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FreeBook Review

Peter Cave. Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 287 pp. $35.00 (paper).

It is no exaggeration to say that whether or not this country can construct a vibrant economy and society in the twenty-first century depends on raising creative people.

—Keizai Doyukai, business executive’s association (Cave, 1)

Reforming public education in order to raise people who can expand a nation’s economy in the twenty-first century: the rhetoric in the epigraph above echoes that of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk and the educational reform movement in the United States stemming from it. However, the reform movements in Japan and the United States over the past two decades have pursued contrary goals, at least in terms of policy. While schooling in the United States has moved toward more standardization of the curriculum and assessment that emphasizes acquisition of basic knowledge and skills measured by high-stakes standardized tests, the Japanese educational reform movement, beginning in the late 1980s, has placed emphasis on cultivating individuality and autonomy. By 1996, the Japanese reform agenda called for a well-balanced cultivation of traditionally valued qualities, such as “feeling for others, sociality, and cooperation,” and traditionally underemphasized qualities, such as “independence, thinking for oneself, and creativity” under the label of “power to live” (Cave, 20; any reference citation without an author given after this refers to Cave’s Schooling Selves, the book under review). Further reforms were pushed in 2002 when integrated studies were implemented, and the Japanese school week decreased from six days to five (Saturdays were removed).

In Schooling Selves: Autonomy, Interdependence, and Reform in Japanese Junior High Education, Peter Cave, a lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Manchester, examines the impact of the above-mentioned Japanese educational reform policies in junior high schools through a longitudinal, multi-site ethnographic study. Cave conducted an initial pilot study in October through December 1994, and then the first fieldwork from April 1996 to March 1997, covering one entire academic year. He returned during August through December 2007 in order to analyze the effects of curricular reform implemented from 2002. His fieldwork was concentrated in two public junior high schools in West-Central Japan, though he made short visits to many other public and private schools in the area. As a former teaching assistant in the school district and being fluent in spoken and written Japanese, Cave observed various classes and conducted interviews with teachers, students, and parents. Throughout the book, he retains the original Japanese words (sometimes whole sentences) along with his translation, which gives readers who understand Japanese a better understanding of the context.

The organization of the book is as follows. Chapter 1 outlines the motivations for educational reform. Chapters 2–4 examine the impact of educational reform on the nonacademic aspects of school life, such as field trips, class groups, extracurricular clubs, and major school events. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the impact of the reform on academics: changes in the conventional subjects and the introduction of Integrated Studies and electives. Chapter 7 considers issues surrounding high school entrance examinations and discourses and practices at juku (cram schools). Throughout the book, Cave provides insight into how concepts such as individuality, autonomy, education (guidance), and equity are defined and understood in contemporary Japanese society and how they are enacted in the institution of junior high schools. Since these concepts are vital in understanding why Japanese teachers resisted or reinterpreted the government’s educational reform agenda, I begin with Cave’s treatment of them.

First, it warrants noting that I was a junior high school student in Japan in 2002, living through many of the reforms examined by Cave. As a 13-year-old, I did not pay attention to the educational reform agenda or to the purported (changing) purposes of education in Japanese junior high schools. However, as I am now an educator in the United States, Cave’s book provides insight into my personal experiences, as well as a foundation for analyzing Japanese values in society at large and how these are institutionalized in junior high schools in particular. Thus, in this review, I weave personal narratives into my review of Cave’s important book.

Individuality and Autonomy in the Japanese Context

In today’s Japanese junior high schools and in the nation’s society at large, there seem to be multiple values and discourses surrounding individuality and autonomy. Historically, Japanese culture has placed great emphasis on what Cave calls the “seishin discourse” (28), referring to inner strength stemming from self-discipline and self-reliance. A greater cause than that of the individual, such as obligations and responsibilities to the family and neighborhood, is central to this seishin discourse. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was great social change that propelled the younger generation to “desire … more individually determined life, freed from the obligations imposed by family and social convention” (26). At the same time, many worried that the weakening of social ties among families and neighbors left the younger generation with a lack of support. Critics argued that increased emphasis on self-reliance coupled with individualization in this sense often did not lead to increased individual autonomy (39).

The educational reform agenda that started in late 1980s sought to respond to both the need for more autonomy and the worries of individualization that led to weakening social ties. Thus, the reformers set out to develop “individuality, creativity, and autonomous thinking on the one hand, and social connectedness, empathy, and cooperation on the other” (38). What is important here is the distinction between individualization and autonomy. Cave introduces the idea of “relational autonomy,” which sees individuals as socially constituted and as deriving value commitments from interpersonal relations and mutual dependencies (35). Using this concept of relational autonomy, Cave argues that “the development of autonomy is likely to be encouraged in an environment where individuals feel accepted by others” (37–38) and therefore that “schools should be places for dialogue and mutual support” that “foster both personal autonomy and recognition of human interdependence” (38).

Relational autonomy is different from individualization in that it places emphasis on a harmonious community life as a prerequisite to nurture autonomy, and this idea can be found in the literature from both the West and the East. Francis W. Parker claimed that education should strive for a (harmonious) community life as its goal (Goulah 2010). A Japanese educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1981–88; see vol. 5, “Soka Kyoikugaku Taikei [1] [The system of value-creation pedagogy, vol. 1], 184–85), echoed Parker, stating that, in today’s interdependent society, genuine happiness can only be realized by each person becoming a contributive member of the community, which can lead to the growth and prosperity of the society as a whole. It seems that it was this idea of relational autonomy in a harmonious community life that the Japanese educational reform envisioned. However, there seemed to be confusion among teachers and the public about what “emphasis on individuality and autonomy” meant. Some critics saw this emphasis on individuality as a de-emphasis on discipline and academic abilities, and some warned that it could be used to justify academic tracking. Yet, some welcomed it as an opportunity to promote interest- and inquiry-based learning. This debate on individuality and autonomy is central to the success and failure of educational reform in junior high schools, as it comes up in different aspects of junior high school life either explicitly or implicitly.

The Purpose of Junior High Schools in Japan: Emphasis on Human Development

Another dimension important to the success or failure of the reform movement is the purpose of junior high school as perceived by teachers. According to Cave’s study, the central purpose of junior high school is understood to be human development, or what might also be called character development. Cave states, “Teachers strongly believed in the school’s role in supporting students’ personal and social development, which they tended to interpret as helping students to learn to get along well with others and learn socially approved behavior” (223). This idea that the purpose of junior high schools is “human development” was echoed by students in Cave’s study. For example, one student said, “School makes you bigger as a person. I’d hate it if school didn’t have the humanity it does” (203).

This emphasis on human development is reflected in how teachers and students perceive the role of teachers. In Japanese junior high schools, according to Cave, the role of teacher is divided into gakushu shido (academic guidance; mostly teaching) and seikatsu shido (literally, “living guidance”; 60). Cave asserts that both teacher roles are given equal importance, if not more given to the latter. Students also seem to appreciate this emphasis on the living aspect over the academic. In one of Cave’s interviews, a student explained: “There are more times when you get anxious and uncertain inside, at our age. Teachers who’ll help you in earnest at those times are what I’m most glad about. Study you can do yourself, any amount, but things you’re worried about, you can’t solve those problems by yourself” (204).

Although Cave does not discuss the meaning of the word shido itself, it is important to note here that the two characters that comprise the word shido mean “to point” and “to guide.” Therefore, the word shido gives an impression that teachers are there to guide students through the path toward a goal, which provides a different impression from the word “instruct” or “instructor” in English.

The emphasis on seikatsu shido can also be seen in the structure of Japanese junior high schools. They have a “homeroom class,” in which a group of students stay together all day not only for classes but also eating together and cleaning together. These activities create an atmosphere of community, a group of people living together, not just studying together. There are also many nonacademic school events, such as sports days, culture festivals, chorus contests, field trips, and overnight school trips. All of these fall under the category of seikatsu shido because they teach students how to collaboratively work with others and build community.

Seikatsu shido also encompasses behavioral guidance in terms of discipline, which can be viewed differently in the East and the West. Unlike many schools in the United States, many Japanese schools do not employ punishments such as detention, suspension, or expulsion; instead, they work on preventive discipline, which includes creating and enforcing rules on appropriate appearance and behavior. These appropriate behaviors are reinforced in club activities, which most students join. However, such behavior control is coupled with teachers focusing on getting to know the students and gaining trust through homeroom classes and home visits and working on creating a supporting community.

Although some may argue that this type of discipline in Japanese schools creates excessive behavioral control, others may view such an approach as leading to the type of “relational autonomy” discussed above. Speaking from personal experience, when I was in elementary school and junior high school in Japan, I remember never being supervised during recess. At my junior high school, sometimes the homeroom teacher ate lunch with the students but not always. In those instances, students were left unsupervised. We also had a lot of preparation time for school events or some independent study periods, during which we were also left without adult supervision. However, occurrences of problems seemed to be very rare. We were not fearful of punishment, nor were we consciously supervising each other. By sharing so many activities together as a community, I think we had a sense that if one acted selfishly, that behavior not only caused problems for the group but ultimately was not good for that individual either. I think this sense of community mutually created by teachers and students led to increased student autonomy in many nonacademic aspects of school life.

Success in the Living Domain: Redefining the Role of Group

One matter that Cave gives special attention to in his book is how educational reform has affected the nonacademic areas of the junior high school curriculum. Prior to the 1998 reform, Cave writes, central to Japanese junior high schools was the idea of shudan seikatsu, which can be translated as “group life.” This emphasis on group life “idealized discipline and submission to common rules” (40). A field trip was regularly organized at the beginning of each school year to address behavior issues by inculcating this “group life” mentality based on discipline and control. In 2007, this beginning-of-the-year field trip still continued at the junior high school, but with a shift in focus. Teachers still tried to address behavior issues, but instead of focusing on discipline and control, they focused on developing human relationships between teachers and students, as well as among students. The words teachers used also shifted from shudan (group) to nakama, which can be translated as “supportive group,” or even “friends” or “comrades.” Cave argues that although both of these words mean “group,” nakama carries a sense of warmth and refers to the people you belong with, whereas shudan is comparatively cold and refers to a public, nonfamilial group. During the field trip, students were given increased autonomy in activities such as organization of recreation and orienteering, as well as increased opportunities for problem solving through daily life activities such as cooking. Although Cave uses this example to argue that schools reshaped the reform policy to fit their own agendas (58), when viewed exclusively in the living domain of school life, I consider this as a success of the reform movement to value and encourage the development of autonomous thinking.

Again, speaking from personal experience in light of Cave’s theme, one such field trip was particularly memorable for me. We took a train to Kyoto for sightseeing and learning the history of the ancient capital city. We were put into groups of four to six, given a map of Kyoto, and given about three hours to explore wherever we wanted as long as it was one of the historical sites. Teachers were stationed at those historical sites and gave students stamps when they reached the location. All the groups completed the task and came back to the station on time, while also enjoying the freedom and the adventure. Not a single student out of the class of over 200 got lost, hurt, or into any trouble. Safety and societal values in Japan probably facilitated these opportunities. As a teacher in the United States, I unfortunately cannot imagine doing an activity like this, and I am amazed at the autonomy that was given to us at that time.

Reinterpretation in the Integrated Studies: Deemphasis on the Development of Intellect

Another area Cave engages is the introduction of Integrated Studies, which were supposed to be one of the most important aspects of the reform agenda. Integrated Studies aimed at creating interdisciplinary units grounded in the local community. One is reminded of the Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi’s (1981–88) early work in community studies as the integrating focus of instruction. (Coincidentally, Schools: Studies in Education has carried a number of Makiguchi’s essays and articles on Makiguchi’s influence in education both in Japan and around the world, e.g., Makiguchi [1897] 2010; Makiguchi [1936] 2015; see also Gebert 2009). However, contrary to the intended reform agenda’s focus on student autonomy in the academic domain (and quite different from Makiguchi’s work), Integrated Studies was often used as a convenient vehicle for worthwhile but nonacademic activities teachers had difficulty finding time for, such as preparation for school trips, workplace experiences, and experiential studies of welfare facilities (164). Although Cave observed moments in these activities to potentially develop student autonomy in the academic domain, he concluded that teachers failed to intellectually stimulate students for autonomous thinking; instead, they focused solely on developing students’ social and emotional skills (156). Through his interviews, Cave discovered that many teachers felt that the ideal of Integrated Studies was too lofty and that many students were not ready for such autonomous study (169). Because the teachers did not fully embrace the values expounded by the reform agenda, they lacked the capacity to teach the new program, which involved “vision, know-how, understanding, motivation, and time” (168). Due to these circumstances, the reform agenda as represented in the Integrated Studies program was often reinterpreted to promote human development in the social and emotional domains without promoting autonomous thinking and learning in the intellectual domain. Given Cave’s unfortunate findings, one wishes that Cave would have referenced Makiguchi’s (1981–88) pioneering work in the area of community studies, which provided for both academic learning and a type of contributive living he would later call “value-creative.”

My own experiences of the type of Integrated Studies Cave addresses echo those discussed in Schooling Selves. According to a survey conducted by Cave, preparations for school trips and workplace experiences are among the top three ways Integrated Studies time was used in Japan’s Kinki region (164), and these are exactly what I remember from my Integrated Studies program. During preparation for our school trip to Okinawa, we studied the tragedy that happened there toward the end of World War II, as Okinawa was the only location in Japan where US soldiers landed. What I still remember is the story of the young girls’ nursing group called Himeyuri, whose members treated wounded Japanese soldiers in the front and lost their lives in the battle. For workplace experience, I remember visiting a local elder care facility. My mother was a regular volunteer at this facility; so I also volunteered a few times after this workplace experience, not making this a one-time event. Such opportunities were important for me to develop as a human being, and these are strengths of Japanese junior high schools that can develop children’s character, emotional richness, and sense of social contribution that should not be eliminated. However, I agree with Cave that these were not the intended interdisciplinary units and did not fulfill the purpose of developing autonomous thinking in the academic domain, something with which Makiguchi would likely concur.

Failure in the Core Academic Subjects: Teachers’ Lack of Understanding and Resistance

Cave then discusses how the curricular reform in the core subject areas such as language arts and mathematics met with outright resistance from teachers in many cases. One of the major goals of the curricular reform was to encourage individual autonomy and creativity through writing and speaking activities. However, Cave observed hardly any change in language arts classes prior to and after the new reform policy was put into effect. Many teachers simply skipped the writing activities that were recommended by the textbook due to the lack of training in teaching writing and the lack of time to incorporate this into an already packed curriculum. There were some cases where teachers tried to incorporate individual projects of students’ choice, but they became discouraged after seeing many students being disengaged or not being able to produce meaningful learning outcomes. This seemed to be due to the lack of teachers’ guidance throughout the process. Although not explicitly stated, it seemed to me that these teachers interpreted “autonomous learning” as students doing projects and activities initiated by themselves without any guidance from the teacher, which many teachers found it difficult to successfully implement. My experiences concur with Cave’s observation, as I did not write a single essay throughout junior high and high school until I took the SAT to come to the United States.

Another way the new educational policy sought to encourage and build on individual strength was through differentiated instruction. However, this also met with resistance from many teachers. As the final stage of compulsory education, many teachers viewed the role of junior high school education to be the completion of basic skills (179). What happened in many cases was that instead of providing differentiated instruction, teachers gave the same remedial instruction and assignments to all students, regardless of their performance or learning styles (179). During my junior high school days, I recall some instances where teachers offered additional remedial sessions after school to help struggling students. However, these sessions were mostly mere repetitions of class instruction without any additional support or alternative explanations. I also do not recall any instances of differentiated instruction within the regular class sessions.

One area missing in Cave’s book is the discussion of the idea of equality and equity, which could have affected teachers’ perception of differentiated instruction. In a relatively homogeneous country like Japan, one could argue that the idea of equality is stronger than equity. This means that differentiated teaching might have been viewed as “unfair” and “unequal” treatment. On the other hand, the idea of equity can be much more emphasized in the United States, and differentiated instruction becomes important in achieving equity (176–77). As an educator trained in the United States, I believe that the emphasis on differentiated instruction is one of the strengths of US education, something from which Japanese teachers can learn.

What Can We Learn?

So what does Cave’s book tell us, particularly those of us who are teaching outside of the Japanese context? Two decades of reform movements in Japan, including both successes and failures for implementation, can offer three lessons for educational reformers. The first two points are based on the author’s analysis, and the third point is based on my own reading of this book. First, a top-down approach without buy-in from teachers and administrators will likely result in suspicion and sometimes outright resistance, especially when the ideal seems overambitious. Therefore, even when the reform was mandated, it resulted in reinterpretation by schools and teachers, thus resulting in a limited implementation without fully addressing what the reform was supposed to address. Second, even when teachers agree to the ideals set out by the reform, these ideals do not get correctly implemented when teachers are not properly trained or given sufficient time to plan. This shows the importance of professional development for a successful reform movement. The third factor is the importance of integrating the reform agenda within existing institutional values. Many Japanese teachers chronicled in Cave’s book resisted curricular reforms because the teachers thought these reforms would take their time and energy away from what they believed to be more important: human development of all students and helping the academically low-achieving students succeed. The success of the reform agenda in changing the discourse surrounding nonacademic areas was because teachers did not see the new discourse as contradicting the existing institutional values of human development. Therefore, if teachers realized that Integrated Studies, electives, and differentiated teaching could be implemented in ways that promoted the human development of all students and helped the academically low-achieving students, they might have been much more supportive in implementing the curricular reform.

Although Schooling Selves revealed many challenges to educational reform, one matter Cave did not fully address are the strengths of Japanese education, which provide some important lessons for educators in the United States, particularly as the United States struggles with its own reform movements. One of the most important strengths is that (junior high) schools are a place for human development—the development of character as well as the ability to get along with others—not just a place to develop intellectual abilities. Character development and social relationships are emphasized not only by teachers but also by students. This purpose of education leads to another important concept about the role of teachers and the teacher-student relationship. Japanese junior high schools place great emphasis on teacher-student relationships. Cave’s interviews revealed that students appreciated teachers helping them during emotionally difficult times, and teachers also actively involved themselves in students’ lives through seikatsu shido (living guidance), shinro shido (postgraduation guidance), supervising club activities, and home visits. Such Japanese conceptions of the role of schooling and the role of teachers seem to lower the boundaries of home and school. Another Japanese educator, Daisaku Ikeda, also asserts that education is a process of human development through teacher-student interaction (see also Goulah and Ito 2012). Ikeda (2013) claims that, just as a diamond can only be polished by another diamond, the core of education lies in the human-to-human interaction that draws out students’ infinite potential and polishes it so that students can lead happy lives and create a society in which humanism flourishes. To draw out each student’s potential, teachers must also grow as human beings and strive to fully develop students’ intellect, emotions, and will. Ikeda (2013) defines the intellect as what we normally think of as higher academic skills, such as reasoning and critical thinking. However, the important point is that he gives equal weight to the development of the “affective aspect of inner lives” (emotions) and “initiative and inner motivation” (will) as aims of education (Ikeda 2013, 229). This way of perceiving schools as a place of human development promoted through teacher-student relationships can lead US schools, teachers, and parents to open their eyes to new possibilities.

Another key concept that can be learned from Cave’s treatment of Japanese schools is the idea of self and autonomy. Although individual freedom and autonomy are cherished ideals in the United States, they are often linked to independence, leading to individualization. On the contrary, Japanese culture seems to recognize that interdependence and mutual support are, in fact, crucial elements for autonomous thinking and action. At the same time, the discourse around juku and high school entrance examinations in Japan reveals that individualization and emphasis on self-reliance are not synonymous with the cultivation of autonomy. Recognizing this, the educational reform movement in Japan was intended to develop children’s “power to live,” which includes “individuality, creativity, and autonomous thinking on the one hand, and social connectedness, empathy, and cooperation on the other” (38). Seeing self and other not as mutually exclusive concepts but as mutually supportive concepts can be enlightening in rethinking how we structure schools and curriculum in the United States.

Overall, Cave clearly understands and represents Japanese culture and the nuances often hidden in how Japanese people act and communicate. This book is appropriate for readers who wish to know about the recent educational reform movement in Japan. But as educational reforms are constantly moving toward changing goals, Cave’s Schooling Selves unfortunately misses the most recent reform, a new educational policy passed in 2008 and put into effect in 2011. This new policy has sought to reconcile the tension between two agendas: (1) the reform agenda of the 1990s and 2000s that focused on individual creativity and autonomy and (2) the “back to basics” agenda in order to maintain high academic performance on international assessments. Because of this recent change in educational policy, readers of Cave’s book may be left with an incomplete understanding of Japan’s current education policies.


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