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

  Assistant Teacher at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
from September 1989 to August 1990.
Physical Education Teacher at the Pan American School, Porto Alegre
Part-time Portuguese Instructor at Nihon Fukushi University,
Lifelong Education Center from April, 1999 to date, Handa, Japan.
Marcelo Olivera Cavalli




This investigation presents a philosophical review of the author's view of Japanese society, education at large, and physical education in particular. The paper is a negative treatise and may leave the readers thinking the author saw little positive about any aspect of the culture. That is not the main concern. The scrutiny of Japanese society, education and PE aims to provide a critical framework to analyze Japanese PE's contributions to education and society. The methodological structure was conceived as a means to verify whether research in PE does represent the society it is supposed to represent and to determine whether research in PE is effectively carrying out its pedagogical mission. The meaning of values, practices and assumptions originated and institutionalized through scientistic postulates produced by research in Japanese PE is subjected to critical scrutiny. The implications of a chief preference to quantitative approaches to teaching and researching PE are also examined minutely. As for results, the author emphasizes the importance of developing supplemental research using alternative perspectives. His argument is based on the need to provide people not only with the knowledge pertinent to a researcher's or teacher's causes, but with all sorts of knowledge.
    Keywords: Physical education. Paradigm. Methodology. Japan. Society. Education.

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

1 / 5

    Teachers, researchers, sociologists, writers and many other enlightened people (references are furnished in the forthcoming sections) have been indicating that Japanese society has been going through dramatic changes lately. They all have revealed an upsurge in the problems schools, the educational system and society are facing nowadays. Many of them have been calling for drastic changes in the educational and school systems to cope with a demand for a more skilled, ingenious Japan. They have also indicated the need to revolutionize the outdated, obsolete assembly-line educational system. But, on the other hand, they have stressed the visionary possibility of creating a knowledge-based society with an educational system devoted to nurturing freethinking, creative, independent individuals. The important questions then are: "How can Japanese society achieve such ideals?"; "How can those in charge of planning, teaching and researching contribute to the devising of a suitable educational and social system?"; and in the case of our field of study, "What is the situation within the discipline of physical education (PE) in Japan?," "How is Japanese PE coping with all these changes?" and "Why is research in Japanese PE not addressing critical questions to all these problems?" We must have it very clear in our minds that the methodological choices we make in teaching, approaching and researching a discipline have implications for the final outcome of our undertakings as teachers, researchers or even as ordinary citizens. The primacy of experience and the importance school has in exposing people to learning contexts and shaping their minds are directly related to what and how educators choose to teach, and researchers choose to investigate.

    The purpose of this investigation is to present a philosophical review of my view of Japanese society, education at large, and physical education in particular. The paper is a negative treatise and may leave the readers thinking that I saw little positive about any aspect of the culture. However, I can assure you that that is not my main concern. The scrutiny of subjects germane to PE-education, school, society, for example-provides a critical framework for examining Japanese PE's contributions to education and society. The methodological structure of the research was conceived as a means to verify whether research in PE does represent the society it is supposed to represent and to determine whether research in PE is effectively carrying out its pedagogical mission.

    The examination of the state of affairs of the Japanese educational system, society and research in PE serves to better understand the implications for society and the body of knowledge of the entire discipline that research in PE has. The meaning of values, practices and assumptions originated and institutionalized through scientistic postulates produced by research in Japanese PE is subjected to critical scrutiny. The implications of a preference to quantitative approaches to teaching and researching PE are also examined minutely.

    It is not within the scope of this study to conduct an in-depth debate on the state of affairs of Japanese society or of the educational system. Rather, I am set to provide evidence indicating the existence of some problems and outline both contexts in order to establish the actual situation of research in PE in Japan within a more general frame of reference. Regarding PE, I have not determined to examine the entire discipline, but rather to attempt to outline the implications that a unilateral approach to research in PE in Japan has on education and society at large.

    I will proceed forthwith to the next section, which is concerned with summarizing the problems faced by contemporary Japanese society. The sections immediately following will introduce the deficiencies of the educational system by analyzing its school and university contexts (I would like to point out that some authorities in these sections were purposely quoted in length. As readers may observe, some quotations present grammatical errors and/or expressions not conventional to native English speakers. I apologize for any inconvenience). Attention is also given to the state of affairs of research in Japanese PE. Finally, the concluding remarks will present a general overview of the line of reasoning pursued throughout this investigation and some arguments regarding research trends in Japanese PE.

Contemporary Japanese Society from a Critical Perspective

    Since 1995, old and cherished myths have been toppling like dominoes in Japan. First, there was the Great Hanshin Earthquake (in the Osaka and Kobe area), which shattered the belief that Japanese cities could handle a major natural disaster. Shortly after, the Aum Supreme Truth religious cult came along to blast away at the myth that Japan was safer than anywhere else in the world. Then, there were other myths about the nation's police prowess, financial stability and medical care. Now, the seniority system, lifetime employment and the other rewards of corporate loyalty have been toppling at a steady pace. With lifetime employment and seniority-based promotions no longer the norm, corporate restructuring in Japan has led to some of the highest unemployment records, and bankruptcies are soaring.

    Sugahara (1994) rather hesitates over using the term 'Japanese disease' for maladies derived from the country's rapid economic growth. She maintains that not even Japan "can escape the problems that confront almost every industrially advanced country as it attains a certain level of prosperity." She reaches the conclusion that "the nation itself has fallen victim to the ills of an advanced industrial society almost before it had a chance to enjoy the rewards." Sugahara readily admits such other nations as Great Britain, Germany and France have also presented symptoms of this phenomena, but she is very incisive in her statements about Japan: "The people and society of Japan are being ravaged, quietly but steadily, by an insidious ailment--a potentially lethal disorder that advances from within, attacking our vital functions at the very core before it displays its outward symptoms. This is a deep-rooted internal disorder, not some seasonal malady or external injury. The responsible agent has not been identified, nor has a specific remedy been found. It may be that we are predisposed to this illness by our lifestyle or genetic makeup. All that is certain is that the Japanese disease is gradually sapping us of our energy and the will to build our own future. Whenever society reaches a certain degree of affluence and the economy matures, the growth rate naturally slows, and unemployment, drug abuse, and crime begin to mount."

    In his latest novel 'Chugaeri' (Somersault), Nobel Prize laureate Kenzaburo Oe pursues the theme what the Aum Supreme Truth cult and the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway meant to Japanese society. Sasamoto (1998) contends that "Although the book borrows certain images from the cult, Oe said 'Chugaeri' is his own creation." By means of its deployment of metaphors Oe's latest book describes society and the political system of Japan. He contends that defects in the political system or bureaucracy "were always there, many of them dating back to the Meiji Restoration (1868)...." He goes further in stating that "The Japanese were able to pretend many fundamental problems did not exist, as long as the economy was strong and Japan's international position was secure during the Cold War." For him, Aum is "the epitome of a fundamental Japanese malaise: a fatal combination of defective leadership and unthinking acquiescence." In order to prevent such blind obedience it is very important for individuals to contest sociopolitical processes and integrate their personal and professional experiences into larger social issues. Oe, according to Sasamoto (1998), "thinks some of the severest handicaps facing the Japanese are the absence of constructive debate in the media and society in general, and weak intellectual independence, which prevents both self-knowledge and an understanding of the universal aspects of humanity." I would like to complement by adding that the standardized, contrasting approach that Japanese society has to reality may, in part, be a result of these handicaps described by Oe.

    The Japanese approach to nature, their social and professional behavior, and their work orientation together with social and family interactions are all in conformity with the dominant sociocultural order. The Japanese are said to have a selective approach to culture in that they are able to absorb what is good in foreign cultures and eschew whatever is considered bad. Kawai has pointed out that "...there are limitations to this process" (Omoya & Niyekawa, 1999). When we think of the handicaps described by Oe and the shaping power of the schooling system, I have to argue that the Japanese cannot be experienced enough to possess such a gift or ability. To reinforce my argument, I quote Taichi Sakaiya (1995), the renowned author of 'Knowledge-Based Revolution' and 'What is Japan? Contradictions and transformations' and the Director General of the Economic Planning Agency, who states that the Japanese "hardly ever think of technology as being bound up with ideology and social questions" (p. 132). When discussing the situation of the Japanese nation, Sakakibara (1997) contends that "Today the nation is once again plunged into a void, bereft of ideology and identity. There is unquestionably something bizarre, both from the international viewpoint and from the standpoint of Japanese history, about the specter of a country whose sole strength lies in its corporations towering between the individual and an absurdly weak state." Sugahara (1994) complements Sakakibara's assertions and offers some suggestions for retarding the progress of the 'Japanese disease': "... the tendency to put one's faith in large and powerful organizations, which relates both to the phenomenon of conformism and the loss of creativity, and the emptiness of people's personal lives, which can be tied to the loss of a social conscience and of a strong sense of ethics.... First, we should be aware that the Japanese are by birth neither particularly industrious nor particularly creative, and that we therefore need to create systems in the workplace that encourage these qualities. To encourage diligence, we must stop squandering the employees' will to work, value workers as if each of them were irreplaceable, and evaluate their job performance objectively and fairly. While-collar workers are especially in need of an equitable and transparent system of job evaluation. To foster creativity, Japanese firms should consciously work to build a corporate system that accepts people with diverse idiosyncrasies and backgrounds, people who for whatever reason do not blend in smoothly with their environment. Corporations should hire a larger percentage of employees from other companies, and they should permit the development of a kind of 'free-agent system' for experienced and skilled white-collar workers." Considering the Japanese group orientation and aesthetics, it is not difficult to raise doubts about the sociopolitical implications of this tendency to conform to the general thinking and behavior of the group. The reasoning is that a society comprised of such characteristics is an easy target for ideology binding concepts as it lacks the awareness to detect regulation and the faculty to withstand control.

    In a book titled "Embracing Defeat", John Dower explains why things in Japan work the way they do. Through reading Dower's book, Reid (1999) has found out "that all sorts of habits, slogans and attitudes that I considered peculiarly Japanese-the control of every government function, from textbooks to local bus schedules, by the central bureaucracy; the dominance of the Finance Ministry as a 'first among equals' of the government departments; the absence of the national flag and the national anthem from daily life; the notion that the Japanese were the 'victims' of a war they started themselves-were imposed or strongly reinforced by the conquerors." To illustrate this with an example: "Americans were outraged in 1991 when Japan refused to take part in allied force fighting the Gulf War. Nobody seemed to listen when Japan explained that participation in a distant war is specifically banned by the constitution-a constitution written (in English) by Americans during one hectic week in Tokyo in 1946 and imposed on the nation by fiat." Sakakibara (1997) adds regarding the situation in Japan after the Constitution was put into effect: "Western-style democracy and pacifism were offered up as substitutes for the doctrines of the Meiji state. Both concepts were endorsed by the new Constitution, and any debate concerning them was long regarded as taboo. Just as the imperial ideology of prewar Japan made free debate on the nature of the emperor impossible, so the postwar creed of peace and democracy made it extremely difficult, even in a democratic society, to discuss these concepts honestly. The unquestioning belief in these ideals, manifested specifically as a taboo against any debate regarding the merits of the postwar Constitution, has continued to circumscribe the thought and discourse of the Japanese people. Nishibe Susumu has put it this way: The Constitution of Japan has become not a set of basic norms for the nation so much as a means of self-justification for a populace adrift without norms. The majority of Japanese doubtless understand no more about it than the formula they were served by their teachers in secondary school: 'The basic spirit of the Constitution is democracy and pacifism.'" During the occupation of Japan after the end of the war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the 'Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers' (SCAP). According to Reid (1999), "Dower concludes that in government, business, manufacturing, education, etc., 'the so-called Japanese model could have been more aptly described as a 'SCAPanese model.''" Dower's assertions might sound as an affront to some people, especially to the ones proud of Japanese uniqueness, but to reinforce his historical work on post-war Japan, I would like to quote Beasley (1999), a former professor at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, who asserts: "Developments within Japan have been greatly influenced by ideas and institutions, art and literature, imported from elsewhere.... To talk of 'Japanese civilization,' therefore, begs a question. What is it about the history of Japan that is specifically Japanese, apart from the land and the people?" Not a lot, it sometimes seems, for a country that so often extols its own uniqueness. "Only feudalism seems in retrospect-not in all respects justifiably-to be thoroughly Japanese. Perhaps that is why its influence lingers." Perhaps Japanese people's group orientation, acquiescence and respect for authority are indicative of the influence of feudalism on the societal order.

    Although a historical examination is not a prime concern of this investigation, work by Sakakibara (1997) may indicate the origin of modern-day Japan's meritocratic and egalitarian system. He contends that "Clearly the Meiji leaders' determination was strong, but what allowed the new social structure they envisioned to take hold was a public education system predicated on a thoroughgoing meritocracy and equality of opportunity, a system that was already fairly well established by the early Meiji era.... Many of the Meiji-era reforms were inherited and refined by the postwar Japanese. The Meiji egalitarian principles were taken a step further by land reform and the dissolution of the zaibatsu. A 'humanistic' system of corporate management (as expounded by Itami Hiroyuki) gradually took hold. However, with the rejection of the educational curriculum and system that had upheld the doctrines of the Meiji state, the latter's meritocratic emphasis underwent a subtle change. Focus shifted from equality of opportunity to equality of outcome--most often expressed as criticism of society's emphasis on educational background and a rejection of competition--and meritocracy came to be regarded in a negative light. This shift from an egalitarianism predicated on competition and just rewards for achievement to a village-style egalitarianism gradually ate away at Japan's education system, bringing about the decay and stagnation that infects our universities and the rest of our educational system today."

    Regarding the concept of egalitarianism widespread and taken for granted throughout present-day Japanese society, Yamazaki (2000) contends that "As the drastic changes in the country's economic structure have shattered the longtime myth that Japan is an egalitarian society, it appears that many people have come to recognize the widening gaps between the rich and poor as a matter of growing social concern." In an analysis of a collection of essays containing large amounts of statistical data, he has raised concerns over the erosion of 'equality' in contemporary Japan. Reading the arguments raised by the essays, he comes to the conclusion that "we unexpectedly become aware of the fact that we still have no firmly established philosophy about the nature of inequality or how we should deal with this problem." Michinori Oki, professor emeritus of Tokyo University and chairman of the screening committee of the Japan Students Science Awards, "has identified some points in the U.S. outlook on education that the Japanese should learn. 'The system for helping able and motivated students, rather than putting too much stress on egalitarianism is one thing (Japan should emulate)'" (Tokita, 2000).

Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes · http://www.efdeportes.com · Año 6 · Nº 33   sigue Ü