As Chizuru indicates, education is critically important in Japan today, but even in Torazaemon’s time, many people required the benefits of education. In truth, the importance and value attached to education in the Edo period provided a basis and a positive orientation to education which offered the modernizers of the nineteenth century a good base on which to build.
Literacy is now virtually universal. In the Edo period, literacy was also surprisingly high. The period may have been feudal, but it was not a ‘dark age’. Most samurai (about 7% of the population) could read, even women, and many merchant and artisan families found it more and more necessary as the time went on. Even some peasant families, especially rich ones, found minimal literacy necessary. By the end of the Edo period, some 20% or more of the population were literate. This was a far higher base for Japan a hundred and fifty years ago than many nations have been able to develop today after serious effort since 1945. The literacy rate is certainly higher than in most developed nations at the present time.
The quality of the education system, aside from literacy, is another matter. Quality can be measured in various ways by standardized tests or by the purposes which society expects education to be put. On tests, Japanese students perform at very high levels, especially in science and mathematics at the high school level. However, criticism is often made of the narrowness of the curriculum and the pressure under which students are made to perform.
But questions of quality relate to the structure of the present educational system. Under the influence of the Allied Occupation, the Japanese educational system was moved away from a highly structured, elitist system, to one resembling the system typical of the United States. Primary school lasts six years beginning at age six, middle school carries on three years (completing the compulsory nine years of schooling), high school lasts another three years and then university takes four years to the bachelor level. Within primary, middle and high school, classes are well mixed with regard to the ability of students; there is firm resistance to the idea of channeling students into better or poorer academic streams based on their achievement or ability, in stark contrast to the pre-1945 system which valued streaming for its ability to produced a small, but able elite.
Although only nine years are compulsory, most students now continue through a full twelve years of education. In the initial postwar decades, a middle school education was often more than adequate in the marketplace, but with the move into a high-technology economy more education is necessary. Higher education is also valued, for somewhat the same reason. By 1980, nearly 43% of high school graduates went on to either a full four-year degree or a two-year junior college course.
So much value, however, has been put on education that serious problems have arisen. The most famous is the university entrance examination which is a notorious barrier standing before a student wishing success. A large percentage of students fail the exams, or fail the exams for the particular institution they wish to attend. Since future success is largely determined by educational background, many students elect to spend the next year (or more) studying at private ‘cram’ schools (juku) in hope of passing the exams the following year (university only take in students at one time, April, each year). The more famous juku have enrollments ranging up to 60,000 students. During this year, the student is called a ronin or masterless samurai because he or she is not affiliated to any institution. The personal and family pressure on students during exam periods or the ronin year is oppressive.
The earlier educational years are similarly afflicted with pressure. Although the classes are not streamed, there are better and worse schools. Parents and students expend much effort to get established in the correct school. Popular belief, and statistical analysis provides limited support, has it that a student must attend the correct high school in order to get into the best university, the best middle school to gain entry into the correct high school and so on. At each level, there are exams and marks which are important and which can be improved by attendance at after-school juku. There are even special classes held for children hoping to get into the correct nursery school: lessons in how to tie shoe laces and pronounce a few words in a foreign language are common.
One of the criticisms that is frequently made of the Japanese system of education is that it encourages rote learning rather than critical thinking. Recent developments in technology as well as the number of prizes which have gone to Japanese scientists do much to lay to rest the impression that originality is stifled, but rote learning certainly is a problem which students and teachers alike criticize. Critical awareness of the problem has not led to its disappearance, however.
A child’s education is the responsibility of the child and its mother. Since the father is generally at work for long hours five or six days a week, child-rearing in general is the responsibility of the mother. This is especially true of education. Mothers are famous for turning into kyoiku mama or ‘education mothers’ whose first concern always is their child’s education.
Against this background, most teachers are firmly committed to a philosophy which grew out of the Occupation period. They seek to produce through the education system a ‘whole’ human being who is capable of independent yet socially responsible thought and action. In a social context which generally de-emphasizes independence, especially extreme independence, this philosophy may come up short.
The national Ministry of Education, on the other hand, is traditionally conservative and presses lower levels of education to pay considerable attention to teaching methods and educational content which are conducive to social cohesion and economic utility. Thus, just as the employment system values and rewards loyalty from workers to their companies, this Ministry would prefer to see similar conservative values conveyed through education.
Several recent developments have added some new facets to this picture. Japan has moved into the international arena in the past few decades in many ways. More Japanese business men and government bureaucrats are being posted to foreign countries for periods of time. Educationally, this presents some problems. If a students studies in the local schools, their ability in Japanese language (a notoriously difficult language) would falter and future academic success would be hindered if not totally prevented. The Ministry of Education has built a number of schools for expatriate Japanese and this may solve the problem for the compulsory years of school, but not for high school. Many students, therefore, have to return to Japan for schooling. Families may be split up with the mother often returning to Japan with the child or children, placing great strain on the family unity. On the other hand, while students returning to Japan may be disadvantaged in Japanese, they are often advantaged in English or other areas. A number of schools and universities have established special classes or whole institutions to cater to these students.
Another aspect of educational ‘internationalization’ relates to the falling birth rates which Japan has seen for twenty years and more. There are fewer and fewer students of the appropriate age for university education (few return for education at a ‘mature’ age), yet there are more and more universities and colleges. Internationalism has become so popular that many institutions have established study programs abroad in order to be more attractive to the diminishing pool of students. Private institutions were particularly aggressive in this kind of endeavor; some have opened up branch campuses in foreign countries by purchasing bankrupt institutions. Recently, however, even public and national universities are following suit with foreign student exchange programs, study trips abroad and foreign professors hired at the home campus.
Yet another problem is that companies have established offices and factories throughout the Japanese archipelago. They now find it necessary to transfer their workers from time to time to distant places. Each family has to make a decision on what to do with the children’s education. If the child is in a good school or in a good educational area (usually one of the major cities), there is intense pressure to make some sort of arrangement to permit the child to continue in the school. Frequently, this means the husband alone makes the move, making the education mama even more exclusively so.
These various pressures are assumed to contribute to a wide variety of educational and social problems (such as an increasing divorce rate). Since the 1970s, schools have seen a sharp increase in attacks by students on teachers (a rarity before 1945), on parents, and on other students. Bullying other students is a common problem, and one which is difficult for teachers to deal with since it frequently occurs out of their sight. Originally appearing in middle schools, it has also become common in primary schools. Although usually a minor problem, it has led to murder.
Despite these problems, the Japanese education system continues to attract praise from both Japanese and foreigners.