Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Japanese court gets it wrong in sex-ed suit

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 15, 2009

THE TOKYO DISTRICT COURT ruled in favor of 31 plaintiffs employed as teachers and staff members at a Tokyo school by ordering three Tokyo Metropolitan District assembly members and the Metropolitan government to pay them 2.1 million yen (about US$ 21,440) in compensation. The court said the politicians were wrong to criticize the teachers at a special public school in the Nanao district of Hino for using dolls to teach sex education to children with mental disabilities. The court also found the government liable because local education officials were present during the the politicians’ visit in 2003 and did nothing to stop them.

In fact, the politicians didn’t stop the teachers either. They merely criticized the teachers to their faces (apparently in the classroom), as well as the materials the teachers used during their visit. It was later that year that the Metropolitan Education Committee severely reprimanded the Nanao 31 for failing to follow guidelines.

The Asahi article reporting the story (here’s the English and here’s the Japanese; the links won’t last long) says the plaintiffs were thrilled because the decision strikes a blow in support of the “independence of education”.

Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education prohibits “undue control” of the educational system by government authorities. (Undue is the paper’s translation for 不当, which can also be translated as improper or wrongful.) Japanese courts seldom support teachers over school authorities in cases involving undue control.

The Asahi closes with the by-now standard quote from a college professor that allows journalists the world over to editorialize in the context of a news article by having others speak for them:

Teruyuki Hirota, a professor of educational sociology at Nihon University, welcomed the ruling as it stressed the education board’s role to protect teachers from political interference.

Why are the 31 teachers, the Asahi Shimbun, and Prof. Hirota dead wrong in this case?

Because public schools are not the private fiefdoms of school teachers.

The reason the decision is wrong has nothing to do whatsoever with the manner of conducting sex education in school. It has nothing to do with the boorish behavior of politicians on a field trip. The guidelines for teaching anything in a public school are for the Education Committee to decide–not for teachers in individual schools to ignore while acting as independent philosopher-kings responsible only to themselves.

That’s because the school in question is a public institution supported by taxpayers. And that means their entire operation must be subject to public oversight–and public oversight of public institutions is the legitimate responsibility of government.

Yes, it would be improper if politicians demanded that classroom teachers extol the virtues of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But it would be just as improper for classroom teachers to sell their students on the idea that “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” was the proper way for a government to organize the economy. Indeed, the latter is more likely to be a problem in Japanese schools today than the former.

The question, therefore, is what constitutes “undue control”. Did the three politicians (at least one from the LDP and one from the DPJ) exert “undue control”? Is it undue control for educational authorities to set teaching guidelines? Obviously not, but that didn’t stop the judges from trying to exert undue control of their own by advancing what is surely their personal agenda.

Those who disagree should consider this: The military is another public institution supported by taxpayer funds. Civilian (i.e., political) control of military forces is a prerequisite for a democracy to effectively function. Any democratic nation that allowed military officers in the field to determine their own operational strategy without civilian oversight would soon be transformed into a military dictatorship with the potential to create serious problems both at home and abroad.

The principle here is precisely the same. If civilian oversight is essential for the military, it is just as essential for school teachers. Do you think teachers should be allowed to use dolls to teach sex education to the mentally handicapped? That’s a valid and defensible position.

So either start a private school funded without taxpayer money, or choose politicians who will appoint administrators that agree with your position. That’s what elections are for.

Still, there are two questions that the Asahi doesn’t address (natch). First, why sue the politicians? If the teachers oppose the educational policies of the authorities, they should sue them–or take the self-congratulatory stand of resigning in protest. The assembly members were on a one-day visit. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that spite was the motivation for including those three in the suit.

The other question has to do with the teachers’ justification for using the dolls in classroom instruction. They claim that mentally deficient children often don’t understand what body parts are being discussed through the use of words alone.

The article doesn’t say how old the children were (natch again), but the website for the Nanao school shows they have classes for students from the primary school to the high school level.

If the students are incapable of understanding the body parts being discussed without some show and tell, would they have the mental capability to benefit from education regarding sexual behavior to begin with?

The case is yet another example of Little Jack Horners claiming a personal exemption from principles and policies they insist must be applied to other people. The Tokyo court should have known better than to award the plaintiffs money merely because their feelings were hurt. But evidently the temptation for judges to shape society to their own preferences is just as difficult to resist in Northeast Asia as it is in Europe and North America.

Posted in Education, Legal system, Sex | Tagged: , | 8 Comments »

School cell phone bans gaining momentum in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 21, 2008

“I didn’t realize there were so many things in the world I don’t need.
– Socrates, describing his impressions on visiting the marketplace

GROWING NUMBERS of Japanese officials are concluding that one of the things children don’t need is cell phones in their book bags. The trend among local governments is to either slap an outright ban on students bringing cell phones to primary and junior high schools, or to allow only those with severely limited functions.


Osaka Metropolitan District Governor Hashimoto Toru, an attorney and television personality known for his outspoken views on government waste and the malignancy of Kasumigaseki, the catch-all term for the national governmental bureaucracy, is also supporter of back-to-basics education. He’s had some well-publicized run-ins with teachers’ unions in Osaka, starting with his call for a performance-based wage system for teachers. (Speaking of these unions in the U.S. Jonah Goldberg remarked, “No group is more committed to putting ideological blather and self-interest before the public good.” He might as well have been speaking of Japan.)

Gov. Hashimoto’s willingness to take a public stand, no matter how outrageous, means his every word and deed are now automatically national news. Thus, his announcement earlier this month of a general ban on cell phones for the metropolitan district’s primary and junior high schools focused national attention on an issue that had been percolating at the local level. Even in the governor’s jurisdiction, 88% of primary schools and 94% of junior high schools had already banned them. These are not casual decisions–Osaka surveys show that 32% of grade 6 pupils, 68% of grade 9 pupils, and 91% of grade 12 have the devices.

The governor said the high-tech toys are a distraction for students and the prohibition will be conducive to concentrating on studies. He also moved to reassure parents the prefecture will be examining ways to provide a guarantee that their children are actually attending school or to confirm their location. One way to do this would be to allow phones capable only of telephonic communication or with a GPS function.

This drew the attention of Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Hatoyama Kunio. His ministry is responsible for regulating cell phone use in the country. Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“Banishing cell phones from educational institutions is truly correct…While cell phones are convenient, it is an undoubted fact that cell phones have aspects that are dehumanizing. (For one thing), people lose conversational ability.

Other reasons cited for the ban were the increase in bullying and crimes caused by the use of some cell phone sites, and the decline of scholastic achievement resulting from an inability to concentrate exacerbated by too much time spent using cell phones.

Now this week, a national government council on rebuilding education launched during the Abe Administration and reorganized during the Fukuda Administration created a subcommittee to study cell phone use in schools. The council is also recommending a de facto ban that limits devices to talk-only phones with GPS functions

The council emphasizes the role that families and the community must play in regulating cell phone use among the young. They urge that parents use filtering services for their children’s devices. They also suggest that more public phones be installed in train stations and schools to allay parental concerns about communicating with their children. They plan to submit a full policy recommendation in three years.

Finding ways to enable working parents to keep tabs on their kids is the key, of course. If it weren’t for that, cell phones would have no more business being in a classroom than comic books.

A quarter of a century ago, the Japanese public swallowed the line from Japanese educators that the school system needed to become more like that in America. Many Japanese now regret that their schools succeeded in following that model all too well, considering the subsequent deterioration in academic accomplishments and personal discipline in public schools since then. Over the past few years, the movement to reclaim quality education in Japan has been picking up steam. A cell phone ban is another step forward in that movement.

Afterwords: Note that high schools are exempt from Governor Hashimoto’s ban. There’s a reason for that: the Japanese have a clearer awareness than Americans (for example) that compulsory education ends at age 15. The decision to continue their classroom education is optional and in their own hands. Teenagers who want to attend a good college and enter one of the professions must take entrance exams for admission to a good academic high school. As a consequence, the average Japanese high school student has a more proactive approach to his education than his counterpart in the United States. That in turn seems to lead to an earlier formation of a sense of purpose in life. Very broadly speaking, Japanese high school students tend to behave with more self-assurance than those in America.

Of course Americans that age get to operate motor vehicles, work regularly at part-time jobs, and have the chance to enjoy a full schedule of social activities both at school (sponsored dance parties on the premises, for example) and on their own outside of school. I’m not convinced that the head start of a few years in these activities constitutes an advantage in life, however.

Posted in Education, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , , | 13 Comments »

A good hachimaki is a terrible thing to waste

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 21, 2008

YOU’VE ALL SEEN those bandanas or towels the Japanese sometimes tie around their foreheads. They’re called hachimaki, and the Japanese have been wearing them for almost as long as there have been people living in the archipelago.

Blue Monday at a Shinto shrine

Blue Monday at a Shinto shrine

They were originally used in religious ceremonies, and they’re still worn by men performing strenuous manual labor or carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) in festivals. Once upon a time, women wore them during childbirth.

Soldiers also wore them in battle because they were thought to strengthen the spirit, and that custom still lives today in another context. School children, particularly boys, sometimes wear them while hitting the books to give themselves a spiritual edge in passing the entrance exams to high school or college.

There is a very old belief in parts of Asia that the spirit can penetrate and create a “charge” in inanimate objects over time. If true, that would mean the old hachimaki of students who safely passed through the valley of examination death are just bursting with positive electrons and good vibrations. It would be a shame to stick them in the corner of a dresser drawer and waste the residual power of those brain waves.

That’s why the Hofu Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Hofu, Yamaguchi, accepts donations of the hachimaki used by successful students and recycles them.

The tutelary deity of the Hofu shrine is Sugawara-no-Michizane, a scholar/politician/poet/ambassador who served the Imperial court more than a millennium ago. He was so well known for his erudition that he became a divinity of learning and is enshrined at many Shinto facilities around the country.

Until quite recently, the Japanese were loath to use recycled clothing of any kind (except hand-me-downs in the home), but those inhibitions were ignored when it came to entering the school of one’s choice. Students preparing for exams will try anything they think might work. It can’t hurt, and besides, it might possibly help.

The shrine has about 5,000 hachimaki on hand donated by those who passed their exams, but it just wouldn’t do to hand out bandanas that were soaked with someone else’s sweat. And cleanliness is next to godliness, after all. So the Hofu Tenman-gu miko (shrine maidens), handle the domestic chore of laundering the hachimaki and hanging them out to dry on the grounds of the shrine. That’s the scene you see here in the photo.

The shrine will give them away at no charge to anyone who asks. But if you’re the kind of person who just can’t bear the thought of wearing something that someone else wore, the shrine will be glad to sell you a special student package with a good luck votary tablet, some pencils, and a brand new hachimaki, all for just 2,500 yen (about US$ 28.00). They sell about 40,000 sets a year, and considering what the markup on those items must be, they can afford to be generous and give the old ones away. They also don’t have any problem getting donations; they say about 10% of all the bandanas they sell are returned.

Now here’s a thought: do they have heirloom hachimaki passed down from year to year from students who gained admission to schools with particularly rigorous standards? Or is two years the limit for exam mojo?

Afterwards: Try this for some more about Sugawara-no-Michizane.

Posted in Education, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Okinawans not talking the talk

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 11, 2008

FURTHER EVIDENCE of the growing integration of Okinawa with the rest of Japan appeared in an article earlier this week in the Ryukyu Shimbun that highlights the declining use of the Okinawan dialect/language.

The newspaper reports that three graduate school students working for a master’s degree at the University of the Ryukyus conducted a questionnaire survey on the use of the Ryukyu language throughout the prefecture. They also sent questionnaires to the outlying islands, which have greater dialect variety.

The survey results prove once again the validity of the old dictum that actions speak louder than words. Here’s a look at the important numbers:

92.5%: The percentage of respondents who agreed that the support and development of Okinawa culture required the survival of the Okinawa dialect/language.
80.2%: The percentage of respondents who said they hoped the dialect would survive.
61.7%: The percentage of respondents who said they never used the dialect at home with their children or grandchildren.
66.3%: The percentage of respondents who said that they never used the dialect at home with their children and grandchildren, combined with those who said they seldom used it.

One mitigating factor might have been the low recovery rate for the questionnaires. The students selected 1,548 households at random and mailed two questionnaires to each. Only 442 households responded, and the recovery rate for the questionnaires was just 15%.

Then again, 78.1% of those responding were 50 or older. Could it be that younger people no longer care all that much? They didn’t bother to fill out and return the questionnaire, after all.

In response to the question of how often they used Ryukyan in a day, 44.2% of those who answered said from 10% to 30% of the time. Slightly less than half of the respondents said they never used it. The vast majority of those who said they used the dialect did so exclusively at home.

Not mentioned in the article, but also worth considering, is that people who say they are using the original language might really be speaking Japanese sprinkled with local terms and expressions.

The survey also uncovered further evidence of an increased willingness to abdicate personal responsibility for a task by leaving it to the government. That was indicated by the 82.3% of the respondents who said that the Okinawan language should be taught in school.

The educators’ response

The prefecture’s schools didn’t agree, however. The graduate students also sent questionnaires to all of the 460 primary, junior high, and high schools in Okinawa. They received replies from 258 schools, or 56%. Of these, 69.9% agreed that the dialect should be used in school. The newspaper report said they had a “negative response” to the idea that it should be taught as a separate course, but it didn’t reveal the percentages.

What the school response means is that teachers think it’s fine to use the language in classroom discussions or conversations with the students, but they’re not on board with the idea of separate instruction in the language itself.

The researchers were alarmed by the results. They believe the Okinanwan language will not survive unless it is taught in schools.

If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to discount the views of those people with Okinawan nationalist sentiments. It’s no problem at all keeping a language, a dialect—or anything—alive when there are benefits to its use. As we’ve seen before, younger Okinawans increasingly see themselves as Japanese, rather than strictly Okinawan. That would underlie a realization that standard Japanese is a requirement for functioning successfully in everyday society.

I know from personal experience with my wife’s family how easy it is to maintain a distinctive dialect if the older family members use it frequently, or in the case of my father- and mother-in-law, exclusively with their children and grandchildren. My brother-in-law and his wife live in the family home with his parents. They have two daughters in their early 20s and a son in high school. All three of their children can use the local dialect more comfortably than their peers, simply because they’ve used it every day with their parents and grandparents since they were born.

Now consider the results of the Okinawa survey. Most of the respondents were older than 50, and most of them seldom, if ever, used the dialect with their children or grandchildren. The conclusion must therefore be that the Ryukyu language is slowly but surely becoming a luxury in Okinawa.

If people won’t use it at home, where it’s easily learned and applied, there’s no point in teaching it at school. Sentimentality for a culture by itself isn’t enough—you have to walk the walk by talking the talk.


In this previous post about Okinawans creating special alphabetical characters for the Ryukyu language, one poster noted that I shouldn’t have called it a dialect because it is really a separate language. I’m sure he’s right, but I used both terms in this post because that’s what the Ryukyu Shimbun did. They called it both a dialect (hogen) and the Ryukyu language (Ryukyu-go).

Posted in Language | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »