The opening Chapter, in DeCoker and Bjork’s Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization is a very helpful starting point for this collection of essays. Hoffman begins with criticism of any “holistic” view of Japanese education which seeks to explain the entirety of a complex system by offering some “grand model.” One such “grand model,” is the “Centrality of the Ministry of Education.” Hoffman, doesn’t deny that their is some utility in for example a critical understanding of Japanese education in terms of a powerful centralized bureaucracy, but she is rightfully wary of any such account that mythologizes or adds excessive moral significance to such artifacts as political organization. In this regard, Hoffman is somewhat skeptical of the genre of ethnographic research in general. But she allows that research that seeks to understand Japanese education in comparison with other contexts is most useful when it neither erases diversity nor seeks to hold up Japan as a model.
The reminder of Hoffman’s essay describes four guiding themes or “tensions” in Japanese educational research. She is observing patterns in existing research rather than suggesting areas for future study. Likewise, her identification of themes or tensions don’t foreclose on alternatives. Those four themes are as follows:
cultural versus structural effects
individual versus collective selves
education for belonging versus education for transformation
and homogeneity versus diversity.
In my experience as a teacher in Japan, and in my limited exposure to the literature on Japanese comparative education, I can see why these themes would present themselves as most evident or available means of analysis of the education system here. First, as Hoffman echos in her essay, the Japanese nation and the Japanese cultural identity are conflated at every turn, both in and outside of academia. But it is undeniable that “Japaneseness” is a cultural category that has had far-reaching effects even spilling over into political structures like citizenship and discourses in education like globalization. I suppose this is the thematic substrate that I am most interested in accessing in my own writing about Japanese education, particularly in light of Hoffman’s closing salvo on “culture, power and difference in reading Japanese education,” but more on that in a moment.
The individual versus collective selves theme, is another one that I see becoming more prominent particularly in light of the neoliberal dominance of educational policy. That is, the urge in neoliberal discourses of education to treat all aspects of educational systems as flows of capital has often bumped up against a deeper historical imperative for cooperation and a native democratic humanism that predates the arrival of liberalism in Japan from Europe. Here again, though, the key is how best to use these categories of analysis without essentializing them or mythologizing unnecessarily.
Hoffman’s theme of education for belonging versus transformation is the one which I am least familiar with. She mentions it specifically with regard to discourses of situated learning– from shellfish divers to violin teacher training. This is an area of the literature which I will hopefully get a bit more exposure to as I read through Bjork and DeCoker’s collection. It is also an axis along which it seems like it would be helpful to analyze teacher education in general.
Finally, comes Hoffman’s category of homogeneity versus diversity. This one seems much more familiar and easily accessible to me, especially given my experiences as a foreign national working as a foreign language teacher in Japan. But it also strikes me as a useful access point for criticism of ability tracking that is so prevalent here.
To return to Hoffman’s closing nod to “Japan and its Others” for a moment– here was another area where I thought the literature around linguistic imperialism might be usefully expanded. Hoffman helpfully points out that power has long been undertheorized in the field of Japanese education. I think this is particularly true when it comes to my particular professional corner of it: foreign language education, which in Japan typically means, EFL/ ESL. It would be interested to trace the changing tides of EFL/ ESL education in Japan compared with the changing tides of the clout of Japanese Education in general in the world. I wonder what patterns such a historical analysis might uncover.
Hopefully more to come in that vein next entry. Now it’s time to pick up my son from Kindergarten.