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.
One promising thread that I was able to pick out from the intro to DeCorker and Bjork’s collection, Japanese Education in an Era of Globalization: Culture, Politics and Equity, was their aim to critique views of Japanese education which elide complexity in favor of a treatment of the Ministry of Education policy as THE driving force in the education system here. They don’t mention specific authors they wish to critique, who come at Japanese education from this standpoint, but a review I read in the History of Education Quarterly (a journal which is a little light on Japanese Ed. history) takes this view. Of course, MEXT is undeniably a powerful entity in the creation and implementation of education policy and curriculum here. Furthermore, it is an organization with a more than 130-year history, which is to say, it is not undeserving of study. However, I think it will be more useful to look at present-day education in Japan through a historical lens that de-centers what has been the central education authority in Japan.
Why do I think it is important to decenter the center in this case? Well, apart from having a contrarian streak a mile wide, it has been my experience that teachers have the greatest influence on what education amounts to. While they are beholden to the dictates of organizations like the Ministry of Education on paper, the realities (for better or for worse) off classrooms are always deviating from these norms. I realize that it’s not nearly so easy to get a picture of what actually happens in classrooms as it is to follow the paper trail left by a government ministry dedicated to dictating what ought to be happening in classrooms. But the counter-examples that are available will be instructive for teachers who may see their social-reconstructivist aims as being at odds with the curriculum from above.
The example of Hiroshima Jogakuin, the Protestant missionary school for girls, which was very much subject to the Ministry’s war-time dictates, and came under increasing scrutiny due in larg part to its employment of American staff (including head teacher, Nanny Gaines). The activities of these foreign teachers in Japan and the support they received from their Japanese counterparts is I think a great model for present-day curriculum involving the cooperation of Japanese Nationals and non-Japanese native English speaker teachers (NESTs).
But that will have to wait. And I will have to pick this thread up again a little later on.
This post will be the first in a series of micro-reviews/ reflections on a collection of essays I recently got my hands on:
For a couple of years now I have been working off and on on a research project focused on Japanese teachers and schools which have worked against the grain of the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbukagakusho or MEXT). I picked up this title because it focuses on the contemporary moment in Japanese Education history, and a couple of specific initiatives (like the Super Global High School Program) that I am interested in placing in deeper historical context.
As I write this my son and daughter are running around, having finished breakfast– both vying for my attention, as their mother is on her way to work. This effort (my first in a while) at more academic writing comes in the midst of some of my most challenging efforts at parenting as well. But hopefully this series of reviews will be a step toward a doctoral program and a career in history of education research and teacher education. I just need to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time.
To be continued.
A piece from the Japan Times that puts Eichi Gakuen in the context of innovations for struggling local rural economies.
The following is from the site Medium.com, from their series on inspiring teachers. It looks like a good summary of what HiGA aims to be and some of the history of and rationale for this particular kind of education innovation in Japan.
I’ve heard about Fumi during a discussion with Ota Tamaki about the amazing OECD-Tohoku School project that was launched following the catastrophe in Japan in March 2011, and the Innovative Schools Network 2030 project as a successor project of the OECD Tohoku School with broader participants including Hiroshima. In a few words, OECD Tohoku School is a two and a half year project, in which 100 junior high and high school students from disaster areas came together for workshops. Through this project-based learning, the students organized an event in Paris in summer 2014 to appeal the wonders of Tohoku region to the world.
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