Japanese Education Reform in the 80ís:

A Political Commitment Ė Nabou K. Shimahara


Nabou K. Shimahara in this chapter pointed out several movements of the Japanese Government to reform the education system during the 80ís. Such reforms were very much influenced by the desire of several factors such as the political, economic and social that gave a significant impact to the characteristic of the reform itself.

Direction of Reform

In term of the direction of the education reform, the efforts seemed to extent the liberalization philosophy in the education system. By contrast, in the United States, the reform movement was made in a vice versa form in which the reform focussed to increase national uniformity in curriculum, student performance, fiscal standard, teacher certification and other areas.

However, the movement in Japan was actually difficult to be made because the system characteristics of the education was molded by the cultural orientation as clearly defined by Kluckhohn in his "covert culture" theory. He implied that the culture itself governed the motion taken to approach problems. As we know, centralization was pretty well established in the Japanese school system years ago (since 1886) due to its cultural orientation.

Reasons to Liberalized School System

There were few reasons to liberalize the education system. One of them was to reduce the central government control that introduced uniformity and standardization in the school system besides lack of element of internationalism. Second factor was to make the system be more flexible on the arguments that uniform schooling was inadequate to produce a more divergent individual and to meet social needs. In effect also, the rigidity of the system caused a rising tension in school. In fact the examination system was viewed as becoming dysfunctional.

Economic and Social Factors for Reform

Briefly speaking, there were actually two sub-factors; economic and social, that influenced the reform movement in Japan and those elements were considered to be sub-pertinent factors of the political arena. Based on the report titled "Japan in the year 2000" produced by the Economic Council, Japan would play a greater role in the world market and try to stabilize the economic and social order of her community. Such vision had made the National Council of Education Report (NCER) to establish a strong ground to reform the education system in order to meet the future challenge and this was done in more fashionable ways.

Based on the Economic Councilís report, Japan had to get involved aggressively in the international market in the year 2000 by becoming a leading exporter of capital and a leading manufacturer of advanced software. This would require them to preset a long term planning for restructuring the Research and Development Programs in enhancing the Human Resources Development activities. Thus NCERís reactions to satisfy this vision was considered to be a positively political response. The setup of NCER itself was very significant because the new model of reform would be based on the Japanese conducive environment in the future. Japan used to adopt a western model that was no longer seemed to be appropriate. In short, the reform movement in the 80ís was initiated through political concern in order to progress in the industrial development in the next several decades.

As for the social factor, the existing education system seemed to be suffering from state of desolation (kohai: state of desertedness and deterioration) caused by pathological condition of society and school where these elements increased the feeling of distrust of public education. In addition, such condition was believed to give effect on student deviant behaviors e.g: school bullying, violence, absenteeism, juvenile delinquencies, etc. and the competitive entrance examination did not seem to promote individual creativity, intellectuality and personality development.

Deviant Behavior: Cause and Effect

The NCER indicated that four main factors resulted the deviant behavior of the students and they were ill effects of economic affluence, an increase of centrifugal forces (decline in social bonding), decline of group life, and rigid uniform of school system that permitted little individual freedom. Since these issues became more intense, the Japanese government had no reason to stay calm but to react positively through its own initiatives. Prime Minister Nakasone in 1984 emphasized the necessity to reform the school system was one of his major political commitments. Therefore, such reform was considered to be part of the government social responsibility.

NCERís Proposed Reform in the 80ís

NCER had started restudying the reform at the beginning September 1984 and produced the first report in June 1985 and the second in April 1986. The significant features of the proposal are summarized as below:

  1. introduction of the "Common Test";
  2. introduction of six-year secondary schools (continuity principle) replacing the 3 years divisional secondary level;
  3. introduction of alternative high school education (freedom to complete the required credits);
  4. new provision to enhance the school to exercise more freedom in determining the course of study, curriculum, introduction of moral education; improvement of instruction on basic knowledge and skill and foreign languages;
  5. promotion of decentralized education control; expansion of the autonomy of the school board;
  6. improvement of teacherís professional training and liberalization on certification requirement for new teacher recruitment;
  7. establishment of broaden standard in higher education institution to enhance diversity; greater promotion for training at masterís and doctorate level; and enhancement of research activities at the university level through a flexible research structures and organization; and finally
  8. establishment of a University Council to maintain and upgrade the quality of high education institution.

Controversy and Commentary Statement

Nabou K. Shimahara highlighted several critics about the NCERís proposal. There were several claims that the proposal failed to overcome or alleviate the issue of the entrance examination system (a cause of desolation). The six-year secondary school system seemed to be promising but couldnít actually reduce the effect of the phobia and the side effect of the entrance examination. In addition, the social practice portrayed academic credentials to be a significant factor for attractive employment and thus contributed to create greater intense environment. The introduction of a concept on individuality seems to be very abstract especially if such concept would be introduced in a well established culture that promote personal and social identity within a group. The need to be decentralized seemed to denote that the government (Monbusho) played a little governmental interference in the school system and thus allocate the concerned ministry in a secondary importance. This seemed to be producing another abstract phenomenon.

Intense diversification could produce complication at the later stage. What would happen to the national philosophy of education for the nation as a whole? Can diversified network of education system guarantee equal quality of education? Can internationalization process in the school system be realized?


As far as the reformation is concerned, I believed that the responsibility of the central government is definitely accountable and it is in fact a political commitment to drive the nation into an industrialized nation (a common goal for many countries). In fact, the Japanese government saw that such reform movement in the 80ís had to do with the political and economic interest. The central government as I perceived have more intact information internally and externally and thus know the direction of the nation in the future. Still, decentralization could be implemented as long as the base national philosophy of education is widely understood by all school administration. Flexibility in the education system should be defined clearly and implemented wisely as long as it can give more benefit to the nation as a whole. Yet, the degree of flexibility has to be studied feasibly and determined precisely so that there would be (hopefully) no rising conflict upon the cultural orientation.

The education system (either being centralized or decentralized or maybe partly decentralized) should produce a conducive learning environment for the individual. There should not be a spectrum to separate totally the academic life with the real life. The system should support the "room to grow" for individual self-development. Educational institution should be portrayed as a place to connect oneself with the surrounding environment. The external social institution (family, community, working sectors) should collaborate by participating in the school system where this would bring the individual to have a real touch of reality of the outside world. Internationalization in the education system should be expanded in more concrete methods rather than applying the principle issue. All of these considerations should be clearly viewed according to the sensitivity of the nation as a whole and the root of destiny of that particular nation. Whatever tool and modus operandi be used to reform, the movement should uphold the principle of collective responsibility.

Azman Mohd Yusof

Education Policy II

Graduate School of Policy Science, Saitama University

July 2, 1998