Unpacking the Japanese Educational Reform Debate

Bruce Burnett, School of Cultural and Language Studies, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology [About | Email]

Volume 2, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2002). First published in ejcjs on 10 February 2002.

Christopher P. Hood (2001) Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy, London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-23283-X (222 Pages, Hardcover).

Christopher Hood has produced an exciting and innovative book in Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s Legacy. The focus of the manuscript is an analysis of the strategic areas of Japanese educational reform, and in particular, those which can be linked to Prime Minister Nakasone’s reform agenda of the 1980s. On the most general level the publication will be useful to anyone attempting to come to terms with contemporary Japanese education. Above all, it will be welcomed by those researching or studying Japanese educational policy as well as those seeking more of the historical backdrop to Japanese educational reform progression and its repercussions on Japanese society.

Unfortunately, attempts to present a ‘broad-spectrum’ explanation of Japanese educational practice have long suffered from disciplinary problems stemming from the lack of abstraction beyond stereotypical ‘western’ constructions of a Japanese ‘Other’. Western academics and educators it would seem have a long tradition of producing distinctive accounts of the Japanese educational system that are fatally grounded in subjective yet persuasive discourses that emphasize the uniqueness of Japanese education and its cultural links to the social, intellectual and political. A key foundation for these descriptions has been a body of western literature converging on and around two of the main periods of Japanese educational reform (representative examples being Beauchamp 1991, Najita and Koachmann 1982). The Meiji and Occupation postwar reforms have justifiably served as obligatory content areas for numerous educational texts which position both the ideological and structural determinants flowing from such periods of reformation as crucial to both subsequent periods of Japanese prosperity and to major paradigmatic shifts in the Japanese psyche. Interestingly, Japanese education in most cases is positioned within such texts as a contested site - a site where it is possible to observe a discursive contradiction emerge. The essence of this paradox is that many Western analysts interpret reform per se in Japan as ineffectual due to systemic structural difficulties that exist between the state and an entrenched bureaucracy (in the case of education, the Monbusho or what is now known as the Monbukagakusho). Hood’s text clearly confronts the stereotype of Japanese policy reform as ineffectual, for Hood argues that the Nakasone-led reform agenda was able to effectively circumvent a bureaucratic quagmire that had held back so many reforms in the past. Hood’s analysis is useful in that it moves beyond merely a critique of the actual policy-making process. Hood achieves this by presenting a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective of the process, while at the same time unpacking in considerable detail the contents and background of the reform debate.

Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s legacy provides a variety of anecdotal evidence that enables a conceptualizing of the reform process within and around the analytical framework of former Prime Minister Nakasone and his ad hoc reform council. This council on educational reform or Rinkyoshin (Ringi Kyoiku Shingikai) is argued by Hood to have been “largely an extension of Nakasone … and consistent with his own ideologies” (p.1). The convergence on and around the Nakasone intellectual perspective enables the text to reach a potential readership well outside merely an educational sphere, for not only is Nakasone a central figure in the educational reform process, but also a significant, albeit controversial, figure across the full Japanese political spectrum.

Hood begins by mapping out the historical context of the Nakasone-led reforms. This is achieved by highlighting the principal role education has played in the Meiji era, SCAP/Occupation post war period and also during the twenty-year period leading up to the Nakasone reforms. Such an historical backdrop is used effectively to achieve the key goal of the chapter - that of reinforcing the pivotal role performed by Japanese education in achieving far - reaching social reforms. In addition to this historical breakdown, Hood provides a brief explanation of the patterns and major actors in the educational policy making process.

The focus on Nakasone is sharpened in the following chapter, which tracks Nakasone’s rise to power and offers the first hints of his leadership style. Hood is able to weave an engaging narrative, which explores Nakasone’s background and his skill at aligning educational debate with his own ideologies. This chapter draws attention to the political dexterity displayed by Nakasone in manipulating the formation, membership and direction of the Rinkyoshin. Of particular interest are the lines of descent over the basic purpose of the Rinkyoshin. Central to Hood’s thesis is the theme that Nakasone clearly wanted, and lobbied strongly for, a process of total reformation in contrast to the Monbusho, which was clearly resistant to any form of radical change.

The ensuing five chapters map out several of the more significant issues touched upon by the Rinkyoshin and links each back to Nakasone’s own ideological position on the issue. Hood also provides an overview of the Rinkyoshin’s success in generating tangible outcomes in terms of each issue. It is encouraging to see that Hood chooses to define the notion of a successful reform agenda in much broader terms than previous evaluations such as that applied by Schoppa (1991) who construes success in a more holistic manner embodying the absolute execution of government guidelines. Hood appropriately makes the point that the implementation of both Meiji and Occupation reforms were far from seamless events, both stretching over many years. Hood’s perspective of success differs from that of Schoppa, in that each reform agenda item is evaluated as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ if it can be linked back to the “implementation or non-implementation of policies that Nakasone espoused” (p.6). Using these relatively straightforward criteria, Hood argues in chapter four that internationalism is clearly one of the more successful areas of the Rinkyoshin. This key chapter of the text could have easily been entitled ‘patriotism’ or ‘nationalism’ for this is clearly one of the more contentious themes that Nakasone chose to champion. Nakasone’s preference for the term ‘healthy nationalism’ and his overt alignment with nationalistic issues such the Emperor and visits to Yasukuni Shrine meant that Japan’s apprehensive neighbors soon viewed his leadership as jingoistic and to a lesser extent xenophobic. Although ‘internationalization’ (kokusaika) became one of the catch-cries of the 1980s under Nakasone’s stewardship, he is possibly remembered more for his assertiveness in positioning himself next to Reagan and Thatcher in G7 photo-shoots and for almost single-handedly breaking the pattern of non-assertive past Japanese prime ministers with the ‘Ron & Yasu’ US/Japan summit series.

It could be argued that the Nakasone-inspired ‘Atarashii Kokusaika’ or ‘New Internationalization’ helped direct attention towards a particular form of nationalism which began to be channeled through the medium of culture. Despite drawing attention to the differences which exist between Western and Japanese forms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ it is unfortunate that Hood does not explore this issue in more depth. By concentrating on policy analysis around clearly delineated stages and products, this key chapter fails to scrutinize the potential for policy to position people in very different power relationships. Clearly Nakasone’s views were both the ‘loudest’ and best articulated with considerable help from several large conservative newspapers.

On a personal level, I have a particular issue with this chapter, which is not due to any preoccupation with the dangers of Japanese nationalism. Rather, my concerns lie in the dangers that exist in forms of modern-day discrimination that occur as a result of clearly articulated national sets of social, cultural and historical practices that ultimately produce fragmented borders of difference. Where, for example, previous forms of Japanese (and Western) discrimination have for the most part focused on ‘race’, the potential for newer forms of discrimination to target cultural incompatibility is an area of grave concern. However, given the scope of Hood’s manuscript, it is understandable that he chose not to follow a tangent of analysis situated within the fundamental markers of Japanese subjectivity.

Hood focuses on yet another challenging area in chapter five where under the heading of ‘Traditionalism and Control’ the issues of increased monitoring and regulation of education and schooling practices are examined. Hood covers several key attempts to increase the effectiveness of government surveillance, control of the curriculum and teachers and ultimately efforts to revise the FLE (Fundamental Law of Education/Kyoiku Kihon). Hood presents us with a brief outline of the distinctively collective nature of the Japanese educational resistance (particularly those revolving around textbook content and the weakening of Nikkyoso [Japanese Teachers Union]). In contrast to Western postmodern notions of resistance which are premised on informal, disorganized, and apolitical notions of agency, Hood paints a much more Gramscian notion — where the principle of ‘counter-hegemony’ is embedded in the discourses and social relations that teachers and students articulate. This chapter highlights how many of the areas of Japanese schooling targeted by Nakasone were deeply embedded in the institutional practices that ultimately shape, constitute and legitimate schooling as a form of state control and power. Interestingly Hood concludes his analysis of this divisive and controversial subject matter by allowing himself to momentarily enter the narrative to conclude that he has not come across anything to justify fears “about a return to militarism due to constitutional revision and about further control and censorship” (p.101).

Chapter six examines the area of liberalization and privatization which overlap with a realignment of education towards the individual (the topic of following chapter). There are considerable similarities between chapters six and seven, for Nakasone believed that the education system should be prudently liberalized so that it allowed increased freedom of choice and flexibility for students. The cornerstone of this transformation was that there should be more competition between institutions in contrast to competition between students. Similar to contemporary Western forms of educational competition policy, Nakasone sought to privatize the education system to the extent that ensuring market forces would improve educational standards and reduce government costs. This process of ‘liberalization’ was closely aligned with the notion of ‘individualism’ despite the “Rinkyoshin’s main emphasis being on the individualization of institutions rather than concentrating on the people” (p105). Hood asserts that the Rinkyoshin assumed that by allowing schools to be made more accountable to the market (allowing them to differentiate themselves through varied curricula), students, families and ultimately the community would strengthen each other’s ‘individualism’. Hood presents in this chapter both the structural elements of debates centering on the ‘6-3-3’ elementary, junior high and high school system, as well as the pressure to increase both community and market involvement within the educational structure. Hood contends that the move to a five-day week, a revision of the curriculum so as to emphasis the acquisition of skills in contrast to merely aquiring knowledge, a liberalized higher education system and the promotion of lifelong learning are evidence of the Rinkyoshin’s success in reforming the educational system. What is clear after reading both chapters is that one of the major long-term influences of the Rinkyoshin may well be a greater flexibility of schools to focus more on the individual and move away from the passive reproduction of content. It is impossible to ignore, however, that the dramatic decline in the student population will clearly have its own extraordinary impact as market forces overhaul the original goals outlined by Nakasone.

Chapter eight contains the final content area covered by Hood where he presents an overview of the three initial social problems linked to education which received enormous press attention in the 1980s. The subsequent national educational crisis exacerbated by the national press served as the foremost impetus for the formation of the Rinkyoshin. Hood maintains that analysis of data in the areas of juvenile delinquency, ijime (bullying) and juken jigoku (examination hell) is both inconclusive and unreliable, and it is therefore impossible to gauge the degree to which these social problems have changed as a result of the reform agenda of the past two decades. This chapter will be useful for those seeking to gain a brief introduction to actual issues and could have been equally well placed at the beginning of the text. Despite being noncommittal in terms of the ‘success’ of the three issues listed above, Hood does however assert in his final chapter that many of the key reform agenda items have been resolved. Hood argues that a relatively united front can now be found as a result of fundamental attitudinal changes traced back to Nakasone. Hood goes as far as to state that many issues which were considered ‘radical’ are now not only considered ‘necessary’ but ‘natural’.

While at times disconcerted by the attempt to fuse a conventional policy analysis with what could be interpreted as biographical focus on Nakasone, it is important to remember Hood’s purpose in writing this book. Hood’s clearly stated goal is to provide an evaluation of the success of the Rinkyoshin’s agenda in the light of the original ideological foundations advocated by Nakasone. Hence Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone’s legacy offers many insights and provides much evidence that Nakasone was vital to the reform process and to the final reform schema carried out. The book is important for its thought-provoking approach and should be read widely by those interested in contemporary Japanese education and the legacy of Nakasone in regard to educational reform.


Beauchamp. E. R. (1991) ‘The Development of Japanese Educational Policy 1945-85’ In E. R. Beauchamp (ed.) Windows on Japanese Education, New York: Garland.

Najita, T. and Koschmann J. V. (eds.) (1982) Conflict in Modern Japanese History: The Neglected Tradition, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Schoppa, L. J. (1991), Education Reform in Japan: A Case of Immobilist Politics, London: Routledge.

About the Author

Bruce Burnett is a lecturer in the School of Cultural and Language Studies in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane, Australia). Bruce’s primary discipline is in the area of Sociology of Education with a particular focus on Japanese Education. He has taught in Japanese universities in Kyushu for over 10 years and conducted the research for his PhD in Japan during the mid-1990s. The focus of his thesis was in the field of narrative analysis, race and Japanese youth studies and was completed in 1997. Recent publications include two books entitled Understanding education: contexts and agendas for the new millennium (1999) and Practising Education: Social and Cultural Perspectives (2000), both of which were published by Prentice Hall. Currently he is lecturing in the area of New Technologies and New Literacies, while at the same time continuing with his research interests in the areas of Japanese identity politics and anti-racist eduction.

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