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Japan Backtracks on Education Reform

Posted July. 19, 2005 03:22,   


When spring comes, Japanese housewives who have a first-year student at a private middle school ask each other if they suffer from so-called “May Syndrome.” The syndrome refers to the symptoms that mothers suffer from in May after their children successfully enter a new school in April by winning a cutthroat competition in the entrance examination process in February. Some become depressed and lethargic, and websites for mothers hit by the syndrome are thriving.

Examination Hell in Japan Begins in Elementary School-

Nine years of elementary and middle school education in Japan is compulsory. A student who wants to advance to a public middle school does not take an entrance examination or pay education fee (except for books and meals). However, public education is becoming more and more unpopular, while expensive private schools are inundated with applicants every year.

Children who hope to go to a private school prepare for the entrance examination at a Juku―an institute specializing in such exams―starting when they become fourth graders at the latest. In a sixth-grade class at an elementary school in Tokyo, a fourth of the students are private school aspirants. The private school group and the public school group normally do not mingle with each other.

A is a sixth-grade student in Japan. When he comes home after his school day, he takes a short break and then grabs his supper box to get to the institute by 5:00 p.m. He attends to a two-hour class and eats what he brought. He studies there by himself until he comes back home around 10:00 p.m. and falls asleep.

A mother whose son entered a private school this year said, “I paid some 3.2 million yen ($28,500) for private tuition for three years from fourth to sixth grade.”


Distrust in Public Education Triggers Private School Boom-

Experts say the main factor behind the entrance exam hell for private schools is the Japanese government’s “easy education” policy, pursued in the name of holistic education.

In this policy Japan’s public middle schools adopted a five-day work week system in 2002 and reduced classes. Parents of upper middle class felt uncertain of this policy, and decided to send their children to private schools. Private schools supposedly provide quality education, since they have classes on Saturday and invite competitive teachers.

Private middle schools take up 6.3 percent of all middle schools in Japan as of 2003. Until the mid 1990s, the dominant perception was that they were exclusive schools for children of privileged families. As some middle-class parents started sending their children to private schools, however, the ratio of the accepted students to applicants dropped to one to 10 in some schools.

Government Working on Education Reform-

The Japanese government recognized the seriousness of the issue, and is now pursuing education reform in a way that puts priority on school achievement. The national achievement test, which was discarded on the grounds that it puts all the schools and provinces in line, will be revived. In the face of strong opposition of teachers, it is also pushing for the introduction of regular re-examinations of teacher’s licenses.

At the beginning of this year, Japanese Education Minister Nakayama Nariyaki said, “If we leave public education as it is, Japan will be reduced to an old and small Asian country,” adding, “We will leave the adoption of the five-day work week system to each school’s discretion so that students can receive sufficient education if needed.”

Won-Jae Park parkwj@donga.com