Choice in Japan

Some Japanese are looking at U.S. charter schools, hoping for a way to create alternatives to the centrally controlled Japanese education system.

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  1. Sean Kinsell says:

    “Miss Tanaka…said the Japanese education system ‘needs diversity. While affluent families can have some options in education, many others cannot.’

    “Miss Tanaka said Japan can learn ideas about education from examples in the United States, but that the American context is ‘very different, such as multinational populations and wide disparities in wealth. So it would be impossible to import a charter school as it is.'”

    Well, Sats’chan, dearie? If the “disparities in wealth” in Japan are sufficient to limit the educational prospects of bright children, and that’s the *whole issue* you’re addressing, maybe the “context” isn’t so different after all. Making everyone look middle class is easy when you have the Ministry of Health, Labour, Welfare, and Statistics Cooking doing your bookkeeping.

    One hates to be cynical, and the things that the Japanese educational system does well, it truly does wonderfully. But Ms. Tanaka is an excellent example of how reform fails to take hold here: An exploratory committee goes abroad, and everyone sees people happily and efficiently accomplishing X using Y system. Then it becomes clear that adopting it here will require changing existing ways of thinking, behaviors, and lines of authority. From then on, very quietly and gradually, reasons–one or two in this meeting, one or two in that revised proposal, a hasty amendment to the final document submitted for approval–are found to preserve the old practices under names that mime the supercool new system as implemented elsewhere. The end result is still labeled an initiative for “information sharing,” or “efficiency,” or (keep one hand on your figurative wallet when you hear this one) “transparency,” but more often than not, planners take the opportunity to create a few more cronyist review boards–gives them somewhere to work when they hit mandatory retirement age.

    It’ll be interesting to see how this develops. This is one issue I would love to be wrong about.

  2. Curt Wilson says:

    In the mid-80s, at the height of that round of American-school-bashing and the peak of the “Japan is doing everything right, let’s copy them” craze, I went to a technical talk by a man named Yoshio Nishi, who had led the team at Toshiba that developed the first megabit RAM chip.

    He had come to the US for a one-year exchange at Hewlett-Packard, but then decided to stay. The reason? To keep his kids in the American public school system. Granted, these were Palo Alto or nearby schools, but he was scathing in his comments about the Japanese educational system (more interesting than the technical talk), particularly about how it kept bright kids down.

    (Joanne, he’s now a professor at Stanford, and his kids would obviously be grown now. You might find it interesting to talk to him.)

    These days, I get a lot of high-tech business in Japan that I “shouldn’t” get (they should have no need to put up with the hassle of working with an overseas vendor who can’t speak Japanese). Usually, it comes after several failed attempts to do the work domestically. A few people there I have gotten to know well enough have agreed that Japan’s educational system produces almost no one with the creativity and inquisitiveness to make real advances in fields like software.

  3. Charter schools in the US are largely a response to a corrupt and petrified educational establishment, including teacher’s unions, nicht wahr?

    In Japan, the petrification seems to penetrate completely through the society, the idea of hammering down the nail that sticks up above the others. Conformity permeates Japanese culture.
    I thought the Bill Murray film “Lost in Translation” did an amusing job of portraying the small “counter culture” in Japan.
    Unfortunately, given the low birth rate in Japan and lack of meaningful immigration, the average age of the Japanese is increasing, further hardening the attitudes.