and understandings can emerge in the context of group work, without the sort of individuation that we would associate with a neoliberal subject.

Within Japanese culture, of course there are some relative differences between different families related to socioeconomic backgrounds, but I think that Japanese culture as a whole may not fit well with the American idea of individualization in learning and teaching. However, the reformers said that’s the way to go if you want to boost the economy—you need such individuals. I don't know if the Japanese way of learning business works well in other cultures—Germans have their own way, as do the French and British. In Western countries, people may not be so keen to those subtle differences in the Japanese feeling of being behind, or of “backwardness.”

I would argue that part of the dynamic plays out in the U.S. as well. This is Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s argument in Tinkering Towards Utopia and elsewhere: education becomes the site in which the U.S. society, or Japanese society in this case, plays out it's anxieties over the economy and other issues. In that sense, education becomes a site of constructed crisis.

I agree, yeah.

Your earlier point, that these reforms arrived on top of a history of teacher practice and without any additional resources, is really intriguing. It strikes me that there's a certain neoliberal ideology in that too, because this notion that we can create change without new investment, and in fact to some extent decreasing investment, fits very well within that frame.

Absolutely, and I go back again to the point that during this time of the developmental state, Japan’s education was already efficient and competent. I think the reality of school choice and privatization and efficiency—and Japan already had a lot of private schools during this period—these “fresh” ideas of neoliberals already worked in Japan. But because the type of development that was occurring in the U.S. became desirable, additional investment in areas such as social services and education now became regarded as evil.

One of the intriguing points that you make about the new reforms is the ways that reformers have adopted the language of “21st century skills” as a critical goal. I'm wondering what this term means in Japan and why it has become such a popular notion, because it's a very popular idea in the United States as well.

There are other languages too, and also interest in identifying new kinds of skills that are associated with the new economy. For example, the “knowledge” economy creates a need for more independent thinkers and critical thinking skills. These “new” skills, I think, are combined to create an image of a new era, a new time in education. Of course, the Ad hoc Council of Education Reforms started in the mid 1980s, less than 15 years before we entered the 21st century.

As international organizations started using the language of “21st century skills,” I think it's natural that we looked towards the new century. To impress people, you start with the idea, “We are moving into a completely different time, and that's why we need completely different ideas about teaching and what skills students need to learn.” Because of the long lasting economic stagnation, policy makers were ready to start thinking about this not just in regard to the economy or business, but in other fields too.

Education was of course targeted because first, it’s a business, and further, as people want to change the society, the first thing you do is change the next generation. In the 1990s the government council started to use new concepts of academic ability and competence. That was the first expression for people to pay attention to new things, that is, new concepts and ideas of academic ability.

Does the idea of “new abilities” or “21st century skills” signify anything aside from a difference from the past?

It has been a way for Japanese society to find a way to accommodate or find a way into a different century, through a new knowledge economy. That's the idea, I think—anything “new” was taken as a very interesting idea. There was such an acute difference because of the concept of catch-up modernity. If Japanese society developed naturally, in its own way in terms of internalized transition, they would not have been so keen to new ideas coming from outside. In Japan, because of the idea of “Oh we did good work, good job,” so long as a task was finished, we needed to change this approach in order to survive. That made for a very acute distinction between the past and something new.

Returning to the idea of neoliberalism, it’s striking that this new education comes with no new investment, and may in fact come with a shrinking of the state.

Again, Japan had built a very efficient education system, and privatization or school choice already existed. However, the idea of neoliberalism pushed more competition in order to make education more efficient. Marketization and privatization, individualizing competition, all aimed to make things better. That was the idea from neoliberal economists from America and the Chicago school.

Yes, we take full credit. (laughter)

This idea came easy to Japan because of the crisis of our business model after the bubble economy bust. The American economy looked good because they'd recovered from Reagan's reforms while the British economy recovered from Thatcher’s reforms. All those success stories, particularly from Anglo-American neoliberalism, were incredibly powerful and persuasive to policymakers in Japan. They applied the same ideas to attack the developmental state, particularly in education. That's the logical sequence.

We've been talking about how inequality has grown. What would you recommend for efforts to create greater equality in Japanese education?

I would prefer more incremental changes rather than radical changes, and also, to make full use of what we have done well. It’s foolish to change suddenly and rapidly if it means denying what we did well. We should more carefully look at what we have done, because to some extent we achieved both quality and equality until the end of the 1980s. We did something in our way, efficiently and in a more egalitarian way, in education.

I think we need to think carefully before taking back what we have done well. That is a very important point. At the time that reforms began, Japan's education was rightly criticized, but uniform education is just not the reality in how a country “learns” education. Also, financially, it's very centralized and resources are distributed very equally, and additional resources are being provided to poor areas with the idea of equalizing areas. I call it “zone based equalization”: it’s not individually based, because the Japanese don't like the idea of mixing individual standards and point out who comes from poor areas or areas that get additional support. But, the idea is definitely to pay attention to particular schools that have more students from poor families.



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