Reform Holds Japan's Students Back

Been There, Done That

Students Japan
Tokyo, March 27, 2002: A broadened curriculum has left many students in Japan bored (Photo: AFP).

The new education initiative known as yutori kyoiku was designed to relieve the pressure on students and broaden their perspective and creative abilities. The system, which includes a five-day school week, simplification of the curriculum, and more time for independent “general studies” classes, continues to be a source of debate among parents and educators. But what do the kids themselves think?

In the July issue of Bungei Shunju magazine, nonfiction writer Hidemine Takahashi traveled to the Tokyo suburb of Kunitachi to ask elementary-school students for their views on the new curriculum. He found elementary students were both worldly-wise and keen observers of the adults around them.

Takahashi talked first to a sixth-grader named Inoue (all names are fictitious) who is studying at a juku (cram school) to enter a private junior high school. Enrollment grew to 200 this spring at one juku in Kunitachi catering to elementary- and junior high- school students.

Inoue’s dream is to be president of a chain store. “It is not a matter of yutori kyoiku being good or bad. It has just disrupted the whole school environment,” he says.

Sixth-grader Yamada complains that school is darui (dull) and declares, “The Koizumi government’s structural reform is impossible.” Takahashi feels like he is talking to a little old man but notes private junior high-school entrance exams now include current events problems, and Yamada obviously has been watching the news on TV in preparation.

Yamada does not get home until 9 p.m. Asked to explain what is so dull about school, he mentions that teachers have to go on about things he already knows. Now in the sixth grade, his class has been caught in the middle of the new curriculum change. In the new sixth-grade curriculum, students are learning math concepts they were already taught in the old fifth-grade curriculum. He also has the same teacher he had in fifth grade, who is obviously struggling to do the same material again with the kids.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology is acting on the idea that classes become uninteresting if you do not understand them, so the amount to be taught should be decreased so everyone can understand. But the kids claim almost everyone does understand and that there may be only one or two in a class who don’t.

Yamada, sounding like a teacher himself, added: “It’s not that they can’t do the work. It’s that they don’t make the effort.”

A sixth-grader named Shindo, who takes correspondence study courses, coolly presented his views on yutori kyoiku. “The government wants you to educate yourself,” he claims. For some children, school is just becoming a place for review or, as Yamada put it, “a place to study human relations.” The students, Takahashi sensed, understood the teachers’ predicament and felt sorry about their added workload.

With the new system, Takahashi also found many of the children appeared to be under even more pressure than before, and they expressed distress at the new scheduling, which now gives them six periods a day, three days a week. Under the old system, there were six classes only on Fridays.

The grade-school children who still have an evening of juku ahead said they find it hard not to doze off in the late afternoon. The increase in late classes also cuts into the little bit of playtime they had with friends before heading off to juku.

The kids observe it is not just the longer classes, but the new monthly schedule that is disconcerting. Before there was a regular, rhythmic weekly routine but now, to include all the subjects, a more irregular monthly schedule has to be devised, and the familiar rhythm of life is gone.

Saturdays are free now, and the gym and schoolyard are open, but the number of kids gathering there is small. One boy noted he went at first but found it terribly lonely.