Towards critical, historical and transnational dialogues on Japanese “model” of education


Since the late 1970s when Japan’s economic growth reached its peak, Japanese education has attracted considerable international attention. Japan challenged the economic dominance of the US, and its educational success, as seen in international student assessments, was widely viewed as one of the “secrets” of the country’s economic ascendance. This resulted in an unprecedented volume of English-language scholarship and media reporting on Japanese education extending through the early 1990s. However, tracking the so called “lost decade(s)” of prolonged economic slump, Japanese education no longer enjoys the level of international attention it used to receive. And yet somehow, it remains as a source of inspiration and model for countries in different parts of the world. Much of international attention today comes from the developing countries in Asia and Africa seeking to borrow Japanese pedagogic practices and model of teacher professional development (e.g. Lesson Study). In response, the Ministry of Education, along with educators, NPOs, development agencies, and edu-business corporations, has established the EDU-Port Nippon, the so called “all Japan” platform, based on public-private-university partnerships, aiming to export the “model” of Japanese education overseas. This new policy initiative has generated considerable domestic debates over the notion of “model” of Japanese schooling, what might constitute its “essence” and the political and economic forces behind the new policy move.

Facing this current policy shift, however, it is important to acknowledge that the transnational border-crossing of Japanese education has a much longer history. In the early 20th century, for instance, Japan’s colonial expansion into Korea, Taiwan and other South East Asian countries resulted in the exportation of Japanese education, which served as the constitutive mechanism of its colonial control. The same period witnessed, on the other side of the Pacific, the exodus of Japanese migrants to Brazil, British Columbia, California, Hawaii, and Washington. Many of them brought with them pedagogical assumptions and practices and taught their children in the Japanese language at home or at their community schools. Shifting our attention to the postwar period, after the war defeat, Japan was quick to achieve the economic recovery, often perceived as the model of modernization “takeoff” for developing countries. Japanese economic, social and educational systems were now promoted as the J-Model, which was then selectively implemented by the developing countries in Asia. At the same time, more grassroots and locally-derived educational practices developed out of Japan, crossing the oceans to be implemented in different parts of the world. They include Kumon, Suzuki Method, Manabu Sato’s Learning Community, Lesson Studies and Tokkatsu, just to name a few.

Global Education Office’s 2020 lecture series, titled Towards critical, historical and transnational dialogues on Japanese “model” of educations, connects a vastly different examples of transnational border crossings of Japanese education over the last millennium. The key concept here is the notion of border-crossing. It is through the cross-border experiences that the ‘essence’ of Japanese education can be rendered visible in its condensed forms, as it is transplanted and transformed into different cultural, historical and social contexts. The seminar series aims to explore the historically grounded and multifaceted understandings of the continuities and discontinuities of Japanese “model” of education, with a particular attention to the experiences of those who received its desirable and undesirable consequences. The Ministry’s EDU-Port has generated debates over whether or not there actually exists something quintessentially Japanese that can constitute the “model” of Japanese education, and whether or not it is even appropriate to assume its existence. The lecture series, bringing together both domestic and international experts, should help us situate our responses to these questions within the broader historical context so as to deepen the ongoing policy conversation.