“If you would form the tree, do so while it is young,” (Rohlen, 1983, 271), and “Education is a weapon, whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed,” (Joseph Stalin, quoted in Rohlen, 1983, 210), are two sayings which give an insight into how education can be used to shape or mould a population.
History has repeatedly shown us that dictators have wielded this weapon to great effect. The “Hitler Youth” of Nazi Germany is a prime example.
It can be said that because the Japanese Ministry of Education has a formidable influence over the day to day running of schools, it has a strong influence in helping to make Japanese people Japanese.
“The Japanese education system is characterized by a high degree of centralization and domination by the national government. This pattern derives from the fact that Japan’s modern school system was developed in the last quarter of the 19th century at the initiative, and through the intervention of the powerful Ministry of Education”, (Sugimoto, 2003, 128).
In this essay I will try to show that the Ministry of Education does indeed help make Japanese people Japanese by virtue of the fact that as previously mentioned, it is a powerful organization which can be likened to a painter given a blank canvas to paint upon, as young children when first attending school have no prior knowledge or expectations and are therefore at the mercy of their educators.
Firstly, it is important to understand what exactly it means to be Japanese and to answer the question, how do Japanese perceive themselves?
“Japan proclaims itself to be a homogenous society of a unique and distinctive character”. (Hicks,1997,3), and to be Japanese is almost a definition of racial purity. (Hicks,1997,4).
To say that every Japanese person came up with this common way of thinking of their own accord and totally independent from each other would of course be ludicrous so we have to assume that they were conditioned in some way into this line of thinking.
Also, many Japanese consider themselves to be middle class and indeed schooling at the primary and junior high school levels is said to be egalitarian, with all students being treated equally.
Given that Japan does have relatively few foreigners living there when compared with the USA or Europe, it has made the task of molding the students easier as they can all be taught to think and act in the same way without external distractions.
It’s interesting to note that the Chinese characters for the word “Society”, (Shakai), when reversed are read as “Company”, (Kaisha). The whole country is often said to operate as one large company with each member having his or her own role to play within the group. Later in the essay I will try to show how children at school are taught the importance of working in and for the group and that teamwork is prioritized over individuality.
Undoubtedly when one first visits Japan, one is struck by the efficiency and work rate of the Japanese. This is apparent from the way the trains always run on time (when the “shinkansen” train is even a few moments late it makes the national news), to the orderly way social functions are performed.
Without this rigid social structure, because of the large population of over 120 million living in such a confined area (only 4% of the land area of Japan is actually used for urbanization) there would probably be an increased chance of having a breakdown in social order. We can therefore say that the Ministry of Education by its intervention in the Japanese educational system and the strict, almost militaristic rules and regulations that the schools impose on the students, has helped to indoctrinate Japanese from an early age into a way of thinking and behavior which may seem strange to most westerners, but which maintains Japan as a relatively peaceful society with a highly literate and motivated workforce.
Japan is said to be going through its third period of educational reform which was initiated on the 10th of December 1983 by the announcement of the then Prime Minister Nakasone of his “Seven point proposal” at a press conference in Kagoshima.
The seven points were:
1. to consider changing the 6-3-3 school education system,
2. to revise the upper secondary school entrance examination system and discontinue reliance on test results as the main yardstick of students’ academic success,
3. to revise the university examination system,
4. to promote extracurricular activities, such as community service activities,
5. to reinforce moral education,
6. to encourage a more cosmopolitan outlook, and
7. to improve the quality of teaching staff by revising training and hiring programmes.