A Critique of Research in Japanese Physical Education:
Toward a Forum of Scholarly Inquiry on Society and Education
Marcelo Olivera Cavalli

http://www.efdeportes.com/ Revista Digital - Buenos Aires - Año 6 - N° 33 - Marzo de 2001

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    In contemporary Japan, the egalitarian system that the Japanese are still so proud of has worked well in the reconstruction of the country from the close of the Second World War until the end of the 'Bubble Economy Era' in the beginning of the 1990's. It has, however, created some shortcomings in both society and educational settings. Omoya & Niyekawa (1999) report that, according to Kawai, "the Japanese have been caught in 'creative illness,' as a characteristic of Japanese culture is that people who are very creative become targets and are ostracized, and it is difficult for such people to play major roles in society...." Consistent with the fact that the educational system does not shine in the formation of creative, freethinking, independent individuals, the system has tried to have all Japanese situated on the same plateaus: financially, educationally, socially and among others, ideologically. The Japanese social pattern of behavior-of giving more consideration to group interests above one's own-has also been instrumental in determining Japanese society's lack of communication. Sakakibara (1997) says he is "struck by the indifference toward words in postwar Japan, compared with other civilized countries. To make up for a poverty of the spirit stemming from a paucity of words, the culture adorns itself with money, video images, and music. To me, this is the true nature of what people term our 'advanced information society'.... This doubtless stems from some sort of group mental pathology...., the fin de siecle Japanese people are adrift in their 'advanced information society'...." When Kobayashi (2000) asks Yoshimichi Nakajima, professor of human communications at University of Electro Communications, 'what prevents Japanese people from speaking up?', Nakajima contends that "When too much emphasis is placed on giving consideration to others-which is the way Japanese people are taught to act from the time they are small-a stuffy society, in which individuals cannot speak their minds, is created. In an extreme form of the situation in which people are unable to speak the truth, the role of language is diminished, and no one believes what actually is said. This explains the lack of dialogue in the nation. In philosophy, dialogue is the process of finding out the truth by exchanging words between two individuals on an equal footing. Maybe in Japan we know that dialogue can cause hurt or conflict, which is something we like to avoid in our culture. But, attempting to avoid conflict can kill communication." When Nakajima stresses that in Japan, the murder of language, or the lack of communication, has reached crisis point, he cites examples of people suffering from 'social withdrawal,' that is, people who closet themselves at home. Nakajima says that there are about one million young people in Japan suffering social withdrawal. These youngsters "have no words to express their feelings or explain why they are upset." Nakajima goes on by stating that "We have created a perfect conflict-free society, in which children have been constantly told not to oppose, but to cooperate and be considerate to others at all times. So a lot of children don't know what to do when their opinions differ from the norm. When a society seeks to avoid conflict at all costs, it kills people's emotions" (Kobayashi, 2000).

    Further regarding the youth of the nation, Keio University Professor Iwao (1998) has the following to report on crimes committed by juveniles: "Until quite recently, crimes committed by juveniles (aged 14 to 19) were seen as limited to a small segment of that population, and schools were considered to be safe places. Last year, however, saw the highest number of youth crimes since 1975. Those aged 14 to 19 comprise only 9% of Japan's population, but accounted for 34% of the serious crimes of murder and robbery, and fully 45% of violent crimes including assault and battery. The number of crimes where the young perpetrators wielded knives also leapt, drawing attention as a serious social problem and spurring a spate of published articles on the juvenile crime wave. These children do not come from impoverished backgrounds or broken homes. Fully four-fifths of the juveniles charged with crimes report their families as being middle-class, and most of them have both parents living at home. And juvenile crime, which used to be centered on urban areas offering many temptations for the impressionable young, has spread throughout the country. In short, crime committed by youths has changed rapidly, becoming both more widespread and more serious, than the delinquency of the past."

    Another serious problem faced by present-day Japanese society is a dating-service phenomenon involving teenage schoolgirls and older men. Kawai (1997) asserts: "The currently popular term is enjo kõsai, or 'dating for assistance.' The reality is teenage prostitution. High school and even some middle school girls seek out patrons, the vast majority of them middle-aged men. In some cases, the relationship involves no sex; the man simply offers financial 'assistance' in return for the privilege of strolling about town and chatting in coffee shops with a girl young enough to be his daughter. In most cases, however, money is exchanged for sex.... There are compelling reasons for viewing enjo kõsai as a serious social problem in Japan today. First, a considerable number of middle school students are already involved. Second, the attitude of these schoolgirls is casual and devoid of any sense of guilt. Furthermore, the teenagers involved are not predominantly children from dysfunctional or economically deprived families. The men who take part in enjo kõsai likewise defy any special characterization; they are, you might say, 'ordinary' people. According to Kuronuma Katsushi's book on the subject (Enjo kõsai [Tokyo: Bungei Shunjû, 1996]), many high school girls who engage in prostitution worry that one day their father or schoolteacher might show up. From this, among other testimony, it becomes apparent that for people on both sides of the relationship, enjo kõsai is something that takes place within an otherwise normal daily existence...The more one learns about their behavior, the more bizarre it seems. Yet the girls go on as though it were perfectly normal. How should we interpret this phenomenon? The writer Murakami Ryû says, 'Unconsciously, these high school girls are involved in a kind of movement. To use a bit of hyperbole, they're spearheading a movement whose message is, 'Do you really think everything is as it should be in Japan? Don't be so complacent, all of you.'' I agree with this interpretation." Both an increase in juvenile crime and 'enjo kõsai' can be seen as a derivation of the present situation of Japanese society. Let us not forget the situation in the greater social structure and the influence it has on children.

    Testimonials from people who express their satisfaction with the growth of the Japanese economy and all the benefits derived from its associated wealth are not rare. The Japanese are proud of their rich economy, but, at the same time, they envy other countries' nature, lifestyles, and interpersonal relationships. According to Kadokawa (1998 in Omori, 1999) "there is a 'dehumanization' trend in Japanese society today, where interaction among humans is decreasing. He states that the long climb to economic recovery (after the Second World War) and economic stability -- where industrialization was prioritized in the homes and society -- resulted in sacrifices made in the families and societies." Iwao (1988) complements these comments with assertions regarding changes occurring in the structure of families: "In the past the family served a wide variety of important functions--production, consumption, education, medical care, recreation--that bound family members with strong ties of mutual support. Some of these functions were shifted outside the family long ago: production to factories, education to schools, medical care to hospitals. More recently, even such basic functions as cooking, laundry, cleaning, and child care have become readily available outside the home." From a medical sciences point of view, Kobayashi (1993) contends that "When we consider the sociocultural factors in recent social trends, we have to point out the so-called 'new morbidities and new mortalities', which are psychosomatic disorders and behavioral problems of children, including violence, homicide, school refusal and absenteeism, suicide and also child abuse by parents. We did not see these in the pediatric textbooks of our student time, nor in our society or even in our clinics until around the 1970s." Furthermore, people are greatly confused in their thinking about how things happened in Japan because mutually conflicting events happened concurrently during a period of radical transition. Iwao (1997) comments that "Today Japan may be paying the price for 50 years of avoidance--a half-century spent single-mindedly pursuing economic prosperity at the expense of our emotional and spiritual health." The Japanese gained in their economic efforts but they lost in leisure time due to long working hours; family values deteriorated due to changes from a rural society to a more urban society; family and social relations decreased due to corporate commitments; contact with nature dwindled due to irrational development; their grasp of the real world outside Japan became vague due to a thriving economy spoiling the populace, as it were, and fostering their complacency. According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture "The environment of families and communities has changed in recent years, owing to such factors as urbanization, the shift to the nuclear family, and the trend toward fewer children per family. There have also been changes in parents' attitudes and lifestyles. For children today, these trends are reflected in reduced opportunities for play and for experience of activities in a natural environment and in everyday life (Monbusho, 1994). Nowadays, Eisuke Sakakibara, a former Vice Finance Minister for International Affairs, contends that the Japanese "have to make every effort to survive cyber capitalism-dominated global competition while preserving our cultural identity. This is a big contradiction in approaches." Hayao Kawai, director general at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, added in addressing the comments made by Sakakibara that "The Japanese have traditionally lived with contradictions, without facing them or accepting them as natural. We have to change that attitude" (Omoya & Niyekawa, 1999).

    If these conflicting developments accurately reflect contemporary Japanese society, we have good reason to discuss meaningfully the implications of such an approach to society at large. The discourse of the chief ideology, the language employed in scientific claims by 'expert' researchers, the educational methodology employed at schools, and the hierarchy behind Japanese social organization provide blind justification for society's embodiment of the values, practices and assumptions of the dominant perspective, without exposing the system's validity and effectiveness to substantial investigation.

    There seems to be a real need to question modern and ancient postulates in order to produce Japanese people capable of approaching Japan and the world from different or alternative perspectives. Education and new approaches to society and humanity should be within the scope of such an undertaking. Specialists need to determine what kind of education people should be exposed to and what educational processes they have to espouse in order to attain the appropriate knowledge and experience. What we have in Japan is an interlocking set of beliefs, practices and assumptions that ensure the continuance of the system by having people publicly espousing them. The various parts of the system are so diffuse that there is nobody to blame, and few people understand that the system itself is self-protective.

School as the Main Agency for Providing Experience

    Considering that education is one of the chief means in the formation of a sound, focused, enlightened, modern society, I intend to discuss the current situation of the Japanese educational system in this section.

    The modern system of formal education in Japan was inaugurated in 1872. In 1947, the Fundamental Law of Education and the School Education Law were enacted. Under these laws a formal 6-3-3-4 educational system was established on the principle of equal educational opportunity. These two laws are still on the statute books and liable to be invoked in regulating the contemporary educational system. (For more detailed information on the creation of the schools on each educational level refer to Monbusho).

    At present Japan is going through sweeping changes in its economic and social structure: the economy has been hit by waves of globalization, the population is ever graying-a problem compounded by the declining birthrate-the emergence of myriad problems in the school system has brought about deterioration in the quality of education. There have been calls for reforms in the Japanese educational system from a wide variety of people, institutions and scholars. The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture has acknowledged that a number of problems are plaguing primary and secondary schools: "these include excessive competition in entrance examinations, bullying, refusal to attend school, and insufficient experience of activities in a natural environment and in everyday life. In addition, Japan is currently experiencing a variety of social changes, including the aging of the population, the shift to an information-oriented society, and internationalization. There is strong pressure for the development of primary and secondary education enabling children to cope with these social changes appropriately" (Monbusho, 1994). The specialized media has warned that scholars are calling for a more unified educational reform from primary school to university; the current system deals with each stage of education quite separately. But to reach that goal, it is necessary to understand that "University reform also leads to reform of the social structure" (Saito, 1999). It is necessary then to address the problems from a broader perspective, that is, to "examine not only problems occurring within schools but also changes in the social environment in which schools exist, as well as the resulting changes in the educational functions of the family and the community. These changes are the source of various problems that affect children's education" (Monbusho, 1994). Therefore, effective reform of the educational system itself cannot be carried out without any consideration of other sociocultural spheres. This is why my argument regarding education and research calls for a more holistic approach to human social reality. As we cannot analyze one thing separately, so we cannot change one thing without affecting or causing change in others.

    From a socioeconomic point of view, "any prosperous market economy presupposes creative individuals steadily seeking innovations, but to the extent that an economy is predicated on association and negotiation, their inspiration by itself is not enough. It needs to be reinforced by the collaborative fabric of a society that promotes mutual trust among its constituent members who pool their different resources to constantly renew and expand their groupings" (Yamazaki, 1997). Fukukawa (1999) argues that "In parallel with the nation's economic restructuring is a need to reform the education system. This is because our current social awareness and value system, which are formed in the main by the education system, can hinder the restructuring process."

    From a political aspect, an example of how the school system could provide a more enlightening atmosphere and promote children's creativity is by ceasing the Education Ministry's screening of school textbooks. Irie (1997) gives us some insight into the situation of textbooks at school. He explains that "Before the war, elementary school textbooks were designated directly by the national government, though middle school texts were prepared independently and screened. Now, however, all texts from elementary through high school are subject to the review system established in 1947 and overhauled in 1989, at which point the standards were revised considerably and the review cycle was lengthened from three years to four." Tokutake (1997) appraises the contents of textbooks: "Even though textbooks play a pivotal role in Japanese education, and even though the Japanese continue to see them as important teaching tools, the fact is that the books in use are virtually identical in content and have very little character. The prewar view of the state textbook has continued to linger despite the switch to the authorized-text system. Reform aimed at injecting individuality and diversity into the educational system is now in progress, and yet almost nobody has been devoting attention to what kinds of books the schools of the twenty-first century should use. Interest in schoolbooks may be strong, but studies on how to improve them have barely begun. Coming up with better texts is imperative." A Curriculum Council member, who has screened school textbooks for years, considers social studies textbooks, for example, boring because "textbooks are packed with facts based on one interpretation of history, rather than different perspectives.... History should be studied from different perspectives, and textbooks should be able to include original material that may conflict with officially condoned views" (Furusawa, 1999). A textbook author, Professor Obinata Sumio of Tokyo Metropolitan College contends that "Faithfulness to the facts naturally means inclusion of both the good and the bad. History education isn't ethics, and it's not a matter of saying, 'Read this and be uplifted.' The factual record includes some bitter parts, but they're historical facts, so pupils need to deepen their understanding of them" (Irie, 1997). Nishio (1997) supplements the argument indicating that for him "one important role of school textbooks is to challenge students at least to think about questions with no simple answer." Children's abilities to interpret information and think for themselves should be emphasized if we are to nurture creativity and individuality. "Ironically," stresses Irie (1997), "schools in fact devote little time to teaching this period of history" -- the allegation that Japanese troops abducted 'comfort women' to work in military brothels before and during World War II -- "whose textbook treatment has become the focus of all this debate. One reason is that teachers are too busy preparing students for entrance exams to high schools and colleges." This issue on governmental textbook censorship is just an illustration on why long-term practices should be contested and on how we could better foster the nurturing of children's creativity and individuality.

    From an educational point of view, regarding the nurturing of children and the responsibility of school to provide them with rich, meaningful experience opportunities as well as of developing critical and creative thinking, the methods used to achieve such undertakings are of extreme importance. The skills to comprehend the world and the tools with which to negotiate the world around us have to be instilled in children via a continuous process of trial and error, investigation and experiment from an early age-what is known as education. Hence, instruction should be as rich and comprehensive as possible.

    Focussing on the case of Japan, Okano (1983) shares her perspective of Japanese education: "The whole educational process tends to be aimed at the university entrance examination, and this emphasis imposes formidable psychological pressure on young adolescents. Preoccupied with preparation for the upper schools, Japanese educators seem to have forgotten the task of achieving the full development of individuals. This situation results, in part, from the severe competition for admission to Japan's higher-ranking universities. Regardless of family background and birthplace, a student is almost guaranteed a better life if he or she gains admission to a more selective school." The Ministry of Education (Monbusho, 1994) contends that "this problem is linked to social trends and public attitudes; it cannot be resolved solely through efforts in the context of primary and secondary education. It is also vital for all concerned, including universities, businesses, and parents, to redouble their efforts for improvements and the reform of attitudes." Omori (1999) adds that "without changing the whole environment of the child (including the family and society), as well as the competitive structure of school admissions, it may be difficult to foster a nurturant academic lifestyle. It is imperative that the psychological world of these schoolchildren be explored and understood, using rigorous methodological tools and techniques, to better accommodate their needs and to facilitate their academic achievement as well as their emotional and social development." An appreciation of Japan's school problems includes bullying and refusal to attend school. "The incidence of school violence reached a high level in the early 1980s, and bullying subsequently became a major social issue. Refusal to attend school has become a serious problem in recent years. In fiscal 1993 this problem affected 11,000 elementary school pupils and 49,000 students at the lower secondary school level. These figures are the highest since surveys were begun in 1966. Upper secondary school dropouts are also regarded as a major problem, even though their number is not actually increasing. In fiscal 1993 approximately 100,000 students left upper secondary schools without graduating" (Monbusho, 1994) (For more accurate data on these issues see Monbusho, 1993).

    Kobayashi (1993), approaching children's growth and developmental process from a more ecological perspective, contends that the degree of influence of the "ecosystems on a child changes with age, in other words, with growth and development.... As children grow older, they start to go to nurseries, kindergartens and schools. That means that the meso-ecosystem becomes more important. We have to consider that the meso-ecosystem itself is influenced also by the macro-ecosystem, such as the governmental administration of health and welfare, as well as of education".

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