Yoshihide Ishiyama Addresses Some Current Problems of Japanese Education

Yoshihide Ishiyama, founder of a free school known as Mie ShureProfessor John Potter, Kogakkan University

Yoshihide Ishiyama is the founder of a free school known as Mie Shure which has operated in Japan’s Mie Prefecture for the past four years. Originally he was a teacher in the state system, which he left in order to join the staff of another free school, Tokyo Shure. With the blessing of Tokyo Shure he then left to begin his own project in the city of Tsu in Mie in 2003. He is also the head of the Mie ni Free School o Tsukurukai a Non-Profit Organisation committed to founding further schools of this kind in Mie in order to provide an alternative to the rigid Japanese school system.

In the 1980s the Japanese education system was beset with widely reported problems such as the bullying and suicide of schoolchildren. In a bid to address these problems there was an attempt in the decade that followed to offer a more relaxed atmosphere in schools. To the strict textbook, testing and rote-learning methods, familiar to all Japanese, was added the idea of yutori kyoiku (literally “enjoyable education”) a revolutionary idea for Japan involving integrated project work. Meanwhile the system of compulsory Saturday morning classes was gradually phased out.

But in the 21st century the problems of bullying seem as severe as ever, and there are major concerns about truancy (more usually termed “school refusal”) as well as declining academic standards. The government has tried to solve the continuing problems of truancy and bullying with the provision of counsellors in schools and programmes in localities to prepare school refusers for return to school. It aims to tackle declining standards by the discouragement of yutori kyoiku and by increasing the hours of lessons. There are also plans for the introduction of compulsory moral education and martial arts. These backward steps are criticised here by Yoshihide Ishiyama.

What do you think about the problem of truancy or school refusal?

School refusal has been increasing from the 1970s right up until now. This is really a matter of children telling us about the problems of adult society. To begin with, the Japanese government said that school refusal was something that could happen to anyone, but then later they changed their view to say it is purely a problem of the individual.

However, this is a contradiction. School counsellors were employed in the 1990s by the government and there were also classes to provide guidance. Their purpose was to make children go back to school. So the government doesn’t really have a proper understanding of what the problems of schools are. They don’t have any clue about how to change the schools themselves – and are concerned rather with changing the children.

Going back to the 1960s, Japan was still in a situation where the economy was being raised very rapidly. The people were producing a lot of goods and there was a big increase in mass consumerism. Under this background, the education system somehow worked. Children thought they could study at school and then they could enter society and buy lots of things and become rich. Not many people doubted the situation at that time.

But after the 1970s this became a problem because people began to think more about their individual happiness. Some people began to think that maybe there was some other way to be happy rather than just earning a lot of money and buying a lot of things. School and society began to contradict each other around this time.

My idea is that there is no individuality in Japanese society. There are only a small minority of people who actually live in an independent way. Almost all other people live in a group-oriented way and see themselves mainly in terms of the group. School refusal is therefore a kind of way for children to become individuals. To children, the adults always seem to be too busy but these busy lives do not make them very happy. So why should children want to follow them?

In the 1960s there was a model adult society – if you did this, you got that. No-one doubted it, but now there is no single blueprint for life. Now, there is a bigger division between rich and poor, between the so-called “winners” and “losers”. But even some of those winners have become depressed through overwork and some of them even commit suicide. Nowadays it is a very difficult time for children to live in Japan.

Is the situation regarding bullying any better?

If you did a survey now, I think Japan would probably come top for bullying. I think there are three main reasons for this. The first is that the group, either at school or work, is always closed to outsiders. Secondly, group values are very different from those outside the group. Thirdly, these groups are beginning to break down. If those three things happen then the group will pick on someone inside the group to bully in order to keep the group going.

This is like an army. For example, schools in Japan are very much out of touch with society, so inevitably these things will happen and there will be bullying. In Japan, usually bullying occurs as a group versus the individual. There is always a core person in the group who initiates the bullying. This typically takes the form of ignoring someone and sending text messages to other members of the group in order to ostracise the individual. Threats for money are also common.

Part of my job is to listen to the victims of bullying. Inevitably, I also see the perpetrators of bullying and they are never loved by their parents. I don’t mean that they are abused by their parents – in lots of cases the parents have an exaggerated expectation for their children in many ways (both behaviourally and academically) and so the children cannot be themselves at home.

Recently, there has been an increase of suicides resulting from bullying and the government has decided to give a message to children through the heads of schools, to tell children that life is important. This is actually meaningless. If you think about the young people who do the bullying, they often don’t think life is important at all because they are not raised by adults who think like this. Then, when they see people leading happier lives, they inevitably want to destroy those lives and hurt those people.

The government has no idea about either the victims or the perpetrators of bullying. Schools send the victims for counselling and the counsellor just listens to them and tells them to be patient or to tell their teacher about it. But the real situation is that the bullying which goes on is very well organised by groups. How can an individual fight against it? And so I think that this kind of counselling is a very irresponsible way to approach the problem.

In this situation, of course children will not tell anyone about the bullying because nothing will be solved. The result of this is that the amount of bullying is shown in surveys to be much lower than the actual situation. This is exactly what adult society, including the schools, wants to see and so nothing improves. If there is no bullying in a classroom then it must be a very good class, because I can tell you that every class in Japan has bullying. The Japanese government, schools, and the Ministry of Education just don’t handle bullying properly.

Could you say something about the supposed decline in academic standards and the government’s response?

In a recent survey of academic standards in schools around the world, Finland was placed highest in general terms. When I saw the questions from the survey, they required a considerable amount of thought to answer. I suppose this is the universal idea of academic ability. When the results of this survey were made public there was a great deal of concern from the Japanese government and from Japanese parents because the country did not do well this time.

If you think about it in this way, Japan is very different. Basically, in Japan, education requires a great deal of memorisation and repetition. To solve the problem the government simply thought that there should be even more memorisation and repetition in schools and the system should return to the way it had been before.

This is ridiculous because the test given to people around the world required thought and personal expression, which is very different from the kind of education that the Japanese are used to. This reaction of the government and the people occurred because they just don’t get enough deep information about the situation. Instead of information they get media reports with simplified headlines and quick phrases and slogans which make people think that these things are important.

This whole situation has led to the government deciding to change the direction of education and changing the emphasis away from yutori kyoiku (a situation where children should have a more enjoyable school life) including the introduction of integrated studies and project work. This yutori kyoiku has been going on for ten years. My question is, were the children really having a more enjoyable time? Almost all the children I have met have said that this was not the case.

The government gradually stopped all Saturday lessons too. However, the reality was that instead of going to normal school, many children were then sent by their parents to juku (cram schools) on Saturdays – and often on Sundays as well.

In whatever way the government changed the system to include yutori kyoiku, children still were graded by points at school and their teachers became even busier, because they didn’t know what to do, since they had never experienced this kind of schooling. It doesn’t make any sense to return to the former system because yutori kyoiku has never been done properly anyway and the basic ideas of Japanese schools have never changed at all. In four years time, the government will increase the hours of schooling. I think school refusal will definitely increase as a result.

What have you been able to achieve at Mie Shure?

We call Mie Shure a free school for alternative learning, but in fact most children who come here have come from state schools because of their negative experiences there, rather than choosing our school in the first place. So the reality is that many children here were school refusers before. Those children were upset by the state schools they previously attended and felt that they didn’t fit in.

We are working together here at Mie Shure in order to make an alternative learning place. We are unique in Japan. We don’t have any age limits or divisions into groups by ability. We are child centred and programmes or activities occur as a result of the children’s own interests, supported by the staff. You cannot do this in any so-called normal school because they are all very adult orientated and the teachers decide everything.

Mie Shure is a very democratic place run by the children and the staff together. Anyone can make suggestions in the weekly meetings that we have. It took about three years for the meetings to work in a democratic way because in Japanese state schools the class meeting time is very limited and is controlled by the teachers and by a few extrovert children. Our children were not used to meetings such as ours and so it took this length of time for them to develop.

School refusers who were unable to express themselves properly in the state school situation have gradually become themselves and are now able to take part very well in our meetings in a democratic way. The other members of Mie Shure accept them, unlike the situation they found themselves in previously. For example, in Japan, everyone is very aware of age differences. Even a one year age difference at school can be a problem and younger children will automatically use more formal and polite language when addressing older children.

When I have talked to parents I have found out that the teachers in state schools didn’t work in order to help children. I felt there was a limit to what a teacher could do. When I was a teacher in a state school I thought that I could do things the way I wanted in the classroom. I tried to disagree with many things that went on at the school and tried to change them but I couldn’t. This was the reason why I decided to leave the state system in order to start a school which was child-centred.

3 thoughts on “Yoshihide Ishiyama Addresses Some Current Problems of Japanese Education”

  1. I found this article today when searching the web for information about bullying. I realize it is a few years old, but things haven’t changed. My son is in a top prefectural high school and has been bullied by upper classmen. The school treats it like it is a “tradition” that will be warmly remembered as the young students move into their later years. My son is still attending school, but he hates it. We are sending him away to school in the USA soon. I suspect that many international parents who can’t afford international schools send their children away to live with relatives in other countries to avoid Japanese jr. high or high schools. If you know of any statistics on bullying or on “foreign flight” as I will call it, I’d love to know more.


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