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The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 4, May 1996

Should we "shogunize" the schools?

The underside of Japan's education system

by Ken Schoolland

I usually begin my talks about education by asking people in the audience if they trust politicians. They all answer "no." Then I ask if they believe that government officials are better at making decisions for their children than they are themselves. Again, they always answer "no." If this is true, then, why do people entrust their children to politicians and government officials? Illogical, perhaps, but this is the law.

The government today presumes to teach the virtues of a free society through a schooling system based on compulsory attendance and compulsory financing. It presumes to teach the importance of values, decision making, and goals in an environment that is bereft of nurturing values, that discourages meaningful decisions by parents and students, and that leaves goals to be determined by an often corrupt and antiquated hierarchy. What this really teaches young people is the art of hypocrisy.

Perhaps it is easier to see the lessons of such hypocrisy by looking outside of our own culture ? to the Japanese system that has often been praised by the educational elite for its discipline and high marks. But there is much of the Japanese story that has not been widely reported outside of Japan. It is a story that serves to warn us about government control over education anywhere. The solution to America's educational woes cannot simply be found by borrowing from other autocratic systems abroad.

This report about the problems in Japanese schools is derived from my book, Shogun's Ghost: The Dark Side of Japanese Education (English: Greenwood Press, Japanese: Hayakawa Publishing Co.). I've sometimes been asked by people if the Japanese are upset by the unsavory things that I have revealed about their schools. I reply that it is from the Japanese themselves that I heard all of this and they are upset that little improvement is being made.

Wounded children

When my book first appeared in Japan a correspondent for The Japan Times, Christian Huggett, sent me this report: "On Sept. 10, 1986, Chiyomi Watanabe, 13, was summoned to the fourth floor conference room at Tagonoura Junior High School in Fuji City.... There, 12 teachers slapped, punched, and kicked her for three and a half hours. When she returned home, her body was black and blue with bruises and she was suffering from trauma. This was her punishment for riding a motorcycle for a few hours one day during her summer vacation. After her conference room beating, Chiyomi was reportedly beaten daily by her home room teacher, Hiroyuki Suzuki, over a period of six months. She was hospitalized for medical and psychological treatment and is now, at 20, an out-patient at a mental hospital. 'Her physical wounds might have healed,' her mother said. 'But I doubt her psychological wounds ever will.'" ("School Corporal Punishment Leaving Scars That Never Heal" by Christian Huggett, The Japan Times, April 23, 1991)

Shocking, but no more so than the news report about 16-year-old Toshinao Takahashi that first brought this issue to my attention while I was living in Japan. Young Takahashi was on a school trip with his class when the teacher found out that he broke a rule by bringing a hairdryer along. As Takahashi did not show sufficient remorse for his offense, the teacher kicked and beat him severely. He later died. In another case, 15-year-old Mikinori Tsuchida was caught trying to leave his school. The principal and 13 students beat him with a baseball bat and killed him.

This was a surprise to me because news reports had only told me good things about Japanese schools. Indeed, American educators seemed eager to imitate Japan. Said then Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn after visiting some of the schools, "There're about six or eight major shifts we'd have to make to be more like the Japanese. Whether we have the gumption to make them at all is the question." ("U.S. Educators Marvel at Japan's Schools" by Keith Richburg, The Japan Times, Oct. 26, 1985)

At the same time, Prime Minister Nakasone was visiting the U.S. and praised education in America. He had good reason to be looking around. He had just received this report of his Council on Education Reform: "Bullying, suicides among school children, dropping out from school, increasing delinquency, violence both at home and school, heated entrance exam races, overemphasis on scholastic ratings, and torture of children by some teachers are the result of the pathological mechanisms that have become established in Japan's education system. Without drastic reforms, Japan's education system would not be able to recover to normalcy." ("Gist of Education Council's Proposals," The Japan Times, Feb. 24, 1986)

And what is normal today in Japan's schools? It is normal for students to be subjected to the minute scrutiny of teachers who enforce hundreds of written and unwritten rules that govern every aspect of the youth at home and at school, indeed, anywhere that he may be at all times, during school hours, after school, or even during summer vacations.

The teacher's duty may include a kind of "spy duty" in which students are watched by teachers who are assigned, even during summer breaks, to roam department stores and coffee houses to determine if students are in the approved places and behaving correctly. Punishments can be severe. As confirmed in a nation-wide survey, my own students reported being hit an average of 24 times in their school careers. Some students told me they had been hit hundreds of times. I asked one student "Why?" He told me it was because he had transferred from another school and was being punished as an "outsider."


These hits were seldom love pats. Students usually reported being hit across the head. Usually, this was with the teacher's hand, but sometimes it included anything that was handy ? even baseball bats and spiked shoes.

Reported one junior high teacher, Ko Mori, "Physical punishments administered these days entail humiliation and are insidious and harsh. For example, a pupil who has forgotten something is made to lie supine on the floor with both legs raised, and the teacher sticks thumbtacks into the backs of his legs. Or a pupil who has not cleaned the classroom well is made to lick the bathroom floor." ("Rotten Teachers Create Rotten Kids" by Ko Mori, The Japan Times, Dec. 22, 1985)

Groups of teachers beating students increases intimidation and assures a mutual code of secrecy. News reports of beatings did not surprise most of my friends in Japan. What surprised them was that the beatings were being openly reported. At one university I asked a friend of mine, a teacher, if there had been any suicides at his school. He said there had been five that semester. I asked him what the other students thought about that and he replied, "Oh, we didn't tell the students about the suicides. We didn't want to disturb them with such thoughts."

Minoru Yamamoto, a professor at Iwate University, conducted a study of verbal abuse of 5,000 students and found that many teachers were abrasive adults bent on tormenting children. He said, "Physical abuse leaves scars, but verbal abuse can destroy a child internally."

And other forms of punishment seem to have no limits. Yasuko Takemura, a member of the Diet, Japan's parliament, expressed alarm at reports that students who had refused to go to school were being sent to mental hospitals. Takemura's secretary told reporters that doctors had isolated students for a few weeks in a room at a mental hospital, where they were given drugs as a treatment for "school phobia" ? the fear of school! Some of the students who experienced the therapy reported that the doctor even gave them electric shock treatment.

The tragic irony of all this is that the School Education Law forbids corporal punishment, either physical or verbal. Therefore, teachers who enforce the school rules in this manner are themselves breaking the national law by doing so. This hypocrisy is just fine with most teachers and parents. Says one parent, Kinji Kato, "When I raised my children I asked their teachers to use corporal punishment if necessary. In training dogs and horses, they receive a treat whenever they behave and are whipped when they don't. The same stance should be taken with children. Children are animals being taught to be human." ("Tolerate the Loving Whip," letter to the editor by Kinji Kato, The Osahi Evening News, Dec. 3, 1985)

Parents who object to such treatment are few and they are severely intimidated. The school largely ignores their complaints, seldom punishes abusive teachers, and finds a way to retaliate against students and parents who persist. Secret teacher records on students can effectively eliminate a student from consideration for the better schools. Since there are few avenues for success in Japan, teachers have a virtual stranglehold over the future well-being of the students and their families.

Brutality exhibited by teachers is often imitated by youths in their treatment of peers. For victims this often leads to neuroses and even suicide. A Chiba University study of Japanese youth found that one fifth were suffering neuroses. When I asked one girl in my class what she did when she had a bad teacher, she replied, "I just sat quietly and thought bad thoughts about the teacher all year long." What a tragic waste!

And so it must have seemed for one junior high girl who left this note, "I hate school. Everybody tries to cut you down. But I hate the teacher most of all, because she gets you when you're down and then tramples all over you."

Group responsibility

An English teacher told me she once asked her students how they did on a history exam in another class. The students replied that they had all gotten zero scores because one girl had forgotten to bring her book to class. Sometime later, that history teacher collected all the books and burned them because of a repeat offense by one of the students.

This group accountability owes its origin to the practice of "goningumi," the five family system. This was a disciplinary practice originally borrowed from China as a means of strict military discipline. Later, Shogun Tokugawa adapted it as a broad means of controlling the entire nation. Under this system, if one person was to be executed for a crime, then everyone in five whole households could be executed as well. As extended families and households were quite large at the time, sometimes a hundred people or a village could be punished.

The rules of goningumi were gradually expanded to govern virtually every aspect of behavior, from the clothes one wore to the accepted manner of speech for one's social status. Everyone feared and snooped on everyone else, crushing individual differences. The result was that for 300 years Japan experienced probably the most severe form of authoritarian control in the world. A vestige of this centralized control persists in the authoritarian control of today's youth through the schools.

Alternatives to the government's controlled education are starting to emerge in Japan. For one thing, as compulsory education ends at age 15, the incidence of violence and bullying sharply drops by 90%. Half the children attend after-school sessions at the juku (private cram schools) that help them compete for the intense national exams. Students do this without the compulsion of law and they do it enthusiastically. These juku must perform well to attract students and they do not harass students over petty rules. As one mother told me, "If we don't like the juku, then sayonara. And the school can say the same to the teacher if he isn't good."

Good teachers in the juku are well rewarded because they attract students. And lousy teachers are asked to leave because they only discourage students from coming. Said The Japan Times in an editorial, "Why are the Juku so popular?.... To put it the baldest: Are we not witnessing the development of an educational system to substitute for the public one that we pay taxes for and hear nothing of but complaints?" ("Why Are the Juku So Popular?", The Japan Times, April 11, 1986)


As I said at the outset of this article, solutions for the crisis in any education system are not to be found by borrowing from autocratic systems in other nations. The solutions rest instead with a profound respect for the rights and freedoms of young people and their parents.

Ken Schoolland taught at Hakodate University in Japan for two years. He is a former director of the graduate program in Japanese business studies at Chaminade University in Hawaii, and is currently associate professor of economics and political science at Hawaii Pacific University. Shogun's Ghost: The Dark Side of Japanese Educationis available through Amazon.

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