Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
Junior High Education
The emphasis on cooperation and team spirit continues during the three years of junior high school, the second stage of the nine years of compulsory education in Japan. This emphasis is exemplified by preparations for the cultural festival of October 2007 at yoneda Junior High, a school of about four hundred students in a rural district of sakura (see figure 11.1). Like the sports day held a few weeks before, this major event involves every student in the school. One message of this inclusiveness is that everyone matters. Being a good contributor is more important than being a star. A second message, frequently repeated at every level of Japanese schooling, is that if everyone combines powers (chikara o awaseru), great things can be accomplished. Working together, not the brilliance of isolated individuals, is presented as the key to success. After lessons end, the yoneda students work in groups to create artworks from everyday materials, such as plastic bottles or drinks cans, and build versions of fairground games from wood and painted cardboard.
However, the yoneda cultural festival also offers individuals the opportunity
Students preparing for the cultural festival at Yoneda Junior High School To shine, particularly in the plays that each grade performs. These performances allow the dramatically inclined to declaim before the entire school, as well as providing major responsibilities for students who act as directors. The cultural festival is also the time when members of the school art club put their works on display for the rest of the school to view.
Extra-curricular club activities (bukatsudō) also mix emphases on common endeavor and individual talent. Such activities are a major feature of Japanese junior high and high schools (Cave 2004). Although not mandated by the national curriculum, they are ubiquitous, absorbing huge amounts of students' and teachers' time and energy. Schools generally offer a range of both sports and cultural clubs. Popular sports clubs include baseball, soccer, track and field, swimming, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, tennis, kendo, and judo. The most popular culture clubs are generally the brass and woodwind band and the art club. Top-level high schools tend to offer a wider range of culture clubs, springing from the interests of the students themselves. With the exception of the band, culture clubs are often run in a relaxed way, meeting just once or twice a week. Sports clubs, however, expect dedication, usually practicing for an hour or two on weekdays and generally on one if not both days of the weekend. Because practice takes place almost every day all year round (including most of the vacations), a student cannot join more than one sports club; and though changing clubs is usually possible, it is not encouraged. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, messages are that students should be devoted to a single thing (hitotsu no koto ni uchikomu) and should keep going to the end (saigo made ganbaru), deeply held values in Japan. An important side effect is that students cannot be all-round stars—regardless how talented they are athletically; for example, they cannot join both the baseball and soccer teams. Such a restriction might seem hard on the highly talented, but on the other hand, it allows more students the chance to take a leading role. It is thus a system that favors encouraging the talents and efforts of many, rather than a few outstanding athletes. Yet this does not deny recognition to individuals, for it is individual performance that decides which students are chosen to play in the regular inter-school tournaments.
Junior high is also the start of serious individual academic assessment. Midterm and end-of-term tests become a major feature of school life, largely determining grades. Students also know that progress to high school, the next stage of education, depends on their performance as individuals in the high school entrance exam.
In today's first period at yoneda, one second-year class has a social studies Lesson. Having studied geography during the first year, students are now studying history and will study civics in their final year. The class is nearing the end of the textbook, which starts in prehistory, about five million years ago, and gives a compact chronological account reaching up to the present day in about 230 pages. Generally speaking, the content of two textbook pages is to be covered in each fifty-minute lesson, a pace that does not allow the teacher, Mr. Kasuga, much time. Today's lesson deals with the latter stages of world war ii. Mr. Kasuga spends the first ten minutes questioning the students about the basic facts covered in the textbook, using projections of a map of the war zone and a photo of fighting on saipan. There are always several students ready to raise their hands and answer. He then gives out a copy of a letter relating war memories from a book entitled Onnatachi no taiheiyō sensō (women and the Pacific war), reads it out, and then talks about what he has heard from his grandparents about their war experiences, ending with the words sensō akan (“war is no good” in Kansai dialect). He encourages the students to ask their own grandparents about their war experiences. Next, he moves on to the invasion of Okinawa, the southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago and the only part of Japan to be invaded during the war. He talks about how school students were recruited to serve the war effort, specifically mentioning the Himeyuri Butai (star Lily Corps), a group of female students recruited as field hospital nurses, most of whom were killed in the fighting (watanabe 2001, 143–145). After writing on the blackboard a few key points for the students to copy down, Mr. Kasuga talks about the untruthful way that the war was reported to the Japanese people, so that they were encouraged to fight to the end. He hands out a copy of part of the wellknown graphic novel Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), explaining that many people in Okinawa killed themselves, as shown in the manga, and that some claim they were instructed to do so. Having spent about twenty-five minutes using these supplementary materials to deepen students' appreciation of the content outlined in the textbook, for the remaining fifteen or so minutes he reverts to his earlier approach, asking students a series of questions about the section on the defeat of italy and Germany and then writing key points on the blackboard for them to copy down. The lesson is probably fairly typical of history teaching in Japan's junior high schools (Cave 2003). With so much material to cover in so little time, teachers generally find it difficult to engage students in analysis and discussion. Nonetheless, most teachers do their best to interest students in the subject matter and deepen their understanding by introducing information and materials additional to those in the textbook. Besides acquiring basic historical knowledge and understanding, students are gaining disciplined study habits. They learn to take notes—some social studies teachers explicitly teach students strategies for organizing their notes—and later use the notes to revise for tests and examinations.
As it happens, this lesson was not the first time the second-year students had encountered the story of the star Lily Corps, as it had been the subject matter of the play performed by the third-year students at the previous year's cultural festival and had made a big impact on the audience, some of whom had been in tears as they watched. The anti-war message that has featured strongly in Japanese culture since the end of world war ii (Orr 2001) can thus be conveyed in various ways in schools.
Integrated studies was introduced into junior high schools in 2002, as into elementary schools (Bjork 2011; Cave 2011b). Most junior high teachers greeted it with caution or skepticism, being unused to teaching beyond their own subjects and worried that the kind of active learning integrated studies demanded would threaten school discipline, a major concern at this stage of education. Moreover, as teachers at yoneda and other junior high schools in sakura explained, responsibilities for subject teaching, pastoral care, discipline, and clubs left very little time for the cooperative planning, curriculum creation, and resource preparation that integrated studies needed. In the words of yoneda's integrated studies coordinator, Mr. Mori, “schools don't have the time, and i don't think teachers have that level of capacity. . . . We've only just got our heads above water.” As a result, schools tended to fill much integrated studies time by expanding existing activities, such as workplace experience, careers study, and preparatory study for the third-year school trip. At yoneda, first-year students also undertook a research project about their chosen aspect of the prefecture's history, culture, life, or natural environment, including visits to sites such as museums or nature study centers. As at elementary schools, yoneda and other junior high schools used integrated studies in part for social and moral education, trying to get students to think about the good of society and empathize with the needs of others. As part of the integrated studies curriculum at yoneda, first-year students visited local welfare facilities for the elderly or people with disabilities. Meanwhile, third-year students studied “universal design,” an approach to making the built environment easy for all to use. Hamamoto (2009, 130–145, 193–195) reports similar activities at two junior high schools in low-income areas of Osaka, though unlike schools in sakura, the Osaka schools also spent time studying marginalized communities with an important presence in Osaka, such as Koreans or burakumin; some teachers Framed all these studies of groups subject to discrimination or disadvantage (including the elderly and those with disabilities) as “human rights education,” interpreted as learning to understand the feelings of others and care for them. Junior high teachers have been more comfortable using integrated studies for these kinds of long-standing aims than for the 2002 curricular reform's aims of fostering exploratory, self-motivated learning, which teachers have tended to see as impractical, whether in sakura, niigata (Bjork 2011), or Osaka (Hamamoto 2009). The reduction of integrated studies time to allow more hours for academic subjects in the curriculum revision implemented in 2012 (Cave 2011b, 160) was an acknowledgment that the new initiative had not fulfilled government expectations.
Teachers have been much more positive about small-group teaching (usually implemented in mathematics and english), funded by the Ministry of education and science from 2001 onward. At yoneda, students learned mathematics and english in classes of 15–20 students, half the size of classes in other subjects, for two of their three years at the school. Teachers welcomed the increased attention they could give students and the accompanying improvement in student motivation, although there was little evidence of changes in teaching methods to take advantage of the more favorable conditions. The ministry has also encouraged differentiated learning in proficiency groups, but like elementary schools, many junior high schools have been cautious about this, introducing it mainly in mathematics and generally in a minority of lessons (Monbukagakushō 2009). At yoneda, students were taught in proficiency groups for only the more demanding latter section of each textbook unit and were allowed to choose which group to join, subject to advice from the teacher, an approach that seems widespread (Cave 2008). Many teachers continued to be uncomfortable about treating students differentially, partly out of long-established egalitarian beliefs and partly because of fears that any gains might be canceled out by loss of motivation and lower expectations among students in lower proficiency groups.
During the nine years of compulsory education, the vast majority of Japanese children attend their local public schools, experiencing little differentiation and considerable emphasis on solidarity and cooperation. At the same time, the structure of the educational system and the organization of learning at junior high individuate students within a competitive structure. Students must take an entrance examination to progress to high school. For most, this will be the prefectural public high school exam, which is set in five subjects— Japanese, english, mathematics, science, and social studies. The exam for each Subject takes 40–50 minutes, depending on the prefecture. Since students can usually apply to only one public high school, and they do so before the exam takes place, it is important for them to estimate correctly how good their exam performance will be. Because of the possibility of failure, they also need to apply to a less demanding private high school as a backup. Some students, especially in major cities, also apply to a high-ranking private school as their first choice and take the entrance exam set by that school. Guiding students through this complex process is part of the job of junior high teachers.
For those who want extra help with studies, juku (private tutorial and test-preparation schools or programs) offer extra tuition at evenings and weekends (roesgaard 2005; rohlen 1980). Children may not feel they understand school lessons well enough, or their parents may be dissatisfied with their study habits. Juku are diverse. Most provide tuition aimed at passing high school entrance exams (shingaku juku), often using a didactic teaching style much like lessons at school and in similar-sized classes. Others (hoshū juku) focus on helping slower learners understand material already studied at school, providing more individually oriented tuition. Some teachers are full-time employees, while others are part-timers—often university students or even retired schoolteachers. To enroll in a top juku, students must often pass an entrance exam. While schools emphasize group solidarity, juku have a contrasting focus on individual aspiration and achievement. A typical exam-focused juku will offer junior high students a package of three compulsory evening lessons a week, one each in mathematics, Japanese, and english, often rising to five lessons a week (adding science and social studies) in the final year. This package may cost about ¥25,000–35,000 ($300–420 at $1 = ¥80) a month. The cost is manageable for many families, a fact that helps to explain why juku enrollment rates are so high—according to Benesse, a major producer of educational materials with its own research institute, 43 percent of junior high students attended juku in 2006 (Benesse Kenkyū Kyōiku Kaihatsu sentā 2006). However, lower-income families can find such fees an unmanageable strain (slater 2010, 147). An alternative is to use study aids such as Benesse's own shinken Zemi exercises, which are produced at different levels, from basic through regular to challenging, and in different versions tailored to each of Japan's forty-seven prefectures. Benesse claims that one in five junior high students uses shinken Zemi; in 2012 a monthly subscription cost just over
¥6,000 ($75 at $1 = ¥80) (Benesse Corporation 2012).
It is often argued that juku are a major means of class reproduction in Japan and that middle-class students who can better afford them use them To develop “strategies for maximization which improve their chances of high exam scores” (slater 2010, 151). This is a plausible argument. However, research by Kariya (2010) finds that test scores are better correlated with cultural capital than with juku attendance, suggesting that juku may often reinforce learning competencies that ultimately stem from habits and cultural knowledge acquired through the family. What both Kariya and slater show is that there are stark differences in study behavior and academic aspiration among Japanese children, and these are strongly associated with family background, whether theorized in terms of greater or less cultural capital (Kariya) or in terms of social class (slater). Meanwhile, shimizu (2004) finds that some Osaka junior high schools serving socially disadvantaged populations with low juku attendance outperform other schools in better-off areas with high juku attendance. Shimizu (2004, 231–234) suggests that such schools have a strong critical awareness of the impact of social class and cultural capital on children and purposefully seek to redress the balance, unusual in a country where education has tended to avoid confronting social class issues. These studies draw attention to the diversities within junior high education.
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