Risk and Reform in the Japanese Education System

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 6:18 PM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Robert ASPINALL , Shiga University, Hikone, Shiga, Japan
This paper argues that the Risk Society paradigm developed by Ulrich Beck provides a framework that can reconcile the twin developments affecting Japanese education at the start of the 21stCentury: the parallel trends of individualization and globalization. In Japan, education reform proposals from the 1980s onwards have aimed at encouraging a freer educational environment that can nurture strong individuals and future entrepreneurs. The Ministry of Education has also consistently argued for reforms that can better prepare young people for the challenges of globalization. Traditionally, however, educational practice in Japan has stressed group harmony and cooperation and so the forces that resist change are considerable. Most efforts to reduce pressures to conform to the group, therefore, have had disappointing results, as have programs designed to encourage greater communication with foreigners.

The government’s inability to bring about meaningful reform to the education system has resulted in a failure to prepare young people for the challenges of contemporary society. Young people who do not have the skills to negotiate the new social and economic landscape are increasingly falling into low-paid, insecure employment, or withdrawing completely from society. This has given rise to the phenomenon of hikikomori; wherein large numbers have confined themselves to their rooms and cut all connections with the outside world. Also, many young people are deciding against having children – a trend which has resulted in a crisis of low fertility and a shrinking population. To use Beck’s terminology, these are people who have been unable to adapt to their role as ‘risk manager’ of their own life. The education system has failed to prepare them for this role because it is stuck in a prior phase of Japan’s post war development and is unable to adapt to social and economic transformations at the global and national levels.